The 6th century Vadstena bracteate, showing a horse, a bird and a human head commonly identified as an early form of Scandinavian Odin.
7th century depiction of Odin on a Vendel helmet plate, found in Uppland.

Wōđanaz or Wōđinaz is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of a god of Germanic paganism, known as Óðinn in Norse mythology, Wōden in Old English, Wodan or Wotan in Old High German and Godan in Lombardic. The name may be written with an asterisk in front, to indicate that the form is not directly attested; see also historical linguistics, comparative method.

He is in all likelihood identical with the Germanic god identified by Roman writers as Mercury and possibly with Tacitus' regnator omnium deus. Wodanaz may have risen to prominence during the Roman Iron Age, perhaps gradually displacing a hypothetical Tîwaz (later Tyr) as a major deity in West and North Germanic cultures.

Testimonies of the god are scattered over a wide range, both temporally and geographically. More than a millennium separates the earliest Roman accounts and archaeological evidence from the beginning of the Common Era from the Odin of the Edda and later medieval folklore.

Wōdanaz is associated with poetic or mantic qualities, his name being connected with the concept of *wōþuz, "furor poeticus" (poetic fury), and is thus the god of poets and seers. He is a shapechanger and healer, and thus a god of magicians and leeches. He is associated with the Wild Hunt of dead, and thus a death deity. He is also a god of war and bringer of victory.

The time periods distinguished in this article are



The attested forms of the theonym are traditionally derived from Proto-Germanic *Wōđanaz[1] (in Old Norse word-initial *w- was dropped before rounded vowels and so the name became Óðinn). Adam von Bremen etymologizes the god worshipped by the 11th-century Scandinavian pagans as "Wodan id est furor" ("Wodan, which means 'fury'"). An obsolete alternative etymology, which has been adhered to by many early writers including Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, is to give it the same root as the word god itself, from its Proto-Germanic form *ǥuđ-. This is not tenable today according to most modern academics, except for the Lombardic name Godan, which may go back to *ǥuđanaz (see also goði, gaut, god).

It should be noted at this point that Old Norse had two different words spelled óðr, one an adjective and the other a noun. The adjective means "mad, frantic, furious, violent",[2] and is cognate with Old English wōd.[3] The noun means "mind, wit, soul, sense" and "song, poetry",[4] and is cognate with Old English wōþ. In compounds, óð- means "fiercely energetic" (e.g. óð-málugr "speaking violently, excited").

Both Old Norse words are from Proto-Germanic *wōþuz[5], continuing Pre-Germanic *wātus.[6] Two extra-Germanic cognates are the Proto-Celtic *wātus "mantic poetry" (continued in Irish fáith "poet" and Welsh gwawd "praise-poetry") and the Latin vātes "prophet, seer" (a possible loan from Proto-Celtic *wātis, Gaulish ουατεις). A possible, but uncertain, cognate is Sanskrit api-vat- "to excite, awaken" (RV 1.128.2). The Proto-Indo-European meaning of the root is therefore reconstructed as relating to spiritual excitation. The Old Norse semantic split is reflected in Adam von Bremen's testimony of the synchronic understanding of the name as "fury", rather than "poetry" or similar.

Meid[7] suggested Proto-Germanic *-na- as a suffix expressing lordship ("Herrschersuffix"), in view of words such as Odin's name Herjann "lord of armies", drótinn "lord of men", and þjóðann "lord of the nation", which would result in a direct translation of "lord of spiritual energy", "lord of poetry" or similar. It is sufficient, however, and more common, to assume a more general meaning of pertinence or possession for the suffix, inherited from PIE *-no-, to arrive at roughly the same meaning. (If it originally started out in a laryngeal consonant, the suffix could be the thematic variant of the famous "Hoffmannsches Possessivsuffix" or more succinctly "Hoffmann-Suffix", named after its discoverer Karl Hoffmann, and nowadays commonly reconstructed as *-h₃on- ~ *-h₃n-, i. e., *-h₃n-o-, also found in Latin Neptūnus and Portūnus, theonyms likely derived from *neptu- "moist substance" and portus "port" respectively.)

Rübekeil (2003:29)[8] draws attention to the suffix variants *-ina- (in Óðinn) vs. *-ana- (in Woden, Wotan). This variation, if considered at all, was dismissed as "suffix ablaut" by earlier scholars. There are, however, indications from outside Old Norse of a suffix *-ina-: English Wednesday (rather than *Wodnesday) via umlaut goes back to *wōđina-. Rübekeil concludes that the original Proto-Germanic form of the name was *Wōđinaz, yielding Old Norse Óðinn and unattested Anglo-Saxon *Wēden, and that the attested West Germanic forms are early medieval "clerical" folk etymologies, formed under the impression of synchronic association with terms for "fury".

The pre-Proto-Germanic form of the name would then be *Wātinos. Rübekeil suggests that this is a loan from Proto-Celtic into pre-Proto-Germanic, referring to the god of the *wātis, the Celtic priests of mantic prophecy, so that the original meaning of the name would be "he [the god/lord] of the Vates" (p. 33), which he tentatively identifies with Lugus (p. 40).

Schaffner[9], however, has drawn attention to a third suffix variant *-una- in Old Danish *Óðon (< *Óðunn), attested in Old English as Ōdon. He argues that this is the original form of the name: *Wōđunaz, derived from the above-mentioned noun *wōþuz with the above-mentioned ("lordship"?) suffix *-na-. The other suffix variants *Wōđinaz and *Wōđanaz would then both be secondary reformations. The pre-Proto-Germanic form would then be *Wātunos or perhaps *Wātūnos < *Wātuh₃nos, should the Hoffmann suffix be involved. (In any case, the original accent could not have been on the first syllable, as the appears voiced to due to Verner's law).

W. S. W. Anson's 1880 Asgard and the Gods[unreliable source?] surmises that "Wuotan" was originally a fully abstract cosmic force, whose name meant not "fury" originally but etymologically, quite literally, meant "what was pervasive" with the second element, "-an", issuing a meaning that renders it to be construed as signifying a single pervasive principle. According to Anson, wuot- meant " …to force one's way through anything, to conquer all opposition…" and Wuotan solidifying such as "…the all-penetrating, all-conquering Spirit of Nature…". The name Wuotan being related to, in their interpretation "(t)he modern German water, and the English wade". Anson considered those two words to be more "restricted in meaning" than was wuot itself. The less restricted implications so grew as the attribute inherent in the meaning of the name for the god. The suffix "-an" personifying, but not then anthropomorphizing, the prefix element as the absolute definitive instance, and font-head, of anything thus resembling the meaning that such said prefix element 'wuot-' would have had in nature, toward one unique divine origination of that as a general qualification.[1]

Odin and Mercury

Less is known about the role of Odin as receiver of the dead among the more southern Germanic tribes. The Roman historian Tacitus probably refers to Odin when he talks of Mercury. The reason is that, like Mercury, Odin was regarded as Psychopompos, "the leader of souls".

Julius Caesar states in De Bello Gallico 6.17.1 that for the Gauls the worship of Mercury was the most important, or perhaps most widespread, out of all the gods.

Paulus Diaconus (or Paul the Deacon), writing in the late 8th century, tells that Odin (Guodan) was the chief god of the Lombards and, like earlier southern sources, he identifies Odin with Mercury (History of the Lombards, I:9). Because of this identification, Paulus adds that the god Guodan, "although held to exist [by Germanic peoples], it was not around this time, but long ago, and not in Germania, but in Greece" where the god originated. Wace also identifies Wotan with Mercury. Viktor Rydberg, in his work on Teutonic Mythology, draws a number of other parallels between Odin and Mercury, such as the fact that they were both responsible for bringing poetry to mortals.

Similarly, Ammianus Marcellinus most likely references Odin and Thor in his history of the later Roman Empire as Mercury and Mars, respectively, though a direct association is not made. This, however, underlines a particular problem concerning ancient Greek and Roman sources. Historians from both cultures, during all periods, believed the deities of foreign cultures to merely be their own gods under different names (see interpretatio graeca). Such an example may be found in Herodotus' association of an Egyptian Ram-headed god (most probably Amun) with Zeus. Later, Medieval historians followed the older tradition and likewise made such associations. However, there is no historical evidence to suggest that these are valid connections and as such they should not be taken as historical fact.

Celtic parallels

Parallels between Odin and Lugus have often been pointed out: both are intellectual gods, commanding magic and poetry and both have ravens and a spear as their attributes. Julius Caesar (de bello Gallico, 6.17.1) mentions Mercury as the chief god of Celtic religion. However, most of our sources concerning Celtic Lugus are Insular Celtic, while sources discussing Gaulish Lugus are rare, although his importance is manifest from the numerous toponyms containing the name (Lugdunum etc.). Lucanus mentions three Celtic gods: Teutates, Esus, and Taranis. Teutates is identified with Mars or Mercury, and he receives as human sacrifices drowned captives and fallen warriors. Esus is also identified with Mercury but also with Mars, and he accepts as human sacrifices prisoners who are hanged on trees and then dismembered. Taranis is identified with Jupiter, as a warlord and a sky god. Human sacrifices to Taranis are made by burning prisoners in wooden casks. Lugus is not mentioned by Lucanus at all. The suggestion of Rübekeil (2003:38), in view of his hypothesis of a Celtic origin of the Germanic god discussed above, is that Lugus refers to the trinity Teutates-Esus-Taranis considered as a single god.

An etymological reflex of Celtic Lugus is possibly found in Loki (a Germanic god described as a "hypostasis of Odin" by Folke Ström). A likely context of the diffusion of elements of Celtic ritual into Germanic culture are tribes such as the Chatti, who lived at the Celtic-Germanic boundary in Hesse during the final centuries BC. (The Chatti are traditionally considered a Germanic tribe, but many of their leaders and their settlements had Celtic names.)

Shamanic traits

The goddess Freyja is described as an adept of the mysteries of seid (shamanism), a völva, and it is said that it was she who initiated Odin into its mysteries. In Lokasenna, Loki verbally abuses Odin for practising seid, condemning it as an unmanly art. A justification for this may be found in the Ynglinga saga where Snorri opines that in following the practice of seid, the practitioner was rendered unmanly. Another explanation is that its manipulative aspects ran counter to the male ideal of forthright, open behaviour.

Odin was a compulsive seeker of wisdom, consumed by his passion for knowledge, to the extent that he sacrificed one of his eyes (which one this was is unclear) to Mímir, in exchange for a drink from the waters of wisdom in Mímir's well.

Merseburger Zaubersprüche - Merseburger Domstiftsbibliothek, Codex 136, f. 85r, 10. Century

Some German sacred formulae, known as the "Merseburger Zaubersprüche" ("Merseburg Charms") were written down in c AD 800 and survived to the present time. One (this is the second of the two) describes Wodan in the role of a healer:

Phol ende UUodan vuorun zi holza.
du uuart demo Balderes volon sin vuoz birenkit
thu biguel en Sinhtgunt, Sunna era suister;
thu biguol en Friia, Volla era suister
thu biguol en Uuodan, so he uuola conda
sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki
sose lidirenki: ben zi bena
bluot zi bluoda, lid zi geliden
sôse gelîmida sin!
English translation:
Phol (Balder) and Wodan were riding in the forest
Balder's foal dislocated its foot
Sinhtgunt, sister of Sunna (Sol), tried to cure it by magic
Frige, sister of Fulla, tried to cure it by magic
it was charmed by Wodan, like he well could:
be it bonesprain, be it bloodsprain
be it limbsprain, bone to bones
blood to blood, limb to limbs
like they are glued!

Further, the creation of the runes is attributed to Odin and is described in the Rúnatal, a section of the Hávamál. He hanged himself from the tree called Yggdrasill whilst pierced by his own spear in order to acquire knowledge. He remained thus for nine days and nights, a significant number in Norse magical practice (there were, for example, nine realms of existence), thereby learning nine (later eighteen) magical songs and eighteen magical runes. The purpose of this strange ritual, a god sacrificing himself to himself because there was nothing higher to sacrifice to, was ostensibly to obtain mystical insight through mortification of the flesh.

Some scholars see this scene as influenced by the story of Christ's crucifixion; and others note the similarity to the story of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment. It is in any case also influenced by shamanism, where the symbolic climbing of a "world tree" by the shaman in search of mystic knowledge is a common religious pattern. We know that sacrifices, human or otherwise, to the gods were commonly hung in or from trees, often transfixed by spears. (See also: Peijainen) Additionally, one of Odin's names is Ygg, and the Norse name for the World Ash —Yggdrasill—therefore means "Ygg's (Odin's) horse". Another of Odin's names is Hangatýr, the god of the hanged.

Odin's desire for wisdom can also be seen in his work as a farmhand for a summer, for Baugi, in order to obtain the mead of poetry. See Fjalar and Galar for more details.


Odin entering Valhalla riding on Sleipnir, welcomed by a Valkyrie as depicted on the 8th century Tjängvide image stone.

Details of the Migration period of Germanic religion are sketchy, reconstructed from artifacts, sparse contemporary sources, and the later testimonies of medieval legends and placenames. It was common, particularly amongst the Cimbri, to sacrifice a prisoner to Odin prior to or after a battle.

According to Jonas Bobiensis, the 6th century Irish missionary Saint Columbanus is reputed to have disrupted a Beer sacrifice to Wuodan (Deo suo Vodano nomine) in Bregenz, Alemannia. Wuodan was the chief god of the Alamanni, his name appears in the runic inscription on the Nordendorf fibula.

Pagan worship disappeared with Christianization, between the 6th and 8th centuries in England and Germany, lingering until the 11th or 12th century in Iceland and Scandinavia. Remnants of worship were continued into modern times as folklore (see Germanic Christianity).

It has been argued that the killing of a combatant in battle was to give a sacrificial offering to Odin. The fickleness of Odin in battle was well-documented, and in Lokasenna, Loki taunts Odin for his inconsistency.

Adam of Bremen in the 12th century relates that every ninth year, people assembled from all over Sweden to sacrifice at the Temple at Uppsala. Male slaves, and males of each species were sacrificed and hanged from the branches of the trees. As the Swedes had the right not only to elect a king but also to depose a king, the sagas relate that both king Domalde and king Olof Trätälja were sacrificed to Odin after years of famine. Sometimes sacrifices were made to Odin to bring about changes in circumstance. A notable example is the sacrifice of King Víkar that is detailed in Gautrek's Saga and in Saxo Grammaticus' account of the same event. Sailors in a fleet being blown off course drew lots to sacrifice to Odin that he might abate the winds. The king himself drew the lot and was hanged. Sacrifices were probably also made to Odin at the beginning of summer, since Ynglinga saga states one of the great festivals of the calendar is at sumri, þat var sigrblót "in summer, for victory".

Migration period

The Anglo-Saxon tribes brought their pagan faith to England around the 5th and 6th centuries and continued in that form of worship until nearly all were converted to Christianity by the 8th century. The Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent from Woden. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Historia Britonum, Woden had the sons Wecta, Baeldaeg, Casere and Wihtlaeg, who in turn were ancestors of theroyal houses of the Heptarchy. Other manifestations of Woden in England are confined to a scattering of place-names and an even smaller number of literary mentions in the Old English poems Maxims I (line 132) and in the so-called Nine Herbs Charm (line 32).

Lombardic Godan appears in the 7th century Origo Gentis Langobardorum. According to the legend presented there, Godan's wife, Frea favoured the Lombards, at the time still called Winnili, and tricked Godan into helping them by having the women of the Winnili tie their hair in front of their faces. Godan thought that they were warriors with impressive beards and named them Langobardi ("longbeards").

6th to 7th century depictions of warriors performing a ritual dance show one dancer in a wolf-costume and another wearing a helmet with two birds' heads (in Anglo-Saxon iconography, two dancers with such helmets are attested on the Sutton Hoo helmet, but not the warrior in wolf-costume). Both figures are armed with spears and swords. The scene is mostly associated with the cult of Wodan/Wodin. The horned helmet has precedents in similar ritual dances in depictions dating to the Nordic Bronze Age, but the re-interpretation of the "horns" as birds of prey appears to be a development original to the 6th century. The twin dancers may correspond to the twin sons of the sky-god, known to Tacitus as Alcis. With the rise of the cult Wodan/Wodin in place of Teiwaz in the course of the Migration period, Tyr ultimately became a son of Odin in Eddaic mythology (and both Tyr and Odin remain associated with wolves). The two birds' heads on the dancers' helmets have a parallel in the two ravens of Eddaic Odin, Hugin and Munin.

Another recurring scene shows a warrior fighting two wild beasts (wolves or bears, compared to the Eddaic Geri and Freki). Thus, Spiedel (2004) connects Geri and Freki with archaeological finds depicting figures wearing wolf-pelts and frequently found wolf-related names among the Germanic peoples, including Wulfhroc ("Wolf-Frock"), Wolfhetan ("Wolf-Hide"), Isangrim ("Grey-Mask"), Scrutolf ("Garb-Wolf") and Wolfgang ("Wolf-Gait"), Wolfdregil ("Wolf-Runner"), and Vulfolaic ("Wolf-Dancer") and myths regarding wolf warriors from Norse mythology (such as the Úlfhéðnar). Parallels in the 6th to 7th century iconography of Vendel period Sweden (Öland; Ekhammar), in Alemannia (Gutenstein; Obrigheim) as well as in England (Sutton Hoo; Finglesham, Kent) suggest a persisting "pan-Germanic" unity of a wolf-warrior band cult centered around Wodan/Wodin in Scandinavia, in Anglo-Saxon England and on the Continent right until the eve of Christianization of England and Alemannia in the 7th century.[2]

Viking Age

Odin with his ravens and weapons

Scandinavian Óðinn emerged from Proto-Norse *Wōdin during the Migration period, Vendel artwork (bracteates, image stones) depicting the earliest scenes that can be aligned with the High Medieval Norse mythological texts. The context of the new elites emerging in this period aligns with Snorri's tale of the indigenous Vanir who were eventually replaced by Aesir intruders from the Continent.[10]

According to the Prose Edda, Odin was a son of Bestla and Borr and brother of and Vili and together with these brothers he cast down the frost giant Ymir and created the world from Ymir's body.

Attributes of Odin are Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse, and the severed head of Mímir, which foretold the future. He employed Valkyrjur to gather the souls of warriors fallen in battle (the Einherjar), as these would be needed to fight for him in the battle of Ragnarök. They took the souls of the warriors to Valhalla (the hall of the fallen), Odin's residence in Ásgarðr. One of the Valkyries, Brynhildr, was expelled from his service but, out of compassion, Odin placed her in a hall surrounded by a ring of fire to ensure that only the bravest man could seek her hand in marriage. She was rescued by Sigurd. Höðr, a blind god who had accidentally killed his brother, Baldr, was then killed by another of Odin's children, Váli, whose mother was Rindr, a giantess who bore him fully grown and vowing not to even bathe before he had exacted vengeance on Höðr.

According to the Hávamál Edda, Odin was also the creator of the Runic alphabet. It is possible that the legends and genealogies mentioning Odin originated in a real, prehistoric Germanic chieftain who was subsequently deified, but this is impossible to prove or disprove.

Medieval reception

As the chief god of the Germanic pantheon, Odin received particular attention from the early missionaries. For example, his day is the only day to have been renamed in the German language from "Woden's day", still extant in English Wednesday (compare Norwegian, Danish and Swedish onsdag, Dutch woensdag) to the neutral Mittwoch ("mid-week"), while other gods were not deemed important enough for propaganda (Tuesday "Tiw's day" and Friday "Frige's day" remained intact in all Germanic languages, except Icelandic).[3] "Woden's day" translates the Latin Dies Mercurii, "day of Mercury". This interpretatio romana of the god is due to his role as the psychopomp.

For many Germans, St. Michael replaced Wotan, and many mountain chapels dedicated to St. Michael can be found, but Wotan also remained present as a sort of demon leading the Wild hunt of the host of the dead, e.g. in Swiss folklore as Wuotis Heer. However, in some regions even this mythology was transformed so that Charlemagne led the hunt, not Odin.

In Anglo-Saxon England, Woden was more often euhemerised than demonised. In Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Woden appears as a perfectly earthly king, only four generations removed from Hengest and Horsa, though up to the Norman conquest and after there remained an awareness that he had once been "mistaken" for a god.

Snorri Sturluson's record of the Edda is striking evidence of the climate of religious tolerance in medieval Iceland, but even he feels compelled to give a rational account of the Aesir in his preface. In this scenario, Snorri speculates that Odin and his peers were originally refugees from Troy, etymologizing Aesir as derived from Asia. Some scholars believe that Snorri's version of Norse mythology is an attempt to mould a more shamanistic tradition into a Greek mythological cast. In any case, Snorri's writing (particularly in Heimskringla) tries to maintain an essentially scholastic neutrality. That Snorri was correct was one of the last of Thor Heyerdahl's archeo-anthropological theories (see The search for Odin).


With the Romantic Viking revival of the early-to-mid 19th century, Odin's popularity increased again. Wotan is a lead character in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, written between 1848 and 1874.

His name provides the root for 19th century conceptions of "Od", a hypothetical vital energy that permeates all living things.

Ásatrú , "faith in the Aesir", is an officially recognised religion in Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Spain.

Odin is frequently referred to in popular culture. See Odin (disambiguation).

See also


  1. ^ Jan de Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. 2nd Revised Edition (1963)
  2. ^ Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary. (1874; online editions: [11] [12])
  3. ^ T. Northcote Toller, Ed. An Anglo-Saxon dictionary, based on the manuscript collections of the late Joseph Bosworth, and Old English Made Easy.
  4. ^ Cleasby-Vigfusson.
  5. ^ Toller, and Old English Made Easy. Later Old English orthography did not consistently differentiate between 'þ' and 'ð'. They were not confused with 'd', however.
  6. ^ Julius Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch
  7. ^ Meid, Wolfgang, Beiträge zur Namenforschung 8 (1957)
  8. ^ Rübekeil, Ludwig. Wodan und andere forschungsgeschichtliche Leichen: exhumiert, Beiträge zur Namenforschung 38 (2003), 25–42.
  9. ^ Schaffner, Stefan. Die Götternamen des Zweiten Merseburger Zauberspruchs. In: Heiner Eichner, Robert Nedoma: „insprinc haptbandun“. Referate des Kolloquiums zu den Merseburger Zaubersprüchen auf der XI. Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft in Halle/Saale (17.-23. September 2000) Teil 1. In: Die Sprache – Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft. 41, Heft 2 (1999; erschienen 2002), Wiener Sprachgesellschaft. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 1999, ISSN 0376-401X, 153–205.


  • Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology (ch. 7)
  • Kershaw, Kris. "The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Männerbünde", JIES Monograph No. 36, Washington D.C. (2000), ISBN 0-941694-74-7.
  • Starkey, Kathryn. "Imagining an early Odin. Gold bracteates as visual evidence?", Scandinavian studies, Journal of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study 71-4 (1999), 373–392.
  • Ström, Åke V. (1975). "Germanische Religion" in Schröder, C. M. Die Religionen der Menschheit, Vol. 19,1. Stuttgart: Verlag W. Kohlhammer. ISBN: 3-17-001157-X.


  1. ^ pg. 71 of Asgard and the Gods: The Takes and Traditions of our Northern Ancestors Adaptions from the work of Dr. W. Wägner & M. W. MacDowall edited by W. S. W. Anson (London, 1880).
  2. ^ Spiedel, Michael (2004). Ancient Germanic Warriors: Warrior Styles from Trajan's Column to Icelandic Sagas. Routledge. ISBN 0415311993, 24—28). "This is why Geri and Freki, the wolves at Woden's side, also glowered on the throne of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Wolf-warriors, like Geri and Freki, were not mere animals but mythical beings: as Woden's followers they bodied forth his might, and so did wolf-warriors."
  3. ^ Ström (1975:83).

External links

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