Although Hoenir was a companion to Odin and Loki, two well-publicized Norse gods, very little has survived about him, and he does not seem to have had cult places or worshippers.
Which is surprising in a way, because in Völuspá he is the one performing the old rites after the world is reborn, so you automatically think “priestly god”. Several scholars have decided that his role was in fact a priestly or vatic one, based on this.
I suppose we should be grateful we have anything about him. Compared to Meili and Nepr, who are listed as Odin’s sons but otherwise unknown, he has a pretty good dossier. (Odd coincidence: one of the kennings for Hœnir in the poem Haustlöng is “step-Meili”.)
Hoenir and Friends
We do know some things. Hœnir appears in Völuspá, Reginsmál, Haustlöng, Ynglinga saga, Sögubrot, and Snorra Edda. The interesting thing about all these is that he never appears alone. He’s always with either Mimir or Odin and Loki. And at the beginning of the new world, he appears with Baldr and the other young gods.
Most of the kennings that Snorri ascribes to him are to do with Odin and Loki, either as friend or as victim of Loki, the “trier of Hœnir’s courage”. He also is “Odin’s friend”, and more important, “Odin’s confidante”. Kennings for gods often mention family – Hœnir doesn’t seem to have any.
Unsurprisingly, Odin and Loki overshadow him in the stories about their travels, especially Loki. In the story of Idunn, Loki attacks Thiazi, and sticks to him, and then agrees to kidnap Idunn to get free. In the story of Andvari (Reginsmál), Loki kills Otr, and then has to get the gold to compensate Otr’s kin. Hœnir seems to be just standing around on the sidelines.
The other kennings that Snorri gives us for Hœnir are intriguing, but not helpful when it comes to figuring out this god:
How should Hœnir be periphrased? By calling him Bench-Mate or Companion or Friend of Odin, the Swift God, the Long-Footed, and King of Clay. (Faulkes:76)
The Odin-kennings are straightforward, but what are we to make of the long-footed (or legged – the word can mean either one) mud or clay-king? Several writers have suggested that Hœnir took his form from the stork or crane – both wader birds with appropriately long legs. (Lindow: 180)
It could be that he has some relation with the boggy coastline – after all, Saga lives in Sokkvabekk, and Frigga in Fensalir, so we know there’s some connection between watery landscapes and other deities close to Odin.
But what does he do?
The only myth where he does take a more active role is the story of the war between the Aesir and Vanir, where he and Mimir are given as hostages to the Vanir as part of the peace treaty. (Ynglinga saga) The Vanir saw this strong, handsome man and thought he was someone important, so they brought him into their councils and consulted him.
If Mimir was with him, the two of them would give an opinion, but if Hœnir was alone, he would only say, “Let others decide.” This annoyed the Vanir, who felt they’d been had. But instead of attacking Hœnir (perhaps because he was so close to Odin) they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it back to Odin. (More on this below.)
Some look at his role in the myths and suggest a god of silence, or prudence. For example, Dumézil sees him as the embodiment of “prudent intelligence” in opposition to Loki’s impulsive cunning. Or, Hœnir is intelligence guided by memory (Mimir) without which he is powerless.
Others see him as an oracular or divinatory god, perhaps because of the stanza in Völuspá:
Then Hoenir will choose wooden slips for prophecy,
and the sons of two brothers will inhabit, widely,
– the windy world – do you understand yet, or what more?
This is usually taken as meaning that Hœnir has the power to foretell the future – in the new time, if not before. His appearance in Völuspá is interesting, because he appears at the end, after the new world arises. Earlier in the poem, we are told that Odin, Villi and Vé created the first humans.
In Snorri’s prose version, Gylfaginning, it was Odin, Loður (probably Loki) and Hœnir who created humans. So Hœnir might just appear at both the beginning and the end of time, the only one of the three to do so. Like Ishmael, he is alone is survived to tell thee.
This idea connects to Wanner’s theory (246), which sees him as the embodiment of memory. Without him, the deeds of Odin and the rest would perish with them at Ragnarok. Hœnir is poetic immortality, and so he survives. On a human level, you wonder if he misses his travelling companions, or if he enjoys some peace at last.
The myth of Hœnir and Mimir has suggested other ideas: that Hœnir represents intelligence, which is nothing without memory to guide it as it views the present and future. If we understand the story this way, then we see the Vanir behaving foolishly, giving up a great resource, while Odin, by contrast, preserves all the sources of knowledge that he can get.
As I mentioned above, the two gods appear in Ynglinga saga, which tells about the war between the Aesir and Vanir, and how they made peace. They decided to exchange hostages, and so the Vanir sent “Niord the Wealthy and his son Frey”, while the Aesir sent Hœnir “whom they thought well fitted to be a leader, being a big handsome man.” With him came Mimir, “the wisest of men.”
The Vanir, however, soon repented of their generosity:
… and when Haenir came to Vanaheim he was chosen as leader and Mimir gave him every advice. But when Haenir was at the thing or at gatherings, where any difficult matter came before him then he always answered the same (unless Mimir was present), “Now get the counsel of others,” said he. Then the Vanes had a suspicion that the Asaland people had played them false in the exchange of men. They therefore took Mimir and beheaded him, and sent his head back to the Asaland people.
(Ynglinga saga 4: Monsen/Smith)
Snorri doesn’t tell us what happened to Hœnir after that, but he does say that Odin preserved the head of Mimir with herbs, and chanted over it, and from then on consulted it.
Hœnir doesn’t come off very well in this story, being essentially a good-looking dummy, like William Hurt in the movie Broadcast News, with Mimir instead of Holly Hunter telling him what to say. (I wonder if Mimir got as flustered as Albert Brooks if he had to speak in public.)
It’s easy to see why the Vanir got suspicious of him, and of the Aesir’s motives in handing him over. There’s almost a shade of Pandora, where an attractive outside hides trouble. In a less serious vein, this story may be why one website described him as the God of Indecision.
Silence as Strength?
However, some writers have argued that Hœnir’s strength was precisely his silence. Dumézil sees Hœnir as a good of prudent intelligence (as opposed to Loki’s impulsive cunning). Davidson points out that traditionally in Norse wisdom, silence is preferred to much speech, and says that Hœnir’s silence was his strength. (Davidson, Gds & Myths: 168.) It is true that Havamal tells us:
6.About his intelligence, no man should be boastful,
rather cautious of mind;
when a wise and silent man comes to the homestead
seldom does shame befall the wary;
for no more trustworthy a friend can any man get
than a store of common sense.
Straight from the mouth of Odin.
Hœnir’s silence can also be contrasted with Loki’s malice, just like the wise but silent Irish Sencha contrasts with Briciu Venom-Tongue, whose name says it all. (Sayers: 60) Like Loki, he foments strife, but suffers the most as a result.1
Others see Hœnir and Mimir as a partnership. Clunies-Ross draws a parallel with Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory. Unexpectedly, Odin says he fears more for Munin, which she says points to the importance of memory in pre-literate cultures.
We know that Mimir was a resource that Odin valued highly. Völuspá 46 tells us that Odin consulted “Mim’s head” just before the end, and Sigrdrífumál tells that:
14.then Mim’s head spoke
wisely the first word
and told the true letters.
The problem here is that Mimir seems to exist in two forms: the decapitated god, and another person mentioned in Völuspá and other places, who seems to be a giant, who controls a well of wisdom and magical mead.
Water and Wisdom
Or the two may be the same; Celtic myths of severed heads that live in wells and prophesy are widespread, and include both heroes and saints. (Simpson: 45) Orpheus, too, was beheaded, and his head floated downstream singing, and wound up in a cave preserved as an oracle. (Simpson: 46) So perhaps Mimir was always the oracular head, and the Ynglinga saga story is just a tale that explains how he became a talking head.
The giant identity may also be a way of explaining his knowledge of the past. In Vafþrúðismál, the giant Vafþrúðnir is described as “old”, which explains why he knows how the cosmos came into being and how everything was created. (Jakobsson: 273) Perhaps Mimir is a “giant” in the sense of knowing a great deal of the past, or being very ancient. (We know that the category of “giant” is pretty flexible.)
One of Mimir’s titles was Sokkmimir, Mimir of the Depths, which brings us back to Hœnir, by way of wet and dampness. Sokkmimir makes me think of Sokkvabekk (Sunken Bank/ Treasure Bank), home of Saga, whose name is cognate to words for “story” and “history”. (Sturtevant: 1146) In Grimnismal we are told:
7.Sokkvabekk called is the fourth,
which cool waters ripple round about;
there Othin and Saga all their days drink,
glad from golden cups.
Naturally such a suggestive name has led to speculation that Saga knows the past, and shares her historical knowledge with Odin. Presumably Odin uses her historical knowledge, just as he pumped the giant Vafthrudnir for his.
Saga’s mistress is Frigga, who lives in Fensalir (Marsh Halls), and knows fate. As Freya says in Lokasenna:
29. ‘Mad are you, Loki, when you reckon up your
ugly, hateful deeds;
Frigg knows, I think, all fate,
though she herself does not speak out.’
We know that among the kennings for Hœnir are Mud-King and Long-Footed, which suggests dampness, and perhaps some form of wading bird. Various writers have connected Hœnir with herons and storks, especially the black stork, which is known as “Odin’s swallow”, odensvala.2 (Strom: 82)
Hœnir stays on the edge of the water, while Mimir lives in it, in its depths. That might explain their partnership; Hœnir was Mimir’s spokesman, until the Vanir killed him. Presumably whatever magic Odin wrought cut out the middleman.
One small point: if Mimir was a giant, we see once more the gods taking over the resources of the giants, and once again through violence. Going a bit further, Bragg and Simpson suggest that it was Odin who originally killed Mimir, quoting from Grimnismal 50:
So, I deceived the giant | Sokkmimir old
As Svithur and Svithrir of yore;
Of Mithvitnir’s son | the slayer I was
When the famed one found his doom.
and the aforementioned Sigdrifusmal:
13.Them Hropt arranged, | and them he wrote,
And them in thought he made,
Out of the draught | that down had dropped
From the head of Heithdraupnir,
And the horn of Hoddrofnir.
14.On the mountain he stood | with Brimir’s sword,
On his head the helm he bore;
Then first the head | of Mim spoke forth,
And words of truth it told.
It’s all pretty allusive, but it could add up to Odin beheading a giant and then working magic to preserve his wisdom, which Odin then uses. It fits the pattern of the giants having treasure and knowledge which the gods steal and put to use.3
So we end up with a pattern associating water and knowledge, with varying levels of usefulness. To summarize, here is a table showing who knows fate, and who tells about it:
You’ll notice that Mimir occupies both sides of the says – doesn’t say continuum; he doesn’t talk to the Vanir, but he reveals things to Odin afterwards. Sayers has his own ideas about the Mimir – Hœnir partnership and the deal with the Vanir:
As a hostage, Hoenir represents potency, power contained. But when Hcenir does speak, we may assume these to be performative utterances; once communicated, inspired thought modifies and determines external reality. (Sayers: 62)
The Power of Memory
We have to assume that Mimir’s powers of recall were important enough to warrant Odin preserving his head. Most of us, on receiving someone’s decapitated head, would bury it and probably seek revenge on the people who’d cut it off. Odin doesn’t do that.
Memory had a different place in pre-literate societies, and a much different value than it has now. In our society, memory often means memorization, but once memory was generative. You learned forms for memory, ways of storing vast amounts of knowledge that could be recalled later when needed. (Notopolus: 478)
But instead of being rote learning, the recalled knowledge was re-created in the person’s own mind, just like we do every time we use mnemonics.4 (Modern theories of memory suggest, disconcertingly, that we re-reate our memories every time we call them up.)
A good example is the völva’s chant in Völuspá: we have to assume that like Homeric bards, she uses forms she has learned to put cosmic history into verse and transmit her vision to Odin.
Hœnir, then, is the one who speaks through poetic forms, inspired by the knowledge that Mimir gives him. Homer invoked Memory, Mother of the Muses, but Hœnir had Mimir right there with him. William Sayers connects Hœnir to the Irish Sencha and Welsh Gwalchmai: all three associated with birds, and all prophets. (Sayers: 62-4)
Further, Judy Quinn points out the involuntary nature of prophecy and inspiration, in the phrase “a chant sprang to her lips,” showing that people can’t help it even when it lands them in danger:
The passive nature of female knowledge recurs in the sagas in the representation of women’s susceptibility to the involuntary utterance of the true nature of things behind appearances, including the real identity of disguised men and the nature of heroes’ ørlog, even if the utterance is against the speaker’s will and puts her at risk. (Quinn: 45)
So, although she gives instances of men being overtaken by the impulse to speak, it tends to be women who prophecy.
This passivity leads us right back to Hœnir, who can only say, “Let others decide”, unless Mimir is with him, and who takes on the prophetic role after Ragnarök, casting runes. And, Pólomé adds, is the most timid of the Aesir because he can do nothing if not advised. (Pólomé: 272)
Which makes you wonder how exactly Hœnir and Mimir worked their act. Was Mimir like a discreet civil servant whispering in a minister’s ear, or was some form of telepathy involved? It is amusing to think of Mimir as Sir Humphrey, who, you’ll remember, was the real power of the two.
1. Briciu also features in the Tain Bo Flidais, as the go-between for Flidais and Fergus.↩
2. He says the black stork, unlike the white, lives in the woods and avoids populated areas. Timid, maybe?↩
3. This is usually justified by saying that the giants don’t use them, they just store them. But we don’t know that, all we know is that the gods weren’t using them before, and now they are.↩
4. This theme recurs in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, as Cromwell seeks to learn about memory techniques.↩
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Simpson, Jacqueline 1962-5: “Mímir: Two Myths or One?”, Saga-Book of the Viking Society XVI: 41-53. (available online)
Strom, Folke 1956: “Une divinite-oiseaux dans la mythologie Scandinave?”, Ethnos 21 (1:2): 73-84.
Sturtevant, Alfred Morey, 1952: “Etymological Comments Upon Certain Old Norse Proper Names in the Eddas”, PMLA 67:7: 1145-1162.
Wanner, Kevin 2009: “Cunning Intelligence in Norse Myth: Loki, Óđinn, and the Limits of Sovereignty”, History of Religions 48: 3: 211-46.
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