Woden vs. Odin: Differences?
Posted on May 16, 2015
Different cultural expressions of Heathenry beget different cultural interpretations of (largely) the same core group of deities. Deriving from a common proto-Germanic source, these deities are the basis of the religious characteristics of the different Germanic peoples which constitute the focus of Reconstructionist and Contemporary Heathenry. However, as the different Germanic cultures flourished, spread, and migrated, their understanding of their religion separated as much as their languages and tribal identities. This has created a gulf within the understanding of the myriad interpretations of the Germanic deities which can cause confusion for both new-comers and veteran practitioners of Heathenry.
It is easy to forget that the Norse interpretation of the Gods, the Icelandic-Scandinavian perspective found within the Prose and Poetic Eddas, is a relatively late cultural expression of religiosity. It is understandable, especially given the demographic background of many Heathens – they come from Asatru or another Norse-focused form of Heathenry as it is the most accessible to new practitioners. It is also easy to assume that, through their survival prevalence in the modern day, these texts are representative of either 1) an end development stage of Germanic mythology or 2) constituting the sum total correct view of the entire Germanic experience.
Both assumptions are incorrect.
Deific interpretations like Woden and Odin (and Wotan, Oðinn, Wotanaz, etc.) are the same, and yet they are not. It is a murky, contradictory morass, which will inevitably always lead to confusion. Are the two gods the same? Yes, undoubtedly. Much in the same way that I am the same person, but I am different between work, school, home, and other social obligations. But the cultural distinctions between an Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Woden and a Norse interpretation of Odin are important and informative, because they present different faces, aspects, and influences. This edges into theoretical metaphysics and admittedly has issues with evidence, of course.
In approaching the differences between Woden and Odin, we’re forced to rely on comparative studies between Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, which understandably has pitfalls and dangers all their own. Many Heathens, even steadfast Anglo-Saxonists, have to plug holes in their mythology using later cultural source material. But this is dangerous. One cannot simply plug Odin myth-knowledge with Woden’s character and expect it to work, at all. There are significant cultural, social, and environmental factors to consider in the development of Anglo-Saxon myth that do not exist within the Norse experience.
Norse mythology has an additional three centuries of development and influence after the Anglo-Saxon mythologies were cut off with the process of Christianization. AL Meaney said that it “is intrinsically unlikely, indeed, that the English high gods Woden, Tiw, and Thunor [sic] would have retained any of their power after three hundred years of Christianity”, and we have to keep in mind that even the Anglo-Saxon writings after the late eighth century are much more likely to exhibit shadowy and attenuated half-memories of paganism combined with strong local superstitions. And the works of later writers, dating from the late tenth century (Ælfric and Wulfstan) are clearly referring to Danish gods, not Anglo-Saxon.
Anglo-Saxon mythology is nearly non-existent, hence the almost by-necessity usage of comparative studies. It is a reason why Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in such a way as he did – to try to craft a common mythology of the English peoples, because it was sorely lacking. Because we have no concrete mythology comparable to the Eddas, we have to focus on native works in Christian poems, histories, law codes, and place-name analysis.
As Odin is popularly portrayed as blind in one eye, we can see an allusion to a similar blindness in Bede’s writings on Woden (Cf. North). Solomon and Saturn suggests that the later Anglo-Saxons were familiar with the idea that Woden created the runes, as well as equating Woden with the Roman Mercurius, with the idea of the runes perhaps due to the influence of the Danelaw and the re-heathening of the North of England. But even beyond that, natively, the Nine Herbs Charm clearly shows Woden being a magician, using glory-tines (wuldortanas) to destroy a serpent, so his is an intellect which utilizes esoteric principles and forces. But Woden has no words of wisdom left for followers, no stories of drinks from a wise-well filled with mead which would equate Woden with the same cultvated and cultured force of poetic knowledge that Odin exhibits.
Woden id est furor. Woden, that is fury. Both Woden and Odin derive from their respective cultural linguistic words for fury and inspiration (wod, in Anglo-Saxon, and orðr in Old Norse). Both Woden and Odin are fury and madness incarnate, but Odin is tempered with a greater sense of what can be called ‘higher-civilization’, duty, and obligation to his folk that is exhibited in his stories. To those who subscribe to either Thorsson’s Multiple Soul Complex theory, or a lesser version of it as purported by Wodening and other Anglo-Saxon writers (myself among them, to a point), clearly see a man’s Wod as the source of our inspiration. Wod-madness being the creative spark which consumes and expands within us until we complete or task or burn out.
Woden is associated with cultic sites, with dykes and hills and supposed ritual/sacrificial places. His cult in England is identified with a number of place names, although Þunor is more common: Wansdyke, Wednesbury, Wensley, Woodnesborough, etc., are all attested in scholarship as associated sites deriving their name from his. There is also some assumption that he is commemorated in a number of places that begin with ‘Grim’, such as Grim’s Dyke in Hants. There is not as clear a definitive link between Woden and ‘Grim’ sites as there is with Odin and the application of ‘Grim’ as a kenning for Norse iterations. It is appropriate, I think, because Woden is as much a psychopomp as Odin is. In some cases, place names are more helpful in the search for Woden in England than the archaeological record is, because it provides a source that the connection with a cultic site, temple, or other point of reverence was so strong that these locations held on to the god’s name until the Christian period, where Woden became a dangerous devil prior to fading from popular memory.
Woden is a sacrificial god, bloodthirsty and cruel. While Norse mythology and history has identified aspects of human sacrifice to Odin (several Scandinavian kings are attested to have been sacrificed by their people for failing their sacred mandate), Woden’s lack of civilizing aspects through mythology paint him as a more callous, more dangerous personality. It is credible that the absolute slaughter of Britons in Pevensey Castle in 491 CE was due to the fact that they were devoted to Woden by the heathen Anglo-Saxons. A residual usage of sacrificial marking is attested in Bede by the priest Coifi who, upon embracing Christianity and turning his back on his forebear’s gods, threw a spear over a site to Woden, using the pagan belief that doing so would mark a sacrifice.
Further, Ongenþeow quite possibly intends in Beowulf a similar sacrifice, by threatening the Geats with hanging and sword-stabbing. However, Ström makes an argument for the idea of the use of hanging as shaming and humiliation, which was later expanded upon by a demonstration that sacrificial hanging victims did not come from lawful society. There are similar attempts that have been made to prove that the entries in Hist. Ecc. 2.20 and 3.12 are acts of sacrifice – the display of Oswald’s remains by Penda as a type of sacrificial thanksgiving.
Woden is identified as a leader of the Wild Hunt, perhaps the supreme leader, although this identification is admittedly late within the development of the character himself. Connections between Vendel period Sweden and Anglo-Saxon England make it likely that the Vendel reprsentation of the horseman with his carrion bird and bird of prey would have been a recognized image of Woden. Historically speaking, there is only one region of Jutland that traditionally marks Oðinn as the distinct leader of the hunt.
Because Anglo-Saxons have no myths, we cannot be sure how much of an emphasis of interaction they placed on Woden’s interaction with his other gods. There are no words to identify Woden as a king of the gods. This is an assumption made, perhaps not incorrectly, through Norse myth. Instead, Woden can be accurately described as the king maker. He sires the lineages of the majority of the heptarchic kingdoms, and his name is used as a solidifying agent of sacral kingly rule during the period of kingdom consolidation. Even Richard Angevin, called the Lionheart, referenced himself as being the offspring of “two sides of Devils”. Though he was the great-great grandson of William the Bastard of Normandy, he was also descended from the Anglo-Saxon houses. With Woden filling the role of the/a Devl in some Christianized folklore, there are historians who believe he is referencing this popular lineage with his use of the family motto.
While it is probable that he is a god-king, it is also apparent that he is the progenitor of the Anglo-Saxon royal houses. This can be viewed similarly to the god Mannus being seen as the progenitor of the Ingaevones, Herminones, and the Istvaeones. Even if he is not the literal progenitor (Edwin of Northumbria switched his allegiance and lineage to Woden prior to his Christianization), he is seen as the symbolic and metaphorical beginning of the Anglo-Saxon houses. All, of course, save for Essex, who would claim descent from Seaxneat.
Without extant mythology, it is difficult to point out a clear difference between the gods. We have to keep in mind that there are two distinct phases of Anglo-Saxon history regarding paganism: the fifth and sixth century meadhall culture, and the period of re-heathening under the Danelaw in the tenth century. The application of tenth century (or later) Norse mythology to an early Anglo-Saxon cultural practice is, in fact, a form of cultural intermixing and syncretization, one which is partially clunky and ill-fitting in that regard. Especially if we consider that the Anglo-Saxons also had a keen distinction in understanding “Woden” and “Othin”, with residual usages of the different names from place name analysis.
That is not to say this syncretic practice is incorrect. But much has been written of already of the pitfalls of a whole-sale application of the later period Germanic myth with an earlier. If there is any period which could more capably be meshed with the Anglo-Saxon period, it would be the Vendel period of Sweden. Anglo-Saxons must, by necessity, take other practices and resources to plug in the holes in their practice, but they must be mindful of where they are pulling the source material from, any cultural context that might be attached or written in to those sources, and most of all be not too willing to be carried away.
There are no clear answers. No one interpretation of Germanic practice is “right” or “wrong”. Anglo-Saxon practice is “right” for Anglo-Saxonists, and Norse practice is “right” for Norse. Conversely, Norse practice is “wrong” for Anglo-Saxonists, and vice versa. Norse mythology is not an end-point in development. In fact it is more than likely heavily influenced by Christian prestige culture, and the resulting Eddas that survived to be shared within the modern day are products of that influence, no matter how many people claim they’re pure (or not).
The following is my view on the subject of differences between Woden and Odin, and I’m sure I will have other Anglo-Saxonists argue against me:
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. Because he was identified with Mercurius, he is a trickster deity, calculating and intelligent in his own right.
I identify him with the host of wandering souls we call the Wild Hunt, a psychopomp of a higher caliber, made more important because we do not have a native concept of Valhalla. In many ways, Tacitus’ description of Woden’s character in Germania is just as likely as the descriptions of Odin in the Eddas. As our valkyries are more along the lines of “blood-thirsty, corpse-stealing witches” than they are gorgeous Amazonian barbies who bring us to an eternal hall of fighting and feasting, Woden is more primal. And perhaps more important, he is a cold character that is accepting of human sacrifice quite willingly, for no reason other than victorious thanksgiving.
Woden is the same as Odin, but he is different. Where one begins and the other ends is irrelevant, because both are true. The differences seem to go beyond simple cultural variations, for they earnestly come across as distinct manifestations of the same basic entity. For whatever reason, for whatever purpose.
I know not the games of Gods.
Thanks for reading, I might revisit this at a later date. Give me your thoughts below, if you so feel.