The Cult of Othin
THE STORY OF STARKAÐR.
The following story is told in Gautreks s. 7 (F. A. S. III. 32f.), immediately after the account of the lot-casting, through which king Vikar lost his life (cf. p. 3). Shortly before midnight Starkaðr was awakened by his foster-father Hrosshársgrani, and told to follow him. They took a small boat and rowed out to an island. Then they went up into the forest and came to a clearing, in which an assembly of considerable size was being held. Eleven men were seated on chairs, and there was another chair vacant. They came into the assembly and Hrosshársgrani sat down on the vacant chair. He was greeted by all as Othin. He said that they were assembled in order to decide Starkaðr's fate. Then Thor began as follows :—“Alfhildr, the mother of Starkaðr's father, chose a cunning giant, in preference to Asaþórr, to be the father of her son. I decree that Starkaðr shall have neither son nor daughter. His line shall thus come to an end.” Othin answered :—“ I decree that he shall live for three generations.” Thor said :—“ He shall work a dastardly deed in each generation.” Othin: "I decree that be shall have the best of weapons and clothes.” Thor: "I decree that he shall have neither land nor fief." Othin: “I grant him that he shall have moveable property in abundance.” Thor: “I determine that be shall never think he has enough.” Othin: “I give him victory and prowess in every battle.” Thor: “I determine that be shall receive a severe wound in every battle.” Othin: “I grant him the gift of poetry, so that he shall be able to compose as fast as he can speak.” Thor:
“He shall not be able to remember what he composes.” Othin: “I decree that he shall receive the greatest favour from the noblest and best of men.” Thor: “He shall be detested by all the commons.” They passed all these decrees about Starkaðr's fate, and the assembly then broke up. Hrosshársgrani then asks Starkaðr to reward him for the favourable decrees which he had made for him, and when Starkaðr signifies assent be demands his assistance in procuring Vikar's death: “thou shalt send king Vikar to me” (cf. p. 3 f).
This story is instructive in two respects. It shows, firstly, that Othin was thought to preside over certain departments of human life, while others were controlled by Thor. Othin grants  prolongation of life. According to Saxo (1) VI. p. 276 Othinus granted to Starcatherus thrice the ordinary span of life, in return for the sacrifice of Vicarus. With this may be compared the sacrifice of Aun (Ynglinga s. 29), who obtains prolongation of life by sacrificing one of his sons to Othin every tenth year. Othin grants  choice weapons and clothes and abundance of moveable wealth. With this may be compared Hyndlulióð 2:—” "He (Othin) makes grants and presents of gold to his following; he gave Hermóðr a helmet and coat of mail, and presented Sigmundr with a sword” (of. p. 51) (2) Othin is  the giver of victory. This requires no illustration (cf. p. 5 f.). He is  the giver of poetry (skáldskapr); cf. Saxo VI. p. 276:—”He endowed Starcatherus not only with valour but also with skill in the composition of songs." (3) So according to Ynglinga s. 6: “He (Othin) made all his speeches in verse in the same way in which we now recite what is called skáldskapr. He and his temple-priests are called song-smiths (lióðasmiðir) because they originated this art in the North.” Hyndlulióð 3 may also be compared: “He gives victory to some and money to others; eloquence and wisdom he grants to many men. He gives fair breezes to captains and diction to poets; valour he grants to many a champion” (4) Lastly Othin promises Starkaðr the favour of the nobility, while Thor denies him the good will of the commons. This agrees with the fact that the cult of Othin seems to have been practised chiefly, if not exclusively; at the courts of kings and nobles, while Thor remained the god of the commons. Hárbarðslióð 24 may be compared :— "Othin possesses the nobles who fall in battle, but Thor has the race of serfs.” (5) On the other band not only the good will of the commons, but also the granting of land and of children seem to be out of Othin's power. In the latter case Frö was perhaps more frequently invoked than Thor; (6) but probably the granting of land was usually attributed to Thor. He is called landáss "god of the land," and seems to have been the patron of the assembly. But these distinctions between the powers of the various gods may in part hold good only for the later days of heathendom, and were even then not always strictly observed. The story is important chiefly for its account of the blessings which the worshipper of Othin was supposed to enjoy.
Secondly, the story shows that the relations between Thor and Starkaðr were essentially different from those between Othin and Starkaðr Othin's decrees are all blessings; Thor's are the reverse. Thor is only once mentioned by Saxo in the passages which deal with Starcatherus, namely VI. p. 274, where it is stated that Starcatherus was supposed to have been of giant origin and had originally many bands, all of which except two were stripped off by Thor. But since Thor is always represented as hostile to giants, it may reasonably be inferred that he was hostile also to Starcatherus. Again it is perhaps worth mention that according to Saxo, VI. p. 278 Starcatherus, after staying seven years in Sweden with the sons of Frö, was so disgusted with the rites practised at the Upsala sacrifices, that he returned to Denmark. This passage seems to show that Starkaðr was hostile to the worship of Frö. On the other hand he is very closely associated with the cult of Othin; for according to Gautreks saga Othin was his foster-father. The story of his compact with Othin and the consequent sacrifice of Vikar is known both to Gautreku saga and to Saxo.
Starkaðr has usually been regarded as the typical Northern warrior of old time. This is true; but in reality he is far more. He is also the chief of the legendary Northern poets. If I am not mistaken, he was regarded in early times as the typical worshipper of Othin.
1. The story related above does not occur in Saxo. Back
2. hanngeldr ok gefr gull verðungu:
gaf hann Hermóði
hiálm ok bryniu, ok Sigmundi
sverð at þiggia. Back
3. Starcatherum...... non solum animi fortitudine, sed condendorum carminum pericia illustrauit. Back
4. gefr hann sigr sumum,
en sumum aura,
ok mannvit fírum
byri gefr bane brögnum
en brag skaldum,
gefr bane mannsemi
mörgum rekki. Back
5. Cf. p. 26 f. and the passage from Saxo there quoted. Back
6. Cf. Adam of Bremen IV. 26. Back