Column: God as a Small Thing

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Bilden http://www.historiska.se/data/?bild=341354 som visar objektet http://www.historiska.se/data/?foremal=109043

Oden från Lindby. Bronze. Historiska Museum, Sweden.
Gabriel Hildebrand SHMM

The figure stands, unsteady and misshapen, only a few centimeters tall. It lacks its left arm, and its bronze form has become so weathered that I cannot easily read its face; the head rises to a point like an arrowhead, and two curving lines beneath the nose suggest a mustache. Its right eye is just a slit in the metal; a protruding oval marks the wide left eye. A nearby sign lists the figure’s provenance: Lindby, Skåne, Sweden, created sometime during the Iron Age – there’s no more definite date given than that.

Because the figure is missing an eye, it is usually interpreted as the god Odin.

I had not known this figure, Oden från Lindby, was in the Field Museum’s Vikings exhibit before I came face to face with it. It sits in a round glass case that formed one-third of a circle near the far end of the exhibit’s opening hall. In the hollow at the center of the cases, a projector displays a computer model of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology, controlled by a touch screen on the outside of the circle. For those seeking the vikings’ myths, this display is the heart of the exposition; beyond this, it’s all ship’s nails and broadswords, blacksmith’s tools and relics of the White Christ. But here, in this case, Odin Allfather stands, incarnated in an inch of bronze.

The Oden was not the only manifestation of the gods in this circle. The Vanir, Freyja and Freyr, appeared as well, and the exhibition featured several Thor’s Hammer pendants. But the figure of Odin catches my attention more than the others. Despite the throng of museum attendees circling the cases, I have to stop and kneel in front of the case for a better look. The fragility of the piece strikes me – the phantom arm, the worn-away feet. I wonder how it had even been found. Had the shovel gone into the dirt three inches in either direction, it could have been missed entirely.

The strangeness of seeing this statue before me, just a few inches away behind the glass shield, increased because I knew this statue intimately, after a fashion. A replica of it – made of clay from the sacred Ganges River, the manufacturers were always keen to say – has sat on my altar since I’ve had an altar. It’s not an exact copy. The replica has both of its arms, and instead of the original’s dilapidated feet has clay filled in to make a sturdy base. (Although the replica shares the original’s arrowhead skull, for some reason, the sculptor chose not to copy the original’s prominent nose, instead leaving Odin with eyebrows that seem to slope directly down into his mustache, giving his face a somewhat squid-like character.)

I can’t say when I came by this statue; perhaps as a Yule present, long ago, along with a heftier bronze statue of Thor. It began at the outer edges of my altar and slowly worked its way into its present central position, mirroring my own relationship to Odin and to Heathenry in general. I have carried it with me to Pantheacon and Reykjavík, a companion on my pilgrimages. The most powerful vision of my mystical career came while sitting in front of this little statue. If you were to ask me for the image that comes to me when you say the name Odin, it would be the face of this replica by firelight.

I kneel there by the case, struck by this figure which I both see every night before I sleep and have never seen before in my life, still caught by the size of it, the delicacy. A person could put all three of these figures, Odin, Freyja, and Freyr, into their cupped hands and still have room for the Thor statuette sitting in the National Museum of Iceland. These little fragments of the past, so unlike the monuments that have survived from Greece and Egypt. A few months ago, I found myself staring up with awe into the impassive face of a plaster cast of Athena Velletri, who stands ten feet tall. This Odin is not so tall as that Athena’s little finger. The feeling it inspires for me is not awe, but astonishment, the wonder that such a thing still exists to be seen at all.

When Christian preachers spoke against the ancient pagan religions, idol worship was invariably one of the greatest targets of their scorn. Augustine wrote in his commentary on Psalm 115, “For they have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and see not. They have ears, and hear not: noses have they, and smell not. They have hands, and handle not; feet have they, and walk not; neither cry they through their throat. Even their artist therefore surpasseth them, since he had the faculty of moudling them by the motion and functions of his limbs, though thou wouldest be ashamed to worship that artist. Even thou surpassest them, thought they has not made these things, since thou doest what they cannot do.” The heathen worships idols, but they are deaf, dumb, and dead; they worship rocks and mistake them for gods. Apparently such preaching was effective; I’m reminded of the legend of Thorgeir the Lawspeaker, who, after making the decision for Iceland to become Christian, threw his statuary into the waterfall Goðafoss, many centuries after Augustine.

But that particular line of attack feels like the worst kind of simplistic literalism to me. Of course the idol is not the god. Has anyone ever really thought that? Even in the most grandiose legends of statues with hidden levers and contraptions supposedly meant to gull the naive into believing false miracles, they were only manifestations of deity. Of course the idol is made of metal or stone; of course it is made by human hands. That’s the point. They form a bridge between the human and the numinous; they give us a focus for the invisible, a face for something that is, at its core, faceless.

This little statue of Odin – this little thing – is not Odin himself. But it is a link between me and the ancient heathen who once held it. Perhaps he or she carried it in a pocket, a reminder of their devotion, as I carry the replica in my suitcase. It is worn, a little broken, a little decrepit. But it survives.

I quickly kiss the glass, like an Orthodox Christian before an icon, and rise to let the little girl next to me have her time with the Allfather.

(The Vikings exhibit runs until October 4th at Chicago’s Field Museum.)