This series, Godshapes, is intended as a resource for creatives interested in what ancient sources say about the physicality of the North Germanic gods—their shapes. Prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia (and to some extent after), the people of the region appear to have vividly pictured the many deities and entities that populate what we today call Norse mythology. For more information on Godshapes’ purpose and approach, click here.
Our first Godshapes entry focuses on a lesser known figure, one of the most difficult figures in the corpus to conceptualize: a god by the name of Hœnir. Hœnir’s case is a curious one. In the body of Old Norse narratives that come down to us today, the god generally lurks in the shadows, a quiet companion to other gods. While the record strongly implies that Hœnir was an important figure, what we are told seems cryptic and obtuse and lacks the clarity to confidently place his characteristics in context.
Hœnir is only mentioned a handful of times but these brief mentions are enough to raise plenty of questions, important questions that reach into the heart of the written record of the North Germanic peoples. And while many of these questions simply can't be answered, those that invest the time to draw from the deep wells of the corpus are rewarded with not only great mysteries but also colorful and vibrant imagery from the minds and mouths of the ancients.
Early in the 13th century, on the remote Atlantic island of Iceland, a book like no other was composed. This book is commonly known today as the Prose Edda. The author (and, in time, authors) of this enigmatic book drew from earlier traditional sources, such as the work of pagan poets, and appears to have composed the book as a manual for a fading art, the art of the skald—an individual who composed and recited traditional North Germanic poetry.
This ancient poetry, known as alliterative verse, focuses on the quality of alliteration rather than, say today's popular fixation with rhyme. Think more along the lines of Sally sells seashells by the seashore than a wise old owl lived in an oak, the more he saw the less he spoke.
Alliterative verse, as used by the skalds, is excellent for memorization and recitation. While the ancient Germanic peoples were not illiterate (they developed an indigenous alphabet, the runic alphabet, somewhere around the first few centuries CE), they appear to have placed a greater emphasis on oral culture. Poems were passed down from person to person, generation after generation, perhaps in the form of song or somehow otherwise performed.
This fixation on traditional poetry plays a central role in the Prose Edda, where Christian scribes put to parchment at least some of what they knew about their pagan predecessors, much of it no doubt derived from circulating oral culture. Surviving manuscripts of the Prose Edda are divided into four sections. Portions of two of these sections, Gylfaginning and Skáldskaparmál, are in some ways quite similar: the two provide prose retellings of scores of narratives from Norse mythology. They’re backed with quotations from various Old Norse sources, such as the aforementioned pagan poets. But Skáldskaparmál differs from Gylfaginning in that, as the section grows longer, it transforms into a series of metrical lists (called þulur, singular þula, in Old Norse).
These lists function as a sort of readily memorizable catalogue for poets and, like the work of skalds in general, appear to be carefully crafted. Skaldic poetry relies heavily on a poetic device called a kenning, a poetic circumlocution that consists of two elements placed together to invoke specific images, such as two nouns. Consider, for example, the famous kenning hronrād found in the Old English poem Beowulf. It's composed of two elements: hron, meaning 'whale', and rād, meaning 'road'. Together, these two elements produce an image: [whale] + [road] = [sea]. In other words, the whale-road is the sea.
Kennings are works of art. They evoke imagery, themes, and moods. They may also transmit information unmentioned elsewhere in the record. And kennings weren’t just for flavor: they're tailored to meet the structural demands of alliterative verse, allowing skillful poets to create ornate and complex constructions ready to set to memory. When kennings are chained together, they can also form puzzles with many layers, accessible to only the most lore-wise skalds.
A list of kennings used by skalds to described Hœnir can be found in Skáldskaparmál but its contents are, well, see for yourself—here’s what the source says:
Hvernig skal kenna Hœni? Svá at kalla hann sessa eða sinna eða mála Óðins ok hinn skjóta Ás ok hinn langa fót ok aurkonung. (Faulkes 1998: 19)
How should Hœnir be known? He should be called bench-mate, companion or friend of Odin, and the swift ás [‘god’] and long-legs and mud-king. (Hopkins trans.)
The word aurkonungr translates quite readily to ‘mud-king’ but a few scholars (such as prominent scholar Rudolf Simek) propose alternate explanations, including that the word may represent a kenning referring to a lost narrative of some sort.
A fast, long-legged, “mud king” sounds a lot like a water bird. Picture a crane, heron, or some similar creature wading about in a reedy pool, majestically plumed and ready to strike a passing fish. While Hœnir is rarely discussed today in Ancient Germanic Studies, the interdisciplinary field focused on the academic study of the ancient Germanic peoples, scholars in the field have commented on the bird-like implications of these curious kennings now and then since at least the late 19th century.
Hœnir is more explicitly associated with birds in another, later text. This piece, Loka Táttur, is from the Faroe Islands, a lonely cluster of 18 rocky islands in the Atlantic, triangulated by Iceland, Scotland, and Norway. Loka Táttur is generally dated somewhere around the 14th century, centuries after the Christianization of the islands, but elements of its contents ultimately stem from the pre-Christian era.
In Loka Táttur, the gods Odin, Loki, and Hœnir assist a boy in fending off a risi, an entity from North and Continental Germanic mythology. (Risi and related terms are often misleadingly translated as “giant”.) Each god helps the boy in a peculiar way: first, Odin helps by turning him into a piece of grain on top of an axe in the middle of a field; second, Hœnir assists the boy by calling upon swans before turning the boy into a feather on a swan’s head; and, third, Loki has the boy turn into a grain in a flounder’s roe before saving him.
Loka Táttur is poorly studied. No modern English edition of the text exists. Most studies handling the piece date from the first half of the 20th century and show signs of approaches that have long fallen out of favor in academia. These factors make working with the text difficult. However, certain elements of Loka Táttur reflect influence from themes that also appear in earlier texts, such as Loki’s association with fishing (compare his association with fishing nets in Reginsmál and Gylfaginning) and Odin’s widespread association with war, perhaps reflected by the axe. In turn, given the water bird-like kennings for the god in Skáldskaparmál, Hœnir’s connection with swans in Loka Táttur may reflect an association found in earlier tradition.
What’s in a Name?
Language is a tricky thing. Much like landscapes, languages change over time. Given enough time, they become unrecognizable. The study of the development of language is historical linguistics, sometimes referred to as philology, and it's closely intertwined with the development of Ancient Germanic Studies.
Think of historical linguistics as a sort of academic necromancy. By way of the scientific wizardry of the discipline, we know that the name of the goddess Nerthus mentioned by the Roman senator Tacitus in the first century CE is in fact the predecessor of the much later—and very dissimilar-looking—god name Njǫrðr recorded in Old Norse sources over 1,200 years later (for academic-oriented discussion on this point, here's a shameless link to an article somewhat recently published on the topic that happens to be authored by Hopkins).
Unfortunately, there are limits to what these methods can tell us about the names of, say, ancient gods. Hœnir is a good example. In short, the etymology of the name is not at all obvious. Comparative data, the ingredients necessary for the discipline to work its dark magic, is simply too lacking to provide any comfortable answer.
Yet the name still lends itself to some important observations. Namely, when students of Old Norse see the theonym (‘god name’) Hœnir, the morphological similarity immediately brings to mind the Old Norse nouns hœn ‘hen, fowl’ and hani ‘rooster, cock’. Given the bird associations in Skáldskaparmál and Loka Táttur, it’s not at all unreasonable to suspect that behind the name Hœnir lurks a meaning somewhere along the lines of ‘bird-one’.
Another factor to consider is something linguists refer to as folk etymology. A folk etymology is produced when people analyze words from a non-scientific standpoint and come to some sort of conclusion about them. This often occurs because a word sounds like something they’re familiar with. For example, English speakers have this process to thank for the development of the word cockroach: the word is an example of 17th century English speakers attempting to make sense of Spanish cucaracha, yielding a compound of [cock], as in a rooster, and [roach], a variety of fish.
In other words, it’s possible that the unknown author of Lokka Táttur may have associated Hœnir with birds simply because the god’s name sounds like bird words. The author may have had nothing more from which to draw.
Still, such a process could have happened during the pagan period and the case for associating Hœnir with birds seems strong.
Combined with the above kennings that imply some kind of mud-wading, long-legged entity, the image that naturally develops of Hœnir is that of a crane-like figure, a long-legged ‘king’ among the mud, whose name might have even meant something like 'bird-one'.
This image begs a question: should one consider Hœnir as a sort of bird god, comparable to the Egyptian deity Ra, a deity depicted both as a falcon and as falcon-headed? The notion certainly flies in the face of how the North Germanic gods are depicted today. For centuries, barring those that have taken highly abstract paths (consider the two highly abstract depictions of the gods found in Portland, Oregon: Thor by Melvin Schuler, 1977, and Mimir by Keith Jellum, 1980), modern depictions of the gods and various other figures from Norse mythology have are very clearly influenced by Classical art. Rarely have artists stopped and taken the time to consider that some of these figures may have been thought of in terms of animals or as somehow animal-like in their appearance.
The circumstances surrounding Hœnir also illustrate an important issue that artists hoping to draw from the Old Norse corpus inevitably encounter: with no secure cult images to draw from, artists are left to draw from complex, at times contradictory, references. If they decide to hark back to Old Norse texts, they must make sense of limited data, and potentially even risk exposing themselves not only to the criticism of scholars but also to that of adherents of Heathenry, the modern revival of historical Germanic paganism.
Yet how much should an artist care about the criticism that may come from these quarters? And when do these limitations become so paralyzing to the artist, this confusion and uncertainty that comes with the corpus, that they simply don't bother with it at all? These questions raise an interesting question: when do these various theories become, in a sense, canon? Could theories produced by scholars, potentially never receiving a conclusive answer, represent something of an extension of the figure? What's wrong with incorporating various, even contradictory, theories when depicting the gods and other entities of Norse mythology? After they've circulated for decades, don't these multitude of theories, in a sense, become a part of our understanding of these figures?
Considering the Archaeological Record
Say a creative decides to embrace the most common theory associated with Hœnir—that he is indeed to be considered a bird-god—and say that individual also decides to look to the archaeological record of the Germanic peoples for inspiration. Could any known objects depict Hœnir?
A few particularly relevant finds come to mind, including one of the most mysterious and outright strange objects in the ancient Germanic archaeological record: the Golden Horns of Gallehus. Before discussing the horns, it's important to consider a few facts about them. Here's a brief but informative write up from the Danish National Museum about the objects and their (utterly) bizarre history.
It's also useful to recognize that, while most of its images are simply baffling, some depictions on the horns have much later descendants, such as a horn-bearing figure. In light of Hœnir's potential avian associations, it's notable that one of the horns features a rather terrifying-looking entity with a bird head wielding what looks like a hatchet (see image above). Comparable beaked figures are found on Bronze Age Swedish rock-carvings dating back thousands of years earlier. One such example can be seen on a stone slab from the so-called King's Grave in Kivik, Sweden below.
A bird figure with a human head was recently discovered near Uppråka, Sweden (see this report by Videnskab.dk for images and discussion in Danish). Some scholars have been tempted to interpret this as a depiction of Loki. True, in Skáldskaparmál, Loki borrows a cloak from the goddess Freyja that allows him to transform into a falcon. But there are other considerations to keep in mind before accepting this theory. For example, shape-shifting into a bird doesn't seem particularly unusual for the gods in the narratives that come down to us (no less than four figures have this ability or perform this action). But is the Uppråka figure a depiction of Hœnir, bird-god? Somehow this object seems more man-transforms-into-a-bird and less the ferocious man-bird found on the Golden Horn.
These are just a few instances of anthropomorphic bird figures from the Germanic archaeological record. There are no doubt plenty more sitting in sterile storage units or buried in the earth, waiting to be found and analyzed.
There are other aspects to consider about Hœnir, such as his enigmatic appearance in Vǫluspá, a poem found in the Poetic Edda, a compilation of Old Norse poems. No one knows who compiled these poems and no one knows why they were reproduced in writing. The Prose Edda frequently draws from a lost version of the Poetic Edda. While the Poetic Edda dates from the 13th century, much of the material found within its pages originates in one form or another from far earlier periods. For example, some narratives in the book refer to figures who lived several hundred years before the first manuscripts of the Poetic Edda were produced, such as Attila the Hun and Ermanaric, a Gothic king. Other narratives echo clusters of motifs that scholars trace back to Proto-Indo-European religion, the reconstructed religion of the speakers of the linguistic ancestor of the Germanic languages (as well as the Celtic languages, Slavic languages, Romance languages, and many others).
No Old Norse poem has received as much attention as Vǫluspá. At its core, the poem is an elaborately constructed prophecy. But Vǫluspá manages to foretell the future while recounting the past, resulting in a hazy mythological timeline for its readers. In Vǫluspá, a seeress foresees that some time after mankind's creation from driftwood by a trio of gods, mankind will survive the flames of Ragnarǫk by hiding in a blurrily sketched forest. In other words, mankind was born from wood and, after fire sweeps the earth, mankind will be reborn from it once again.
Readers of Vǫluspá first meet Hœnir in events quite close to the poem's beginning. But time in Vǫluspá is perhaps best compared with a piece of string. While it has two ends, it may be tied together or looped at any given part of its length. Hœnir quietly stands at both ends.
In Vǫluspá, Hœnir is first mentioned as one of the aforementioned trio of creator gods. He accompanies the god Odin and another, hazily-defined figure by the name of Lóðurr. Each of the three provides a gift to Ask and Embla, the first humans. Exactly what these gifts represent seems rather metaphysical but each one animates the new beings in some manner. Hœnir provides the two with óðr, a noun that means something like ‘mind, feeling’ but can also mean ‘song, poetry’ (as rendered by philologist Geir Zoëga).
Hœnir is mentioned once more in Vǫluspá, towards the ‘end’ of its piece of string. After the destruction brought on by Ragnarǫk, in which, forest fire-like, the world is incinerated, deluged, and restored to greenery, the deaths of some of the textual body’s more commonly attested deities are foretold. Many figures are left out of the record. For example, the source material is silent about the fate of the multitude of goddesses that we meet throughout the mythology. Nothing is said about Hœnir’s role in the immense battle that brings Ragnarǫk.
But Hœnir is explicitly mentioned as one of the few to survive: after the world returns to its former greenery, Hœnir performs a form of divination (Þá kná Hænir hlautvið kjósa—translated by Carolyn Larrington as “Then Hœnir will choose wooden slips for prophecy” and Andy Orchard as “Then Hœnir shall choose wooden lots”). The crucial compound word here is hlautviðr—literally ‘lot-wood’, perhaps best understood as ‘foretelling wood’. The Old Norse noun hlaut is cognate to modern English lot, meaning ‘determining’ and historically ‘foretelling’ (consider the modern English word lottery, for example). This aspect of divination by lots is, like Hœnir's role at the creation of mankind, curiously echoed by characteristics of the god Odin.
A “drawing of lots” among the ancient Germanic peoples is mentioned over a thousand years before Vǫluspá and some scholars have drawn parallels between it and Hœnir’s actions. The mention occurs in a work by Roman senator and historian Tacitus, Germania, a first century CE ethnography of the Germanic peoples. While Germania is not exactly neutral by today’s ethnographic standards (Tacitus sometimes presents Rome’s neighbors in a romanticized hue), important elements of Tacitus's accounts have been confirmed by philologists and archaeologists, including theonyms and sacrificial bog burials. Brief as it is, Germania offers crucial insight into our understanding of ancient Germanic beliefs, practices, and society.
Practices of divination are known among many ancient peoples, not least the Romans. For example, the Modern English terms auspicious and inauspicious are used today to mean 'something looks favorable' and ‘something looks unfavorable’, and an auspice is a 'good omen'. The Germanic peoples weren't unique in this regard. Tacitus describes Germanic divination as follows:
“They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices [Latin ausipicia] and casting lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state's priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayer to the gods and looking up towards heaven they pick up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an understanding, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking the auspices [Latin auspiciorum]. The widespread practice of seeking an answer from the call or flight of birds is, to be sure, known here too, but it is a specialty of this people to test horses as well for omens and warnings…” (Birley 1999: 42).
Tacitus’s description sounds very similar to the ‘lot wood’ of Hœnir's manner of divination and highlights an association with birds.
There are many examples in ancient Germanic art and texts that associate birds with hidden or secret knowledge. For example, in Vǫlsunga saga, it’s only by way of gaining the ability to understand the speech of birds that the demi-god Sigurd is capable of seeing into the future: the birds warn him that his foster-father plans to murder him.
Hœnir is a curious case, a case perhaps best comparable to the difficulties and uncertainties of interpreting what we know of the god Heimdallr (the subject of our next entry in Godshapes). With Hœnir, we're presented with colorful mentions and implications but little concrete imagery. Still, the questions surrounding the god are food for thought: for example, should we simply assume all the gods of the North Germanic peoples were imagined as anthropomorphic? When encountering multiple interpretations of the material, how can creatives respond to constellations of theories? And how can competing—even contradictory—theories be reconciled in visual depictions?
English speaking creatives looking for further reading on this topic have limited options. For recent discussion regarding Hœnir as a potential bird-god, see the Íslensk orðsifjabók’s entry on the god's name at Málið.is (here—in Icelandic!). Otherwise, the handbooks of Rudolf Simek, John Lindow, and Andy Orchard feature entries on the god. All three provide useful references for further reading and many of these references hypothesize Hœnir as having been a stork-like figure or some kind of bird. Unfortunately, they're almost all from the 19th century or the early 20th century and very few are in English.
Joseph S. Hopkins is a researcher, an editor, and an administrator for Mimisbrunnr.info,. Read more from Hopkins here. Ross Downing is a researcher, writer, and prospective PhD. Read more from Downing here.
* Birley, A. R. Trans. 1999. Agricola and Germany, p. 42. Oxford World's Classics.
* Faulkes, Anthony. 1998. Edda: Skáldskaparmál 1, p. 19. Viking Society for Northern Research. Online.
* Geir T. Zoëga. 2004. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, p. 323. University of Toronto Press.
* Larrington, Carolyn. Trans. 1999 . The Poetic Edda, p. 12. Oxford University Press.
* Lindow, John. 2002. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, p. 179-181. Oxford University Press.
* Orchard, Andy. 1997. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, p. 88. Cassell.
* Orchard, Andy. Trans. 2011. The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore, p. 14. Penguin Classics.
* Simek, Rudolf. 1993 . Dictionary of Northern Mythology, p. 24, 156. D. S. Brewer.