If I were in charge of casting a movie based on Children, Odin would be played by Sir Ian McKellen just because Sir McKellen did an incredible job playing Gandalf and Tolkien barely bothered to change anything when he decided to simply rename Odin to something else for his little Lord of the Rings books.
Who is Odin?
Odin is the most complex of all the Gods and Goddesses in the Norse pantheon. Not for nothing does he have more than a hundred kennings (by-names), among which you will find ‘The Mad One’, ‘The Furious One’, ‘The Inspired One’, ‘The Desired One’, ‘The Terrible One’, and ‘The Old Bastard’. He is a poet, a healer, a magician, a warrior. When calling upon Odin it is advised to use the name referring to the Odin you would prefer to experience. Prefer, because if he feels otherwise you might be in for a surprise of your life. Possibly your last.
The Marvel movies put the All-Father in the position of the “chief God” to make it easier for people without experience in polytheistic religions – the Father, the Son, and the holy… uh, Loki. The truth is more complicated. In the Norse times, the God considered to be the “leader” differed depending on the region. In Iceland, for example, the favoured Gods were Thor and Freyr, with Odin rarely present in the Sagas (although by no means unknown). Since each of the Gods was associated with certain personality traits, Iceland focussed on the Gods unrelated to wars. In other parts of the world Odin or Týr were the “chieftains”.
Odin presides over Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain, where he is preparing for Ragnarök – the Twilight of the Gods, by gathering the strongest and bravest of warriors. Interestingly, the Sagas are very clear about the fact that Valhalla has 540 doors that eight hundred warriors can exit at once. This doesn’t mean that once the eight hundred exited none can follow, which would mean that Valhalla would have capacity of 432 thousand warriors, but when writing my books I took that idea and ran with it. In Children Odin picks and mixes his men and women, and once he finds a really impressive specimen he simply discards the weaker – or rather less incredible – ones.
His preparations for Ragnarök make Odin the most dangerous of the Gods to follow. He has a tendency to claim those who dedicated their lives to him when they are at their absolute peak, physical and mental. This sometimes means letting them live a long and fruitful (i.e. murderous) life, but sometimes it means that the person drops dead at the age of 28 during a workout. Odin tests those he chooses as his, pushing them to the breaking point to see what’s going to happen. Sometimes they break. Sometimes he uses his powers as a healer to pull them a bit further away from the cliff before giving them another, harder prod.
Cool kids of death
I have to mention this: the “we’ll meet in Valhalla” and “Odin’s warriors” t-shirts worn by thirteen year olds are both silly and second-hand embarrassing. An actual soldier who kills others using a drone is not going to be picked by Odin (the drone might, though, although the All-Father is not fond of modern technology). There is a bigger chance of a person suffering from chronic pain or depression finding themselves in Valhalla, because they struggle and battle every single day – and each time they wake up alive they won another battle only to immediately embark on the next. The definition of warrior alters with time, same as the Gods do. Playing The Witcher or doxxing women on social media doesn’t a warrior make, regardless of their t-shirt collection.
The neo-nazi groups who dare to call themselves heathens, or even Ásatru, must be extremely selective in their perception of the Gods. I’ve seen an American Ásatru group, whose leader declared that only “proud, white, faithful, heterosexual” members were welcome. Loki and Odin wouldn’t be welcome in that group (neither would I, in the extremely unlikely case that I’d feel the need to join). Odin has learned seiðr from Freya. Men practicing seiðr would have been called ergi, a word that didn’t have a straight (hoho) English equivalent until “queer” became a thing. Seiðrmenn were seen as so deviant that eighty of them were burnt for their magical practices (Avaldsnes – A Sea-Kings’ Manor in First-Millennium Western Scandinavia, pg. 38 and further, Dagfinn Skre, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 4 dec. 2017). Therefore Odin is both the manliest of all the Gods and the deviant practicing women’s magic. Those interested in the topic should also check out Óðinn as a Queer Deity by Amy Jefford Franks.
Odin might have heard about this being faithful thing, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression on him. He has many children with many women and sees consent as optional. Even the “white” part might be problematic, because Odin is a shapeshifter who can turn into any man or animal. The only thing each of his forms have in common is being one-eyed. Which, by the way, answers the fans’ question whether Odin was the wanderer who fathered Aslaug’s child in Vikings. Sorry, Aslaug. Too many eyes.
Or not enough.
If there is one thing that most know about Odin it’s that he’s only got one eye. This is true to a certain degree.
One of Odin’s eyes was the payment for being permitted to drink from Mimir’s Well, the well of wisdom. That eye has landed on the bottom of the well. There’s another one he’s still using. But then, there are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn, commonly known in English as Thought and Memory. Apart from looking awesome on pictures, the ravens fly to the places Odin wants to take a look at, but can’t attend to in person. I see the ravens as parts of Odin, his extra eyes and ears. His biggest fear is to lose one or both of the ravens, as he would lose parts of his mind – literally, not just as “oh no, my memory’s gone”. The ravens are Odin.
In my books, he sends the ravens wherever he wants, but they remain ravens. In order to ensure that Odin will not be…overseeing the events it is enough to hide in a place – say, a tent – which a raven can’t possibly enter. How he coordinates seeing with four eyes, one of which observes the bottom of a well and the remaining three can potentially be located in three different worlds? Beats me. This is why I am not a God.
What is Odin like?
This is a lot like asking “what does food taste like”, but I have a partial answer based on my personal experiences.
Frigg, Odin’s wife, has the gift of precognition. She does not, however, share what she has foreseen. Apart from the Norns, who represent time itself, Frigg is the only one who really knows how everything will end. When Odin drank from Mimir’s well, he has acquired all of the Universe’s wisdom and that wisdom tells him one thing: everything ends. As time passes, things end more and more impressively, until the Age of Fire arrives and takes away everything that’s left. Frigg understands that future can not be changed and even if we knew what was going to happen, our actions would just contribute to ensuring it comes true. Odin doesn’t know – he understands. And refuses to believe it.
Even though Völuspa, which I refer to as “the prophecy” in Children, explains Ragnarök – the end of everything – in great detail, Odin doesn’t just sit down and stare at a wall with a strong drink in his hand. He watches the warriors in Valhalla and everywhere else with a strong drink in his hand. Understanding everything about human nature means unbearable sadness and the Norse Gods are neither omnipotent nor infallible. Odin copes using alcohol and sex. I find him to be the saddest of all Gods. The one with the least inhibitions, since Odin lives each moment like it could be his last; the least merciful one, because mercy doesn’t win wars; the one who survives on wine alone. Oops, no, wait. There was also the mead of poetry, which made Odin muse “I was drunk, I was over-drunk, at the house of the wise Fjalarr” later.
He may be sad, but he is not depressed. The wisdom he possesses filled him with endless desire for knowledge – this is why he had learnt a form of magic associated either with women or queer men. It can be useful. When he watches the warriors in Valhalla he does so without pleasure – it’s work. When he stirs wars, he doesn’t do it for fun – it’s work. In Children most of the others don’t understand, simply assuming that Odin enjoys watching death and suffering. Humans of Midgard (more about the Nine Worlds soon) are the only race of peoples who actually wish to die with Odin’s name on their lips, who desire a place in Valhalla. Odin doesn’t care whether his name is or isn’t on their lips (or t-shirts). His only goal is to build the strongest army he possibly can. If he were to believe the prophetess of Völuspa, he would have to accept defeat. Odin will never accept defeat until he lies dead.
Everything and everyone is his tool. His motives are often impossible to understand not just for mere mortals but other Gods as well. It might be because none of us can hope to achieve the wisdom of Odin. It can also be because too much wisdom can drive one properly insane. I use this characteristic many times in the upcoming books.
Everything about Odin is controlled, with the exception of sex. His rune is ansuz, which among many other things signifies reason, analysis, inspiration, networking. Odin’s fury can’t be equalled, but he is capable of simply switching it off.
He likes riddles and jokes. Not jokes like Loki’s – Odin wouldn’t bother shaving Sif’s hair. Odin likes putting the opponent down, but not the way a narcissist would. Odin must ensure that he is the strongest. He must win every contest. In Children Freya plots against Odin, because she wants revenge. Odin doesn’t bother with revenge, unless there is something he can get out of it or unless leaving the perpetrators alive poses some sort of further danger.
Odin is not a fan of modern technology. Not because he got stuck in the Middle Ages, but because he believes that it enables people to become lazy. Barely a few decades ago if you wanted to know something you either had to learn it, or to go to a library to dig through resources, learning many other things in the meantime, or at least purchase an encyclopaedia. The idea of Google – a thing that answers any questions you’ve got, sometimes truthfully, sometimes not (something something Doctor Google says I have cancer something), in return for complete surveillance? Not Odin’s thing, unless he could take control over it, but no matter how many ravens he’s got he wouldn’t be able to deal with people demanding an answer to the question “how do I remove a pencil from my nose”. He approves of e-readers, because they enable us to carry around hundreds of books, but not of smartphones, because they are a constant source of distraction.
What does Odin look like?
In my books I make the statement that each of the Gods who are shapeshifters has their preferred “form”. Odin’s is an old man in a cloak, with a pointy hat, and a staff. (Yes, I know it’s described as a spear, but it was not always one.) The first time I encountered Odin, he reminded me of someone. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it until I realised, greatly disappointed, that I was seeing Gandalf.
Tolkiensssss are thievesssesssss.
He can be a fighter himself, especially when someone pisses him off by not having done their homework, and I’m not saying this happened to me, but I’m not saying it didn’t either. I have encountered Odin The Professor and I have encountered Odin The Healer who understood that as long as I am in mental and physical pain I will not learn anything and I have encountered Odin The I’m Going To Fuck You Up Because I Told You What To Do And You Played Bridge On Your Phone Instead.
Don’t piss Odin off. Seriously. Just don’t.
In a book planned for 2021-2022, How to Be a God, I explain why Odin mostly looks like a very old man, even though he can look like anybody and anything else (one-eyed, though). It’s easy to underestimate an old man who walks slowly, barely able to keep himself standing. Where do you think Tolkien got the idea of Gandalf politely pleading to be allowed to keep his walking staff from? We associate old age with wisdom, or perhaps in the age of Kardashians we used to see it that way. Odin has been there when the Universe began and he will be there when it ends… and he will do everything in his power to push this moment away.
In my books I have presented many of the deities in ways very different from how they are generally described, either to fit my plot lines or because of what I have personally encountered/experienced. The most drastic example is Freya, who currently isn’t on speaking terms with me, since I based her on the Drag Race queens maybe a bit too much. I did not change anything about Odin, because I didn’t have to. This post has taken me a week to write, because there is so much that I could add to it.
The amount of resources regarding Odin and Loki is nearly infinite. If you would like to find out more, I’d recommend three. The Idunna magazine, issues 41 and 81; Our Troth, which is as close to a heathen manual as can be; and books by Galina Krasskova. Bear in mind that when you look her up on DuckDuckGo one of the suggested words to add is “insane”. When I talk about my experiences and encounters with the Gods… maybe I’m making it all up. Maybe I’m not. One thing I can tell you, though, is that I was once told “a thousand years ago there was no such thing as mental illness and medication for it, but there were shamans and seers”. Krasskova sees Odin as her lover. As for me? In addition to the above, Children will be out in May/June if all goes well.