Origin of Odin
by Edward Dawson, 1 January 2014
There has always been something a little odd about
the Norse and/or German god called Odin, O∂inn, Wodan or Wotan.
For one thing his name was not a personification of some
natural or supernatural force. For another, Norse tales about him describe a
magician, not a god. Normally this might invite curiosity and investigation,
but this time an analysis from another direction also led very inevitably
I have always been fascinated by names and their meanings.
Names and words in general change over time. When analysing Celtic names,
there were several times when I encountered a hard 'g' or hard
'k' sound where older or related forms of the same name had a 'w' sound.
The first example was 'coed' or 'goed' in Welsh, which means a
forest. In English the cognate is 'wood'. I know about the shift in
Welsh pronunciation during the Dark Ages in which 'w' became a 'gu' or
'gw' sound. Wenet (Venedotia in Latin) became Gwynedd (in North Wales). The
British tribe called the Votodini (Wotodin) by the Romans became
Guotodin and then Gododdin.
The problem was that a forest was already called a coed
in Brythonic and Gaulish before the Romans arrived. From this I concluded
that such a 'w' to 'gu' or 'ku', or 'gw' or 'kw' shift had occurred twice
in Celtic languages, the first shift occurring in pre-history. The first
written mention of Celts is by the Greeks, who called them Celtoi. Later
they referred to the Celts as Galatians. In both cases a hard 'k' or 'g'
followed by an 'l' and a 't' are in the name. So if the original name began
with a 'w', where is the evidence? The evidence is in what Germans have
always called them: 'Wahl'-ish. Apparently the 't' sound was softened to
'th' and then dropped.
So what does all this have to do with Odin?
Quite a lot. My jaw dropped when I saw the word for
the very same god that was used by the German Lombard/Langobardi tribe:
According to Paulus Diaconus (de Gestis
Langobardorum (History of the Langobards), i. 9), it was written
'Godan', or 'Guodan' (Appendix II, page 327 in the PDF version):
"...Then the leaders of the Wandals [Vandals],
that is, Ambri and Assi, moved with their army, and said to the
Winniles: "Either pay us tributes or prepare yourselves for battle
and fight with us." Then answered Ybor and Agio, with their mother
Gambara: "It is better for us to make ready the battle than to pay
tributes to the Wandals." Then Ambri and Assi, that is, the leaders
of the Wandals, asked Godan that he should give them the
victory over the Winniles...
Guodan is again very suggestive of that 'w' to 'gu' shift
that I am proposing.
Were the Lombards a mixed Celt/German population? And if
so, what was the real meaning of the word? Was it a German word or a
Celtic word? What were they describing? A magician, yes?
Strabo's work contains this key passage:
"...Amongst [the Gauls] there are generally three
divisions of men especially reverenced, the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids
(para pasi d' hōs epipan tria phula tōn [p. 270] timōmenōn
diapherontōs esti, bardoi te kai ouateis kai druidai).
Don't try to tell me that 'ouateis' ('wateis') is the
Latin word 'vates'. Strabo was writing in Greek, and he used the Celtic
words, bards and druids (in Greek spellings, of course), so ouateis is
also the Celtic word, and a close cognate to vates in Latin.
'Odin Rides to Hel', an illustration by WG Collingwood from The
Elder or Poetic Edday
Germanic or Gaulish?
The Origins of the Huns
The Suevi in Iberia
RULERS OF EUROPE:
History of the Langobards (PDF)
Indo-European Dictionary Translator
Indo-European Etymological Dictionary by J Pokorny
Shamanism in Siberia
Strabo (Book VII, Ch II)
Julius Caesar (Ch 50)
A vates is a diviner, a type of magician. And as anyone knows who has
actually done magic, divination and evocation/invocation are very
closely related activities. You cannot successfully divine without
So what does this have to do with Odin? The older
form of his name is pronounced Wotan or Wodan.
So the Latin vates - noun, masculine - seer, prophet.
The cognate in Irish is fāith, where the 'v' became an 'f' as
it normally does in Gaelic. I suspect the Celtic word was close to
Pokorny states: Anglo-Saxon - Wōden - (prop. n.masc)
is given as a reflex (a cognate) for vates.
From Etymonline: god. Old English god, 'supreme being,
deity', from proto-Germanic *guthan (cf. Du. 'god', German 'Gott', Old
Norse 'guđ', Goth 'guţ'), from proto-Indo-European *ghut - 'that which is
invoked' (cf. Skt. huta - 'invoked', an epithet of Indra), from the root
*gheu(e) - 'to call, invoke'. This seems to be a related word.
From the Proto-Indo-European Etymological
Dictionary by Fernando López-Menchero:
wātis = poet
wetwos = old
And quite revealingly, from the Indo-European
qdnos = magic. (I beg to differ with the translator, as this should
begin with 'qw' or 'kw', then a vowel, then '-dnos'.)
One has to wonder if Wotan was not a name, but
instead a title or job description, 'diviner' and 'magician'. I submit
that this is exactly what it was. So how did this become a deity?
Odin in history
There is plenty of evidence that it was customary
among Indo-Europeans to deify powerful and influential individuals.
It's been less than two thousand years since Roman
emperors were elevated to the status of gods. And indeed, the Catholic
Church's habit of sanctifying (making into saints) their best churchmen
is a possible outgrowth of that same custom.
A fascinating side of this in India
is that a god is called a deva, but a godlike non-deva is an an-sura
(asura). 'An-' is a negative prefix used the way we say non- or not-.
Sura appears to be a very old name for a god. Whether it is older
than dewas (deva), or younger or concurrent is unknown. The name of
the non-gods who were gods appears in both Hindu and Norse/Germanic
traditions. The Hindu Asura are the same 'tribe' of godlike beings
which the Norse call Aesir and the Saxon call Os. The name is
apparently quite old, but how old? These Asura appear to be lesser
beings, men in fact, who became as gods, and the Hindu stories lend
credence to the idea of the Aesir being men who were elevated to
Odin is given in many royal genealogies, a direct
expression of descent from the god. And let there be no mistake in
this, because the line of descent is often through Balday as Odin's
son (ASC), a name known in Norse tales as the god Baldur/Baldr, a
son of Odin [known in the royal descent of the Angles as Bćldćg or
Baeldaeg - see his entry in the lists via the links in the sidebar].
There must have been one hell of an impressive
magician, a wotan, at some point for them to deify him, because
the tough, militant German tribes appear to have had little respect
for unmanly men. And the practice of magic was considered unmanly.
The Norse word which has come down to us for this unmanly magic is 'sei∂r'.
In Norse literature, in the Lokasenna, Loki criticises Odin for
practicing Sei∂r, implying it was for women. I see three
possibilities for its origin, and favour one of them. It was either:
- 1. native to the Germans
- 2. adopted from the Celts
- 3. adopted from the Finns
The German tribes were at one time restricted to
what is now Denmark (and even most of that may have been conquered by Celts
at one point), and maybe a small area farther to the north of that, on the
Jutland peninsula, plus southern Sweden, and a small area of the
southern tip of Norway.
The Sami are the likely source for Germanics
learning their magic. As with many Eurasian shamanic drums the Sami
drum, above, shows the same division of the worlds that the Norse talk about:
a higher world or worlds, a lower world or worlds, and a middle world?
They would have encountered various Finnish/Kvennish
tribes, Sami, Laps, etc. to their north, and Celts to their south.
While I think tribal era Germanic religion has its source in all
three of the options listed above, I favour the third of them as the
source of Sei∂r because of the 'unmanly' aspect of sei∂r.
To the north and north-east of the Indo-Europeans, and extending far
into Siberia, there existed a broad band of many peoples who practiced
shamanic magic. That magic was often gender-bending, ie. men acting
as women and vice-versa. The Finnish tribes were at the far western
edge of that spectrum of shamanic practice. And the Finns were
famous among the Norse as magicians.
In Shamanism in Siberia by M A Czaplicka,
part 3, chapter 12, the author mentions numerous instances of
male shamans wearing women's clothes, women's hair styles, and other
female customs. There would be no connection to this except that in
Germany by the Roman writer Tacitus he states:
"It will be sufficient to name the most powerful
of them - the Arii, Helvecones, Manimi, Elysii, and Naharvali. In the
country of the latter is a grove, consecrated to religious rites of great
antiquity. A priest presides over them, dressed in woman's apparel..."
Strabo (Book VII, Chapter II) describes German women
killing captives and divining from the blood, and Julius Caesar
(Chapter 50) their dependence on divining before battle. There
would be great benefits in the form of influence and power for any
man who adopted the female role of magician; and from Tacitus we
have testimony that such did occur.
I posit that at some point in the pre-history of
Scandinavia, there was at least one period in which a priesthood
took social control of the Germans there (effectively kings, whether they
were called it that or not). If you read the cosmology of Siberian
tribal people (the last survivors in the practice of Eurasian traditions), it shows
startling similarities to the cosmology recorded in the Eddur.
Priests tend to talk shop with each other. And the German priests
evidently picked up techniques and cosmology from non-Indo-Europeans,
probably the Kvens/Finns.
Whoever was the Wotan (the
magician-priest, a title not a name) most likely used his skills to
assist his tribe(s), converting a basic 'hit enemy over head' group
into a craftier, better motivated culture, with the priests sending
the armies into battle after sacrifice and the divination of success.
The few descriptions of Wotan in the Eddur fit better as Asian
shamanism than Indo-European in my opinion. To muddy the gender
issue even more, a small silver figure dated to around AD 900 was
found in Lejre in Denmark in 2009. It showed a seated Odin, identified by his
two ravens and two wolves, and the figure is dressed in women's
Male shamans in Siberia were reported by M A
Czaplicka as wearing a pair of circles on their shirts, to represent
Wotan appears to have been nothing more than a
deified shaman, a magician and diviner.
The Lejre Odin, named after the location in Denmark in which it
was found and dated to around AD 900-960
This standing stone was found on the island
of Gotland, immediately to the east of modern Sweden, and depicts
Vikings with their boats and armaments, which were a development
of those of the early Germanic settlers around the Scandinavian
Pokorny's work, the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary:
In ancient India the alternative name for a deity
(a deva, from proto-Indo-European deiwos) was sura. The word means shining or
blazing. A second type of god, however, was the ansura or asura. These
were 'not-shining' gods. The name is used by several Indo-European peoples,
including the German tribes, who shortened the word to Os or As (Old Norse
Aesir). Wotan is the Norse chief of the 'not-shining' an-sura. Here's that name.
Root / lemma: sā́uel-,
sāuol-, suu̯él-, suel-,
English meaning: sun
German meaning: 'Sonne'
Root / lemma: sā́uel-, sāu̯ol-,
suu̯él-, su̯el-, sūl-,
'sun' derived from a compound of Root / lemma: se- : 'reflexive
pronoun' + Root / lemma: ĝhel-1 (and ghel-ö), also as
i-, u- or
n-stem; ĝhelǝ- : ĝhlē-,
ĝhlō- : ĝhlǝ- (*ĝhwel-):
'to shine; green, gold, blue, *sun'.
Note: next to which su̯en-, sun-, thus of old l/n-stem; su̯el-
'smolder, burn' is probably identical with it.
Oldest cognate illyr.-alb. (*ĝhel-) diell 'sun' [alb.-illyr. ĝh- >
Phonetic evidence: see Root / lemma: gʷel-1 :
'to stick; pain,
death': gr. δέλλιθες 'Wespen', Hes.; βελόνη f.
ὀξυβελής ὀιστός Hom.; aber βέλος n.
'Geschoß' wohl eher zu βάλλω, s.
öber den sekundören Zusammenschluß mit letzterer Sippe unter 2. gʷel-
'herabtröufeln; werfen'; uber ὀβελός, ὀβολός, ark. dor. ὀδελός
'Spitze, Bratspieß, Mönze' s. Schwyzer Gr. Gr. I 295;
gr. Kret. (*seĝhuel-) ἀβέλιος Hes. (i.e. ἀ̄Fελιος),
gr. hom. (*heuu̯eli-os) ἠέλιος, att. (zero grade) ἥλιος, dor. (*heu̯eli-os)
ἀέλιος, ἅ̄λιος [common gr. -kw- > -p-, -gw- > -b- phonetic mutation]
: Old Indian ved. (*suu̯el) súvar, Gujarati
surdj 'sun' : (*seĝhuel-)
got. sugil, ags. sygel, sigel from proto germ. *sugila-, as.swigli
'bright, radiating' from *swegila-, ags. sweg(e)l n.
'sky, heaven, sun', swegle 'bright, radiating'.
1. Old Indian ved. (*suuel) súvar n. = (zero
grade) av. hvarǝ 'sun, light, sky', Gen. (*suu̯ela)
súraḥ = jav. (*suuelio)
hūrō, Old Indian sū́rya-
(*sūlii̯o-) m. (compare gr. ἥλιος),
m. 'sun'; therefrom Old Indian sūrta- 'light, bright', Old Indian
svárṇara- m. 'bright space, ether', av. x ̌arǝnah-,
ар. -farnah-'shining fame, magnificence';
Other forms in Indo-Aryan: (*suu̯el-a)*suu̯ar- [in names]
'sun(god)' (Near-Eastern IA); Av.: OAv. huuarǝ̄ [n] (< *húuar)
xvǝ̄ṇg < *huuánh); LAv. huuarǝ (gen.sg.
hū < *huu̯ánh, next to hūrō
= Ved. sū́ras), Sogd. (Man.) xwr 'sun', Middle Persian
New Persian xwr 'sun', Oss. xūr / xor'sun'
Maybe Afghan lmar, Waziri lmer, myer 'sun' from Old Indian
m. 'bright space, ether'; Armenian arew, aregak, arev, Singhalese
Indo-European Dictionary Translator
Julius Caesar (Ch 50)
Paulus Diaconus - de Gestis Langobardorum
(History of the Langobards)
Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological
Proto-Indo-European Etymological Dictionary
Shamanism in Siberia
Strabo (Book VII, Ch II)
Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original
feature for the History Files.