When it comes to Norse mythology, Odin is widely considered to be the main man. Known as the ‘Allfather’ (father of all the gods), he’s the chief deity of the Æsir family of gods that reside in Asgard. Known for his immense wisdom and knowledge, Odin is married to the goddess Frigg and is often depicted as a bearded, cloak-wearing old man with one eye. Although his hammer-wielding son Thor is more often thought of as a god of war, Odin is very much associated with conflict, battles, and victory.
He rides around the nine realms on an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, accompanied by two wolves and two ravens, whilst wielding Gungnir, his long spear. That might all sound rather fantastical, but the legend of Odin has a very real presence in our modern world since one of the days of the week is named after him. He was known as ‘Wōden’ in Old English and ‘Wednesday’ comes from the word ‘Wōdnesdæg’ (day of Wōden).
Although our knowledge of Norse mythology is patchy and incomplete, two 13th century Icelandic writings known as the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda help to paint our most thorough picture of the Norse gods. Along with Thor and the mischievous god Loki, Odin is present in many of the myths documented in those ancient manuscripts.
Here is a selection of his most famous adventures in Norse mythology.
Since Odin is the Allfather, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was the first of the Norse gods to appear on the scene. In actual fact, the creation of the universe in Norse mythology has a rather violent beginning and while he does play a significant role, Odin is definitely not the first character in the story.
Norse cosmology is made up of nine realms and, according to legend, they surround and spread out from the Yggdrasil, a sacred cosmic tree at the centre of the universe. The Yggdrasil grew from the void of Ginnungagap, which is enclosed on one side by the fiery Muspelheim and the other side by the frosty Niflheim.
The flames of Muspelheim melted the ice of Niflheim leading to the creation of two entities known as Ymir the giant and Audhumla the cow. These creatures triggered a series of events that saw the birth of Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve. The trio killed Ymir and his various entrails were spread out to create the Norse universe.
Odin and his brothers weren’t done there. They then set about creating the first humans from two pieces of wood. Odin infused the wood with the breath of life and spirit, while his brothers gave them blood and senses. The godly gifts allowed the two pieces of wood to turn into the world’s first man and woman – Ask and Embla. The pair were then given the realm of Midgard to propagate the human race.
Odin's search for wisdom
Throughout the Norse myths, Odin is on a constant search for wisdom. His desire to improve his abilities takes him on adventures across the nine realms. It's this thirst for knowledge and the willingness to pay any price for its acquisition that lost Odin one of his eyes.
Odin travelled to the Well of Mimir amongst the roots of the sacred tree Yggdrasil. Dwelling there was Mimir, whose cosmic knowledge was even greater than Odin’s. Odin realised Mimir achieved his powers by drinking the waters of the well and so asked him if he too could take a sip. Mimir agreed but only if Odin sacrificed one of his eyes. Thirsty for the powers that the well possessed, Odin agreed, gouged out an eye, and tossed it into the well before enjoying a drink from its waters.
Later on, Mimir was taken hostage by a pantheon of gods known as the Vanir – enemies of the Æsir. Mimir was decapitated and his head sent to Odin. Understanding the value of the wisdom locked in Mimir’s head, Odin embalmed it with herbs and magically empowered it with the ability to talk. The head of Mimir became a valuable asset for Odin who consulted it in times of need.
In another myth, Odin hung himself for nine days from a branch of the Yggdrasil to gain the secrets of some ancient runes. Another story tells of his theft of the mead of the skalds (poets), bestowing upon him exemplary poetic abilities.
The Wild Hunt
Odin’s connection with war in Norse mythology sees him as the leader of the Wild Hunt – an army of the dead who ride across dark stormy skies, especially in winter. Riding at the front of the hoard atop his trusty steed, Odin leads the group of ghostly creatures across the night’s sky. Compiled of a variety of animals and deities, the motley crew strikes fear into those on the ground.
Witnessing a Wild Hunt often foretells a catastrophe, such as a plague or war, and can even lead to the death of those that witness it. As the Hunt passes over, people are abducted to the underworld or taken to far-flung places and left for dead. Sometimes the spirits of those sleeping are taken from their bodies and thrust into the charge of the Wild Hunt, joining the ghostly riders as they cross the winter skies.
Odin’s Valhalla and Ragnarök
Odin rules over the giant ‘hall of the slain’ known as Valhalla, welcoming half of those who die in battle and feasting with them in the great hall. The other half goes to the heavenly meadow of Fólkvangr, ruled over by the Vanir goddess Freya.
During the events of Ragnarök - the battle at the end of the world in Norse mythology which sees the Æsir gods pitted against a multitude of beasts and creatures – Odin leads his army of deceased warriors into battle. However, during the epic fight, Odin is consumed by the gigantic wolf known as Fenrir, bringing an end to the father of all the gods.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.