Odin: wisdom, war, and poetry

From the surviving texts pertaining to Norse mythology, such as the work of Icelandic poet and scholar Snorri Sturlusun (1179-1241), it seems the two gods most called upon by mortals are Odin (Old Norse Óðinn) and his son Thor (Þórr). Thor, after a fashion, remains popular today with a Marvel superhero based on the god featuring in several films (most recently Thor: Love and Thunder). While Odin (seen here with his wolves and ravens in an 1844 watercolour by Lorenz Frølich) may play second fiddle to Thor in these renditions, he is the leader of the Æsir, the main group of gods, and – through the Old English name Woden – gives us the English day of the week Wednesday.

Image: SMK, Denmark [CC0]

Odin is a war god, fomenting conflict to see who is worthy of entering his hall, Valhalla, and ultimately fighting at Ragnarök (the events, including a battle, at the end of the world). But he is also a god of magic and wisdom, something he is always seeking; he sacrificed an eye in Mímir’s Well to learn about the future and hanged himself on Yggdrasil, the world tree, to acquire knowledge of runes.

Among his many exploits, Odin obtained the mead of poetry, which endows those who drink the special liquid regurgitated by the god with the ability to compose verses. So, as well as being a patron of kings and worshipped by the elite (in one poem, Odin remarks that the nobles are his concern, and Thor has the thralls), he is also associated with poets.

This special mead came from the blood of the wisest of all beings, Kvasir, which had been fermented with honey by the two dwarfs who killed him. After they kill the giant Gillingr, Gillingr’s brother Suttungr seeks vengeance, threatening to leave the pair on a tiny islet to drown. In exchange for their lives, they give Suttungr their mead, which he stores away in three vats.

Through disguises, trickery, and killing, Odin gains access to the mountain where the mead is stored. He seduces Gunnlod (Suttungr’s daughter, who is guarding the mead), spending three nights with her, and then is granted three drinks of the mead. With a super-human ability to imbibe, with each of his three permitted drinks he drains one of the three vats. He then flees, transformed into an eagle. Carolyne Larrington writes: ‘Suttungr, perceiving himself robbed, pursues him also in eagle form. The Æsir prepare vats to catch the mead which Óðinn regurgitates once he is safely withing the walls of Ásgarðr, but he excretes some of the mead backwards into Suttungr’s face in order to delay him. That mead falls outside the halls of the gods, and anyone can consume it; it is now said to be the inspiration of bad poets everywhere.’

Further reading
The Norse Myths: a guide to the gods and heroes by Carolyne Larrington is published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0500251966, price £14.99).