The son of Bor and Bestla, Odin the Allfather is the ruler of the Gods in the North. Raising to prominence during the Viking Age - eighth and ninth centuries. Odin is the true God of War, a God possessing supreme cunning. He is also known as “father of the slain”, as half of the valorous warriors who fall in battle join his army, the Einherjar, in preparation for the Ragnarok, during which, Odin will face down the terrible wolf Fenrir.
Odin is also associated with knowledge, sorcery, healing, death, battle, poetry, and the runic alphabet. He helped create Midgard with his brothers Vili and Ve, and he will be there during the final battle.
Odin was the recipient of many human sacrifices, especially those who were royalty, nobles, or from enemy armies. The sacrifices were typically completed by a spear, noose, or both. This was done in similarity of how Odin sacrificed himself by hanging on Yggdrasil for nine days, while pierced by his own spear Gungnir, to discover the secrets of the runes.
An Eye for Wisdom
Odin’s sacrifice to learn the Runes was not his first one in order to gain wisdom. The Allfather was always willing to pay any price for knowledge and was always looking for new quests. He wanted to understand life’s mysteries and answer every question. On one occasion, he headed towards Mimir’s Well, otherwise known as the Well of Urd. The well rested among one of the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil, and was home to Mimir, whose knowledge could not be matched by anyone else. Mimir had acquired his knowledge by drinking water from the well.
Odin wanted to take a drink from the well and asked Mimir for permission. Mimir agreed, but only if Odin would give him one of his eyes. It is unknown how much time passed after this demand, or whether or not Odin debated or argued with Mimir, but he did eventually gouge out one of his eyes and drop it straight into the well in front of Mimir. With the task complete, Mimir took his horn and dipped it into the well, retrieving a large drink of the enchanted water. Odin drank from the horn and received the wisdom it contained.
Much later, after the events of the Aesir-Vanir war (read more here), Mimir would be beheaded, and Odin would preserve his head for its counsel.
The discovery of the Runes
Sometime after sacrificing his eye, Odin decided it was time again to learn, and again another sacrifice was made. This time, he sacrificed “himself to himself” by hanging on Yggdrasil, the world-tree. He then stabbed his side with his spear Gungnir and remained there for nine nights and nine days, with no food nor water.
For nine days and nights He hung between life and death, peering down to the Well of Urd – the source of fate, which rested by the roots of the World Tree. Finally, on the end of the ninth day, the Allfather saw in the depths of the well the drawings made by the Norns, the damsels of fate, finally understanding them and thus gaining the knowledge of the Runes and of Fate itself.
The tale of Odin’s sacrifice is first told in the Old Norse poem Hávamál, “The Sayings of the High One”:
I know that I hung
On the wind-blasted tree
All of nights nine,
Pierced by my spear
And given to Odin,
Myself sacrificed to myself
On that pole
Of which none know
Where its roots run.
No aid I received,
Not even a sip from the horn.
I took up the runes –
Screaming I grasped them –
Then I fell back from there.
Family and animal companions
Odin is the son of Bor and Bestla. He has many other names, including Allfather and Alfadir, both signifying his reputation as the father of the Gods. He is married to Frigg, who is the mother of Balder, Hod, and Hermod. Odin fathered Thor with a Goddess named Jord and Vider with a giantess named Grid.
Odin has been described as having only one eye and a long beard. In artistic representations, he is often carrying his trusty spear named Gungnir and wearing a cloak and hat. He is usually being followed by his animal companions, the wolves Geri and Freki and the ravens Huginn and Muninn. He also owns a horse named Sleipnir who is able to fly and has eight legs. He often rides Sleipnir across the sky, specially during Yule – the winter solstice, which helped create the legend of the Wild Hunt (read more here). The mighty steed Sleipnir is also able to travel across the nine realms safely, and several times Sleipnir carried Odin or his envoys to the domains of Hel and back.
Triskele and Valknut
The most recognized symbols of Odin are the Valknut and the Triskele, or Triple Horn of Odin.
The Triskele It consists of three drinking horns, all interlocked, and is a common symbol of the Asatru faith. The symbol is a tribute to the three horns containing the mead of poetry, a beverage that granted knowledge and wisdom, which Odin took from a Jotunn through guile and cunning and shared with mankind (read more here).
The Valknut was most likely a symbol possibly used to send valorous warriors that had not died in battle to Valhalla, with Odin selecting those who would serve him best in the final battle of Ragnarök. The Valknut can be found in The four Stola Hamars Stones, in Gotland (Sweden):
Simek, Rudolf. 2007 (1993). Translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1
Orchard, Andy. 1997. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-34520-2
Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2
Faulkes, Anthony. Trans. 1982. Edda. Oxford University Press. ISBN-13: 9781389651922