The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin

Chapter 1

Page 2

The belief in immortality in connection with the cult of Othin is stated as follows in Ynglinga s. 10: -- "The Swedes often thought that Othin appeared to them when a great battle was impending; to some he gave victory, while others he summoned to him; either alternative seemed good." This attitude of mind was displayed by Sigmundr, who, when he lay mortally wounded, spoke as follows (Volsunga s. 12) : -- "It is Othin's will that we shall no longer draw the sword, now that it is broken; I have fought so long as it pleased him; .... I will now go to seek our kinsfolk who are already departed." This is to be compared with Yngling s. 10, where Othin on his deathbed is represented as saying that he was about to go to Goðheimr and to greet his friends there. It is likely however that these passages are due to the influence of Christian ideas. The heathen spirit is more clearly to discerned in the dying words of Ragnar Loðbrók (Krakumál 29, cf. p. 10): "I will gladly drink ale on the highseat among the Aesir; the hours of my life are ended; I will die laughing." But the view that "either alternative (victory or death) was good" did not always prevail. Thus in Halfs s. 13 (F.A.S. II. 45), when King Halfr has fallen with a great part of his army, Innsteinn, one of his followers, says: -- "We owe Othin an evil reward for robbing such a king of victory." So also in Saga
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Ketils hængs 5 (F.A.S. II 132 ff., 139), Framarr, to whom Othin had granted victory and immunity from the effects of Iron, says, when mortally wounded: -- "Balder's father has now broken faith; it is unsafe to trust him." Othin is represented as turning against his heroes at the last. Another example occurs is Saxo's account of the 'bellum Brauicim' (VIII. p. 390), where Haraldus finds that Othin has betrayed the secret of the 'wedge' (see p. 21) to his rival Ringo. He then discovers that Othin has taken the place of his councillor Bruno and is acting as charioteer to him. In spite of his prayers, Bruno throws Haraldus down to the ground and kills him. So also in Saxo v. p. 238) the army of the Huns in its distress is deserted by a certain 'Uggerus uates' of uncertain though more than human age. This man, who is clearly Othin (Icel. Yggr), goes over to Frotho and betrays to him the plans of the Huns. Othin is called "faithless" also in Hrólfss. D=Kraka c. 51 (F.A.S. I. 107), where Bodhvr Biarki looking on the ranks of the enemy says that he can not discern Othin, yet strongly suspects that he is flitting about amongst them, "the fouled and faithless son of Herian. " Othin's unfairness is made a taunt against him in Lokasenna 22; Loki says: -- "Be silent, Othin, thou hast never been able to order the course of war (fairly); often hast thou given victory to cowards, who did not deserve it" (cf. also Hárbardhsliódh 25). An explanation of Othin's inconstancy and unfairness is suggested in Eireksmál 24 ff.; when Othin praises Eirekr, who is now approaching the gate of Valholl, Sigmundr asks him: "Why hast thou deprived him of victory if thou thoughtest him to be brave?" Othin answers: "Because it cannot clearly be known when the gray of wolf shall com against the abodes of the gods." The meaning obviously is that Othin wishes to have great champions amongst his 'Einheriar' to help him in his struggle against the wolf. So also in Grímnismál 23 the Einheriar are represented as going forth to battle against the hostile powers.

It is still doubtful how great an antiquity can be claimed for the Scandinavian doctrine concerning the end of the world. Until this is settled it is clearly impossible to decide whether the explanation of Othin's inconstancy given in Eireksmál is in accordance with ancient belief or is a conception of the tenth century poets. It has been shown in the preceding pages that persons killed in battle were regarded as passing to Valholl. Now since Othin's heroes usually fell in barrel, and Othin had the control over victory and death (cf. p. 11), it follows that, as soon as death in battle came to be regarded as undesirable, a belief in Othin's inconstancy must necessarily arise, and some explanation of this inconstancy be furnished.

There seem to be traces of one other sacrificial or semi-sacrificial rite connected with the cult of Othin. In the Ynglinga saga Othin is represented as a king who had once ruled in Sweden. The account of his life ends as follows (c.10): -- "Othin died of sickness in Sweden; and when he was at death's door he had himself marked with the point of a javelin and appropriated to himself all men who met their death by arms; he said that he was about o go to Godhheimr and greet his friends there." That this is to be regarded as the establishment of a custom is made probable by the description of the death of Niordhr in the following chapter: -- "Niordhr died of sickness, he also had himself marked for Othin before he died." There are no certain references to such a custom elsewhere, so far as I am aware. But in Hyndluliódh 28, after the enumeration of Óttarr's ancestors, the following sentence occurs (referring perhaps only to the persons mentioned in the same verse): "They were men marked with a sign for the gods." It is remarkable that the same expression is used by Starkadhr in Gautreks s. 7 (F.S.A. II.35), when he is describing the sacrifice of Vikar: "I had to mark (or possible "decided to mark") Vikar with a sign for the gods." If this refers to his stabbing Vikar with Othin's javelin (cf. p.4), the passage in Hyndluliódh may very well be a reminiscence of some such rite as that described in Ynglinga s. 10,11. At the same time, however, the absence of evidence from any other source must be taken as showing that the rite was not well known, and probably not practiced in the last days of heathendom. The rite was clearly regarded by the writer of Ynglinga saga as a substitution for death in battle.

In the account of the sacrifice of Vikar in Gautreks s. 7 (see p. 3 f.) the complicated nature of the ceremonial, above all the combination of stabbing and hanging at the same time, would naturally lead on to the conclusion that th story gives more or less faithful picture of the ritual actually employed in sacrifice to Othin. It is true that the present test of the saga is late, but since the story was known to Saxo (VI. p. 276 f.) in practically the same form, it must have been current at any rate before the end of the 12th century, that is to say not more than 100-150 years after human sacrifices had ceased to be practiced. Bugge however (Studier over de nordiske Gude- og Heltesagns Oprindelse, p. 315) holds that the story has been affected by a myth to which reference is made in Hávamál 138: -- "I know that I hung full nine nights on the gallows (or 'windy tree') wounded by the javelin and given to Othin, myself to myself" etc. It seems to me totally unnecessary to suppose that the account of the Vikar-sacrifice has been built up out of this myth. But, as the question has been raised, it will be well to examine other passages in which sacrifices are described, with a view to ascertaining, if possible, the means employed for putting the victim to death.

Apart from the two examples mentioned above there is no example of the employment of hanging and stabbing combined. Indeed, apart from these cases, there is no example of the stabbing of a victim. Yet the javelin is frequently associated with Othin. His own peculiar weapon is the javelin Gungnir (skaldsk. 3). It is with a javelin that he has himself marked before his death according to Yngl. 10 (cf. p. 13 f.). When Dagr sacrifices to Othin (Helgakv. Hundingsvana II. 27, prose), Othin lends him his javelin, with which he stabs Helgi. So also in Volsunga s. 11 (F.A.S. I. 145) Sigmundr in his last battle met a man who had one eye and held a javelin in his hand. When Sigmundr attacked him with his sword he received the blow on his javelin; the sword then snapped in two pieces. So again in Egils s. ok Ásmundar c. 17 (F.A.S. III.407) Othin is said to have stabbed Ásmundr with his javelin. The practice of dedicating the enemy to Othin by throwing a javelin over their army (cf. p. 7) may also be compared.

References to sacrificial hanging are fairly frequent. At the great festival which, according to Adam of Bremen, (IV. 27) took place every nine years at Upsala (cf. p.6), the bodies of the victims, human and animal alike, were hung in the grove close to the temple. It has been shown (p.6) that it was customary to put to death prisoners captured in war as a sacrifice to Othin. Such persons appear to have been frequently hanged. Thus according Ynglinga s. 26 Iorundr and Eirikr captured Gudhlaugr, king of the Háleygir, and hanged him. In Yngl. 28 Gýlaugr son of Gudhlaugr captures and hang Iorundr. In the verse quoted from Thiódholfr in this passage the gallows is called "Sleipnir" -- the name of Othin's horse. So also with persons arrested in acts of hostility or trespass generally. Thus in Saxo I. p.28 Gro warns Bessus that there father Sigtrug will overcome and hang him. Several cases of hanging occur in the cycle of stories relating to Iormunrekr. Thus according to Saxo VIII. p. 411 Iarmericus captured and hanged forth Slavs, hanging wolves with them. Saxo adds that this insulting punishment was formerly reserved for persons who had been guilty of "parricidium." According to Saxo VIII. p. 413 Iarmericus hanged hid nephews, who he had captured in war. In Hamdhismál 18 Handhir and Sorli, on their arrival at the court of Iormunrekr, find "their" (or "his") "sister's son hanging wounded on the beam, the wind-cold tree of the criminal, west of the palace." Possible this is a reference to the same event. In v. 22 of the smae poem Iormunrekr commands his men to hang Hamdhir and Sorli. Hanging was a frequent method of executing capital punishment, especially, it seems, in the case of persons guilty of adultery or seduction. The most famous case is the hanging of Hafbardhr (Hafbarthus; Saxo VII. p. 345), of which reference is frequently made in Scandinavian poetry. So also, according to Skáldskaparmál 47, Iormunrekr has his son Randver hanged, when he hears that he has committed adultery with his wife Svanhildr. In saxo's account (VIII. p.413 f.) of the same event, where Randver is called Broderus, the punishment is only formal. A case of suicide by hanging is given by Saxo I. p. 60. Hundingus had been drowned in a vat at a wake held through false news of Hadingus' death; Hadingus on hearing the news hanged himself in the sight of his people. There are two examples from foreign sources which prove the great antiquity of sacrificial hanging among the Swedes. Procopius (GothicWar II. 15) says that the sacrifice which is most valued by the people of Thule (i.e. Sweden and Norway), is that of the first man whom they capture in war. "This sacrifice they offer to Ares since they believe him to be the greatest of the gods. They sacrifice the prisoner not merely by slaughtering him but by hanging him from a beam, or casting him among thorns, or putting him to death by other horrible methods." In Beowulf 2939 the Swedish King Ongenþeo, after slaying Hædheyn, king of the Geartas, and besieging the remnants of his army in a wood, is represented as threatening the fugitives "that in the morning he would destroy them with the edge of the sword; some he would hang on gallows-trees as a joy to the birds(?)." The period, to which Procopius' information about "Thule" applies, is the first half of the sixth century. In all probability the same is true also of Beowulf (cf. p.50), though Ongenþei, who is rather a person of the past to the chief characters in the story may have died before A.D. 500.

It is true that Othin is not mentioned in any of these passages, except in the one quoted from Procopius, where Ares is probably meant for Othin. Yet that these sacrifices were intended for him is made probable by the following considerations: (1) It was customary to sacrifice prisoners to Othin on the battlefield (cf. p.6 ff.); there is no record of such sacrifices being offered to any other god. (2) There is no mention of hanging in sacrifices to other gods. Human victims were indeed offered to Thor, but these appear to have been put to death by being felled with a club or other wooden instrument. On the other hand the association of Othin with the gallows is frequently mentioned. Among his names (besides Galga-farmr "burden of the gallows," which perhaps has reference to Háv. 138 f.), we find Galga-gramr, Galga-valdr, Hanga-dróttinn, Hanga-týr, Hanga-gudh etc., all denoting "lord" or "god of the gallows." According to Unglinga s. 7 Othin was in the habit of sitting under a gallows. The passage perhaps refers to an obscure verse of Hávamál (155), the meaning of which seems to be as follows: "If I see a strangled corpse swinging upon a tree, I cut and paint 'runes' (on the body ?) in such a way, that the man comes and talks with me." With this may be compared an unpublished passage of Jómsvíkinga-drápa 3 quoted by Vigfusson (Dict. p. 238b): "I did not get the share of Othin under the gallows" which Vigfusson takes to mean "I am no adept in poetry." There can be no reasonable doubt that the hanging of prisoners taken in war was regarded as a sacrifice to Othin. It is at least probable also that in such cases as those quoted above, the hanging of criminals was regarded in the same light. For the close connection between sacrifice and capital punishment it will be sufficient here to refer to Golther, Mythologie p. 548f.

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