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The Battle God of the Vikings
by Hilda Ellis Davidson
University of York Medieval Monograph Series 1
Copyright 1972 University of York Medieval Monograph Series

Reviewed by Beau Salsman

       Hector Chadwick's "The Cult of Othin", provided the inspiration for this paper. The author, who was herself a former student of Chadwick, decided to write a look at Odin following in her teacher's path, but incorporating new archaeological, iconographic, and religious history evidence and theories as a way of updating what he had done long ago. What she has provided us with is a solid look at some of the more interesting theories concerning Odin.
       Beginning with a short study of the religious and social significance of the spear, including the history of the spear as a protective symbol, Davidson theorizes that the importance of the spear ensured it a place in the hand of Tyr, and later Odin. By the time of the Viking the spear was so identified with Odin that Ynglinga Saga states that as Odin was dying of sickness, he had himself marked with a spear; possibly as a way of ensuring his return to Valhalla. Davidson also points to the cases of prisoners of war and others being chosen as sacrifices through the use of lots and runes. This, plus the method of killing the sacrifices through hanging and spearing, give her reason to believe that these might be the primary reasons Odin came to be considered the rune-god.
       Ms. Davidson goes on to discuss the idea that the image of Odin as a rider that appear frequently on the Gotland picture stones are directly inspired by the Thracian Rider of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Romania. Scandinavian traders and fighting men are known to have been in these areas, and it seems likely that these men recognized the similarities between Odin and the local Hero God, and so began to adopt the iconography for their own use.
       The final section of the paper is devoted to looking at some of the evidence that suggests a warrior cult of Odin existed well into the late Viking age. Both the Byzantine Greek and the Arab writings speak of the ferocity of the Viking attacks. Leo the Deacon, writing of those followers of Svyatoslav besieged in Drista tells us these men were never taken hostage or captured because they killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner since they believed if they were killed their slayers would have control of them in the afterlife. The Arab writer Ibn Miskawaih validates this when he writes of a group of men who fought against terrible odds. When all but one of these men had died, the survivor, rather than be captured, climbed a tree and slashed at himself with his sword until he fell, dead. It is very possible Leo misunderstood the belief about the Viking afterlife, but was correct on their unwillingness to be captured, especially those followers of Odin who desired a heroic death and entry to Valhalla above anything else.
       While much of the material covered in this paper is also discussed in HRE Davidson's "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe", this remains a paper well worth reading. As with all of her writings, the bibliography and notes are extensive. I definitely recommend this, either alone or in conjunction with "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe".

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