odin

Odin the One-eyed (detail) on bronze doors at
Stockholm’s State Historical Museum

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Odin’s Eye: Its Nature, Origin, and Loss

Eye of the Beholder ~ Odin, the central figure of Norse mythology, is a one-eyed god, a feature that makes him instantly recognizable; so whenever an Icelandic saga mentions a one-eyed stranger entering a  nobleman’s hall, it is immediately apparent who it is.  Likewise, when we read that a traveler or hero meets a one-eyed man, we know with certainty that he has encountered Odin.  Along with his wolves, ravens, spear, and wide-brimmed hat, the lost eye is Odin’s most defining characteristic.

Eye on the Record ~ The earliest surviving literary reference to Odin’s missing eye is found in Hrafnsmál, written by the Norwegian skald Thorbjorn Hornklofi, who died around 945 CE.  This puts the oldest parts of Hrafnsmál as being written between 945 and 900 CE.  In this text, Thorbjorn refers to Odin as inum eineygja Friggjar faðmbyggvi, the “one-eyed husband of Frigg.”  Likewise, the earliest known explanation of why Odin lost his eye is found in Völuspá 28-29 (Wright translation):

Alone I sat outside when the aged one arrived
the wise Ruling Power, and looked me in the eye.
I challenged him, “What do you ask me?  Why do you try me?
I know and grant everything Odin, like, where you hid your eye in Mimir’s Well.
Mimir drinks mead every morning from your pledge. Yet, do you understand?”

The exact nature of the pledge is never given, though Snorri Sturluson took the liberty of filling in that blank (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning 14; 13th century); it is generally believed that Snorri constructed his idea based on the eye as a veðr, or “pledge, stake”.  According to Snorri, Odin asked Mimir for a  single drink from his well, a well that bestowed wisdom – the price of that request was Odin’s eye.  Among scholars, it is generally agreed that Völuspá was written toward the end of the 10th century, making it about 100 years later than Hrafnsmál.  Combined, these two are the earliest know reference to Odin’s lost eye, and the earliest known explanation.

Eyes on the Indo-Europeans ~ Though Dumézil (1) tried to find parallels with other one-eyed magic users and one-armed rulers among the Indo-European tribes – namely, Odin and Tyr – there is not enough supporting evidence to make a connection.  The only other one-eyed god is found in Lithuania, but Velinus’ one-eye is first mentioned in the 16th century, so it may have been acquired from the Odin myth.  Later still, from the 19th century, another explanation of Odin’s eye emerges: That he was a sun god, making his single eye a solar orb.  Then, in 1980, Branston (2) claims that “The eye of Odin .. is an emblem of the sun and Mimir’s drinking mead from it every morning a representation of the sun’s rising just as the hiding of the eye is the sun’s setting.”  As such, Branston equates Mimir’s Well with the ocean, an idea that conflicts with the descriptions of Mimir’s Well in older texts.  Further, if this idea is correct, then Odin’s pledge would be temporary, or his wisdom would not be permanent because it would rise and set with the sun.  Otherwise, this is the only time Odin has never been related to a sun god / sky father.  Later still, Kershaw (3) argues that the one-eyed god developed from an early Indo-European warrior cult whose members played a ritual game with nuts.  This cult, according to Kershaw, was the forerunner of the Germanic warbands, with which Odin has been associated.  However, like Dumézil’s theory, Kershaw’s argument suffers from lack of supportive evidence; for even he falls back on the later Lithuanian Velinus.  Agreeably, it is romantic to ruminate over tales of one-eyed sorcerers and berserk warriors, but when it comes to authentic evidence, there is none.

Odinn the Latecomer ~ The Danish archaeologist Karl Nikolai Henry Petersen, writing in 1876, suggested that *Wodana(z) may not have been one of the original Germanic gods.  According to this school of thought – which is widely supported by the academic community – the original sky father, Tyr / *Tiwa(z), was somehow usurped from his pre-historic role.  For example, one such viable theory is that *Wodana(z) was originally a Germanic adaptation of the Gaulish Mercury, or Lugos – the god known as Lug / Lugh in Irish mythology – and who was well attested throughout Roman Britain.  The factor that leads towards this idea is that Lugos appears in Romano-Celtic inscriptions before the later forms of *Wodana(z) appear in writing (which may only prove that the Gauls and Britons were dominated by a literate society while most of the Germans were still illiterate).  Either way, without the inscriptions, it could be argued that Lugos was a Celtic adaptation of *Wodana(z).

An intriguiing explanation of the rise of *Wodana(z) was proposed by Thomas W. Africa in 1970, and recently expanded upon by Michael Enright (1996).  Enright argues that *Wodana(z) developed from a cult arising from three historical figures: the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal; Quintus Sertorius, the 1st century BCE Roman governor of Iberia who rebelled against Rome; and, the 1st century Batavian chieftain, Julius Civilis.  Because of his Germanic connections, Civilis may be the most important candidate.  Tacitus, writing in his Histories (13-14), says that Civilis shared a facial disfigurement with Hannibal and Sertorius; namely, that they were all one-eyed.  In fact, Tacitus relates how Civilis stirred up a rebellion in Rome by consciously imitating Hannibal and Sertorius.  As the story goes, during a lavish feast, Civilis addressed the most prominent of his compatriots in a sacred grove, he invoked the past glories of the Batavi tribe, and obtained an oath of loyalty through this “barbaric rite”, which was accompanied by traditional – no doubt magical – curses.

Additionally, both Sertorius and Hannibal were said to have been masters of disguise; Sertorius in particular was noted for disguising himself and infiltrating his enemies to find out their plans.  Further, Sertorius had a strong interest in locating the Celtic version of the Elysian Fields, which he believe to be located on an island in the Atlantic.  Enright suggests that “one-eyedness, disguise, war leadership and a possible connection with a cult of the dead are simply too specific and too arresting to easily be dismissed as coincidental.”  Enright’s argument here centers on Odin’s nickname, Grimr, the “masked one”, and the occasional failure of characters in Norse literature to recognize Odin when he appears.  Even so, Odin does not always assume a disguise; instead, he mostly appears as himself.  In fact, based on the numerous descriptions, it seems unlikely that anyone would fail to recognize him, what with the “gray hair”, “beard”, “spear carrier”, “hooded”, “broad brim hat”, and “one eye” combination.  And, according to the Eddas, Odin does not normally travel in disguise, but incognito, always giving one of his many nicknames.  Clearly then, the idea that such a well-recognized character would not be noticed, is simply a narrative device.

Sertorius’ interest in the Celtic Underworld, and the role of *Wodana(z) in a cult of the dead, cannot be overlooked.  Enright shows that Sertorius went to great lengths to demonstrated supernatural knowledge, even claiming to receive messages from a white doe (symbolic of “heavenly favor”).  These “messengers”, according to Enright, are the origins of Odin’s oracular ravens.  Further, Enright links Odin’s spear, Gungnir, with the Celtic and Celtiberian javelin attacks upon Roman troops that Sertorius was known for.  However, does all this mean the Germans would have accepted him as a god?  Attila, Augustus Ceasar, Offa of Angeln, all were powerful examples of warlords who were hailed as “living gods”; so if Sertorius was ever considered a god, it would have been among the Celts, whereas Civilis would have been a more acceptable prospect among the Germanic tribes.

Time and again, Dumézil has shown that the basic structure of Indo-European religion is remarkably constant.  So, while Odin may indeed have taken on some attributes of the old Germanic sky god Tyr, there is little doubt that Odin mainly occupies another position altogether – primarily as the representative of magico-religious authority.  This is, of course, a reflection of the three strata into which the Indo-European cosmos was partitioned; namely as priests / kings, warriors, and farmers / workers.  This means that, although the names of these Indo-European gods change from one tribe to the next, their functions remain constant.  So that, *Wodana(z) might not always have been a recognizable Odin / Wodan, but the position was surely there long before the usurpation took place.

*To Be Continued*

References:

1-Georges Dumézil (1873), Gods of the Ancient Northmen.

2-Brian Branston (1980), Gods of the North.

3-Kris Kershaw (2000), The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Männerbünde.

4-Karl N.H. Petersen (1876), About the Norse God-Worship and God-Troth in Heathen Times.

5-Thomas W. Africa (1970), The One-Eyed Man Against Rome: An Exercise in Euhemerism.

6-Michael J. Enright (1996), Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age.

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