Wyrd Words: Faces of Odin – Soldier, Scholar, Skald, and Skeptic
Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays!
Our community is fond of supporting a kind of romanticized “warrior ethos,” and sometimes we can get so wrapped up in those ideals that we lose sight of the gods’ other attributes. So many people worship “Thor the warrior” that often “Thor the farmer” is overlooked. I’m not saying that a “warrior ethos” is bad, as most of the Aesir and the Vanir ARE warriors; but that’s not ALL they are. Tyr may be a god of war, but he is also a god of justice. Thor may be the Jötunn-Slayer, but he is also responsible for bringing rain to the fields so the crops can grow.
Perhaps the most interesting example is the Allfather himself to which the simple, one-dimensional title of “War God” is not only an inadequate descriptor, it’s a disservice to the depth of his personality. Óðinn is such a complex and multifaceted deity that it’s difficult to grant him a single, all encompassing title. This is evidenced by the fact that it would probably be faster to write a list of all the things Óðinn’s NOT called than to make a comprehensive list of all his names! So who exactly IS Óðinn?
Part of what gives the Allfather such depth and character is all of the apparent contradictions he seems to embody. One aspect of Óðinn is the Soldier: the commander of the forces of Asgard, the god of war who is willing to march at the head of his army into a battle that he knows will be his last. This is the aspect of Óðinn that constantly tries to teach us the value of honor and the importance of duty and who sings songs of glory unending in the halls of Valhalla. If the depth of the Allfather ended here, “God of War” might be an apt title. Óðinn the Soldier is a icon of strength, discipline, and masculine virility right out of the Iron Age.
What, then, of Óðinn the Skald? Just when we think we’ve got a handle on this warrior archetype, we are introduced to an entirely different side: the pensive poet, who plays games with men’s lives and schemes in dark corners. Where the Soldier was a paragon of twelfth-century masculinity, championing ideals of honest contest and honorable combat, the Poet is a more feminine figure of guile and wit, relying on clever games and sorcery to achieve his goals. This more feminine side of Óðinn is also practitioner of Seiðr (often seen as “Women’s Magic”). These two characters seem not only inconsistent, but completely inimical. These people don’t just sound different, they sound like they would probably LOATHE each other. Yet Óðinn embodies both of these figures equally.
Another aspect of the Allfather is that of the Scholar. This is the wandering wise man that, throughout the Eddas, pursues an unending quest for new knowledge. We hear his voice in the verses of the Hávamál that tell us to “Ask well and answer rightly,” and in the many stanzas on wisdom and exploration. The Scholar tells us to go out into the world, meet new people, and learn what they have to say. He is open to new ideas, with a passion for the pursuit of wisdom that borders on optimistic idealism.
Then, sometimes in the space of a single verse, he can change his nature to that of the Skeptic: the jaded cynic who watches everything with a critical eye and warns us to always be prepared. The mantra of the Skeptic is: “Watch carefully, and be ready for anything.” Among the names of the Allfather are Báleygr and Bileygr. He is called the shifty-eyed, the wavering eye, the flaming eye, the flashing eye: all kennings for one who is suspicious of everything. Where the Scholar seeks to know what others have to say, the Skeptic (a ruthless pragmatist) wonders what their motives are for saying it.
Óðinn as a God of Questions
The common element between the Scholar and the Skeptic is their shared verve for asking good questions. In fact, that seems to be a core virtue of Óðinn’s diverse and multidimensional personality. He forces us to question our stereotypes by breaking the mold. He forces us to question social conventions by routinely violating them. He keeps us on our toes, constantly trying to guess what role he’ll choose to play next. His stories show us the value of observing and understanding the world around us and learning to evaluate that information for ourselves.
When someone asks me if I worship “Óðinn the War God”, I tell them that I revere “Óðinn the Scientist.” I follow a god of Reason, Knowledge, Exploration, and Critical Thinking. I believe that the true wisdom of Óðinn is in knowing how to ask a question.