In Norse Mythology, each god and goddess is depicted with a special weapon or object that is said to be made specifically for them. These mystical objects or weapons are believed to be powerful enough to kill a Norse god or goddess, who are otherwise immune to aging and falling ill. The most popular weapon known today is the Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer.
The most important object, however, is arguably Gungnir, Odin’s trusty spear. This is because Odin is the All-father and King of the Aesir, and also because the spear is powerful in its own right. In this poster, we take an in-depth look at the Gungnir, in terms of its origin, meaning, and significance.
What is the Gungnir?
As mentioned, Gungnir is the All-father’s spear, although it is not any ordinary spear. It is considered to be the finest spear in all the cosmos. He is seen holding it in many of his depictions including poetry and visual arts. For example, Pre-Christian Scandinavian visual arts often depicted him with Gungnir. The Vikings runestones discovered much later were said to have engravings of the spear god believed to be Odin holding Gungnir. The spear, paired with his eye patch, is how Vikings identified Odin. As the leader of the most powerful tribe of gods, it is no surprise that the Gungnir is also the most powerful and extremely deadly weapon.
Aside from being extremely sharp, this spear is said to be well-balanced. It is said to never miss its target even if wielded by the most inexperienced warrior. The Gungnir also delivers a deadly blow and can pierce into anything no matter how tough. It was believed that no power, object, or being could shoot it down or destroy it mid-flight. Once it hit its target, Gungnir always returned to Odin’s hand.
In terms of appearance, Gungnir resembles a javelin and is used like one. From its depictions, the spear appears to have runes engraved on it. Norse runes were believed to be magical, therefore, it was believed that the runes on it served to enhance its powers. Legend also has it that if an oath is made in front of the Gungnir, that oath is bound to come to pass.
Although today, Vikings are associated with main axes and sometimes swords, spears were the main weapons they used during that time. Archeologists have discovered many Viking spears with runes engraved on the heads resembling that of Gungnir. Vikings believed that by imitating the Gungnir, their spears would have the same power and accuracy in battle.
Gungnir Symbol and Meaning
As with everything in Norse mythology, Gungnir is a symbolism of several things. First and foremost, it is Odin’s identification. As we mentioned the Vikings identify Odin, with his spear and eyepatch, hence Gungnir is considered one of his attributes. This is how he is depicted in many of his paintings or carvings. The poet Bragi Boddason even refers to Odin as Gungnis váfaðr, which means ‘Gungnir’s Shaker’. Being the chief god of Aesir, the Gungnir is considered the symbol of his authority and power. It is the same way, Tyr, a god who shared the same role as Odin during the Viking age, had his sword which was the simplicity of his authority and power as Lordship.
The name Gungnir, pronounced as GUNG-neer, means ‘The Swaying One’. This meaning is derived from its relation to the word Gungre, a Danish verb that means ‘to tremble’. This meaning is ironic given that when Gungnir is thrown it flies straight without missing its target. But the meaning was meant to symbolize, Gungnir as Odin’s trademark of war. With it, Odin instilled fear into his enemies and he sways them to his will.
The spear also had others names including, ‘The Spear of Meteor’. It was given this name because it resembles a blazing meteor when thrown across the sky. Because legend says that any oath made on Gungnir is bound to come true, some believe that this is where the idea of wishing on a shooting star originated from. As such it was also called ‘The Declaration of the Lord God’ since it was seen as a holy weapon, whose oaths were bound to come true. Lastly, another one of its names is ‘The Eternal Spear’ since it is a symbol of human power and protection, given how it is powerful enough to penetrate anything without missing.
Gungnir Origins and History
In Norse Mythology, the dwarves are said to be the famous craftsmen who create the mystical objects used by the gods. Like all other objects, they are said to have made Gungnir specifically for Odin after being commissioned by Loki.
As per the account, it started when Loki cut off Sif’s long beautiful golden hair, without her permission. Sif was Thor’s wife and both of them were mad at Loki for what he did. After being threatened by Thor, Loki was forced to travel to the realm of the dwarves to find a replacement for Sif’s hair. While there Loki met with four dwarves. Two were the sons of the famous dwarf Ivaldi, the other two were brothers called Sindri and Brokrr.
First Loki approached the Ivaldi brothers and commissioned them to make something to replace Sif’s golden hair. The brothers agreed to make a headpiece of fie golden hair and enchant it to grow on her head. In addition to that Loki also commissioned them to make a special treasure for Odin and another item. That was when they made the Gungnir, by using the branches from Yggdrasil, the world tree, and forged from sunlight. They also made Skidbladnir, the greatest ship with favorable wind no matter which direction it sailed.
Although what the brothers made exceeded his expectation, the mischievous Loki tricked the dwarves into making more treasure by approaching the other two brothers, pretending to be disappointed. He challenged Brokrr and Sindri to do a better job than the first two. Not one to back down from a challenge, the two dwarves made Mjolnir, Draupnir, a golden ring that multiplies to produce 8 more like it, and Gullinbursti, a boar with golden hair who could run faster than any horse.
Loki carried all these treasures with him to Asgard. He gave Sif the golden hair and Thor the Mjolnir, as a way of apologizing. He also gifted Gullinbursti to Freyr. To Odin, he presented the Draupnir and the Gungnir. But for tricking the dwarves, Loki ended up with his mouth sewn shut. When Odin held the spear, he praised it for how well-balanced it was, saying that it would never miss its target and whatever oath was taken on it would surely come true.
Of all the objects in the Norse Mythology, Gungnir is the most mentioned object. Both poetry and visual arts depict the strong, long-lasting connection between Gungnir and Odin. The stories of how Gungnir was used reflect the Vikings’ ritual practices. The following are the Norse sagas in which Gungnir appears:
The Aesir-Vanir War
Also known as the first war, this was perhaps the greatest war to have occurred in the earlier periods between the War-like and orderly Aesir and the magical and esoteric Vanir. It was said that the main cause of the war was because the Aesir were against most of Vanir’s practices, including the brother-sister marriage and the use of magic.
Before the great battle, legend has it that Odin threw Gungnir over the heads of the Vanir, yelling “Odin owns all”. This would later become a common practice among the Viking Warriors who would throw their spears over their enemies’ heads and yell the exact words. The practice was done because it was believed to invoke Odin’s assistance in battle.
The battle between the Vanir and Aesir went on for some time and it was gruesome with the Aesir having found their match in battle. In the end, the two groups agreed on a peace settlement that involved the exchange of hostages. Some of Aesir’s gods like Mimir went to Vanir while Vanir gods Njord, Freyr, and goddess Freya went to live in Aesir. The three were welcomed to Asgard and treated like a part of the community.
When Seeking the Knowledge of the Runes
It was well known that Odin had a deep insatiable thirst for knowledge. He went on many quests and to various lengths to obtain it. That was why he was known as the god of wisdom. When he found out about the runes and the power and knowledge they held, he went out in search of it.
To obtain this knowledge, he had to hang from the world tree for nine days and nights while pierced by Gungnir. Only then did the runes appear before him and he was able to understand them. He is later said to have shared this knowledge with mankind.
In line with piercing himself with the Gungnir, the Vikings later formed a practice when sacrificing a person to Odin. They would either pierce the person with a spear or hang him, or both.
Like all faiths have a belief about the end of the world, Ragnarok marked the end of the world for the Norse Pantheon. It is because of this day, that Odin would take the souls of heroes slain in battle and keep them in Valhalla. It was believed that during Ragnarok, they would rise to find alongside the gods in the final battle.
According to the prophecy of Ragnarok, Odin was said to lead his army to war with Gungnir in his hand. There he would use the spear to fight Fenrir, the great wolf who was destined to kill Odin at the end of the world. Despite Gungnir’s power, Fenrir managed to kill Odin in the end. The moment in which Gungnir’s powers failed is said to symbolize the moment the power of the Viking warriors fail, and the end of their world which was the end of the Viking age.
How Did Odin Use Gungnir?
Always seen holding Gungnir in all his depictions, Odin used it in various ways to achieve his goal. The following are some of how he used the spear:
- Odin used it during the War against the Vanir. He threw Gungnir overhead his enemies laying his claim on them. This same gesture was used by Vikings during the war as a way of offering their enemies to Odin as a gift in exchange for victory.
- Gungnir was also used by Odin as a sign of his power and authority and as a way of instilling fear into his enemies. He used this fear to sway them according to his command.
- He also used Gungnir to cut out his eye and give it to Mimir in exchange for his wisdom and knowledge.
- When he sought the knowledge of the runes, Odin used Gungnir to pierce himself while hanging from the tree of life for nine days and nights. As a result, the Vikings offered human sacrifices to Odin by spearing them or hanging them, or both.
- During Ragnarok, Odin also used Gungnir to fight off Fenrir, the giant wolf, who in the end managed to kill him. This marked the end of the world not just for the Norse gods but the Old Norse people as well.
Some people might argue that Thor’s hammer Mjolnir is the most powerful mystical object to have existed among the Norse gods. It was said to have the power to level mountains with just one throw. Still, Gungnir remains the most important and arguably the most powerful Norse weapon. That is because it never misses its target, can penetrate through anything imaginable and whatever is sworn upon it will come to pass. On top of that, its power and significance lie in the fact that the fate of the world depended on it, so much that when it failed the world came to an end. Even today it continues to symbolize Odin’s authority as the Allfather and it is a testament to the Norse’s rich culture and symbolism.