Saturday 18 January 2020

Gods of the Past

Jacob Charnley
BA Philosophy and Religion
Odin the All-father, patriarchal figurehead of the Norse pantheon of the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Germanic people.
Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin, p. 7.

You may recognise him from his portrayal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) by Anthony Hopkins. He was a former warlord turned peaceful guardian of the Nine Realms, whose kingdom of Asgard is a scientific pinnacle. Odin is known as adoptive father to Loki, father to Thor and married to Frigg: a happy, God-like (as they aren’t gods in the MCU) nuclear family. But we all have secrets, and Odin is no exception. He banished his daughter Hela to the realm of Hel because he did such a good a job raising her to be a warmonger, like himself. Unlike him, however, she did not fancy a change of heart, and subsequently he covered up all knowledge of her existence.
However, peel away the comic book façade, and we start to see the true god of the Northern Europeans, the god whose name we still see today in Britain. His day of the week, Wednesday, (from Woden’s day, the Anglo-Saxon name for him), the town of Wednesbury which hosts an impressive statue of his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, and Neo-Pagan religious communities are all responsible for flagging and refreshing Odin for new generations (alongside the others in the pantheon).
Norse paganism, like many ethno-religious traditions in Europe, was traditionally recited orally down the generations. The stories we have today were compiled from various sources during the post-Christianisation of Europe, but we still get some fantastic tales. One such tale from the Poetic Edda involves Odin disguising himself as a ferryman named Harbarth, (keen fans of the TV series Vikings might recognise the reference to this in the character Harbard), who stands in the way of his son Thor’s journey home from Jotunheim (the realm of the giants) to Asgard, as he needs his boat to cross the river. They exchange a war of words, a popular form of story-telling for Norse Skalds (poets) of the time. Odin holds no punches, verbally that is, boasting his prowess in battle, magic and women, and then asking his son Thor for his achievements. Thor can only brag of killing giants at this point, claiming a fairer approach to women than his father. Still disguised as the ferryman, Odin curses him, and tells him to walk round the river.
But to be fair to Odin, he was not timid in his pursuit of wisdom. He is famous for trading one of his eyes for knowledge, but there is a more extreme tale of this pursuit. Runatal, or Odin’s Rune Song, a section of the larger poem Havamal, also from the Poetic Edda, details how far Odin was willing to push himself. To obtain runes of great magical knowledge, Odin makes the ultimate sacrifice, himself, to himself. Pierced by his own spear, he hangs himself on what is widely believed to be Yggdrasil, the tree of life. He hangs there for nine days and nine nights, not eating or drinking, until the runes are bestowed upon him, granting him just that little piece more of knowledge that he craved.
And finally, Odin’s fate, in the events of the Norse apocalypse, Ragnarok. In a battle with Fenrir the giant wolf, son of Loki - who had already taken the arm of Tyr, another of Odin’s sons - Odin will be defeated and devoured by him. His youngest son, Vidarr, will take vengeance, slaying Fenrir. Whether this prophecy is yet to happen, or already has, is yours to decide.
This has been a brief portrayal of Odin: arguably and contradictorily, both one of the best and least well-known gods of the past. The culture and heritage that can be found in these ancient religious traditions are invaluable and deserve to be talked about today.

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