This month we will read some myths about Odin, the chief god of the principal pantheon in Norse mythology. Odin was always seeking more wisdom and often travelled the world in his search. He was also willing to pay any price for that wisdom.
Odin sacrifices his eye for wisdom
In Jotunheim, beneath the root of Yggdrasil, lies Mimir’s Well. The water of this well contains lots of wisdom, and drinking it gives you part of that wisdom. Mimir guards the well and drinks from its water. Odin heard about all the wisdom he could obtain from Mimir’s Well and went there. He asked for Mimir’s permission to have a drink of the water, but Mimir denied it – unless Odin payed for the wisdom by sacrificing one of his eyes. Odin agreed, and from that day Odin was one-eyed but wiser than before.
After the war between the Aesir and the Vanir there was an exchange of hostages. The Aesir sent Hoener with Mimir to the Vanir. Mimir was the advisor of Hoener, but when the Vanir discovered that Hoener was nothing without Mimir by his side they felt cheated – so they beheaded Mimir and sent his head back to the Aesir. Odin quickly anointed Mimir’s head with herbs and sang magic incantations. Mimir’s head was thus preserved and Odin kept it to listen to Mimir’s wisdom and advices.
Odin discovers the runes
In pre-Christian times runes were not only used as letters. They also had a more mystical meaning and were used in magical rituals and in combination with incantations.
By the Well of Urd, at the root of Yggdrasil in Godheim, the three norns Urd, Verdandi and Skuld sit and control the fate of men and gods. Odin observed them and their wisdom, and wished to learn about the runes for himself. He learned that he could only achieve his goal by making a great sacrifice. And so he hanged himself from the tree Yggdrasil, pierced by his own spear, for nine nights and days without food or drink. After the ninth night the knowledge of the runes finally came to him and he could let himself down from the tree.
From the giant Boltorn he learned nine magic songs that gave the runes power. Odin then studied and learned all the ways in which he could use runes, and he became one of the most powerful rune enchanters in the world. With the help of runes, Odin could wake the dead and speak to them, avoid being bound or hurt by any weapon, or be affected by any magic wielded by someone else. But Odin was wise enough to practice rune magic in moderation.
Odin steals the mead of poetry
There’s another story about what happened after the war between Aesir and Vanir. When peace was made, members of both parties spat in a large tub, and from the spit they created the man Kvasir. Kvasir turned out to be so wise that there was no question he couldn’t answer. So they made it his task to travel the world and educate people.
One day Kvasir visited the two dwarves Fjalar and Galar. These dwarves were evil, and they murdered Kvasir and emptied his body of blood. They collected the blood in three vessels called Son, Bodn and Odrorer. Then they mixed honey with the blood and thus created a special mead with the power to give the power of creating great poetry to those who drank it.
The Aesir started wondering why Kvasir had suddenly disappeared, so they searched for him. Odin heard a rumor that a giant called Suttung had killed two dwarves after they killed his parents, and that Suttung had come into possession of a powerful mead. Odin found that Suttung stored the vessels of mead in a mountain and had his daughter guarding it.
Odin went disguised to Suttung’s brother Baugi, tricked Baugi’s nine servants into killing each other, and then offered to do the work of nine servants himself. His reward would be a sip of Suttung’s mead. Baugi said he couldn’t control the mead, but if he was pleased with the work he would do what he could to help Odin get to the mead.
Six months later Odin had finished the work and wanted his reward. He and Baugi went to Suttung, but Suttung wasn’t willing to give him any of the mead. Baugi agreed to still help Odin, so they went to the mountain and drilled a hole. Odin transformed into a snake and quickly disappeared into the depths of the mountain where he transformed into a man again. He found Suttung’s daughter and she agreed to give him three sips of the mead if he stayed with her for three nights. Three nights later Odin took three sips of the mead – but each sip was big enough to empty each of the vessels of all the mead. He quickly transformed into an eagle and flew from the mountain.
But Suttung was suspicious and followed the eagle. The Aesir saw Odin approaching Asgard and set out a big vessel for him to empty his load. But Suttung caught up with Odin just as he started throwing up mead, and pulled at Odin’s tailfeathers. That’s why some of the mead didn’t make it into the vessel in Asgard, but dripped into Midgard. These drops are said to be the source of all bad poets and scholars, but those who were offered mead by Odin from the vessel in Asgard became true poets and scholars with great skills.
Stora boken om vikingarnas gudar och myter by Lars Magnar Enoksen (ISBN 978-91-7738-792-3)
Nordiska gudar och hjältar by Anders Baeksted (ISBN 91-37-09184-0)