In Chapter 3, the question and answer format that will persist through the rest of Gylfaginning begins. This is a format that should be familiar to anyone who has read the Poetic Edda, as it is the same one used in Vafþruðnismál. As Marlene Ciklamini points out,
"The structure of the narrative situation is typically medieval. Gylfi asks questions of knowledge. He receives answers from three manifestations of Óðinn, all of whom are by implication omniscient. This is the characteristically medieval way to impart book knowledge. The student who is ignorant but eager to learn is regarded as a vessel for the reception of facts. In Old Norse pagan poetry the situation is somewhat different. Two equally knowledgeable mythical personages confront each other in a competition to establish their intellectual superiority in the command over mythical knowledge.
In not a single poem, even not in poems in which the questioner seeks knowledge through necromancy, is the questioner ignorant of the main facts and events of the mythological past and present.
This change in the native narrative tradition, Gylfi’s appearance as an ignorant rather than a knowledgeable questioner, has an important function. His ignorance lends plausibility to the supposition that a state of spiritual ignorance caused the worship of the Æsir" (Ciklamini 1978, 45).
Gylfi's ignorance reflects a change in the literary culture of Scandinavia at the time. The traditions of the continent were becoming more and more important, nowhere more so than in the court of the king. The change thus served a second purpose: it presented unfamiliar material in a familiar format, thus providing contemporary readers a point of familiarity among the possibly strange material of the myths.
The first question is one any monotheist would consider the most important: "who is the highest and most ancient of all gods?" (Sturluson 1987, 8) High of course answers that it is Odin, saying that he has twelve names. This number is a bit short, but it is a familiar number for biblical scholars.
The first name he presents, Alfaðir or Alföðr, is fairly straightforward. Meaning All-Father, it comes from Grímnismál 48 and Helgakviða Hundingsbana 138, as well as an 11th century poem by Arnórr Þórðarson. Apparently the names ending in -föðr are older than those ending in -faðir (Simek 1984, 8). Simek goes on to say,
"Snorri explains Alfödr in Gylfaginning 13 as follows: '[Odin] could be called Alfödr because he is the father of all the gods and of all of mankind and of everything which was created by him and his power.' This explanation seems to be as much influenced by Christianity as the name Alföðr itself, which is possibly a translation of the medieval Latin name for the Christian God omnipater (first documented in the works of Prudentius in the 4th century)."
The second name given is Herrans, which is a form of Herjann, meaning 'Lord,' which is a fairly common name for Odin, given in Völuspá 30, Grímnismál 46, Gúðrunarkviða I 19, and many others. This name refers to Odin's role as lord of the einherjar and may be a reference to his role as leader of the Wild Hunt, per Tacitus (Simek 1984,143).
The third name given is Hnikarr, meaning 'instigator,' and the fourth name, Hnikuðr, is simply another form of the same. The name comes from Grímnismál 47, Reginsmál 18-19, and skaldic poetry. This is the name under which Odin appears in Sigurð's story. At one point, Sigurð was sailing around a headland in a dangerous storm, when he was hailed by an old man giving this name. When Hnikarr went aboard, the storm stopped (Simek 1984, 154).
The fifth name given is Fjölnir, probably meaning 'the one who knows much.' The interesting thing about this name is that it is also the name of a legendary Swedish king from Skáldskaparmál 40. This son of Yngvi Freyr and Gerðr, in Ynglinga Saga 11, has the mixed fortune of falling to his death into a vat of mead while drunk. This particular story is referenced in a 9th century skaldic poem, indicating that it is particularly old (Simek 1984, 85).
The sixth name given is Óski, which "could mean roughly 'wish fulfiller' - as the Valkyries are called óskmeyjar - and thereby refers to the fact that he receives the slain warriors in Valhall." It can be found in Grímnismál 49, Óttar svarti, and in the Þulur (Simek 1984, 254).
The seventh name given is Ómi, coming from Grímnismál 49 and the Þulur. The meaning of the name is debated. While it could mean 'the noisy one' (ómun means loud), "an explanation as 'the superior one' (from *auhuma is … more meaningful" (Simek 1984, 253).
The eighth name given is Biflindi, meaning 'the one with the painted shield.' While Odin is usually depicted with a spear, he often also has a shield, to which this may be referring. Simek speculates however that the name could be 'the one who makes the armies quake.' The name comes from Grímnismál 49 and the Þulur (Simek 1984, 36).
The ninth name given is Sviðar and the tenth name given is Sviðrir, which is in Grímnismál 50 and the Þulur, but has two more variants: Sviðuðr (the Þulur) and Sviðurr (Grímnismál 50). In Skáldskaparmál 63, Snorri tries to tie the name to Svíþjóð ('Sweden'), but this seems a stretch. "The derivation from sviða 'spear,' which would mean that Sviðrir meant 'spear-god,' is possible; other interpretations as 'swinger' or 'protector' are no more convincing" (Simek 1984, 306).
The eleventh name given is Vidrir, meaning 'weather god.' This name is recorded fairly often, in Lokasenna 26, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I 13, in skaldic poetry, and several times in the fornaldarsögur. Weather is not part of Odin's portfolio directly; he influences it through magic (Simek 1984, 360).
The twelfth name given is Jalkr, meaning 'gelding.' This one comes from Grímnismál 49 and 54, the Þulur, and skaldic poetry. There was also a sea king by that name. "The original meaning in ON suggests a link with other mythological persons with horse names, such as Hengist and Horsa, who are (according to Bede) descended from Odin" (Simek 1984, 177-8).
This list of names is followed by questions asking Odin's location, power, and any great works he has performed. The response could almost be an answer by a Christian about their God:
"He lives throughout all ages and rules all his kingdom and governs all things great and small … he made heaven and earth and the skies and everything in them … but his greatest work is that he made man and gave him a soul that shall live and never perish though the body decay to dust or burn to ashes. And all men who are righteous shall live and dwell with him himself in the place called Gimle or Vingolf, but wicked men go to Hel and on to Niflhel; that is down in the ninth world" (Sturluson 1987, 9)
There was a lot to unpack in chapter 3, so that's all there is space for this month. Snorri's list of 12 names was absolutely not exhaustive; according to Simek, over 170 names have been passed down (Simek 1984, 248), and indeed they are brought up later in Gylfaginning. This is one of many places where his editorial choices are tuned to the Christian mindset, and his agenda of making Odin appear as Christ-like as possible.
Ciklamini, Marlene. Snorri Sturluson. Boston: GK Hall & Co, 1978.
Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1984.
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Translated by Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.