Óðinn and the dísir

Dísir, norns and valkyrias – Fertility cult and sacred kingship in the North

Summarised and translated by Maria Kvilhaug [my own opinions offered in section marks like these ] from the work of the renowned Swedish scholar Folke Ström`s work:

Ström, Folke : Diser, nornor, valkyrjor – Fruktbarhetskult och sakralt kungadöme i Norden  (Almqvist & Wiksell, Stockholm 1954)

From Chapter 3: The Great Dís, the seiðr and Óðinn [Odin]

Previously we discussed the cult of the Dísir [“goddesses” – female powers of all kinds worshipped as a collective in the pagan era]and their characteristics as archaic deities of fertility with close connections to the male fertility god Freyr. [Translator`s note: I think that the term “fertility deities” is too readily applied to female divinities here. To call them “fertility deities” is in my opinion misleading, but it was the traditional term back in the 1950s despite the fact that Ström actually understood them as operating in the realms of fate, death, protection and intelligence. This shows how a false but deeply set stereotype can overrule all other insights.] This [connection between Freyr and the Dísir] is most clear in the conservative Eastern Swedish area, where the great Dís who led the the collective of Dísir, the fertility goddess [sigh], steps out of obscurity and into the realm of sacred kingship.

The religious pattern [hieros gamos – sacred marriage of the King with the Goddess] here seems to fall into the same categories of the great cultures of the Orient and that we are dealing with a prehistoric fertility religion in the North that has more or less exactly the same structure as those in more southern areas [evidence of the Sacred Marriage in Scandinavia is well established from the Bronze Age when this religious pattern was common in the Middle East and Southern Europe].

In the Western parts of the North [Norway, Iceland, West-Sweden] the Dísir appear to be more connected with Odin towards the last phases of the Pagan era, and a competition between Odin and Freyr for popularity is visible in certain sagas (Viga-Glums saga). In the great cultic centre of Uppsala, Odin has towards the end of the Pagan era achieved a rank on the level of Freyr [who for long had been the most important god in Sweden]. During the Viking Age, Odin stands out as the god of the hanging ritual, but seems to have belonged to the archaic cult of the Great Goddess before that. According to Wessen the cult of Odin penetrated the North from the South at a relatively late stage, but there are some weaknesses about this theory. In his nature, Odin seems related to the Indian Rudra and the Greek Dionysus  – especially the ecstatic feature in the Dionysus – cult has several counterparts in the cult of Odin (seidr) and the Odin mythology.

Otto Höfler, on the other hand, argued that the Odin figure emerged in Germanic men`s societies connected to their deified leaders, and the ecstatic elements of such a leader-worshipping movement. Any real proof for the existence of Germanic men`s societies have, however, never been presented.

What is certain is that ecstatic movements were connected to the Odin-cult, but they have nothing to do with men`s societies – on the contrary all the evidence point to strong female elements in the cult of Odin. In reality there is an almost identical structure and phenomenological connection between the Odin-cult and the Dionysus-cult [the members of the mystery-cult of Dionysus were exclusively women, known later as the “bacchae”. Men were admitted entry to the cult at a very late stage when the cult of Dionysus had blended in with the Mysteries of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis].

The most important characteristics of the Odin-cult is the seidr. Only females could perform this art with honor, male practitioners were considered unmanly and perverted [Translator`s note: However, they existed, and I believe, as does the archaeologist Britt Solli (2000) that the condemnation of the male sorcerers in the written material is a result of Christian influence at a late stage. If male sorcerers really were that unpopular in the Pagan era, there would not have been so many of them, and some in important positions such as Atli and Sinfiötli in the Poetic Edda, who are both “castrated” sorcerers (like Odin himself is called Ialkr – the Castrate) who have a high position at court, or the male sorcerers who were buried as females with all due honors.  They may have been seen as unmanly, but there was not necessarily dishonor in that from a Pagan point of view. ]. Women were responsible for the practice of seidr. To the degree it was practiced by men, which was not uncommon, it was seen as a testimony to a feminine trait in him [that is true]. Because of this I (Folke Ström) believe that the art of seidr originally emerged as a female practice.

The sagas of the kings give the impression that the seidr-movement was an orgiastic mass movement with collective cult-buildings (temples). During the Viking Age, things were changing and we see that some people are critical towards it. We assume that the art of seidr primarily belonged with the fertility cult [by that he means the cult of the female deities] and with the Vanir, especially Freya. Nevertheless seidr is also closely connected to Odin. How do we explain this?

Let us put forward the hypothesis that Odin is a hypostases of the Nordic fertility god and a personification of this deity`s ecstatic and warlike aspects. There is a lot about Odin`s character that is obscure, such as his apparently late entry in the Nordic history of religion, but if he is a hypostases this is naturally explained.

Under the name Ódr, Odin is described as Freya`s first man. The name means “ecstatic frenzy” and characterizes him as a personification of this side of the fertility goddess` companion. Freya is called Óðs bedvina – “Ód`s bed-girlfriend” by the bard Einar Skulason in the year 1100 A.D.

Even with his proper name, Odin is closely associated with Freya in her aspect as a goddess of death. Together they share the fallen warriors. But Odin is also connected to the winter goddess Skadi, and there were many Norwegian lineages who considered themselves descendants of Odin and Skadi, such as the Lade-clan in Norway who descended from Sæmund, son of Odin and the Öndurdís (“the goddess of skiing “– Skadi).

An enlightening entry to the understanding of Odin is through his many nicknames. One common name for Odin is Fjölnir, which is also clearly a traditional name for Freyr [the name actually means “The One who is Many”, one of many a testimony to pantheist traditions in Scandinavia]. Another name shared by Odin and Freyr is Thrór, meaning “Boar”, and corresponding to Freya`s name Sýr (“Sow”). Odin is also called Sveigdhir, also a name of one of the Ynglinga kings, descendants of Freyr, and this king goes to live in “Sökkmimir`s [Hidden Memory]`s shiny halls”, where also Odin was said to have lived[1]. The name Sveigdhir is derived from sveigr – “bending branch”, hinting to the hanging ritual.

Odin is also named as the husband of Earth, a fertility aspect, and he is called Vidhrir – “the Wind”, although it is supposedly the Vanir god Njördr who rules the wind. Many of Odin`s names associate with “horse” in one way or other, whereas the horse in fact was predominantly central to the cult of Freyr. Both Odin and Freyr are called Atriði (“rider”).

We must conclude that Odin is closely associated with the cult of fertility. That he is also a god of war is not inconsistent with this: the fertility god worldwide include a warlike element, this is true about Freyr as it is true for his Oriental counterparts. One of Freyr`s important attributes is the sword. Freyr is associated with battle in metaphors for war such as “Freys leikr” = “Freyr´s sport” (=battle) and “Yngva thing”=Yng`s (=Freyr`s) parliament” (=battle).

Also Odin`s aspect as ancestral father to royal lineages seem to have been adapted from the older fertility god. It is worthwhile to observe that in the conservative West-Sweden (the land of the Svear), the royal lineages maintained the older name of the ancestral deity: Freyr.

An important element inherited from the fertility god is the intimate connection between Odin and Freya, the Great Dís, and her following of dísir.

Just like his female counterpart, Odin is the bane of kings. But he is also identical to the sacrificed kings, with Fjölnir, Sveigdhir and other members of the royal Ynglinga clan (they were descendants of Freyr). Just like king Agni was hanged in sacrifice, so Odin hangs in the cosmic tree.

[1] Grimnismál 50


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