Who is the Norse God Odin?

As The Flames Rise Wotan Leaves' 1906
As the Flames Rise, Wotan Leaves', 1906. From The Ring Cycle of operas by German composer Richard Wagner. Heritage Images / Getty Images

In the Norse pantheon, Asgard is the home of the gods, and it is the place where one could find Odin, the supreme deity of them all. Connected to his Germanic ancestor Woden or Wodan, Odin is the god of kings and the mentor of young heroes, to whom he often gave magical gifts.

In addition to being a king himself, Odin is a shapeshifter, and frequently roamed the world in disguise. One of his favorite manifestations is that of a one-eyed old man; in the Norse Eddas, the one-eyed man appears regularly as a bringer of wisdom and knowledge to heroes. He is typically accompanied by a pack of wolves and ravens, and rides on a magical eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Odin is associated with the concept of the wild hunt, and leads a noisy host of fallen warriors across the sky.

Odin is said to summon dead heroes and kings to Valhalla, which they enter accompanied by the host of Valkyries. Once in Valhalla, the fallen engage in feasting and combat, always ready to defend Asgard from its enemies. Odin's warrior followers, the Berserkers, wear the pelts of a wolf or bear in battle, and work themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy that makes them oblivious to the pain of their wounds.

Dan McCoy of Norse Mythology for Smart People says, "He maintains particularly close affiliations with the berserkers and other “warrior-shamans” whose fighting techniques and associated spiritual practices center around achieving a state of ecstatic unification with certain ferocious totem animals, usually wolves or bears, and, by extension, with Odin himself, the master of such beasts. Thus, as a war-god, Odin is principally concerned not with the reasons behind any given conflict or even its outcome, but rather with the raw, chaotic battle-frenzy (one of the primary manifestations of óðr) that permeates any such agonism."

As a young man Odin hung on the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days while pierced by his own javelin, in order to obtain the wisdom of the nine worlds. This enabled him to learn the magic of the runes. Nine is a significant number in the Norse sagas, and appears frequently.

According to William Short of Hurstwic Norse Mythology, "Óðin's character is far more complex than any of the other gods, and that complexity is mirrored by the long list of names used by Óðin... The names show the many sides of Óðin, as a god of war, a giver of victory, a sinister and terrifying god, and a god who can not be trusted. The name of Jálkr probably refers to the fact that Óðin practices seiðr, a powerful but unseemly and effeminate magic that calls into question his masculinity."

Odin continues to maintain a strong following, particularly amongst members of the Asatru community. If you're wondering about what sort of offerings to make to Odin, Raven at the Odin Devoted blog has some excellent suggestions. Raven says, "One thing about the Norse deities is They usually don't ask for more than you can give. They may give you certain tasks to do, but They know you can accomplish them. When They ask for certain offerings, it's the same way... This means that if you can afford to give Odin a $100 bottle of mead, He would prefer you do that over a $5 beer. Not saying the beer wouldn't be accepted, just that the mead would please Him more... That said, if all you can afford is a $5 beer, then the Gods aren't going to turn you away or ignore you."

Odin pops up in everything from the saga of the Volsungs to Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and plays an important role in Marvel's Avengers universe. However, if you're relying on graphic novels to give you the background, keep in mind that there was a lot that Marvel got wrong about Odin and the other gods of Asgard. Rob Bricken of iO9 points out, "Odin, the wise, peace-loving father of Thor and the adopted father of Loki, tries to rule over Asgard justly and peacefully in the comics. If this Odin ever met the Odin of Norse myth, Marvel-Odin would get his ass kicked."