Somewhat Familiar: A God of Many Hats

One question that I often see polytheists reaching out to - or being touched by - a deity for the first time asking more ‘experienced’ polytheists is “what are they like? What will they want of me?” Unfortunately, as if often the case with magic, this is a question that sounds far simpler than it is.

There is a careful line to tread when considering the relationship between yourself and a deity or spirit. On the one hand, you should approach it like you would anybody else that you were meeting for the first time. Express your boundaries and expectations, and don’t let them get away with any more shit than you would a friend, a lover or a person on the bus. Just because they are more than mortal does not mean that you should allow them to treat you with any less morality than anyone else you interact with. On the other hand, neither can you brush under the rug the fact that a god is more than mortal and their sense of right and wrong and self-awareness is different to any other you will have come across before. And that’s before you find out what hat they’re wearing.

It’s difficult for one polytheist to give another an idea of what to expect because no two relationships with even the same deity are the same. For example, simply amongst the Lokeans I know there are a few godspouses, one person who considers Loki a father figure, those who consider him more like a friend or mentor, multiple people who work with both him and his children/spouses and some who work only with Loki. It’s the same with the people I know who work with Odin, the ones who work with the Wild Hunt, and so and so forth. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense; put ten friends together in a room full of other people and the odds of them all knowing the others exactly the same way is more than slim.

Some deities, however, have an extra layer of complexity, and that’s what I want to touch upon today. There are two ‘strands’ of polytheism; hard, where in simple terms you believe every deity is their own person and soft, where you believe deities of similar domains in different cultures are aspects of one deity. It’s a little bit more complicated than that, and in my experience very few people land at the extremes of either stance. Regardless, going through sources and myths, it’s not uncommon to find a deity referred to by different names. In Norse culture, these are often called kennings, or heitis; poetic words or phrases that refer to a simple word, such as 'bane of shield' or 'wound-fire' in place of the word 'sword'. Deities are not immune to such heitis, and Odin alone has at least thirty.

One school of thought, however, suggests that these heitis are not simply ‘nicknames’ for deities so much as they are names for different sides of a deity. Depending on your thoughts on polytheism, you may believe that these are uniforms that a deity wears that change their behaviour and actions, or different branches of a deity with autonomy from one another. An example of the latter is Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ wherein Mr. Wednesday is undeniably Odin, but the Odin found in the epilogue is also Odin but not Mr. Wednesday. Odin’s heitis are as contradictory as they are many. He is Bölverkr, or Bale-worker, but also Óski, or Wished-for. The Odin that I know best is not the Odin that my close friends know, but is also not the only aspect of his that I work with. And sometimes, it can be difficult to keep that clear in my head.

In my experience, I have met what I consider to be two distinct Odins, one of whom wears a couple of different hats. (In fact, his heiti Hötter even means Hat-wearer!) My Odin - in so much as you can say you have possession of a god - is Grímnir, or Masked One. He is wily and secretive, and hides both his face and his agenda for the most part. But he has laid a claim on me, and we have ten years of experience working together. Grímnir has come to me as Gangleri, or Wanderer, in my lust for travel and my need to be on the open road. He has come to me as Fjölnir, or Wise One, encouraging and in times commanding me to study and to further my knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Recently, he has come to me in trance dreams as Hjaldrgegnir, Engager of Battle, and with this hat on our verbal sparring is more physical. All one deity, but many guises - just as he is known.

On the day we met, he did not wear any of these hats, and I only know that the Odin I met then is the Odin I know now by the claim he made that day. I do not know what mask Grímnir wore that day, but it was not that of a sparring partner or a travelling companion or a teacher. He came to me as the closest I think he will ever come to Alföðr, or All-father. On that day, I could not argue that I was meeting - or reuniting with - a god.

But I have also met another Odin, one who is not mine and was not Grímnir. This Odin was more threatening, somehow, and I was as unfamiliar to him as he was to me. Jölnir, or Yule-Father, came to me as a god of winter. Cold, unyielding, and dangerous. He replaced Grímnir, as if seasonally, and though he wished to deal with me he had no tolerance for my casual relationship with the former nor the stress that I was under. He knew of me, but sought a relationship more like vassal and serf, as opposed to one of collaboration. And so as you can see, even one polytheist might struggle to say what a god wishes of them, because even they may not be sure. I, personally, would not consider this a reason not to work with Odin, but as usual with him it does complicat matters.

Even the people close to me don’t deal with the same Odin that I do, although they share an altar and for all I know they may overlap, after all. When prompted, my husband says “I typically see him as one god with many hats.” Like me, he “mostly [deals] with Odin in his guises as a seeker or keeper of knowledge, and as the Maker of Journeys and Wanderer and keeper of [the runes].” But he and I are very different heathens, and he has “occasionally prayed to Odin as Draugadrottin, Lord of the Dead.” Writing this, I can wonder if perhaps I first met Grímnir/Draugadrottin, but I can’t say for sure. Odin is tricky, like that.

So what do I say when someone asks me “what is Odin like?” If I’m honest, though it’s not a relationship I would give up, my first words are always of warning. A warning to know which Odin you deal with and what he wants of you - or to at least be content in knowing that you are okay with ‘owing a favour’ so long as you get what you want out of the relationship. I warn beginners to lay down boundaries and to avoid oaths, and to ask for as much clarity as Odin is willing to give. (Which isn’t often much, unless it’s convenient to him.) And I tell them to me, he is many things and none of them, all at once. We have an arrangement, Odin and I, and I am content to find out what he wants as we go, but it’s not an approach I would recommend.

Be careful, and be open-minded, when you enter a new relationship. Be ready for your expectations to be turned on their head, and be ready to put your foot down. And if they arrive wearing one hat and leave in another, check out your hatstand and take notes.

You’re going to need them.

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