By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
Odin had an overriding quest for wisdom. In many Norse myths, he is seen as a conduit of wisdom from the realm of gods in Asgard. He is also known to have a better sense of normal human life if we compare him with Thor. Let’s consider this attribute of his through a poem about a powerful king and his two young sons.
Brothers Betraying One Another
The two sons, ten-year-old Agnar and eight-year-old Geirroth, rowed out to sea one day, but their boat was driven by a harsh storm wind, and in the night they wrecked on an unfamiliar island.
They spent the winter there, with the older brother, Agnar, staying in the care of an old woman, and the younger brother, Geirroth, staying with the old woman’s husband, who taught the boy some unspecified wisdom. And in the spring, this man gave both the boys a new boat, but he whispered something to Geirroth before the two boys launched off back toward home.
Once they had reached the shore of their home country, Geirroth leaped out first and then shoved the boat back into the water with his older brother still on it. And he also put this curse on him: “Go wherever the trolls take you!” The boat, with Agnar still in it, was lost to the waves. And when Geirroth re-entered his hometown, his father’s capital, he was greeted as the king, because his father had died in the boys’ absence.
Sometime later, Odin and his wife Frigg sat on Odin’s throne and looked out over all the realms. Odin laughingly jabbed at Frigg, saying, “Look how your foster-son Agnar sits and fathers children on a troll woman in a cave, while my foster-son Geirroth is king and rules the land.” Frigg was not without a stinging retort, however, and said, “But Geirroth is so stingy with food that he starves his guests if he thinks there are too many.”
Now in the stories of Norse kings, murder, or attempting murder, in a royal family is no unusual thing, but inhospitality is a horrific insinuation. So Odin defended his foster-son’s honor and called Frigg’s accusation a tremendous lie, and the two made a bet about it.
Frigg sent a messenger, her servant Fulla, to advise King Geirroth not to show hospitality to a certain stranger who was coming, who would be recognizable because no dog would attack him. Apparently a hallmark of the gods, this visitor would of course be Odin, but Frigg told Fulla to warn Geirroth merely that he was a malicious wizard.
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Tying up Odin
Now, soon after this, an unknown man appeared in Geirroth’s kingdom dressed in a blue cloak, and calling himself Shadowed-Face or Grimnir. Of course, this was Odin in disguise. Now we might find testing one’s guests by having one’s dogs sicced on them a little extreme, but Geirroth did take the advice from Frigg and urged his dogs to attack every unknown guest.
And when the man called Shadowed-Face showed up and the dogs would not hurt him, Geirroth had him bound up between two huge fires for eight nights, trying to get him to talk, without avail.
But Geirroth had his own little son Agnar by now—yes, named for the brother he might as well have murdered!—a son who was himself eight years old and took pity on the captive disguised god.
A New Addition to Odin’s Army
Little Agnar brought Shadowed-Face, or Odin, a full horn of mead to drink when the fires surrounding the prisoner had blazed up so high that his cloak was burned off. And then the man called Shadowed-Face, who was really Odin, began to speak. He started by telling little Agnar:
You will never be repaid
so well for one drink,
no matter how long you live.
Well, the reward little Agnar received was some arcane lore. Odin told young Agnar of other realms, and of the gods’ halls—most of which are in the gods’ enclosure Asgard, but some of which, intriguingly, were inherited from an anti-god parent and so are in Jotunheimar, the homes of the anti-gods.
The poem containing Odin’s entranced revelations of these distant places is called ‘The Words of Shadowed-Face’, or, in Old Norse, Grimnismal. Interestingly, Odin also provides a list of his own names that he has taken in disguise.
The so-called Shadowed-Face concluded his list of names by confessing that he was Odin, at which point his foster-son King Geirroth stood up to free him from the tormenting fires. But as Geirroth stood from his throne, his sword slipped from his scabbard and he tripped and fell upon it, becoming yet another weapon-slain man chosen for Odin’s hall and the inevitable combat against the great monstrous wolf at Ragnarok.
In a poem such as this, we see Odin as a dispenser of wisdom or knowledge, but still as the cold, calculating figure we’ve met him as before.
Common Questions about Odin’s Bet with Frigg on Geirroth
After Geirroth and his older brother, Agnar, were stranded on an island, they were in the care of an old woman and her husband. The man later gave them a boat so they were finally able to make their way back home, but Geirroth got out of the boat first and pushed it back into the sea and away from shore, practically sending his brother to his death. Since their father had died while they were stranded, Geirroth became king.
Odin appeared in disguise in front of Geirroth as a guest. But since Frigg had sent a messenger to Geirroth prior to Odin arriving, advising Geirroth to not be hospitable to a certain stranger which his dogs wouldn’t attack, Geirroth ordered his dogs to attack the stranger. Because they didn’t attack Odin, who was in disguise, Geirroth decided to tie him up.
After Odin revealed his identity to Agnar, Geirroth stood up to untie Odin. But as he stood up his sword slipped from his scabbard and he tripped and fell upon it. Thus Geirroth died and a new member was added to Odin’s army that would fight the inevitable battle of Ragnarok.