Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Lord of frenzy

I'm sure most of you have heard of the Norse god Odin, at least from his appearance in the Marvel universe.  My first exposure to this bit of mythology came from my near-obsession with the book D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths, which I checked out from my elementary school library approximately 538 times.  This, in fact, is why to this day when I think of the trickster god Loki, I picture this:

And not this:

Be that as it may, the Norse pantheon is a fascinating bunch, and unusual amongst the gods of myth and legend in being mortal.  In fact, one of the most famous parts of the mythos is the tale of Ragnarök -- literally, "the doom of the gods" -- in which Loki unleashes chaos and destruction by causing the death of Baldr, the beloved god of light and joy.  The whole thing is described in brilliant detail in the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda of the thirteenth-century Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, to whom we owe much of what we know about the beliefs of pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Odin (or Wōden, as he was called in Saxon England; this form of his name is the origin of the word Wednesday), the "All-Father," was one of the principal figures in the Germanic pantheon.  His name comes from a reconstructed Proto-Germanic root *Wōðanaz, which means "lord of frenzy."  There are dozens of curious stories about him -- that he hanged himself from Yggdrasil, the "World Tree," in order to gain the knowledge of the runes and writing; that he created the first man and woman from an ash and a birch tree, respectively; that he gave one of his eyes in order to drink from the well of wisdom; and that he rode upon an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, that was the offspring of the stallion Svaðilfari and Loki, who had taken the form of a mare.

Odin on Sleipnir (from Den ældre Eddas Gudesange by Lorenz Frølich, 1895) [Image is in the Public Domain]

What I didn't know, though, was that the earliest actual attestation of Odin from any written record is comparatively recent.  A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link about a study of a gold disk from Denmark that contains the first certain reference to Odin, and I was surprised to see that it dates to only the fifth century C.E.  The disk is called the Vindelev bracteate -- it was found near the town of Vindelev, and a bracteate is a flat pendant.  It states, in runic lettering, "He is Odin's man," presumably referring to some unknown chieftain or leader.

Given the complexity of the legends surrounding Odin and the other Norse gods, presumably their worship goes a lot further back; but I honestly didn't realize how much less we have in the way of early attestations of the Norse pantheon as compared to (for example) the Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Indian, and Chinese assemblages of deities.  Just about everything we know comes from the eighth century and later, the point at which the Vikings kind of exploded out of Scandinavia and did their best to take over all of northern Europe.  They did a damn good job; not only was all of eastern England under Danish control for a time, so were the Hebrides and Orkneys, Normandy (the name itself means "northman-land"), and a good part of what is now western Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.  (Perhaps you know that the name Russia itself comes from the Rus, a group of Norse traders who ruled the entire region for a while, with their capital at Kyiv.)

So the dating of the Vindelev bracteate to the fifth century certainly doesn't mean that's when the worship of Odin began, only that this is the first certain example of anyone writing about it.  His influence on the beliefs of the pre-Christian Germanic world is immense.  As an Old English runic poem from the ninth century put it:
Wōden is the origin of all language
wisdom's foundation and wise man's comfort
and to every hero blessing and hope.

Perhaps the All-Father would not be upset that this is the way he's remembered, that his association with frenzy and battle was superseded by wisdom and hope, just as the people who once worshiped him settled down to become some of the most peaceful, progressive, and prosperous nations in the world. 


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