The Germanic Shaman-God Wodans
and the Gothic Word woþs
"demoniac(al), demonic, demonized, possessed"


The name of the highest divinity of the shamanism-cultivating heathen Germanic peoples from at least the time of the early Roman Empire until the end of the Viking Age was, in its modern English form, Wôôden (rhymes with 'broodin'). The Gothic form would be expected to be *Wodans (genitive *Wodanis, dative *Wodana, accusative *Wodan, vocative *Wodan), but the word is not found anywhere in the extant Gothic literature, which is all of Christian origin. It is here proposed that the divine name is very old, based on the adjectival root wod- with a varying -an-/-in- suffix meaning "chief or lord of" appended to this root, and declined with nominative Wodans, genitive *Wodinis, dative *Wodina, accusative *Wodan, vocative *Wodan, a name maintained in this form due to its use in the heathen Gothic religious cult.

The Form

The masculine adjective (strong and weak forms) and n-stem noun woþs are declined as follows:







n-stem ('weak')












































Weak adjectival flexion was used especially to express specifying and definite sense: sa woda "the possessed man," "the (or: that) one who is possessed" - cf. Wolfgang Krause, Handbuch des Gotischen #151.2, p. 173.

The weak (not the strong) form of the adjective was also used with the vocative: atta weiha! "Holy Father!" John 17:11, laisari þiuþeiga! "Good Teacher!" Mark 10:17, broþrjus meinai liubans! "My dear brethren!" 1 Cor 15:58.

Further, the Gothic suffixes -in- and -an- (from Indo-Germanic -en- and -on-), with the meaning of "head or chief of," are also found in several other Gothic words:

kindins "governor, ruler, ethnarch" from (unattested) *kinds "kind, lineage, (blood) stock; ethnic group, tribe, clan; child, offspring.

þiudans "king" from þiuda "people, ethnic group; nation." (In the Gothic Bible the plural, þiudos usually means "non-Jewish peoples, gentiles.")

Indirectly attested *drauhtins "general (of an army), warlord, commander of a *drauhts ('army, legion, host of warriors')." The root of the word is found in Gothic drauhtinon "to serve under a warlord, be or become subject to an army leader, enlist," and drauhti=witoþ "military discipline or service; warfare, war." Old English dryhten "(war)lord" and Old High German truhtin "(war)lord" are the same word.

This usage of the infix -in-/-an- (also found in Latin dominus "lord," originally "lord of the domus 'house'") indicates that the literal meaning of *Wodans was originally "Master of those who are, or of the state of being, woþs; chief of the shamanic realm." Since the Goths used shamanic effects especially for their usefulness in battle, Wodans came to mean above all "(Lord of the berserkr state," hence "Demi-god (Ansus) of Battle-Fury."

As to declension: the proper noun *Wodans would have developed very early, at a time when the difference between the -an- and -in- infixes were not yet leveled uniformly to one choice or another throughout all cases in a word ("Systemzwang"), but still varied by case. This *Wodans would then have retained an older, 'mixed' flexion, compared to þiudans and kindins:



































This declension of Wodans would explain a number of peculiarities, among them the e-umlaut of the 'o' still seen in the modern English Wednes-day.

By way of comparison, the Gothic forms of the names of some other pre-Christian gods and
goddesses including Thye ("Thunder"), Fry ("Love"), Frea ("Lord") and Free ("Lady") would be as follows:
  Tew Wôôden Þy Fry Frea Free
Nominative Teiws Wodans Þeihvo Friddjo Frauja Fraujo
Genitive Teiwis Wodinis Þeihvons Friddjons Fraujins Fraujons
Dative Teiwa Wodina Þeihvon Friddjon Fraujin Fraujon
Accusative Teiw Wodan Þeihvon Friddjon Fraujan Fraujon
Vocative Teiw Wodan Þeihvo Friddjo Frauja Fraujo

The Meaning

The only place in the Gothic of ca. A.D. 350 where the adjective woþs appears (in its 'weak' form, woda) is Mark 5:1-20, which is here translated from Bishop Wulfila's text:

Aiwaggeljo þairh Marku

  1. And they came to the far side of the lake to the territories of the Gadarenes.
  2. And just as He was getting out of the boat a man from the cemetery [us aurahjom], possessed of an unclean spirit [in ahmin unhrainjamma], met him,
  3. He had his dwelling place in the cemetery [in aurahjom], and not even with iron restraint-bonds could anyone bind him.
  4. For he had often been bound with irons bent around his feet and with iron restraint-bonds, and he loosed from himself the restraint-bonds and broke the irons on his feet, and no one could tame him.
  5. And constantly, night and day, in the cemetery and in the hills [in aurahjom jah in fairgunjam], he would scream [was hropjands], and beat himself with stones.
  6. Then, catching sight of Jesus from afar, he ran up and paid homage to Him,
  7. and, crying out [hropjands] with a loud voice, he said, "What is there between me and you, Jesus, son of God the Highest [gudis þis hauhistins]? I adjure you by God [bi guda], do not torment me!"
  8. For He was saying to him, "Depart, unclean spirit [ahma unhrainja], from the man!"
  9. And He asked him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is 'Legion' [Laigaion], for we are many."
  10. And he begged Him much not to drive him out of the country.
  11. And then there was in that place a herd of swine being pastured on the hillside.
  12. And all the she-fiends [allos þos unhulþons], begged him, saying, "Send us into the swine, that we may depart into them."
  13. And Jesus immediately gave them leave. And, exiting, the unclean spirits [ahmans þai unhrainjans], departed into the swine; and the herd ran and plunged into the sea. And they were, now, about two thousand, and they drowned in the sea.
  14. And those pasturing the swine fled and reported it in the city and in the countryside, and they came to see just what had happened.
  15. And they came up to Jesus and, seeing the possessed man [þana wodan] sitting and clothed and conscious - the man who had had the 'Legion' -, they became afraid.
  16. And they who had seen it related to them what had happened with the possessed man [bi þana wodan] and with the swine.
  17. And they began to beg Him to leave their territory.
  18. And he who had been possessed [saei was wods] begged Him, as He was getting into the boat, that he might be with Him.
  19. And He did not let him, and said to him, "Go to your home and your relatives and report to them how much the Lord [frauja] has done for you and had pity on you.
  20. And he left and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all marveled at it.

Quite noteworthy is verse 12, where the Greek has pantes hoi daimones "all the evil spirits" (masculine), and the corresponding (variant) Latin texts have either omnes illi daemones "all those demons" (masculine) or (the Vulgate) spiritus "the spirits" (also masculine), the Gothic translates allos þos unhulþons "all the she-fiends" (feminine), even though there is a corresponding Gothic masculine word unhulþa "he-fiend." The previously pagan Goths had much more experience with the female spirits of shamanism than with the male ones of Graeco-Roman religion. Thus, even though Wulfila follows the Greek in using the masculine ahmans unhrainjans for "unclean spirits," the "unfriendliness" and "unpropitiousness" (unhulþ-) of these dangerous otherworldly beings were considered of female nature, like the "hell-runners" or female devotees of Wodans among the Goths.

We can also note that the demoniac was "screaming" (was hropjands). This is certainly consistent with Odin's statement in the Old Norse poem Hávamál (#139) that, as he discovered and took up the runes during shamanic trance, he was "screaming" (aepnandi). The shamanic trance-cry seems to be a frequent characteristic of possession.

More instructive, however, is the fact that the possessed man (woþs or wods) lived "in the cemetery" (in aurahjom, literally, "among the graves," from *aurahs "sandy, earthen, gravely"). Since the unhulþons were controlling the demoniac and keeping him around the cemetery, it is fairly clear that these possessing spirits were the souls of the dead whose bodies had been buried in that same place. Thus this passage has a strong necromantic (i.e., of dealings with dead souls) element. Wôôden, as shaman, was above all a necromancer; the fact that the souls of the dead are controlling the "madman's" brain is thoroughly shamanistic.

Moreover, a cemetery which has existed for any length of time has accumulated a great many bodies, a percentage of which must belong to those souls who have not been able to find requiem, rest. Over time, this percentage is bound to grow in absolute numbers. It was, therefore, most probably the cemetery's portion of such souls which was invading the demoniac, souls who quite accurately answered that their name was "Legion," "for we are many."

The demonic fury of this churning throng is graphically illustrated by the suicidal downhill rush and drowning of the swine. It is this hell-fury which is meant by the term woþs.

Spirit possession and a shaman's "soul flights" are actually the opposite poles of the same spectrum: in possession, the spirits come to the individual's mind; in soul flight, the individual's mind goes to the spirits. In the first case, the spirits are in control; in the other, the shaman. These conditions are not sharply distinguishable, and the notions of some modern psychiatrists that shamans are inherently insane is only a reflection of those psychiatrists' social background, not the background of the society which the shaman serves. Whether spirit-possessed or on a soul flight, the individual is in an "altered state of consciousness," or trance condition, in immediate contact with the otherworldly foundation of being, a shamanic state which the ancient Goths called woþs.

During the desperate centuries of the emergence of the Germanic peoples from small tribes around the western and southern Baltic to the highly complex societies of the high Middle Ages, the warrior was the most critical factor in the life and preservation of the race. In a time of frequent genocides and subjugation into slavery of whole tribes, only literally supernatural help could make survival possible. Hence the ancient Indo-European and pre-Germanic *wates "shaman" (cf. Latin vates "soothsayer") was called upon to infuse warriors with divine power in battle. The followers of the *wates - in proto-Germanic, the woda - became known in the later North as berserkrs "bear-shirts".

But the demonic fury and power of the berserkrs were not the only service which the archetype and god of Germanic shamanism, Wodans-Wôôden, provided to his people. As is attested in many documents and inscriptions of the ancient North, he also taught them how to foretell the future by means of runes. In fact, the religious awe in which the runes were held made it possible for them to be used as the original writing system of the North and helped lay the basis for the acceptance of writing among the Germanic peoples. Indeed, the English word "write" originally meant "to incise, inscribe, cut in" (runes into wood or stone), and "read" meant "to consult or take counsel from" (runes, among other things).

Thus the contributions of Wôôden lie at the very foundations of Northern European peoples, including Russia, which was founded by the Scandinavian-Germanic Varangians. (The name Russia - Russian Rossíya - comes from the Germanic word roþs "rowing.. It referred to the main activity propelling the long Viking ships up and down the long Russian rivers.)

In addition, as the so-called Merseburg Charms (better: "Merseburg Incantations") of perhaps about AD 850 attest, Wôôden was also called upon to heal wounds, injuries and sickness. Such functions are a major activity of shamans in all societies which cultivate them.

And finally, the majority of Wôôden's devotees were women. Women are typically more psychic than men, and Germanic women accordingly played a larger and more respected role in Germanic society than the women of any other society on earth played in their respective societies. The fame of the norns is well known, and in the main the norns were not spirits but living women and shamans (that is, shamannesses or, in the language of archeology, shamankas). The same is true of those women who specialized in necromancy and were known in Gothic as "hell-runners" (halju-runnos) because of their psychic excursions to the realm of the dead. ("Hell" was not a place of punishment in ancient heathen thought. The word is based on the Indo-European root *kel- "to cover over, bury, conceal," and originally referred to the grave.) In the later North, female psychic assistants to the battle troops were known as the "choosers of those to be slain, or wael-kiries in Old English and val-kyries in Old Norse, which emphasized their connection with the world of the dead.

The great and paradoxical secret of ancient Germanic religion, thus, is quite simple: the ultimate source of life and power is the state beyond it, where the dead reside.

Germanic Shamanism

In later times the association of Wodans with the battle-rage of the berserkr warrior tended to restrict the word woþs  to meaning "enraged." There still exists an English dialectal word wood (rhymes with "mood") "out of one's mind"; and the cognate German Wut (pronounced "voot") means "rage." Adam of Bremen (ca. AD 1000), speaking of Wodan as one of the three high gods - Thor, Wodan, and Fricco -, enthroned in a golden temple in Uppsala towards the end of the heathen period, states that Thor's statue was in the middle, with Wodan and Fricco on either side. He writes:

"In this temple, entirely covered with gold, there are statues of three gods, which the people worship, so arranged that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber, while Wodan and Fricco have places on either side. The significance of these gods is as follows: Thor, they say, rules in the air, governing the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops. The other, Wodan - that is, "Frenzy" (furor) - wages war and grants man courage against his enemies. The third is Fricco, who bestows peace and pleasure to mortals. They make an image of him too - with an immense phallus.

"For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Wodan; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Fricco."

But the original, and always present and more comprehensive meaning of *Wodans was "shaman," and of woþs, "in a shamanic state of consciousness." This is attested in part by the word's close cognate in Latin, vates "soothsayer, prophet(ess), seer(ess)." It is also echoed in the fact that the original Latin name of the third weekday, "Day of Mercury" (Mercurii dies), was translated by the Germanic "Wôôden's Day" (Wednesday). Mercury (in Greek, Hermes) was the god who traveled between the realms of the gods, the living and the dead. As "soul guide" ("psychopomp"), he accompanied newly-dead souls to their final resting place, just as many shamans do.

Moreover, shamanry was an integral part of many early hunting and warrior societies (especially in Siberia), and remains so even today in the few such societies left. With respect to the noun itself, according to anthropologist Vitebsky,

"The very word 'shaman' comes from the language of the Evenk (Tungus), a hunting and reindeer-herding people of the Siberian forests."


"The word 'shaman' was introduced from Siberia into Russian literature in the less fanatical [i.e., than the Christian missionaries in the New-World] 17th century by the Russian Orthodox priest Avvakum. He saw the shaman as a religious figure, but one who serves the Devil rather than God."

The association of Wôôden with shamanism pure and simple is also shown by the fact that Odin began to be eclipsed by Thor - the god of the power of the elements - among the Vikings. (Cf. the report of Adam of Bremen that Thor was the central figure in the triad Thor-Wodan-Fricco.) These men were concerned less with general shamanry, of which war was a primary concern, than with the crops and weather - what we would today call the "economy."

On the geographical origins of Wôôden: in general, the name of the shaman-god may be said to have come from the Goths, who developed warfare into a fine art and subjected many peoples of the Russian-Ukrainian steppes to themselves. We know that the Gothic nobility was deeply involved in the religious cult of their people, so it is most probable that Germanic shamanry took on its characteristic warrior cast under their leadership. The great historian of the Goths, Jordanes (Getica, 24, 121-122) says that the above-mentioned female travelers to the realm of the dead, or "hell-runners" (halju-runnos), were banned from the Gothic army by King Filimer, who had led his army and people into "Scythian territory" (i.e., Ukraine and southern Russia), which would be about AD 190. The presence of these female shamans is a clear proof that Wodans was involved in more than strictly military activity, and that such women of the magic arts (magas mulieres) appeared at about the same time the Goths came into contact with the shamanic peoples of the east. (We know from Tacitus' description, of the Germanic seeress Veleda [flourished ca. A.D. 70], however, that women played a large role in religious activity long before this.)

Further, Saxo Grammaticus, writing in his History of the Danes about AD 1208, says, "Now the gods, whose principal residence was reckoned to be at Byzantium, perceived that Odin had tarnished the honour of this divinity by these various lapses from dignity and decided that he should quit their fraternity. ...."

And the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, writing in The Prose Edda, chapter III, narrates,

"Near the earth's centre was made the goodliest of homes and haunts that ever have been, which is called Troy, even that which we call Turkland. .... [Here a princely dynasty ruled from which finally arose] Fríallaf (whom we call Fridleifr); his son was he who is named Vóden, whom we call Odin: he was a man far-famed for wisdom and every accomplishment. His wife was Frígídá [in Gothic: Friddjo], whom we call Frigg."

Chapter IV continues with,

"Odin had second sight, and his wife also; and from their foreknowledge he found that his name should be exalted in the northern part of the world and glorified above the fame of all other kings. Therefore he made ready to journey out of Turkland, and was accompanied by a great multitude of people, young folk and old, men and women; and they had with them much goods of great price ...."

Finally, the Ynglingasaga (the beginning of the History of the Kings of Norway, or Heimskringla) says of the origins of Odin:

"2. Of Asgarth and Othin. - The land east of the Tana-Fork [i.e., the Don River] was called the Land or Home of the Æsir, and the capital of that country they called Asgarth. In this capital the chieftain ruled whose name was Othin. This was a great place for sacrifices. The rule prevailed there that twelve temple priests were highest in rank. They were to have charge of sacrifices and to judge between men. They are called diar or chiefs. All the people were to serve them and show them reverence.

"Othin was a great warrior and fared widely, conquering many countries. He was so victorious that he won the upper hand in every battle; as a result, his men believed that it was granted to him to be victorious in every battle. It was his habit that, before sending his men to battle or on other errands, he would lay his hands on their heads and give them a bjannak [benediction]. They believed they would succeed. It was also noted that wherever his men were sore bestead, on sea or on land, they would call on his name, and they would get help from so doing. They put all their trust in him. Often he was away so long as to be gone for many years."

All of these quotes show that the North considered Wodans to have originated among the Goths in contact with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium, "Turkland") and the Sassanian Empire of Persia (the land east of the Tana-Fork, or Don), i.e., from about AD 250 on, and before their westward migrations under the pressure of the Huns which started around AD 376, when the Ostrogoths in particular were still east of the Don (i.e., roughly northwest of the Caucasus mountains and north of the Black Sea. The renowned German scholar of the Goths, Herwig Wolfram, says of this period,

"...Cassiodorus [Roman writer, ca. AD 490-ca. 583] does correct himself by mentioning Ostrogotha, with whom at the end of the third century the Ostrogothic kingship of the Amali probably began. It has rightly been said that 'as soon as it [the kingship] becomes more clearly visible it bears all the traits of a kingship of the army.' Under its leadership the Scythization of the eastern Goths is completed: the armored lancer, who covered incredible distances and fought on horseback; the practice of hunting with falcons; shamanism; the adoption by the Amali [the royal clan] of the Sassanian royal vestments; in short, the life-style of the Iranian-Turkish peoples of the steppe became part of the Gothic world. This world is ruled by Ermanaric, the great king of the Ostrogothic-Greutungian army. His conquests and the extent of his dominion suggest a comparison with Alexander. Ermanaric committed suicide (ca. AD 376) because his struggle against the Huns ended in defeat. It is not impossible, indeed it is very likely, that Ermanaric's death had a ritual character and can be considered the king's final act."

It might be mentioned in passing that the Gothic words for "11" and "12" were not *ain-taíhun "one-teen" and *twa-taíhun "two-teen," as with fidwôr-taíhun "four-teen," etc., and so following the Indo-European pattern, but rather ain-lif (attested dative ain-libim) and twa-lif (genitive twa-libê, dative twa-libim), literally "one-left" and "two-left" (over ten), still reflected in English eleven and twelve. This innovation resulted from the Sassanian-Persian use of the ancient Babylonian-Assyrian numbering system based on 12 and 60, as still found in clocks, months and degrees in a circle (360° = 6 * 60 = 12 * 30, etc.), and was introduced into the other Germanic languages by the Goths as part of their cultural legacy to us.

Finally, Northern shamanry - the cult of Wodans/Wotan/Odin - has little to do with such romantic New Age concepts as pacifism, universal brotherhood, feminism, vegetarianism, or the desire to separate healing from sorcery (or "black magic"). As the shift in semantic emphasis from "shamanic" into "demonically possessed, insane with rage" shows, the Germanic root wod- reflects the socio-religious response of our ancestors to the urgent needs of life during harrowing times and merciless, fierce warfare. Wodans, the shaman of the Northmen, made the survival of our folk possible then. Now, when we are threatened with extinction not through warfare but through its opposite - through luxury, political propaganda and televised hypnosis -, we need him more than ever.

How can we accomplish this goal? To begin with, we need a means suited to our age and sensibilities, since we moderns no longer ride the steppes on horses or live in the primitive dwellings and covered wagons of our ancestors. Nor do most of us live on the battlefield. But we need to contact the dead and the depths of our own deep unconscious, as did our ancestors in ancient Germanic religion, as explained above.

The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, mirror-gazing. This is the method of peering expectantly into mirrors or mirror-like surfaces such as lakes, springs, cauldrons, cups, polished stones, etc. which offer a clear depth or void, while the mind is in a relaxed ("alpha-wave") state, to see, hear or otherwise sense images and entities from the realms outside of normal consciousness. The trail-blazing researcher in this area is Dr. Raymond Moody, widely known for his bestselling book, Life after Life, in which he recounted in a scholarly manner the reports of people who had come very close to death and returned to tell of extraordinary meetings with the dead and many other things. Many sceptics, rather than trying to understand these "Near-Death Experiences," or NDEs, have attributed them solely to insufficient brain oxygen or anything else they have thought would do, rather than to real paranormal events, however symbolically perceived. But Moody has pushed on with his research and published a book on his findings, Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones, in which he has shown that at least half of the population, even in our anti-spiritual times of today, can experience something akin to the NDE by relaxed and undisturbed mirror-gazing. It is important that the mirror be set so that one's own reflection is not visible, and so that one has the impression of simply staring idly into emptiness. In his own work, Moody has set up a rural retreat in which the conditions for such mirror-gazing are ideal. He calls his retreat a "psychomanteum" (accent on the "e"), the ancient Greek word for an oracle of the dead.

It was the kind of place to which the early Christian apostle Paul was referring when he was speaking of the Christian idea of heaven and said (1 Corinthians 13,12) "We look now through a mirror darkly, but then face to face." For in the typical Greek psychomanteum, the mirror room was dark, with only enough light to see the mirror and its clear depth, in which the images of the dead would appear. Incidentally, the Gothic Bible of about 350 translates this passage as "We are now looking (mirror-wise) through darkness at an image" (saihvam nu þairh skuggwan in frisahtai), a clear description of the process of mirror-gazing as it occurs in all cultures which use it to commune with the dead. The darkness is necessary not only for the lack of distractions it affords, but also because it eliminates the reflection of material objects in the mirror, and allows the reflective surface to show only a transparent void in which the unconscious mind can have free play. Anyone seriously interested in practical shamanism should buy and read Dr. Moody's paperback.

Only after we eliminate the overburden of centuries of Christianity (or "Judaeochristianity," as many today prefer) and the obsessive and spirit-destroying materialism to which modern advertizing drives us, will we be able to see the world afresh, beginning with the underworld of consciousness. Communication with those who have gone before is not the only benefit of mirror-gazing; even more important is communication with ourselves to throw off our neuroses. It is these neuroses of guilt, of hatred of the body, and of racial suicide with which Christianity, the modern compassion industry ("White man's burden," etc.), the Enemy through his mass TV-hypnosis, and the mind-warping drug epidemic which have blinded us. Only then will we, as the spire of the tree of evolution, see our true responsibility: to continue to assist that tree, with that spire, to remain alive and grow - whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes.

1996 May 18

Ðis article was written by Þeedrich (theedrich@harbornet.com). Last modified 1999 Dec 4.
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