Books for learning about Odin [Ask Me About Odin]

Spiritwize asked: “I’m wondering what books you recommend to folks that want to learn more about Odin? While lore, historical stuff, etc. is my primary target I’d be interested to know what other works you recommend in regards to Odin.”

I was going to do a follow-up music post for this week’s installment, but then received this question and thought I’d go with it instead, since I did promise to put a list of source materials up on this site and haven’t gotten around to doing it yet. (It has been a rough year for me so far health-wise; my doctor changed my fibro meds and I’m still adjusting to that, as well as dealing with side effects.) Since Spiritwize asked about lore and historical books, we’ll start there and then drill down to a few more UPG-heavy selections.

Disclaimer: I am not a lore scholar, and I’m not trying to provide a comprehensive list of sources with this post, just the most important-to-me ones that occur to me, off the top of my head, while I’m writing it. I’m also intentionally not including books that focus more specifically on northern tradition magic or shamanism, runes, or seidhr–although many of these would certainly be helpful in reaching an understanding of Odin! In all honesty, what I have found, regarding Him, is that the more I read, the more I want to know, so I am always looking for new sources and new insights. However, I also always reach a point when I know it’s time to stop reading and simply ask Him.

All of that said, here are some of the best places to start, in my opinion, and some of the books I’ve personally found most helpful.

These first few sources comprise the bulk of what Heathens confidently refer to as “The Lore,” but as you’ll see, that confidence may be somewhat misplaced.

Poetic Edda – This consists of a number of bits of Icelandic poetry from various sources that were pieced together to form the 13th century manuscript known as the Codex Regius (the King’s Book). There are many, many translations of it available, some of them for free online, and I’ve read several, but the two I own in book form are by Hollander and Larrington. The language of the Hollander version is more lyrical, while the Larrington is considered to be a more accurate translation. Barring the ability to do a translation of your own (which requires more knowledge of Old Norse than I’ve thus far had the discipline to acquire), I’ve found it to be a worthwhile exercise to compare different translations of a passage that especially interests you; I’ve done this with the Mead of Poetry segment of the Havamal (“the words of the High One,” aka Odin), for example, and have reached some surprising insights in this way.

Prose Edda – This is a manuscript written by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic chieftain, skald and historian, during the first half of the 13th century. It was actually written primarily to impress the young king of Norway with Snorri’s skaldic prowess, secondarily to instruct young poets in the old poetic forms and techniques (which were going out of vogue at the time, due to competition from new forms and new literary traditions from overseas), and thirdly because the tales of the old gods of the north fascinated Snorri and he wanted to preserve them–or some of them, anyway. However, he was a Christian as well as being extremely creative with some of his retellings (his version of the Mead of Poetry tale, for example, differs widely from the one in the Havamal and is thought by some scholars to be one of his most imaginative efforts), so he should be read with a grain of salt and not given the “holy book” status some Heathens tend to give him. As with the Poetic Edda, there are many translations available, some of them free.

Heimskringla – a collection of sagas relating the history of the kings of Norway, also attributed to Snorri (who found kings and kingship an endlessly fascinating topic; this may be why so many of the stories he included in his Edda pertain to Odin). Special attention should be paid to the saga of the Ynglings, the oldest Norwegian royal family, which traced its ancestry back to Odin and Freyr; there is an extensive section in this saga about Odin, including His laws, personality, and powers (most notably, shapeshifting, faring forth, and operational seidhr (also known as soul manipulation, an art which He was, according to Snorri, “the first to master, as well as the most accomplished at”.) Heimskringla also includes appearances by and references to Odin in various of the other  sagas, including His post-conversion dinnertime call on Olaf Tryggvason.

Gesta Danorum, by Saxo Grammaticus – This history of the kings of Denmark actually predates Snorri’s Edda somewhat, as it it thought to have been written in the early 13th century. It is a collection of 16 books, the first eight of which deal with mythology and the Scandinavian pantheon, but this is not a source many Heathens are fond of as Saxo offers a vastly different (and usually unfavorable) interpretation of both the characters of the gods Themselves and many of people’s favorite myths, notably the death of Balder. Still, as his work does predate Snorri’s, Saxo should not be lightly dismissed.

There are a number of other Icelandic sagas in which Odin makes an appearance or plays an important role, including the Saga of the Volsungs (in which He is the progenitor of the dynasty and also appears at strategic intervals to give aid to the protagonists), Gautrek’s Saga (featuring the Odinic hero Starkad and his unintentional sacrifice to Odin of his best friend, King Vikar), and the saga named for everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, Egil Skallagrimson, the classic Odinic anti-hero famous for his nithing pole curse against the Norwegian king and queen.

Moving along to modern scholarly interpretations of “the lore,” (which often take a multi-disciplinary approach, looking not only at the original literary sources but also considering how factors such as place names, linguistics, historical evidence, folklore, and archaeology either support or detract from that evidence) here are some of the most helpful ones I’ve found:

The Lost Gods of England by Brian Branston offers a comprehensive look at what we know of the worship of Woden in England, where (going by the evidence of place names) His cult may have been more widespread and influential than in Scandinavia.  (I could not find this available for sale; check your local university library.)

The Cult of Othin by H.M. Chadwick is a little outdated (having been written in 1899), but it does provide a helpful introduction to the god and His lore.  (Available online for free!)

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, by H.R. Ellis Davidson offers comprehensive multi-disciplinary information on the worship of Odin (and other gods in the pantheon) from the Migration Era through the Viking Age.

Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Era  by Michael J. Enright focuses on the role of Odin as warlord/king and how that shaped the dynamic between the king as ring-giver and his queen as lady of sovereignty in England and Scandinavia. It also lays out the author’s theory that Odin originated not as a storm giant but as a god of kingship in Roman Gaul during the 2nd century.

The One Eyed God: Odin and the Indo-Germanic Mannerbunde by Kris Kershaw is a doctoral dissertation attempting to trace both the worship of Odin and the tradition of the Wild Hunt back to what the author considers to be their Indo-European genesis. I didn’t agree with every conclusion reached in this book, but the parallels drawn between Odin and other Indo-European gods are fascinating, and there is extensive and detailed information on Odin’s cult among the very earliest Germanic tribes. This is a book not easily found in libraries and expensive to buy, but well-worth it. (In fact, while writing this, I’m realizing it may be time to reread my own copy!)

The Threefold Initiation of Woden by Eric Wodening is a very short book (only a little more than a chapbook), but I like his premise that Odin’s three primary initiations consisted of His sacrifice to the Well of Mimir, His ordeal on the Tree, and His betrayal of Gunnlod to gain the Mead.  (I could not find this online anywhere–sorry!)

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Masking of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown is not a book on Odin per-se; it is about Snorri Sturluson, the violent world of 12th-13th century Iceland in which he lived, and his process of transforming the source material available at the time into his Edda. The heart of the book is a gripping saga-like tale of Snorri and his family, but there are also fascinating insights into Snorri’s obsession with Odin in particular, as well as some very entertaining snippets on Tolkein and C.S. Lewis (especially the debt the former owed to the northern lore, and how Odin became Gandalf), and a very readable account of how Snorri’s work led directly to the survival of the Icelandic texts.

And now, a few UPG-based and fiction books…and of course, mentioning fiction has me wanting to do a post just on Odin (and reflections of Odin) in novels and movies…

American Gods by Neil Gaiman is the book (featuring Mr. Wednesday) that opened the door for Odin to re-enter my life ten years ago.

Whisperings of Woden by Galina Krasskova is, to my knowledge, the first “Odin devotional” in print.

Diana L. Paxson’s Wodan’s Children trilogy is an imaginative retelling of the Saga of the Volsungs, with an emphasis on the characters of Brunnhild and Gundrun,both of whom came to have very special personal relationships with the god.

And last but not least, there are my two books: Odhroerir and Water from the Well, both of which consist of short stories and poetry written by me for and about my Beloved.  The second book in particular presents viewpoints (those of Bestla and Gunnlod, in particular) that are not often considered in either Northern Tradition Pagan or mainstream Heathen circles.  They have both been out for a few years now, so I intend to begin posting quite a bit of material from them for free here on this blog.  I don’t often insert plugs for them here, but if you can afford it and you appreciate what I’m doing here on the blog, a great way to show your appreciation would be to invest in a print copy of one or both books.

And that should be more than enough to get you started!

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12 Comments

  1. I am so glad to have such easy access to such awesome books. Also, a good reminder here that I never got around to reading Saxo, so thank you for that, too.

  2. And a reminder, if you cannot find some of the more academia titles in your local library, a) check your public university libraries and b) ask about interlibrary loan of titles. Worldcat can be a big help here.

    Soli, MILS 😉

    1. You’re more than welcome; it is a little gem of a book, and I often recommend it to people looking to begin a practice with Him. 🙂

  3. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but The Rites of Odin is decent material. Though as I recall (haven’t read it in a little over a year) it gives more “how to” on Heathen ritual than it does information about Odin Himself.

    Ironic that you mention American Gods is what opened the door for Odin to come back into your life. It’s also the book that made me open up to Him initially at all! 😛

    1. Lilly, I have read Rites of Odin, but I have to say that it represents more of a neo-pagan version of northern ritual that most Heathens don’t regard as very authentic. I don’t necessarily care about that myself, just letting you know so you won’t refer to it as a “Heathen” book if you’re ever in more recon-ish/mainstream company. 🙂

      I think this is a function American Gods performed for quite a few people; if Gaiman only knew!

  4. Greetings. Thanks for posting this as I’d been curious regarding the material available on Odin. I know there’s a lot of stuff and sometimes one has to wade through it all to find the more valuable stuff so I always try to narrow things down a bit by asking practitioners who knew their stuff. Yes, lots of stuff. Blessings.

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