Odin the Good

Thurisaz

Odin has in many ways been the patron of the modern Heathen movement. From the sacrifice on Yggdrasil for wisdom to his position as Allfather and Chief of the Gods, he has been extremely popular. However, it is without doubt that he is a very complex God and people have recently been paying more attention to the darker sides of Odin.

Odin is, of course, far from perfect. In fact, if we were to look at him in view of the nine noble virtues of Asatru, we might be a little confused as to why he is counted among the Aesir at all. When wandering the worlds, his word and honesty are, shall we say, a bit loosely interpreted. For example, when he went forth in search of the mead of Poetry (Kvasir's Blood) he went so far as to swear on an oath ring and then break his word in order to get the mead. This is not behavior that I would consider honorable in my kindred. In another example, while engaging in a riddle contest with Vafthruthnir, he asks "what did Odin whisper to his son Balder before he was placed on the pyre?" This "riddle" is unanswerable because only Odin knows. As far as I'm concerned, it's a cheat, but Odin "wins" and kills the giant anyway.

Odin is generally known for sowing strife and starting wars. He takes particular delight in setting brothers at their own throats, but he's not just satisfied with grand wars, he causes trouble on a personal level. In the story of Kvasir's blood we see him throw him wetstone into the air to trick 9 thralls into killing themselves while fighting over it. While perhaps their greed made them deserve their fate, the action seems a bit petty on Odin's part.

His record on the treatment of his followers is equally spotty. Many a hero, devoted throughout their lives to Odin, died while cursing his name. Sometimes Odin simply abandoned them to their enemies, but at other times Odin took an active part in their deaths. It is said that he literally beat Harald Wartooth to death with his own club. This tendency of Odin's was well known and accepted among the ancient Norse. It is said that few followed Odin, and far fewer trusted him.

Is Odin then a God of evil? And if he isn't, why does he do all of these terrible things?

The answer is both simple and complex, not surprising for an Odinic mystery. Primarily, I would argue that Odin ignores the basic rules of society because he is in the unique position to be able to do so. He is the God who sits upon the high seat and sees the entire world, Hugginn and Munnin return each day and whisper news to him. He is also possessed of great and immeasurable wisdom, having drank of Kvasir's Blood and the cauldron of Mimir, as well as knowing the mysteries of the runes. In short, he doesn't follow the rules because he, and he alone, has the wisdom and knowledge necessary to make the rules superfluous.

Rules and laws are instituted among men not because we are evil and dangerous, but because we can never know all the consequences of our actions. There are, for example, many people walking the streets today that, as the expression goes, "need killing." I would number murderers, rapists, and the variated street scum who prey on the old and weak among their ranks. I'm sure you have your own list of people who wouldn't be missed.

It would be very easy to simply go out on the street and get rid of these people. Why don't we? It's against the law. And regardless of right wing platitudes, the law isn't written to protect scum even if it sometimes does; it's there to guard as best it can against human error. It is based on the premise that we can't possibly know everything and therefore we can't be certain enough to act purely on our own in some matters. We, as humans, can seldom be certain of guilt or innocence. We can never know what other consequences will follow our actions. We institute laws and governments to collectively make such decisions hoping that with many heads involved, wisdom and justice will be served.

On the darker side of behavior is the common argument of a thief that someone else had something that he or she "needed." We simply can't accept this in our society because it's far too often simply an excuse. However, that doesn't rule out the possibility that there are some people who steal or commit other crimes for good and noble reasons such as taking care of their family and children. Consider "Robin HUD" who stole millions from the department of housing and urban development, but then used the money to help the same poor people that the HUD bureaucracy was too slow and inefficient to aid. She stole from your and my tax money. However, was it morally right or wrong? What of someone who steals to feed their children? What of the children of his or her victim? We as humans simply aren't equipped to put aside our personal prejudices and passions, nor do we have perfect wisdom or knowledge. Laws and moral codes are the way we assure that our society proceeds in the most orderly and just manner possible.

However, Odin is all-wise and all-knowing. This changes everything. If he steals from someone or performs some other action of "evil," you can be assured that there is a good reason for it. We can trust him not only because we put our faith in him, but because of what he is as the God of wisdom. Our perception of some of his actions as evil or unnecessary simply demonstrate that we do not share this wisdom. His actions aren't truly evil, we simply do not understand them.

As an example, when we look at the most common act of "evil" Odin is accused of, his supposed betrayals of his followers, it is obvious that Odin is not doing evil. In causing these heroes to loose their lives in battle, he calls them to himself in Valhalla, where their presence in preparation for the final battle at Ragnarok is more important than any of their earthly doings. It's a calculated decision. Odin does what he needs to do.

I also do not believe this is simply late twentieth century revisionism, but the way that the ancient cult of Odin understood itself. While many cursed his name as they died, many killed by Odin apparently remained faithful to him. Harald Wartooth, literally murdered by Odin, was given a funeral obviously intended to send him directly to Valhalla. Similarly, a lay composed at the order of his widow portrays Erik Bloodaxe, another betrayed Odinist hero, being received with great fanfare at Odin's Hall. If these Odinic heroes truly believed they had been betrayed, it seems unlikely their descendents would celebrate their going to Odin's hall. On a note related to this, those who seek Odin understand (or should understand) the compact they are making. Those who wear the Valknot accept that they may be taken by Odin at any time or place. In the most complete way possible, they place their trust in the Allfather.

We as followers of the Aesir should take this to heart in understanding Odin. However, while not decrying Odin as evil, we should recognize the very real suffering and self sacrifice that the Odinic hero makes. Odin's actions may be for the betterment of the world, but on a personal level the Odinic one will still suffer every blow regardless of its ultimate necessity or good purpose. The way of Odin is difficult and it is not for everyone.