Earliest mention of Odin, 'king of the gods,' found in treasure hoard from Denmark

The inscription appears to refer to a Norse king whose face appears in the center of the pendant, and may indicate he claimed descent from the Norse god Odin.
The inscription appears to refer to a Norse king whose face appears in the center of the pendant, and may indicate he claimed descent from the Norse god Odin. (Image credit: Arnold Mikkelsen, National Museum of Denmark)

A gold pendant recently unearthed in Denmark bears the earliest known inscription featuring the Norse god Odin.

Archaeologists think the pendant — which is technically known as a bracteate and made of thin, stamped gold — dates to the fifth century A.D., making it 150 years older than the previous oldest known artifact mentioning Norse mythology. 

"It is the first time in the history of the world that Odin's name was mentioned," Lisbeth Imer, a runologist and writing expert at the National Museum of Denmark, told Live Science. "This means that Norse mythology can now be dated all the way back to the early fifth century."

The inscription, in letters called runes, says, "He is Odin's man" and the name "Jaga" or "Jagaz" in an early form of the Norse language. It is thought to refer to its owner, an Iron Age chieftain or king, who may have claimed the god as an ancestor. 

"I think that the wording refers to the central motif depicting a man with a horse, portraying the local magnate or king, who presents himself a descendant of the king of gods and the god of kings, Odin," Imer said. "We have other literary evidence that the kings liked to present themselves as descendants of gods."

Related: 2 Viking swords buried upright might have connected the dead to Odin and Valhalla

The inscription was deciphered by linguist Krister Vasshus (left) and runologist Lisbeth Imer (right) at the National Museum of Denmark. It is the earliest-known inscription that mentions Odin. (Image credit: John Fhær Engedal Nissen, National Museum of Denmark)

Imer and her colleague, linguist Krister Vasshus, spent more than a year deciphering the runic inscription on the bracteate, which was part of a stunning gold hoard unearthed in Jutland, Denmark, in 2021. The trove contained almost 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of gold and is now known as the "Vindelev hoard" after a nearby town.

Norse gods

The bracteate was part of a buried Vindelev hoard of gold objects, some of them dating to the fifth century A.D., that was unearthed in the east of Denmark's Jutland region in 2021. (Image credit: Conservation Center Vejle)

In Norse mythology, Odin was the king of the gods; the god of death, wisdom, magic and runes; and the "All-father" of both gods and mortals. Although the Norse pantheon featured dozens of deities, Odin was one of the three main gods worshipped in the Norse religion, alongside Thor and Frey. 

Odin is often portrayed with only one eye, because according to legend, he gouged out his other eye to gain incomparable knowledge. He is also the Norse form of the Germanic god Wotan and the Anglo-Saxon god Woden, although they both seem to have had two eyes.

The gold objects in the Vindelev hoard are thought to have belonged to an Iron Age Norse chieftain or local king. They were created by skilled artisans; just why they were buried is not known. (Image credit: Vejle Museums)

Imer said the runic inscription seemed to be more weathered than the rest of the pendant, possibly because it was a holy inscription that was touched to "gain power."

"It was a time when religion was more integrated into daily life," she said in an email. "The leaders of society were responsible for cultic activities and performing rituals to uphold a good relationship with the gods."

It's difficult to interpret the tiny runes, however, because the words run into one another without spaces and because the name "Odin" is spelled as "Wodnas" and not in the regular form "Wodinas" — possibly because it is written in an early form of Norse called Proto-Norse, Imer said.


The Vindelev hoard was buried in the early sixth century A.D. beneath a longhouse a few miles from the town of Jelling, which became a center of Viking Denmark in the 10th century. (Image credit: Vejle Museums)

Archaeologists think the Norse descended from North Germanic peoples who migrated into Denmark and other Scandinavian countries from about the fourth to the first centuries B.C. After the eighth century A.D., the seafarers among them became famous as Viking raiders in Europe; they established colonies in parts of Britain, France, Iceland and Greenland for a time. Some Vikings even made it to the Faroe Islands and Newfoundland in what's now Canada.

The Vindelev hoard, however, comes from a "proto-Viking" age before the Norse were known (and feared) as Vikings.

The inscription's discovery has already influenced the interpretation of inscriptions on other gold bracteates; more than 1,000 have been found around northern Europe, and more than 200 of them have inscriptions.

"The inscription on the Odin bracteate is actually copied onto one of the other bracteates from Vindelev with a slightly different motif," Imer said. "But the carver who copied the inscription misunderstood the wording, so in many places he just carved some haphazard strokes and lines."

It also seems that the copied bracteate was stamped from the same die as another found in 1852 on the Danish island of Funen and given to the National Museum, although its inscription was never deciphered. 

"So, the National Museum has been in possession of an inscription with the word Odin on it for 170 years — but we didn't know until recently," Imer said.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.