The Norse stories and myths originate from the Germanic polytheistic people that inhabited areas in and around Scandinavia. This was before the gradual Christianization of their lands by 15 century CE. The Norse cosmology talked about nine realms inhabited by the Gods, humans, jötunn and dwarfs among various other creatures. Most of the surviving Norse mythology concerns with the plights of the Gods, their interaction with each other and with other beings, their ancient war (Æsir–Vanir War) and the foretold events of Ragnarök (equivalent to doomsday).
Odin (Óðinn, Wōden, Wuotan) may be counted among the most prominent Gods in Norse myths. The leader of the Æsir tribe of deities residing in Asgard, Odin is seen as the all father figure associated with varied things like wisdom and knowledge; war and victory; shamanism and magic; death and the gallows; wealth and fortune; and poetry and frenzy. He is the eldest son of Borr from the jötunn (type of giant race) Bestla, and has two younger brothers, Vili and Vé. Odin is portrayed as a long bearded man with only one eye, carrying a long spear named Gungnir for a weapon and often wearing a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat. He rides his eight legged magical horse, Sleipnir. His other animal companions include the wolves Geri and Freki and the ravens Huginn and Muninn, who bring him information from all over Midgard (realm of the humans). Odin is married to the Goddess Frigg (associated with wisdom and foresight) and has several children, most famously the Gods Thor (with Jörð) and Baldr (with Frigg). He is finally prophesied to meet his doom during the foretold events of Ragnarök where he would be consumed by the monstrous wolf Fenrir. Know more about the leader of the Æsir deities with the 10 famous myths featuring the Norse God Odin.
Note: It is important to note that the main sources of Norse literature (Poetic Edda and Prose Edda) come from the writing of the medieval Christian Icelander Snorri Sturluson. The sources can thus at best be seen skeptically for their credibility and reliability in understanding the pre-Christian Norse world view.
#1 Origins of Odin And The Norse Creation Myth
According to Norse myths, Ymir (Aurgelmir) was the primordial hermaphroditic (having the sexual characteristics of both male and female) being. Ymir was a jötunn (type of giant race) who came into existence when the fire of Muspelheim (a Norse realm) and ice from Niflheim (a Norse realm) met in the abyss. He was thus the ancestor of all the jötunn and all the Gods. Ymir lived in the grass less void of Ginnungagap taking his nourishment from the milk of the primeval cow named Audhumla, and producing several jötunn children from his hermaphroditic body. Audhumla on the other hand took her nourishment by licking salt. Once while she licked on the salt, a being named Buri was freed from within the salt over a course of three days. Buri was the first of the Æsir Gods, and his son Borr would father three divine children with Bestla, one of Ymir’s jötunn descendant. The sons were Odin, who would be chief of the Æsir, and his two brothers, Vili and Ve.
There was no peace between the new Gods and the early jötunn, who may be deduced as cruel and tyrannical. Odin and his two brothers thus slayed Ymir resulting in a flood of blood that drowned most of his jötunn children. Odin then led the Gods to begin the act of creation from the immense body of Ymir in Ginnungagap. From Ymir’s flesh came the earth, from his blood the ocean, from his bones the mountains, from his hair the trees, from his brains the clouds, from his skull the heavens and from his eyebrows the middle realm in which mankind lives, Midgard.
#2 Creation of Mankind, Askr And Embla
In Norse mythology Askr and Embla were the first humans to be created by the Gods. Not long after creating the world, Odin was walking along the coast with the other Gods Vili and Ve (Hoenir and Lodurr in another variation). The three deities soon came across two unusual tree trunks on the beach. The trunks were shaped like a male and a female body, but were devoid of any life and vigor. Odin and his brothers thus decided to make the trees alive, with Odin infusing them with the breath of life and the other two giving them an inspired mind, and the ability to hear, smell, speak and see. The first man was then named ‘Askr’ and the first woman ‘Embla’, and the couple were given the realm of Midgard to propagate the human race and civilization.
#3 Hanging From The Sacred Tree Yggdrasil
Yggdrasil, an immense sacred ash tree is considered as the center of the Norse cosmology, around which the nine realms exist. This tree is supported by three roots that extend far and take nourishment from three different water sources. One of these sacred sources is the well Urðarbrunnr (Well of Urðr or Well of Fate) in the heavens. It is home to the three jötunn Norns that rule the destiny of Gods and men; namely Urd (Past), Verdandi (Present) and Skuld (future). The Norns used various methods to craft fate like casting lots out of wood and weaving cloths. However, their most common technique was the carving of runes (letters of the Norse alphabet). Odin is known to be a continuous seeker of knowledge. He was once in pursuit of the wisdom of the runes, knowing well that the knowledge would only reveal to those that prove worthy of it. He thus decided to give the greatest sacrifice (himself) and hung himself on a branch of Yggdrasil, forbidding any of the Gods to help him. For nine cold days and nights, Odin remained in this state before he was finally able to perceive the secret of the runes. With the knowledge of the runes, Odin learned powerful charms, grew wiser and came to be known as the “father of the runes”.
#4 Odin’s Missing Eye
In Norse myths, Odin can be seen as a ‘seeker of wisdom’. One who, despite his stature and power, is willing to put his life on the line for wisdom. Though Odin was considered the wisest among the Gods, there was one in the cosmos whose wisdom exceeded that of Odin. Mimir was an Æsir or a jötunn who was Odin’s intellectual and spiritual superior. Once Odin came to know that Mimir (the rememberer) drank water from Mímisbrunnr (Mimir’s Well); one of the water sources where a root of Yggdrasil (sacred tree) took it’s nourishment from. Odin was quick to infer that these magical waters had imparted Mimir with his incredible depth of perception, and the Æsir chief set off on his journey to the well. Finally when Odin requested permission to drink water from the well, Mimir warned him of the steep price to be paid. This steep prize was Odin’s one eye in exchange for the water of Mímisbrunnr. The God agreed and gouged one of his eyes out of its socket and tossed it into the depths of the well, thus earning his right to it’s waters and their wisdom.
#5 Mímir’s Head
During the ancient war of Norse Gods (Æsir-Vanir war), when Odin made war with the Vanir, Mimir was taken among the Æsir hostages. After the war ended in a stalemate, there was an exchange of hostages as part of the peace treaty. One of these exchanges went awry and resulted in the Vanir decapitating the head of Mímir, thereby killing him. When Vanir sent Mímir’s head to the Æsir Gods, Odin was crestfallen knowing the value of Mímir’s wisdom. Odin then took the decapitated head and embalmed it with herbs so that it would not rot. He then sang magical charms over it and imbued the head with the ability to converse with Odin. The wisdom of Mímir was thus restored over the Æsir Gods. Odin consulted the head in times of need, and it continued to dispense incomparable advice.
#6 Theft of The Mead of Poetry
The ‘Mead of Poetry’ in Norse myths was a brew that could make an exemplary scholar or poet of anyone who would consume it. The drink was brewed by the troublesome dwarfs Fjalar (Deceiver) and Galar (Screamer), from the blood of Kvasir; the wisest of the humans. The mead was extracted from the dwarf duo by a jötunn named Suttung (drunkard), who hid the three vats in a chamber beneath the mountain Hnitbjorg. He then appointed his daughter Gunnlod (invitation to battle) to watch over them.
The Æsir Gods wanted the mead and its associated qualities for themselves, and Odin took the onus to steal it from Suttung. He disguised himself as a wandering farmhand named Bölverkr, and approached the dwellings of Suttung’s brother, Baugi. Here he found nine of Baugi’s servants moving hay and offered them his whetstone to sharpen their scythes. The whetstone had a miraculous impact on the scythes and the servants wanted to purchase the tool. Bölverkr (Odin) threw the object in the air and the ensuing fight among the men for the whetstone resulted in them killing each other. When Bölverkr met up with Baugi the next day, the latter seemed irate at the sudden loss of his nine servants. Bölverkr then agreed to do nine men’s labor for Baugi for the season, but only in exchange for a sip of Suttung’s mead. A reluctant Baugi agreed and once the job was completed to his satisfaction, was obliged to accompany Bölverkr to Suttung and inquire about the mead. Suttung, however, angrily refused to share the mead.
Bölverkr (Odin) now urged his employer to keep his end of the bargain and help him gain access to Gunnlod’s chambers beneath Hnitbjorg. Baugi was thus handed a drill by Bölverkr and asked to dig the mountain. Unwilling again, the jötunn tried to deceive Odin but the God persisted and as soon as the hole was made, Odin shape-shifted into a snake and entered the burrow. Realizing the deception, Baugi tried to kill the snake with the drill but Odin made it through to the chambers of Suttung’s daughter Gunnlod. Once in, Odin shape-shifted again into a handsome man and won Gunnlod’s favor securing a promise from her that if he would sleep with her for three nights, she would grant him three sips of the mead. After the third night Odin went for the three vats and emptied them in his three sips. He then took the form of an eagle and flew towards Asgard (realm of the Gods). However Suttung was alerted by now and taking the form of another eagle, he pursued Odin.
When the Gods saw Odin approach, they were quick to set out several vessels at the rim of their fortress. As Odin came close to the fortress and the containers, he regurgitated the mead into them, while Suttung had to retreat in anguish. The theft was complete but in the process a few ill-natured drops had fallen to Midgard below. These drops became the source of the abilities of all bad and mediocre poets and scholars. From then, the fine mead was dispensed by Odin himself on the true poets and scholars.
#7 Leader of the Wild Hunt
In Norse mythology, Odin is often referred to as the leader of the Wild Hunt; a group of mythical ghostly riders that ride the sky during the cold winter nights. In these night explorations, Odin rode his stead Sleipnir. He was often accompanied by other Gods and Goddesses, ferocious hunting dogs, ghosts, carrion birds, Valkyries and elves. The Hunt was perceived with fascination and fear by most people. Those who witnessed the spectacle could be abducted by the riders and dropped in locations afar while others could join the hunt in spirit (literally) with their bodies still asleep. The raiders were sometimes known to steal food and mead from the houses as they passed by. The event was also seen as portent of catastrophe and could bring death to those unlucky enough to witness it. The Wild Hunt was said to be at its fervor during the Norse New Year of Yule (Jol, Jul, meaning wheel). Yule was a festival of 12 nights (20th to 31st December) celebrating the winter solstice and the revitalization of the Sun in the Northern hemisphere. At this time children would leave their boots out by the hearth on Solstice Eve, filled with hay and sugar for Sleipnir’s journey. In return, Odin would leave them a gift for their kindness.
#8 Valkyries And Valhalla
In Norse mythology, Valkyries (choosers of the slain) were female winged warriors that were servile to Odin. They were the embodiment of Odin’s goal of gathering all the greatest heroes into Valhalla; the magnificent hall of the dead in Asgard. In Valhalla, Odin gathered the spirits of the deceased elite warriors. The Norse poem Grímnismál (The Song of the Hooded One) describes Valhalla as a giant hall with it’s roof made of gold-bright shields, with spears for its rafters. The residents of Valhalla are the einherjar, warrior spirits who fight each other with valor, doing countless valorous deeds along the way. Their wounds are miraculously healed every evening and they are fed with the best of food and wine. Odin chose half of the dead warriors in the battlefield with the help of the Valkyries, the other half are chosen by Freyja (Vanir Goddess of love, beauty and war) for her afterlife-location, Fólkvangr. Odin’s army of einherjar is not without purpose. He wants to have them on his side during the time of Ragnarök (prophesied endgame in Norse), when Odin is doomed to fight against the Vanir (tribe of Gods) and the jötunn (type of giant race) and die at the hands of the wolf Fenrir.
#9 Geirröth And Agnar
In Norse mythology, Frigg is the Goddess of marriage, love, wisdom, household and prophesy. She is the undisputed queen of the Norse deities and the wife of Odin, with whom she indulges in many interesting wagers. The Norse poem Grimnismol (ballad of Grimnir) narrates one such interesting story concerning Agnar and Geirröth, sons of the esteemed king Hrauthung. Once, the two young princes went on a fishing expedition and were lost in the sea due to a sea storm. They were then discovered by a peasant and his wife (Odin and Frigg in disguise) who raised the boys to manhood. Odin majorly took care of Geirröth while Frigg fostered Agnar. When Geirröth grew up, he was sent by the peasants to his father’s kingdom, where the prince took the mantle of the king. Later one day, Odin and Frigg were in Hlithskjolf (Odin’s throne room) and observing Geirröth and Agnar from afar. Odin commented favoring Geirröth and praising his wisdom and stature as king, while he condemned Agnar for his plain life with a jötunn wife. Frigg was quick to respond and was critical of Geirröth, calling him a miserly king who tortured his guests. As Odin disagreed the two decided to make a wager, and Odin decided to pay Geirröth a visit to prove Frigg wrong.
Determined to win the bet, Frigg played a trick and sent a maid named Fulla to Geirröth with a message. Fulla warned the king that a magician would soon enter his court to bewitch him, and that he could be recognized as no dog would bark on him. Odin soon arrived in the court disguised as a traveler named Grimnir. When he divulged no further details about himself and no dog barked on him, Geirröth was quick to capture and torture him in an attempt to know his intentions. Eventually, Geirröth’s younger son brought Grimnir a horn of ale and regretted his father’s actions. It may be interpreted from the tale that Frigg won the wager.
#10 Frigg Outsmarts Odin
In Norse myths, Odin and his queen Frigg are often seen engaging in bets and having arguments. Once a conflict broke out between the two regarding the war between two Germanic tribes, where Odin favored the Vandals and Frigg was on the side of the Winnilers. As both husband and wife gave their reasons in support of their tribes and the argument heated, an exasperated Odin swore that whichever tribe he saw first thing in the morning, would win the war. Odin was aware that the Vandals would be visible through the window on his side of the bed but Frigg was not about to fall for this trick. While Odin was sleeping Frigg told the women of the Winniler to reposition their hair so that they would appear as long beards. She also turned the bed so that Odin faced the opposite direction. When Odin finally woke up, he was taken by surprise and asked Frigg about who the long beards were. Outsmarted by his wife, he granted victory to the Winniler tribe.