The Master of Mischief, Part III: The Many Faces of Odin

Spear Shaker, Wanderer, Feeble Eye, Grey Beard, War-Merry, All-Father―Odin had as many names as faces. He was the god of both war and poetry; he sought knowledge and wisdom but used devious or coercive means to acquire it; and, although he was the respected and powerful chieftain of the Aesir, he openly defied deeply rooted social norms for self-serving ends. What are we to make of such a being?

All in the Family

Recall that Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve, slaughtered their great-grandfather1 Ymir and constructed the worlds from his body. Odin’s first act of seizing power was the brutal murder of his own kin, which set the tone for the future relationship between the Aesir and the Jötnar, and for Odin’s relationships with other family members.

Although the three sons of Bur created the worlds together, it would appear that Odin was in charge. As stated in chapter three of Ynglinga Saga, Odin left his brothers to govern in his stead when he travelled,2 which it seems he did frequently. Then, when he disappeared for so long that everyone believed he was dead, Vili and Ve decided to divide his belongings3 between themselves and took Frigg as a shared wife. When Odin returned, he took back his wife and re-established his position as chieftain, but it’s not entirely clear what happened to Vili and Ve after that. They may have simply fled…or perhaps Odin drove them away or killed them. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

Whatever the case, Odin maintained his leadership of the Aesir and his sole dominion over the worlds. His mighty son Thor protected both the Aesir and the humans, in part by frequently touring Jötunheim and killing and taking whatever—or whomever—he pleased. He was honoured and admired in his own right, but his defense of the Aesir was really quite instrumental to his father. Nonetheless, in “Harbard’s Song”,  Odin saw fit to cause his revered son grief by disguising himself and mocking his strength and masculinity while refusing to ferry him across the river,4 hardly a fatherly act.

When Thor gave his powerful three-day-old son Magni the horse of the slain Jötun Hrungnir, Odin grumbled that Thor should have given it to his father rather than to the son of a giantess.5 Had the horse been an inheritance of sorts, this might have been reasonable [see footnote 3], but the horse was a reward for lifting Hrungnir’s massive leg off Thor (Hrungnir was, perhaps, an actual giant.), so it was sensible to reward Magni. Still, Odin’s wounded pride and sense of entitlement shone through, despite the fact that he stirred up this trouble in the first place by challenging Hrungnir to a race. According to Lindow, this myth highlights the rivalry between Odin and Thor.6

Clever but Callous

Among others things, Odin was a god of poetry, a position he shared with Bragi, and is credited with bringing the mead of poetry to the Aesir.

As part of the settlement of the Aesir-Vanir war,7 the two groups spat in a kettle and fashioned a man out of it. Kvasir, as he was called, was the wisest of beings and dispensed wisdom wherever he went but was killed by two devious dwarves, who mixed his blood with honey and fermented it into the mead of poetry. The mead was acquired by the Jötun Suttung, who hid it in a cave with his daughter, Gunnlöd. Odin disguises himself and causes the “accidental” deaths of nine slaves that belonged to Suttung’s brother, Baugi, then promises Baugi that he will do the work of all nine slaves in exchange for a drink of the mead. He fulfills his duties, but when Suttung won’t allow him any mead, he has Baugi drill into the mountain. At first Baugi only drills partway through, but Odin calls his bluff. When Baugi drills all the way through the rock, Odin turns into a snake, slips into the cave before Baugi can kill him, and spends three nights with Gunnlöd, who allows him three drinks of the mead. In three draughts, Odin consumes all the mead and flies back to Asgard as an eagle, regurgitating the mead into a barrel as he passes overhead. However, Suttung had pursued him with such speed that Odin urinated some out, and that became the mead that the bad poets consumed.8

In this case, the name Odin chose for himself was Bölverk, or “Evil-Deed”,9 so you know we’re already off to a good start. He caused the deaths of nine innocent slaves and then seduced Gunnlöd to get the mead. According to Snorri Sturluson, he seduced Gunnlöd to get what he wanted and then departed;10 in “Sayings of the High One” stanzas 104–109, the wording is a little more ambiguous, but it is very clear that Odin cruelly used Gunnlöd for his own purposes.

An Officer but Not a Gentleman

Odin’s mistreatment of women is a relatively common theme in the myths. Stanzas 97–101 of “Sayings of the High One” relay the story of “Billing’s girl” (presumably the wife or daughter of a Jötun), whom Odin finds “on the bed”. It appears that Odin had crept into her room. (Creepy much?) When she wakes up and sees him, she tells him to come back that night to get what he desires, but when he returns, he is barred by the warriors, who are awake and apparently waiting for him. He comes back again in the early hours of the morning when everyone is asleep and finds a dog tied to the woman’s bed. In her notes on the poem, Larrington suggests that the woman may have been trying to avoid Rind’s fate11.

Two versions of Rind’s story are extant. According to the tenth-century Icelandic skald Kormák Ögmundarson, Odin apparently used magic to bind or bewitch Rind,12 thus coercing her into having sex. Thirteenth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus provides a much more detailed version of the story in Book Three of Gesta Danorum. Here, Odin tried to trick Rinda, the Ruthenian princess, into accepting him by entering the service of her father three times, each time in a different disguise, including a soldier or military officer. Each time he was rebuffed—twice, physically. On the third incident, Rinda pushed him away hard enough to make him totter and fall; in response, he touched her with bark enchanted with runes to make her seem mad. Dressed as a woman, Odin went to the king and called himself a physician. Thus, he was allowed in to see Rinda and said that the cure was so noxious that she would need to be tied down to take it, and the king complied. Once she was bound, Odin raped her13 and the king did nothing to stop him.

You may think that this behaviour would not be abnormal for the Vikings—after all, the idea of the raping, pillaging Viking barbarian is still common. However, many Vikings lived in societies bound by strict laws and social norms. According the Icelandic law book Grágás, a man convicted of restraining a free woman to force himself on her could be sentenced to full outlawry; if he dressed in female garb to “beguile” a woman or kissed her without consent, he could be sentenced to lesser outlawry.14 If he was caught in the act of raping or lying next to a woman he intended to have “wrongful intercourse” with and the man who caught him had the right to kill on behalf of the woman, the transgressor could lawfully be killed by that man in that time and place.15 Although Grágás was recorded post-Viking Age, it is possible that these provisions were holdovers from the Icelander’s pagan roots as they accord well with the behaviours and laws described in other Viking Age materials.

On the other hand, raping, pillaging, and murdering people of other societies was not considered blameworthy, and may even have earned the perpetrators respect and money. Viking raiders were ruthless to those they attacked and commonly enslaved women, who were either sold for profit or kept as slaves or concubines. Whether Odin can be classed as a criminal or a conqueror depends on how you interpret the relationship between the Jötun and the Aesir. If you consider the two peoples to be members of distinct societies, then it’s hard to imagine that the Vikings would have batted an eye at this behaviour; indeed, they may have praised Odin’s power and domination. However, if you look at the two groups as being different strata in a single society, then Odin is a rapist and a criminal, even by Viking standards. Not that this would have diminished his power in any way. His Machiavellian tendency to use even shameful means to get what he wants (cross-dressing, deceit) ought to have lowered his status among the Aesir in the mythology and among the Vikings in real life. The fact that he was revered despite this behaviour is a testament to his authority, demonstrating that he could do as he pleases and still command love and loyalty because of the power he holds.

Saxo, too, emphasizes the shamefulness of Odin’s behaviour and the fact that the king allows it to go on after he catches Odin in the act, but this may be an effort to denounce the old gods and way of life for the benefit of his Christian audience. Additionally, the Gesta Danorum is a “history” of the Danish people, who had their own laws and social norms, while Grágás is the Icelandic law book, and both texts were committed to paper after the Viking age. Nonetheless, there is some reason to believe that the laws of Grágás or similar laws were in use in parts of Norway, which had strong trading ties to Denmark, and the mythological aspects of both versions of this story others arose from similar cultural roots.

Knowledge and Power

Maintaining status and power was always Odin’s primary goal, and often he did this by seeking information, sometimes by unsavoury means, or by humbling others with his already impressive knowledge.

 In “Vafthrudnismal” (“Vafthrudnir’s Sayings”), Odin deliberately seeks out Vafthrudnir despite Frigg’s concerns that Vafthrudnir is the most powerful Jötun she knows of. Odin goes to Jötunheim in disguise (because of course he does) and challenges Vafthrudnir to a contest of knowledge in which competitors test each other with questions to which the questioner already knows the answer. According to Larrington, some scholars believe that Odin’s purpose was to confirm his own fate, for as soon as Vafthrudnir says that Odin will be killed by Fenrir and avenged by Vidar, Odin rapidly ends the contest by asking a question only he could possibly know the answer to.16 (Sound like any tricksy hobbitses we know, Precious?)

 In addition to running around harassing seeresses and facing off with Jötnar, Odin speared himself to Yggdrasil for nine days and learned the runes and their magical uses, plucked out his own eye to gain wisdom from the Well of Mimir, and shamed himself by using the feminine witchcraft of seidr to obtain knowledge. Odin’s two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (“Thought” and “Memory”) brought information to him each day. For one who is supposed to know so much, Odin spends an awful lot of time acquiring or confirming his knowledge. While this is a praiseworthy activity in itself, there is little doubt that his primary goal is to maintain his position and power, and this compels him to strive against the inevitable, including the destruction of the Nine Worlds.

 The general consensus is that Loki and Odin were blood brothers, and Lindow indicates that this was most likely a way to bring the wily Jötun onside to prevent Ragnarök. So, right from the beginning, their relationship is based on a power imbalance, as Odin brings Loki to Asgard as a means of serving his own purposes. In one myth, he directs Loki to steal the Brisingamen (aka the Brisings necklace) from Freyja. In the myth concerning the wall around Asgard, Loki was blamed for the builder demanding the sun, moon, and hand of Freyja as repayment; the Aesir demanded that Loki interfere so that the builder would lose the wager. Loki turns into a mare to lure the builder’s horse away and gifts the product of this seduction, the eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, to Odin.17

In both of these cases, Loki was expected to serve the desires of Odin and the Aesir; in neither case, is he rectifying a situation that he created in the first place (although he does plenty of that, too). Indeed, in the story of the wall of Asgard, the Aesir behave in bad faith by demanding that the builder finish his work in an unreasonably short period of time and then by forcing Loki to break the deal for them.

Loki’s status among the Aesir is as complex as his character. Next, we’ll take a peek behind the mask of the master troublemaker himself.

The Series:

  1. Their mother, Bestla, is counted as a Jötun and her father was Bölthor (or Bölthorn). If Ymir is in fact the sole progenitor of the Jötnar, then great-grandfather is his closest possible relationship to Bestla’s children. 
  2. Finlay, Alison and Anthony Faulkes. “Ynglinga Saga” in Heimskringla Volume I: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason. Viking Society for Northern Research, printed by Short Run Press Limited, Exeter [2011]. 
  3. In the Viking age, a man’s brothers were the third in line to inherit property or to exact revenge for a wrong done to him. Typically, the man’s father was first, followed by the man’s son. See the simplified chart in The Sagas of Icelanders. [Thorsson, Örnólfur, ed. and Bernard Scudder, assistant ed. The Sagas of Icelanders. Penguin Books, Toronto [2001], p. xli.] 
  4. Larrington, Carolyne, transl. “Harbard’s Song” in The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York [2014]. 
  5. Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. transl. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. Oxford University Press, New York [1916],  p. 115-8. 
  6. Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto [2001], p. 186. 
  7. The Vanir were another set of gods who were often associated with fertility and prosperity, while the Aesir were associated with war and victory. There is very little information about what sparked this war, but it’s clear they were evenly matched, so a truce was reached. In addition to creating Kvasir, the groups exchanged “hostages” as a sign of good faith, and Njörd and his twin children, Freyr and Freyja, were sent to the Aesir. 
  8. Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto [2001], p. 225. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. transl. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. Oxford University Press, New York [1916],  p. 95. 
  11. Larrington, Carolyne, transl. “Sayings of the High One” in The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York [2014], pp. 25-6, 286. 
  12. Lindow gently implies that the stanza in question may not have been part of the original poem by skald Kormák Ögmundarson, but does not give any specific reasons for doubting its authenticity. [Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto [2001], p. 262.] 
  13. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum. ed. Olrik, J and Raeder. Copenhagen [1931], http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1150/1150-h/1150-h.htm 
  14. Wolf, Kirsten, ed. Laws of early Iceland, Grágás II. transl. Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. The University of Manitoba Press, Manitoba [2000], p. 69. 
  15. Bessason, Haraldur and Robert J. Glendinning, ed. Laws of early Iceland, Grágás I. transl. Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. The University of Manitoba Press, Manitoba [2006], p. 154. 
  16. Larrington, Carolyne, transl. “Vafthrudnir’s Sayings” in The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York [2014], pp. 36–46. 
  17. Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. transl. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. Oxford University Press, New York [1916], pp. 53-6. 

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