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Óðinn as Cargo-God: a Suggestion from Beowulf

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Abstract

One name for Óðinn that has long produced disagreement among scholars is Farmatýr (“god of cargoes”). Some construe the name in connection with the equation of Mercury and *Wōðanaz during the Common Germanic period, while others construe the name in connection with kennings associated with Óðinn. Drawing on a passage in Beowulf to which the name has never been related, we propose that Farmatýr refers to Óðinn’s connection with the ship burial ritual and reflects an expectation that Óðinn would receive the cargo that was loaded onto funerary ships dispatched to the afterlife.

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Notes

  1. For the most comprehensive list of Óðinn’s names, see Price (2019: 62–68), which builds on Falk (1924), Orchard (1997: 188–189), and Simek (1993). Definitions of Óðinn’s names are based on those provided in Price’s list when not otherwise indicated.

  2. Gagnráðr is defined by Price (2019: 66) and Orchard (1997: 188) as “Contrary-Advisor,” but it seems likelier that the first element is gagn (“gain” or “victory”). We thank George Clark for his comments on this name.

  3. On the representation of Óðinn in fornaldarsǫgur, see Lassen (2022: 95–110).

  4. On the names used for Óðinn in skaldic poetry, see de Vries (1934) and Shaw (2002: 177–180).

  5. Our reasons for considering Farmaguðr an inauthentic and derivative name are explained below.

  6. The text and translation are cited from Dronke (2011: 123). When not cited from Dronke’s edition, Eddic poems are cited throughout by stanza number from the edition of Neckel (1983).

  7. For overviews of Óðinn that discuss these and other aspects of his mythology, see Davidson (1964: 48–72), Turville-Petre (1964: 35–74), Hultgård (2007) and Schjødt (2020).

  8. For further discussion of these inscriptions, see de Vries (1970: 28) and Simek (1993: 214).

  9. For explanations associating Farmatýr with Mercury, see Simrock (1864: 188), Speck (1906: 791), Davidson (1993: 48) and Simek (1993: 78–9, 212, 214). On the Germanic weekday names as translations from their Latin equivalents, see especially Green (2001) and Strutynski (1975).

  10. For further discussion of the possible rationales for equating Mercury and *Wōðanaz, see Davidson (1964: 140–141), Bremmer (1991), North (1997: 78–79), Rives (1999: 157), Schjødt (2019) and Lindow (2021: 4–5).

  11. For the text of Háleygjatal, see Poole (2012). For further discussion of this poem and its allusions to Óðinn, see Poole (2007).

  12. On the dating of Grímnismál and other Eddic poems, see the recent discussions of Þorgeirsson (2016), Mattioli (2017: 112–114) and Sapp (2019). Hultgård considers Grímnismál one of “the most reliable sources for pre-Christian cosmology and mythology” and states that “the inclusion of…Grímnismál in the group of pre-Christian 10th cent. poems is the predominant opinion” (2009: 531). On the dating of Háleygjatal, which is transmitted in both Heimskringla and Fagrskinna, see Poole (2012).

  13. The text is cited from Faulkes (1998: 5); the translation is cited from Faulkes (2003: 64).

  14. The text is cited from Faulkes (2005: 21); the translation is cited from Faulkes (2003: 21).

  15. Mikael Males suggests to us (personal communication) that the prevailing explanations of Farmatýr are, in fact, completely implausible. He points out that the farmr Óðins (“Óðinn’s burden”) kenning is attested only in Snorri’s prose, where it is stated that poetry can be kenned as “Odin’s booty and find and cargo and gift” (fengr ok fundr ok farmr ok gjǫf Óðins) (Faulkes 2003: 70; Faulkes 1998: 11). The absence of a poetic source for farmr Óðins raises the possibility that the kenning was invented by Snorri. Regardless, its poor attestation must raise doubts about the notion that such a kenning could inform the meaning of Farmatýr. With regard to the notion that Farmatýr is based on the galga farmr (“burden of gallows”) kenning and hence refers to Óðinn himself, Males objects that since genitive plurals such as farma retain their sense of plurality in compounded names, the word is unlikely to refer to the singular Óðinn. We thank Males for sharing these trenchant observations with us.

  16. For discussion of archaeological evidence for ship burial, see Shetelig (1904), Stjerna (1912: 110–112), Major (1924), Davidson (1968: 16–29), Hills (1997: 297–300), Brookes (2007), Larsson (2007: 265–300), and Price (2010, 2015: 285–288, 358–366).

  17. The text is cited by line number from Fulk et al. (2008); the translation is cited from Fulk (2010).

  18. On the intuitive monotheism expressed by the poem’s characters, see Donahue (1949, 1965), Osborn (1978), Cronan (2007, 2017), Pascual (2014) and Neidorf (2021).

  19. For the sake of consistency, we refer to this deity as Óðinn rather than Woden (the cognate Old English form) throughout the present paper. Though some scholars (e.g., Meaney 1966; Shaw 2002) urge that Óðinn and Woden must be treated as separate or even unrelated deities, there are many reasons to assume an essential parity between them. As H.M. Chadwick observes of Woden: “what little we do know of this god from English and German sources is in full conformity with the character which he bears in Northern records” (1912: 409). For arguments substantiating this statement, see Turville-Petre (1964: 72), Davidson (1964: 56, 147), Martin (2000), O’Donoghue (2007: 64), Schjødt (2019: 70) and Neidorf (2022a: 387–390, 2022b: 13–14).

  20. The text and translation are cited from Dronke (2011: 33).

  21. Viðrir is defined by de Vries (1962: 661) as “the one who controls the weather” (“der über das Wetter waltet”). The name is attested in Lokasenna (st. 26), Helgakviða Hundingsbana I (st. 13), Ragnarsdrápa (st. 11) Hákonardrápa (sts. 3, 10), Háttalykill (st. 73), and Krákumál (sts. 25, 27), among other places.

  22. On the mythology of valhǫll, see especially Hultgård (2011), who argues for the conception existing long before the tenth-century poems in which it is first described. For related arguments, see North (1997: 107), who contends that the mythology of valhǫll reflects “a common Germanic ideology…inherited by the earliest English kings.”

  23. The text and translation are cited from Fulk et al. (2008: 305–306).

  24. The behavior of Sigurðr Hringr conforms to a well-established tradition in early Germanic literature wherein elderly warriors prefer a violent death over a death from natural causes. For examples, see the discussion of this tradition in Porck (2019: 151–64).

  25. To be sure, the failure of Scyld’s ship to be burned is peculiar and implausible. The likeliest explanation for the omission of this detail is that Scyld’s aristocratic ship funeral is a euhemeristic innovation that has been introduced (by the Beowulf poet or one of his predecessors) into a traditional myth of a fertility deity’s mysterious arrival and departure. As Newton (1993: 48) writes of the Scyld episode: “Ultimately, it appears to be based on ancient fertility-myth but in the form in which we have it in Beowulf it is essentially a genealogical origin-myth, intended to provide an idealised beginning for the Scylding dynasty which is sanctioned by destiny, thus legitimising the family’s royal authority.” For further discussion of Scyld and his analogues, see Davidson (1964: 103–107), Fulk (1989), Tolley (1996), Bruce (2002) and Pollington (2011: 226–228). For further discussion of Scyld’s funeral, see Newton (1993: 45–53) and Owen-Crocker (2000: 11–42).

  26. See Davidson (1971: 6–7), who writes: “The dedication of an enemy host to Odin by flinging a spear over them with the words ‘Odin has you all’ was long remembered in Old Norse literature and there is evidence also for this practice symbolising the winning of new territory in battle…It is particularly interesting to find an early example of this use of a spear on a memorial stone from the island of Gotland, off the east coast of Sweden, dating about A.D. 500; here it can be seen passing over a ship (Plate 3), the conventional symbol of the journey of the dead to the Other World; the dead man is departing, it would seem, into the power of Odin.” See also Ellmers (1995) and Larsson (2007: 257).

  27. On the combination of strangulation and stabbing as an Odinic ritual, see Chadwick (1899: 14–20), Osborn (1972: 668–670), Davidson (1988: 66), McKinnell (2014: 126–127), Eriksen (2019: 154) and Schjødt (2020: 1179).

  28. For additional reasons to regard the ship funeral described by ibn Fadlan as “an Odinic affair,” see Warmind (1995: 134). Price (2010: 134) likewise remarks of the funeral: “The elements of sacred frenzy and ecstasy associated with, for example, the cult of Óðinn, are well known and may not be irrelevant here.”

  29. The text is cited from Aðalbjarnarson (1979: 20); the translation is cited from Finlay and Faulkes (2011: 11).

  30. The text and translation are cited from Finch (1965: 18–19).

  31. For similar views, see Major (1924: 128), Davidson (1968: 153–154) and Schjødt (1995: 23).

  32. For a text and translation of Eiríksmál, see Fulk (2012).

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Acknowledgements

We thank George Clark, R. D. Fulk, and Mikael Males for reading this paper in draft and making valuable suggestions for revision.

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Neidorf, L., Xu, N. Óðinn as Cargo-God: a Suggestion from Beowulf. Neophilologus 107, 413–429 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-022-09745-6

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