The Old Norse-Icelandic Eddic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”) tells of the pagan god Óðinn who hung on the world tree Yggdrasill for “nine long nights, / wounded with a spear”. In the poem, Óðinn states that he sacrificed himself to himself. As a consequence, he was able to get hold of runes that gave him access to magic and wisdom:
[St 138] I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
[St 139] No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there. (Trans. Larrington 1996, 34.)
Earlies studies have found both pagan and Christian elements in the portrayal of Óðinn’s self-sacrificial hanging, and some suggest that the scene has been inspired by the Crucifixion of Christ. (See e.g. the summary of these elements in David A. H. Evans’s introduction (1986, 29–34) to his edition of Hávamál). Here my emphasis is not so much on the origin of these elements. Instead, I am interested in what Óðinn does.
As implied by the poem, the episode can be understood as Óðinn’s self-sacrifice: Óðinn had hanged himself on the world tree, to sacrifice himself to himself. Because of his (presumable) death, Óðinn was able to enter the otherworld. However, Óðinn survived death (after all he was a god!) and returned from the otherworld, but during his sojourn he had managed to get hold of runes, which were supposed to possess magic qualities and were possibly intended to be used in the practice of magic.
Heroes, gods and supernatural beings that visit the otherworld and come back have been a recurrent theme in literature and oral story telling tradition through ages, not only in saga literature. In light of medieval Icelandic sources, the otherworld as the land of the dead was a space where people could gain wisdom and knowledge of the future. (See e.g. Klare 1933–1934, 16; Mitchell 2017; Schjødt 2008.) Such “deaths” may have been linked to initiation rituals; it has been suggested that ritual hanging may have been part of ancient Scandinavian/Germanic initiation rituals, or was linked with ritual magic that was practiced in connection with warfare. Gautreks saga, one of the Legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur) which tell of ancient events that were thought to have taken place in the mytho-heroic past, describe an episode where a king is hanged as a sacrifice to Óðinn, for instance. Whether the source represents an actual pre-Christian practice, can be debated, however; the source in question cannot be read as an authentic testimony of actual historical events even though it may contain traces of ancient habits.It has also been discussed whether the Óðinn hanging on the tree episode refers to martyrdom, or resembles a practitionary shamanic experience. (Hamel 1932–1933; Mitchell 2017, 293–300; Schjødt 1993, 267–272; Schjødt 2008, 173–206; Ström 1942; Tolley 2009, 427–434. ) Indeed, Óðinn’s act has many labels.
Óðinn and hanging, then, appear to have had a special connection. Óðinn was not merely associated with hanging on the world tree (or human sacrifices), but also with the hanged: he was considered the “god of the hanged” (hangadrottinn). As a consequence of Óðinn’s rune magic, the hanged would speak to him, as Hávamál (st 157) states:
I know a twelfth one if I see, up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose:
I can so carve and colour the runes
that the man walks
and talks with me. (Trans. Larrington 1996, 37.)
In addition to the hanged, Óðinn was also connected with warriors, kings and war, in that those who died in battle (also known as the einherjar) would be brought to Valhöll – Hall of the Slain – where they prepared themselves for the battle of Ragnarök in the troops of Óðinn.
What makes Óðinn’s act in Hávamál thought-provoking as far as the history of Scandinavian suicide is concerned is that his self-sacrifice – or initiation or martyrdom or shamanistic experience – shares characteristics with suicide. Óðinn is pierced with a spear, he enters the otherworld and thus (at least symbolically) gives up his life, although he has not necessarily lost his will to live – he mainly appears to die to gain knowledge, but returns from the land of the dead afterwards – and he actively does something that directly causes his death as he sacrifices himself to himself. By his choice of method, hanging, he must be aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he will die. According to Emilé Durkheim (whose theory emphasizes the manner of dying instead of the moral connotations of the act) these are all essential elements in suicide. (See Durkheim 1897.)
Some may still insist that sacrifice, or any of the concepts mentioned above, is not suicide. It is true that self-sacrifice is different from suicide in that self-killing is not among the set of properties which are shared by all members of the category ‘self-sacrifice’; self-sacrifice can be defined as “[t]he giving up of one’s own interests or wishes in order to help others or advance a cause”. There are some cases of self-sacrifice that appear to share characteristics with suicide as defined by Durkheim, however. We can speak of self-sacrifice when a soldier sacrifices himself to save the lives of the other in his regiment – he may not want to die, but he is aware of the result, i.e. that he will die. Martyrdom may also involve self-killing, but calling the act either ‘martyrdom’ or ‘suicide’ often depends on the perspective of the person who makes the normative evaluation. Self-violence may also be part of an initiation ritual; among the examples of such initiation rituals are e.g. murder-suicides in some religious cults. (See e.g. Bogdan 2014, 67; Pierre 2015.)
Categories are problematic. They are a means of comprehending the world. They may differ from one culture to another. Categories are also rooted in our (culturally and historically constructed) experiences. They are not objectively “out there” in the world. Ideas, objects and entities may sometimes belong to one or two different categories. (E.g. a man can be a son, brother, father or husband.) As long as we do not know enough about how the people in the Scandinavian past categorized self-killing, martyrdom, self-sacrifice or initiation, we cannot exclude the possibility that Óðinn’s act was understood as self-killing, even though he simultaneously took part in an initiation ritual or a shamanic process, or became a martyr or a sacrifice, bearing in mind that the word for suicide in Scandinavian languages is post-medieval; i.e. that the concept of self-killing was not necessarily considered essential in Old Norse-Icelandic culture, if we follow the ideas presented by Anna Wierzbicka (1995, 19), and that in medieval Scandinavia, self-killing was represented by describing the manner of dying (e.g. that a person hanged him/herself). (On the theories of categorization, see e.g. Lakoff 1986.)
To sum up, at the moment I am still holding Hávamál a potential source in the study of the history of medieval Scandinavian suicide. Óðinn’s self-sacrifice and his return from the land of the dead takes place in mythic time, which makes Hávamál a problematic source. I expect, however, that Óðinn hanging on a tree may tell us something about attitudes towards suicide in the culture where the poem was produced, and consider the connection between Óðinn and warriors a particularly interesting detail with respect to the study of military suicide.
Many questions have emerged by now and many are still to come up as I proceed with my research. For instance, to what extent Óðinn hanging on the tree expresses Christian ethics is difficult to assess – the influence of Christian imagery in the portrayal of Óðinn may not have influenced the interpretations made of Óðinn’s self-sacrifice/suicide. Earlier studies have shown that in some saga sources Óðinn was ascribed with characteristics similar to the devil (Lassen 2011, 253–254). But ,should we interpret Óðinn’s self-sacrifice as an act of a devilish pagan god? The suicidal fools in Gautreks saga who go and jump off from their family cliff whenever an extraordinary event occurs, to “go to Óðinn” (fara til Óðins) and to “go to Valhöll” (fara til Valhallar) arouse suspicion; the story is described by its writer as “funny” (kátligr) and the suicidal characteristics are attributed to folk who live in the woods, far in the east – from medieval Icelandic perspective, that is, as they are said to live in Gautland, situated in Sweden. For medieval Icelanders these people represented the strange and the unknown otherness, in that few had visited the lands in the east. Most relied only on ancient accounts of such trips. Medieval Icelanders considered the people in Gautland pagan, as the Conversion took place there far later compared to western Scandinavia. (Aalto 2010, 76–81.) Link to Óðinn in Gautreks saga links the self-destructive behavior or the people to pagan practices; devilish, sinful and insane actions are supposed to have taken place in the east, in the lands of the Swedes, where Christianity had not yet been established.
Or, is Óðinn’s death a culturally sanctioned suicide – a concept used by Joseph M. Pierre (2015), who has discussed different forms of culturally sanctioned manners of death, such as seppuku, euthanasia and terrorist martyrdom, which may aim at avoiding suffering, dying with dignity and defending sacred values, and are seen as expressions of duty and loyalty and an honorable way out when surrounded by enemies, for instance. These questions and several more will be tackled with by me in the near future.
How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The problem of Óðinn’s sacrifice.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 27 April, 2018. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/the-problem-of-odinns-sacrifice >
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Hamel, Anton G. 1932–1933. ”Óðinn Hanging on the Tree.” Acta philological Scandinavica 7 (1932–1933), 260–288.
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Pierre, Joseph M. ”Culturally sanctioned suicide: Euthanasia, seppuku, and Terrorist Martyrdom. World Journal of Psychiatry 5 (2015) 1: 4–14. Available from: URL: http://www.wjgnet.com/2220-3206/full/v5/i1/4.htm DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v5.i1.4
Schjødt, Jens Peter. 1993. “The Relation between Two Phenomenological Categories, Initiation and Sacrifice, as Exemplified by the Norse Myth of Óðinn in the tree.” In The Problem of Ritual, ed. Tore Ahlbäck. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 261–273.
Schjødt, Jens Peter. 2008. Initiation between Two Worlds: Structure and Symbolism in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religion. The Viking Collection, 17. Odense.
Ström, Folke. 1942. On the Sacral Origin of the Germanic Death Penalties. Lund: Håkan Olssons boktryckeri.
Tolley, Clive. 2009. Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.
Wierzbicka, Anna. 1995. “Everyday Conceptions of Emotion: A Semantic Perspective.” In Everyday Conceptions of Emotion. An Introduction to the Psychology, Anthropology and Linguistics of Emotion, ed. James A. Russell, José-Miguel Fernández-Dols, Anthony S. R. Manstead and J. C. Wellenkamp. Dordrecht, 17–47.
 See also Mitchell 2017, 295, who considers the possibility that the magic capability linked to Óðinn may refer to initiation practice, or torture practiced towards enemies in war, which involved hanging but did not necessarily lead to death.
Source of picture “The sayings of the high one“: Wikimedia Commons