Recently a cousin of mine was asking me about Norse mythology, picking my brain for good sources. In particular he asked me if there were any good images of a Norse god reaching out to a human follower. I imagine he was thinking along the lines of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, with Adam reaching for God, or if he wasn't thinking it, I sure was. Then it struck me.
Do we EVER see the Norse gods really reaching out to their (human) people, engaging with them in an open and hands on way?
Now, I'll admit I haven't read all the sagas (yet) but I can't think of a single instance in which Odin or any other Norse god employs real godly power or hoo doo while engaging with a human. In fact, thinking back on the Saga of the Volsungs in particular, I don't recall a mention of anything that might be a religious practice at all, unless you count the use of runes and potions-- but they don't ever seem to invoke a god. People seem to be acting very much independently of the gods above them, acting by and through their own human powers. And maybe that's all it is: the sagas as a triumph of man without need of the gods or godly interference, because certainly the Norse people were of a fiercely independent nature. But if they were so intent upon rejecting the gods themselves, why hold on so tightly to such a rich mythology at all? Why give Odin ANY role in the story?
So often we hear of some saga hero being a distant descendant of Odin somehow, but never really the details of the circumstances resulting in the bloodline. And Odin himself keeps to the fringe, the margin of the stories. When he does play a role, it is usual a suggestion, or a bit of shared wisdom more than anything else, coming from a disguised man who may or may not be recognized for the god he is at all. The kennings themselves contribute to this marginalization even further. If a reader does not KNOW the common ways in which a god might be addressed without calling him by name, they're likely to miss the god's part in the story altogether. It all just becomes so much window dressing.
Now, in the one respect, these kennings are a poetic device, and probably were used in the same way that Homer inserted repetitive stock phrases into the Iliad like "owl-eyed Athena" or "white-armed Hera" but what if they served another purpose as well? What if Odin's marginalization in these sagas and stories was a direct result of the Christianization of the Norse people? I wonder if in order to keep their gods, their stories and histories, their cultural inheritance, Odin (and his ilk) had to be removed and made a lesser character in the recorded texts, the kennings added as further disguise for the pagan elements of the story.
What if the character of Odin as the wandering old man, sticking to the fringe of society and rarely interacting in any large way, is just the result of trying to preserve the sagas and myths in a form which would not result in condemnation by the church and those who took seriously the idea that the Norse gods were devils and demonspawn? The Church certainly did not hesitate to wipe out writings of other cultures they found offensively pagan whenever they thought they could get away with it.
I have no real proof of this as yet, but the feeling in my gut that this is not out of the realm of possibility. Call it food for thought, if you will. And now I'm REALLY curious-- what do you think? And do you know of any stories where Odin takes a larger role in engaging with his people? Norse Mythologists, Please! I would love to hear your thoughts on this!
(See, this is why I should be in a masters program for Old Norse Religion. Right here.)