Guest Post: Odin and the Doctor
Fairly early in the process of writing this blog I realized that it was useful to have some prior context for a given story before writing an entry on it. And so I bought the About Time books, which are fabulous and were my anchor for several stories in the classic series about which I’d have had little interesting to say on my own. But I was also, early on, aware that I was eventually going to hit the new series and there would be no About Time to help me.
The solution, I realized, was to get a friend hooked on Doctor Who so they would blog about it and I could just take off on their posts. Unfortunately for me, the friend I chose was Anna Wiggins. The problem with Anna, you see, is that she is vastly more clever and intelligent than I can ever hope to be, and so when my blog hits Series Six, about which she has blogged extensively, I am going to abruptly be found out as the pathetic fool I am and all of my readers are going to, quite correctly, go follow Anna instead. Oops.
In order to ease the transition to all of you abandoning me in favor of my smarter and far cooler friend, I thought I should get a guest post from Anna about the relationship between the Doctor and Odin. And so I did.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, several Germanic tribes migrated to England. And they brought their gods with them. The British isles would be settled, resettled, and invaded by many peoples over the next several hundred years. The bones of Britain contain traces of dozens of cultures, and many of those cultures were Heathen.
To be clear, I’m using ‘Heathen’ in a fairly specific and uncommon sense. Prior to the encroachment of Christianity, a similar worldview and set of religious beliefs was practiced widely across Northern Europe and Scandinavia. The Romans termed these people ‘heathen’. So, I am using the term ‘Heathen’ to refer to this basic religious system, which largely included the same gods, myths, and folk legends. The more commonly known term for this religious system and worldview is ‘Norse’, as in ‘Norse Mythology’. But that is a misnomer – in practice, the same basic set of beliefs and practices held sway throughout northern Europe, and included, at various times, various parts of the British Isles. (I will also mention ‘modern Heathenry’ in the course of this entry – which is a reference to the reconstructionist religion that revives the worship of the Heathen gods)
And so, in the late 1980s, Doctor Who began to draw on these Heathen bones of British culture. The Seventh Doctor was cast as an explicitly Odinic figure, and this vision of the Doctor operating in a Heathen mode would have a lasting influence on the show.
Odin is widely known as the ‘chief god’ of the Heathen pantheon, and as a ‘god of war’ and, if you have a particularly verbose summary on hand, maybe a ‘god of secrets’ or a ‘god of wisdom’. And this strikes at a common misconception about polytheism: that the gods are archetypal representations of natural phenomena and abstract concepts. That a particular deity can be succinctly defined as “the god of” war or fertility or the ocean or anything else. But the reality is that gods are bigger than that. They are complicated and contradictory and bigger on the inside. In other words, they are people.
So let’s look at who Odin is, as a person. Odin is a leader, yes – but he is frequently an absent leader. He wanders the worlds searching for knowledge, often disguised. In fact, ‘wanderer’ is probably the best single word to describe Odin; before he is anything else, he is a wanderer and a seeker after knowledge. He also manipulates events to suit himself, and frequently deceives people to get what he needs or wants – often, this involves tricking people into giving him knowledge.
The Doctor, of course, is also primarily defined as a wanderer, and the Seventh Doctor in particular also manipulates people for his own ends. This is remarked on often enough, with the best example I’ve found being from the New Adventures novel Conundrum:
“But that’s the whole point, though, isn’t it?” said Ace. “To the Doctor, it did mean nothing. J0ust another of his games, another upset in the universe to be dealt with and then chucked.”
This sort of manipulation for the greater good (for some value of ‘good’) also defines Odin. There is a pervasive sense in the Heathen lore that there is some greater purpose to Odin’s actions, but this purpose is never revealed. The Seventh Doctor gives the same impression, especially in the New Adventures. So the Doctor manipulates people and events Odin. To argue that this is an explicit characterization, though, we turn to the iconography of the Seventh Doctor.
In terms of iconography, the connections between the Seventh Doctor and Odin are pretty straightforward. In The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the Doctor is represented as the Hanged Man, and fights the Gods of Ragnarök, who communicate with our world via an eye at the bottom of a well. The Curse of Fenric speaks well enough for itself, with Fenric being one potentially anglicization of the monstrous wolf more commonly known as Fenrir. “Let the chains of Fenric shatter,” of course, is a reference to the events that occur during Ragnarök:
festr mun slitna, en freki rennabond shall rent, and the greedy wolf run
And, of course, is case the connection wasn’t explicit enough, Paul Cornell cinches it. In Timewyrm: Revelation, we find the Fifth Doctor hanging from an ash tree in the Doctor’s unconscious mind, complete with a wound in his side. This is the most iconic image of Odin on offer.
Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði áI know that I hung on a windy tree
nætr allar níuNine full nights,
geiri undaðr ok gefinn Óðnispear-pierced and sacrificed to Odin
sjalfr sjölfum mérmyself to myself
á þeim meiði es manngi veiton that tree which no man knows
hvers hánn af rótum renn.from where its roots run.
Of course, the fact that this is the Fifth Doctor is somewhat odd, since it is the Seventh Doctor who is so obviously an Odinic figure. The obvious answer is that to some extent, Doctor Who has always been indebted to the Heathen legacy in British culture. Surely if the Seventh Doctor is Odin, then the Fifth Doctor, who encountered the Vanir after all, is also Odin.
The scene with the Doctor on the tree also evokes Niðhöggr (in the form of the Timewyrm) and the runes: “Above the man, the three runes that Ace had recognized as the Doctor’s signature were carved on the tree, brought together as one sign.” It is notable that the entire reason Odin hung on the tree was to discover the runes:
Nýsta ek niðr,Downward I peered,
nam ek upp rúnar – öpandi nam –I took up the runes – screaming I took them –
fell ek aptr þaðan.Then I fell back from there.
So, in light of that, let’s discuss the Doctor’s runes in more detail: “Ahead of her a final door was glowing, etched with three runes: a square spiral, a bent “S” and a horizontal bowl.” If we take some minor liberties with the ‘square spiral’, these could easily be Ing, Sowilo, and PerÞo. Which would be a bit unpronounceable as an actual word (ngsp), but is interesting nonetheless. The runes have literal meanings in addition to basic pronunciations, which are enumerated in a series of Rune Poems. These meanings form the basis of a magical system that dates back to at least the Viking Age (which is to say, the Icelandic sagas reference rune magic).
Taking up the Doctor’s runes, then. Ing has associations with the sort of active energy that evokes change. To frame it in terms of this blog, it is Mercury. Sowilo is straightforwardly the sun, light shining into the darkness. To quote Paul Cornell, “the storm in the heart of the sun”. And Perþo, well… the meaning of Perþo isn’t precisely known, because the word does not occur anywhere outside of the rune poem. Based on the poem, however, it seems to have connections with games and, more broadly, with fate. So, it is a nameless agent of fate that manipulates reality like a chess board. Really, it was nice of the classical Heathens to provide us with a perfect metaphor for the Doctor like that.
There are some differences, of course, between the Seventh Doctor and Odin. These aren’t necessarily a problem – legends get corrupted over time. But some of them are worth noting. The Doctor on the Tree isn’t hanging there to discover the secrets of the universe, he is there because having a conscience was inconvenient. Odin doesn’t bind Fenrir, Týr does (although to be fair, ‘he pulled bones from the desert sand and carved them into chess pieces’ is exactly Odin). Also, and most noteworthy, when Fenrir’s bonds break, Fenrir defeats Odin, and Ragnarök comes. Which didn’t happen with Fenric and the Doctor.
Except, of course, that it did. After only one more story, Doctor Who went off the air. The Curse of Fenric heralded Ragnarök after all. Sure, the series would survive as a line of novels for the dedicated fans, but Doctor Who, in the cultural fabric of Britain, was dead, a thing of the past.
Except, of course, that it didn’t. The Doctor survived, escaped from the belly of the wolf, hid from his fate in the form of a series of novels, and comes back on the air in 2005. And here is where our story ends, because he’s no longer the seventh Doctor, and thus no longer an Odinic figure.
Well, not quite. Because even though some of the more overtly Odinic elements are gone, the Doctor still draws parallels to Heathen lore throughout the new series. So, let’s skip ahead and talk about the new series, the world after Ragnarök. Because Ragnarök, in the Heathen tradition, is not the end of all things. The world does not end, although many people die and many things change. The world endures, but at a steep price.
A common line of thought in modern Heathenry is that Ragnarök is a cyclic event, a destruction and renewal. Ragnarök, in other words, is indistinguishable from a Whittakerian narrative collapse. Or from the Doctor’s regeneration. In this sense, there has been a Heathen thread in the narrative of Doctor Who sense the very first narrative collapse story, which is brought to light by the more explicitly Heathen stories of the Seventh Doctor.
So here the history of Doctor Who becomes, itself, a narrative collapse, a Ragnarök. The series is cancelled, but it survives, returning to the air 16 years later. On the mythological front, at least three of the sons of Odin survive Ragnarök: Baldr, Váli, and Viðarr. And all three of these figures seem to inform the new series. Viðarr slays Fenrir at the end of Ragnarök, avenging the death of Odin and saving the world from being completely devoured. He then survives Ragnarök. This, then, is the Ninth Doctor, the Doctor of the Time War who heralds the return of the show. Váli is born when Baldr is killed, and his sole purpose is to avenge this death. While there is no direct parallel in Doctor Who, the half-human Doctor created by Donna Noble echoes this figure strongly. After all, “He was born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge.”
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Baldr. Taking the show as a whole, Baldr is altogether a better figure to compare the Doctor to than Odin. He is a champion of truth, the “shining God”. And he is killed by a friend, who is in turn being manipulated by someone else. Except his death is not permanent – he returns to the land of the living. This is the Eleventh Doctor, and in particular Series Six can be read as a fairly straightforward retelling of the death of Baldr. The central myth of Baldr, in fact, is his death. He is killed by Loki, although the actual killing is done by his brother Höðr, who is tricked into the act.
But the Eleventh Doctor also has a lot of Odinic tendencies. He manipulates, and lies, and always seems to be searching for knowledge that will be useful to him (and specifically knowledge of his own death). But then, Baldr is Odin’s son. There are bound to be some similarities.
And more broadly, even with the evidence of Series Six there isn’t any impression that the new series is written with an explicitly Heathen iconography the way that the Seventh Doctor stories were. And yet Heathen themes persist, because the new series is built most visibly from the groundwork laid down in the Seventh Doctor’s era. And that era invoked the Heathen myths in the bones of British culture. Of course those bones didn’t just settle back down; they have been carved into chess pieces, and the Doctor can’t resist a game of chess.
August 20, 2012 @ 2:04 am
Interesting use of the Goth-rooted word "heathen" rather than the arguably more common Latin-founded term "pagan"- especially as you said that the Romans called them "heathen". Etymologically, the two are close cousins- both words mean country-dwellers, cognate with the German "heide" and the Latin "pagus" respectively.
I think there's a lot to be said for looking at the Doctor in the light of Odin- or Wotan, in the Wagnerian versions of the myths. In particular, I've always been fascinated by the picture in the Ring Cycle of the greatest god failing to live up to his role as arch-manipulator and guarantor of morality- and instead, voluntarily giving up his identity and wandering the world speaking riddles. (Indeed, a Bakeresque long coat and big hat seem to be very common for Wotan/Wanderer to wear in productions of Siegfried- Google Images has dozens of examples!). To a large extent, Wotan takes on the role of Loki/Loge the trickster. For Wotan, this is a diminution- a sad shadow of his earlier greatness and a prelude to his total disappearance from the world of the Ring cycle. But for the Doctor, that paradoxical dancing unity of the joker and the most powerful god makes him live. The ultimate source of power in the universe can toss its scarf over its shoulder, grin manically and offer evil a jelly baby.
August 20, 2012 @ 3:56 am
Makes me wonder if River Song is an nod towards The Rheingold! Great stuff, Anna, thank you for your erudition. So, would I be safe in saying you consider Doctor Who to be a modern myth?
August 20, 2012 @ 4:26 am
Fascinating read! Thanks.
One other figure I have always associated the Doctor with is another trick wanderer: Odysseus. Are there any links between that myth, and the Odin ones, to your knowledge?
August 20, 2012 @ 4:51 am
During the Christian era there were various attempts to euhemerise the Asgardian gods by connecting them with Greek legends, most famously by Snorri Sturluson here and here; and certainly he was happy enough to seize on similarities of names to make his points. But the main connection is to make the Aesir descendants of the survivors of Troy, Aesir/Asians (as Layamon in Brut had made the Britons, both inspired by the tradition of the Romans' being so descended), so an Odin/Odysseus connection probably wouldn't have worked.
August 20, 2012 @ 8:15 am
Ooooh, "euhemerise". My vocabulary grows so much when I visit this blog. (insert obligatory qlippothic here)
August 20, 2012 @ 8:21 am
Great post, Anna! Fascinating stuff.
Having just rewatched "Terminus" and re-read Phil's appraisal of it, the choice of Davison's Doctor to hang from the tree suddenly makes a lot of sense. Phil makes the argument Davison's Doctor is meant to be a young Odin, travelling the universe in search of knowledge and "Terminus" is (intended as) the point where The Doctor shifts from a Hermetic figure to an Odinic one. Granted, "Terminus" is rubbish and does little to elaborate on these themes and the Odinic nature of The Doctor doesn't really return in a significant fashion until the McCoy tenure, but I can see the clues are there. Frankly, given this reading, the choice seems to me to not only make sense but it become the staggeringly obvious one.
August 20, 2012 @ 8:23 am
Off-topic, but I, weirdly and perhaps wrongly, have always felt The Doctor's role was closer to Athena's in The Odyssey rather than Odysseus. That's a thread I'm sort of interested in exploring myself, if only for my own edification.
August 20, 2012 @ 8:28 am
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August 20, 2012 @ 8:43 am
Great post, Anna! Fascinating stuff.
Having just re-watched "Terminus" and re-read Phil's appraisal of it, the choice of Peter Davison's Doctor to hang from the tree makes a lot of sense to me now. Phil argues that "Terminus" casts Davison's Doctor as a young Odin wandering the universe in search of knowledge and is (intended as) the point where The Doctor's role shifts from Hermetic to Odinic. Granted, "Terminus" is rubbish and does little to elaborate on these themes and the concept of The Doctor as Odinic doesn't really come into play in any significant fashion until the McCoy era, but I can see the clues are there. Given this reading, the choice seems to me to not only make sense, but become staggeringly obvious.
Sorry about the repeat posting, by the way. Having a lot of problems commenting today for some reason.
August 20, 2012 @ 10:35 am
Philip: for the new series, I'm finding Burk and Smith?'s [sic, don't ask me why] Who Is The Doctor to be a nice successor to the About Time series. It's not as intensely detailed (what could be?), but the approach is similar, the criticism independent-minded (if less overtly academic), and the authors charming enough. There's probably a good chance they'll be able to get along with one another long enough to write at least one more volume together. 🙂 I'm not sure if it gives you what you need from a guidebook (About Time is the ne plus ultra for me), but it's the best I've seen so far and covers up through the end of season 6 if I recall correctly.
Anna: thanks for a fascinating read! You raise all kinds of questions for me I think I'll have to read more about the mythology itself to answer. There are a couple of sentences I'm not sure came through the ether intact (what's missing from "So the Doctor manipulates people and events Odin."?) but I think I got the gist.
I'm not sure how to type the names properly, but the one that looks like "Vidarr" makes me wonder about the history of the Time War that we haven't ever quite learned. Was it the Ninth Doctor who fought the Time War, or the Eighth? When did he regenerate ("Rose" implies it wasn't long before that story)? I ask because if he's Vidarr (sorry) then perhaps the vengeful Ninth Doctor is Vali?
August 20, 2012 @ 11:04 am
Honestly, I'd say that the Doctor is sort of the opposite of Odysseus – wanderer by choice versus wanderer by nature, home as a goal versus home as a negative motivation.
August 20, 2012 @ 11:07 am
Personally, I always figured that the end of the Time War was the moment of regeneration – that the specific mechanics of whatever he did to wipe out Daleks and Time Lords both was enough to devastate his body.
August 20, 2012 @ 11:38 am
I certainly think that Doctor Who draws on mythic modes of storytelling, but I hesitate to refer to it as outright myth, if only because I personally associate that word with stories about beings that are worshiped. I might instead call Doctor Who a folk legend or saga, like the Völsungasaga – mythic in form, but not myth per se.
Or maybe I'm being overly pedantic.
August 20, 2012 @ 12:15 pm
Ahh, well, I didn't want to dive into the whole pagan vs heathen thing in the post itself, but my choice primarily comes from the modern uses of the words. In the neopagan community, 'heathen' is not typically used for self-identity, but within the germanic/norse reconstructionist faiths, the word 'heathen' prevails.
On further research, it looks like I did have a fact wrong: it was post-Roman Christiandom that coined the term 'heathen', not the Romans. I must have confused two different sources, because I thought I remembered the word 'heathen' from Tacitus' Germania.
I'll be blunt: I'm not a big fan, personally, of the Wagnerian versions of the myths, and I haven't studied them deeply. I dislike the equating of the wanderer role with dimunition – the earlier versions of the myths don't give me that impression, and it doesn't really fit with the sense of power that Odin commands even as he wanders. I also dislike the elision of Odin and Loki, and at the root of that is an objection to the Campbellian tendency to throw the 'trickster' label at any deity who shows the slightest bit of cleverness.
August 20, 2012 @ 12:29 pm
Are you trying to qlipp me oth?
August 20, 2012 @ 12:55 pm
I think "saga" is a good word for it (if one that's been diminished by its use in some circles as a synonym for "arc").
August 20, 2012 @ 1:06 pm
That was fascinating. Quick anecdote, since it's a bit of iconography I don't think you mentioned: When I was 19, I read The Discontinuity Guide's section on Battlefield, and it said that in the title sequence, the Seventh Doctor winks the eye that Merlin is said to have sacrificed for wisdom.
And I thought "I don't remember ever reading that about Merlin. Tell you who I do remember reading it about, though…"
August 20, 2012 @ 3:31 pm
Well, Merlin wasn't such a fool as to sacrifice his own eye ….
August 20, 2012 @ 4:55 pm
For me, the line I quoted about the half-human Doctor just feels exactly like Váli. When I first saw that episode I thought about Váli immediately.
August 20, 2012 @ 4:56 pm
In Odin's defense, he had a spare.
August 20, 2012 @ 5:09 pm
Why isn't the Brigadier Odin?
What about Madame Kovarian?
August 21, 2012 @ 5:37 am
The pagan* Romans (like Tacitus) wouldn't have been liable to label German religion under any categorizing heading such as "heathen," in fact. They didn't conceptualize religion as a separate and unified identity in that way, or, to put it differently, as "religion." What Tacitus talks about are German beliefs about the gods, how Germans honor the gods (etc.).
*Which is to say, in calling them "pagan," I'm doing the very thing that they didn't. "Pagan" is a Christian category, and there are classical scholars who avoid the word on principle for that reason, preferring "traditional polytheist."
August 21, 2012 @ 6:21 am
I didn't have time to comment on the earlier discussion of myth, but here, for what they are worth, are my two cents. (Worth two cents, I suppose, if I'm lucky.)
Before one gets into whether modern pop culture figures/stories are myths, one needs to define what a "myth" is. This is a notoriously difficult thing to do.
In some ways, it's easier to say that using the term "myth" locates what one is talking about in a tradition of discourse about certain stories going back, more-or-less, to a very specific Greek origin in the 6th century B.C. (which is closely involved with the contemporary development of Greek philosophy and Greek historiography). A consequence of this is that what we mean by "myth" often tends to be"stories like the Greek stories that are traditionally called "Greek myths."
A consequence of that is that "myth" is arguably a category that should be used with caution when talking about other cultures. (It is, however, often felt to apply well to Norse myths – not something I know much about myself – but in the same breath the person saying that often points out that these share important features with Greek myths.)
Indeed, it's a category that needs to be used with caution even when talking about Greek myths. What we call "the Greek myths" tends to be pegged to what mythographers like Apollodorus selectively collected and retold as "myths". Kristopher Fletcher has shown, for instance, that the symbolic map of relationships between peoples that Apollodorus creates by what he includes and excludes is framed to cut the Romans out of the picture. It is therefore addressed at the contemporary situation of Greeks living under the Roman Empire, and is by no means a naive or random selection from traditional sources.
August 21, 2012 @ 11:17 am
"And then I turned round, and they were all Odin!"
August 21, 2012 @ 8:35 pm
I think the "worship" caveat is problematic. Like, if there were beings you personally worshipped, would you consider their stories Myths? Or would this be more properly a Faith? Most worshippers tend not to refer to their objects of veneration as Myths… so it's kind of a pejorative attitude, what Other People believe (mistakenly, of course.)
And then there's the matter of The Doctor himself. Couldn't one make a case for fandom "worshipping" him in some fashion? Do his stories become Myths if people actually start praying to him as if he were real? Do they stop being Myths if they turn away?
Would you discount the testimony of someone who claimed a religious experience after such prayer, to avoid categorizing Doctor Who as myth?
August 22, 2012 @ 12:53 am
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August 22, 2012 @ 12:56 am
Anna wrote: "I dislike the equating of the wanderer role with dimunition – the earlier versions of the myths don't give me that impression, and it doesn't really fit with the sense of power that Odin commands even as he wanders."
I do rather like that aspect myself, as it plays into theological ideas of true power expressed through kenosis- self-emptying. At the height of his power in the Wagnerian version of the epic, Wotan is actually the un-free-est (ouch! It works better in German, as "unfreieste") of all men and gods, because he relies on a network of social contracts and agreements that prevent him from following his own wishes. Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie, his "wish-maiden", knows his heart better than anyone- and that's why she breaks the rules, going along with Wotan's deepest desires. But Wotan has to use his own power against the people he loves and to thwart his own plans. Consequently, he leaves Valhalla to find a new sort of freedom, the playfulness of Loge/Loki. But by the end of the cycle he becomes resigned to the twilight of the gods and the new age of men, which he had fought to stave off originally by constructing Valhalla. In that silent acceptance of fate at the end of Gotterdammerung is his true power and wisdom- not in his political manipulative power in Rhinegold, nor the supernatural powers he displays in Valkyrie, or the joker's power as freedom from responsibility in Siegfried.
As a parallel, we can see it in Shakespeare's Richard II- he becomes more human as his political power is stripped from him. And of course, the whole Christus Victor reigning-from-the-cross theme in Christian theology.
(Apologies for the deletion- I was trying to sort out some consistency between English/German/Norse versions of the names and failing!)
October 18, 2015 @ 3:16 pm
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February 28, 2016 @ 11:19 am
Morning! Practising “modern” heathen speaking.
This is a really well-thought-out article, but you have the Doctor’s runes wrong. As depicted in “Timewyrm: Revelation” (page 157, but also brought together in bindrune form on page 190) they are, in order: Jera, Eihwaz, Perþro. This sequence is of three consecutive runes from the centre of the fuþark (or “alphabetical order” if you’d rather.) Their basic archetypal symbolism would be:
Jera: year, harvest season. Refers to the cyclic nature of the solar year, thus “time”.
Eihwaz: yew tree. Refers to the cosmic tree which unites the worlds, but also death and transformation, thus “travel between worlds and regeneration”.
Perþro: as you say, an obscure word – “dice cup” is its usual interpretation, but I’ve also heard “tune”, “fruit tree” and “burial mound”. Regarded as the rune of mystery and things unrevealed, thus “secrets”.
So, we have: “time, travel between worlds, regeneration, secrets.” This is about as Doctorish as it gets!
One glaring absence is the fourth rune Ansuz, “the god” (i.e. Óðinn) which is also traditionally linked with magic and speech, and thus “galdr”, or spoken/chanted magic, of which Óðinn is patron and master. Given Doctor McCoy’s trick of talking his opponents into submission, this is the rune I’d really expect to be present, and it’s conspicuous by its absence!
Thanks for acknowledging the heathen aspect to the Seventh Doctor’s adventures – it’s been a bit of an Easter Egg for a long time. I enjoyed your post.