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In Norse mythology, Odin is the supreme god. His name, for the warlike Norsemen, was synonymous with battle and warfare, for it recurs throughout the myths as the bringer of victory. Odin is a shape-changer, able to change his skin and form in any way he liked. He is said to travel the world diguised as an old man with a staff, one-eyed, grey-beared and wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

He was married to the goddess Friggr, who appears in the myths mainly as a dutiful wife and loving mother. He possessed Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse, and the severed head of the dwarf Mimir which foretold the future. He employed Valkyries to gather the souls of warriors fallen in battle (the einherjar), as these would fight for him in the battle of Ragnarokkr. Originally, the Valkyries appear to have been viewed as vampire-like ghouls who frequented battlefields to drink the blood of the slain, but by the time Scandinavia emerged into written history, they appeared as aristocratic maidens in the service of Odin. They took the souls of the warriors to Valholl (the hall of the fallen), Odin's residence in Asgard.

Odin is a compulsive seeker of wisdom, consumed by his passion for knowledge, to the extent that he sacrificed one eye and also hung himself from the tree Yggdrasil to acquire knowledge. The purpose of this strange ritual, a god sacrificing himself to himself because there was nothing higher to sacrifice to, was to obtain mystical insight through mortification of the flesh.

Some scholars would see this as a garbled version of the story of Christ's crucifixion, but perhaps it is more likely that the poem shows the dimly-remembered influence of Siberian shamanism, where the symbolic climbing of a "world tree" by the shaman in search of mystic knowledge is a common religious pattern. What we do know is that sacrifices, human or otherwise, to the gods were commonly hung in or from trees. Incidentally, one of Odin's alternative names is Ygg, and Yggdrasil therefore means "Ygg's (Odin's) horse".

The creation of the runes, the Norse alphabet that was also used for divination, is attributed to Odin and is described in the Havamal, part of the Poetic Edda.

Odin has a number of magical artefacts associated with him: the spear Gungni, a magical gold ring (Draupni), an eight-legged horse (Sleipnir), and two ravens Hugin and Munin who travel the world to acquire information at his behest. He also commands a pair of wolves named Geri and Freki.

Snorri Sturlusson's Edda depicts Odin as welcoming into his halls, Valhalla, the courageous battle-slain. These fallen, the einjehar, will support Odin at the final battle of the end of the world, Ragnarok.

Odin (Óðinn) is also referred to as Vóden. Other variations are: Old High German Wuotan, Old Low German Wodan and Old English Woden. The Old English version, Woden, appears to mean "furious", "wild", "mad". The god is believed to be manifest in a noisy, bellowing movement across the sky, not unlike Vâta, Lord of Wind of the Hindu.

"Wotan's Day" or "Woden's Day", has become Wednesday in English. Odin's son Thor gives his name to "Thor's Day", Thursday.

It was common, particularly among the Cimbri, to sacrifice a prisoner after a battle to Odin. One such prisoner, the "Tollund Man" was discovered hanged, naked along with many others, some of whom were wounded, in Central Jutland. The victim usually singled out for such a sacrifice was usually the first prisoner captured in battle. The rites particular to Odin were usually sacrifice by hanging, as in the case of Tollund Man, impalement upon a spear, and burning.

The Roman historian Tacitus refers to Odin as Mercury for the reason that, like Mercury, Odin was regarded as Psychopompos "the leader of souls".

The Norsemen gave Odin many nicknames; this was in the way of the Norse bardic tradition of kennings, a poetic method where a person, a place or an object was referred to indirectly, almost like a riddle. A list of these follows:

Grímr (or Grimnir) (Hooded) , Gangleri (Wayweary), Herjan (Ruler), Hjálmberi (Helmet bearer), Þekkr (Much Loved), Þriði (Third), Þuðr (?), Uðr (?), Helblindi (Hel blinder), Hárr (High); Saðr (Truthful), Svipall (Changing), Sanngetall (Truthful), Herteitr (Host glad), Hnikarr (Overthrower), Bileygr (Shifty-eyed), Báleygr (Flaming-eyed), Bölverkr (Ill-doer), Fjölnir (Many-shaped), Grímnir (Hooded), Glapsviðr (Swift in deceit), Fjölsviðr (Wide in wisdom); Síðhöttr (Broad hat), Síðskeggr (Long beard), Sigföðr (Father of Victory), Hnikuðr (Overthrower), Alföðr (Allfather), Atríðr (Rider), Farmatýr (God of Cargoes); Óski (God of wishes), Ómi (Shouter), Jafnhárr (Even as high), Biflindi (?), Göndlir (Wand bearer), Hárbarðr (Greybeard); Sviðurr (Changing(?)), Sviðrir (Changing(?)), Jálkr (Gelding), Kjalarr (Keel), Viðurr (?), Þrór (?), Yggr (Terrible), Þundr (Thunderer), Vakr (Wakeful), Skilfingr (Shaker), Váfuðr (Wanderer), Hroptatýr (Crier of the gods), Gautr (Father), Veratýr (Lord of men).

Alternate viewpoints

  • The legend/myth of Odin might have been based on an ancient king. This is the latest of Thor Heyerdahl's pseudo-archeological theories.
  • Some scholars believe Snorri Sturlusson's version of Norse mythology is an attempt to shoehorn a somewhat more shamanistic tradition into a Greek mythological cast, although this is to do considerable disservice to Sturlusson's efforts to maintain in permanent form what was essentially an oral tradition. Sturlusson's writing (particularly in Heimskringla) tries to maintain an essentially scholastic neutrality, even though he was writing in what had by that time become an essentially Christian society. Odin is supposed to match Zeus in this scenario.

Other spellings

  • Common Swedish form: Oden
  • Oðinn
  • German: Wotan