It has been an absolute age since I have written about anything remotely mythy, so unashamedly, I admit, that after re-watching the first season of “American Gods” (fantastic series, I recommend watching…or read the book), I felt the urge to dust off my mythy geekdom and have a bash at trying to explain a tiny fraction of Odin.
If you know anything about Norse Mythology (not from reading Marvel Comics) you will know that it is fairly complicated. It isn’t, in my opinion as neat and tidy as Greek mythology as there are multiple link and hundreds of names for the same God, making it a complete mine field for confusion and misinterpretation. With this in mind, I will try and keep it simple and hopefully not trip myself up.
It would be completely remiss of me to not talk about the artist and the painting which I have chosen to go along side. Africano was born in 1983 and has a keen interest in visual arts. He is now based in Oporto where he produces his work and runs courses.
“Odin/The Hanged” is an oil painting, showing a naked man (well he has a long cloth covering his manhood) hanged from a tree. While the thought of a man hanging from a tree is utterly disturbing, the man in the painting looks calm, almost serene, despite his hands being bound. The tree looks as though it is growing on bare rock, its roots exposed and the branches devoid of foliage, it is a scene which at first glance looks like the epitome of death, but on closer inspection is something quite different.
To understand the difference in this painting, you really need to understand the story of Odin and Yggdrasil.
Yggdrasil, is a giant ash tree which is the center point of Norse cosmetology. It grows through the center of the universe, connecting the 9 worlds, its roots extending off in many different directions, ending in sacred wells to feed the tree, while its branches reached out to the heaven. An easier name for this would be “the World tree”, although the literal translation of this is “Odin’s Horse”, Ygg(r) being one of Odin’s 170 names and drasil meaning “horse”, which then moves on to meaning “gallows”…as gallows were called the horse of the hanged man… confused yet? Think of this a little like the tree of life, or the oracle. The literal center of the Norse universe and within it all the secrets of life within.
Now… Odin was pretty much thought of as the god of gods, in Norse terms, being one of the most prominently spoken about. He is usually accompanied by 2 wolves – Geri and Freki, which means the ravenous ones, who are seemingly a attribute of Odin’s personality, although do also depict his warrior status if we look at the symbolism of the wolf. He is also accompanied by 2 crows – Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) who serve to bring Odin information.
Odin is a veracious warrior with a spear called Gungnir, and through his insatiable thirst for knowledge is also known as a manipulator, a trickster, a liar and a wears many disguises to gain this knowledge, his most common that of an old bearded, cloaked wanderer. He has an 8 legged horse called Sleipnir which can ride across the sky. Now if that isn’t going to get you spotted, I don’t know what is.
I tell you all of this as I think it is important to understand the character, as while he doesn’t much sound like any other Gods in other religions, he is actually very close to most that we think of as lead Gods…Zeus with his all power of the land and sky, could see everything and shift his shape in to many animals to get his way. The Christian God is all powerful due to his knowledge and creative powers, although granted not as flamboyant as the other two, I could go on, but there are many comparisons between all of those that we deem to be the “main” god in each religion.
So, I hear you asking, how did this God end up hanging in a tree? Well…
Odin had such a thirst for knowledge, that he was prepared to pay any price. He was sat in his kingdom (Asgard which just so happens to be at the top of Yggdrasil a bit like Mount Olympus as this is where all the gods live) and he was watching the Norns – who are the 3 maidens who live within Yggdrasil’s roots, they are the creators of fate, and carve runes in to the trunk of the tree to impose their will across the 9 worlds. Odin envied their knowledge and wisdom and desperately wanted to share in the wealth of cosmic knowledge they held. The Norns were not known for revealing their secrets to just anyone, they needed a worthy sacrifice to impart their wisdom, which obviously was unheard of, but Odin formulated a plan.
Travelling to a branch just above where the Norns lived Odin pierced himself with his spear Gungnir, then hung himself from a branch so that his blood would trickle in to the shadowy waters which separated the Norns and the 9 worlds. Odin forbade any of the other gods to give him any aid, so he just dangled there calling to the Norns, trying to see the runes.
Odin hung there for 9 days, and at the end of the 9th night, the Norns thought him worthy and revealed their sacred writing to him, as well as the meanings. Once committed to memory, Odin ended his ordeal with a great cry of exultation, as he was the most accomplished God, with the ability of self healing, rendering weapons useless, waking the dead and wooing any lover. With all these abilities its a wonder than anyone was able to kill him really.
You may notice that in the picture (or in any pictorial image of Odin) that he only has one eye. This was another price paid for knowledge as he gouged out this eye in payment to Mirmir, the keeper of the well of Urd. Odin had heard that drinking from this well would give him cosmic knowledge, therefore traveled to drink from it. Mirmir obviously refused unless a worthy sacrifice was given, so Odin plucked out an eye and dropped it in the well. After this it was very hard for Mirmir to refuse a drink from the Cosmic pool.
This all sounds very noble doesn’t it, but actually, its all self gratification on Odin’s part, as technically he is sacrificing himself to himself as a he is after all the god of gods.
There are some very heavy links between Odin and the tarot card of the hanged man (if you are so inclined to know about these things). In some representations of Odin hanging, he is actually hung by his ankle so he can face down in to the waters. The tarot card of the hanged man, shows a man hung by his ankle, standing for a new path in a search for knowledge. Very similar to Odin’s quest, and just another of those cross overs between beliefs.
This has really only scraped the surface of what Odin is really all about, but I hope that it has given you some insight to this amazing painting by Africano, as it holds so much more detail for the audience if they understand the background of the myth.
What do you see in “Odin/The Hanged”? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?
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