Oldest Odin inscription identified

The inscription appears next to the image of a man – possibly a king or warlord named Jaga or Jagaz – on an early 5th-century bracteate

Ongoing study of a gold hoard discovered in Denmark in 2020 has identified the oldest inscription featuring the Norse god Odin, pushing back the earliest known reference some 150 years.

The runic inscription has been interpreted as ‘He is Odin’s man’ by Lisbeth Imer, at the National Museum of Denmark, and linguist Krister Vasshus. It appears next to the image of a man – possibly a king or warlord named Jaga or Jagaz – on an early 5th-century bracteate (a thin gold disc) from the hoard, and thus seems to be giving the figure divine approval. A similar figure appears on many bracteates; these too might be rulers.

The runic inscription reading ‘He is Odin’s man’ on this 5th-century bracteate is the oldest to name the Norse god. IMAGE: Arnold Mikkelsen, The National Museum of Denmark

Until this analysis, the previous oldest known inscription naming Odin was on a brooch from the second half of the 6th century, found in Nordendorf, Germany.

Imer said, ‘The runic inscription was the most difficult I have ever had to interpret in all my years as a runologist at the National Museum of Denmark. But the discovery is also absolutely amazing! It is the first time in the history of the world that Odin’s name was mentioned. This means that Norse mythology can now be dated all the way back to the early 5th century.’

The text was worn and runes barely visible in some key places. The inscription was unusually long too, as Vasshus said, ‘Generally, we find short runic inscriptions with fairly comprehensible content, but this time the text is long and consists almost entirely of new words.’

The object is just one of several bracteates discovered along with Roman gold medallions at Vindelev, 8km from the Viking site of Jelling. The hoard is thought to have been buried in the mid-6th century AD.

It had been suggested that the inscription on another bracteate in the hoard might refer to the ‘The High One’, an epithet of Odin. Imer and Vasshus have studied this inscription too, interpreting it as ‘The Beloved’. Both a person and a horse appear in the centre of this bracteate, so the label could apply to either.

As well as providing early evidence for the honouring of Odin, understanding the inscription can shed light on further texts. Vasshus said, ‘In itself, the interpretation is quite a major achievement, which will help us understand other runic inscriptions – on other bracteates, for instance.’

The Vindelev Hoard is on view at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, until 4 February 2024 as part of the exhibition The Hunt for Denmark’s Past (for more details on the museum, visit https://natmus.dk/museer-og-slotte/nationalmuseet/udstillinger/jagten-paa-danmarkshistorien/).