Am I Descended from Odin?
In orther words, can anyone today prove a descent from Odin? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. On Geni, we have many different opinions. This project gives a very high-level overview so that individual users can draw their own conclusions.
Odin the god
Odin (Woden) was the ruler of the ancient Norse and Germanic gods, similar to Zeus in Greek mythology. His family, the Aesir, fought a war against the Vanir, another family of gods. When the two families made peace, Odin became the ruler of the gods. With his brothers Vili and Ve, Odin killed the giant Ymir and created the world out of Ymir’s body. Then, he and his brothers created created the first humans, Ask and Embla.
Modern research shows that Odin as a god evolved from an unknown proto-Norse god during the Migration Period (400-800). His original name might have been something like *Wōdin. Odin displaced Tyr, the original king of the gods, who was culturally connected to Zeus, and perhaps also connected to the Celtic god Lugh. Some scholars believe that the war between the Aesir and Vanir is an echo of this early period when gods from the Continent (the Aesir) replaced the indigenous gods (the Vanir).
The Norse and Germans had many stories about Odin’s life and deeds. These stories were handed down orally by poets (skalds) in the form of both poems and stories (sagas). When the Norse encountered the Christians, they adopted the Roman alphabet and began to write down the old stories. The oral tradition died out. We know these stories only from the people who wrote them down.
Conversion to Christianity
When the Germanic peoples converted to Christianity, they came to believe Odin must have been a descendant of Adam. Despite the absence of evidence, Christian monks invented the required genealogies. For information about these Christian inventions, see the Descents from Antiquity project.
Odin the man
In the 13th century, the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson wrote that Odin came to worshipped as a god, but he was originally a famous warrior who led his people out of Troy and into Scandinavia.
Later in the 13th century, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote that Odin was a sorcerer from Byzantium. The other gods there stripped Odin of his rank and power, then banished him. He fooled the poeple of Scandinavia into worshipping him as a god.
Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807) might have been the first to formulate explicitly the idea that the historical Odin was a man named Sigge Fridulfsson. He says, "His true name was Sigge, son of Fridulph; but he assumed that of Odin, who was the Supreme God among the Scythians". In Mallet's version of the story, Sigge (also known as Odin) was an ally of Mithradates, a Persian king defeated by the Romans. (Mallet, Northern Antiquities, 1770, 1809).
According to one tradition, Odin is buried on the Estonian island Osmussaar (Swedish: Odensholm).
The idea that Odin was originally a man intrigues many genealogists. The sagas give the genealogies of many historic kings, and show how they were descended from Odin. If Odin was a god, then he is just an old myth. No one can be descended from a god. But, if Odin was really a man then we should be able to strip away the fantastic stories and find one of our earliest known ancestors.
It isn’t that simple. We know that over time storytelling can turn men into gods, and it can also turn gods into men.
The story of the Norse god Baldr might be an example of a man who was turned into a god. in Gesta Danorum (Saxo Grammaticus, late 13th century), Baldr was a warrior favored by Odin, but in the Prose Edda (Snorri Sturluson, early 13th century), Baldr was a son of Odin. Some scholars think the story of Baldr grew up around a famous warrior. They think he evolved from a man who was first a warrior favored by Odin, then metaphorically a son of Odin, and finally he became Odin’s literal son.
After the Norse converted to Christianity, the church forced the Norse to go the other way, turning their gods into humans. The historians like Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus who preserved the sagas were Christians. They could not say Odin was a god. If he was really a god, then from the Christian point of view he was a false god and a demon. Good Christians could not tell his stories. However, if Odin was a man who was falsely worshipped as a god, then they could tell his “real” story, with pious disclaimers.
Today, there is no way to know whether Odin was (1) a god who became a man, or (2) a man who became a god, then later became a man again. Choosing one opinion or the other is a personal preference, not an absolute fact. Academic opinion shifts back and forth in long cycles. Most modern scholars would probably say that the question is pointless because it’s too simplistic and there is no way to know. If pressed, most of those scholars would probably agree that Odin was a god whose myth continuously incorporated stories from other gods, from famous men, and even from Christianity, until Christian pressure suddenly demoted him to a mortal between about 900 and 1000.
Reliability of the sagas
Another problem is the reliability of the sagas themselves. They come down to us in written form, composed by men who knew the oral tradition. We can assume, broadly, that the written forms accurately report the oral tradition -- which is not the same as saying the oral tradition was accurate. There are problems, however. We find the problems by comparing one version with others. We can see differences in regional traditions. We can also see signs that the compilers sometimes misunderstood their material, signs that they sometimes forced disconnected pieces to make a connected story, and perhaps even signs that they were choosing between competing traditions.
For the early generations after Odin, there is no way to “look behind” the sagas. They are all we have for evidence, and they generally agree with one another. The fact they agree reinforces the idea that they accurately report the same oral tradition, whether or not the oral tradition was accurate.
The biggest problem with reliability comes in later generations. In pre-Christian times the Norse and Germans expected all kings to be descended from Odin. In theory, no man became a king unless he belonged to a family that was known to be descended from Odin. In effect, a king’s genealogy proved his right to be a king. In spite of the theory, however, there are signs within the sagas themselves that a man who became a king could find a poet to invent the right genealogy and prove his right to rule. The reasoning becomes circular -- if a man became king, that was proof he must somehow be a descendant of Odin.
Some known problems
Kings needed to have the professional guardians of tradition, the poets, make any changes because only a poet would know how to tweak the story. It wasn’t an easy task. Today, we can see (at least, we think we can see) some of the seams where the poets did a poor job of stitching together the stories. Most modern scholars agree that some of the following are obvious examples. Genealogical work around them needs to proceed cautiously.
- Cerdic (6th century founder of Wessex). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives his descent from Odin, but his name seems to be Celtic, a form of Ceretic or Caradog. Some modern scholars believe Cerdic has been grafted onto the pedigree of the Bernician royal family. (See Wikipedia, Cerdic of Wessex)
- Ragnar Lodbrok (8th century Danish “king”). He seems to be a composite figure based on the life of a famous pirate. His story has been extensively re-worked so that it is almost impossible to recover the truth based on what has come down to us. (See Wikipedia, Ragnar Lodrok)
- Harald Fairhair (9th century king who united Norway). The sagas seem to show there was a conscious political propaganda to present Harald as the descendant of all prior dynasties and the ancestor of all subsequent dynasties. (See Wikipedia, Fairhair dynasty)
- Rollo (10th century founder of Normandy). The sagas call him a member of the Yngling dynasty through the Jarls of Orkney. However, it isn’t clear that Duke Rollo was the same person as the Hrolf Rognevaldsson of Møre named in the sagas. Many academics argue strongly that the identification was probably either a mistake or an intentional fraud. (See Wikipedia, Rollo; Todd A. Farmerie, soc.genealogy.medieval, July 8, 1999)
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
Composed by the English monk and scholar Bede in 731.
Bede says that Hengist and Horsa "were the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vitta, whose father was Vecta, son of Woden, from whose stock sprang the royal house of many provinces."
- Hengist and Horsa (5th century)
Composed about 830, attributed to Nennius, a Welsh monk.
Nennius says, "In the meantime, three vessels, exiled from Germany, arrived in Britain. They were commanded by Horsa and Hengist, brothers, and sons of Wihtgils." He shows their descent from Woden as follows.
- Horsa and Hengist (5th century)
Composed in the 9th century, probably at the court of the Kings of Wessex. It survives in nine manuscripts.
Descent of the Kings of Wessex
- Brond / Brand
- Cerdic, 1st King of the Saxons in England, see the list of problems
- Cynric, King of Wessex
- Cealwin, King of Wessex
- Cutha / Cuthwulf
- Cenred, King of Wessex
- Eoppa, King of Wessex
- Eafa, King of Wessex
- Ealmund, Under-King of Kent
- Egbert, 1st King of England
Descent of the Kings of Mercia
- Icel, King of Mercia
- Cnebba, King of Mercia
- Cynewald, King of Mercia
- Cryda, King of Mercia
- Pybba, King of Mercia
- Penda, King of Mercia and Wessex
18th and 19th century scholarship
In the 18th and 19th centuries scholars rejected the idea that Odin was descended from Adam. They accepted the traditional idea that Odin was a man who had been transformed into a god, but re-arranged and rationalized the sources to create a purely Saxon pedigree.
The English had a particular interest in descents from Odin (Woden) because of their national origin from the Anglo-Saxons. This interest was heightened after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha.
One example of this genre is James Anderson, Royal Genealogies (1732), 69, 447. Anderson's work is the original source for many genealogies that later became the standard lines used by British and American genealogists. The line given by Anderson runs as follows:
- Harderich, King of the Saxons, A.M. 3914, before Christ 90
- Anserich, King of the Saxons, A.M. 4004, or A.D. 1
- Wilke I, King of the Saxons, A.D. 8, d. A.D. 30
- Swarticke I, Prince of the Saxons, A.D. 30, d. A.D. 76
- Swarticke II, Prince of the Saxons, A.D. 76, d. A.D. 80
- Sigward, Prince of the Saxons, A.D. 80, d. A.D. 100
- Witekind I, King of the Saxons, flourished A.D. 106
- Wilke II, Prince of the Saxons, d. A.D. 190
- Marbod, King of the Saxons, A.D. 190, d. A.D. 256
- Bodo or Woden, King of the Saxons 256, d. 300. He was their deified Mars. Md. Frea or Fria, his Queen, by them adored as the Goddess Venus.
- Witte I or Vecta, King of the Saxons, A.D. 300, d. 350 (son of Veldec (p. 69) or of Bodo (p. 447)
- Cacer or Cacera, the 2nd son
- Saxoneta or Seaxnod
- Witelgetha or Wethelgeate or Witholgiarus
- Weagdeagus or Webdeg
- Bealdeagus or Beldeg
Another example is George Fisher, A Companion and Key to the History of England (1832), 24, who used the line from Anderson. He says, "The first Saxon king we read of is Harderick, who died B.C. 90. The second, his son, Anserich, who died, A.D. 1. He was succeeded by Wilke I. who died A.D. 30. Svarticke I. his son, succeeded and died, A.D. 76, being succeeded by his son, Svarticke II., who died in 80. Sigward, son of the last king, reigned till the year 100, and was succeeded by his son, Witekind I. who flourished till 106. Wilke II., his son, reigned till 190, and was followed by his son Marbod, who reigned till the year 256. Marbod was father of Bodo, or Woden, who was also king, and from his warlike deeds, was the styled God of War amongst the Saxons. (emphasis added)
The German philologist and mythologist Jacob Grimm (1785 - 1863) was the first to try recovering the original story of Odin using academic methods. Grimm compared different versions of the surviving stories, with the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus (1st century).
Tacitus wrote that the Germanic people were divided into three tribes, who believed they were descended from the three sons of Mannus, the son of Tuisto. (Tacitus, Germania):
- Ingvaeones, along the coast of the North Sea
- Istvaeones, at the border of the Rhine
- Herminones, in the interior, around the Elbe
Grimm’s reconstructed genealogy was as follows (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, 348-49).
- Tvisco, identical with Búri, who was produced from stone
The most recent attempt to find the historical Odin was a project of Thor Heyerdahl, the 20th century adventurer. In Jakten på Odin (The search for Odin), he used both traditional stories and archeology in Azerbaijan and Norway to try proving that Odin emigrated with his followers from what is now Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea through Russia to Denmark, then to Sweden. Heyerdahl’s work has been widely dismissed by scholars working in the same field.
- Grant. The chiefs of Clan Grant claimed to be descended in the male line from Odin. See the Clan Grant project.
- Project Gutenberg, Heimskringla
- Sverre Bagge, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (1991)
- Was Odin a Genuine Human Being?