Odin in the ‘Saga of Hervor and Heidrek’


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

In the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, we read that once there was a dishonest man named Gestumblindi in the land of King Heidrek. The king summoned Gestumblindi to his court to answer for his crimes, but Gestumblindi knew he would lose his case. He prayed and sacrificed for help, promising to deliver great riches to Odin if Odin himself would defend Gestumblindi at court. And he did. What happened next?

Wooden statue of Odin against a scenic landscape and two flying falcons
To defend him, Odin changed his appearance to look like Gestumblindi. (Image: Drakuliren/Shutterstock)

Help in Disguise

Odin appeared on the night before Gestumblindi’s court date and took on Gestumblindi’s own appearance—one of the few cases where Odin appears in a guise different from his usual one-eyed old man look.

Odin in disguise then headed to King Heidrek’s court and appeared before the king. Refusing his right to a normal trial, Odin asked the king if there were any other way to resolve his case. The king said that if Odin could pose him some riddle he couldn’t solve, then he would rule in his favor.

Riddles that Aren’t Really Riddles?

Thus began a series of riddles. In fact, these are most of the very few riddles preserved in Old Norse. These riddles are certainly not all riddles from our perspective, and most of them have answers that are almost impossible for a normal person to guess, even though the mythically wise Heidrek guesses them all easily. Here is a prime example of a so-called riddle:

I saw an earth-dweller

from the soil,

a worm sat on a corpse.

A blind one rode a blind one

to the wave-filled sea,

on a horse without breath.

King Heiđrek,

consider the riddle!

This befuddles most, but of course, King Heidrek somehow guesses it right away. He says, “Your riddle is good, Gestumblindi, and I’ve guessed it. There you found a dead horse on an ice floe, and a dead worm on the horse, and all of it was being carried along in the current of a river.”

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Odin Hints at His Identity

Ironically, the one time King Heidrek does call a riddle bad, it’s the one time that Odin comes closest to giving him a conventional riddle that an English speaker today would recognize and have a prayer of solving. That is this one:

What kind of wonder

did I see outside,

before Delling’s doors?

It was harder than horn,

blacker than a raven,

whiter than a shield,

and straighter than a spear.

King Heidrek,

consider the riddle!

Heidrek said, “Your riddles are getting worse, Gestumblindi. Why would I need to sit over this one long? It’s obsidian, and a sun ray shines on it.”

Many of Odin’s riddles are also a little repetitive; three in a row have the solution ‘waves’. But after some time of this, Odin begins to hint at his true godly identity because he knows things that no one ought to be able to know. He asks King Heidrek:

What kind of wonder

did I see outside,

before Delling’s doors?

It had ten tongues,

twenty eyes,

forty feet—

and that creature walked.

King Heidrek,

consider the riddle!

The king said then, “If you are Gestumblindi, like I thought, then you are wiser than I anticipated. Now you’re talking about the sow out in the yard.” Then the king ordered the sow killed, and it had nine piglets inside it as Gestumblindi said. Now the king suspected who this man must be.

Odin’s Unsolvable Riddle

Now Odin posed a mythological riddle:

Who are the two

who have ten feet,

three eyes,

and one tail?

King Heidrek,

consider the riddle!

King Heidrek solved this, too, and said, “That is when Odin rides Sleipnir.”

Then, Gestumblindi gave him his last of the so-called riddles:

Close-up of a falcon against the blue sky
Transformed into a falcon trying to fly away, Odin was struck by Heidrek who managed to cut off his tail feathers. (Image: Kertu/Shutterstock)

Tell me this last,

if you are wiser than every king:

What did Odin say

in Balder’s ear,

before he put him on the funeral pyre?

King Heidrek said, “Only you know that, you vile creature.” And then Heidrek drew the Tyrfing and struck at him, but Odin turned into a falcon and flew away. But when the king struck a second time, he cut off his tail feathers.

Then Odin said, “For this, King Heidrek, that you drew a weapon on me and wished to kill me without cause, you will be killed by the worst slaves.” And after this, they parted ways. But sure enough, Odin’s curse would come true before long.

Common Questions about Odin in the ‘Saga of Hervor and Heidrek’

Q: Why did Odin help Gestumblindi?

After Gestumblindi was summoned before King Heidrek to answer for his crimes, he knew that he had no chance of defending himself. After Gestumblindi prayed, sacrificed, and promised great riches to Odin in return for his help, Odin decided to help him so he took on Gestumblindi’s own appearance the night before his court date.

Q: How did Odin defend Gestumblindi in court?

After Odin was brought before King Heidrek in the disguise of Gestumblindi, he refused his right to a normal trial. Instead, he asked the king if there were any other ways for him to defend himself. The king suggested that if Gestumblindi was able to give him a riddle that he couldn’t solve, then he would rule in his favor.

Q: What happened after King Heidrek found out about Odin’s identity?

Odin‘s help for Gestumblindi came to an end when he gave a mythological riddle to Heidrek which both parties knew he couldn’t solve. Heidrek had suspicions that were proven true after hearing this riddle. He attacked Odin but he turned into a falcon and threw away. King Heidrek only managed to cut off Odin’s tail feathers.

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