Woden, or Odin as the Norsemen called him, was the chief of the gods of our ancestors, and corresponds to the Jupiter of the Romans. Also, for reasons which we shall read later, he was similar to Mercury, and his name was given to the Roman Dies Mercurii, day of Mercury, which still survives in the French mercredi.
As in the case of Jupiter and the Titans, Odin led the Northern gods in a gigantic struggle with the giants of ice and frost, and finally overthrew them. With the help of the gods, he then fashioned the world from the body of the chief of the giants. From the flesh he made the earth, known as Midgard (middle garden), and from his blood the sea, while from his bones he made the mountains, from his teeth the cliffs, and from his hair the trees. The giant's skull was then fixed over the earth to form the vault of the sky, and was held in place at the four corners by four dwarfs, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, and Westri, from whom we have obtained the names North, South, East, and West. Next the gods made the sun and moon, which were placed in golden chariots driven by Sol and Mani, the daughter and son of a giant who had named his children after the newly-created sun and moon. The Northmen thought that they could see on the moon the outline of two children carrying a pail, and the story goes that Mani, while travelling across the sky, one night caught up two children, Hiuki and Bil, who were compelled by their cruel father to carry water all night. Hiuki and Bil are still known to us in the familiar story of Jack and Jill. The sun and moon were said to be pursued continually by two fierce wolves, whose shapes could be seen in the clouds, and who, if they caught them up, would swallow them and plunge the world in darkness. Sometimes they nearly succeeded, and thus caused the eclipses.
Having completed the earth and peopled it with men and women, the gods, led by Odin, built magnificent palaces for themselves in Asgard, their home. The most famous of these was Valhalla, to which the bravest and mightiest of the mortals who fell in battle were summoned at their death. The walls of Valhalla were made of spears, and golden shields formed the roof. In the hall stood long tables, at which the dead heroes feasted.
The Northmen honoured a great fighter above all men, and they even thought it a disgrace for him to die in any other way than sword in hand. The great ambition of every fighting man was to be called to Valhalla after his death, there to spend his time in fighting and feasting. The fortunate ones were chosen from among the slain on the battle-fields by the Valkyries, Odin's battle-maidens, whose horses carried them through the air and over the sea. They rode among the storm-clouds, and the flash of their spears was seen in the lightning.
Odin was often pictured as sitting on a throne from which he could see the whole world, and wearing a suit of armour, covered with a blue mantle, which represented the sky. In his hand he held a famous spear, Gungnir, which never missed its mark. On his shoulders sat two ravens, Thought and Memory, which he sent out into the world every day to obtain news of all that happened. Like Tiu, the God of War, Odin suffered from a disfigurement, having lost one of his eyes. This loss is explained in the following story.
After the creation of the world, Odin wished to obtain great wisdom which would place him far above the other gods. This he could only procure from Mimir's spring, in whose clear waters the future was mirrored. Odin, therefore, visited Mimir and begged a draught of the wonderful water, but Mimir would only grant the request in return for one of Odin's eyes. The god was willing to make even this sacrifice for the great knowledge the water would give him, and accordingly he plucked out one of his eyes and gave it to Mimir, who sank it deep in the spring where it could always be seen shining. Odin then drank deep of the water, and thus gained the wisdom for which he was always famous.
All the life of the world, including even the lives of the gods, was said to depend on an enormous ash tree, Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life. This tree was created by Odin, and had three roots, one in the Underworld, another in Midgard, near Mimir's spring, and the third in Asgard. It grew to such a height that it overtopped the whole world, and in its topmost branches sat an eagle with a falcon between its eyes. The falcon could see all three kingdoms, and reported all that happened in them to the gods. In the Underworld was a dragon, which continually gnawed the roots of Yggdrasil in order to destroy it and so bring about the downfall of the gods. To prevent this disaster, the tree was daily watered from a fountain in Asgard, whose magic waters kept it continually green.
Joining Asgard and the earth was a bridge made of fire, earth, and water, whose colours were those of the rainbow. This bridge was guarded against the giants by a god named Heimdall, whose sight and hearing were so keen that he could see a hundred leagues by night as well as by day, and could hear the grass growing on the earth and the wool on the sheep's back! He was armed with a flashing sword, and carried a horn with which he was to give warning when the giants should come against Asgard.
Odin was the inventor of Runes, the first alphabet of the Northmen. The letters consisted almost entirely of straight lines placed in different groups and positions, and were thought at first to have a magical meaning. Each god had a special rune or sign, and the use of the sign was supposed to bring help from the god. Thus all fighters carved the rune of Tiu on their swords in order that they might have his aid in battle. Runes were afterwards used in the ordinary way for writing, and very old runes have been found carved on stones in Scandinavia and in England. As the inventor of runes, Odin is like Mercury, who was supposed to have given the Romans their alphabet.
In addition to being the wisest of the gods, the inventor of runes, and the God of Eloquence, Odin was also the God of Poetry. The gift of poetry was guarded very jealously by the gods, and was only granted to mortals in special cases. Odin obtained the gift for himself and the other gods only with great difficulty. Hidden away in a hollow mountain, and carefully watched over by a giantess, were three vessels containing a magic fluid, which gave to anyone who drank of it the gift of poetry and song. Odin, knowing of this magic drink, determined to obtain it. Accordingly he set out for the land of the giants, dressed as a mortal, and wearing a broad-brimmed hat to hide the fact that he had only one eye. He hired himself as a servant to Baugi, the brother of the giant Suttung, to whom the vessels belonged, and asked as payment for his labour one draught of the magic fluid. As soon as his work was finished, Odin demanded payment, but Baugi was afraid to ask his brother for the drink, and suggested they should win it for themselves by trickery. They came to the mountain where the vessels were hidden, and bored a hole right through to the cave inside. Odin then changed himself into a snake and wriggled through the hole, just in time to escape the giant, who tried to kill him as he entered the hole. Having found his way into the cave, Odin again took on the form of a god, and begged the giantess who watched over the vessels to allow him just a sip of the magic drink. The giantess at last consented, but Odin, instead of taking a sip, quickly emptied all the vessels, and then, making his way out of the cave transformed himself into an eagle and flew swiftly towards Asgard. He soon discovered, however, that the giant Suttung was pursuing him, also in the form of an eagle. As he neared Asgard the gods caught sight of him, and, seeing that the giant was gaining on Odin, they gathered together a great quantity of fuel and piled it on the palace walls. Immediately Odin had passed over the wall the gods set fire to the fuel, and the flames rose so high that the wings of the pursuing giant were scorched, and he fell into the fire and was burnt.
Odin seldom used this precious gift of poetry himself, but imparted it to his son Bragi, who became the minstrel of the gods and sang many songs in honour of the gods and the great heroes in Valhalla. All the singers among men, the bards, or scalds, as they were sometimes called, were thought to have received the gift from Odin, and were greatly honoured for that reason.
The Creation of the World
In the beginning, ere the Gods were born,
Before the Heavens were builded, thou didst slay
The giant Ymir, whom the abyss brought forth,
Thou and thy brethren fierce, the sons of Bor,
And cast his trunk to choke the abysmal void.
But of his flesh and members thou didst build
The earth and ocean, and above them Heaven.
And from the flaming world, where Muspel reigns,
Thou sent'st and fetched'st fire, and madest lights,
Sun, moon, and stars, which thou hast hung in Heaven,
Dividing clear the paths of night and day.
And Asgard thou didst build, and Midgard fort.
MATTHEW ARNOLD--Balder Dead
The Heroes of Valhalla
And all the Gods, and all the Heroes, woke.
And from their beds the Heroes rose, and donn'd
Their arms, and led their horses from the stall,
And mounted them, and in Valhalla's court,
Were ranged; and then the daily fray began.
And all day long they there are hack'd and hewn,
'Mid dust, and groans, and limbs lopp'd off, and blood;
But all at night returned to Odin's hall,
Woundless and fresh; such lot is theirs in heaven.
And the Valkyries on their steeds went forth
Tow'rd earth and fights of men; and at their side
Skulda, the youngest of the Normes, rode;
And over Bifrost, where is Heimdall's watch,
Past Midgard fortress, down to earth they came;
There through some battle-field, where men fall fast,
Their horses fetlock-deep in blood, they ride,
And pick the bravest warriors out for death,
Whom they bring back with them at night to heaven
To glad the Gods, and feast in Odin's hall.
MATTHEW ARNOLD--Balder Dead.