A twisting (and sometimes twisted) exploration of devotion, seership, hearth witchery, and spirit work.
Continuing with my exploration of the Names of Odin in alphabetical order, He doesn’t have many heiti, or by-names, beginning with the letter D. However, the one we'll be discussing today is among my favorites of all of His names anyway because it tells us so much about the essence of who and what He is. It is generally translated as meaning “Lord of the Dead.” Lets break it down, though, and see if we can learn more from it than that.
The drottin part of the name means chieftain, or lord, and has a cognate in the Anglo-Saxon drihten. The particular connotation here is that of a military lord, the leader of a war band (from Proto-Germanic *druti). This implies the sort of kingship portrayed in Beowulf, for example; not necessarily a hereditary role, but one decreed by merit and ability, the man who is elevated to kingship because other men look to him and trust in his abilities, the ring giver and keeper of the web of oaths that tie a war band, a tribe, or a people together.
The other half of the name, drauga, means the dead, but here again a particular type of dead person is implied. In Germanic belief, the “ordinary” dead go to Helheim, where they are perhaps reunited with their loved ones and have a period of rest and rejuvenation prior to being reborn or going on about whatever work lies before them between lifetimes. Some dead, in my belief, go to the abodes of the gods they have served during life if those connections are strong enough and if the god desires their continued service and companionship. The Poetic Edda and Snorri’s Edda alike tell us that the battlefield dead are divided between Odin and Freyja, with Frejya getting first pick. (Ladies first, after all.)
But the draugr (singular) is in a category all his own. As depicted again and again in the Icelandic sagas, the draugar (plural) are “walkers” or “those who walk again after death.”
This is not a ghost in the way we would think of one; the draugr is, rather, an animated corpse, the undead, sort of a cross between the better-known vampires of eastern europe and the zombies of popular imagination (as opposed to Vodou zombis, which are something entirely different). A draugr possesses superhuman strength, can change his size at will (much like the Norse giants, who are capable of appearing “normal-sized” when they wish), and carries about him a stench of decay. He is often seen in the sagas as inhabiting his own grave mound, where he guards the treasure placed there at his burial and will fight anyone who breaks into the mound and tries to take it. But the draugr can also leave the mound at will by becoming a puff of smoke or by “swimming” through earth and rock. Usually the draugr appears to the living to be either hel-blár (“blue-death,” the color we associate with Odin, which can be a dark maroon as well as a dark blue) or nár-fölr (“corpse-pale”). Occasionally it can also assume the appearance of a living person, at least temporarily. It can kill a living human by crushing him, eating him (as in zombie movies), or—when in giant size—devouring him whole; it can also drink the blood of the living (shades of vampires). Draugr can torment animals by riding or flaying them to death. Some of them are immune to weapons, and while they are more active at night, they are not vulnerable to sunlight as vampires and dwarves are. They possess a range of magical abilities called trollskap, similar to the abilities a living sorceror or witch might have: seeing into the future, controlling the weather, and shape-shifting into the forms of other people or animals. They inspire instinctive terror in humans and animals alike, and they can drive humans insane. Some of them are jealous of the living, longing for the things of life that they are no longer able to enjoy. They can also enter the dreams of humans, and sometimes they leave behind a token to prove that the experience was not “just a dream.”
You may be thinking to yourself at this point, “This is pretty scary stuff, to be sure, but what does any of it have to do with Odin?” Well, plenty. Undertstand, I am in no way implying that Odin is a draugr Himself, because that is not even remotely the case. However, He is Draugrdrottin, or Lord of the Draugar (to give the title its more explicit translation), which means several things at once: 1) He is master of the Einherjar or “single fighters,” the living-dead warriors of Valhalla, who possess some (though not all) of the draugr characteristics listed above, 2) He is Lord of the Hunt, which is made up largely of beings who could accurately be categorized as draugar, of both human and non-human origin, and finally 3) He is, as Wilde Jaeger or Wild Hunter (a name we’ll probably get to at some point later in the year) the chief of an army whose task it is to hunt these beings—at least, the ones that get up to mischief with humanity—and return them to wherever it is they more properly need to be. Sometimes these miscreants are recruited to join His army of the undead, sometimes they are delivered to Helheim for some needed discipline, and in rare cases very evil or uncontrollable draugar may be destroyed or devoured by the draugar who serve Him in the Hunt. In summary, Odin as Draugadrottin is the chieftain of the draugar who have bound themselves to Him through oaths, and who ride with Him in the Wild Hunt. He is also the One whom the miscreant draugar fear. That’s right, they are pretty scary, but He’s scarier.
I had an object lesson in this early this morning. My alarm had already gone off at 5:30 but (as happens more often than I’d care to admit) I decided to reset it for 6:00 and get a little more sleep. I almost couldn’t fall back asleep, but when I did I found myself in a room, either in the apartment where we live now or a previous one. I was talking to Jo, who was heading off to the shower. She had only been gone a minute when she suddenly came back in and said “hello”–or at least, I thought she had. But when I looked up, the person standing there was not Jo; she had long dark hair like her, but her eyes were at once dark and a colorless grey. She was no one I know in “real life,” but in the dream I recognized her, and I suspect she may be a spirit I have dealt with before. In the dream, the very sight of her filled me with terror, even though from an objective standpoint she appeared to be just a normal girl. I deliverately went closer to her and swept my hand out, palm flat, in a gesture I often use to “knock back” spirits I don’t wish to deal with—but my hand encountered solid flesh. It did not occur to me, in the dream, to call upon Odin, or that the being before me might be a draugr. She laughed, and I began to scream. As often happens when jolting oneself awake, I woke up shaken and disoriented, but Odin was right there, and He told me what to do next.
In that state between sleep and waking, I reentered the dream and replayed it from the moment when the being entered the room and said “hello.” But this time, Odin was standing behind me and instead of going towards the draugr I simply waited for her to see Him. When she did, she was the one who began screaming, and He was the one who laughed.
In Voluspa (“the sayings of the seeress”), Odin is called “Terrible One of the Aesir.” In Ynglinga Saga (the history of the Yngling dynasty, of which He is named by Snorri as one of the founders) He is said to be a delight to His friends and a terror to His enemies. As gentle and loving as He can be when He chooses, He is also Draugadrottin, King of the Norse Bogeymen: the One Whom the living dead serve and the One Whom they fear. This name does provide quite a lot of insight into His complex and paradoxical nature.
Image credit: Odin by munashiibennu on DeviantArt
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