The Principal Germanic Gods

Jakob Grimm


The highest and most supreme deity, universally worshipped among all Germanic tribes, was called Wuotan in Old High German, Odin in Norse. According to pagan conception, Wodan is the ruler of the world, wise and skilled in arts, the all-powerful and all-pervading god, ordainer of wars and battles, on whom at the same time depends the fertility of the soil. He carries a spear or staff and is the all-seeing eye of the sun. He stands at the head of all dynasties of kings. His name is indelibly imprinted on many places. In language the "Wodan span" describes a portion of the hand. Ravens and wolves, which before all other animals were associated by our people with his name, scent his victorious approach. Because he simultaneously appears as the god of poetry, of measure, of apportioning, of boundary, of dice, so can talents, treasures, arts, be regarded as emanating from him.

OdinWodan looks down to earth through a window from his dwelling in the sky, which is completely in accord with the old Norse idea. Wodan has a throne named Hlidskjalf, sitting upon which he can look over the entire world and can hear everything which takes place among men. When Loki wished to conceal himself, Wodan spied out his hiding-place from this seat. Sometimes Frigga, Wodan's wife, is also conceived as sitting near him, then she too enjoys the same prospect. Pagan perception makes the divine quality of seeing through everything dependent on the placing or adjustment of the chair and just as this quality leaves the god when he does not sit upon it, so can others, as soon as they take the chair, participate in the power. This was the case when Freyr spied the beautiful Gerd away down in Jotunheim. The word hlidscialf seems to mean literally door-bench, from hlid and skialf. This idea of a seat in heaven, from which god looks down to earth, is still not extinguished among our people.


"There is a great dwelling called Valaskjalf, owned by Odin, which the gods built and roofed with pure silver. It is there in this hall that Hlidskjalf is to be found, the high seat as it is called; and whenever the All-Father sits on this throne he can see over the entire world" (Deluding of Gylfi 16).

In the eyes of our forefathers, victory was the foremost and highest of all gifts. However, they regarded Wodan not only as awarder of victory; he was also conceived by them generally as the god by whose favor man has to expect every other distinction, in whose hands all higher goods are held.

Just as the souls of slain warriors arrive in Indra's heaven, so the victory-granting god of our forefathers takes up heroes fallen in battle into his company, into his army, into his heavenly dwelling. Probably it was the belief of all gods and noble men that they would be allowed after their death into closer fellowship with the deity. Valhall (Valhalla) and Valkyrja (Valkyries) are closely related with the idea of wish and of choice. Therefore dying means, and even according to Christian view, to go to God, to return to God. In the North, to journey to Odin, to be a guest of Odin, or to visit Odin meant nothing other but dying and was synonymous with journeying to Valhalla, being a guest in Valhalla. But among Christians curses developed from this: Go to Odin! Here is shown the reversal of the good-natured being with whom one wishes to abide, into an evil one whose abode inculcates fear and terror.

Concerning the peculiarities of the shape and outward appearance of the god, as these are imprinted on the Norse myths, I have discovered few remaining traces with us in Germany. Odin is one-eyed, wears a wide-brimmed-hat and broad cloak. When he desired to drink from Mimir's well, he had to leave one eye as a pledge.

OdinNorse myth provides Odin with a wonderful spear named Gungnir, which would compare with the lance or sword of Mars, not the staff of Mercury. This spear he lends the hero for victory. The god of victory is given two wolves and two ravens which as warlike, courageous animals follow the battle and throw themselves on the corpses of the fallen. The wolves were called Geri and Freki and Hans Sachs drolly relates in a verse that God the Lord has chosen wolves for hunting dogs, that they are his animals. The two ravens are called Hugin and Munin, from Hugr and Munr ("thought" and "memory"). They are wise and clever, sit on the shoulders of Odin and speak into his ear everything which they see and hear. Wolf and raven were also sacred to the Greek Apollo. The Gospels represent the Holy Ghost as a dove which during baptism flies down to Christ and hovers in the air above him. Is this a pagan memory? [Image: Odin carving runes on his spear; illustration by F. Von Stassen (1914). To learn the secret of the runes Odin hung himself on the World-Tree, Yggdrasil.]

Odin's Self-Sacrifice on Yggdrasil

I know I hung on the wind-swept tree nine full nights
wounded by a spear and dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which none knows from where the roots come.
They did not comfort me with the loaf nor with the drinking horn:
I looked down below me and groaning took the runes up
and fell back down thereafter.

Havamal 138-139

In the shape of a bearded old man Wodan appears like a water spirit or water god and to do justice to the Latin name Neptune, which some older writers use of him. Wodan's rule over the water as over the wind explains how he walks on the waves and approaches through the air in a storm. Odin provides ships with a favorable sailing wind (oskabir).

Our antique stories tell of Odin's wanderings, of his wagon, trackway and companions. We know that even in remotest antiquity the seven stars which form the Bear in the northern sky were conceived as a four-wheeled wagon whose shaft consists of three stars inclined downwards. This constellation may in pagan times have borne the complete name of Wodan's wagon, after the supreme god of heaven.

In some districts, the great open highway of heaven -- to which people long attached a peculiar sense of sacredness, and perhaps allowed this to eclipse the older fancy of a "milky way" -- was possibly also called Wodan's Way or Wodan's Street.

Of greater significance appear the names of certain mountains which were sacred to the worship of the god in pagan days. Not far from the holy oak in Hesse which Boniface cut down, lay a Wodansberg. Other names are Gudensberg, Gotanesberg. Of the Hessian Gudensberg the story goes that King Charles lies imprisoned in it, that he there won a victory over the Saxons, and opened a well in the wood for his thirsting army, but he will yet come forth of the mountain, he and his host, at the appointed time.

These names, which describe the wagon and mountain of the old god, are found principally in Lower Germany where paganism long asserted itself, and a remarkable practice of Lower Saxon folk during corn harvest alludes to this. It is the custom to leave a bushel of grain standing on the field for Wodan to give his horse. According to the Edda, Odin rides the best of all horses, Sleipnir, to whom eight legs are attributed; Sleipnis verdr (food) is a poetic name for hay. Other legends speak of a tall white horse by which the god of victory was to be recognized in battles. Besides the gift of drink for Odin, a gift of grain was often left for Odin's horse.

Odin Arriving in Valhalla
Ninth-century picture stone from the island of Gotland, Sweden: A valkyrie with a drinking-horn greets Odin as he arrives at Valhalla astride Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse, on which he will fight at Ragnarok.

The generosity of antiquity shines from such customs. Man does not wish to take possession of everything for himself, of all that has grown for him. He gratefully leaves a part back for the gods, who will in future also protect his crops. Greed increased, when the offerings ceased. Ears of corn are set apart and offered here to Wodan, as elsewhere to kind
spirits and elves, e.g., to the brownies of Scotland.

Wodan is, as far as it is possible to piece together an idea of his nature from fragments of the old beliefs, the most spirited god of our antiquity. Among all other gods he shines forth. All heroes and royal families trace back their ancestry to him. Among his sons are several divinely celebrated -- especially Baldur and Saxnot appear as his sons.

But the high place which the Germans allot to their Wodan leads to yet another observation. Monotheism is something so necessary and essential that almost all pagans, consciously or unconsciously, proceed accordingly from recognizing among the bright throng of their gods, a highest deity who bears within himself the qualities of all the others so that the latter are only to be regarded as emanations from him, his rejuvenation and renewal. This explains how separate qualities come to be attributed now to this, now to that particular god, and why one or another of them, according to different peoples, comes to be invested with the highest power. Thus Wodan resembles Hermes and Mercury; on his own he stands higher than both. Conversely the German Donar (Thunor, Thorr) is a weaker Zeus or Jupiter. What was added to the one, must be taken away from the other. Ziu (Tiw, Tyr), however, hardly does more than administer one of Wotan's offices, yet he is identical in name with the first and highest god of the Greeks and Romans. The Greek Hermes is youthful, the German Wodan fatherly, in their conception. Ziu and Fro (Freyr) are mere offshoots of Wodan and thus all manifestations of the gods meet and intermingle.

Throughout paganism trilogies appear of the principal gods which I have arranged below according to the third, fourth and fifth day of the week: Tuesday (Ziu's day), Wednesday (Wodan's day) and Thursday (Thor's day).

Latin Mars Mercurius Jupiter
Greek Ares Hermes Zeus
Keltic Hesus Teutates Taranis
Old H.G. Ziu Wuotan Donar
Old Norse Tyr Odinn Thor
Slavic Svantevit Radigast Perun
Indian Shiva Brahman Vishnu

This is the power that is warlike, creative and thunderous (fertilizing the earth).


The god ruling over clouds and sky, announcing himself through rolling thunder and flashes of lightning, whose bolt flies through the air and strikes the earth, was described in our ancient speech with the word Donar itself, OS Thunar, AS Thunor, ON Thorr. Thor is imagined as driving, since the rolling of thunder resembles a heavy wagon passing by. His wagon is drawn by two he-goats. Other gods have their wagons too, especially Odin and Freyr, but Thor is distinctively thought of as the god who drives. Thor is never seen as riding like Wodan nor is he provided with a horse. He either drives or he goes on foot. It is expressly said that he walks to hold court, to pass judgement. He is never represented in a wild host or in company with women. Although his son and yielding to him in degree of influence, Donar again appears to resemble Wodan as an older god worshipped before the latter, enthroned in forests, on mountain tops, hurling the ancient stone weapon and lightning bolt.

Thunder, lightning and rain, among all natural phenomena, are regarded as his actions. Thunder, in particular, is attributed to an angry and punitive god. Donar also resembles Wodan in his capacity for anger.

Donar purifies the weather and sends down fruitful rain. The oak is sacred to Donar and his hammer measures land, just as later does Wodan's staff. He attacks giants more often than he fights in battles at the head of heroes or reflects upon the art of war.

His name persists in popular curses, Wodan's only in protestations. In the figure of Rotbart (Barbarossa) Donar could also be imagined as waiting within a mountain. All heroes ascend to Wodan's heaven, ordinary folk return to Donar. Compared with the noble, fine Wodan, Donar reveals something about himself which is boorish, peasantlike, uncouth. He seems a very old deity, displaced in course of time by another closely-related but more all-embracing god, although not everywhere pushed into the background.

We can trace mountain names in Germany with complete certainty to the worship of this native god. Universally known is the Donnersberg in the Rhine Palatinate, on the border of the old state of Falkenstein, between Worms, Kaiserslautern and Kreuznach. Another, Thuneresberg, is in Westphalia, on the Diemel, not far from Warburg. In the Middle Ages a great popular court was still held there, linked to the sacredness of the place. On the Knüllberg in Hessen is found a Donnerkaute, in Bernerland a Donnerbühel. In Scandinavia also there is no lack of mountains and rocks bearing Thor's name.

As the fertility of the land depends on thunderstorms and rains, thunder gods such as Zeus appear as the oldest divinities of agricultural nations, to whose bounty they look for the thriving of their cornfields and fruits. Adam of Bremen too attributes thunder and lightning to Thor expressly in connection with dominion over weather and fruits: "Thor, inquiunt, praesidet in aëre, qui tonitrua et fulmina, ventos imbresque, serena et fruges gubernat," "Thor, they say, rules in the air, governing the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops." Here then the worship of Thor coincides with that of Wotan, to whom likewise the reapers paid homage, as on the other hand Thor as well as Odin guides the events of war and receives his share of the spoils. To the Norse mind Thor's victories and struggles with the giants have put in the shade his peaceful office, the rule over weather and harvest. Nevertheless to Wodan's mightiest son, whose mother is Earth herself [Jorth], we must, if only for his lineage's sake, allow a direct relation to agriculture. He clears up the atmosphere, he sends fertilizing showers, and his sacred tree supplies the nutritious acorn. Thor's minni [remembrance drink] was drunk to the prosperity of cornfields.

Like Zeus and Jupiter the German thunder god was also portrayed as wearing a long beard. In the old Norse sagas he appears everywhere as red-bearded, which must be related to the fiery phenomenon of lightning in the air. If he is angry, he blows in his red beard and thunder resounds. Men in need of help call on Donar's red beard. There is often talk of his divine anger. The red beard of the Thunderer is not forgotten in curses of a later, Christian time. Even today the North Frisians exclaim: Diis ruadhiiret donner regiir! = "This is red-haired thunder's work!").

Just as the thunder god is given red hair and a wagon, so he is also given the thunderbolt as a weapon or "missile" in present day language.
According to popular belief, when the lightning flashes from a cloud a black bolt simultaneously flies down to earth, embedding itself as deep as the highest church tower. Whenever there is renewed thunder, it begins to rise towards the surface. After seven years it is again to be found on the earth. Every house in which it is kept is safe from storm damage and as soon as a storm approaches, it begins to sweat. Such stones are also called thunder axes, thunderstones, thunder hammers, Albdonar, Alpgeschosse (from the Elbe), ray stones, devil's fingers. Stone hammers and stone measures found in pagan graves also bear the same name.

Norse mythology provides Thor with a wonderful hammer called Mjollnir in the Edda, which he hurls against the giants. It has the quality of returning by itself into the hand of the god after throwing. As this hammer flies through the air, the giants know it. Its throwing is preceded by thunder and lightning. Skilled dwarfs have forged it. The hammer of the god was held to be a sacred tool. Just as it knocked hostile giants to the ground, so it hallowed the sealing of marriage bonds and made sacred land and boundaries like the sign of the cross with Christians. The flash of lightning was held in the Middle Ages to be the lucky consecrating omen of an enterprise. The hammer is the primeval, simple tool essential for almost all handwork, which is used symbolically with many trades. To denote boundaries the Hamarsmark is hammered in, a cross provided with hooks. Later, crossed oaks were often used as a boundary, called Mälbaume ("marking trees") (in the Sachsenspiegel). [Image: M.E. Winge's "Thor and the Giants" (1890). Alone among the gods, Thor never rides a horse, but either travels on foot or rides in his goat-drawn chariot, as depicted here.]

Just as Christ, through his death, overpowered the monstrous serpent, so Thor triumphed over the Midgardworm or Midgard serpent, the snake that encircles the world. The similarity of the sign of the cross and of the hammer makes it possible that the newly converted Germans imagined Christ to be the god of thunder and provider of rain. In fact, the earliest troubadour still calls Christ the Lord of thunder.

According to the Edda, Thor's thunder wagon is drawn by rams. A half-concealed relationship may exist between them and another mythical "weather" creature which is imagined to be a goat or horse but always as a wagon-pulling beast. It is significant that the Devil, the modern representative of the thunder god, is also attributed with the creation of goats and rams, and Ziu like Thor lays aside and picks up the bones of goats which have been eaten, so that he can bring them back to life again. According to the belief of Swiss shepherds the goat has something devilish about it, a creation of the Devil. In fact, goats feet are held to be diabolical and are not eaten. In Carinthia, cattle killed by lightning are regarded as hallowed by God. No one, not even the poorest, dares eat them.

Thor was regarded after Odin as being the mightiest and strongest of all the gods: the Edda represents him as Odin's son. Usually Thor is named at the same time as Odin, sometimes before him, and perhaps he was feared even more than Odin.

An unmistakable relic of the worship of the thunder-god is the special observance of Thursday, which was not extinguished among the people till quite recent times and was revealed in early traditions of the Middle Ages. On Thursday evening there must be no sawing or cutting of wood.

If we compare Thor with Wodan, then the latter is more mentally alive and loftier, whereas the former has the advantage of a rough, sensual strength. Prayers, oaths and curses preserved his memory more often and longer than any other god, but only a part of the Greek Zeus is incorporated in Thor. Clearly both gods have shared in the power which is also fitting to Zeus. However, Wodan is represented as Donar's (Thor's) father and superior to him, just as the father is more powerful than the son.