16 December: Odin

Odin is, deep down, a trickster. That's probably why he keeps Loki around.
Odin is, deep down, a trickster. That’s probably why he keeps Loki around.

Name: Odin, The Allfather. Woden, Wotan and similar variations. Also, more than 200 other names. Seriously, take a look at this list of his many different names!

Tagline: The ruler of Asgard, he sits in his tower in Valhalla, his keep, from whence he watches the world and lays plans for defeating the Giants of Jotunheim.

Claim to fame: Though he’s not quite as famous as some of his subordinate gods, like Thor, Loki and Freya, Odin is the chief of all the Norse gods. He is also one of the creators of mankind, and a powerful god of magic and wisdom.

These days, Marvel’s versions of Thor and Loki are all the rage. And so I considered using either of those for my calendar. But in the end, I decided that both are pretty well known, and I have a fair number of tricksters on here anyway. I could have done Freya (did you know that half of all vikings who died in battle went to Freya?), but there’s not that many stories about her. Or Balder, the light god – but honestly, he’s a bit of a goody two shoes, and a bit dull, when it all comes down to it.

Odin, on the other hand, is in many ways an interesting character. He’s a leader, but definitely also a trickster. He likes women, but he’s not nearly the lecher that someone like Zeus is. On the other hand, he seems to have a hunger for knowledge.

He was born as one of the very first of the gods. His grandfather, Buri, was licked out of ice by the cow, Audhumbla. Buri then had a son Bor, who married Bestla, who was the daughter of a giant. Bor and Bestla then had three sons: Odin, Vili and Ve.

(By the way, if you want an overview of the Norse gods, check out this family tree).

The three brothers then set to work, creating the world. They killed the primordial giant, Ymir, and fashioned the world from different parts of him. Then they created Ask and Embla, the first two humans, from a couple of tree trunks, and put them in Midgard to live.

Odin is not only the creator of the world, and of the humans. He also fathered several of the other Aesir, including Thor, Baldr and Bragi the poet god, with several different women.

There are a great many interesting stories to tell about Odin. Many revolve around his quest for knowledge or power. He famously gave his eye to drink out of Mimir’s Well, which would give him wisdom. Mimir was later sent to live among the Vanir, and while there, he was beheaded. Luckily, Odin came upon the head, and embalmed it with magic, so that Odin could keep Mimir for when Odin needed advice. In another story, Odin hung upside down in the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days, not eating or drinking anything, to gain the secret of magic runes.

His home was Valhalla. When the Valkyries brought back warriors who had died in battle, he would receive half, while Freya received the other half. Odin himself would sit upon his seat, Hlidskjalf, from where he could see out over all the worlds. He would be accompanied by his two wolves, Geri and Freki, and his two ravens, Hugin (”Thought”) and Munin (”Desire”). The ravens would fly out into the worlds, then come back to tell their master what they had learned.

Odin had many special powers, including the power to change shape, and a great knack for disguise. He used both to acquire the Poet’s Mead. The mead was kept by the giant, Suttung. So Odin disguised himself as a farmhand, and gained the employ from Suttung’s brother, in return for his help gaining to taste Suttung’s mead.

The mead was kept in a chamber, alongside Suttung’s daughter, Gunnlod. When he gained access to the place where Gunnlod was kept, he transformed into a beautiful young man, and made a deal with Gunnlod that in return for three nights, he would gain three gulps of the mead. So when he was presented with the mead, which was kept in three containers, he downed it all down in three gulps. Then he transformed into an eagle, and swooped off towards Asgard. But Suttung discovered the ploy, and flew after him.

In Asgard, the gods set out a cauldron for Odin to regurgitate the mead into. But because he was in such a hurry, he spilled some of it into Midgard. Now, all bad or mediocre poets have received some of the spilled mead, while the great poets have been given a draught of the mead from Odin himself.

The character of Odin may have had a lot of influence on certain later characters. Some speculate that Odin influenced the character of Father Christmas. Odin is associated with the viking feast of yule, which is still the Danish term for Christmas. And the Danish theologian, politician and poet, Grundtvig, drew parallels between Odin and Christ, using the phras “High Odin! White Christ, / erased is their feud / both sons of the Allfather.” He later speculated that the different mythologies, like the Olympian gods in Greece and the Norse gods in Scandinavia, had paved the way for Christianity, and had coloured the way Christianity was practised in the different areas. Making this interpretation slightly suspect in the case of the Norse gods is the fact that most written sources to the Norse gods were created by Christian writers, which is sure to have coloured their view of the Norse gods.

Odin as the Alfather, King of the Gods. Notice the Roman shield and spear, and the ridiculous winged helmet.

How I would use him: Odin is great for many things. As a personified deity, he is very human, even more so than the Greek gods. At the same time, he is a mystic, making him not always entirely straightforward.

And Odin really is not straightforward. He is both a king and a trickster. You might think of Loki as the great trickster of the Norse mythology. But really, everybody always expects Loki to be making mischief, while Odin is a lot more insidious and subtle with his plots. There’s a reason Neil Gaiman used Odin as one of the main characters in his book, American Gods (which makes great use of him, by the way).

He’s also a great proto-wizard. With his beard and his cloak, one eye in his head, dressed in a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, he fits right in with the stereotype of a wizard. He even has his own tower! You could certainly get the idea that the filologist Tolkien had thought of Odin when he created the character of Gandalf.* But where many wizards from fiction are distant and removed from the world, Odin is in many ways a man of the world. He drinks, he makes love, he squabbles and thinks up schemes. Also, he is a king, a father, and a warrior. You could do worse than to base your great wizard on Odin.

The Norse gods as a group would provide a great blueprint for a dynamic set of characters. I can’t help but imagine a family of mobsters: Thor as the muscle, Thyr the careful strategist, Loki the shifty double crosser – and Odin as the Godfather, able to be both the regal leader and the dirty crook, as times demand it.

* Tolkien took the name Gandalf, as well as all but one of the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit from the Catalogue of Dwarves in the Völuspa. It is composed of the words Gand – “magic wand” – and alf – “elf” or “spirit”. The Gandalf of the Eddas is apparently a protector spirit. According to the Wikipedia page on Gandalf, Tolkien initially attached the name to the character who would later become Thorin Oakenshield, but reassigned the name to the wizard.

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