One long-term interest of mine is Germanic paganism in antiquity and the early middle-ages. I am not a practitioner of any of the modern reconstructions, although I do always wear red underpants on Wednesdays. (This is actually true.)
I‘m just a mere onlooker with an interest in history, society and religion; and warfare, mythology, and a bunch of other things besides. Including fantasy literature, which – thanks to Tolkien – is burdened with an array of archetypes almost entirely derived from medieval Germanic sources. So, I have occasionally tried and failed to answer this question: what’s the deal with Odin? (Or Óðinn?)
Nobody knows what the various peoples I will refer to as Germanic, over the space of thousands of miles of central and northern Europe and a span of at least a thousand years, actually believed. It would be logical to assume that they believed a lot of things, and some of those things which seem quite specific to us were in fact vague, changeable, or simply misrepresented by the few sources which have trickled through time and into the pages of our scholarly writing or half-remembered legends. What can be detected, however, are broad changes in religious practice (which, we assume, at least reflects the nature of personal belief), and in the context of Germanic paganism there appear to be developments which are simply strange. This is my attempt to draw a sketch of one such strange change, and speculate wildly about it.
I should point out that this is not a scholarly account. I should also point out that the best scholarly accounts I have read are usually apologetic about the fact that their sources are frequently unreliable: written by outsiders, or long after pagan beliefs and practices had largely diminished into folklore. A consensus has developed over many decades of investigation, but much of that is based on Indo-European historical linguistics which is itself a complex agglomeration of mutually supporting hypotheses.
So. Broadly speaking, there was probably (please take ‘probably’ as read whenever I seem to be making any claims) a kurgan-building people who spread out of the south-west Asian steppes some thousands (6, 7?) of years ago. Most European languages (and Sanskrit, and a bunch of others besides; Basque is an interesting isolated exception) are derived from these ‘Indo-Europeans’. Along with the roots of their languages, later cultures inherited many concepts: including religious concepts. It has been proposed that these religious concepts conformed to a ‘functional’ model based on fairly obvious societal needs. Fertility goddesses who oversee agriculture are widespread in time and space, for instance. Sky gods, who bring fertilising rain are also common. Unsurprisingly, they are often coupled with fertility goddesses and this pair are often the big kahunas in the pantheon: death and war are very important too, but just about every other important concept in that society gets one or more gods or goddesses or other supernatural figures, right down to the family or household protector/confounder level. Wonderful, and gloriously diverse. Also, I imagine, a vibrant and weird and terrifying universe to inhabit as a mere mortal.
Not so very long after the empire lost three legions (over 10% of their entire military strength, roughly equivalent to the Wehrmacht‘s losses in the Stalingrad or Tunisian disasters) in the Teutoberg Forest, the Roman ethnographer Tacitus wrote the only surviving contemporary account of the people who inflicted that humiliating defeat: Germania. We have no idea how accurate it was, but much of it certainly seems plausible and quite a lot meshes with other contemporary fragments, later histories, and modern archaeology. The Romans cheerfully accepted virtually all religions, because their own pantheon was so diverse that they could almost always find a familiar analogue for any foreign god. Tacitus followed this practice (interpretatio Romana) and described the chief god of the early Germans as Mars: the Latin war god.
Now, the chief god in Rome was the sky god, Jupiter. He throws thunderbolts. The chief god in the Greek half of the Mediterranean was their sky god, Zeus. He also throws thunderbolts. Zeus’ name is basically the same word as deus, the Latin for ‘god’ (and as Deus, the Christian God) and from this same root we get to Jupiter (meaning ‘god-father’, which seems highly appropriate: the Romans also had a more sinister god from the same source, Dis Pater, and borrowed yet another analogue, Diespiter, from their Italic neighbours).
Bear with me. Etymologically, the German god derived from this same root – the deus, the chief god, the sky god who fertilises the earth – is Tiw. Who? Tiw, that’s who; in Old English. Nowadays this god is better known by his Old Norse name, Tyr. In both English and Norse these names are also common nouns for ‘god’ generally, and derive from the same root as deus, Zeus, etc. Tiw is the German war god. His domain matches with Mars, but his name is an etymological match with Jupiter. Most importantly, according to the Germania, he was the chief god of the Germans: the boss god when Tacitus was writing was, lingo-conceptually, the same as the boss god of all Indo-European cultures.
But, you might be saying, Tyr isn’t a sky god! Thor is the sky god, the thunder god. Haven’t you seen the movie? Dur! Well, yes: logically, Jupiter should appear in Germania as an analogue for Thunor (in English, or variously Thor, Donar, and so on), but he simply doesn’t. Strange? Slightly, but in other works by Tacitus it is touched on that some German tribes also worshipped Jupiter, along with Minerva, Mercury, and Hercules. So perhaps somehow the sky domain shifted from the chief deity to another figure. We simply don’t know. We do know that when the Germans adopted the Roman week a few centuries after Tacitus, they applied their own interpretatio: Mars’ Day became Tiw’s Day (Tuesday); Jove’s Day (Iovis, or Jove, being an alternative name for Jupiter) became Thunor’s Day (Thursday, or Donnersdag in modern German, from Donar). Clearly, by the time that various German nations – propelled by population pressure, and great enthusiasm for hitting people with objects both sharp and blunt – had conquered the Western Roman empire, they were happy with those equivalents.
You might also be saying, Tacitus is wrong! Everyone knows that the chief god of Germanic paganism is Odin. Haven’t you seen the movie? It’s Anthony Hopkins! Dur! Well, quite.
At some time between when Tacitus was writing and the collapse of the Western Empire, the chief god of the Germans changed. A completely new god seems to have taken over the pantheon, and he was a very strange god indeed.
Wōden to the west, Óðinn to the north, Wōtan to the south. (These names come from different periods and places; I will use ‘Woden’ as a placeholder for the earliest, unrecorded version of the name.) This god has no analogues in Indo-European ‘function’: although most of his domains are covered, in various parts, by other gods, neither the Celts, nor Romans, nor Greeks or eastern branches of the ur-culture have a single figure who is anything close to an equivalent to Woden. He is a war god (but shares that role with one of his sons), a god of the dead (but shares that role with his wife and his niece); a god of poetry, and knowledge, and magic (even though magic was specifically, at least in Old Norse society, a female practice and its pursuit by men was deeply taboo); he is a god of madness – seriously, his name literally means ‘the mad one’, ‘madness’ or ‘frenzy’ – human sacrifice, and weird bestial warrior cults. He lives only on wine, has only one eye, and he is fated to die in the battle at the end of the world; and he has nothing to do with fertility, helping folks, or any of the other supposedly indispensable traits of a big friendly sky-daddy. Woden is about as friendly as anthrax, and as fatherly as a rabid shark
Woden is basically a mad, murderous, monocular fuck-you to any sane society’s concept of deus. If that’s not strange, I don’t know what is.
To be fair, almost all we know about Woden is actually about Odin: we have no guarantee that beliefs about him were the same across all Germanic peoples, or even that Snorri Sturluson’s account is an accurate representation of Icelandic beliefs 500 years after we first encounter Woden. Our picture of Norse mythology is almost wholly formed by a man writing a sort of Cliffs Notes on poetry composed hundreds of years before he was born. Nevertheless, it does appear that the cult of Woden went from obscure to dominant in only a few generations, and across a vast stretch of European real estate.
We do know that the people who worshipped Woden picked Mercury’s Day to be his name-day: Wednesday. Mercury had associations with poetic inspiration and transporting dead souls to the underworld, clearly ‘Odinic’ functions; and also boundaries and trickery, which touch on aspects of Odin as well as that other great cypher of Norse mythology, Loki. But this is a best fit, rather than an analogue.
There is evidence that some martial and sacrificial rites were fairly common across ancient Indo-European culture, but these certainly weren’t attributed to the ruling figure of any other pantheon that we know of. Some of the darker aspects of Odin – which, frankly, is almost all of them – were serviced in Roman religion by a complex array of chthonic gods and spirits which are not well understood by modern scholars. But there is a tantalising hint that elements of human sacrifice and soul trafficking could still be associated with a ruler of the gods in the linguistic connection between Jupiter (sky and boss god) and Dis Pater (ruler of the underworld, conflated with Pluto and the mysterious Orcus; possibly previously an agricultural deity, and thus an aspect of the deus).
So, if we accept that there was in fact some widespread and drastic change in the religious practice of early Germanic peoples, and the chief deity was in fact superseded by one with very different values, why did this happen?
Nobody knows. There are theories. For instance, that promoting the worship of Woden best suited the ambitions – to conquer the world’s greatest empire! – of the warlords who were emerging among the Franks, Goths, Vandals and other German nations. Or, that the emergence of Woden is related to the somewhat mysterious subdivision among the Norse gods between the Aesir and the Vanir; except there are zero sources which confirm that such a subdivision existed in Germanic religions outside of Scandinavia or prior to the Viking Age. My personal theory, inspired by ’80s movies, D&D and Ynglinga saga, is that it was all due to a single individual: a one-eyed warrior (that sounds more like a euphemism than I intended), an ultimate badass, a level-20 multi-classed Barbarian/Druid, the Snake Plissken and Connor MacLeod and goddamn-Conan of ancient Europe. A guy so singularly awesome that he hijacked an entire religious tradition, and caused the Migration Age. Kinda like Attila, only taller.
Or, it may be that Woden wasn’t really such a big deal except among an exclusive class of psychopathic assassins whom everyone else was afraid of. We have evidence that during the later Viking Age, Norse pagans may have venerated Thor at least as prominently as Odin; pressure from ‘peaceful’ Christianity and improved socio-economic stability could have made the benign figure of Thor more appealing than weird, fatal old Odin. It may actually be that Thor’s cult was always more popular among common folk, and Odin-worship was in fact restricted to the adventurers, kings and berserkers whom the skalds celebrated and whose stories have consequently survived the test of time.
We know so little, but when striving to understand all this we must remember that Germanic pagan religion was not primarily practiced in churches by congregations, but in homes or fields or forests or ships by individuals. There were no formal doctrines, and nobody to enforce any doctrines: just stories and traditions, and a way of looking at the world which is now long extinct.
Afterthought. There are two books I’d like to mention on the basis that I haven’t read them but I think they would bring a valuable perspective on the matter of Woden: a) Ancient Germanic Warriors, by Michael Speidel, is about Odinic warrior cults and reputedly very detailed; it’s also very expensive, so I need to get it through inter-library loan or something; b) The Viking Way, by Neil Price, is about Norse religious practice and possible connections to shamanism; I read the first few chapters of the thesis it is based on and found them fascinating; it’s between editions at the moment, and it would nice if Price could finish the 2nd edition soon so I can read the rest.