The god Odin (also known as Wotan among the Germanic peoples) is king of Asgard and father to the most important Viking gods. He lives in his fortress of Valaskjálf, but he is also king of Valhalla, the paradise hall where the souls of heroes killed in battle roam. Find out about the story of Odin, the Norse god of wisdom, war and death.
Odin takes a prime spot in Norse mythology because he is one of the main gods that took part in creating the world. He is considered the supreme god of war, death and wisdom, but also of poetry, prophecy, victory and hunting to a lesser extent.
According to the story of how the world came to be in Viking myths, from the cow Audumla that licked the Ginnungagap ice was born Buri, father of Bor, who married Bestla, and together they birthed Odin. He used to be considered a mere god of thunder, but gradually he set his privileged spot upon the pantheon.
His role in the creation of the world doesn't end here. Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve are attributed to have been killed primeval giant Ymir, whose flesh helped to create the world of men. His bones made stones, his blood and sweat made rivers and lakes, his skull was the dome of the sky, and his brain became the clouds.
Once the Earth was created, the gods found two trees, an ash tree and an elm. Odin gave them breath and life, his brother Vili gave them brains and feelings, and Ve gave them hearing and sight. That's how the logs became the first man, Ask, and the first woman, Embla, and they gave birth to all of mankind.
Besides, according to Norse mythology, Odin married three deities who represent the types of land. With Frigg, the nurtured land, he had three children: Bader, Hoder and Hermod. With Jörd, the uninhabited land, he had two: Thor and Meili. And with Ring, the wintry icy land, he had a son: Vali. All are important Viking gods.
All aristocratic families, Viking kings and warriors, tried to justify their origins in Odin. He is also attributed with miracles and premonitions we'll see later on.
Odin lives in the palace of Valaskjálf, in Asgard, and there he sits upon the throne from which he watches the nine worlds: However, he is also located in Valhalla, the dead men's home, where he receives the souls of battle-fallen heroes. When Odin isn't at Valaskjálf, his brothers take the throne.
The symbol of Odin is usually a golden warrior's helm and shiny armour. He is sitting upon his throne, while he holds the Gungnir spear in his hand (it had been made by dwarfs and brought fear to anyone receiving its fury). Loki gave it to him as compensation for having stolen Sif's hair.
To travel from one place to another he uses Odin's horse, Sleipnir, birthed from the bond of Loki with a mare, and he's the fastest in the universe with his eight legs. Besides, on his shoulders, there are Odin's ravens, Munin and Hugin (Memory and Thought) who tell him what they've seen and heard around the world every night.
Also under his command in Valhalla, Odin has a group of beautiful warriors, valkyries, whom he personally selects to come down to Earth to gather the souls of warriors dead in battle and take them to the paradise hall, where they are taken care of and offered the best delicacies and the gods' drink, mead.
There are many legends around this god, and one of the most peculiar is the one regarding Odin's eye. According to legend, he came down to the fountain where all source of wisdom comes from, protected by Mimir the giant, who demanded one of his eyes in exchange for drinking from the fountain. Odin accepted.
Another legend says that his wisdom comes from personal sacrifice and his resurrection. As it's told, Odin wounded himself and hung himself from a tree as a sacrifice, waiting in vain for nine days and nine nights for someone to offer him food and drinks. By bringing some dirt under his feet, he freed himself, and giant Mimir then offered him water from the fountain of wisdom as a reward, thus completing his resurrection.
That's why, besides being the god of creation, war and death for Vikings, Odin is also the god of wisdom, poetry and prophecy. Vikings refer to him in the lore as "the great wise one", "the truth seer", "the old priest", the one who gathers past knowledge and brings it to man today.
At the same time, he knows how the world came to be and what mankind is destined to, and his knowledge is a mixture of ancestral knowledge and magic. Sometimes he is represented as a philosopher arguing with others, and other times challenging giants to wisdom competitions he always ends up winning because of his wit.
Norse magic knowledge makes Odin an interpreter of Viking runes, an ancestral alphabet used to predict the future. In fact, Viking runes are seen as a gift from Odin to men, who used them to see if they would be lucky in battle, or how a king's illness would end.
Aside from being the first interpreter of magic runes, Odin managed to drink the mead of poetry, and he became the creator and main inspiration for poetry. From the mysteries and spells of goddess Vanir and priestess Freyja, he learned about magic and also became the god of magic knowledge.
Thanks to that knowledge, Odin foresees Ragnarök, the battle for the destiny of gods. In the lore, Odin warns that "a wolf is threatening the home of the gods" and predicts the arrival of Loki, leader of the Jotun giants, thanks to his children, Fenrir the wolf and Jörmungand the snake. According to Norse mythology, this god dies from the wounds inflicted by Fenrir's terrible jaw.
Odin became one of the main references for Marvel Comics in superhero fiction. He first appeared in one of the Journey into Mystery comic strips in 1962, created by writer Stanley Lee and scriptwriter Jack Kirby. He was father to Thor, and the supreme god ruling over the gods' council. That suggestive fiction was successfully brought into the cinema in a series of Marvel movies where actor Anthony Hopkins plays the part of Odin.
Also, Odin has been an inspiration to popular culture in several areas, because he was the target of various classic 19th-century compositions, among which we can point out Richard Wagner's work (Twilight of the Gods), and he inspired the main character in American Gods by Neil Gaiman, about the fight between old gods. Writer J.R.R. Tolkien also found inspiration in the wise, pilgrim-like version of Odin to create Gandalf the wizard (a wise man leaning on a staff and riding a steady horse).