If (like me) you are a fan of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” you’re probably enjoying the new TV series based on the novel. While it’s no secret that Ian McShane’s character is based on the old Norse god, Odin, some might be wondering why he’s called “Mr Wednesday”.
The answer lies in the distant past, to the time before the country of England existed.
In the Fifth Century AD, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who crossed the seas to take land in a Britain that had been so recently deserted by Rome sprang from the same Germanic clans who also drifted north to Scandinavia and later gave rise to the vikings. They all spoke a similar language that came from the same root and they worshipped the same gods. Old English and Old Norse are sister languages, but though similar they already showed signs of diverging as the Roman Empire crumbled. For these reasons the names of the Gods varied in the different lands that these clans settled in.
Famously, the Scandinavians worshipped a god called Odin. Ancient, mysterious, a one-eyed magic maker, this strange entity who went by over a hundred other names was at once the god of war and of poetry. His gift was the homicidal rage that drove berserker viking warriors into a killing frenzy and also the trance like state poets slipped into to compose verse. A walking contradiction, some might say, his persona of a wandering old, long bearded man in a grey cloak, a staff and wide brimmed hat has survived into our age as the model J R R Tolkien used for the wizard Gandalf.
Another tribe, the Lombards, migrated from southern Scandinavia to eventually end up in Northern Italy. Due to a linguistic shift in consonant pronunciation, their legends speak of a similar deity called “Godan”. Fans of Wagner will know that the tribes who remained in Germany called him “Votan”. To the Anglo-Saxons who crossed to Britain, he was “Wodan”.
The Anglo Saxons became Christian centuries before their Norse cousins and though they have left us a rich literature mentions of Woden are few and far between, for the obvious reason that most of it was written by Christian churchmen with no desire to preserve heathen lore. There is a disparaging reference for example about how Woden made idols but the Lord made the heavens and the earth. However, there are enough traces of him left to be able to tell that Woden was regarded as similar in many ways to Odin, but also different in others: Very much like Mr Wednesday in “American Gods”, who is what Odin became when transplanted to another land and mixed with other rival cultures and environments.
While he left little in the written record, Woden left his mark on the landscape of England. The Norse revered Odin as wise, the seeker and hoarder of arcane knowledge and magic. The Anglo Saxons seemed to have translated that aspect into engineering ability. Finding earthworks and neolithic monuments beyond any building capability they possessed, their only response was that it must be the work of Woden and his “magic”. In the same way their medieval descendants ascribed the erection of Stonehenge and other seemingly impossible constructions to the wizard Merlin, the Anglo Saxons named the lengthy defensive dykes they came across in the South West of Britain as “Wansdyke” - Woden’s Dyke. There are multiple “Woden’s Burghs” - stone age barrows renamed as the “Burgh [fort/hill/defence] of Woden”: Wednesbury in the Black Country, Woodnesborough in Kent, a Wanborough in Surrey and another in Wiltshire, Wembury in Devon and a Woodborough also in Wiltshire.
Those familiar with the raging Viking war god Odin may be surprised with another power the Anglo Saxons seem to have ascribed to his English cousin. Two of the few literary mentions of Woden’s name are associated with healing. The famous “Nine Herbs Charms” from the Lacnunga invokes Woden as one who drives out poisons and infections. Similarly another Old Saxon charm uses Woden’s name to heal sprains, binding “Bone to bone, blood to blood, joints to joints, so may they be mended”.
There is an oblique reference in an Old English text to Woden as the one who invented “letters” or rather runes. That is something that he shares with the Scandinavian version of himself. This reference to Woden is in the prose “Soloman and Saturnus” which actually names him as “Mercurius the Giant”. We know this is Woden because going back to Classical times Woden/Odin/Votan has been equated with the Roman God Mercury. Roman writers did not name the Gods of the Celtic and Germanic people they encountered by their native names. Instead, by a process known as “interpretatio Romana” they saw them as local manifestations of their own, Roman, Gods and so named them that way. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Germanic tribes’ chief God (i.e. Odin/Woden) was Mercury. This is parallelled when it came to naming of the days of the week. In those parts of Europe heavily influenced by Rome and the Latin language, the name of the fourth day of the week is “Mercury’s Day”. The French, for example call it “Mercredi”. The Anglo Saxons called it “Wōdnesdæg” - Woden’s day, which over time became Wednesday, and this is where the name of Ian McShane’s character in American Gods came from.