There is a throne in Valaskjalf, the Shelf of the Slain, which rises like a watch-tower above the mists encircling the nine worlds below. Seated there, Odin broods, his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, perched on his pensive shoulders. Every morning they fly off around the collective worlds and every evening they alight once more upon their godly seat and ^whisper into his ears every scrap of news which they see or hear tell of". From them and from his own omniscience he sees all and knows all that transpires in Asgard, Midgard or Niflheim. All is like the light of day to him, but darkness lies around his pavilion, darkness reflected in the wings of his minions. He is a mystery receding before comprehension, like a towering force of old times whose shadow still sends a ripple down the spine and casts a long mark upon the world. Sired by Borr, son of Bori, whose existence was licked forth from the salty ice by Audhumla, Odin came into being accompanied by two brothers: Vili and Vé Together their names marked the manifestations of conscious Spirit, Will and Holiness, but upon their birth the latter two and their respective characteristics were assimilated into the person of Odin. In the great sagas and myths, Vili and Vé soon disappeared.
At this point in the cosmogonical scheme, the powers of the Ases (Dhyanis) were not yet evolved. Darkness reigned in space and Yggdrasill had not yet come into being. There was no Valhalla or Hel. The Alfader, who had overbrooded the germ in Ginnungagap while dwelling alone in darkness, now retreated as the stage was set for the next phase of evolution heralding the beginning of time. Like Zeus, who was fathered by Kronos, and Brahma, who was fathered by Kala (a name for Vishnu), Odin too was born from time and brought it into manifestation in his being and in the begetting of subsequent gods. At first, the three sons of Borr combined their strength and "lifted up the level land to create Midgard the Mighty" in the midst of the void. Acting together as creator, they created the worlds wherein the multiplying gods, giants and dwarfs took their abode. They also created the being who, above all others, would aspire to their greatness – man.
It is said that, just as the Ases shaped the world according to the divine plan, so too they shaped man and woman out of two ask (ash) trees. But they could only create their forms. They could not give to them that which would make them distinctly human. Only Odin could endow them with breath, life and spirit, Vili with manas and Vé with blood and bones. As Vili and Vé were assimilated into Odin, he alone became identified as the fountain-head for all these human traits, the creator of worlds and men.
The most ancient traces of Odin suggest that he came from the southeast as a psychopompic deity who, like Osiris and Hermes-Mercury, led the souls of the dead into the afterlife. As his fame and influence spread northward among the Germanic people, he gathered to himself the force and ferocity of a wilder and less hospitable clime, becoming associated increasingly with war and heroic pledges. He also ascended the lofty throne of a high god and began to be referred to as Alfader, in place of that invisible Deity which had receded in the imagination of tribes more occupied with ideas linked to direct bodily activity. About the time of Christ, he assumed the attributes of the Sky Father (Tiwaz, related to the Indo-European Djevs or Dyaus). He became thought of as the oldest of the gods, the Supreme Father who has his way in all things.
But the old association of Odin with the dead persisted and became linked with the wild and unpredictable storms of the North, during which great hordes of the disembodied were believed to howl and moan as they followed him through the night sky. His name as Wodan comes from an old Germanic root meaning 'furious', 'wild' and 'mad', appropriate epithets for the leader of a wild pack of huntsmen driven by the wind, shouting and hallooing after a wild boar never seen. And Odin was the Wild Huntsman (woensjager) who took up the souls of those dying with their very last breath. Knowing that life could not preserve them against his will, the living quailed beneath his cloud-driven presence, dreading the possibility that he might call out their own name. He rode like a dark-edged cloud, his regiments welling up behind him in ominous banks of scuttling strata, swirling out and threatening to dip down and snatch one at any moment. His broad-brimmed hat unmistakably marked him, and his great dark cloak swirled and eddied around him in the roaring wind.
So powerful was this image and so deeply was it stamped upon the psyche of the Nordic peoples that it persisted long after the old religion had been disavowed. The idea continued to crop up, with actual sightings of the wild huntsmen recorded throughout the Middle Ages. In the New World it endured in legend and song even as recently as the 1950s, when it was expressed in one of the most popular Western ballads ever recorded, "The Ghost Riders in the Sky":
Of course, the red-eyed herd was attended by a wild band of disembodied cowboys, doomed to ride forever "on that plain up in the sky". The enormous popularity of the song, dealing as it did with a theme so far removed from the usual 'June, moon, swoon' motif, indicates the power of the old pagan idea and how deeply such things are imprinted upon the astral matrix shared by a people. That it would be imagined as the inspired vision of a cowboy making his lonely ride centuries later and half-way around the world from the lands of battle-hardened Vikings and triumphant Valkyries is an impressive testimony to this. The old Norse believed that Odin led souls of his own choosing, incorporating them into his wuotusher as he moved through the darkened heavens.
In this guise he resembled other Indo-European storm gods acting (like Vayu) as intermediaries between heaven and earth. But the deliberate attempts of Christian Fathers to make demons of the old gods succeeded in skewing the myth, identifying the souls as homeless dead, products of suicides or those who died before being baptized. Odin himself was painted in darker and more furious tones, frightened people being advised to lie down at a crossroads or at any other sign of the cross when he passed (the crossroads, ironically, having been borrowed from the pre-Christian association of the road with the journey made by the soul under the leadership of Odin).
The Germanic Wuotan is etymologically connected with Wuth, which generally is taken to mean 'rage' or 'wrath'. But another meaning, coming from the Old Germanic Watan, meant 'to penetrate' or 'force one's way through all opposition'. Wuotan (Wodan or Odin) can therefore be translated as the 'All-penetrating, All-conquering Spirit of Nature'. This characterization is strengthened by the importance of the role played by Odin's spear in many myths. Its name was Gungnir and it was fashioned by the dwarfs Brokkr and Sindri, who were masters of their craft. Once buried, it never ceased in its thrust. It is said of Odin that "he hurled his spear on the host, and war then first came into the world". It was the beginning of war without end and it was the instrument of penetration which opened up the awareness of good and evil.
With his spear, Odin brought the Golden Age of the gods to an end, but he also sowed the seed of knowledge in the minds of gods, giants and men, all the actors in the great drama to be. He carried his spear in the first war (in heaven) and at the last battle of the Ragnarok. It was one of his chief attributes, along with his broad-brimmed hat or golden-winged helmet and enormous deep-blue mantle. In the Eddie myths of the battlefield he showed himself as Sigfader (Father of Victory), his gold helmet shining and his mantle gleaming with stars. But as Gangleri (the Way Weary) he endlessly wandered, wearing his broad hat pulled low over his brow, his cloak wrapped around his immensely tall form. Snorri recorded of him that when he was sitting in Asgard "among his friends, his countenance was so beautiful and dignified that the spirits of all were exhilarated by it; but when he was in war he appeared dreadful to all his foes"
The Golden Age, during which the gods and giants had lived together in harmony, was abruptly ended when the Vanirs insinuated Gullveig into Asgard. Bewitching the gods with 'gold-madnesses' (which is the meaning of her name), she was also responsible for the abduction of Odin's consort Frigg, who was stolen away by one of the Frost Giants. Thus, the war between the Aesirs and Vanirs began, the War in Heaven which resulted in the containment of the giants (echoing the plight of the Greek Titans and the Hindu Asuras) and the incorporation of the Vanirs into the pantheon. Neither side won with any finality, and hostages were exchanged to mark the draw. But it was the war to begin all wars, which Odin would oversee.
Amalgamating the traits of the storm god and psychopomp with the high god, Odin also came to possess a full spectrum of other complex and often contradictory traits. He was a lofty and noble god, but he was also accused of treachery and of starting many wars. He was said to set kings warring and was repeatedly accused of favouritism. When he wished, he took part in the fight in order to help his favourites win, and the inscrutable nature of his actions reduced men to a sense of fear and supplication for his assistance. But he also instructed warriors. When Hadding was passing Norway with his fleet, an old man on shore signed him with his long cloak to pull his ships to land. In spite of opposition, Hadding did so and took the old man aboard. To his gratification and future glory, he was taught by the stranger how to order his army in a wedge formation. Others too, so the legends go, were instructed by this gaunt, one-eyed old man whose great height was cloaked by a hairy mantle.
Odin is Valfader because he makes of those slain in battle his adopted sons and billets them in Valhalla and Vingolf, where they are called Einherjar (Champions). Because he desired to fill Valhalla with his favourite warriors, he would often bring about their death in battle, even at the moment of victory – lending credence to those who accused him of having no regard for justice or fair play. But most warriors firmly believed that the greatest were thus chosen and they entered the fray with considerable indifference to their own safety. Such devotees were wild in their enthusiasm, yelling out to their hapless enemies that they would be given, every one of them, to Odin. If they died bravely, they were assured of a place in Odin's ranks, but if they vanquished the enemy, they would sacrifice them forthwith, sending them and all their wealth to Valfader, showing no interest in the booty of war. Odin remained aloof from this. Though having favourites and even encouraging war, he was not the embodiment of martial ecstasy. Rather, he dispensed it, often in devious or deceptive ways. He was a magician rather than a champion, one who orchestrated the conflict.
A true warrior of Odin was infused with martial ecstasy, which might take the form of appearing as berserkr ('bear-shirted') or ulfhednar ('wolf-skinned'), inspired by an irresistible homicidal mania that could cause havoc among friend or foe. Such warriors bit the rims of their shields, gulped hot coals and ran through fire. They were as strong as bears and as savage as wolves and might even bite their enemy to death. They roamed everywhere as Odin's ravens of death, caring nothing for comfort or wealth, living only to fight the brave fight. The Roman historian Tacitus described those he saw when he visited his country's troops in the Rhineland: "They are always in the van, and present a startling sight; even in peace they decline to soften the savagery of their expression. None of them has home, land or business of his own. To whatever host they choose to go, they get their keep from him, wasting the goods of others while despising their own, until old age drains their blood and incapacitates them for so exacting a form of heroism." The intensity of their self-abandonment, the pitiless sacrifice of foes in battle, and the complete disinterest in keeping booty for themselves, instead sacrificing it (destroying it) for their god, testify to the enormous sway Odin once held over men's minds.
He was worshipped mostly by professional warriors and aristocrats, from the ranks of whom chiefs and kings arose. As such, he was bound to be the dominating god and must have seemed to live up to his name, Ygg ('terrible'), to many who were farmers or artisans. Even the World Tree, Yggdrasill, meaning 'Ygg's horse', bore his name. His fearful demands of loyalty and life were firmly associated with the cosmic and the individual tree of man (the ash), and it was an archaic practice to sacrifice a man by hanging him from this tree (as it grew in the world), placing the noose over his neck and seating him on a horse under its boughs. This "steed ridden by the hanged" is another powerfully imprinted idea which, like the ghost riders, found its way into the American West. Memories of the terrifying as well as the sublime are long-lived, and one can imagine the hapless horse thief about to give up his vital spark in another life, on another horse under the gallows tree, guaranteed, by the cyclic nature of that tree, a speedy return.
To those turning towards the new religion of Christianity, Odin represented the warrior-outlaw on the fringes of society, who is tricky and demonic, unpredictable and amoral. They emphasized many traits (omitting others) which are strongly reminiscent of Rudra-Shiva in the Vedic tradition. Both Odin and Rudra-Shiva could be destructive, demanding of sacrifice, and morally ambivalent. Both possessed arcane magical knowledge as well as sworn bands of votaries, who rush along, wandering with them in the heavens, howling (like the Rudras) in a no man's land between civilization and chaos. This is frightening to minds focussed upon upholding worldly order and especially to those involved in the rationalizations of organized religion. The power of the old faith did not collapse overnight, however. The fact that Saxons in eighth century England were forced to renounce Odin (Wodan) at baptism indicates the tenacity of his worship. The old faith had been a mystical one.
Individuals were expected to pursue the hero's path themselves, seeking for wisdom in a heroic manner suggested by the fierce trials of Odin himself. The codes they followed in life were based on magical sayings passed down through the exemplary stories of gods and champions. Nothing could be taken for granted. Everything had to be won. Even Odin had to pledge his eye to obtain the wisdom of the Jötun giant Mimir. Sitting at the feet of the thrice-wise Jötun, beside the well of wisdom, he gave up his eye that it might rest there in the primordial waters, like the sun floating in the sea of life. Looking back at himself through this eye, he experienced self-conscious knowledge. He could look simultaneously through the eye of eternity and the eye of time, the single eye remaining in his head being oddly reminiscent of the third orb of Rudra-Shiva.
To learn the runes of wisdom, Odin pierced himself with his own spear and hung upon Yggdrasill's boughs for nine long nights.
Nothing was given, nothing was taken for granted. Everything was hard won – even by the highest god. This was the bedrock upon which the great sagas were built, and it was the unspoken assumption comprising the warp and woof of everyday life among the followers of Odin. The celebration of these trials inspired the skalds to heights of poetry – and this is not surprising, as Odin himself was a master of the arts. One of his many names was Galdrsfader ('father of magic') and he could raise the dead, if he wished, in order to garner their knowledge on a particular subject. From the Volva (seeresses) he learnt charms and used them while moving in disguise among men. He could cure with magic runes and use songs to protect, heal and blunt the enemy's weapons. He could return black magic to its sender, remove hatred and instil love.
He embalmed the head of Mimir (after the Vanirs had decapitated the giant) and spoke runes over it so that it could continue to impart wisdom to him when he wished it. He was also Fjolnir ('many-shaped'), able to change his form at will, assuming any guise he might wish on his journeying. As Vidforull ('the far traveller') he slipped from one shape to another depending upon the complexity of circumstances and realms into which he penetrated. It might be said that the greatest art he acquired was that of poetry, and his means of acquisition involved disguise as well as much cunning exercised by him in the realm of the giants.
When the Aesirs and Vanirs made peace after the War in Heaven, they sealed the pact by spitting into a vat. Afterwards, the Aesirs saved their powerful brew and created Kvasir, a being so wise that no question ever found him lacking an answer. He roamed about the three worlds instructing all until he was treacherously killed by the dwarfs Fjalarr and Galarr, who drained his blood into two vats and a cauldron named Son, Bodn and Odrerir. They mixed honey with his blood to produce "that mead by virtue of which any man who drinks becomes a poet or scholar". The skulduggery of the dwarfs finally got them into serious trouble, and they were forced to ransom off the precious brew to the giant Suttungr, who concealed it near his home in a place called Hnitbjorg (Lock Rock) and set his daughter Gunnlöd to watch over it.
Odin, by shrewd action and stealth, came into possession of the knowledge of this hiding place. Boring a hole through Hnitbjorg, he changed himself into a serpent and slithered inside. Finding Gunnlöd there, he stayed with her for three nights, after which she gave him permission to take three drinks of the mead. In the first draught he drank every drop out of Odrerir, and in the second and third he emptied the two vats. Then, before the giantess and her kind could collect their wits, he took the shape of an eagle and flew rapidly back to Asgard, where he managed to deposit the precious liquid in waiting containers.
The poet's mead is a wonderfully wrought mythic echo of the soma juice sought after by men and gods in the Hindu tradition. Here a great trial of skill and daring is required of the god to obtain it, and only the rare human is blest with its gift. Flowing from the intonation of the Word at the beginning of creation, it passes as a golden stream of speech, to be possessed and uttered only by the true poets and seers of any age. The runes of magic Odin won upon the World Tree were all expressed in verse form, and it was said of him that "all his craft he taught to others by runes". In the Ynglinga Saga Snorri wrote: "In measures did he speak all things, even such as skald-craft now uses." All poetic inspiration and visionary ecstasy was seen as a gift from him, coming through his trials upon the tree and from the soma-mead which he had preserved. For man this gift has always been a great treasure. The lucidity of speech it confers is born of a spiritual clarity of perception which cuts through and penetrates the central mysteries of life.
For Odin this insight bore a heavy responsibility, revealing, as it did, the ultimate doom of the gods and the destruction of the world. He was in a grave bind, for he saw the coming cosmic crisis and his whole nature necessarily strove to find ways to preserve the world which is his creation. From this time forward he used increasingly subtle and secretive ways to stave off the crisis (a self-imposed dilemma reflected in the methods used by modern political leaders who know more about what is going on than the masses and use this as a justification for resorting to devious devices in handling problems). Odin collected more and more champions at Valhalla, preparing them for the last great battle; he chained Loki and Fenrir, cast Hel into Niflheim and threw the World Serpent into the surrounding sea. Everything his wit and shrewdness enabled him to do to preserve the world he did, though the Norns could have told him that the end would be inevitable.
In his broad-brimmed hat, carrying his spear and wrapped in his long cloak, Odin did indeed resemble Hermes-Mercury leading a host of souls. Under Christian influence this host was identified as the legion of suicides or the unbaptized, but if one takes this as an inversion and stands it on its head, one can see that the souls were 'chosen' by Odin because they were heroes. They had been willing to prepare to fight the great battle on behalf of the forces of spirit, will and manas against the hordes of destruction and chaos. Odin's day was Wednesday, the day of Mercury and Buddha. The name Wednesday comes from the Old Saxon Wodanesdag (Odin's day), which marked a special day of sacrifice. In linking this to Buddha, H.P. Blavatsky said that Odin was one of the earliest Buddhas, who actually lived on earth at a time when Norway, Iceland, Greenland and arctic Canada were all connected by land. This Odin would, like the Buddhas themselves, be a reflection in the world of an archetypal creator deity connected especially with the Fourth Round and, ultimately, with the Logos overbrooding the mahamanvantara. The fact that in the myths Odin and Frigg are both sometimes referred to as Fjorgyn, and that during his shape-changing Odin would often assume the guise of the opposite sex or of an androgyne, suggests that he is, in essence, an androgynous being similar to Brahma Vach or Adam Kadmon.
His complex role as both warrior god and master poet also supports the idea that he blended in one deity the masculine and feminine principles which would separate and interact endlessly in the created world. Thus, he was and is (for, after all, the Ragnarok has not yet occurred) both Kshatriya and Brahmin, warrior and wise man, king and poet. He combines all the courage and derring-do with all the arts of perception and speech – a wonderfully conceived union of practice and theory. Like Hermes, he epitomizes the power of the spoken Word, the Logos-Spermatikos which fructifies the universe, the Winner of the Runes whose knowledge bears fruit. He is the god of the roads (to whom the crossroads are sacred), marking the turning into the soul's own path. He is the heroic manas, the intellectual energy which fights its way to the truth no matter what the odds. He is the alchemist, the shape-changer who defies the logic of forms and exercises deviousness on behalf of a greater truth, and he possesses (like Mercury) an unlimited aptitude for penetration, the omnipresent fertilization of the Logoic Word.
His arena of effects is the world and the world lurches along, since that long-ago loss of the Golden Age, from one war to another. Thus, it is appropriate that Odin is much involved in the affairs of war as a means of preparation for the final battle and as a trial for the waxing soul of man. Looked at purely as a symbol, war represents the means of reinstating an original order. When things become badly imbalanced and disharmonious, war serves to reduce multiplicity and chaos to unity, disorder to order. It may even be seen as a shadowy reflection of cosmic sacrifice, since it almost ritually eliminates radical elements and clears the way for the re-establishment of a new orientation and alignment. Leaving aside the complex moral problems this poses when translated into any sort of political rationale, one can catch a glimpse here of how karmic necessity operates, and why, as long as human beings individually harbour likes and dislikes, there is inevitably war.
The warrior symbolizes the latent forces within the persona, ready to come to the aid of higher consciousness as well as to the elements of disunification and individual disintegration. The Berserkr filled with martial ecstasy may fight for either side, but if his life is dedicated to Odin and his heart is untainted by the vices of the lower nature, he becomes an awesome force to be used by the god within. Even the deceits of combat, the cunning and unfairness of Odin in battle, must be looked at from the standpoint of the larger cause. When one views acts and events in a larger context, they often appear in a very different aspect. The sleight of hand of Lord Krishna seems unfair when taken at its face value. Yet the Mahabharata teaches, above all else, that one must penetrate further and further behind the veil of appearances to find deeper causes if one wishes to have some inkling of a greater justice linked with a vaster truth.
Odin leads a host of chosen souls in an Army of the Voice made up of the collective hierarchies of creative, law-administering beings. If one would join that army, it is necessary to learn to think and act, not on the basis of appearance, but on the basis of hard-won wisdom. By striving to penetrate the maya of appearances, one may eventually bore through the lock rock' and release the draught of timeless perception contained therein. This entails piercing one's lower nature with the spear of manas, and twisting in the wind over the abyss of uncertainty before grasping the revelation of the runes of wisdom. As the old Norse knew, nothing is to be taken for granted. Everything must be won. Without the winning there is no knowing. Such is the condition of man while in a body.
The strife and war, the trials and heroism, must be experienced by the whole man before he can know. And when he makes this wisdom his, he joins Odin's host, for his actions and his knowing are now one and he cannot act except on behalf of all he knows. He becomes a co-worker with the whole of Nature, accepting its cycles of birth and decay, seeing in every aspect the one unborn, never-dying Cause so ceaselessly reflected in the single orb of his Leader's eye.