Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 12: Beware of Woden

Odin the Wanderer, Georg von Rosen, 1886. Public domain.

Last time, I mentioned that it might be useful to do a bit more of an in-depth character study on Woden, the Anglo-Saxon deity known in Norse mythology as Odin.

Woden intrigues me because he's such a multifaceted god. A lot of deities you'll encounter in paganism will seem rather humdrum and one-dimensional. Not Woden. He can inspire you with his bravery and his thirst for knowledge, but he can also be terrifying in his ruthlessness. 

Let's take a closer look, first by looking at what little we know about his place in Anglo-Saxon paganism. 

Six of the seven Anglo-Saxon kings considered themselves to be descendants of Woden, as attested to by our old friend Bede, and from that alone we can see how important he was. Just as Odin was considered the head of the Æsir in Norse myth, he appeared to serve a similar role in pagan England -- though perhaps not an identical one, as I'll touch on in a moment. What we do know is that the Roman historian Tacitus, in his Germania, indeed tells us that among the Germanic pagans as a whole, he was worshiped above all the other gods. 

And here's an interesting twist: In writing of Woden -- or, more specifically in this case, Odin -- Tacitus explained to his Roman audience that the Germanic peoples actually worshiped Mercury. Tacitus was using a method called interpretatio romana, whereby non-Roman deities were equated to Roman ones according to shared attributes. And the comparison does make sense when you consider that there's a decent amount of overlap in the characteristics of the two gods. They're both associated with things like travel, magic, assistance in guiding souls from this world to the next, esoteric knowledge, and -- this is the big one -- trickery. They're both mercurial, inasmuch as they both have a reputation for being ingenious but unpredictable. 

Along those same lines, I can't be the only person fascinated by the fact that while we call the day of the week Wednesday, after Woden ("Woden's Day"), that same day in many of the Romance languages is named for Mercury, such as in the French Mercredi. Fascinating, no?

Getting back to Woden in particular, further evidence of his importance to the Anglo-Saxons is attested by the many English places that bear his name, including Wanstead, Wednesbury, and Wensleydale (yes, the place famous for its cheese). But let's also consider again how the Anglo-Saxon kings considered him to be an ancestor. Now, that could mean that, like the Japanese emperor claiming lineage from the Shinto goddess Amaterasu, the Anglo-Saxon rulers considered themselves of divine stock. Or perhaps not. History tells us that the 10th-century historian Æthelweard complained that the Norse people misunderstood who Woden was by turning him into a god. In Æthelweard's view, he was meant to be understood as king of the barbarian chieftains only. In other words, the Anglo-Saxons might have considered Woden to be more of a legendary figure like King Arthur than a deity.

Now, in the Eddas, Odin is still a pretty crazy guy, even as a deity. Let's not forget that his name basically means "madness" or "fury." But that Odin was probably tidied up a bit and made more sophisticated and presentable, both to make him somewhat of a responsible leader of the gods and because the Prose Edda in particular was written through a Christian lens. Over in England, in contrast, if Woden was never supposed to be thought of as more than a legendary king of barbarians, it seems a pretty sure bet that there would never have been any effort to smooth out his rough edges. He'd just be a barbarian.  

And that's pretty scary when you consider that Woden is not the kind of person you'd ever want to turn your back on in the first place. Even in his (possibly) sanitized version in the Eddas, we still meet a bold and confident yet mysterious figure who on one hand commands and inspires, who walks effortlessly between worlds, and who has an insatiable thirst for wisdom and knowledge, but on the other hand will show no restraint in battle and won't hesitate to double-cross even his closest associates if the mood strikes him. Whatever Odin does, he does for Odin. He's in it for himself first and foremost. Now imagine that same figure with basically no restraints on his behavior whatsoever. 

To drive this point home, it's probably worth pointing out that there's no evidence of an equivalent idea of the Norse Valhalla in Anglo-Saxon myth, where Woden would have received half of the souls of those killed in battle, and that the Anglo-Saxon version of the Valkyries, the Wælcyrian, are not angelic women whisking off brave warriors to their final reward but rather hideous corpse-stealing witches. As always, it could be the case that those stories existed in Anglo-Saxon myth and we just have no surviving record of them. But it's also possible that the stories hadn't been developed yet when the Angles and Saxons went off to invade Britain. It's worth noting that Anglo-Saxon paganism probably died out before the Eddas from which we know these stories were ever written. So the Anglo-Saxon stories may well be a primitive version of what developed later on. In any event, yeah, things were pretty bleak for the Anglo-Saxons and their beliefs, best we can tell. You might die for Odin and get some kind of supernatural reward, but if you die for Woden, well, good luck in the underworld. 

Now, just to make it clear, Woden is presented to us in reconstructionist Anglo-Saxon paganism as a deity. But there's so little historical information to work from that maybe the reconstructionists got it wrong. Maybe he was "only" a legendary pagan chieftain. But if people approach him as if he were a deity, then in some sense it doesn't really matter what the historical record shows, because you're going to interact with him as if he were a fearsome god. And if you do decide to interact with him, you'd better buckle up.

I recently came across a discussion on Reddit that I thought was pretty illustrative with regard to (in this case) Odin. Somebody asked what the big deal was about following Odin, and why people make a fuss about wearing a Valknut, a symbol consisting of three interlocking triangles that's often associated with Odin in modern paganism. Somebody who obviously had experience interacting with the deity didn't mince any words and gave us a terrifyingly revealing picture of the real Odin, at least from his point of view:

The attitude regarding the valknut is based on the idea that it is basically signing your own death warrant to put it on. There is a common belief today that it means that you will serve Odin to whatever end he'll use you (and he does use people), including dying at his whim. 

Yes, Odin is a god known for seeking knowledge, but this isn't knowledge like an academic studies. It is knowledge with a purpose, to be a weapon. Most of the modern books tend to downplay his "darker" aspects because they don't want to scare or alarm people. He is a "death god." He is also a god of rage, terror, and slaughter. He is not a god of the "quiet death." He's a god of death where we are talking about the savagery of brutal warfare, being hacked to bits, bleeding out as you lay there in the blood and filth of the dead only to have your corpse picked at by ravens and gnawed on by wolves. He is a god of death by hanging, having your neck snapped and suffocating as your body refuses to respond when you try to draw breath, your lungs burning and bursting with agony. He is the Lord of Terror who turns stout-hearted men into cowards with soiled underwear. He is the god of fear inducing psychotic rage and unmitigated violence. He is the leader of the Furious Host, who ride on the howling winds on winter nights, running prey to ground where they are broken, bloody, exhausted, and controlled only by panic as they flee, only to be ripped to shreds when caught. 

He can be a good master to serve but he is not to be trusted the way other gods can be. He is not your friend. You serve him as a thane serves his jarl or king. He will reward you and he will expend your life for his goals. I don't say this to scare you (not completely, anyway) but to point out to you what you don't see in introductory books. Yes, he is a god of knowledge, wisdom, learning, poetry, and the higher forms of the mind. He is also much, much more than that. He is Fury incarnate too. 
This person went on to share the unverified personal gnosis he experienced when he put on his Valknut pendant for the first time. (I talked about UPGs a few installments back.)
It felt as if a noose had been tied around my throat, including the difficulty breathing. 

I felt a sudden, very sharp pain in my sides, as if I had been stabbed with something very sharp. 

I had a vision of a gravestone. I still take this to mean that this is lifetime commitment. 

I'm sure you can see why I don't talk about this much. When I put it on, I had a far more limited knowledge of who Odin is than I do now. If I had known then what I know now, I can't say I'd have made that choice, so I understand the trepidation you now face. 
And remember, again, that this is the Odin that's probably been cleaned up compared with the apparent barbarian-king Woden of the Anglo-Saxons.

OK, you say, but that's Odin, not Woden. Fair enough. Here's what one follower of Anglo-Saxon paganism has to say about Woden in particular:
I take a distinctly "primalist" view to Woden, compared to Odin. Woden is less refined, coarser, more dangerous, more mad, and more hungry. He is death. He is war. He is the raven that feasts on the hanging victims. He is danger incarnate. He is mind-madness, an ecstatic madness that he fully embraces, comparable with the worst of our own creative potential, with no benefit of temperance from the mead of poetry that we know of. He is identified as building the great earthworks of England, so we can assume a wanderer aspect to him. Woden is a kingmaker, the sire or adopted sire of royal houses, but like a king is distant and difficult for everyone, in this sense he is almost quite literally an All-Father. He is an esoteric intellect, utilizing magical markings (runes, perhaps, perhaps not) who is a sorcerer and magic-weaver, and who is a font of such knowledge if one can navigate the fury.
One thing seems abundantly clear, whether you're a Norse pagan or an Anglo-Saxon one: This is not a god that you "work with," to cite an overused term in paganism. There's really nothing to "work with," because Woden isn't going to meet you halfway or do anything nice for you. He's going to claim you and do whatever the hell he wants with you, until he decides he's done with you -- which may well be at the time of your death, when he's used you all up. Certain Christian folks go on all the time about how you shouldn't dabble with pagan gods or other supposed dark forces, because, according to them, you're unleashing demonic powers and playing with fire. In the case of Woden, I'd say their warnings are not too far off the mark. I wouldn't agree that he's some kind of demon, but at the same time I understand why he was at one point in Christian history considered an out-and-out devil. Hell, I'd rather "work with" the supposedly fearsome demoness Lilith before I'd take my chances with this guy.

But look, I'm not saying you can't learn anything from building a relationship with such a chaotic deity. Heck, a lot of people sign up for paganism, particularly the Germanic or "heathen" paths, precisely because they want the strict order and discipline that you can very easily read in to being a vital part of walking such a path. If that's what you're looking for, great. Knock yourself out. I just think people need to know what it is they're signing up for, because, for example, if you've left Christianity and you thought Yahweh was a terrible taskmaster, you ain't seen nothing yet. Woden's going to kick your ass so hard that the Old Testament God will look like a Boy Scout troop leader in comparison. 

And I say this because I've known of people who sign up for what's often called the "fluffy bunny" version of paganism -- the stuff where you "work with" deities to improve your self-image or learn to cast spells or play with crystals or something. Woden is not a fluffy-bunny deity who's going to hold your hand and make you feel all warm and gooey inside. He's going to beat you like a rented mule. Our Reddit friend puts it this way:
For what it's worth, I've found that he'll snatch up anyone he can. The thing with Odin is that he is all of these dreadful things and so many good ones as well. It's just hard to give people an understanding that he isn't a "friendly" god without going into specifics that will turn your hair white. 
But with all that said, there are people who feel they benefit from this kind of boot camp with a deity. Again from our Redditor:
It has been, however, part of my life for so long that I no longer fear it. In fact, I feel very little fear at all. I used to be scared all the time. I was a weak child, but one prone to amazing bursts of violence when pushed to far. I was bullied relentlessly, was regularly beaten up, and spent many years as a young adult dealing with the sense of worthlessness that came with that. My time with the All-father has changed that. My body isn't as strong as it once was but my mind is sharper than ever. I fear no man and I do not fear death. Death holds no mystery to me any more, save for what it feels like to die. Violence doesn't scare me any more. I understand it as a tool to be used when it must, but only just so. I know how to stare down men who would do me harm and to call up a presence that commands or terrifies as I see fit. I am not the scared boy I once was. If you asked me if it was worth it, I'd tell you yes. It was best for me not to know what I do now. Even in relating the information to you, I can only give you words that cannot convey the entire context. All I can say is that understanding rage and terror, especially for the timid, is hard but a very good lesson to learn. Knowing how to use it is even more important. It burns away the weakness that timidity shows, and like the forge of a skilled smith, it produces a much better result than you thought was ever there.
And there's the potential transformative power of letting Woden take you on. He'll pound on you mercilessly, like a hammer on a forge, until he shapes you into something he feels is worthy of his time and attention. He'll take the beaten and bruised and weak and timid, and he'll turn them into warriors. And again, if that's your thing, go for it. Me, I've already been through the wringer. I don't need a ball-busting deity to make my misery even worse. 

I admit I love Woden's endless thirst for knowledge. I love that he's a symbol of magic and poetry, and I like the sense of mystery and unpredictability he throws off. That's the Gandalf part of him that I love, the pilgrim with the floppy hat whose curiosity is insatiable, driving him into the liminal spaces of the world and to other dark corners where most mortals would never dare to go. In that sense, I admire his fearlessness. I mean, this is a guy who sacrificed an eye and hung himself from a tree for nine days just to gain some secret knowledge. That's awesomely hardcore, if you ask me.

But I can't embrace that part of him without also seeing his chaotic and violent side. With Woden, it's a package deal. You can't take the good without the bad. In some ways, he's like a Jungian archetype -- a figure in which we can see our own higher aspect and through whom we acknowledge our shadow selves, the dark sides of our personalities that we don't want to confront and don't want anyone else to see. Once we confront our shadows, we have the potential to be more balanced human beings, but that's hard work, and decidedly not for the faint of heart. I think our Redditor friend found that out for himself. 

As for me, I'll find other ways to get the job done. My spiritual path is one on which I mostly try to find peace, a respite from the crushing daily trials of life. I need a break from the pain and misery. I don't need more of it. 

So, Mr. Woden, whether you're a deity or just a legendary ancestor of barbarian-kings, while I appreciate your uniqueness and your steadfastness, I'll just appreciate you from afar. As much as I see my INTP-Enneagram Type 5 self in you, constantly digging deeper and deeper for knowledge to satisfy your insatiable mind, I'm still not going to take you as an example, and I'm not about to follow you. When others bust my chops for wasting my time pursuing things that have no answers, or for which the answers (supposedly) don't matter in the grand scheme of things, you're there beckoning me, teasing me, telling me it's OK to go down the rabbit hole, and you'll even show me how best to do it. Heck, you'll even go down the rabbit hole with me. But I see the game you're playing, Bud. You're like the creepy old guy using candy to lure the kids into the back of his van. I'm not playing that game. You might be wise, but I am too. You'll just have to be an inspiration to me from a distance. I'll acknowledge your presence while I'm on this path, but I'm going to steer well clear of you and maintain a respectful distance.  

And I'll say the same to anyone else who's tempted to get to know this deity better: Approach with extreme caution. You've been warned.

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