The next stage in the Heathenry50 series is to write about the Gods. I have decided that this will be a series of posts. I’m going to explain my way of viewing the gods. This means it will mostly focus on an Anglo Saxon heathenry rather than Norse heathenry viewpoint. I will try to cite my sources where I can, but I may not be able to always remember where I found the information.
So to kick off this series, let’s begin with the chief of the gods himself – Woden. Woden is a very interesting character with many facets. His name comes from “wod” which means something along the lines of “intoxication, inspiration, madness or frenzy.” He is definitely not a safe, loving god. The third day of the week, Wednesday is named after him, as are quite a few sites throughout Britain. He can also be found in German and Scandinavian areas.
His wife is Frige and his son is Thunor, and possibly Bealdor too. He is called the Allfather as he is the chief of the gods and ruler of Osgeard since the probable abdication of Tiw. In the prose Edda, he is said to have created the world and humanity along with his two brothers (or parts of himself) out of the slain giant Ymir. Many royal kings traced their lineages back to him so he is the Royal Ancestor.
His attributes are often seen in the myths. First is the Havamal, or sayings of the High One (Woden), which includes the story of how he hung himself on the world tree, Eormensyl, undergoing shamanic like sensory deprivation, sacrificing himself to himself, in order to win the knowledge of the runes. Another story tells of how he managed to steal the Mead of Inspiration and some drops fell to earth. Taken together these stories show how we the elements we need to understand Woden. First he is the god of communication, eloquence, writing and poetry – he inspires us, especially with poetic utterances and he teaches us to read the mystical language of the runes. And he seems to be the god most concerned with all kinds of communication, especially the kind that comes during a fit of intoxicated madness.
He is the god of knowledge and wisdom, always willing to sacrifice whatever it takes in order to gain that wisdom – he sacrificed an eye to the Well of Mimir for wisdom and he sacrificed himself to gain the wisdom of the runes. In a desperate attempt to stave off Ragnarok, he is the traveler who wanders the worlds learning all he can.
He is a shaman and a god of magic. The myth of his sacrifice on the world tree in a mode of sensory deprivation reflects shamanic practices. The runes he discovers and teaches to humanity are not just a writing system but are mysteries useful for magic. In the Havamal he talks of many charms and spells he knows for performing magic. In the Norse world, he was interested in Seidhr, a shamanic visionary practice, and he is mentioned in the Saga’s laying down in a trance so that his soul could travel to far off places.
Healer and Psychopomp
He is most definitely a god of healing as can be seen in the Second Merseburg Charm and the Nine Herbs Charm, both of which emphasise his healing abilities. In contrast, he is also heavily associated with death, he is considered the leader of the Wild Hunt, a psychopomp figure who leads a procession of dead souls who march across the sky in winter on their way to the afterlife. In ancient Germany it was said that human sacrifices were made to him by hanging them on a tree, while in Norse sources he is considered someone who chooses half the battle dead to join him in Valhalla. I do not however think that there is much evidence of him being seen as a god of war, especially in Germanic or Anglo Saxon versions of heathenry.
There are other sides of his character to consider too – he is the god of mead and brewing. In the Exeter book it is said that “Woden made idols.” In the Norse viewpoint, he is the one who invented cremation to sever soul from body at death. He is often accompanied by ravens or wolves. There is evidence from Germany that he is associated with the last sheaf of the harvest in September (see my previous post). The big dipper has been called “Woden’s Wain” – the wagon of Woden.
In conclusion, Woden is the god I feel closest too. I see Woden as the All-father, chief of the gods, a god of wisdom and knowledge, inspiration and communication. I see him as a magical shamanic figure who, while cunning and deceitful at times, is doing what it takes to fulfill his ultimate aim of staving off Ragnarok. He is a god of healing and of brewing. He is also the liminal, traveling, psychopomp god who walks between worlds and leads the dead to their place of rest.
The Elder Gods – Stephen Pollington
Rites and Religions of the Anglo Saxons – Gale Owen
The Poetic Edda – Snorri Sturluson