How the Old Norse Vikings Worshipped & Prayed to Odin

The highest, the supreme divinity, universally honoured among all Germanic people, would in the Gothic dialect have been called Vodans;  in Old High German Wuotan; the Longobards spelt it Wodan or Guddan; the Old Saxons Wuodan or Wodan, the Anglo-Saxons Woden, the Frisians Weda, and finally the Norse form which is Odin.

The root of the name Odin comes from the old Proto-Germanic wōdaz, which means “rage, manic inspiration, fury”.

This original significance of Odin’s name as wild and restless was never truly lost, but it did combine itself with the other known traits of Odin as a wise and mighty god.

If we are to sum up in brief the attributes of this god, he is the all-pervading creative and formative power, who bestows shape and beauty on men and all things, from whom proceeds the gift of song and the management of war and victory, on whom at the same time depends the fertility of the soil, ney wishing, and all highest gifts and blessings.

Odin has a throne named Hliðskjálf, sitting on which he can survey the whole world, and hear all that goes on among men. When Loki wanted to hide, it was from this seat that Odin espied his whereabouts.

Sometimes also Frigg, his consort, is imagined sitting by his side, and then she enjoys the same powers.

The Norse Odin wears a broad hat and wide mantle and is one-eyed, for when Odin desired to drink of Mimir’s fountain, he was obliged to leave one of his eyes in pawn.

In Norse mythology, Odin is armed with a wonderful spear called Gungnir. Odin lends this spear to worthy heroes so they can achieve mighty victories.

To the god of victory are attached two wolves and two ravens, which, as combative courageous animals, follow the fight, and pounce upon the fallen corpses.

The wolves are named Geri and Freki, while the two ravens are Huginn (from Norse “hugr”, meaning “thought” or “mind”) and Muninn (from Norse “munr”, meaning “emotion”, “desire” or “memory”).

The two ravens are not only brave, but cunning and wise, they sit on the shoulders of Odinn, and whisper in his ear whatever they see and hear.

Olden times tell of Odin’s wanderings, his waggon, his way, his retinue.

We know that in the very earliest ages the seven stars forming the constellation now known as the Big Dipper, were thought by the Norse to be a four-wheeled wagon, its pole being formed by the three stars that hang downwards. The Norse considered this constellation to represent Odin, and called it Odin’s Wain.

This constellation was said to be Odin’s way to heaven, and a physical connection between Midgard, the realm of men, and Asgard, the realm of Odin and the rest of the gods.

Finally, Germanic people, the Norse included, dedicated a day of the week to Odin himself. In Old English this day was called “Wōdnesdæg” or ‘day of Odin’, and has become the “Wednesday” of modern times.

How to pray and worship to Odin

The simplest actions by which the Norse expressed their reverence’ for the gods, be they Odin or any other, and kept up a permanent connection with them, was through prayer and sacrifice.

Sacrifice is a a prayer offered up with gifts. And wherever there was occasion for prayer, there was also for sacrifice.

In Norse religion there was a specific word that described the act of prayer: inveita, invait or invitum.

Unfortunately, we do not know for sure by what gesture(s) inveitan was accompanied, whether a bowing of the head, a motion of the hand, or or a bending of the knee.

However, by cross-referencing and analyzing Old Germanic praying rituals (and the words used to describe them), such as the Old Saxon “bidjan“, Anglo-Saxon “ge-eáð-mêdan” (meaning “to humble oneself”) and the Middle High German “flêhen” (meaning “supplication”) it becomes possible to form an educated guess as for how the Norse would pray to all their gods, Odin included.

First, the hands must be washed before praying.

Next, the most dominant gesture likely involved the person bending their whole body and prosternating themselves.

This main gesture would likely have been accompanied by looking up to the heaven, folding one’s hands, uncovering the head or bowing in front of a statue or icon of their god.

Other historical resources of Germanic peoples describe how people would pray by falling before the feet, or at the feet of the deity they worshipped.

An important note however, is that in Norse paganism, most prayers were done by pointing the body towards the North.

An exception to this are the gods Odin, for whom one had to point the body to the East, and the god Ulf, which required pointing the body to the West.

We know this because early Christians (up until around 7th and 8th century) sometimes prayed towards the east, since according to myth that was where the Garden of Eden was supposedly located, and also because it was said Jesus would approach Jerusalem from the east at the second coming.

Thus, the tendency of the Norse to pray towards the North stood out to early Christians, and was something they tried to change during the conversion of the northern peoples to Christianity.

Offerings and sacrifices

The oldest term, and one universally spread among the Norse for the notion “to worship (God) by sacrifice” was “blôtan“.

For the Norse,  blôtan could be done in multiple ways, and most did not involve the sacrifice of live animals.

Non animal sacrifices

While the sacrifice of a slain animal is more sociable, more universal, and is usually offered by the collective nation or community;  fruit or flowers, milk or honey were much more accessible to the common household or individual of a thousand years ago.

These fruit-oferings are therefore more solitary and paltry; history scarcely mentions them, but they have lingered longer and more steadfastly in popular customs than animal sacrifices.

When the farmer would would harvest his corn, he left a clump of corns standing and addorned with ribbons, as a thank-offering to the god who blessed him with the harvest.

One of the most common ways of performing blôtan was to pour honey or milk, separately or combined, in a bowl.

Afterwards the mixture could be used in several ways.

A common way Norse farmers would perform the blôtan ceremony was to pour the mixture on their farming tools, as a way of pleasing Odin and so obtain a bountiful harvest.

A different method of blôtan was said to bring good fortune to the entire household, and involved digging a few holes around the person’s garden or property, pouring some of the mixture in them, and then fill up the holes again.

Besides fruits, honey and milk, a dutiful worshipper could also bake cakes or even meats in the shape of the god they worshiped, or of the animal that represented the god. In the case of Odin, that animal is the raven.

These offerings could then be decorated with cloths, oils, butter and so on.

Whenever performing blôtan, the person had to mention the god’s name in a respectful manner, in a soft murmured voice, and state their wishes clearly.

Live animal sacrifices

The more famous forms of blôtan among the Norse involved the ritualistic sacrifice of live animals.

These types of rituals were more often carried out at as part of large scale tribal ceremonies, or by priests and priestesses at the community shrine or temple.

The sacrificial process usually involved killing a live animal and collecting it’s blood in bowls, which would then be used to spray buildings and participants in the ritual.

The blood was said to carry special powers and be blessed by the gods, so anyone or anything touched by the blood would be blessed by the Gods in turn.

Another frequent use of the blood was for divination and readings of the future.

During the ritual, the participants would dance and sing, and this only died down once the sacrificial ritual was complete.

After the blood had been spilt, the resulting meat would be boiled or roasted, and then consumed by participants in a feast.

It is likely also, that certain nobler parts of the animal were assigned to the gods: the head, liver, heart, tongue.

The head and skin of slaughtered game were suspended on trees in honour of them.

Animal sacrifices were mainly thank-offerings, but sometimes also atonement or forgiveness sacrifices.

The only those animals suitable for sacrifice were those whose flesh could be eaten by men.

It would have been unbecoming to offer food to Odin, that the sacrificer himself would not be willing to eat.

At the same time these sacrifices appear to be also banquets; an appointed portion of the slaughtered beast is placed before the god, the rest is cut up, distributed and consumed in the assembly.

The people thus became partakers in the holy ofering, and the god is regarded as feasting with them at their meal.

At great sacrifices the kings were expected to taste each kind of food, and towards the late of the night, the house-spirits and dwarfs had their portion set aside for them by the superstitious people.

For the Norse, one of the most desirable animals (but by no means the only one) to sacrifice were horses. This caused great tensions between local natives and Christian missionaries as they sought to convince the natives to give up on the practice of sacrificing and eating horse meat.

If not horses, then oxen, pigs, rabbits, birds and any other edible animal were worthy to be sacrificed.

Besides the type of animal, gender was also important, with males being the preffered choice whenever possible.

Finally, another important aspect of the animal to be sacrified was it’s color and overall appearance.

An all black, red or white animal was highly desirable instead of a patchwork of colors.

Inviting Odin and the other gods to join the blôtan

In the beggining of a blôtan, as well as throughout, the faithful would invite the gods to participate and join the ritual and be a part of it.
Common such pleas would include:

“Great Odin, consume! Accept our offering!”

Blôtan rested on the supposition that human food is agreeable to the gods, and that interaction takes place between gods and men during blôtan and ritual feasts.

The god is invited to eat his share of the sacrifice, and he really enjoys it.

At grand sacrifices, banquets or even just small private ceremonies, Odin was remembered and wine was drunk in his name, either from a horn or a cup.

The types of sacrifices

The reason offer sacrifices was everywhere the same: either to render thanks to the gods for their kindnesses, or to appease their anger; the gods were to be kept gracious, or to be made gracious again.

Hence the two main kinds of sacrifice thank-offerings and sin-offerings.

As part of thank-offerings, whenever a meal was eaten, an animal succesfully hunted, an enemy conquered, a new generation of cattle born, or grain harvested, then the gift-bestowing god had a first right to part of the food, drink, produce, or the spoils of war (the same idea on which tithes to the church were afterwards built around).

If on the contrary a famine, failure of crops, or disease had set in among a people, they hastened to present gifts meant to please the gods or appease their anger.

The idea behind sin-offerings is that the wrath and displeasure of the god in question falls upon whichever object or living being is sacrificed.

These sin-offerings are by their nature occasional and don’t happen on a regular basis.

By contrast, thank-offerings performed to the gracious deity usually turn into periodically recurring festivals.

Besides thank-offerings and sin-offerings,  there is a third species of sacrifice called divination, by which one seeks to know the fate of an enterprise, and to secure the aid of the god to whom it is presented.

Divination however could also be practised without sacrifices.

Besides these three, there were special sacrifices for particular occasions, such as coronations, births, weddings and funerals, which were also for the most part coupled with solemn banquets.

As the gods show favour more than anger, and as men are more often cheerful than oppressed by their sins and errors, thank-offerings were the earliest and most common forms of worship, while sin-offerings were rarer but more impressive.

Whatever in the world of plants can be laid before the gods is happy and innocent, but also less imposing and effective than an animal sacrifice.

The streaming blood, the life spilt out were considered to have a stronger binding and atoning power.

Animal sacrifices are natural to the warrior, the hunter, the herdsman, while the farmer will offer up grain and flowers.

Carrying divine images of Odin

Beside prayers and sacrifices, there was one other essential feature to the worship of all Norse gods, Odin included: the solemn carrying about of divine images.

The divinity was not to remain rooted to one spot, but at various times to bestow its presence on the entire compass of the land.

This could be done through pendants, bracelets, amulets, broches or any other object that carries a depiction of Odin or a symbol of his.

Prayers to Odin

The strongest means to bring forth the favor and powers of Odin lies in spoken words.

But these, to be effective, must be choice, well kit, rhythmic words, must have lilt and tune.

It is for this reason that the Norse gave the titles of physician, magician or priest to those most capable of poetry and song.

The importance of words, songs and poetry in Norse culture was so great, the words for “saying” or “singing” often had double meaning in the sense of “conjuration” or “incantation”.

As a rule of thumb, prayers to all gods in the Norse pantheon were pronounced in a soft, murmured and whispered speech.

So the spoken words of great importance to the Norse, and by extension so were the written one. In the case of the Norse Germanic people, these words were written as runes.

Odin was the inventor of all runes and in him is lodged the greatest command of words.

Songs and runes then can do very great things.

They are able to kill and bring to life, as well as prevent from dying; to heal or make sick, bind up wounds, alleviate pain, and lull to sleep; quench fire, allay the sea-storm, bring rain and hail; to burst bonds, undo chains and bolts, open mountains or close them up, unlock treasures, to forward or delay a birth; to make weapons strong or soft, dull the edge of a sword; loop up knots, loose the bark off a tree, spoil a crop, call up evil spirits and lay them, to bind thieves.

These wonders lie in the very nature of poetry and song, as according to Norse mythology.

In terms of importance, it made no difference to the Norse whether a prayer was spoken or written, both were equally valid and equally strong.

As such, it was commonplace to have runic inscriptions on everyday objects, as a way of asking the gods, be they Odin, Tyr or any other, to bless either the object or the holder of the object.

As for actual prayers themselves, few remain, for the Norse did not have a set of standard prayers.

Instead each person formulated their prayers freely as they saw fit. There were no conventions, only that name of the God be mentioned and mentioned with respect, as well as for the wishes to be clearly stated.

Here is thus one example of a prayer:

Who to Odin hath sacrificed, to him God give health and wealth, bestowing on the babes that shall be born store of money, brend, bees and cattle. May he cause the bees to swarm this year and make plenty of honey. When spring draws nigh, O Odin, let the three kinds of cattle set out on their three ways, defend them from deep mire, from bears, wolves and thieves. As the hops are thick and springy, so bless us with good hap and sound mind! As the light burneth bright, so live we our life! as the wax daily addeth to itself so be our increase!


Resources:

  • The Mythology of All Races – Eddic by John Arnott MacCulloch, Louis Herbert Gray
  • The Norsemen Myths and Legends by Guerber Helene Adeline
  • Asgard and the Norse heroes by Katharine Boult
  • Old Norse stories by Sarah Powers Bradish
  • Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg & Anders Rasmus Bjorn
  • Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm
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