The Myth of the Dark Side of Odin
by Gunther Ravengrim
There have been a number of books and articles written in recent years concerning the nature of the Norse/Germanic deity – Odin. Many of these works are erudite, well-crafted essays with much valuable information, providing significant insight into the nature of Odin, as well as the rites of worship associated with him. However, there seems to be a continuing emphasis on the so-called “dark side” of this powerful God. For example, a number of people have made efforts to link the cunning trickster, Loki, to Odin as a kind of alter-ego or hypothesis of the Allfather. There have even been articles published recently which refer to exploring the “dark side of Odin” within the Temple of Set. It is my intention to present a case for a rather brighter picture of Odin.
To form this argument, it behooves us to examine the basis for the claims of the “dark siders,” and see how they fit into the overall picture of this deity. As one reads the Norse/Icelandic literature for references to Odin one can make a number of interesting observations about how the Viking peoples viewed this deity. Firstly, although Odin is a deity strongly associated with war, and one who takes special care of his warriors after death, he was regarded as a fickle patron – granting victory today, and death tomorrow. Secondly, he was described as a “stirrer of strife” and the leader of the Wild Hunt, as well as being the special patron of poets. Lastly, he is portrayed as using cunning and deceit to win his objectives, while the hallmarks of Asatru are honor, truth, and loyalty.
How does one begin to reconcile these apparent contradictions? For myself, the first step is to make a few basic assumptions:
1) The Allfather and chief deity of the Norse pantheon MUST be essentially good, and the well being of the human race is his principle concern.
2) Odin HAS A PLAN for mankind.
3) Asatruar will figure prominently in this plan.
Let us examine elements in the
Odhinnic story in the light of these assumptions.
‘Although Odin is a deity strongly associated with war, and one who takes special care of his warriors after death, he was regarded as a fickle patron – granting victory today, and death tomorrow.’ At best, fickleness is an uncomfortable quality in a deity, and is perhaps one of the most serious charges made by the “dark siders.” The fortunes of war are legendary for their transience, no matter what cultural heritage is considered. It is my contention that Odin’s plan is founded upon continued improvement and growth for the human race, as well as personal, individual, excellence. Odin is dedicated to helping mankind grow beyond its limits. Odin grants victory when it does not conflict with that larger purpose. He doesn’t give victory to one person all the time, or even one race. The larger plan may require significant sacrifices from his followers, even to the extent that a foreign religion like christianity might be given sway for a thousand years. It is my contention that he gave the Vikings what glory he did specifically so that they would be remembered – almost every child in the United States knows of Odin, Thor, and the Vikings don’t they? He has left us the tools we need to recover what is of value from the elder tradition, and to weed out what is counterproductive to the continued growth of humankind. It is the duty of the Odhinnic warrior to trust that Odin’s plan will benefit mankind sufficiently to make the sacrifices worthwhile. It is a matter of honor for those warriors to meet whatever Wyrd sends their way with personal excellence – whether victory or defeat. It is important to remember that for warrior peoples the greatest and most lasting glory is given to the dying hero, because when death is your Wyrd, it bears no shame if you meet it well.
‘He was described as a “stirrer of strife” and the leader of the Wild Hunt, as well as being the special patron of poets – a largely peaceful pastime.’ The charge of being a stirrer of strife may be answered by acknowledging that contention causes growth. Change will only occur with the introduction of need into the equation. The natural urge of most people is to keep everything as stable as possible – if someone doesn’t rock the boat, there is no important change. As for poetry and the Wild Hunt, they are both forms of ecstatic experience, and Odin is definitely the god of ecstasy. I would also draw your attention to the fact that poetry is the tool that kept our traditions alive when all else failed.
Finally – ‘He is portrayed as using cunning and deceit to win his objectives, while the hallmarks of Asatru are honor, truth, and loyalty.’ As recorded in the Havamal, it is a Teutonic ideal to be truthful to your friends, but to return lies with lies. Among the ancient northern european peoples, cunning was a valued quality in both men and gods. In addition, one of the lessons of Odin is that knowledge must be won. In his use of cunning to win the mead of inspiration, he mirrors the actions of Prometheus. Even Tyr used cunning to eliminate the threat of the Fenris wolf. In the minds of our heathen ancestors, it was a good thing to vanquish your foes using any tool at your disposal, including trickery. To judge Odin’s actions against the Jotuns, we must avoid the application of christian notions such as ‘turning the other cheek.’ Our Gods are not omnipotent – they reflect the human position in the universe, like us they are fighting for survival against unbelievable odds. In the war they wage, there is no room for weakness.
The next area we need to explore is the various religious practices associated with this god in antiquity.
There are many religious practices associated with the worship of Odin. One such was the practice of blood sacrifice. Until the advent of christianity, most religions practiced ritual sacrifice, and the religion of the northern Europeans was certainly no exception. It is recorded that animals and humans were hanged as sacrifices to Odin at Uppsala, and some have speculated that the humans were criminals. It is my contention that blood sacrifice was important in the worship of Odin because it was important to those who worshipped him, not because it was mandated by Odin himself. Also, one is hard pressed to find support in the Eddas or Sagas for this practice, important though it might have been to the people of the day. In justification of the source of this practice, the reader would do well to consider that the killing of animals for food was an everyday reality, and to sanctify it as a sacrifice was likely a holy and accepted practice.
A unusual facet of sacrifices to Odin, especially in Sweden, is that they were not typically consumed by the people after the rite, but were left to the elements. This is at odds with the general germanic practice of sacrifical slaughter followed by a formal feast. Certainly, the practice of hanging the sacrifice must be related to the hanging of Odin on the world-tree to win the runes, but what is the source of this unusual habit of leaving the sacrifice untouched? In the Voluspa, Odin is described as claiming the enemy (the Vanir in this case) by casting his spear over them. It is possible that this might obliquely refer to a practice wherein items sacrificed to Odin could not be used by man. There exist accounts of the equipment from entire armies being sacrificed, which may be another reference to Odhinnic practices. It is possible that bloody sacrificial worship of Odin was largely confined to Sweden, and may have been a substitute for the older sacrifices given in the form of war-tribute. Certainly, the Swedish peoples possesed a relatively stable kingship during the time that accounts of the Uppsala sacrifices were recorded. It is also possible that these accounts were somewhat exaggerated by the historian who recorded them on the basis of religious differences.
There were a number of other practices associated with the Odhinnic cult during the Viking age, including the erection of rune stones, rune magic and Galdor, fertility rites, and heroic poetry. These practices were essentially peaceful and bloodless, in sharp contrast to human and animal sacrifice. In the worship of Odin, the germanic peoples demonstrated the incredible diversity that is the hallmark of their religious practices.
It is perhaps enough to say that Odin is a deity of contrasts – God of the dead, God of the hanged, God of cargo, God of poetry, God of magic, and God of war, among many others. It is he who is credited with the preparations for Ragnarok, and for the survival of the human race after it. He gave mankind life, and works yet to protect mankind. The ancient Vikings died with the light of Valhalla in their eyes. Many ascended a column of smoke to his halls in preparation for the final conflict.
In closing, I would say that the only darkness associated with Odin is that which the worshipper brings himself, the fear of death and the fear of the unkown. In the new Germanic revival, the followers of the Norse Gods and Goddesses must view the practices of the ancient Vikings with an eye to bringing forward only those things which are of value to today’s Asatruar. Our need is not to resurrect the past, along with its mistakes, but to forge a new path which combines the strength of our ancestral beliefs with the improved understanding of the modern world. It is Odin’s rede that we strive to improve the human race. We must not fail in this task.