One-eyed old man wearing dark hood and cloak with long walking stick in black and white

Who is Odin in Norse Mythology?

There are many mythical gods. Perhaps one of the most intriguing gods is Odin, the ruler among Norse (or North) gods. Life as a Norse god was a little different—for one thing the gods (or Aesir) walked with day-to-day trepidation as they anticipated the end, unlike the Greek gods, who always prevailed.

One-eyed old man wearing dark hood and cloak with long walking stick in black and white
Odin the Wanderer by Georg von Rosen

The home of the Norse Aesir was called Asgard, but it was not necessarily a safe place, as Giants from Jötunheim perpetually attacked. Along with the other Aesir, Odin knew that the Giants were guaranteed ultimate victory in the end—called Ragnarök, or the day of doom, when both heaven and earth would be destroyed.

The gods are doomed and the end is death.

According to Edith Hamilton, Odin “is a strange and solemn figure, always aloof” (Mythology, p. 437), and in the Edda, Odin is described as:

Clad in a cloud-gray kirtle and a hood as blue as the sky

But just what is the Edda? There are actually two Eddas—a Younger Edda and an Elder Edda—with the Elder Edda containing many of the Norse myths that we know today.

The Elder Edda tells of the serious and contemplative nature of Odin; he has two ravens that perch, one on each of Odin’s shoulders. One raven is called Hugin (or Thought) and the other is named Munin (or Memory). They go through Midgard (or earth) every day and report back information about what the people are doing to the pensive Odin.

18th century Icelandic manuscript showing Odin with sword and walking stick, cloaked in brown with 2 ravens, one on each shoulder
Illustration of Odin with Huginn & Muninn by Olafur Brynjulfsson from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript

It was the search for wisdom that led Odin to drink from the Well of Wisdom, which is guarded by Mimir the wise. Mimir gave Odin an ultimatum—if he desired to drink from the Well of Wisdom, he would have to pay for it with one of his eyes. Odin agreed, and that is how he lost an eye, but gained additional wisdom.

And this is not the only knowledge for which Odin endured suffering in order to gain; Odin also learned the insights that the Runes (incredibly powerful magical inscriptions) had to offer, but at the expense of yet more pain—having to hang from the great Ash tree, Yggdrasil:

Nine whole nights on a wind-rocked tree,

Wounded with a spear.

I was offered to Odin, myself to myself,

On that tree of which no man knows.

Once acquired, Odin did not keep the Runes’ knowledge to himself, but rather shared it with the people of Midgard, who used the Runes to protect themselves.

Ancient Viking depiction of Arrival at Valhalla gold silohuette on red
Arrival at Valhalla by Behrig

The Valkyries also play a role in Odin’s story—as his attendants, they served, keeping food on the table and wine in the drinking horns. Both quite important, but also interesting to note that Odin never eats—instead, he gives his food to the two wolves (Freki and Geri) who sit at his feet. Rather than eating, Odin drinks the wine and contemplates what Hugin and Munin detail in their news of Midgard.

Maidens excellent in beauty,

Riding their steeds in shining armor,

Solemn and deep in thought,

With their white hands beckoning.

The term “Valkyries” may conjure up sounds from Wagner’s famous tune, Ride of the Valkyries, and indeed, they are quite dramatic maidens in Norse mythology. The Valkyries’ (or Choosers of the Slain) primary duty was to designate who would win and who would die in battle, and then to bring back the brave dead to Valhalla (or Hall of the Slain). All of this was done according to Odin’s orders.

Rhinegold and the Valkyries by Arthur Rackham
Rhinegold and the Valkyries by Arthur Rackham

To the German people, Odin was known as Woden and was well-known to the Germanic tribes; Wednesday is derived from Odin’s name (as in Woden’s day).

This is but an overview of Odin, whom I believe is one of the most fascinating gods in mythology.

Like today’s post?? Read more in “Mythology” by Edith Hamilton {Hamilton, E. (1969). Mythology. The Norse Gods (pp. 437-449). New York, NY: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown, and Company.} where I first learned of most of the information contained in this post.

*All quotes from the Elder Edda are taken from the above cited book, Mythologyby Edith Hamilton.