The Cailleach and Odin

Odin is a god I have had a good understanding for and with for quite sometime. When I first started reading about the Cailleach, I was struck by the similarities between these two … as far as I could tell, they could be brother and sister, just from the general descriptions. Both are fond of storms, both have a single eye, both are respected for their great age and wisdom, both are wintry sorts, are associated with death; and while Odin wields his mighty spear, the Cailleach is known to wield a wand. Clearly, there are plenty of differences; and I was prepared to dismiss the similarities as mere coincidence – in fact, I did dismiss them as coincidence for the better part of this past year. Then I read an article that caused me to rethink things … Odinists who lack a healthy sense of humor might want to think twice before reading further.The article I read, titled ‘The Scandinavian Cailleach – The Kæling / Kärring,’ by Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen, makes a very good argument for the presence of the Cailleach outside the British Isles. It was toward the end of her article, when she starts to describe the rise of patriarchy and dualism among the followers of the Æsir, that I was reminded of the stories where Odin was chided and in some accounts, even driven out of Asgard, for practicing ‘womanly’ magic. I am aware of instances in the lore where the greater pantheon incorporates elder or local gods into itself; and I found myself wondering if this story of Odin might perhaps be a remnant of a description of him assuming the Cailleach’s place?

The Æsir can shape-shift. At least Loki can change his gender (and Loki, as well, may be an adaptation from a pre-Æsir god). Njord is in some cases thought to have also switched genders, as some scholars think he may have originally been known as Nerthus. Odin is heavily associated with ravens and, among the more obvious reasons for this association, is the fact about ravens that it is very difficult to determine gender – crows are even harder, since males lack the standard masculine equipment. The point here is that gender lines among the Norse gods are not always rigidly enforced.

The start of the first war among the gods of the Norse was presaged by the way Gullveig was mistreated. While many associate her (or Heid, as she was called when reborn) with Freyja, descriptions of her could also match the wisened hag, in possession of magics and mysteries – the winter that can be killed again and again and will eventually be reborn. The attempts to kill Gullveig could also be aligned to the patriarchical tendency to reduce the feminine that Clausen describes in her article. Afterwards, it seems Odin winds up splitting certain aspects of his function with Freyja – most notably in choosing souls of the slain to populate their halls.

My question is whether or not there might be more evidence to support this idea. While Wodan among the Germans was clearly male – as he was among the Norse, the contrary of this is not what I’m suggesting here – it seems Odin’s functions and spheres of influence changed between the time of Tacitus and the time of Adam of Bremen. Is it possible, as the cult of Wodan evolved and spread, that it was Odin who would eventually supplant the Cailleach? If so, then some elements of Heathen lore become more clear.


One thought on “The Cailleach and Odin

  1. Pingback: Women of power in the Viking Age | Toward the Mountain in Autumn

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