Odin: The Shapeshifting Norse God of Wisdom 

Odin, the one-eyed Norse god of wisdom, battle, magic, death, and knowledge has been known by many names. Odin, Woden, Wuotan, or Woden, sits at the top of the godly hierarchy of the Norse pantheon. 

The main god of the Norse pantheon has been called many names throughout history and has donned many different guises. The shapeshifting “All-father” as he is sometimes referred to is one of the oldest proto-indo European gods. Odin appears in all recorded history of Northern Europe. 

Odin is one of the most prolific gods to be found within Norse mythology, and perhaps any pantheon. He is an ancient deity, worshiped by the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe for thousands of years. 

Odin is the creator of the Norse universe and the first human being. The one-eyed ruler of the old Norse gods, often left his home on Asgard, wearing clothes befitting of a traveler rather than a king,  while he scoured the nine realms of the Norse Universe in his pursuit of knowledge. 

What Is Odin the God Of?

In Norse mythology, Odin is the god of wisdom, knowledge, poetry, runes, ecstasy, and magic. Odin is also a war god and has been since his earliest mentions. As a war god, Odin is the god of battle and death. Odin is described as traveling through many realms or worlds, winning every battle. 

As a war god, Odin was called upon to offer advice before any battle or war was started. To the Germanic peoples, the All-father decided who would be victorious and who would perish, including what the outcome of the battle would be. 

In addition, Odin is the patron of nobility and is therefore believed to be the ancestor of the most ancient kings. As the god of nobility and sovereignty, it was not just warriors who worshiped Odin, but all those who wished to join the ranks of the elite in ancient Germanic society. 

Sometimes referred to as the raven god because he possessed several familiars, two ravens called Hugin and Munin, and two wolves whose names are Geri and Freki. 

Which Religion Does Odin Belong To?

Odin is the chief of the Aesir gods found within Norse mythology. Odin and the Norse gods were and still are, worshiped by Germanic peoples of Northern Europe called Scandinavia. Scandinavia refers to the countries of Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. 

The Old Norse religion is also referred to as Germanic paganism. The polytheistic religion was practiced by the nordic and Germanic people. 

The Etymology of the Name Odin 

The name Odin or Óðinn is an Old Norse name for the chief of the gods. Óðinn translates to the master of ecstasy. Odin is a god with many names with the chief of the Aesir being referred to by over 170 names, therefore, making him the god with the most known names to the Germanic peoples. 

The name Odin is derived from the Proto-Germanic name  Wōđanaz, meaning Lord of frenzy or leader of the possessed. From the original name Wōđanaz, there have been many derivatives across several languages, all of which are used to refer to the god we call Odin. 

In Old English, the god is called Woden, in old dutch Wuodan, in old Saxon Odin is known as Wōdan, and in old high German the god is known as Wuotan. Wotan is associated with the Latin term furor which means fury. 

First Mention of Odin 

Odin’s origin is unclear, we do know that a version of the deity we call Odin has existed for thousands of years and has been called many different names. 

Odin, like most gods and goddesses found through world mythology, does not appear to have a personification associated with him. This is unusual as most early deities were created to explain a natural function within the ancient’s universe. For example in Norse mythology, Odin’s son Thor is the god of Thunder. Odin, although the god of death, is not death personified. 

The first mention of Odin is by the Roman historian Tacitus; in fact, the earliest record of the Germanic peoples is from the Romans. Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote about the Roman expansion and conquest of Europe in his works Agricola and Germania in 100 BCE. 

Tacitus refers to a god worshiped by several tribes of Europe which the Roman historian calls Dues Maximus of the Teutons. which is Wōđanaz. Deus Maximus of the Teutons is compared by Tacitus to the Roman God, Mercury. 

We know that Tacitus is referring to the god we know as Odin because of the name of the middle day of the week, Wednesday.  Wednesday was called Mercurii dies in Latin, which became Woden’s Day. 

Mercury would not be the obvious comparison to the Norse figure who is described in the Poetic Edda, as the Roman equivalent would be Jupiter. It is believed the Romans compared Wōđanaz to Mercury because of his association with the Ravens.  

It is not entirely clear how the character of Odin evolved from Tacitus’ Deus Maximus and Wōđanaz. In the years between Tacitus’ observations about the Germanic tribes and when the Poetic Edda was released, Wōđanaz is replaced by Odin.  

Odin According to Adam of Bremen

One of the earliest mentions of Odin can be found in a text from 1073 detailing the history and myths of the pre-christian Germanic Peoples by Adam of Bremen. 

The text is called Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae Pontificum which translates to Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg. This account of the Old Norse religion is believed to be heavily biased as it was written from a Christian view. 

The text refers to Odin as Wotan, which Adam of Bremen called the ‘furious one’. The twelfth-century historian describes the Uppsala Temple where Wotan, Frigg, and Thor were worshiped by the Pagans. In this source, Thor is described as the mightiest god, and Odin, who is described as standing next to Thor is described as a war god. 

Adam of Bremen describes Odin as being the god who ruled war, who people sought out for strength in battle. The Germanic people would offer Odin sacrifices during times of war.  The statue of ‘Woden’ is clad in armor, similar to the god Mars

Nordic Accounts of Odin  

The first recorded Nordic mention of Odin can be found in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, which are the earliest written Norse texts relating to the Norse Pantheon and Germanic mythology. 

The two texts are often confused, but they are separate works. The Poetic Edda is a collection of anonymously written old Norse poems, while the Prose Edda was written by a monastic scholar from Iceland called Snorri Sturluson.    

Odin is the chief of the Norse gods, according to Old Norse poems dating back to the 13th century. One scholar, Jens Peter Schjødt points out that the idea of Odin being the leader, or Allfather is a recent addition to the long history of the deity.  

Schjødt believes that the idea of Odin as the chief of the gods represents a more Christian view, and is not a representation of beliefs held during the Viking Age.

READ MORE: Pagan Gods

Is Odin Good or Evil?

Odin, the god of wisdom, death, battle magic and more is neither entirely good nor is he fully evil in Norse mythology. Odin is a warmonger and as such a bringer of death on the battlefield. In contrast, Odin created the first humans from which all life was on Midgard (Earth). 

The chief of the gods is a complex character who could strike fear into the hearts of warriors on the battlefield, but gladden the hearts of those around him. He spoke in riddles that had a peculiar effect on those who listened. 

In Norse accounts, Odin could coax people into doing things that were against their character or that they did not want to do. The cunning god is known to stir up war between even the most peaceful for the simple fact that he revels in the frenzy of war. 

The ruler of Asgard was not concerned about things like justice or lawfulness the one-eyed shapeshifter would often align himself with the outlaws in Norse myths. 

What Does Odin Look Like?

Odin appears in Germanic mythology as a tall, one-eyed man, usually elderly,  with a long beard. Odin is often in disguise when he is described in Old Norse texts and poems, wearing a cloak and wide-brimmed hat. Odin is often described as wielding a spear called Gungnir. 

The leader of the Norse gods often appears in the presence of his familiars, the two ravens and the wolves Geri and Freki. The All-father is described as riding an eight-legged horse into battle called Sleipnir. 

Odin is a shapeshifter, which means he could transform himself into whatever he pleased and therefore does not always appear as the one-eyed man. Instead of appearing as an old man or a traveler in many poems, he often appears as a powerful animal.  

Is Odin a Powerful God?

Odin is the most powerful god in the Norse pantheon, not only is Odin the most powerful god but he is also immensely wise. Odin was believed to be the strongest of the gods, Many believe the All-father is unbeaten in battle. 

Family Tree of Odin 

According to the 13th-century works of Snorri Sturluson and in  Skaldic poetry,  Odin is the son of the giants or Jotuns, Bestla, and Bor. Odin’s father, Bor is said to be the son of a primordial god Buri, who was formed or rather licked into existence at the beginning of time. Bor and Bestla had three sons together, Odin Vili, and Ve. 

Odin married the goddess Frigg and together the pair produced the twin gods Baldr, and Hodr. Odin sired many sons, not all with his wife, Frigg. Odin’s sons have different mothers, as Odin, like his Greek counterpart Zeus, was a philanderer. 

The leader of the Norse gods produced children with goddesses and giants. Thor Odinson was the All-fathers’s first son, Thor’s mother is the earth goddess Jord. 

Odin’’s sons are: Thor, Baldr, Hodr, Vidar, Vali, Heimdallr, Bragi, Tyr, Sæmingr, Sigi, Itreksjod, Hermod and Skjold.  Thor Odinson is the strongest of Thor’s sons and the gods. Vidar closely follows Thor in strength.  

Skaldic poetry, which is poetry written in the pre-Christian period, during the Viking Age only names Thor, Baldr, and Vali as Odin’s sons. 

Odin in Norse Mythology 

What we know of Norse mythology is mostly due to the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Odin features in almost every poem in the Poetic Edda. Odin is often portrayed as a cunning shapeshifter, known to play tricks.

The chief god in Norse mythology is often in disguise. In the Norse poem the Poetic Edda, Odin speaks under a different name, Grímnir. From his throne, Hlidskajlf, in Asgard Odin could see into each of the nine realms nestled in the branches of the sacred world tree. 

In the poem Völuspá, Odin is introduced as the creator of the universe and the first human being. The first war in Norse mythology is also described in the text. The war, known as the Aesir-Vanir war, is the first battle fought by Odin.

The Vanir gods and goddesses were a tribe of fertility gods and magicians from the realm of Vanahiem. Odin wins the war by throwing his spear, Gungnir at his opponents, thus vanquishing the Vanir and uniting the gods. 

The one-eyed ruler of Asgard lived on wine and did not require any food despite holding feasts for the slain warriors who lived in Valhalla, Odin’s legendary hall for the noblest warriors killed in battle.  

In several old Norse poems, Odin is often helping outlawed heroes. It is because of this that Odin is often seen as the patron of the Outlaws. Odin himself is outlawed for a time from Asgard. The ruler of Asgard is outlawed by the other gods and goddesses because of the rather vulgar reputation he had acquired among the mortals of Midgard.   

Odin’s goal throughout Norse mythology is to gather enough knowledge in the hopes that what he discovers may stop the apocalypse, called Ragnarok. 

Odin and the Wild Hunt 

One of the oldest tales involving Odin is that of the Wild Hunt. Throughout the different ancient tribes and cultures found in  Northern Europe, a story was told about a group of supernatural hunters who would ride through the forests in midwinter. 

In midwinter, the Wild Hunt would ride in the dead of night, amid violent storms. The ghostly horde of riders consisted of the souls of the dead, sometimes Valkyries or elves. Those who practiced magic could join the hunt from their beds, sending their souls to ride through the night. 

This particular piece of folklore has existed and been told from the earliest ancient tribes to the Middle Ages and beyond. If you saw the horde of supernatural hunters it was taken to be an omen that a terrible event was about to occur, such as the outbreak of war or sickness. 

Each culture and tribe had its name for the Wild Hunt. In Scandinavia, it was known as Odensjakt, which translates to ‘Odin’s Ride.’ Odin was associated with the dead, perhaps because he was a war god, but also because of the Wild Hunt. 

To the Germanic people, Odin was believed to be the leader of the ghoulish riders who left the Underworld in pursuit. They would ride through the forests of Northern Europe around the time of Yule, with Odin described in this context as a dark, hooded figure of death.

The Norse Creation Myth 

In Norse mythology, Odin participates in both the creation of the world and the first humans.  Similar to many ancient creation myths, the Norse tale begins with nothing, an empty abyss called Ginnungagap.

In the Old Norse creation myth as told by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda and also in the Poetic Edda,  Ginnungagap is situated between two other realms, that of fiery Muspelheim and icy Niflheim. 

The fire from Muspelheim and the ice from Niflheim met in the abyss, and from their meeting, the godly frost giant Ymir was created. From Ymir, other giants were created, from his sweat and legs. Ymir survived in Ginnungagap by suckling on the teat of a cow. 

The cow, named Audhumla licked the salty rocks around her, revealing the giant Buri, Odin’s grandfather and the first of the Aesir.

Buri fathered Bor, who married Bestla, and together they produced three sons. Odin, with the help of his brother, killed the frost giant Ymir, and created the world from his corpse. Odin and his brother created the oceans from Ymir’s blood, the soil made from his muscles and skin, vegetation made from his hair, the clouds from his brains, and the sky from his skull. 

Similar to the idea of four pillars of the earth found in Greek mythology, the giant’s skull was held aloft by four dwarves. Once the world was created, the brothers carved two human beings from two tree trunks they discovered while walking along the beach. 

The three gods gave the newly created humans, a man and a woman called Ask and Embla, the gift of life, movement, and intellect. The humans lived on Midgard, so the gods built a fence around them to protect them from the giants.

At the center of the Norse universe was the world tree, known as Yggdrasil. The cosmic Ash tree held within its branches the nine realms of the universe, with Asgard, the home to the gods and goddesses of the Aesir tribe, at the top. 

Odin and His Familiars

As the god of magic or sorcery associated with pagan shamans, often Odin appears in the presence of familiars. Familiars are demons who take the form of an animal who helps and protects sorcerers and witches.  

Odin had several familiars such as the two ravens Hugin and Munin. The ravens were always described as being perched on the shoulders of the ruler.  The ravens travel through the realms each day observing and gathering information, acting as Odin’s spies. 

When Hugin and Munin returned to Asgard the birds would whisper their observations to Odin so that the All-father is always aware of what is happening across the realms. 

The Ravens are not the only animals associated with the head of the Norse pantheon. Odin possesses an eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, that can travel through each world in the Norse universe. Odin was believed to ride through the realms on Sleipnir delivering presents to children who stuffed their boots with straw. 

In the Grimnismal, Odin has two more familiars, the wolves Geri and Freki. In the Old Norse poem, Odin shares his with the wolves while he dines in Valhalla.  

Odin’s Constant Quest for Knowledge

Odin was known to consult with necromancers, seers, and shamans in his pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Over time, the one-eyed ruler learned the magic art of foresight so he could speak with the dead and see the future. 

Despite being the god of wisdom, Odin was not initially considered to be the wisest of all the gods. Mimir, a shadowy water deity, was considered the wisest of the gods. Mimir lived in the well situated underneath the roots of the cosmic tree Yggdrasil.

In the myth, Odin approached Mimir and asked to drink from the waters to gain their wisdom. Mimir agreed but asked the chief of the gods for a sacrifice. That sacrifice was none other than one of Odin’s eyes. Odin agreed to Mimir’s terms and removed his eye for knowledge of the well. Once Odin drank from the well, he replaced Mimir as the wisest of the gods.  

In the Poetic Edda, Odin engages in a battle of wits with the Jotun (Giant),  Vafþrúðnir meaning ‘mighty weaver.’ The  Jotun is unmatched in his wisdom and knowledge among the giants. Vafþrúðnir is said to hold knowledge of the past, present, and future of the Norse universe. 

Odin, wishing to be unmatched in his knowledge, won the battle of wits. To win the battle, Odin asked the giant something only Odin would know. Vafþrúðnir declared Odin to be unmatched throughout the universe in his knowledge and wisdom. The ruler of Asgard’s prize was the giant’s head. 

His eye is not the only thing Odin sacrificed in the pursuit of knowledge. Odin hanged himself from Yggdrasil, the sacred Ash tree around which the nine worlds of the Norse universe exist.

Odin and the Norns 

In one of the most famous myths about Odin, he approaches the three most powerful beings in the Norse universe, the three Norns. The Norns are three female beings that created and controlled fate, similar to the three fates found in Greek mythology. 

Even the leader of the Aesir was not immune to the power wielded by the three Norns. It is not clear in the Poetic Edda what type of creature the Norns are, just that they are mystical and possess immense power. 

The Norns lived in Asgard, in a hall close to the source of their power. The Norns received their power from a well, aptly named the “Well of Fates,” or Urðarbrunnr, situated below the roots of the cosmic Ash tree. 

Odin’s Sacrifice 

In his quest to gain wisdom, Odin sought the Norns for the knowledge they held. These powerful beings were the protectors of the runes. Runes are symbols that make up the sacred ancient Germanic alphabet that hold the secrets and mysteries of the universe. In Skaldic poetry, runes hold the key to wielding magic. 

In the old Norse Poem, the fate of all beings is carved into the roots of Yggdrasil using the rune alphabet, by the Norns. Odin had watched this time and time again, becoming more and more envious of the power and knowledge the Norns possessed. 

The secrets of the runes were not as easily attained as the wisdom imparted by Mimir. The runes would only reveal themselves to one they deemed worthy. To prove himself worthy of the fearful universe-altering magic, Odin hung himself from the world tree for nine nights.   

Odin did not stop hanging himself from Yggdrasil. To impress the Norns, he impaled himself on a spear.  The ‘All-father’ starved for nine days and nine nights to gain the favor of the three keepers of the runes. 

After nine nights, the runes and by extension the Norns eventually revealed themselves to Odin.  rune stones that had been carved into the roots of the cosmic tree. The chief of the gods thus solidifies his role as the god of magic, or as a master magician. 

Odin and Valhalla

Odin presides over Valhalla, which translates to ‘hall of the slain.’ The hall is situated in Asgard and is the place where half of those who die in battle, known as the einherjar go when they die.  The einherjar lives in Valhalla, feasting in the hall of Odin until the apocalyptic event called Ragnarok. The fallen warriors would then follow Odin into the last battle. 

Valhalla was believed to be a land of constant conflict, where warriors could engage in battle in their afterlife. Half of the slain warriors who do not end up in the hall of Valhalla are sent to a meadow under the dominion of the fertility goddess Freyja.  

In the Viking Age, (793 to 1066 AD) it was generally believed that all warriors who died in battle would enter the hall of Odin.   

Odin and the Valkyrie 

As the god of battle, Odin had under his command an army of elite female warriors known as the Valkyrie. In the Poetic Edda, the fearsome Valkyrie are sent to the battlefield by Odin to decide who will live and who will die.  

Not only do the Valkyrie decide who will live or die in battle, they gather the slain warriors they deem worthy and deliver them to Valhalla. The Valkyries then serve the chosen mead in Valhalla.

Odin and Ragnarok

Odin’s role in mythology is to gather knowledge to stop the onset of the end of the world. This apocalyptic event, mentioned in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda in the poem Völuspá, is an event foretold to Odin and named Ragnarok. Ragnarok translates to the twilight of the gods. 

Ragnarok is the end and new beginning of the world, decided upon by the Norns. The twilight of the gods is a series of events that culminate in a mighty battle during which many of the gods of Asgard will die, Odin included.  During the Viking Age, Ragnarok was believed to be a prophecy that foretold the inevitable end of the world. 

The Beginning of the End 

In the myth, the end of days begins with a bitter, long winter. Mankind begins to starve and turn on each other. The sun and the moon are eaten by the wolves who chased them across the sky, extinguishing the light across the nine realms. 

The cosmic ash tree, Yggdrasil will quiver and shake, bringing all the trees and mountains throughout the realms crashing down. The monstrous wolf, Fenrir will be released onto the realms eating all those in his path. The fearsome earth-encircling sea serpent Jormungand will rise from the depths of the ocean, flooding the world in its wake and poisoning everything.

The sky will split, spewing fire giants into the world. Their leader will race across the Bifrost (the rainbow bridge that is the entrance to Asgard), at which point Heimdall will sound the alarm that Ragnarok is upon them. 

Odin, his warriors from Valhalla, and the Aesir gods to battle and decide to meet their enemies on the battlefield. Odin and the Einherjar engage Fenrir who swallows the all-powerful Odin. The remaining gods fall quickly after their leader. The world sinks into the sea, leaving nothing but the abyss behind. 

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