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Barbarian Europe

Origin of Odin

by Edward Dawson, 1 January 2014. Updated 20 August 2020

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 to him.

It's easy to be fascinated by names and their meanings, and the current author is no exception. Names and words in general change over time. When analysing Celtic names, there were several times when a hard 'g' or hard 'k' sound has been encountered 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'. The shift in Welsh pronunciation during the Dark Ages meant that '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 it could be 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. Imagine how much of a surprise it was to realise that the word for the very same god was used by the German Lombard/Langobardi tribe: Godan.

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 which is being proposed here.

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).

The word 'ouateis' ('wateis') is most definitely not 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
This woodcut is entitled 'Odin Rides to Hel', being an illustration by WG Collingwood from The Elder Edda or Poetic Edda

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 summoning.


So what does this have to do with Odin? The older form of his name is pronounced Wotan or Wodan.

The Latin vates - noun, masculine - means 'seer, prophet'. The cognate in Irish is 'fāith', where the 'v' became an 'f' as it normally does in Gaelic. The Celtic word is highly likely to have been close to the Latin.

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 'guð', Goth 'guþ'), 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 Dictionary Translator:
qdnos = magic. (this author begs 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'. The proposition here is that this is exactly what it was. So how did this become a deity?

Odin in history

There is plenty of evidence to support the claim that it was customary amongst 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 a-sura (asura), with the 'a-' prefix probably originally 'an-'. The 'n' plus a vowel in front or behind is a common Indo-European negative prefix which is used in the way we say 'non-' or 'not-', both of which are examples thereof.

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 godhood. (See Tribal Warfare of the Gods in Scandinavia for a more in-depth examination of Aesir and the Norse gods).

Sami drum

The Sámi are the likely source for Germanics learning their magic. As with many Eurasian shamanic drums the Sámi drum, above, shows the same division of the worlds about which the Norse talk: a higher world or worlds, a lower world or worlds, and a middle world?

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 Bældæg 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. Three possibilities seem to exist for its origin, and one of them is favoured here. 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.

They would have encountered various Finnish/Kvennish tribes, Sámi, etc to their north, and Celts to their south. While tribal era Germanic religion has its source in all three of the options listed above, The third of them is favoured here 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.

The theory being put forward here is 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, whatever they were actually called). 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 seem to fit better as Asian shamanism than Indo-European. 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 clothes.

Male shamans in Siberia were reported by M A Czaplicka as wearing a pair of circles on their shirts, to represent breasts.

Wotan appears to have been nothing more than a deified shaman, a magician and diviner.

The Lejre Odin
The Lejre Odin, named after the location in Denmark in which it was found and dated to around AD 900-960


Gotland standing stone

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 coastal regions


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-, sūl-, (*sweĝhuel-)
English meaning: sun
German meaning: 'Sonne'

Root / lemma: sā́uel-, sāu̯ol-, suu̯él-, su̯el-, sūl-, (*seĝhuel-): '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- > d- shift];
Phonetic evidence: see Root / lemma: gʷel-1 : 'to stick; pain, death': gr. δέλλιθες 'Wespen', Hes.; βελόνη f. 'Spitze, Nadel', 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. (*heueli-os) ἠέλιος, att. (zero grade) ἥλιος, dor. (*heeli-os) ἀέλιος, ἅ̄λιος [common gr. -kw- > -p-, -gw- > -b- phonetic mutation] : Old Indian ved. (*suel) 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. (*suela) súraḥ = jav. (*suuelio) hūrō, Old Indian sū́rya- (*sūlio-) m. (compare gr. ἥλιος), sūra- m. 'sun'; therefrom Old Indian sūrta- 'light, bright', Old Indian svárara- m. 'bright space, ether', av. x ̌arǝnah-, ар. -farnah-'shining fame, magnificence';
Other forms in Indo-Aryan: (*suel-a)*suar- [in names] 'sun(god)' (Near-Eastern IA); Av.: OAv. huuarǝ̄ [n] (< *uar) 'sun' (gen.sg. xvǝ̄ṇg < *huuánh); LAv. huuarǝ (gen.sg. hū < *huánh, next to hūrō = Ved. sū́ras), Sogd. (Man.) xwr 'sun', Middle Persian xwr 'sun', New Persian xwr 'sun', Oss. xūr / xor'sun'
Maybe Afghan lmar, Waziri lmer, myer 'sun' from Old Indian svárara- m. 'bright space, ether'; Armenian arew, aregak, arev, Singhalese ira 'sun'.



Main Sources

Indo-European Dictionary Translator

Julius Caesar (Ch 50)

Paulus Diaconus - de Gestis Langobardorum (History of the Langobards)

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

Proto-Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

Shamanism in Siberia

Strabo (Book VII, Ch II)



Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.