AskDefine | Define Woden

Dictionary Definition

Woden n : chief god; counterpart of Norse Odin and Teutonic Wotan [syn: Wodan]

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Old English


From Germanic: cognate with Old Saxon Wōden, Old Norse Óðinn (Swedish Oden).


IPA: /'wo:den/


  1. a Germanic god of wisdom and war; Odin

Extensive Definition

Wōden is a god in Anglo-Saxon paganism, together with Norse Odin representing a development of a Proto-Germanic god, *Wōdanaz. Other West Germanic forms of the name include Old High German Wuotan, Low German and Dutch Wodan.
Woden was worshipped during the Migration period, until the 7th or 8th century, when Germanic paganism was gradually replaced by Christianity. In Anglo-Saxon England, Woden was rationalized as a historical king, and remnants of worship were continued into modern times as folklore, Wodan featuring prominently in both English and Continental folklore as the leader of the Wild Hunt.
Wednesday, Wensley, Wednesbury and Wednesfield are named after Woden.


*Wōđanaz or *Wōđinaz is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of a god of Germanic paganism. He is in all likelihood identical with the Germanic god identified as "Mercury" by Roman writers and possibly with Tacitus' regnator omnium deus.
Woden probably rose to prominence during the Migration period, gradually displacing Tyr as the head of the pantheon in West and North Germanic cultures -- though such theories are only academic speculation based on trends of worship for other Indo-European cognate deity figures related to Tyr. Outside of the Germanic branch of Indo-European cultures, Odin/Wotan/Wodan has no cognate names or religious equivalents of attested certainty, and was always considered the Germanic supreme god from recorded sources.
Testimonies of the god are scattered over a wide range, both temporally and geographically. More than a millennium separates the earliest Roman accounts and archaeological evidence from the 1st century from the Odin of the Edda and later medieval folklore.

Migration period

Details of Migration period Germanic religion are sketchy, reconstructed from artifacts, sparse contemporary sources, and the later testimonies of medieval legends and place names.

Jonas of Bobbio

According to Jonas of Bobbio, the 6th century Irish missionary Saint Columbanus is reputed to have disrupted a Beer sacrifice to Wuodan (Deo suo Vodano nomine) in Bregenz, Alemannia. "Wuodan" was the chief god of the Alamanni, his name appears in the runic inscription on the Nordendorf fibula.

Lombardic sacrifice

The Lombards in 579 during their blockade of Rome, according to the Dialogues (ch. 28) of Pope Gregory I, sacrificed a goat's head to their god of war, dancing around it and singing "nefarious songs" (per circuitum currentes et carmine nefando dedicantes, c.f. ansulaikom). Gregory claims that the Lombards demanded of 400 of their Christian prisoners to bow before the goat's head in adoration, and as they refused slew them all.

Historia gentis Langobardorum

The Langobard historian Paul the Deacon, who died in southern Italy in the 790s, was proud of his tribal origins and related how his people once had migrated from southern Scandinavia. In his work Historia gentis Langobardorum, Paul relates how Godan (Odin)'s wife Frea (Frigg/Freyja) had given victory to the Langobards in a war against the Vandals.

Merseburg Incantations

Recorded during the 9th or 10th Century, though dating to an unknown earlier time, one of the two Merseburg Incantations, from Merseburg, Germany mentions Wodan who rode into a wood together with Balder (Baldr), then Balder's horse was injured, and Wodan, together with goddesses, cured the horse with enchantments.

Nine Herbs Charm

Recorded in the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxon poem the Nine Herbs Charm contains a mention of Woden:
A snake came crawling, it bit a man.
Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,
Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.
There apple brought this pass against poison,
That she nevermore would enter her house.

Anglo-Saxon Woden

The Anglo-Saxon tribes brought their indigenous faith to what was to become England around the 5th and 6th centuries and continued in that form of worship until nearly all were converted to Christianity by the 9th century, at which point the old gods and any records of them were almost completely lost. This process of Christianization followed an established pattern that is attested in accounts of the same from continental Europe: leaders were baptised for varied reasons, and the conversion of their respective peoples almost always inevitably followed, sometimes in the space of a few years, but more often over the course of a few generations though numerous aspects of indigenous beliefs often remained.
For the Anglo-Saxons, Woden was the psychopomp or carrier-off of the dead, but not necessarily with the exact same attributes of the Norse Odin. There do not appear to have been the concepts of Valkyries and Valhalla in the Norse sense, although there is a word for the former, Waelcyrge.
In addition to the roles named here, Woden was considered to be the leader of the Wild Hunt. The familial relationships are the same between Woden and the other Anglo-Saxon gods as they are for the Norse.
Wednesday (*Wēdnes dæg, "Woden's day", interestingly continuing the variant *Wōdinaz (with umlaut), unlike Wōden, continuing *Wōdanaz) is named after him, his link with the dead making him the appropriate match to the Roman Mercury.
The Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent from Woden. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Historia Britonum, Woden had the sons Wecta, Baeldaeg, Casere and Wihtlaeg.
The Christian writer of the Exeter Book (341, 28) records the verse Wôden worhte weos, wuldor alwealda rûme roderas ("Woden wrought the (heathen) altars / the almighty Lord the wide heavens"). The name of such Wôdenes weohas (Saxon Wôdanes wih, Norse Oðins ve) or sanctuaries to Woden survives in toponymy as Odinsvi, Wodeneswegs.

In folklore

Woden persisted as a figure in folklore and folk religion throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period, notably as the leader of the Wild Hunt found in English, German, Swiss, and Scandinavian traditions.
A celebrated late attestation of invocation of Wodan in Germany dates to 1593, in Mecklenburg, where the formula Wode, Hale dynem Rosse nun Voder "Wodan, fetch now food for your horse" was spoken over the last sheaf of the harvest.
David Franck adds, that at the squires' mansions, when the rye is all cut, there is Wodel-beer served out to the mowers; no one weeds flax on a Wodenstag, lest Woden's horse should trample the seeds; from Christmas to Twelfth-day they will not spin, nor leave any flax on the distaff, and to the question why? they answer, Wode is galloping across. We are expressly told, this wild hunter Wode rides a white horse. (34)
A custom in Schaumburg is reported by Grimm: the people go out to mow in parites of twelve, sixteen or twenty scythes, but it is so managed, that on the last day of harvest they are all finished at the same time, or some leave a strip standing which they can cut down at a stroke the last thing, or they merely pass their scythes over the stubble, pretending there is still some left to mow. At the last stroke of the scythe they raise their implements aloft, plant them upright, and beat the blades three times with the strop. Each spills on the field a little of the drink he has, whether beer, brandy, or milk, then drinks himself, while they wave their hats, beat their scythes three times, and cry aloud Wôld, Wôld, Wôld! and the women knock all the crumbs out of their baskets on the stubble. They march home shouting and singing. If the ceremony was omitted, the next year would bring bad crops of hay and corn. The first strophe of the song is quoted by Grimm,
Wôld, Wôld, Wôld!
hävenhüne weit wat schüt,
jümm hei dal van häven süt.
Vulle kruken un sangen hät hei,
upen holte wässt manigerlei:
hei is nig barn un wert nig old.
Wôld, Wôld, Wôld!
Grimm notes that the custom had died out in the fifty years preceding his time of writing (1835).


Grimm (Teutonic Mythology, ch. 7) discusses traces of Woden's name in toponymy. Certain mountains were sacred to the service of the god. Othensberg, now Onsberg, on the Danish island of Samsöe; Odensberg in Schonen. Godesberg near Bonn, from earlier Wôdenesberg (annis 947, 974). Near the holy oak in Hesse, which Boniface brought down, there stood a Wuodenesberg, still so named in a document of 1154, later Vdenesberg, Gudensberg; this hill is not to be confounded with Gudensberg by Erkshausen, nor with a Gudenberg by Oberelsungen and Zierenberg so that three mountains of this name occur in Lower Hesse alone; conf. montem Vodinberg, cum silva eidem monti attinente, (doc. of 1265). In a different neighbourhood, a Henricus comes de Wôdenesberg is named in a doc. of 1130. A Wôdnes beorg in the Saxon Chronicle, later Wodnesborough, Wansborough in Wiltshire. A Wôdnesbeorg in Lappenberg's map near the Bearucwudu, conf. Wodnesbury, Wodnesdyke, Wôdanesfeld. To this we must add, that about the Hessian Gudensberg the story goes that King Charles lies prisoned 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. The mythus of a victorious army pining for water is already applied to King Carl by the Frankish annalists, at the very moment when they bring out the destruction of the Irminsul; but beyond a doubt it is older : Saxo Grammaticus has it of the victorious Balder.
The breviarium Lulli, in names a place in Thuringia: in Wudaneshusum, and again Woteneshusun; in Oldenburg there is a Wodensholt, now Godensholt, cited in a land-book of 1428; Wothenower, seat of a Brandenburg family anno 1334; not far from Bergen op Zoom, towards Antwerp, stands to this day a Woensdrecht, as if Wodani trajectum. Woensel = Wodenssele, Wodani aula, lies near Eindhoven on the Dommel in Northern Brabant. This Woensel is like the Oðinssalr, Othänsäle, Onsala; Wunstorp, Wunsdorf, a convent and small town in Lower Saxony, stands unmutilated as Wodenstorp in a document of 1179. Near Windbergen in the Ditmar country, an open space in a wood bears the name of Wodenslag, Wonslag. Near Hadersleben in Schleswig are the villages of Wonsbeke, Wonslei, Woyens formerly Wodensyen. An Anglo-Saxon documen of 862 contains in a boundary-settlement the name Wônstoc = Wôdenesstoc, Wodani stipes, and at the same time betrays the influence of the god on ancient delimitation (Wuotan, Hermes, Mercury, all seem to be divinities of measurement and demarcation)


Further reading

  • Brian Branston, The Lost Gods of England, Thames and Hudson, 2nd ed. (1974), ISBN 0-500-11013-1
  • Kathleen Herbert, Looking for the Lost Gods of England, Anglo-Saxon Books (1995), ISBN 1-898281-04-1
  • E.G. Stanley, Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past : The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Anglo-Saxon Trial by Jury, D.S.Brewer (2000), ISBN 0-85991-588-3
  • Michael Wood, In search of the Dark Ages, Checkmark Books (2001), ISBN 0-8160-4702-2
Woden in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Wōden
Woden in German: Wotan
Woden in Italian: Woden
Woden in Dutch: Wodan
Woden in Swedish: Woden
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