Wodan and the Scandinavian Warlords

The dominant role of Wodan as the “Allfather” in Old Norse literature is a well-known fact or perhaps even common knowledge. Nevertheless, Heathenism has constantly been changing in symbiosis with its culture and society over the centuries, and so has the concept of Wodan. The question is: how did he become the alfǫðr Óðinn of the late Viking Age and which position did he have in the preceding eras?

In search for answers, Joshua Rood conducted a research on this topic for his master thesis at the University of Iceland which he completed in May 2017. Therein he focused his attention on the evolution of Wodan against the background of the great social and political changes during the centuries prior to the Viking Age, i.e. the Migration and Vendel Period. Thankfully his noteworthy paper with the title ‘Ascending the Steps to Hliðskjálf. The Cult of Óðinn in Early Scandinavian Aristocracy’ has been made freely available via the following link:

Joshua Rood 2017: Ascending the Steps to Hliðskjálf

The main focus of his work is on the strong connection between Wodan and the warlords of Southern Scandinavia, whose power dramatically increased during the Migration Period due to their military capacity. These new elites were the driving force behind the radical changes of this time. They were responsible for the destruction of the old world of the Germanic tribes and their quasidemocratic Thing system. In its place, they installed themselves as the strong rulers forming ever greater kingdoms and securing the supremacy of their dynasties. Against this background a conscious and purposive instrumentalisation of Wodan was taking place, driven by this very group of people, whose intentions kept revolving around strengthening and legitimising their own claim to power. Gradually they pushed the development of the character of Wodan to the almighty “Allfather”, the first among the Æsir, to whom everyone else had to be subject, which was precisely the position they claimed for themselves. It is therefore no surprise to primarily learn of Wodan as the progenitor in the lineages of these dynasties when consulting the sources.1

The legacy of the Roman Empire

The blueprint for this development came from the south. It is the legacy of the Roman Empire with its emperors of virtually unlimited power. This long bygone glamour was what drove the ambitions of Franconian dynasty of the Merovingians. A dream which would eventually turn into reality. Already in the course of the 6th Century, the Frankish kings reigned over the largest and most powerful kingdom since the fall of Rome. The impact and the pull of this nation went far beyond its borders. From there not only material goods, but also new ideas and concepts progressed into the Northern world. Undoubtedly, the Scandinavian elites were very impressed by their mighty neighbor to the south and they didn’t hesitate to take over whatever seemed useful to them. An example for this development are the well-known gold bracteates of the Migration Period (see image to the top of this article). These bracteates were produced at the courts of the powerful Southern Scandinavian dynasties and are explicit copies of older roman medallions. But instead of the head of a Roman emperor they depict an ideal version of a Norse ruler. Besides typically contemporary symbols of power, these images also show several elements which allow an identification of the figure with none other than Wodan. These attributes are, for instance, a spear and accompanying birds, as well as the representation of magical actions, like the healing of Balders horse known from the Second Merseburg charm.2

With the production and distribution of the gold bracteates the Scandinavian warlords were not only able to display their wealth and power but also to establish and strengthen a direct connection between themselves and Wodan. There can be no doubt that besides the circulation of such images the elites also used poets to spread their “propaganda”. For just like the craftsmen the poets also were strongly dependent on the favour of the powerful. The work of Joshua Rood illustrates once again how successful this strategy has been. He was able to prove that the increasing importance of Wodan correlates directly with the Norse dynasties gain in influence and power.

Wodan in the course of time

Many of the well-known aspects of Wodan are undeniably of old age. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that in the course of this development some of his traits may have been assigned to him from other Æsir. This could be the case in regard to Tiu (Old Norse: Týr). From the earliest sources on he had a major role among the Æsir being mentioned in the same breath as Wodan and Thor. Not only is his name immortalized in the weekday “Tuesday” but his very name “Tiu” is closely related to the Greek Zeus and the Proto-Indo-European word *déiu̯os which translates to nothing less than “god” or “sky father”. Yet in the surviving Old Norse sources he is virtually non-existent, crassly disparate in relation to his former significance. It is quite possible that some of his traits, like his role as the god of war, had been transferred to Wodan, because Tiu’s close relation to the old Thing system Mars Thincsus as an early form of democracy was presumably met with quite some antagonism by the ruling warlords, since it directly ran counter to their claim to power.

Roods’ paper demonstrates once more that despotic elites throughout the course of time made heavy use of the cultic sphere to strengthen their position. This is the case not only in Rome, but also in the Germanic area of the Migration Period and the centuries thereafter. The “Allfather” of Old Norse literature feasting with the fallen warriors in Vallhöll was in all likelihood created by this despotic and militaristic elite in the first place. This should be borne in mind when working on the reanimation of the old heathen path. For the old heathenism has always been closely interwoven with the culture as well as the social and political reality of its time.

Nonetheless, Wodan was (and is) one of the most important Æsir and one of the few who is mentioned even in the earliest sources. Regardless of the question at which point in time his traits occurred or gained in importance, he is one of the most versatile characters even when omitting his position as “Allfather” and god of war. Be it his spirit of research, his wisdom or his art of poetry and sorcery, only time will show, which of his many aspects will rise to prominence in the future. One thing is certain: Wodan always has been in continuous change just as is heathenism and the world itself.

  1. For example in the familiy trees of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ^
  2. For more details see: Heizmann/Axboe 2011: Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit. Auswertung und Neufunde (Berlin, New York). ^