Woden: An Informal Study

A picture of Gandalf smoking beats another use of the same damn Odin portrait everyone else uses.

So, it’s not exactly a secret that the top deity of my personal praxis is Woden; being a witch, a poet, and a horrible gremlin of a scholar, it’s probably the most natural pairing since salt and the sea. Many an offering I’ve made to him, poetry I’ve dedicated, and though I don’t personally put him at the very top of the pecking order in my own somewhat eclectic reconstruction of cosmology, his centrality is still key.

Now, there have been times where I’ve seen Woden discussed, largely in the context of the more well-known Odin, and I’ve noticed people acting confused when I, or anyone else, bring up that the two are actually somewhat distinct. And honestly, I don’t blame anyone; a lot of deities map very well between Germanic cultures (Thunor and Thor could just about be the same exact vibe), so you’d probably expect it to be similar here.

Nope! There is a perceivable difference, and it’s honestly been a slight obsession of mine to peer over how in the fuck did we end up in this situation. The following post is not meant to be super academic, it’s not a hard reconstructive effort (there’s people far more suited for that work), but rather me documenting my own experiences and conversations. I figured it’s time to put some of that into permanent words.

Lay of the Land: History & Geography

I figure I should start with getting the basics written down. The Old English Wōden is cognate with, of course, the Old Norse Óðinn and all the other variants, descended ultimately from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *Wōðanaz. The name means, roughly, “Frenzied One,” “Inspired One,” “Mad One,” and pretty much every other synonym of those words you can think of. This is a connection that has been historically made, by figures like Adam of Bremen when discussing the remaining pagans of Sweden (Wodan id est furor, “Odin, that is, frenzy”), and you can probably glimpse a significant set of characteristics from it involving the mind.

When we note the history, we must take into account the length of time Germanic religion existed before conversion. The earliest recorded documentation comes from Romans like Caesar and Tacitus, with… inherent issues of bias, lies, muddled truths, and all the other things that come from reading Roman (or, to be fair, any primary) works. From there, we have scant attestation until we reach post-conversion Iceland’s literary golden age, when the old poetry of the Norse world was collected alongside sagas of legendary and contemporary heroes and villains. That is a period of, roughly speaking, a thousand years; what was true in an earlier period need not be so in later.

Getting down in the dirt, now, we can start about CE 410, when the Roman Empire firmly abandoned Dioecēsis Britannia; a few decades later, a large scale migration of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons began to overwhelm the remaining Romano-Briton populations in much of the land, absorbing the peoples and replacing a Romanized Celtic culture with their Germanic one. Thus began the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” period, lasting until the Norman Conquest of 1066, though the period in which English lands were heathen was only for the first few hundred years of this era. After CE 686 or 688, paganism, as the “faith” of rulers, was done for, and Christianity was firmly established once more over all Britain.

688, as one might note, is a pretty good distance off from the beginning of the high period of Norse society, the Viking Age (traditionally dated from CE 796 to c. 1000). The majority of Norse poetry, even the older stuff, only start coming from the 9th century; all the saga material, and of course the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, significantly post-date the Viking Age, being written mostly between the 13th and 15th centuries, almost entirely written by Christians. In essence, for someone trying to recapture how a deity might be seen by earlier peoples would have to reckon with the fact that most of the surviving material is incredibly recent comparatively, and written by rather unreliable narrators.

Beyond that, Old Norse and Old English are different languages (albeit somewhat mutually intelligible), Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons different peoples. Mutual intelligibility of the two aside, there were always going to be differences in their religions, in their understanding of even shared gods. Without extending this section further, while there’s some testament to the idea of some myths being quite old and shared across cultural lines, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 1-1; the Zeus of Magna Graecia might be extremely similar to the Zeus of Athens, but that doesn’t mean they’re 100% gonna be seen the same.

Speechcraft: Gnosis & Theology

Now we are getting into what I consider the most important section: how the gods are seen. As I’ve said earlier, many gods have similar personalities and “vibes” between branches of modern Heathen religion, as attested by personal gnosis; I think it’s fair to say that one who worships Thunor will relate to the experiences of one who worships Thor, or Donar. This is understandable and reasonable, but sometimes there is a disconnect between sects, and Woden/Odin provide the perfect example of this. The Zeus of Magna Graecia is not necessarily the Zeus of Athens, nor is the Woden of England the Odin of Iceland.

I’ve talked to many people who have worshiped Odin, and of course I myself worship Woden, and there’s a lot of little things that are starkly different. I’ve seen a good number compare Odin to a drill instructor, or to some sort of full on hard-knocks kinda asshole figure, and that’s not at all my experience (well, okay, the asshole part vibes, but). I would instead put the comparison on a figure so obviously built around being an “Odinic wanderer” by his creator; Tolkien’s Maia Olórin, or Gandalf to most everyone else. Quick to anger, yes, but quick to laugh; quick to help friends and comrades, quick to simply ditch them and do his own, more important thing whenever time arose. A wise wizard, learned in everything from fireworks to war-craft. Not a taskmaster, but not one to let you get off easily.

Now hold on, “Odinic wanderer,” shouldn’t that map onto Odin himself then, and not just Woden? It should… but there are huge elements of Odin’s characterization in Norse myth that stand against the wandering witch figure. The centrality of much literature with the topics of Ragnarok, Valholl, the einherjar feasting and training, and valkyrjur scouring the land, especially in later material, paint Odin with the guise of a warlord grimly awaiting his end, seeking only the best warriors for his host to even get the slimmest advantage. Many a person has tried to backport these ideas onto English religion, or the religions of other Germanic peoples, but it simply stands to reason that little like it is attested; Ragnarok, at least as it exists in Voluspa and Snorri’s work, isn’t a thing, Valholl seems very late in conception, and valkyries, while attested in Old English works, aren’t exactly the glorious(ly twisted) maidens hunting down the best for Odin’s war.

If you were to tear away Ragnarok and Valholl, you would find the “Odinic wanderer” Tolkien built Gandalf from, and a figure closer to how I see Woden; a wizard, scouring the land for wisdom and knowledge, inspiring events good and bad with but a drop of a word or two. Havamal, the poem immediately following Voluspa in the Poetic Edda, in fact probably represents the closest thing in Norse literature to what I would describe as Woden; wisdom verse interspersed with personal anecdotes of his adventures, topped off with Odin flexing on all the magic and rune shit he knows. You see similar stuff in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, where Odin openly weaves spells and changes his appearance to achieve his goals, and there’s nary a mention of Valhalla in the text (save, maybe, as a place in the underworld where dead warriors work off their warrior-ness).

To stop talking about Scandinavian literature for now, we get far more attestation of Woden as a wandering witch than as a warlord type figure; the Nine Herbs Charm from England, the Second Merseburg Charm from Germany, and even the fact Tacitus calls him “Mercurius,” same with the anonymously written works of Old English, Solomon & Saturn. Not to say the martial nature isn’t there either (the Sutton Hoo helmet with its one eyed effect, Paul the Deacon’s history of the Lombards), but compared to the wandering, magical associations, it’s not as intrinsic as one might think without the apocalypticism of the late Viking Age/post-Christianization literature.

And that’s, really all she wrote. I could go deeper, I always could, but I feel like I grasped enough of my thoughts to share to y’all.

For some measure of further reading, you can check out this page, though I don’t cosign everything said in it. I’d also recommend books like The Elder Gods by Stephen Pollington, being one of the most accessible on the religion of Early England, though again, I disagree with a few points (both times because of an over-leaning on Norse material). Still, probably among the best you can find out there. And, of course, the surviving material that I referenced throughout this.

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