10 Facts About Odin the All-Father: Norse God of War & Wisdom

Odin the All-father was the primary god and chief deity of Norse mythology. His influence touched many parts of life and death in the Viking world.

Mar 13, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology
odin all father norse god facts

 

Odin was the chief god in the Norse pantheon. Also known as the one-eyed All-Father, he was a creator deity, father of men, and the progenitor of many Norse gods. Odin was the god of war and wisdom, the patron of wanderers, and an expert in the practice of magic. He was also believed to preside over Valhalla, where half of all warriors who die in battle are received. No part of life in the Viking world was left untouched by his presence. Read on to learn 10 key facts about Odin the All-father.

 

1. Odin the All-Father Created Midgard Through Murder

ymir death wright
The Death of Ymir, by George Hand Wright (1902), Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository

 

Odin the All-father was the creator deity responsible for building Midgard and breathing life into mankind. As the father of all gods and men, he is the central and most enigmatic figure of the Norse cosmological universe.

 

In the beginning, the heat of the realm of Muspelheim and the cold of Niflheim mixed in Ginnungagap, the great void. This created a primordial sludge from which all life emerged including the first giant, Ymir, and the first God, Buri.

 

Both races procreated. Ymir procreated asexually, with new giants jumping forth from his armpits. Buri had one son, Bor, who procreated with Bestla, the daughter of a giant, after which they had three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve.

 

odin manuscript sam66
Odin, illustration in manuscript SAM 66, p. 77r, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765-1766. Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland.

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After a time, Odin and his brothers became preoccupied with how quickly Ymir was reproducing. The chaotic giants, or Jotun, were greatly outnumbering the population of the gods. Therefore, they decided to kill Ymir.

 

When they killed the primordial entity, so much blood flowed from his wounds that it flooded the realm in which his giant offspring lived. All but two died. They survived on a boat made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, in a variation of the universal flood myth.

 

Odin and his brothers then used Ymir’s body to create a new realm. His flesh formed the land and his blood the oceans. His bones rose as mountains, his teeth cliffs, and his hair became the trees. His brains were scattered around to form clouds and his skull was raised up as the sky.

 

The gods created beings to populate their world by carving a man and a woman out of two tree trunks: their names were Ask and Embla. Odin gave them life and spirit, Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement, and Ve gave them their clothing and names.

 

2. Odin was an Ancient God

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Gold bracteate featuring a warrior on horseback and a runic inscription to Odin, Source: Vejle Museerne, Denmark

 

Worship of Odin predates the Viking era by several centuries. Writing in the 1st century, the Roman author Tacitus suggested that the most important of the Germanic gods was similar to the Roman god Mercury. Scholars suggest that Tacitus is referring to Odin, who was known as Wodin among the Germans and in Old English.

 

The etymology of the name Wodin, and the testimony of the eleventh-century German chronicler Adam of Bremen, suggest that his name was linked to ideas of “fury” or “madness.” He was associated with war, death, wisdom, and poetry.

 

Odin’s veneration in Scandinavia before the dawn of the Viking age in the late 8th century is evident in pre-Viking art. The thin gold medallion, or “bracteate” depicted above, shows a warrior on horseback surrounded by runic inscriptions stating that the warrior “is Odin’s man.”

 

The bracteate dates to the Migration Period, between the 4th and 8th centuries. Its imagery and inscription suggest that Odin was already associated with warriors and warfare long before the age of the Vikings.

 

3. Odin Represented All Warriors

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Odin is depicted with his spear and the Valknut on the Stora Hammers I stone, Source: Research Gate

 

While Thor, armed with his mighty hammer Mjolnir, was considered the strongest of the gods, Odin was regarded to be the true god of war. He led the Aesir gods into battle and decided who won mortal wars.

 

The Aesir were only one clan of gods in the Norse cosmos. There was another clan called the Vanir. While the two normally coexisted peacefully, they did go to war at one point, and Odin led the charge.

 

The Heimskringla claims that Odin led a great army of the Aesir against the Vanir. According to the Voluspa, the battle officially started when Odin threw his spear, Gungnir, over the heads of the Vanir and cried out “Odin Owns You All!”

 

Spears and axes were the most common weapons carried into battle by Viking warriors. Swords were difficult to forge and were only carried by the wealthiest. There is no evidence of warriors carrying hammers in emulation of Thor.

 

It was, however, customary for the Vikings to throw a spear over the heads of their enemies at the start of a battle to invoke the favor of Odin.

 

Odin charged his Valkyries, a group of elite divine female warriors, to ensure the outcome of conflicts. In the famous story of Sigurd and Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie Brunnhilde is cursed by Odin to marry a mortal after slaying the wrong king in a battle.

 

The Valkyries also helped Odin choose the bravest fallen warriors and take their souls to Valhalla, a great hall in Asgard. In Valhalla, warriors feast and train, as they prepare to fight alongside the gods in the prophesied battle of Ragnarök.

 

Valhalla is represented by the Valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles, that often appears in Viking art associated with Odin and the dead.

 

4. Odin Learned the Secrets of the Runes

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Odin’s Self-Sacrifice, by W.G. Collingwood (1908), Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository

 

In addition to being the god of war, Odin was also the god of wisdom. While the Vikings valued strength and ferocity, they also expected their leaders to be intelligent and savvy. Odin was described as desperately hungry for wisdom and willing to do anything to obtain it.

 

According to one legend, Odin plucked out his own eye in exchange for a drink from the Well of Wisdom. Hence he is usually depicted with just one eye. When Odin’s wise counsellor Mimir was killed in the aftermath of the Aesir-Vanir war, Odin is said to have magically reanimated his head so that he would not lose Mimir’s knowledge.

 

When Odin learned about the Mead of Poetry, a magical brew that gave the drinker complete mastery of the spoken word, he hatched an elaborate plot to steal the mead for himself. It involved infiltrating a giant stronghold, seducing a giantess, and turning into an eagle for a high-speed chase.

 

The most famous story of Odin’s quest for wisdom relates to the runes. Spotting the Norse goddesses of Fate, the Norns, using the runes to write destiny at the base of the great tree Yggdrasil, Odin is said to have become covetous of their knowledge. He hung himself from Yggdrasil pierced by his own spear and stared into the abyss. After nine days and nine nights, he learned the secrets of the runes.

 

Odin shared this new knowledge with mankind but declined to give them an alphabet. The Vikings believed that the runes were also a magical toolkit that could be used to shape the world. The sagas often describe heroes as runemasters who can use the runes to heal their friends or trick their enemies.

 

5. Odin was a Master of Magic

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Odin Practices Seidr, by Gerhard Munthe (1899), Source: Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design

 

Odin was a master of rune magic and the arcane magic known in Norse mythology as Seidr. The art of Seidr was originally the domain of the more esoteric Vanir gods.

 

The Vanir displayed their magical prowess during the Aesir-Vanir war. One of the Vanir leaders, Gullveig, was a powerful Volva, the Norse term for witch. Gullveig is said to have been stabbed and burned three times in one of Odin’s halls in Asgard, albeit magically coming back to life each time.

 

After the conclusion of the war, the Aesir and the Vanir exchanged hostages as part of a peace treaty. The Vanir gods Njord, Freyr, and Freyja were sent to live among the Aesir. Odin asked Freyja to teach him the art of Seidr, even though it was considered a feminine art and shameful for men to learn. He soon mastered it.

 

Freyja was not the only person from whom Odin sought magical knowledge. In the Havamal, Odin is said to have learned nine powerful songs of magic, known as Galdr, from his giant uncle, who was probably Mimir. He also pursued other sources and soon acquired eighteen spells said to be unknown by any human or god.

 

Odin was a master of spells to heal physical injuries and calm emotional turmoil. He could blunt the blade of his enemies, evade all bonds, and turn curses back on the caster. His magical knowledge enabled him to calm the wind on stormy seas, cast love spells, and raise the dead.

 

6. Odin had Many Animal Familiars

odin from lejre roskilde museum
Silver figurine showing Odin enthroned and flanked by ravens and wolves, Source: Research Gate

 

Odin is often depicted in Norse art and is easily identifiable through a set of trademark characteristics. These representations usually show him as a one-eyed, bearded warrior, holding his spear, Gungnir. However, in equal measure, he can also often be identified by the proximity of his familiars.

 

It is common to see Odin depicted with his two ravens Huginn (“Thought”) and Muninn (“Memory”), whom he would send out to fly across the nine worlds and report to him what they saw and heard.

 

He is also frequently depicted with two wolves, Geri (“Greedy”) and Freki (“Ravenous”). The wolves represent characteristics of the gods that Odin was tasked with managing and taming, yet were conversely sources of great strength.

 

Finally, Odin can be identified when riding atop his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Described as the best of all horses, Sleipnir is said to be one of few beings capable of moving freely between the nine worlds of the Norse cosmos.

 

7. Odin Wandered the Nine Realms

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Odin statuette from Linby in Sweden, c. 800-1100, Source: Swedish Historical Museum

 

Odin is the primary example of a Norse god that was believed to be more or less all-knowing. From his high seat in Asgard – Hlidskjalf – he looked out onto all nine realms of the world.

 

However, despite his ability to see into all nine realms from Hlidskjalf he would often wander the world in the guise of an old man. Indeed, many of the Norse sagas feature encounters with Odin in disguise.

 

Odin often appears in sagas to propel the narrative of the story forward. For example, in the saga of the famous warrior Sigurd, Odin accompanies Sigurd in disguise as he travels to face the dragon Fafnir. Odin also helps Sigurd attack and kill the man who killed his father.

 

The disguised Odin can also share wisdom. A bet between Odin and his wife Frigg eventually sees Odin, traveling in the guise of an old man in a blue cloak called Grimnir, chained up between two great fires. When a young prince called Agnar takes pity on him and gives him a glass of mead, Odin shares esoteric knowledge with him, including the secrets of Asgard.

 

Much like the god Loki Odin too was capable of making mischief. Another Saga depicts Thor returning home coming to cross a river and meeting a ferryman named Harbard, who turns out to be Odin in disguise. Thor demands that Harbard row him across, but Harbard declines. They engage in a battle of wits and Thor is eventually humbled.

 

8. Odin Made a Blood Pact with Loki

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Odin, Loki, and Hoenir, illustration in SAM 66, 73v, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765-1766, Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland

 

While Marvel has popularized the idea that Loki was the adopted son of Odin, the original Norse mythology tells a different story. Instead, Odin and Loki are said to have made a brotherhood pact.

 

While the origins of the pact remain obscure, in one famous story – which inspired both Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – Odin and Loki travel together with the god Hoenir through strange lands.

 

After killing an Otter for its pelt the travelers arrive in the kingdom of a dwarf called Hreidmar and ask if they can stay the night. Loki offers the dwarf King the pelt as a gift. Recognizing the pelt as belonging to his son, Otter (who could shapeshift into an Otter!) Hreidmar demands the travelers pay for his son’s death by adorning the pelt with gold.

 

Loki steals the gold – including a fine golden ring – from another dwarf called Andvari, who in turn curses the ring to bring misery to whoever possesses it.

 

After Loki offers the ring alongside the rest of the gold to compensate for the death of his son, ruin descends on Hreidmar’s family. The king’s surviving two sons eventually slay him out of their desire for the ring, before turning on each other. One brother, Fafnir, then turns himself into a dragon to defend the ring, yet is later killed by Sigurd with the help of Odin.

 

Hence in the Lokasenna, one of the poems of the Poetic Edda, Loki is not depicted as Odin’s adopted son, but rather, his blood brother. After showing up to a feast that the gods are having without him, Loki starts to insult them. After he reminds Odin of their blood brotherhood pact, Odin steps in to prevent the other gods at the feast from throwing Loki out.

 

9. Odin Had Many Children

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Hodr Killing Balder, illustration in SAM 66 75v, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765-1766. Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland.

 

While Thor is the most famous son of Odin, he is but one of the many children that Odin the All-Father sired with many different partners.

 

In his Skaldskparmal, the 13th-century Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson lists fifteen sons of Odin. These include Bragi, Balder, Heimdall, Hermodr, Hildolfr, Hodr, Itrekjod, Meili, Nepr, Saemingr, Sigi, Skjodr, Thor,  Vali, and  Vidarr.

 

Many of the mothers of Odin’s children were giantesses. Thor’s mother was the giantess Jord, who was a kind of personification of the earth. Heimdall had nine mothers, believed to be the nine daughters of the sea gods Aegir and Ran.

 

Balder was the son of Odin and his wife Frigg and was considered the most beautiful and beloved of the gods. Frigg, aiming to protect her son, secured pledges from every entity in existence, to ensure that no harm would come to him.

 

Balder’s invincibility seemed assured, yet upon discovering that Frigg had forgotten to secure this pledge from the mistletoe plant, Loki crafted a dart from it. Deviously, he convinced Hodr, Balder’s blind brother, to unwittingly throw the dart at Balder as part of a game and kill him.

 

As retribution, Odin had another son, Vali, with the giant Rindr. Vali swiftly grew into a fully grown man overnight, with the sole intention of avenging Balder’s death. Hodr was subsequently punished despite being an innocent victim of Loki’s plot.

 

Loki’s role in the death of Balder eventually saw him thrown out of Asgard and chained to a rock for eternity. Only at Ragnarök would he break those chains, in order to lead a force of giants against the gods.

 

10. Odin Was Destined to Die at Ragnarök

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Vidarr and Fenrir are depicted alongside other images of Ragnarök on the Gosforth Cross, England, c. 10th century, Source: Newcastle University, United Kingdom.

 

Odin is aware that he is destined to die at Ragnarök, the foretold prophecy of the Norse apocalypse. He is told the prophecy by a Volva seeress, and accordingly gathers fallen warriors in Valhalla, to fight alongside the gods in the grand battle at the end of days.

 

Many omens precede the final battle, including harsh winters, great wars among men, and earthquakes. These earthquakes will eventually allow Loki to break his chains and lead the charge against Asgard.

 

According to prophecy, the earthquakes will also allow the great wolf Fenrir to free himself and join the battle. A child of Loki with the giantess Angrboda, Fenrir was tricked and imprisoned by the gods because they feared the monstrous wolf’s potential power.

 

The prophecy continues that Odin will be informed about the omens by a red rooster and travel to the Well of Wisdom to consult with Mimir. He will then rally the troops of Valhalla to lead them to war. But as he leads the charge, he will be devoured whole by Fenrir, who is running free with his jaws open and destroying everything in his path.

 

It is said that Odin will be avenged by another of his sons, Vidarr, whom he sired with the giantess Gridr. Vidarr has magical leather shoes that allow him to stand in the mouth of Fenrir without being devoured. Therefore, he can rip Fenrir’s jaws open and thrust his sword into the beast’s brain.

 

However, while Vidarr may avenge his father, the battle between the gods and the giants is so destructive that the entire world is consumed by flames and sinks back into the primordial waters. As foretold by prophecy, when Odin the All-Father and the chief god of the Aesir dies, so too will the Norse cosmos.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica hold a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.