Thor Thursday: Óðr

Óðr (pronounced roughly “OH-that,” with a hard “th” as in “the”) is an Old Norse word that has no direct equivalent in modern English.Óðr is generally translated as something along the lines of “divine inspiration” or “inspired mental activity.”

Words from other branches of the Indo-European family of languages that were based on this root include the Latin vates, “soothsayer” or “poet,” and the Old Irish fáith, “seer” or “prophet.”

Even the name of Odin himself is derived from this word (Old Norse Óðinn, “Master of Óðr“).

Óðr is a force that causes people to create or perform any of the arts; to pronounce a prophecy; to enter an ecstatic trance, to produce scholarly works; to engage in the battlefield frenzy that was the hallmark of Odin’s elite warriors, the berserkers; or to become possessed or go mad. You might say it is the cause of and solution to everything that has ever been created. (Turns out Homer Simpson was wrong, and it’s not alcohol)

If we were to use the word “inspiration” in its original sense – “to be under the immediate influence of God or a god” – then “inspiration” and óðr would effectively be synonymous. But since “inspiration” has gradually lost these connotations of divine agency and seen its range of meaning narrow over time, it’s important to point out this distinction.

And isn’t this truer to our immediate experience of inspiration than the comparatively conventional view of inspiration that we tend to hold today? Virtually all great artists and thinkers often have, during their moments of greatest inspiration, felt themselves to be vessels for some mysterious power working through them, and over which they have little if any, conscious control.

Both inspiration and Óðr involve a sense of being “seized” by something from the outside, and they both fit with some degree of what the German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto called the mysterium exciting and Mysterium tremendous in his classic 1917 work The Idea of the Holy which I read as part of my research.

You may also see a mention of Óðr (a person) in Chapter 36 of the Edda:

The sixth is Freyja, who is ranked with Frigg. She is wedded to the man whose name is Óðr ; their daughter’s name is Hnos, and she is so fair that all things fair and precious are called, from her name, Hnos.Óðr  went far away. Freyja weeps for him, but her tears are red gold. Freyja has many names, and the reason therefor is that she changed her name among the various nations to which she came in search of Óðr .

It’s a whole nother post to get into if Óðr and Odin are the same or if Freyja was married to another guy with a similar name either before or after Odin or if they were polygamous? I don’t get hung up on the details or plausibility of the sagas. It was so long ago that I think they were written to fit the morals of the time. (Just like the Bible)


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