Time and Meaning Five–The Poetry and Ambivalence of Mind

The Sun
The Moon
Light, War, and Gods
Fury, Knowledge, and The Gallows
Sound, Thunder, Storms and Strength
Love, Freedom, and Friends
Time, CuttingChange, and The Harvest

These are the days that rule our lives.

This will be long and complicated–much like the god that it will mostly be about.

Be advised.

I have, in some sense, held off from approaching this ruling day  (the days of the  Sun and the Moon need little explanation methinks… ) because it is more complex and layered than perhaps any of the others.


It doesn’t sound any more complex than the other days off hand, but when you delve into its meaning and history, the story ramifies in ways that make it hard to get a complete handle on.

In any case, let us begin.  Wednesday comes from “Woden’s Day,” which is a Germanic translation of dies Mercurii “day of Mercury.” (We will come back to Mercury near the end…) Interestingly enough, in modern German, this name has been replaced by “Mittwoch,” which literally means “mid-week.”  Such a replacement has occurred in various other languages, but in German it was consciously done by the Church in order to suppress the mentioning of the head god of the Germanic tribes–namely Woden/Wotan/Odin.  In England (and in Scandinavia also), this replacement did not occur, or at least did not succeed.

Odin Sketch by Dan Mills

Looking into the name Woden/Odin, it seems that the best or, at least, most common interpretation is that it comes from an archaic English adjective, wood,that means “violently insane” and it it closely related to the still-used German word, Wut, which means “rage, fury.”

So was Odin/Woden an angry god?

Well, sometimes, but the broader meaning of the root word was “raging, mad, inspired,” from base*wet- “to blow, inspire, spiritually arouse,” and this root also appeared in Latin vates which meant “seer, poet” and in Old Irish faith, meaning “poet.”  Finally, there was also the related Old English woþ (sounds like woth) meant  “sound, melody, song,” and Old Norse  oðr, which meant “poet.” (obviously, this word was where the “Odin” version of the name came from..)

So.. really.. Woden/Wotan/Odin wasn’t so much an angry god, as an inspired and frenzied god… one full of wisdom tinged with cunning and a dash of fury…

Loki Bound by Collingwood

Focussing on the God himself, we find one of the most interesting mythological figures I’ve ever read about.  Despite being  a big fan of Loki–who’s one of Odin’s main enemies much of the time..  (Odin being greatly responsible for Loki’s binding and torture)–I became fascinated with Woden/Odin after reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and I had to find out more about him.

What becomes clear–not just from Gaiman’s interpretation of Odin–but from the mythologies and stories about him–is that Odin is one complex fucker, and he is unlike almost all of the other Norse Gods with, perhaps, the exception of  Mr. Loki, the trickster.  He is also, in many ways, very different than any god in any other pantheon, and the fact that he is considered the head god of the Norse pantheon makes this even stranger…

So let us grok Odin/Woden/Wotan.

Technically, Odin–who’s name is synonymous with poetry–is usually classified as a god of War, Poetry, and the Dead.  In reality, what Odin really seems to be is a God of the Mind.  Odin’s primary focus in existence is about the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom so that he may rule and survive.  Along these lines, his quest for knowledge–as well as his purview over War, Words, and Death–has numerous deeper shadings of meaning that have much to do with the concept of deception/cunning on the one hand, and of sacrifice and hardship on the other.  Let us focus on these elements a bit more….

1.  Knowledge/Wisdom–Odin is constantly associated with the acquisition and use of knowledge.  In fact, he is rather compulsive about it and even went so far as to sacrifice one of his eyes for knowledge.  This sacrifice of an eye earned him a drink from the well of wisdom–which gave him  “the knowledge of the past, present and future. As he drank, he saw all the sorrows and troubles that would fall upon men and the gods. He also saw why the sorrow and troubles had to come to men.

Beyond this, Odin has a throne from which he can see everything happening in the universe as well as possessing two ravens–Huginn(thought) and Munnin (memory)–that fly around the world and see everything and tell it to Odin.

Finally, there is the matter of the 9 days that Odin spent bound to the world tree.

Sacrifice of Odin

Sacrificing his body to himself, Odin spent nine days hanging from the branches of Yggdrasil–his side pierced by a spear–whereby he learned the magic and power of the runes.  This was also part of the story of how the runic alphabet came to be known by the Norse populace, and which served as an early kind of alphabet for them.

Thus, the link between the sense of sacrifice and gaining knowledge is quite a strong one in the mythology of Odin.  Such a link does not seem to exist with regard to other gods of wisdom/ knowledge–such as Athena or Thoth.   However, it is true that both of these gods of knowledge/wisdom were “bird deities”–Athena had her owl–and Thoth had the head of an Ibis–while Odin has his Ravens.  Perhaps something about the acute vision of birds led people to make this association for at least in Germanic, the verb for “to know” —to wit/wot in Old English and wissen in German–actually came from a root meaning “to see”–and the same root lies at the basis of the word “vision.”

2. Role as War God–Odin’s role as a god of war is interesting in that the Norse Pantheon has a couple of these gods.  Tyr is the god of single-combat, victory, honor and heroic glory. He’s also the namesake of Tuesday and was thought to have been the original head god of the Germanic tribes at an earlier point in time..  Thor, although technically the god of storms, is often seen as the principle war god of Norse mythology in that he is the main character running around slaughtering enemies left and right.  It might be a bit more accurate–as I’ve noted before–to say that Thor is a god of battle and slaughter rather than of War itself.

And this is where Odin comes in.. Odin is the god of war, but not for the battles or combat, but rather, like Jupiter–he’s there to help achieve Victory.  Unlike Jupiter, whose position was more of a sky god who watched and bestowed victories upon you in a rather ceremonial and legalistic fashion, Odin’s concern with war was much more involved.   He did not just magically bestow victory–but rather was engaged in the actual concerns of what you need to fight a war (strategy, tactics, logistics) and what war can get you–i.e. the spoils of war.

In other words–rather than being a warrior who ruled, he was a ruler, who studied how to make war.

To accomplish this, Odin sought out the best fallen warriors (using his hot valkyries) to recruit into his own personal Army. These warriors would eat and drink and then go out and fight all day, and if they died, they’d be resurrected so that they could fight again (and maybe learn from their mistakes.. somewhat like the Cylons did in the new Battlestar Galactica series…) He was doing this because he knew that the end of the world, Ragnorak, was coming, and he would need the best army to defeat the army of frost giants being led by Loki.

In this way, Odin was a very different kind of War God than those in other Pantheons–such as Mars or Ares.  Odin was a King’s or General’s God of War–rather than a warrior’s.  The closest approximation that one might find would be Athena–who was the goddess of wisdom and war–and who also War in a more intelligent and clever way, rather than focussing on the actual slaughter and battle as the main elements.

For Odin, war was about the sacrifices of those fighting–and the rewards that they received from it–as well as about using one’s head to figure out how to best destroy an enemy.   This picture of war–rather than glorifying it–is a lot more mature in many ways.  If Odin could deceive or trick his adversaries without having to fight them, he would do so.  He also did not seek out war and death for it’s own sake–unlike say, Thor–but rather used war instrumentally–to achieve other ends (such as trying to survive Ragnorak.).  In this sense of Odin, we see an idea about warfare that is distilled in Carl von Clausewitz’s philosophy and theory of warfare–namely that war is a method of achieving ends–but not an end in itself…

In essence.. we see the application of Mind to Warfare–and that application makes things a lot more complex, but also a lot more intriguing…

3. Poetry–Obviously, let us not forget that Odin is the God of Poetry and inspiration–as is noted at the beginning of this post.  As one of the most common forms of the written word in any culture–think of the Greek Poets or the Songs of Solomon in the Bible–Poetry is one of the most primal and important forms of primitive–and especially religious or mythological–expression.

Elder Futhark Runes

In the case of the Germanic tribes, this early writing was directly linked to Odin, for not only did he provide the runes/letters with which to write, but he also supplied the inspiration to guide and shape the writing.

In this sense–Odin was clearly and intimately intertwined in the essence of Germanic storytelling.  And such stories and myths had a kind of magic to them.. as they transport people from the literal here and now into a different place.

This close association between myth, magic, and Odin leads to a fascinating aside about gender dynamics and mythological strife.  As mentioned earlier, Odin often is seen using cunning rather than force to solve problems–and a large part of this involved his ability to use his magic and wisdom to thwart people’s plans in advance or to trick them rather than fighting them.

This skill, however, was not always appreciated by other gods. Perhaps it was due to professional jealousy, envy, or competition, but no less than mischievous Loki himself directly insulted Odin–implying that he lacked manliness for using magic. In particular, men were supposed to be “forthright and open” whereas women’s powers were secretive–and yet Odin’s whole existence is thoroughly imbued with a desire for the secretive.  Needless to say, it’s somewhat hilarious that Loki is throwing stones here–considering that he once transformed himself into a female horse, got pregnant, and gave birth to the 8-legged horse Sleipnir that Odin would subsequently ride…

At the very least, it shows the ambivalent nature of this aspect of Odin’s character and that the perception and appreciation of this kind of representation of “Mind” was a lot more ambiguous and fraught than something simple and clear like Thor’s overwhelming strength.

4. Death–Odin’s relationship to death and the dead really focusses on three main areas.  First, strictly speaking, Odin is not the god of death–he is not like Hades or Pluto or Kali–but rather is the God of the Gallows and hanging.  On the one hand, just as Odin was hung on the World Tree and received wisdom, creatures would be sacrificed to Odin by hanging in the hopes that Odin would send blessings.  These sacrifices included animals, humans, and even kings and they centered around the number 9.

Second, Odin’s connection to death was also reinforced by the aforementioned habit of collecting dead warriors for his own purposes.  This means that Odin is not so much a god of an underworld and death, but is more of a collector or shepherd of dead souls.  Importantly, this is the primary connection that links him to the respective Roman and Greek gods of Mercury and Hermes.  As mentioned at the beginning, (W)Odin’s Day was the equivalent of the Roman “Mercury’s Day,” and people like the Roman historian Tacitus were explicitly making the linkage between the two on these grounds.

Finally, there is an ultimate linking of Death to Odin in that Odin himself was not only not immortal, but he knew–because he had foreseen it after receiving a draught from the well of wisdom–that he would die in the final battle of Ragnorak.  Odin was not alone in this regard, as most of the Norse gods were fated to be be destroyed in this “end of the world,” but–unlike the rest of them,  he was the one who had to deal with this knowledge.

More generally, the fact that mortality and death were not excluded from the realm of the gods gives the whole mythology a much different character and tone then most other mythologies.  Bluntly, the tragedies of life were not just there to affect humans, while the Gods remained aloof.  Instead everyone and everything, so to speak, had to fear the Reaper.

How this might have related to the differences in culture between the Germanic and Mediterranean groups is something to ponder.  To me, it is obviously not 100% clear, but it seems likely, that this sense of the fragility of their gods could be seen to correspond to the broader distribution of power in Germanic cultural areas in contrast to the more clearly centralized and authoritative Roman governance.  For the germanic tribes, their stories showed that anyone could fall and die–and that they would eventually–and thus no one was all-powerful.  In contrast, Roman and Greek elites were like gods to their societies–where nearly 1/3 of the populace were slaves–and the majority of people were far beneath the rich landowning elite.  In such a society, Gods did not die, even when they squabbled with each other.

Of course, we all know what happened when these groups clashed.

It wasn’t pretty, but eventually the Germanic tribes had the chance to show the Romans just how mortal their human “gods” could be.

So remember this when the next Woden’s Day comes around.  It is a day of the mind.. but also a day of ambivalence and sacrifice…. and perhaps even poetry…

About Prof. Woland

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9 Responses to Time and Meaning Five–The Poetry and Ambivalence of Mind

  1. lauren says:

    that was fascinating. i’m guessing you’ve read a lot of neil gaiman et al, with their interpretations of all the above, but on the lighter side, there’s always douglas adams’ ‘the long dark tea-time of the soul’ for a different take on the thor/wodin/loki characters. just as an irrelevant aside.

  2. lauren says:

    ah. sorry, i was just being facetious about tech-language, which i don’t really speak. now i think i get what you mean.

    • Prof. Woland says:

      aha! yes.. I wasn’t trying to be tech-jargony–which I think is usually a load of horseshit anyway–esp. business buzzwords. I was referring more to linguistic type thingers.. How languages like Latin have 5 cases–Nominative, Genitive, Accusative, Dative, and Ablative–all of which change the endings of words (but not the same way for all words–there are like 5 major declension patterns, I think) depending not only on the case–but also depending on number.. and gender… (it’s fucked..)

      Anyway–google “latin declension” to see what it’s like…

      One can only see relicts of this in modern English. For example–think of the two sentences:

      I gave him the book.
      I gave the book to him.

      Both of the sentences express the same meaning–but one of them uses a preposition.. why? Well–“him” is actually the original dative case==indirect object case of “he”–there also used to be an accusative form that was different “hine” that would have been used for direct objects (such as.. something like ” I saw hine.” ) This “hine” was replaced by “him” in all cases as English word order became more fixed… To express the “dative case”–we started using “to” to signify the case… except in rare instances where the direct object came immediately after the verb…

      Anyway… This is all stuff that only really became clear to me after I started learning German–which still has four cases (Nom, Acc, Gen, and Dat) and uses them to decline the articles and adjectives rather than the nouns themselves…

      Thus.. in German–you have “der Mann” ==the man.. “der” changes with the case being used into either “des” “dem” or “den”..It does so as follows:
      Der Mann sieht das Haus. (nom case for man)==The man sees the house.
      Das Haus des Mannes ist blau (gen case for man–and genitive cases actually do change the stem word for masculine nouns….)==The house OF the man is blue.
      Die Kuh tritt den Mann. (acc. case for man)–The cow kicked the man.
      Ich gab dem Mann das Buch. (dat. case for man)–I gave the man the book.

      Now.. in German, because it has cases–you can rearrange the word order a lot more than in English… so that you could rearrange the last sentence in these ways:

      Das Buch gab ich dem Mann.
      Dem Mann gab ich das Buch.

      .. and they would still hold the same meaning.. Thus you could emphasize different parts of the sentence if you wanted to… like the Book.. or the man…

      Anyway.. sorry for the extended grammar lesson.. I just thought I’d elaborate a bit more.. 🙂

      • lauren says:

        wow. deep. i used to be good at this stuff. at least the english version. i do appreciate that languages other than english are much more expressive and logical about things. i was tutoring ESL for a short time, and my colombian friend and i would laugh and boggle at the illogical inconsistencies and limits of english.

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