I’ve decided to participate in the Pagan Blog Project again this year, but in a more focused way than in my previous attempt at it in 2012. (Actually, I’m not sure if I kept with it for that whole year or not, and I skipped 2013.) This year, the focus is going to be entirely on Odin, specifically on His heiti, the epithets or by-names used to refer to Him throughout the surviving northern literature (known to heathens as “the lore”). Odin has so many names in these sources that I could count only about 5 letters of the alphabet for which there are no established heiti, and for those letters—assuming I can’t come up with a suitable modern epithet to fill the gap—I will discuss some other aspect of His historical or modern worship. It remains to be seen whether I’ll write something for each week, or just one post for each letter. I’ve been seeing online a tendency to stereotype Odin into just one or two roles: as the aged patriarch of the northern pantheon, perhaps, or as a remote patron of mystics and kings. In my many years of living and working closely with Him, I have seen many of His faces, some of which I hope to share here, at the same time as I hope, though delving into His many names, to reach an even deeper understanding of Him myself.
We’ll start off with one of the most well-known and frequently used names for Him: All-father. I don’t gravitate towards this name much myself in my own practice, because I don’t have a father-daughter relationship with Him, but the name itself doesn’t refer to personal relationships so much as to His overall status as the father of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (often called “the prose Edda,” the primary source text that’s probably best known to the vast majority of heathens), Alfodr is used more or less interchangeably with Odin in referring to Him.
And he may be called Alfodr because he is the father of all the gods and of men and of that which was done by him and his power. The earth was his daughter and his wife. From her he got his first son, Asa-Thor…Odin is the foremost of the aesir; he rules all things, and as powerful as the other gods are, they serve him as children do a father…
Now, the thing about the Edda that we need to keep in mind is that it was a didactic book (a book of instruction) written for skalds, and more specifically written to impress the King of Norway with Snorri’s own skills in this arena in the hopes of his being appointed chief skald to the royal court. Snorri loved the mythology of the north, and he wrote Gylfagining (the section of his book that includes the tales of the gods) at least partly with the goal of preserving these stories. But this was the 12th century and Snorri himself was not only a Christian but a churchman—a godhi, which in true northern fashion continued to mean not only a priest but also a chieftain and landowner. He was also not a little influenced in his perception of the Aesir by the stories of Greek mythology, with which (as a man of letters) he was also familiar. Given these influences, we have to allow—when using him as a source—for the fact that he 1) did his best to fit Odin, Frigga and the Aesir into the more familiar model set by the tales of Zeus and the twelve Olympians (for example: “That one is called Alfodr in our language, but in Old Asgard he had twelve names”), and 2) his writings about Odin and Baldr, in particular, are heavily influenced by conceptions of God the Father and Jesus in Christianity. This makes for an interesting soup of connotations that can be difficult to wade through at times. Of Snorri’s explanation that the other gods obey Odin as children do their father, Rudolf Simek writes that this perception “seems to be as much influenced by Christianity as the name Alfodr itself, which is possibly a translation of the of the Medieval Latin name for the Christian God omnipaeter (first documented in the works of Prudentius in the 4th century).”
All of this is not to say, of course, that the name is invalid, only to sound a note of caution that it’s worth the time, when dealing with Odin’s names or with any epithets of the gods, to look at how and when they were used in antiquity before using them to make blanket declarations about the gods and Their nature. Snorri is not the only primary source referring to Odin as Alfadr or Alfodr; there are a handful of other occurrences in Skaldic poetry and in the specific poems that were collected to make up the Codex Regius, or “Poetic Edda.” Most of these references also occur after the conversion to Christianity, although Simek notes that the spelling of Alfodr (as opposed toAlfadr) is older and more likely to be authentically heathen.
In The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon Europe, William A. Chaney points out that Alfodr primarily denotes Odin’s role as the father of men and gods in the same sense that a King is the father of his people. This rings true to me; in my own experience Odin does have a proprietary concern for and interest in the welfare of mankind as a whole. This does not mean, of course, that He likes everyone, or that He has a personal love for every single person, but that He has a fatherly stake in humanity’s progress and well-being.
Norse mythology does not interpret the fatherhood of Odin in a physical sense, where the gods are concerned, as He is not shown to be the literal father of all of them in spite of His popularity with the ladies. However, in terms of mankind, there could be a more literal argument made for Odin as Father (or at least Creator) of Men, based on the story in the Voluspa (“Sayings of the Seeress”) that shows Odin and His two brothers creating the world from the remains of the slaughtered proto-god Ymir, and then creating the first men out of tree trunks.
Until three gods, strong and loving,
came from that company to the world;
they found on land Ash and Embla,
capable of little, lacking in fate.
Breath they had not, spirit they had not,
character not vital spark nor fresh complexions;
breath gave Odin, spirit gave Haenir,
vital spark gave Lodur, and fresh complexions.
In other words, according to this poem (one of many surviving skaldic lays collected into the Codex Regius in the second half of the 13th century), Odin and His two brothers, Hoenir and Lodur (who is sometimes identified with Loki) fashioned the first man and woman (Ash and Embla—or ash tree and elm tree) from wood, and then breathed life into them and endowed them with spirit and living flesh. This portion of the Norse creation story has always struck a very strong chord with me, since it shows mankind as having a close kinship with trees, the very beings who make it possible for us to breathe the air of our world by transforming it from a gas that is poison to us into something that can nourish our cells. This transformation is, for me, part of Odin’s gift of breath, but of course there is more to it than that, since ond encompasses not only the breath that energizes our bodies but also inspiration, which originally meant (in both Latin and Old French) “to blow into, to breathe into, to inflame.” In 1300 this word that so many of us associate with Odin also carried the connotation of “the immediate influence of God or a god.” The close relationship between air and fire is shown here as well: Odin breathes into us and inflames us with His breath, setting fire to the synapses in our brains and filling us with ideas, as well as the means—through speech, which also requires the use of breath—to communicate them.
The Dictionary of Northern Mythology, by Rudolf Simek
Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, by John Lindow
The Poetic Edda, translation by Carolyne Larrington
The Edda of Snorri Sturluson
The Online Etymological Dictionary
Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown
The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon Europe, William A. Chaney