Hanging is Travelling: Two Sides of Óðinn’s Initiatory Process

Odin (Óðinn in Old Icelandic) is a complex figure in Norse mythology. As the all-father, a god of war, magic, and wisdom, with multiple names, as well as a habit of disguising himself before both mortals and the gods, Odin’s identity and aspects frequently shift. Jan A. Kozák discusses his research and observations on two myths concerning Odin and his quest for knowledge.

There are two strikingly different myths about Óðinn’s acquisition of the Sacred Mead: One tells a very colourful story about Óðinn’s journey to the Otherworld, with many episodes and bodily transformations, while the other paints a sombre and mysterious picture of Óðinn’s self-sacrifice on a windy tree.

The first of these, the journey-myth, is attested in both the Poetic Edda and Snorri’s Edda. It describes Óðinn’s journey to Hnitbjörg where the Mead is kept in the possession of the giant Suttungr, and is guarded by Suttungr’s daughter Gunnlöð in the mountain hall. Óðinn seduces Gunnlöð, steals the Mead, and escapes the hall. During this adventure he changes identities (from Óðinn to Bölverkr and back) and shapes (he takes on human, serpent and eagle forms). The second myth is attested only as an enigmatic allusion in the Poetic Edda and describes Óðinn’s trial on a mysterious tree, where he hangs for nine long nights, fasting and pierced by his own spear. At the end of the ordeal Óðinn is showered with the Mead, grabs the runes, and receives powerful magical songs. Both myths could be described as “Óðinn’s quest for the Mead”, yet the myths themselves could not be more different. 

In my research I focused on the striking difference between the two myths, because I was fascinated by how completely incompatible they seemed to be. However, on a closer examination, their dissimilarity looked more like complementarity. While passive and suffering in the hanging-myth, Óðinn was active and exploitative in the journey-myth. In the hanging-myth, Óðinn was bound and remained in one shape, but in the journey-myth Óðinn changed shapes all the time and couldn’t ever be bound. Suddenly, it started to look like the myths were related in a weird way – through their systematic dissimilarity. 

As I believe mythic thinking is close to metaphoric thinking, I turned to poetic diction. When the skaldic poets describe hanged men, they use the verb ríða, “to ride”, to refer to the swinging movement of the body, which recalls the swinging movement of a rider on a horseback. Instead of the stirrups there is the noose. In both cases there is a journey: as the rider to his destination, so the hanged man “rides” to the afterlife, to Hel. And there is also another parallel: the gallows-tree itself corresponds in this analogy to the horse of the rider. The skalds consistently see the gallows through the horse-metaphor, calling the gallows-tree “the pale horse” or “Sigar’s horse” or even “high-breasted Sleipnir”. The mysterious tree of Óðinn’s self-sacrifice IS his horse in poet’s eyes. Óðinn is bound to one place, yet exactly this binding allows him to become unbound and travel to the unseen Otherworld. Thus, passivity and activity are two necessary sides of the same coin, and our two myths can be interpreted as two elaborations on the hanging-riding metaphor. 

The idea for the image illustrating this interpretation comes from Michaela Šebetovská. The drawing itself was made by Jiří Karban. This post presents one piece of the argumentation which can be found in full and with all citations and references in my forthcoming article, “Óðinn and the Mead: The Two-Faced Myth”, in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 2021.