Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Historical Odin?

Was Odin a real man? Was the celebrated Norse god of war, poetry and wisdom (among other things) a flesh and blood human? This question has two answers. Yes, and we just don’t know. Odin has had several names throughout the history of his worship. Odin (or Óðinn) is the Scandinavian form of his name, but he is known as Woden in Anglo-Saxon and Wotan in Old High German.

Samuel Laing, in his translation of the Heimskringla notes some speculation as to the date of a possible historical Odin. Laing cites several sources that range from 520 BCE to as recent as 4th century CE. This is a wide range of dates, and is ultimately unhelpful determining when any kind of historic era (written evidence) of Odin may have appeared. Snorri himself puts the date of Odin’s existence around the time when the Roman Pompey ravaged Asia, about 70 BCE. (Laing)

  The Euroheritage site has this to say: “Odin’s origins are difficult to determine. Votive figures showing a one-eyed god date back to several centuries before Christ in Scandinavia. No Roman god analogous with Odin was mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania, but Tacitus may not have been able to discern between the war-god qualities of Odin and his role as a guardian of the dead or, especially, a vanguard of wisdom in this generally iliterate society. He does not cite any idols with one eye. Direct worship of Odin and any physical reference to mythological tales associated with Odin do not appear until after the 3rd century CE, when it increasingly became a practice to lynch slain enemies from trees in his memory. Tacitus argued that the Germans principally worshipped “Mercury.” Since the Germans did not worship Roman gods nor adhere to Roman culture, this implies that Tacitus observed an analogue, a type of messenger god, as early as the second century BCE. This may refer to Odin as a medium between this world and the afterlife.

We also find references to Odin in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Under the Anglo-Saxon name of Woden, we find him 9 generations removed from Cedric, an ancestor to the later King Alfred. Here is the genealogy according to manuscript A (The Winchester MS).

Woden -> Baeldaeg -> Brand – > Frithugar -> Freawine -> Wig -> Gewis -> Esla -> Elesa -> Cedric

Cedric’s time is dated to about 494-495 CE. Several dates can be given. At 35 years per generation, this puts Odin at about 179 CE. Laing’s own dating technique takes an average of 13 3/8 years per generation, which brings Odin’s date from Cedric to about 342 CE.

This only highlights the biggest problems with the historical nature of Odin. Many questions arise from methodology and many other aspects. For example, cane we even say the Woden in the ASC is THE Woden, the god of Norse mythology? Thor and Odin are names that are given to children even today. A range of possible dates almost a thousand years long creates a even bigger problem.

So yes, we can there is a historical Odin.

But we just don’t know if it is the right one, or if the Odin of myth was even a real person.


Swanton, Michael. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. 2000

Translation by Anderson, Rasmus. Snorri’s Sturleson’s Prose Edda. 1880

Translation by. Laing, Samuel. Snorri Sturleson’s Heimskringla. 1844