By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
In Norse mythology, most men who are seen to worship or sacrifice to Odin in the sagas are conspicuously high-class. The best-known and most detailed story of a man hanged for Odin comes from the Saga of Gautrek, a series of miscellaneous adventures written down in Iceland in the late 1200s. Surprisingly, much of this saga is actually not about its titular Gautrek, and the part that concerns us deals with an adventure of the hero Starkath.
Saga of Gautrek
The Saga of Gautrek is based largely on stories from a much earlier time than the century in which it was committed to writing, as evidenced by occasional references to its characters in much older poetry.
The saga begins with Starkath, in the company of a certain king Vikar, together with his men, sailing north along the coast of Norway. They stop at a small cluster of islands for several days.
A hard, contrary wind begins to blow against them. Thus, they cast wooden lots in some form of divination. Unfortunately, the message they received was a disturbing one: Odin wanted them to sacrifice one of their own men in exchange for a favorable wind to blow them along on their way.
Out from the many who drew lots to see who would die, it was King Vikar himself who lost. Shocked and uncertain, they decided to sleep on it before following through.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
In the middle of the night, one of the men, a legendary hero named Starkath, was awakened by an old man he recognized as his own foster-father. The man told him to come with him on a small rowboat to another island nearby.
In the forest on that island, Starkath was brought to a clearing where an assembly had been gathered. Eleven people were sitting in a circle, and his foster-father took the twelfth seat and was addressed then as Odin.
Odin said that it was time to judge the fate of Starkath. Thor spoke up and said,
Because his mother chose one of the gods’ enemies to be her son’s father, rather than Thor, I decree that Starkath will have neither a son nor a daughter, and thus will be the last of his family line.
Odin said, “I decree that he will live three lifetimes.”
Thor said, “I decree that he will commit a shameful crime in each one.”
Odin replied, “I decree that he will have the best weapons and clothes.”
Thor said, “I decree that he will never own land.”
Odin said, “I decree that he will have plenty of money.”
Thor said, “I decree that he will never think it’s enough.”
Odin said, “I give him victory and outstanding skill in every battle.”
Thor said, “I decree that he will receive a horrible injury in each one.”
Odin said, “I give him the art of poetry, so that he will compose poems as effortlessly as he speaks.”
Thor said, “He will not remember what he composes.”
Odin said, “I decree that he will be the favorite of all the noblest of men and the best.”
Thor said, “He will be hated by the middle class.”
Then the judges declared that all this would come to pass for Starkath as it had been decreed, and the assembly was declared at an end.
Following this, Odin and Starkath went back to their boat. Odin said to Starkath,
Now you will repay me well, foster-son, for the good I did you there.
“Yes,” said Starkath.
Then Odin said, “Now you must send King Vikar to me, and I will tell you how.” And Starkath agreed to this, at which point Odin put a spear in his hand and told Starkath that it would look like a swamp-plant, just a reed, to any other men.
Then Starkath went back to where the army had slept, and a new day dawned. The king and all his counselors gathered in the morning light to talk over the situation.
They agreed that they would conduct some kind of mock sacrifice. There was a fir tree near them, and a high tree trunk near the fir. There was a soft, bent branch hanging down from the fir tree. They would symbolically ‘hang’ the king from that weak branch.
The King’s Death
The servants began preparing food for the men, and in the process a calf was disemboweled and cut up. Starkath then went up onto the tree trunk and draped the soft branch of the fir tree over the king. He knotted the calf’s intestine around the branch.
The king stepped forward up onto the tree trunk, and then Starkath put the intestine around his neck and then stepped down off the tree trunk. He took the reed and stabbed the king and said, “Now I give you to Odin.” And Starkath let go of the fir tree branch.
At that point, the reed turned into a spear, and it stabbed through the king’s body. The tree trunk he had been standing on fell away beneath him, and the calf ‘s intestine turned into a strong rope. The fir tree branch rose higher, lifting the king among the top branches of the tree, and he died there.
This story points to the fact that all societies are driven by the tension between the interests of the rulers, and the interests of the ruled. Odin is clearly the god of the rulers; Odin declares that Starkath will be favored by the ruling class. It also suggest a class consciousness that divided Norse society even in the religious realm.
Common Questions about the Saga of Gautrek and Odin’s Authority
Out from the many who drew lots to see who would die, it was King Vikar who lost.
Odin told Starkath that it would look like a swamp plant, just a reed, to any other men.
The Saga of Gautrek points to the fact that all societies are driven by the tension between the interests of the rulers, and the interests of the ruled.