Odin is the god of wisdom, who sacrificed himself for knowledge as he hung, wounded, for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasil. He is a master of runes, who took knowledge from Vafthrúdnir, the wisest of giants, and even from Hel, herself. He stole the mead of poetry, a drink of which can make anyone an artist, and as king of Valhöll presides over half of the dead, who fight and are reborn in an endless cycle, as they wait for the end of the world. He is the father of Thor, as well as Váli and Vídar, who will survive Ragnarok, and the banisher of the Midgard Serpent, Fenrir the wolf, and Hel. But did he come from the human imagination, or was he a real person? What bias might drive believing one thing, or the other?
“The idea that gods derive from humans whose actions are reinterpreted and deified by later generations is called “euhemerism,” after the Greek philosopher Euhemeros (fl. 300 B.C.E.), whose claim to have discovered an inscription showing that Zeus was a mortal king elevated to deity was generalized into a theory that has had considerable currency down into modern times.”
Snorri’s euhemerism in the Edda (which in its forward states that “Almighty God created heaven and earth”), theorizes that Odin is descended from a king of ancient Troy, and that he traveled with great pomp, so that his retinue seemed “more like gods than humans.” In this scenario, Baldr becomes one of Odin’s sons, set up as king of Westphalia, and Sif is the wife of Odin’s forefather. In fact, the word “Aesir,” according to Snorri, comes from “Asia” (in actuality, there is no etymological connection).
It’s hard for me, as someone who loves the stories of what we now call the pagan gods, to not become frustrated – even angry – at what I see as willful distortion, but Snorri was a product of his times, and euhemerism offered an easy way to explain pagan religion as something with a historical origin, rather than as something spontaneous, symbolic, and imaginative – or worse: evil. Euhemerism allowed Snorri, and other Christian apologists, to believe that the worshipers of the pagan gods were ignorant – studying their environment and coming to conclusions, but lacking enlightenment. Rather than doomed, they were lost sheep, needing only a little guidance to rediscover the truth of the Christian God. This was important not just as a way of thinking of one’s ancestors more compassionately: if Odin and Thor, Zeus, Osiris – if the gods are products of human imagination, supplanted through changing cultures and invading conquerors rather than intrinsic truth, then how can – without proof – one god be declared greater than another? How can one god be “true” unless a reason can be found for others to be “false?”
I don’t know if there was a historical Odin – I doubt it. If there are real people lurking behind any of the individual Norse gods (or any other pagan deities), I suspect the connection between them and the myths that we know today is tenuous at best, certainly lost, and to my mind, of only marginal interest. Human beings are imaginative, symbolic creatures, whose need to explain things is almost as strong as their dislike of ambiguity and inability to live with the unknown. Our need to understand drives the creation of gods, and their stories become one of the many ways we express our culture and symbolic lives; it’s those things, and what they say about about what it means to be human, that make them relevant, today.