The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin



SINCE the appearance of H. Petersen's book, Om Nordboernes Gudekyrkelse og Gudetro i Hedenold (1876), it has been generally agreed that the cult of Othin was not indigenous in the North. The date of its introduction is however very difficult to fix, even approximately. Among recent writers Goither (Mythologie, p. 223) holds that this took place at all events before 800; while Mogk (Paul's Grundriss, I. p. 1070) believes that it came to the Saxons before they settled in Britain (in the fifth century), and passed over to the North, not much later, by way of Denmark; Othin however did not become the central point of the Northern mythology before the Viking Age (ib. p. 1063). By an examination of all the available evidence it might perhaps be possible to arrive at a somewhat more definite result.

1. The name “Othin” (Óðinn from earlier Wöðenas).

It is clear that this word must have become known to the Scandinavians at a time when the loss of the sound w- before labial vowels bad not yet ceased to operate. The loss of this sound brought about the disuse of the letter w in the Runic alphabet. For the name of the letter was probably * wunju (cf. O.E. wyn), which later became sounded *unju (1); the letter u therefore took the place of w. The earliest certain example of this substitution occurs in the inscription of Kallerup, which has the form suiþks for swiðings. A probable example of the sound-change is supplied by the form urti in the inscription of Sölvesborg. (2) Wimmer dates the inscription of Sölvesborg at about 750—775 and that of Kallerup at about 800—825. I am under the impression that Wimmer's dating of the inscriptions is in all cases somewhat too late. In the present case however that is of little importance. The loss of the sound w- took place at all events after the syncope of final -a, and this latter change is not likely to have taken place before the beginning of the sixth century, and may be somewhat later. The word Óðinn therefore can not prove the existence of the cult before the sixth century at the earliest.

2. The legends of Othin-heroes.

The antiquity of some of these legends is shown by their appearance in Beowulf, a poem which deals almost exclusively with Scandinavian affairs. Beowulf's acquaintance with Scandinavian history does not extend to events which happened later than the first half of the sixth century, and it may be assumed with a certain amount of probability that legends, which appear in the poem, were already current by this time either among the English or among some of the Northern peoples.

      i. The story of Sigrnundr, son of Völsungr. It has long been recognised that the cult of Otbin is an essential feature in the history of the Völsung family (ef. Müllenhoff, Z. f. d. A. XXXIII. 116 ff.). This is true above all in the case of Sigmundr. Othin gives Sigmundr a sword with which he is always victorious until his last battle, when the sword breaks on Othin's javelin (cf. p. 16). In the Eireksmál Sigmundr is represented, together with Sinfiötli (his son by his son Signý), as welcoming Eirekr at the gates of Valhöll. Reference is made in Beowulf (875 ff) to legends about Sigemund and Fitela (i.e. Sinfiötli), though it is stated only that the latter was the son of Sigemund's sister, (3) not of Sigemund himself. The evidence is however hardly conclusive for proving that Othin-heroes were known to the Danes at this time; for Beowulf is an English poem, and the legend, which seems not to have been Scandinavian originally, might have been known to the poet before it came to the Danes.

ii. Hermóðr. This hero is mentioned together with Sigmundr in Hundlulióð 2 :—“ He (Othin) gave Hermóðr a helmet and coat of mail, and Sigmundr a sword.” (4) Hermóðr therefore, like Sigmundr, appears to have been under Othin's special protection. In Hákonarmál Hermóðr together with Bragi welcomes Hákon at the gates of Valhöll, discharging therefore the duty which in Eireksmál is allotted to Sigmundr. Legends about this hero must once have existed, but now his name is only known from these two passages. It is Unnecessary for the present purpose to discuss the question whether he is really identical with the god Hermóðr who is mentioned in the account of Balder's death (Gylf. 49). The latter seems to be the Hermóðr to whom reference is made in Sögubrot at fornkonungum 3 (F. A. S. I. 373). It is noticeable that in both the passages in which his name occurs, Hermóðr is associated, either directly or implicitly, not only with Othin but also with Sigmundr. Now in Beowulf, 898 ff, Sigemund is compared with a certain Heremod, who, like Hermóðr appears to have been a great warrior. Since the names Hermóðr and Heremöd are identical, and both occur in conjunction with Sigmundr-Sigemund, it is very probable that they denote the same person. in that case there is evidence in Beowulf for the existence of another Othin-hero. This case also is not open to the same objection as that of Sigmundr, for it is quite clear from Beowulf 913, 1709 if., that Heremod was regarded as a Danish king, though belonging to a past generation.

 iii.        Starkaðr This hero was regarded by the Danes as the typical servant of Othin (cf. p. 71). His story has acquired mythological features, but there seems to be a certain amount of historical foundation for that part of his career, in which he is associated with the Danish kings Fróði (Frotho) and Ingialdr (Ingellus). Now the episode in which Starcatherus incites Ingellus to murder the sons of Suertingus (Saxo VI. pp. 303—315), cannot be separated from Beowuif's account of the old warrior (eald œsowiga), who goads Ingeld into revenge (2041 ff.). The warrior's name is not mentioned in Beowulf, but there can be little doubt that he is identical with Starcatherus. His position differs from that of Sigemund and Heremod in that he is represented as a contemporary of Beowulf, while the others are already heroes of the past. He belongs to the Heaðobeardnas, a tribe which has not been successfully identified; yet since Frotho and Ingellus appear in Saxo as Danish kings, it is probable that the Heaðobeardnas were nothing more than a division of the Danes, and that their war with the Scyldingas was dynastic rather than national. It is impossible to suppose that Starcatherus (Starkaðr) was regarded by Saxo and the Norse writers otherwise than as a Scandinavian hero. It is to be observed also that in Saxo Starcatherus is not represented as the introducer of a new cult, but, on the contrary, as an essentially conservative character. It is reasonable therefore to suppose that the cult of Othin was in existence before his time.

On the whole therefore the acquaintance of Beowuif with the Othin-heroes Sigmundr and Hermóðr and with a person who seems at a later time to have developed into the Othin-hero Starkaðr, renders it probable that the cult of Othin was already known to the Danes in the first half of the sixth century.

3. The institutions and customs associated with the cult of Othin.

i. Sacrificial hanging. It has been shown that the custom of hanging is known to Beowuif both in the case of enemies captured in war (cf. p. 18), and apparently also in cases of natural or accidental death (cf. p. 38 t). In the former case the practice is attributed to the Swedish king Ougentheo, whose death, judging from Beowulf, would seem to have taken place about the end of the fifth century. It has further been pointed out (p. 17 f.) that the practice of hanging, as a distinctly sacrificial act, is attributed to the Scandinavians by Procopius, who says that human victims are sacrificed in this and other ways to “Ares.” It has often been supposed that the god here meant is Týr; but there is little evidence in favour of such an assumption. Týr is an unimportant figure in the northern mythology, and there is no record of human sacrifices being offered to him. The sacrifice by hanging is never mentioned in connection with any other god than Othin, Thor's victims being put to death in an entirely different manner cf. p. 19). That “Ares” might be used for Othin is shown, not only by the fact that Othin was regarded as the giver of victory, but also by Saxo's use of “Mars” in the same sense cf. p. 18, n. 3). Procopius' information was perhaps derived from those Eruli who had been in “Thule.” Together with the passage from Beowulf quoted above, his account renders it probable that the cult of Othin was practised in the North about the beginning of the sixth century.

ii.        Weapons and tactics in warfare. There is a very strong resemblance between the method of warfare attributed to Othin's heroes in Ynglinga s. 6 and the method practised by the Eruli in the sixth century (cf. p. 39 f.). In its main features also this method of warfare seems to have resembled that practised by the ancient Germans of Tacitus' time. The absence of defensive armour is a distinctive feature in all these cases. Further the “wedge” formation, which was greatly practised by the ancient Germans, was believed by the Scandinavians to be an invention of Othin's (cf. p. 21). Among the ancient Germans the absence of defensive armour is in all probability to be attributed to the difficulty experienced in obtaining it. With the Eruli of the fifth and sixth centuries this can hardly have been the case; their reluctance to use armour must have been based, at least in part, on religious grounds (cf. p. 40). This association however between religion and the custom of fighting unprotected would rather seem to show that the cult had been known at a time when defensive armour had not yet come into use. Now, if, on the same principle, we are justified in assuming that the equipment attributed to Othin's heroes in Ynglinga saga shows that, at the time when the cult was introduced, defensive armour was still unknown, then the introduction of the cult can hardly be dated later than the beginning of the fifth century. For the discoveries at Thorsbjærg and Nydam (cf. p. 62) show that both the helmet and coat of mail were known to the inhabitants of Slesvig and southern Jutland during the fourth century, and also that by the same time the sword and the long spear bad, to a great extent, taken the place of the javelin. Weapons used in Slesvig during the fourth century could hardly fail to be known in Sweden within the space of another hundred years. (5)

Lastly it perhaps deserves notice that the “runes” are frequently mentioned in connection with Othin, not merely in the sense of “mysteries,” but also as denoting the written characters. There seem to be traces of a similar association of ideas amongst the ancient English (cf. p. 29). Unfortunately however the age of the Runic inscriptions in the North is still a matter of dispute. On the whole it seems probable that the oldest inscriptions of Sweden and Norway are not later than the fifth century. This however gives no indication of the date at which writing was introduced. It is not likely that a single inscription in England dates from within a hundred and fifty years of the first invasion; there are only two which have any reasonable claim to be dated before A.D. 650. The case of the so-called “tree-runes” may be compared. There can be little doubt that they are pan-Germanic; yet there is no certain example of their use in the North until late in the Viking age. Hence even if none of the extant Runic inscriptions prove to be earlier than the beginning of the sixth century, it is likely enough that the alphabet was known two or three centuries earlier.

The results of this discussion may be briefly summarised as follows: There is good reason, from several different sides, for believing that the cult of Othin was known in the North at the beginning of the sixth century; the positive evidence for proving an acquaintance with the cult before this time is not strong; but on the other hand there is no evidence whatever to the contrary.


1. The regular form in the later language would be *yn, but the word is lost. Back

2. The right reading may however be Ruti. Back

3. l. 881. earn his nefan. Back

4. gaf hann Hermóði
hiálm ok bryniu
en Sigmendi
sverð at þiggia. Back

5. The argument is of course, not conclusive. The description of Othin's equipment might also be due to a tradition imported from abroad simultaneously with the cult. The latter explanation would seem to necessitate the belief that the ritual use of the javelin was acquired together with the cult. Back

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