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What is Odinism?, Part I:
Odin the Philosopher

[1]1,965 words

Editor’s Note:

This is part one of a four-part essay that first appeared in Tyr: Myth, Culture, Tradition, [2] vol. 4. [2]

This essay is dedicated to Edred Thorsson.

Edred Thorsson has stated that Odinism[1] [3] is not the path of one who worships Odin, but who strives to become him:

[The] active Odian does not so much seek to worship an external god-form of Ódhinn as he does him-Self to embody and to develop the Self-concept and consciousness given by the god. Whereas other religious cults turn outward to the objective manifestation of the particular god, the cult of Ódhinn turns inward and seeks a deification of the Self. The Odian does not worship his god – he becomes his god.[2] [4]

So the Odinist emulates Odin, but in what respect? Obviously not in all. Odin is a multifaceted figure, as indicated by the countless names applied to him in the literature (Allfather, Delight of Frigg, Lord of the Æsir, Enemy of the Wolf, Worker of Evil, Lord of the Undead, Concealer, Wanderer, etc.).

To learn what it means to be an Odinist, we must identify Odin’s essential features – those that not only make him unique, but that explain or unify (in one fashion or other) all of his myriad characteristics. Quite simply, Odin’s key feature is his ceaseless quest for knowledge. Closely connected with this is his striving for power. But these are so tightly linked they are almost corollaries of each other. Greater knowledge – increased insight into the nature of the universe and its secrets – brings with it an increase in the ability to manipulate and to control all manner of things. So that, as the saying goes, knowledge is power. (Wagner was very perceptive in making the pursuit of knowledge and power the central feature of his Wotan.[3] [5])

A number of the legends concerning Odin depict his attempts to uncover the secrets of the universe, and thus attain wisdom. First, I must mention Odin’s relation to the god Mímir. Rudolf Simek notes that “Mímir probably means ‘the rememberer, the wise one’ and is etymologically related to Latin memor [remembering, unforgetting].”[4] [6] Mímir, along with the god Hœnir, was given to the Vanir as a hostage. Though Hœnir was renowned for his wisdom, the Vanir discovered that he had nothing to say unless advised by Mímir. Enraged, they decapitated Mímir and returned his head to Odin, who kept the severed head alive through magic and acquired “hidden lore” from it.[5] [7] This story raises interesting philosophical questions about the relationship between wisdom and memory. As Plato recognized, the attainment of wisdom involves recollection of eternal forms, patterns, or laws in nature. For Plato, these are present innately in the mind of the knower and must be “recollected,” in the sense of brought to conscious awareness. But we can also speak of the “recollection” of eternal truths simply in the sense of the recovery or return to them.

Mímir’s Well (Mímisbrunnr) lies underneath one of the roots of the world tree Yggdrasill. Whoever drinks from its waters gains wisdom, but before Odin is allowed to drink he must sacrifice one of his eyes. (Later I will discuss the significance of Odin’s sacrifice, and the problem it creates for Odin – and for ourselves.) Mention must also be made of the fact that Odin sought special powers and insights through the practice of seiðr (a form of sorcery) even though, for reasons that remain obscure, it was considered ergi, unmanly. Further, we must consider Odin’s theft of the poetic mead from the etins (giants). The mead itself was brewed from the blood of Kvasir, who was created by the combined saliva of the Æsir and the Vanir. Like Mímir, Kvasir was reputed to be extremely wise, but unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) he ran afoul of some dwarfs who killed him and brewed mead from his blood, only to have the precious substance – the source of poetic inspiration – fall into the hands of the etins. To make a long story short, Odin transformed himself into a serpent and slithered into the mountain in which the mead was concealed. He then gulped down all of the mead, which was held in three vessels, and flew back to Asgard as an eagle, where he regurgitated the mead for the use of the Æsir (and mankind – since it is said that some of the mead dribbled onto the earth during Odin’s flight).

Again and again we find Odin searching for wisdom and power in one way or another. And he is willing to do so at all costs, recklessly breaking all the bonds of convention and prudence. He tears one of his eyes from his own head. He is willing to engage in “unmanly” practices to acquire the powers of sorcery. And, as Thorsson points out, he gains access to the mountain that conceals the mead of poetic inspiration via “cunning and oath-breaking,” in his guise as Bölverkr (Worker of Evil).[6] [8]

But surely the most significant and dramatic of all the stories recounting Odin’s quest for wisdom is the tale in Hávamál of how he won the runes:

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.[7] [9]

Odin hangs himself on Yggdrasill for nine nights, wounded by a spear, starving, sacrificing myself to myself – so the text states enigmatically. And he is rewarded for his suffering by the discovery of the runes. It is not surprising that many have seen in this a shamanic vision quest.[8] [10] It would seem that Odin’s thirst for wisdom knows no bounds at all.

We tend, nevertheless, to take these familiar stories of the god for granted, without reflecting on how genuinely surprising they are. Odin, after all, is the chief god of the Æsir. He is the Allfather, who created the known universe out of the corpse of Ymir, shaping things according to his own design. And yet he does not know. Nor is he all-powerful. He must work to discover the secrets of the universe he helped give form to. And he is vulnerable. The figure of Odin stands in sharp contrast to other “chief gods” of divine pantheons. He is a far cry from Zeus, for example, whose knowledge and power are seemingly unlimited. In the Germanic system, it is Hermes/Mercury who is the chief god. This is actually quite extraordinary.

It is extraordinary that the chief god of the Germanic peoples is characterized principally by his ceaseless striving for wisdom. Odin, in fact, is a philosopher in the literal sense – a lover of wisdom. Odin is a god, but he is definitely not God: he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Indeed, one way to understand Odin and what motivates him is to say that he is striving to become God.

And so now we have arrived at a more concrete understanding of exactly what it means to be an Odinist. As Thorsson says, the Odinist (or Odian) strives to become Odin. And that means, essentially, to strive to know: to make the search for wisdom the ruling passion of one’s life. To become as “divinely mad” as Odin was in his quest to unlock the secrets of the universe, at any price.

But we now know something else as well: to follow Odin means, in effect, to strive to become “God”: supreme, all-knowing, and all-powerful (what I will describe later on, following Thorsson and others, as “the Self”). And if we seriously undertake this challenge and reject the idea, as Odin clearly did, that there need be any limits to our quest for wisdom, then we must realize that in principle our goal is to surpass Odin himself. Odin is our guide, our guru. But the pupil may surpass the master. To set our sights any lower is, in fact, to fail to be true Odinists.

No, we most definitely do not worship Odin.

Gustav Meyrink writes (in passages excerpted in Julius Evola’s Introduction to Magic):

The only truly immortal being is the awakened man. Stars and gods disappear; he alone endures and can achieve anything he wants. There is no God above him. It is not without reason that our way has been called a pagan way. That which a religious man believes about God is nothing but a state that he himself could achieve, if he could only believe in himself. But he obtusely sets up obstacles over which he dares not jump. He creates an image of worship, instead of transforming himself into it. If you want to pray, pray to your invisible Self: it is the only God who can answer your prayers.[9] [11]

And somewhere Meister Eckhart states that “Man’s last and highest leave-taking is leaving God for God.” I will amend this as follows: the Odinist must leave god for “God.” Not to worship God, of course, but to become him – for this is the goal of the Odian quest.[10] [12] Our goal, like Odin’s, must be divinization. We must be like Wagner’s Siegfried, who shatters the old man’s spear and ends his reign, crying:

Ha, rapturous glow!
Radiant gleam!
The pathway lies open,
Shining before me. –
To bathe in the fire!
To find the bride in the flames![11] [13]

Do you see this as hubris? As sacrilege? As impiety? Then the Odinist path is not for you. On this path, the very first thing that must be left behind is piety.


[1] [14] Edred Thorsson prefers the terms “Odianism” and “Odian” to “Odinism” and “Odinist.” The reason for this is that “Odinism” has long been used as a synonym simply for Ásatrú. However, by “Odianism” Thorsson means a particular path to which not all Ásatrúar will be called. (Also, certain academics have made a spurious distinction between “Odinism” and “Ásatrú,” claiming that the former is somehow politicized, whereas the latter is not.) I prefer the less cumbersome “Odinism” to “Odianism,” so I will simply stipulate that in this essay my use of “Odinism” is identical to what Thorsson means by “Odianism.”

[2] [15] Edred Thorsson, Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology (York Beach: Samuel Weiser, 1987), 179. I will discuss the concept of “the Self” at length in Section Four.

[3] [16] See my essay “Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition” in Greg Johnson, ed., Our Wagner: The North American New Right Bicentennial Symposium (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, forthcoming in 2014).

[4] [17] Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer), 216.

[5] [18] See Edred Thorsson’s account in Runelore, 180.

[6] [19] Runelore, 193.

[7] [20] The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 34.

[8] [21] On Odin as shaman see, for example, Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 379-87.

[9] [22] See Julius Evola and the UR Group, Introduction to Magic, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2001), 40.

[10] [23] In speaking of “God” I am not drawing upon any particular religious tradition. Still less am I saying that Odinists should be monotheists – for again, I am not saying that we must worship this God. I would assert, however, that the idea of a supreme, all powerful being is perennial, and that the human mind is so constituted as to conceive of it. It appears not just in monotheistic traditions but in polytheistic traditions as well. For example, in the Vedanta of the ancient Aryans we find the idea of a supreme power that is greater than the gods, of which the gods may be mere inflections. And further this supreme power is said to be identical to our innermost selves. We also find the latter point in the medieval German mystics.

[11] [24] Siegfried, Act 3, Scene 2. The translation is in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion, ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington, libretti translated by Stewart Spencer (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 264.