The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin



Page 1

It has been customary in recent years to trace various features in the Othin-mythology to Christian sources. Some of the theories put forward on this subject appear at first sight more or less plausible. Practically however the whole question rests on the interpretation of Hávamál 138 f. If the explanation of this passage adopted by Munch and Bugge be accepted, many of the other theories may deserve consideration; if on the other hand this explanation be rejected, few will probably attach much importance to the rest. The passage runs as follows :—138 “I know that I hung full nine nights on the gallows tree (or “windy tree “) wounded by the javelin and given to Othin, myself to myself; on that tree, of which no one knows from whose roots it proceeds.” 139. “They cheered me (or “assuaged my hunger and thirst”) neither with bread nor drink; I looked down and took up runes, took them up crying; from thence I fell again.” (1) According to Bugge's theory the Norse vikings became acquainted with Christian doctrines in their expeditious among the Western Islands during the ninth century. These doctrines, though at first totally foreign to the ideas of the Northern religion, yet became in course of time assimilated and transferred to Othin. I am not prepared altogether to deny the possibility of such a transference of religious ideas. Whether such particulars as the story of Leucius and Carinus (Bugge, Studier, p. 334 ff.) could be thus orally acquired seems to me more doubtful. Yet it is not absolutely impossible that some Northern bard should have had access to written texts. These details however are scarcely material to the main point.

According to Golther (Mythologie, p. 350), who in the main follows Bugge, there are two decisive points which establish the Christian origin of the story recounted in Háv. 138f. These are [1] that the god sacrificed himself; [2] that the gallows-tree, which was used for this purpose, became thereby emblematic of the world. These two points require separate treatment. It will be convenient to begin with the latter.

The identity of the world-tree with the tree on which Othin hung is inferred from the following facts: 1. The world-tree is called Yggdrasill (or Askr Yggdrasils), which is supposed to mean “Othin's horse”; 2. There is an unmistakable correspondence between the closing words of Háv. 138:

á þeim meiði,
er mangi veit,
hvers hann af rótum renn.

nýsta ek niðr
nam ek upp rúnar,
oepandi nam,
fell ek aptr þaðan.

       On the interpretation of vindga meiði (138, 2) and seldu (139, 1) see Bugge, Studier, pp. 292 f., 345 n. 3; Magnússon, Odin's Horse, pp. 18 footnote and 27 ff “on that tree of which no one knows, from whose roots it proceeds,” and Fiölsvinnsmál 19, 20:

hvat þat barr heitir,
er breiðask um
lönd öll limar?

Míma-meiðr hanu heitir,
enn þat mangi veit,
af hverium rõtum renn.

       “What is that tree (2) called, whose branches spread over all lands?" 20. “It is called 'Mima' -- tree, but no one knows from what roots it proceeds.”

  The hypothesis that Yggdrasill means 'Othin's horse,' in the sense of 'the horse (i.e. gallows) ridden by Othin,' does not seem to me to be satisfactorily established. In the first place the use of a compound instead of a dependent genitive in such a case is at least curious. Yggr is indeed a frequent name of Othin, but originally it would seem to have been merely an epithet. Though the word never occurs except as a name of Othin, is it not possible that in the compound its original sense may have been preserved—perhaps 'horse of terror' or something of the kind? Secondly, even if it be granted that Yggdrasill must mean 'Othin's horse' in the sense of 'gallows,' it does not necessarily follow that it denotes the gallows on which Othin himself hung. It might equally well denote the gallows on which Othin's victims were hanged.

Again, though there can scarcely be any doubt that some relationship exists between Háv. 138, 7—9 and Fiölsv. 20, the nature of this relationship is not so clear. It is unlikely that the somewhat awkward hvers hann af rótum renn of Hávamál should be taken from the simpler af hverium rótum renn of Fiölsvinnsmál. It is possible, however, that 138 is not the original passage in which these words occurred. The strophe is too long by three lines for the lióðaháttr metre, and it is hardly unreasonable to suggest that these three lines may be a later addition from some other (lost) poem. The motive for the interpolation would be the desire to explain vindga meiði in 1. 2. (3)

It is at least remarkable that, in all the passages which deal with the world-tree, there is not a single reference to its having served as Othin's gallows. Yet, according to Golther (pp. 350, 529 f.), it was precisely through this that the idea of a world-tree arose. Bugge also, while allowing that the people of the North may in very early times have conceived of a great, marvellous and holy tree, which did not belong to this earth, yet goes on to state (p. 527) that the subsequent development of this idea was due to Christian influences, and that the holy tree only obtained its full significance as 'worldtree' from its association with the Cross.

By far the most important parallel to the world tree seems to me to be furnished by the description of the Upsala tree in Schol. 134 to Adam of Bremen: props templum est arbor maxima late ramos extendens, aestate et hyeme semper uirens: cuius illa generis sit nemo scit. There is not an expression in this account which does not apply in some measure also to the world-tree. With late ramos extendens may be compared Fiölsv. 19: es breiðask urn lönd öll limar; with aestate et hyeme temper uirens may be compared Völ. R. 18: stendr œ yfir groenn Urðar brunni, 'it (i.e. the ash) stands ever green over the well of Urðr (Fate).' Again, though Bugge expresses some doubt on the point, there is at least a striking similarity between the expression cuius illa generis sit nemo scit and Fiölsv. 20: en þat mangi veit af hverium rótum renn. Possibly the scholiast here may have misunderstood his information. Again, the first words of the scholion: prope templum est arbor maxima etc. may be compared with Grimnismál 25:

Heiðrún beitir geit,
er stendr höllo á Heriaföðrs
ok bítr at Læraðs limom etc.

“There is a goat called Heiðrun which stands on Heriaföðr's (Othin's) hall and bites from the branches of Læraðr" – and 26:

Eikþyrnir heitir hiörtr,
er stendr á höllo Heriaföðrs,
ok bítr a! Læraðs limom etc.

“There is a hart called Eikþyrnir" etc. It is clear from these passages that the tree Læraðr stood close to the hall (Valhöll). According to the usual view, which is accepted by Bugge (p. 483; cf. also Golther, p. 529), Læraðr is either identical with Yggdrasill, or denotes the upper branches of the same. The description of the tree (or grove) Glasir in Skaldskaparmál 36 may also be compared:

Glasir stendr
með gullnu laufi
firir Sigtýs sölum.

       “Glasir stands with golden foliage in front of Sigtýr's (Othin's) halls." It is uncertain whether Glasir is identical with Yggdrasill or not. Again, with the expression arbor maxima may be compared Völ. R. 18: Mr baðmr heilagr.
Lastly, in the same scholion, immediately after the description of the tree, occurs the following sentence: ibi etiam eat fona ubi sacrificia paganorum solent exerceri et homo uiuus immergi, etc. Though tbe relative positions of the tree and the spring are not indicated, it might reasonably be inferred from the passage that they were not far apart. Here, therefore, again may be compared the words of Völ. R. 18:

       (Yggdrasill) stendr œ yfir groenu Urðar brunni.

Bugge (p. 502) seems to me to have greatly underrated the importance of this scholion in its bearing upon the world tree. He says there is no definite reference to the idea of a world-tree in the scholion, though (following Nyerup) he admits that the Upsala tree might possibly be a copy of the world-tree. On the other hand Mannhardt (Baumkultus, p. 57, foot-note) adduces a parallel from the account of Bishop Otto's journey to Stettin, A. D. 1124 (M. G. XII. 794): erat praeterea ibi quercus ingens et frondosa, et fons subter eam amoenissimus, quam plebs simplex numinis alicuius inhabitatione sacram existimans mayna ueneratione colebat. When the bishop wished to destroy the oak, the inhabitants succeeded in dissuading him saying: saluare illam potius quam saluari ab illa se uells. This passage shows that similar tree-sanctuaries were known on the continent. (4) It is impossible therefore to withstand Mannhardt's conclusion that 'Nyerup's Hypothese ist umzukehren.' This conclusion is further supported by the fact that the property assigned to the worldtree (Mimameiðr) in Fiölav. 22:

út af hans aldni
skal á eld bera
fyr killisiúkar konur.


1. veit ek at ek hekk
vindga meiði á,
nætr allar níu,
geiri undaðr
ok gefinn Óðni,
siálfr siálfum mér;
á þeim meiði
er mangi veit
hvers hann af rótum renn. við hleifi mik seldu
né við hornigi, Back

2. barr in reality denotes 'spine of a fir' etc. If the text is right, the post can not have known the meaning of the word. Back

3. Magnússon (Odin's Horse, p.22) retains II. 7—9 and regards II. 4—6 as interpolated (geiri undaðr ok | gefinn Óðni, | sialfr sialfum mér). But I do not see what could have given rise to such a curious interpolation. Back

4. They seem to have been especially important among the Lithuanians and Prussians, cf. Aeneas Sylvius, Hist. do Europa, XXVI. S. Grunau, Preussische Chronik, Tract. 2, Cap. V. § 2; Tract. 3, Cap. I. § 2. It is noteworthy that the sacred oak of the Prussians, like the tree at Upsala, was stets grün, winter und sommer. Back

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