Anyone interested in Viking history would know of Odin’s horn. It’s one of the most well known symbols of this era, including amongst those who only have a passing knowledge of who the Vikings were.
Odin, also known as Wotan and a host of pseudonyms, was the leader of the Aesir – the primary Norse pantheon. The divine leader was a core figure throughout Viking paganism.
His prominence has carried him forward in history, especially with the revival of Norse mythology in various forms of entertainment and active religious beliefs. And one such remnant of Odin’s past is the triple horn symbol now associated with him.
What are the 3 horns of Odin?
The triple horns of Odin are a symbol that consists of three horns stylized as arcs that intertwine with one another. The symbol bears a strong resemblance to triquetra and triskelion, though it is seen as a distinct variation of those designs.
The arrangement of the three horns is the same seen in triquetras, a network of three arcs that curve around a central point with each carefully arranged so that one of its ends touches the end of another.
The symmetrical design looks the same with every 120 degree, 240 degree, and 360 degree rotation. In the triple horns of Odin, one extended portion of each arc is snipped short so that they resemble a drinking horn.
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What do Odin’s horns mean?
The exact meaning of the three horns of Odin is not detailed in any of the surviving sources from near the Viking Age. Horns were commonly used as drink containers in the time of the Vikings. The most commonly ascribed meaning comes from the story of how Odin brought poetry to the Aesir and mankind.
This story is told in the Skaldskaparmal section of the Prose Edda. After the Aesir and the Vanir – another group of gods – finished warring with one another, they spit into a vat as part of their peace negotiations. From that unsanitary collection came Kvasir, a deity who was wise and intelligent beyond any other deity.
Eventually, two dwarves named Fjalar and Galarr ask Kvasir to join them for a chat. Instead of a good conversation, he got a quick death before the dwarves brewed him with some honey to make a special mead that contained poesy, the art of creating poetry.
It wasn’t long before the dwarves lost the mead to a giant – known as “Jötunn” in Norse mythology – named Suttungr. They had continued their devious ways by killing Gillingr, Suttungr’s father, plus his unnamed wife, and the giant had come for revenge. The dwarves offered him the mead in exchange for their lives, and he accepted the deal.
Suttungr had a brother named Baugi who had a farm and some thralls to work the land. After somehow gaining knowledge of where the mead ended up, Odin tricked Baugi’s thralls into killing each other, then he offered to do all their work for Baugi under a false name. His price was one drink from the mead of poesy (probably saying skol like the Vikings).
After fulfilling his end of the deal, Odin had Baugi help bore a hole into the place where the mead was guarded by Gunnlod, Suttungr’s daughter. Baugi agrees to help, but he instead attempts to backstab Odin. First, he lies about boring all the way through the rock, which would have left Odin trapped had the Asa gone inside.
Odin transformed into a snake to go down the hole after making Baugi finish it, narrowly dodging a blow from the giant as he slithered inside. Once there, he made himself comfortable with Gunnlod for three days. The time he spent with her likely played a role in her accepting Odin’s request to get a drink from each of the three vats.
While he did only take one drink from each, he managed to gulp their entire contents down with each one. Knowing he wouldn’t have much time, he transformed into an eagle and flew away. Suttungr discovered the theft and tried to give chase in his own eagle form, but Odin reached safety first and shared the mead with his fellow Aesir and humanity.
But Odin gave the mead of Suttungr to the Æsir and to those men who possess the ability to compose. Therefore we call poesy Odin’s Booty and Find, and his Drink and Gift, and the Drink of the Æsir.Skaldskaparmal
Although the mead was notably stored in two vats and a kettle, this story is taken as the most likely meaning behind the symbol.
Why are there three horns in Odin’s horns symbol?
The most likely explanation for the three horns of Odin comes from the story of how he stole a special brew of poetic mead from the jotun Suttungr. The symbol may also have come from Odin’s association with mead and the symbolic importance of the number three in Norse mythology.
Since the story of how Odin stole the mead is detailed above, here we will focus on the potential alternative. The three-horned symbol may have been a derivative of earlier triquetras combined with Norse mythology.
Given the symbolic relevance of the number three for divinity and fate throughout Norse paganism, the Vikings’ ancestors would likely have considered the triquetra sacred once they saw one for the first time.
Given the lack of sources from the time, there is no firm answer for its origins. We may never have a more accurate answer as to how the Vikings viewed the symbol.
Is Triskelion Norse?
No, a proper triskelion is an ancient design of three spirals centered at regular intervals around a center that’s seen across a variety of human cultures, but not the Norse. The triple horn symbol and the triquetra, an offshoot of triskelions made from three arcs that weave around one another, are two similar symbols seen in Norse paganism.
The triskelion and triquetra are somewhat similar, so there is an ample amount of confusion in amateur sources about which term applies. A typical triskelion has three spirals that meet in the middle. It shares the same symmetrical design as the triquetra, so rotating it will result in the same image.
Part of the confusion comes from its usage by the Celtics on the isle of Britain. Finding the true origins of the triskelion requires looking much farther into the past than the Viking Age. The oldest known triskelion in Ireland dates from 3200 BC, making the symbol at least as old as the first Egyptian dynasty.
What was Odin the god of?
As the leader of the Norse pagan pantheon, Odin’s domains were a vast collection of concepts that represented the core tenets of the Vikings’ cultural beliefs. That is, Odin was the god of warfare, victory, wisdom, poetry, writing, leadership, self-sacrifice, creation, the afterlife, guile, and bravery.
Odin’s connection with warfare is thoroughly reinforced from his first battle against the jotun Ymir to his final fight against Fenrir the Wolf. Warfare dominates Odin’s existence, as it did for the Scandinavians of the Viking Age.
Odin and his brothers gained their divine dominance by slaying Ymir, the first jotnar or frost giant. They used his body to create Midgard, the world of man. They took his bits to the Yawning Void that sat between the roots and boughs of the world tree, and there they used every last piece to make a vibrant world and the humans who inhabit it.
Illustration from 1895 of Odin sacrificing himself to himself by hanging from the world tree, Yggdrasil
Odin took on multiple sacrifices to gain more knowledge and power. He gave up one of his eyes to Mimir to take a drink from a well of knowledge, and he hung for days from Yggdrasil in order to gain knowledge of Futhark, the runic script. He also knows that his fate will inevitably lead him to death in the jaws of Fenrir, but he has committed to facing his end as the prophecies declare.
Throughout his many journeys, Odin would frequently take on fake names to help hide his true intent. This subtlety allowed him to learn much about the world and avoid direct confrontations until necessary, including when he stole the mead of poesy from Suttungr. While certainly not afraid of a fight, this tendency shows how he knew the value of employing guile when the situation calls for it.
Now, Odin is said to sit still in Valhalla while his Valkyries continue to select the bravest of those who fall in battle for the final fight. The idea of proving one’s valor in battle to meet the desired afterlife was prominent in Viking culture.
What are the signs of Odin?
For symbolic representations of Odin, look for the triple horn and the valknut. Other signs of Odin include two ravens, two wolves, and an eight-legged horse. Aside from these symbols, Odin was known for having only one eye and using a spear.
The triple horns of Odin are one symbol associated with the Allfather, but the Valknut and others are just as vital to know when looking for a sign that something is referencing Odin.
What is the Valknut symbol?
The Valknut, also known as Odin’s Knot, consists of three triangles linked together so that the outside resembles a single triangle with two off-set points. The symbol is strongly associated with the worship of Odin and has been found on various artifacts.
The triple horn has already been described in detail, but the Valknut is another important symbol for Odin. Like the triple horn, the Valknut features three shapes, but this time it’s a set of triangles. The triangles are interlocking, but they can be drawn in a few different ways.
The first two forms, Borromean rings and chain linked, are difficult to tell apart from one another. If you look closely at the links, there are slight differences in how the triangles join together. An example of the Borromean ring can be seen in the Stora Hammar stones.
In the next form, the triangular paths form an endless loop, as seen in the Tangelgarda stone. The shape is described as a trefoil knot, and it’s commonly seen in traditional triquetra.
Lastly, as long as the same general outline is followed, you might also see one of Odin’s knots with a fully filled interior. The three sets of dual points make the symbol easily recognizable without the interior designs, though it does limit the artistic expression.
Other symbols associated with Odin
Odin’s familiars are distinct enough that their inclusion makes it reasonable to assume the figure is Odin. They include two ravens, two wolves, and an eight-legged horse. His weapon of choice was Gungnir, a spear etched with runes.
The two ravens are named Huginn and Muninn. They aid Odin’s wisdom by venturing out to gather information and bringing it back to his ears. Their gift of knowledge to Odin is a key reason he can be so wise.
His wolves were named Geri and Freki, and they were treated to all of the food offered to Odin. The Asgardian didn’t drink, subsisting only on mead. The lupine companions were at Odin’s side when he hunted.
Odin sits atop his steed Sleipnir, his ravens Huginn and Muninn and wolves Geri and Freki nearby (1895) by Lorenz Frølich
His horse, Sleipnirr, is a beast born from the union of Loki – in the shape of a mare – with a stallion. The unnatural union produced the eight-legged horse. Unlike Loki’s children by the jotun Angrboda, Sleipnir will continue to serve as Odin’s loyal steed until the god dies at Ragnarok.
Gungnir, the spear, was said to have runes that made it possible for even the worst warrior to score a solid blow with it. Most depictions don’t have much detail on the spear, instead relying on other signs to show if a figure is Odin.
For a modern example of these symbols, check out the cover of Diana Paxson’s book on Odin. The illustration incorporates several symbols to clearly mark an otherwise nondescript figure as Odin: an eight-legged horse, two ravens, the Valknut, a spear as a weapon, and a shield marked with runes. The shield may be an allusion to Svalin, a sun-blocking shield that Odin marked with runes in the Sigdrifumol.
Did the Vikings worship Odin?
Given Odin’s central role in the Norse pantheon and his domain over several key facets of Viking life, it is highly likely that they worshiped Odin. The tone of the post-Viking sources and archeological finds also support the idea of Vikings worshiping Odin.
The Viking gods were both superheroes and divine figures who served as symbolic representations of Norse culture via engaging stories. Odin would have been particularly important for anyone who expected to die in battle, which the militant lifestyle of the Vikings invited as an outcome.
Archaeological finds from the Viking Age are unfortunately rare. Surviving runestones consist primarily of runes instead of other symbols, such as runestone DR 330 in Gardstanga.
Others have limited iconography or the inclusion of motifs from Christian theology. Even with this scant amount of surviving artifacts, Odin has featured in numerous depictions, such as the Stora Hammar and Tanglegarda stones mentioned above.
Whether or not Vikings casually invoked Odin in day-to-day conversation, as is often seen in media depictions, is uncertain but probable. Common sayings and prayers to the Asgardians likely existed when considering how common such cultural references are for any group of people.
Do people still worship Odin?
While the active practice of Norse paganism faded with the onset of Christianity, the Asatru revival of Norse pagan traditions has been ongoing since the 20th century. Since Odin was central in Norse paganism, some offshoots like the Odinists directly invoke the deity in their name.
Asatru is the preferred term for a religion that focuses on Norse pagan mythology. Some Asatru subdivisions are wildly different from others, in part due to the near death of Norse paganism nearly a millennium ago. All Asatru draw inspiration from the works of Snorri, so Odin is the Allfather to them.
For an example of Asatru groups that highlight worshipping Odin, there is the Comunidad Odinista de España-Ásatrú, or the Odinist Community of Spain. While certainly not the only Asatru community to focus on the virtues of Odin, it’s one that feels strongly enough about him to include his name in their title.
Is there any meaning of the horns of Odin in religion today?
Aside from the continued secular use of the symbol, the horns of Odin are an important symbol within the revival of Norse paganism known as Asatru. Other symbols associated with Odin, like the Valknut, also have religious importance within Asatru.
Modern interpretations of Norse paganism and Viking culture face the same issues that historians encounter due to the long time gap and limited source material. If the triple horns of Odin are seen in a modern publication by the Asatru or another offshoot of Heathenry, then it would likely have the same significance as the assumed meaning of ancient variations.
The Valknut has seen a stronger resurgence than the horns, featuring prominently as a call to the belief in Odin and the other Norse gods. With support like the runestone depictions of the Valknut supporting its connection to Odin, the core meaning of the symbol is easier to confirm and utilize.
What does an Odin’s horns tattoo mean?
All tattoos and symbols may have different personal meanings, but someone with the triple horn symbol of Odin might be referencing Odin, wisdom, and poesy. The only way to tell how someone interprets a triple horn tattoo is to ask them, but there are a few possible meanings if you see someone with one.
If they are using the accepted modern interpretation, then it could be a symbol to represent wisdom and poetry as blessings of Odin. They may also be using it as a general symbol of Odin without focusing directly on his wisdom or gift of poesy. Others may feel inclined to strip the religious element from the symbol and see it as just relating to wisdom and poetry.
Yet others may have simply liked the design when picking out a tattoo with no thought to the meaning behind it, or they heard a different interpretation of the symbol before selecting it. No symbol has a static or universal meaning, even unique ones like the triple horns or the Valknut.
Related: Did Vikings Have Tattoos (and What Were Their Meanings)?
Is Odin stronger than Zeus?
Zeus and Odin were both the leaders of their respective groups and had a multitude of powers, some shared between the two. Neither was an omnipotent core deity from a monotheistic religion, so the outcome of a direct one-on-one confrontation would be difficult to predict.
The Aesir of the Norse and the Olympians of the Greek were similar in many ways, as were their respective leaders. Each divinity had their own personality and domains, and they were seen as overwhelmingly powerful – but not invincible. That likely stems from their shared ancient origins.
For weaponry, Zeus had an endless supply of lightning bolts forged by the cyclopes, while Odin had Gungnir – a runic spear forged by dwarves that was so accurate that even a weak and untrained warrior could strike mortal blows with it. Both also had ample physical strength.
Shapeshifting was a common tactic of both Zeus and Odin. That said, Zeus tended to use his abilities to engage in very questionable behavior, while Odin tactically used his shapeshifting – such as when he used the shapes of a snake and an eagle to steal the mead from Suttungr. A battle between them could easily have portions that resemble the battle of Merlin and Mim in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.
With regards to personality, both were authoritative leaders who were seen as wise arbiters of justice, if strict and hot in temper. Zeus punished Prometheus for bringing fire to humanity, and Odin put a Valkyrie into a nearly endless sleep for disobeying an order. While seen as a god of wisdom, Zeus is far more impulsive and lacking in self-control than Odin.
Given those vague power levels, a one-on-one brawl between the two would be difficult to call ahead of time. Zeus might be able to throw lightning bolts from afar, but it’s reasonable to expect that Odin would have a plan for that. If their strength is close to equal, then Odin’s cooler head and dedication to battle might help him prevail.
Would Zeus or Odin win in a war?
The Norse Aesir and the Greek Olympians had similar stories and assigned powers, but the Aesir had a slightly more militaristic bent overall. Few wars can be predicted ahead of time, and this one would be close enough that the outcome could swing at any moment.
Outside of a head-to-head battle, both had powerful allies. Odin kept a retinue of warrior maidens who collected the spirits of the bravest fallen warriors to join him in Valhalla. The Aesir had a collection of powerful warriors like Thor, and the Vanir added their numbers to the Aesir after the Aesir-Vanir war.
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Zeus had some powerful Olympian allies like Athena and Ares, but he didn’t have an army ready to meet a second end in battle. There was not as much infighting between the Greek gods as some modern depictions show, though Zeus’s dalliances did result in stress between him and his wife, Hera.
They each had enemies who would be keen on taking advantage of such a battle. The Greek Olympians took their power from the titans, and the Asgardians frequently fought with the jotnar since they slew their progenitor. In any world where both Norse and Greek gods existed, their enemies would have a chance to cause havoc and muddy the potential results even further.
If both sides put their full might into a war, there’s no telling if there would be a world left afterwards from the amount of destruction unleashed. Luckily, that fight should never take place outside of fiction.
Final note on sources: As with all modern knowledge of Norse paganism, the primary sources are the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Heimskringla by Snorri Sturlson. There are brief mentions of the practices in the Arabic sources, but they don’t go into much detail beyond a few observed rituals.