This contribution was originally supposed to be called “on the origins of the Gods”. Yet as I started to write down my thoughts on the subject, I realised that there is another problem that must be treated first, namely the issue of the principal God, the Skygod or king of the Gods.
Tyr’s position has been much debated in the past, and most agree that he was the original skygod and that that Odin has absorbed much of his essence.
Whereas few will debate the conflict that exists between Tyr and Odin in terms of devine competences, or powers, it is less commonly recognised that the position of Thor poses a similar problem. After all, Saxo says that in the temple of Uppsala he takes the central place and is worshipped as the first of the Gods, Odin only takes second base! Has the son surpassed the father or is something elsegoing on ?
Thus, the question remains which one of these 3 Gods was the “real” suppreme God? And was the “Odin”, mentioned by the edda’s as the son of Borr and the master creator of the second creation (see the contribution on the creation of the universe), or was it initially Tyr or even Thor?
Snorri is often considered not to be the most reliable of our sources as to the correctness of his mythological descriptions. Even though it would have been easy to ignore the proloque of Snorri’s Edda as being an inaccurate account of mythology or even largely a product of his own imagination – as a matter of fact it seems to be contradicting many of the basics of what we accept to be the essence of Nordic beliefs-, his texts might yet offer us an insight into the problem of the prime God.
We must put Snorri in a correct historical perspective if we do desire to use his prologue as a source for our mythological studies. We can assume Snorri must have writen this prologue text the way he did for several reasons:
- First of all, he had to make clear to everyone that he was a good christian. An understandable position, for had he not done so, his collection of lore would surely have been rejected by the church and he himselve would have been regarded as a heretic. He had to make sure everybody understood that he, as a good Christian and honoured member of the Icelandic elite only spoke of and on the subject of the old Gods for poetic reasons. Everybody had to understand he didn’t actually honour them “as Gods”. So his first concern would have been to completely negate the Godly nature of the old asar.
Thus he needed to discribe the old Gods as mere men, pretending to be gods or at the very least great men deified by their “unholy” followers and thus he could minimalise the value of their cult. We must also understand that at the time not every part of Europe was firmly christianed yet and that some parts of Northern Europe and the Baltic had only been christian for a a short period of time. Thus some of the old Gods of their Baltic and Slavic relativs would still have been secretely worshipped. If Snorri wanted to be certain of his life and wealth and in in the same time wished to write something down on the old believes, he’d better “dethrone” the subjects of his writtings beforehand.
- Secondly he wanted to link Scandinavia to Troj, and thus to the predesessor of the Roman culture that was -at the time- considered to be the most advanced civilisation ever.
As a matter of fact, this was a commonly made exercice in the middle ages. Most kings and members of the higher nobility created fictional genealogies linking them to Troy, Charlemagne, Ceasar or even to Odin (cf. The genealogy of the early English (Christian) kings). In doing so Snorri would also make an interesting statement to the continental Europeans, and more specifically the Holy German Empire and Frankish kindom.
These actually claimed cultural superiority to the Scandinavians, considering themselves to have inherited the Roman culture. Yet by tracing the origins of the Gods back to Troy, Snorri gave the Scandinavians an equally strong claim to culture, and in linking this culture to another branch of the Trojan Diaspora, he also made sure the Scandinavian culture had the right to be and remain different from the “Roman” culture, without losing any of its intrinsic value or subjugating it to any kind of Roman superiority.Thus Snorri’s description of mythology became intensely collored by the “hot items” of the time.
We may very well regret this position as it doesn’t conform to our present day views and desires for “objectivity” and since it even contradicts our basic believes as Asatruar, but we must also realise that, if Snorri hadn’t written this “corrupted” text at all, this part of our sources might have have been lost beyond recovery. Yet, this merely reminds us of the fact that not a single work of history can ever be completely objective, even in present day society. It will always be colored by the here and now and the eye of the beholder.
In my personal opinion, it is better to have a partially corrupt testimony then no testimony at all.
I will come back on Snorri on several occasions further on in this text.
The “Germanicy” of the Gods
There are 2 very puzzling elements in the account of Snorri’s prologue. Though strictly seen, the first of these falls beyond the scope of my essay I will touch them shortly.
1) the Asian origins of the gods, as mentioned before. Snorri claims the Gods, whom he considered to be mere men, came from Asia, and more presicely Troy.
Perhaps what we find here is not merely a fantasy of Snorri, but it might contain some relic of an ancient folkmemory of the initial trek of the indogermanic peoples from the Kaukasus or Russian steps to the north. Snorri also says Odin first settles in Saxony and spreads his powerbase to the north and south from that region on. All of this seems to be quite parallel to modern archeological findings as to the heartlands of the Germanic culture and its spread in the Nordic neolithic (Ertebölle culture and Kongemose culture) and Nordic bronze age up to the first centuries AD.
2) the fact – and this is interisting in view of the rest of our story – that he consideres Odin to be the son of Thor could be an indication for a later introduction of Odin as a God in Scandinavia. And this father/son inversion/conflict seems to be a very common element in all indoeuropean cults (e.g. Zeus/Kronos/Oeceanos). Contrary to this theory of late introduction , Rudolf Simek in “ Religion und Mythologie der Germanen”, suggests Odin might have been the original god of magic that absorbed the powers of supreme God.
Tacitus and the 3 cults
The edda states:
“Hann [Borr] fekk þeirar konu er Bettla hét, dóttir Bölþorns jötuns, ok fengu þau þrjá sonu. Hét einn Óðinn, annarr Vili, þriði Vé.”
Triads are typical element of all Indoeuropean religions. The Germanic Nordic religion is certainly no exception to this. One of the very first references to Germanic triads comes from the father of Germanic history himself, Tacitus.
Tacitus claims the Germanic People can be divided into 3 different religious subgroups, the Ingaevones, Istvaeones and Herminones. All 3 groups considered themselves to be descendents of the 3 sons of Mannus. Mannus may have been the same as Borr. Thus the 3 groups would be followers of one of His 3 sons, in other wordsOdin, Villi and Ve or Ziu (Hermin), Ing (who later on would be split up into Frey and Freya ) and a certain Istva, whom I can’t realy pinpoint to a later God.
As a matter of fact, in both triads only one of the brothers, Odin/Ziu is fairly known to us, on the other 2 we have much less information.
Of Villi and Ve. little more is known than their names and the fact that they courted Frigga during Odin’s absence (Lokasenna). The Lokasenne also claims that during Odin’s absence his brothers filled in for him.
In relation to the Odin-Vili-Vé triad, Keyser interprets the triad as “Spirit, Will and Holiness” In this view in later times, Odin would absorb the entire trinity blending it all together again in an all-embracing World-spirit, Odin/Wodan.
Saxo also relates that whilst Odin travels to foreign lands a certain Mithothyn fills his place. The designation “Middle Odin” clearly is another indication for the existance of a third unmentioned Odin, thus again referring to the triad Odin, Vili and Vé. In another place Saxo attributes the regentschip to Ollerus, wich may be Ullr. Perhaps this a relict of another triad?
Finally, it is noteworthy that Vé is also an Oldnorse word for a holy place as attested by the place names such as Odinsvi, Viborg, Viby,…
Odin is also mentioned as a member of other thiads. On the one hand we have Odin Villi and Ve on the other Odin Lodur and Hoenir then we find the triad Odin, Thor, Freyr in Upsalla, And oddly enough Odin is in Snorri’s edda also refered to as Thriði “the third”, on the side of Harr(the “high”) and Jafnharr (“even-high” or co-equal), as the “Third High”. It is puzzling that he only takes third base and not the first.
Yet all off these accounts seem to suggest that originally a triad of Gods was worshipped as the creators of earth and men. Each of them representing one of the 3 main aspects that consitute mankind and everything in existence, spirit, form and life itself
The Odin/Tyr contradiction
Now that we have settled that a triad has created earth, and that Odin or an Odin like character was the third of the triad, we have to decide who the creating Odin was. What I mean by this is that we need to ask the question whether Odin was the original name of the first (or third) God of the triad, or was the Odin name a later addition as replacement of an older name/God?
Almost every scollar seems to agee that “Odin/Woden” is of relativaly recent origins.Yet, cfr my remark on Rudolf Simek.
Yet, the Skygod he represents clearly is without any doubt an ancient figure, present in all Indogermanic religions.
On the Swedish bronze age rock carvings we often find representations of a male speargod that can be regarded as the skygod or his predecesor. I believe it is highly unlikely that this God was already called Odin, yet, the powers he represents would in my opinion be the powers the later to be Odin would posess.
A specific Germanic element however is this duality Odin-Tyr. It may indeed well be that originaly Tyr/Ziu was the original skygod and that Odin/Woden absorbed him and his domain almost completely, only leaving Tyr with the position of a God of secondary rank, a kind of General of the Godly forces -such as Peter Madsen depicts him in his marvelous comics- emptied of all almost all of his earlier mythological content. Interestingly almost 2000 years ago, 800 years before the vikings, Tacitus mentions a Germanic supreme deity,Tuisto, whose name is clearly linked to Tyr/Ziu.
A striking paralell to Tyr and his faith can be found in Celtic Mythology. The Irish warriorgod/mythic King Nuada Silverhand experienced a comparable degradation. During the battle of Mag Tuired, Nuada lost an arm whilst battling the Fir Bolg champion Sreng.
Having lost his arm, Nuada was no longer eligible for kingship due to the Tuatha’s tradition that their king must be physically perfect, and he was replaced as king by Bres, a prince renowned for his beauty and intellect. Contrary to the Tyr-mythology, Nuada had his lost arm replaced, at first by a working silver one and later on with a new arm of flesh and blood. Bres was removed from the kingship, having ruled for seven years, and Nuada was restored.
Tyr however to the present day remains armless and never regained the office of king of kings.
Another thing to be considered is that in the elder futhard – which must have been fully developed around 200 AD – Odin has no Rune of his own, whilst Tyr does have one. It is at least quite remarquable that the supreme devinity has no rune of his own, whilst the thundergod and the fertilitygod have one,… and a seemingly “minor deity” such as Tyr also has his own runic symbol.
Remarkable simularities can by found between the Odin and Tyr characters. As with Odin, Tyr’s weapon originally was the spear, and Tyr too will be devoured by a hound (Gram) in the final battle. Odin faces Fenrir (after the latter had already taken a small bite of Tyr) and Tyr will be defeated by the hellhound Gram.
Yet there is one main and quite importance difference, Odin is cunning but not always just. He preferes to simply win, by any means necessary, whilst Tyr – at least as far as we are informed- wants to win justly and rightously. Actually this is what costs him his hand. He knowingly makes a sacrifice. When reading the story, I always get the impression that he actually waits until Fenrir bites of his hand. Just imagine a wolf fighting his bonds, and trying to break free. His maul wouldn’t be still in the proces. Only when Fenrir realises that in the end he won’t be able to break free, he snaps his jaws shut. Tyr would have had plenty of time and opportunity to retract his hand.
It is quite hard to imagine Tyr playing an entirely inactive roll in this.
Having considered this, we can clearly see that the element of divine justice was never absorbed into Odins being, since it was irreconcilable with his character. He never presides in judgement.
On the contrary, we do notice that our judges still use the hammer of Thor, his son, in order to confirm their verdicts. At auctions it is a hammer and not a spear we use to seal the transaction. The hammer was used to seal legal contracts such as mariage, not the spear.
Yet, if Tyr was the just god, then why don’t judges use an arm prothesis in stead of a hammer? Why did Thor absorb this function?
This clearly indicates that Tyr was loosing the battle on all terrains. Thor, in his farmerlike innocence was on his way to replace him entirely as God of justice. Why? Probably because of the same reason King Nuada lost his Kingship. An imperfect God cannot retain his Godly function.
On the other hand, why can Odin loose an eye, and why can’t Tyr lose his right hand. Odin uses the eye as currency to acquire an even higher suppreme power, wisdom. The sacrifice of his eye makes him even more perfect than he already was. And finaly, Odin replaces his eye with 2 ravens that scout the world for him. Tyr on the other hand gained nothing by loosing his hand, it was a sacrifice pur sang.
The loss of one eye doesn’t make you entirely blind, you can still fight a fierce battle, whilst the loss of the swordarm makes it very hard to remain a valued warrior.
One last personal thought on the subject, let’s be honnest, how many wars have been fought over the name of God. The Tyr/Odin contradiction may just be a remnant of such a struggle on the name of the principal God, ending in a practical stalemate wherein Tyr honourably lost his job to Odin, because the loss of his hand in the “most brave, altruistic and just of acts” rendered him incapacitated to the throne. He became a kind of military advisor.
Odin claimed the highest rank, and Tyr could still be invoced as former king of the Gods and as god of war because of his past deeds and bravoury. Thus both parties were pleased.
As time passed by, I believe the original conflict between supporters of both Godly names must have been forgotten and Odin was allowed to further “hollow out” Tyr and claim all of his earlier abilities. Yet Tyr never lost his valourous position as a war hero. All still recognised his role in the survival of the universe, as the hero that tamed the the wolf that would have destroyed creation long before its time, had he not been bound.
Thus I personaly think that the Bronze age skygod, represented on the carvings of Tanum/Böhuslan etc must have been called Ziu/Tyr. And I do think that the original Gods of creation wereTuisto and 2 other Gods equaling Villi and Ve. Odin just absorbed this position. Odin or Wodan means “the angry one” Tuisto means “the dual one . Duality is also an indication conflict or a “twist” as it a conflict is called in my mother tongue Dutch . This makes clear both Gods are linked to war, battle and strife.
Since as modern men, we can accept that the same unique truth can be told over and over again in several versions, depending on the point of view and cultural background, there isn’t any problem to maintain as a convention that Odin/Woden is the name the supreme God, whose former name was Ziu/Tyr.
Whether you include a seperate God named Tyr in your personal pantheon or not is in my opinion not a real issue. Personally, I think Tyr as he is now presented in our mythology is a representation of a certain aspect of Odin.
Yet I personally feel I can still call upon him as a personal entity whenever needed. It isn’t a “logical” solution per se, but as in all matters of religion, logic isn’t essentiel.
The Father/Son struggle.
Odin and Thor wouldn’t be father and son if they didn’t have conflicts of their own. A typical conflict in the mythology of any paternalistic society is the attempt of the son to dethrone the father. We find clear indications of this in Greek mythology, where Kronos dethrones Oeceanos and Zeus in his turn overthrows Kronos.
In Germanic Myth there is no explicit example of this, Yet one may wonder whatever happened to Borr.
Closer to us, we also see that Thor gains in importance on his father. Odin remains a mystic Gods, a loner, a very closed figure. He mainly appeals to the scolars of the time and the warriorclass, so to say the white collars of the viking age.
His son on the other hand is a popular dude, a bit of a rebel, but with his heart in the right place. I would -so to say – go to the pub with Thor any day to have a great time , but with Odin, I might return quite depressed. He is the elderly philosophical wanderer in the corner, who just keeps going on about the grimness of the future. Is it merely a coincidance that her never eats himselve (he gives it to his wolves) and only drinks wine.
In the end Thor became ever more popular with the general public, and he still does so to this day. Marvel’s comic series is called “the mighty Thor”, not the “almighty Oden”.
Our main sources on mythology were written down by in Iceland, which was converted in around 1000 AD. This also means that at 1000 AD, the nordic mythology in iceland stopped developing.
Yet, if we consider the paralel evolutions in other mythologies, it would seem the conflict might have had time to further develop in those regions that maintained their pagan believes longer, such as Sweden. After all, Adam Of Bremen mentions that at the temple in Uppsala, Thor occupied the central place and was the first amongh the gods. This constatation seems irreconsilable with the general idea of Odin as father of Thor and king of the Gods. Should this account be limited to Adam, we might still attribute it to a false comprehension, or even a material mistake. But Adam isn’t the only one that mentions some peculiarities on the hierarchical position of Thor.
As already mentioned Snorri also suggests the “person” Thor was father to Odin, and that it was Thor that came from Troy to the Germanic people in middle and nothern Germany. His son Odin then continued to move to the north ad established himselve as suppreme God amongh the northern peoples.
And as I mentioned in my contribution on afterlife, the cult surrounding Odin was mainly practiced in the upper class, amongh the nobility and their “Jungmannshafte”. We can assume that on the other hand Thor (and Freyr for that manner) were more popular amoungh the farmer cast. After all as bringer of fertile rains and subduer of chaos, Thor would be more relevant to their way of life in comparison to the lives of the nobility.He would also be more approachable than his father. Odin is a magician, a mysterious being, he represents death and battle. All of these are quite nasty things in the eyes of a farmer. You need every person alive to help harvest your crops, the less hands you have to help getting in the harvest, the harder it is to get all off it in the barn before winter sets in.
Ad mentioned before Thor however is a buddy you would meet in the inn, you would get drunk with him, joke with him, mock his red beard and finaly wenn you’re both waisted as hell you would argue and fight with him (and loose the fight without any doubt). Both of you would be sorry the morning after, when the headache sets in. (actually writing this i am reminded of the scene in the Marvel Thor movie where Thor ends up drinking with Eric ).Thus it is logical that he would have been more popular amoung the commoners, a lot more than the severe and introvert figure of Odin. His popularity would thus justifying his central place in the temple at Uppsala.
On top of that, the Christian missionaries first converted the leading gentry, thus deminishing the number of people who were honouring Odin, whilst the final vestiges of paganism were found amongh the bondi, and amongh the worshippers of Thor.
And even when a popularity poll isn’t the same as a positioning in the hierarchy, all of this would seem to indicate that at the final stage of Swedish paganism, Thor was gaining upon Odin als a central figure.
We can also notice that both Odin and Thor have aspects of the archétypical skygod.
That Thor also has a warriorlike aspect, need not be illustrated. That part of him is obvous enough. As to Odin as god of fertility, a little explanation is necessary. Odin has a fertility aspect in mythology due to his intercourse with the earth, mother of Thor .
The argicultural link of Odin is also attested in the mythological cycle surrounding Kvasir. Odin wourks the fields as a harvester in order to get his reward, a drink of the mede made from the blood of Kvasir.
The northern German harvest formula attested by Jan de Vries is also an illustration of Odins fertility aspect: “Wode hael dine rosse nu fodder, nu distel ende dorn, tom naeste aar mere korn”. Yet it seems obvious that Odins fertility aspect never took the upper hand and always remained a rather unimportant aspect of his divinity.
Thor is lord of the storms, but Odin, or Wodan in the figure of the wild hunter is the same. And this representation isn’t limited to southern Germanic Aereas such as Flanders or Germany. It is also found in Skandinavia. He is the Gröenjaette on moen and rides the small tongue of land at Odsherred, And the Oskorei ride in Norway.
Ambiguity and cultural predisposition
This blending of Godly domains is not limited to Odin, Tyr and Thor. To a lesser extend we may withness the same in Frejr.
Saxo attests that amongh the Swedes he is honnoured as the highest of the gods (he goes on stating that Thor takes this role in danmark and Odin in Norway). Freyrs fertility aspect is undoutable, but he was also viewed as a warriorgod as attested by his magical sword that fights out of itself and the boar he rides in the skies. He also posseses a ship that allows him to travel the nine worlds, comparable to the horse Sleipnir. He too assumes roles that do not correcpond to the strick delimitation of competences we expect from a “more classical”polytheistic society, such as the Roman or Greek Pantheons.
Partially this ambiguation can be explained by the personal preferences of the worshippers. Some may have had an attraction to Thor, whilst others prefered Freijr or Odin. We can compare this to the honorouring of ones favourite saint in many Catholic countries. The saint is called upon for aid in areas that aren’t his first area of expertise, not because his followers want him to usurp the power of another saint, but because they prefer their favourite to intervene. The main difference between Catholicism as a polytheistic (yes it is in more than one way polytheistic) religion to Norse paganism is that in Catholisism there is a central power, the church, the papacy and papal burocratie that keeps the masses at bay and has the poser to intervene when the adoration of a certain saint would go that far as to assimilate the godly nature of christ or the father. Such visions will be dismissed by the church as herresies and those who do not comform to the centralies vision will be cast out of the church. And in the past this was to be taken quite literally, those disagreïung with the system were burned at the stake. Yet the church always allowed some personal freedom to the populace because it understood quite well that a certain well controled amount of free interpretation was inecitable in view of the quite diferent cultural backgrounds of its many believers.
Norse Paganism was and is essentially a non centralised believe system, no hierachie exists that forces the believes of the believers into a single line of thought. Thus the amalganation of competences is not kept at bay, and thus the migration of powers can be explained.
Each worshipper could have his own favourite God and invoke him for all matters he disired, even if these weren’t their prime competences.
The strickt delimitation of compentences we are used to today is a modern interpretation of an old religion. In part it is due to the Graeco-Roman/Christian logical and systematic interpretation of the world. It is culturally emforced upon us. We organise and categorise everything, both in religion and real life since it is was we have been learned to do. It has become our way of understanding life and creation.
However, this wasn’t the way our Germanic ancestors thought, in their world nothing was as sharply delimited as it is today. Frontiers were rarely clearly fixed, and if they were, they would quicly be changed again. Today one would be farmer, tomorrow builder and the day after warrior etc. A nobleman could handle a plow and a bonde could handle a weapon. Thus these ambiguities didn’t pose any problem for our ancestors. 2 disctict and seemingly contradicting myths could be equally true. To understand Asatru also means to understand this very basic element of the ancient religion.
Now back to our basic question, who is the Germanic Sky God?
Originally it may have been Tyr/Ziu, son of Mannus. But alreasy in the time of Tacitus it is clear he had competition of 2 other members of a triad, ing and iste, and that these 3 descended from a single founding God. In this contect it is important to know that, Tyr is a just and righteous warrior god, he fights righteous wars. Then somewhere between the 3th and 6th century, in the middle of the chaotic migration period a more cunning and rused warrior god takes over, Woden or Odin. He fights to win, the goals justifies the way heachieves it, he doesnt care about justice only about the final result, the defence of the universe, if this means treachery must be used, he will.
It may be that he initially was a lesser God, a God of magic, but it is clear that he gains in importance. He is the graying, wise king, skilled in war and desception, a good manipulator of man, a man who can see in the future. In short, he is the kind of leader any migratory folk would need to lead them to a new promised land, but he is also the kind of leader a group endangered by wandering tribes would need in order to ward of the danger. In other words, het was the kind of God, needed in those harsh times.
At the end of the migration period, we see that in farmer middens the gods of fertility, Frejr and Thor regain interest, the first in Sweden, the second in Denmark, and since the viking age is beginning and the farmers also need to fight in order to serve their lord, these Gods also absorb a part of the worriorlike aspects of Odin. Thor seems to be winning the ploy, he is a bit more warriorlike then Freyr, and he seems to greatly have been prefered over Freyr as the main god of the migratory vikings who settled new territories such as Iceland
If the farmers had their favourite God, and the nobility wanted to maintain some kind of distance from their subjects thei could easily do that in a polytheistic society. They simply had to choose another favourite God. Compare it to the Francophilia that reigned in the European nobility and bourgeoise from the 17th to the early 20the centuries.
Thus in view of the layered society of the time, Odin as God of the ruling cast could remains the king of Gods, whereas Thor as his son, may perhaps aspire the throne, but clearly remains the second in line
By this Time Ziu had become but a shadow of his former Glory, for many of the reasons touched earlier in this chapter, but he was still remembered as the righteous God that had to give up the throne because of the sacrifice of his hand. He became absoleet in the struggle for the primacy of the Gods and was all but forgotten (in name) although his essence was largely absorbed by Odin.
Finaly, when we look at present day Asatru, we see that Thor is gaining upon his father once again, he is more approachable, less distant and less sever then his father, he appeals more to the modern western hart, our search for joy, our lust for life. Yet, as our society is a paper society heavily relying upon written texts, and those texts we possess place Odin at the top of the pantheon, we largely remain attached to his primacy, and we cannot -even if we disered to do so- simply discard all the written texts. Not even if they were produced in a religious context we no longer support. Thus I don’t believe Thor will ever inherit the throne of the suppreme God. He may continue to surpass his father in popularity, but in the modern western mind he will always remain the son. He is more approachable then his father, he can much be talked to much easier, just as folkish Catholics consider Jesus as more approachable than his father, the severe untoughable God in the skies, but Jesus will never take his place at the top of the pantheon (the official doctrine consideres the father and the son to be one, but the public doesn’t)
As a final conclusion, in my view the original skygod was Tyr, whose tasks were mainly absorbed by Odin. Presently Odin is the skygod. But due to his “imperfections” some comptences will never be absorbed by him. He will for example never be God of justice.
Does this constitute a religious problem. No, just as in the life of men, their Gods strive to obtain their Goals, some win, some lose. And time doesn’t come to a standstill. Our Gods do not live outside of time, they are also subject to it, just as we are (cf. my previous contributions)