Odin, the Norse All-Father deity of war and wisdom, was an enigmatic figure often portrayed as a wanderer, traveling the lands of man and myth using various disguises and aliases to obscure his godhood. If, during his sojourns, Odin came across a worthy mortal, the god was known to bestow on them gifts. Recipients of these divine presents, however, needed to continually keep their godly patron happy, for the gifts often turned out to be temporary and the abrupt loss of Odin’s support could easily turn fatal for the champions of the unpredictable god. Odin’s gifts could come in different forms, from material objects such as weapons, to intangible aid in the form of advice or wisdom. And if his guidance involved military formations and tactics, he would likely include in the lesson special instructions for a wedge-shaped battle array.
Odin, according to myth and legend, spread knowledge of his wedge formation to chosen heroes he found throughout the various Nordic lands and kingdoms. In keeping with this, storytellers and writers from the Scandinavian mainland and Iceland both recorded similar tales of Odin teaching his champions the wedge array. In the Lay of Regin (Reginsmal), from the 13th-century Icelandic Poetic Edda, Odin appears under the alias, Hnikar, to recommend the wedge formation to Sigurd the Volsung (the Norse equivalent of Siegfried from the Germanic Nibelungenlied epic). Odin poetically gave the following battle advice:
“No man should fight facing into the late-
shining sister of the moon;
those who can see get the victory,
those who urge sword-play
and know how to draw up a wedge-shaped battle-array.”
(Lay of Regin, stanza 23)
For more specific information on what Odin’s favorite battle formation might have looked like, we can go to the writings of Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian from the 12th and 13th centuries. Within tales and traditions of the Danes, an early king of myth and legend named Haddingus was also said to have learned the wedge-shaped battle formation from Odin, who disguised himself as an old man stranded on a beach. Saxo Grammaticus described Odin’s supposed lesson in detail:
“[Haddingus] took the man on board, and was instructed by him how to order his army. For this man, in arranging the system of the columns, used to take special care that the front row consisted of two, the second row four, while the third increased and was made up to eight, and likewise each row was double that in front of it. Also the old man bade the wings of the slingers go back to the extremity of the line, and put with them the ranks of the archers. So when the squadrons were arranged in the wedge, he stood himself behind the warriors…” (Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, Book I).
Such, then, was how Odin’s wedge array might have looked, as understood by Danish tradition. How effective it might have been against an opposing army is difficult to judge, however, and the success or failure of the battle formation might have relied on the competence of the leader commanding the wedge or the quality of the opposition. Whatever the case, the wedge battle array somehow became associated with Odin and became a sacred formation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Watercolor illustration of Odin by Lorenz Frølich (1820-1908), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Danish History by Saxo Grammaticus, translated by Oliver Elton (Norroena Society, 1905) and edited for reprint by Douglas B. Killings (2012).
- Lay of Regin, an old poem which was preserved in the 13th-century Poetic Edda which was produced anonymously in Iceland. Translation by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford University Press, 2014).