Odin Hanging From Yggdrasil (Search For Wisdom) Explained
The following tales were about the god Odin’s search for wisdom and magical powers to avoid his doom and the destruction of the gods and the Nine Worlds at Ragnarök. His search leads him to break solemn oaths and terrible sacrifices.
|Thirst for Knowledge and Power|
|Well of Knowledge|
|Head of Mimir|
|Mead of Poetry|
|Sacrifice: Hanging and Runes|
|Vafthrudnir: Contest of Wisdom|
|Knowledge is power, so the saying goes. Which means that secret knowledge is secret power.
Odin did not seek knowledge for its own sake. Rather that he tried to find a way to circumvent the destruction of the gods and the world he helped to create. Odin learned from the seeress Sibyl and the Norns that gods will fight a final battle against the frost-giants at Ragnarök. Few gods will escape death and destruction. Odin was one of them doomed to die.
Odin seemed obsessed with Ragnarök, as it can be seen in several poems of the Poetic Edda: Voluspa (“Sibyl’s Prophecy”), Havamal (“Sayings of the High One”), and Vafthrudnismal (“Sayings of Vafthrudnir”).
Odin tried to gain knowledge and power by speaking to wise people, such as seers, prophets, kings, and philosophers, as he did in the three poems I mentioned above.
Odin had several means of gaining news from around the world. One of the means of gaining knowledge comes from his two ravens – Hugin (“Thought”) and Munin (“Memory”). These two birds fly throughout the world, each day. Then they fly back giving Odin news of what was happening anywhere around the world, while he sat on Hlidskialf, his throne, in the hall of Valaskialf.
Hlidskialf also allowed Odin to see what was happening around the world without moving from the throne.
Of all the gods, Odin was one who tried to secure knowledge, no matter what. Odin will try everything he can to gain knowledge. Odin will resort to deception, betrayal and murder. Odin was the breaker of oaths, since he would break his vows, especially if he could gain advantages from it.
|The Well of Knowledge was near one of the three roots of Yggdrasill. Yggdrasill or the World Tree was the giant cosmic ash tree that covered the nine worlds. The root extended from three of the worlds: one from Asgard, the next one from the world of the frost giants (Jotunheim) and the third from Niflheim. The root near Neflheim is the well called Hvergelmir. The root that reached the heaven (Asgard) was called Weird’s Well, which was a holy well, where the gods often held court. The Weird’s Well was known by another name, Urdarbrunnr or “Well of Urda”, because it was the well which the Norns were its guardians.
The root that extended over the frost giants’ world was a well that was called Mímisbrunnr or “Mimir’s Well”, because it was guarded by Mimir. Mimir was wise because he frequently drank from the well.
The price of drinking from the well was not small. Odin gave up one of his eyes so he could drink from the Well of Knowledge.
Heimdall, guardian of Bifrost (Rainbow Bridge) in Asgard, similarly sacrificed a body part. Heimdall gave up one of his earlobes to drink from the well.
There was another version on how Odin gained knowledge from Mimir. See Head of Mimir.
|There is a different story on how Odin gained knowledge from Mimir, but this version took place in a different circumstance that had nothing to do with the Well of Mimir.
After the war against the Vanir, the Aesir and Vanir exchange hostages as a mean of securing peace. Mimir was one of the hostages for the Vanir, as well as Hoenir (Vili), the brother of Odin. The Aesir received Njörd and Freyr, Njord’s son, as hostages. The Aesir also received Kvasir, the wisest god of the Vanir. See Mead of Poetry to read about Kvasir’s fate.
Hoenir was a handsome and noble looking As, but he was not too bright. Every decision Hoenir had made, seemed highly thought out, only because Mimir was there to advise him. However, when Mimir was absence, Hoenir either gave strange advice during the meeting or that he wanted to wait for Mimir’s return.
The Vanir grew increasingly suspicious of Hoenir’s intelligence. When their suspicions were confirmed that Hoenir was not really intelligent, the Vanir felt cheated. The Vanir were angry enough to cut off Mimir’s head and sent it back to the Aesir. The Vanir left Hoenir unharmed since he was Odin’s brother.
Odin preserved Mimir’s decapitated head with herbs so that the head would not decay. It seemed any knowledge Odin wished to gain, all he had to do was talk to the bodiless head. Odin often receive counsel from Mimir’s talking head.
See also the War of the Aesir and the Vanir, for more detail about Mimir.
Shortly after the war between Aesir and Vanir, there was hostage exchange between the two warring tribes. Kvasir the wisest among the Vanir, joined Njörd and his son Freyr, as hostages to the Aesir. Receiving these three gods had gained Aesir greater status. Odin and the Aesir gave these three gods a prominent place among them.
Kvasir was so wise that he seemed to know everything. Kvasir travelled throughout the world teaching people of his knowledge. However, two dwarfs, named Fjalar and Galar. Tired from his continuous lecturing, the dwarfs killed the Vanir.
The two dwarfs poured Kvasir blood in Odrerir, which were two vats and a pot. The vats were also called Bodn and Son. By mixing the blood with honey, the dwarfs brewed the mead with special power. The mead allowed anyone who drank the mead to acquire knowledge and magical skills in poetry that come from Kvasir’s memory. The mead became an invaluable source of divine wisdom, and it was called the Mead of Poetry.
One day, the dwarfs gained the company of a giant named Gilling, as they sailed along the coast. When the boat capsized, Gilling fell into the sea and drowned. Gilling’s unnamed wife grieve for husband’s death. The dwarfs tiring of the wife of Gilling’s constant and loud grieving, tricked the widow to join them in a boat, where Galar killed the widow with a millstone.
The giant Suttung hearing of her mother’s murder, captured the two dwarfs. Suttung only spared and released the dwarfs, when they offered the giant their precious mead.
Suttung knew of the magical properties of the Mead of Poetry, took the Odrerir home in Hnitbiorg. The mead was kept in a cave at the mountain. Suttung wanting the mead, all for himself, placed his daughter Gunnlod to guard the mead.
Odin learned of the mead, set out in disguise as farm hand and called himself Bolverk, to gain the mead. Odin worked for Baugi, the brother of Suttung in return for a drink of the mead.
Odin worked the field for winter and summer, completing the work of nine men. Baugi, who also wanted a drink from the mead, agreed that Bolverk (Odin) should be paid, but Suttung refused.
Odin tricked Baugi into boring a hole through the mountain, using Odin’s auger, called rati, hoping to get to the mead. Once the hole was made, Odin transformed himself into a snake and crawled through the hole. Baugi realised he had been tricked, try to kill the snake (Odin), but failed.
In the cave, Odin found the giantess guarding the mead. For three nights, Odin slept with Gunnlod. Each night, Gunnlod would allow Odin to take one drink of the mead. Odin took only one draught, but he completely drained the Odrerir in the first night, then the vat Bodn in the second night. On the third night, Odin drained the second vat Son in one draught.
Then Odin flew out of the cave, in the form of an eagle. Suttung seeing the eagle, transformed himself also into an eagle and gave chase. The Aesir had containers ready at Asgard. As Odin flew over the containers, he spat the mead into the containers.
To escape Suttung, Odin spat the rest of the mead behind him. Anyone below the two birds, would receive their share of the mead, whether they were Aesir or mortals, and became skilled in poetry.
According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, the dwarf Dvalin had offered the drink from Mead of Poetry to men.
|In the Havamal (“Sayings of the High One”), Odin recorded the time he spent learning the magic from runes.
On the windy days, Odin was hanging from the branch of Yggdrasill, the cosmic World Tree, with a rope around his neck. He was also suffering from a wound that was pierced by his own spear (Gungnir).
Odin remained there for nine days and nine nights. And in the next line , Odin learned nine mighty spells, from his grandfather Bolthor, as well as drinking from the precious mead from Odrerir (see Mead of Poetry). The number nine was also significant, in term of symbolism and magic.
From lines 144-145, he not only speaks of carving the runes, but also of sacrifice. It was believed that you could only learn the magic spells from the runes if you were dead. And since it was he who wanted to learn the runes, a sacrifice was needed. Odin paid the sacrifice himself. Which is why he was hanging with a hangman’s noose around his neck, so that is why Odin had acquired the name – Hanga-tyr (“god of the hanged”).
The ninth night coincided with the festival of May Eve (April 30), otherwise known as Walpurgis’ Night, where Odin mastered his ninth and final spell, which the hanged god ritually died. During this final night, all light were extinguished with his supposedly death. It was at this time that chaos and the spirit world reigned supreme and the witchcraft or sorcery is most potent. Odin’s death lasted until midnight, and then light would return to the world. Like the Celtic Beltane or May Day, the night was celebrated with large bonfires lighted around the countryside.
In the Eddiac poem, Sigrdrifumal (“Lay of Sigrdrifa”), the Valkyrie Sigrdrifa (generally known as Brynhild) was punished for letting the wrong king die in battle, so Odin had drugged her to sleep. She would have to marry a mortal when she was wakened, but she refused to marry anyone unless he was a hero who has no fear. Sigrdrifa informed Odin that she would teach this hero about the runes of powers. From lines 5-19, Sigrdrifa listed several spells using runes. They were victory-runes, ale-runes, helping-runes, sea-runes, limb-runes, speech-runes, mind-runes and book-runes.
The most interesting is the victory-runes, when you wish for victory in battle or combat. Sigrdrifa suggested that runes should be cut into sword’s hilts, blade-guard and plates, then invoking the name of Tyr. Tyr is the god of war, though Odin also used the name Tyr, such as Sigtyr, which means god of victory or god of war.
You will find the history of runes and runic alphabets in The Norse Way.
It is interesting that the origin of sacrificing by hanging victim had existed and written some hundreds of years before the Havamal was written. According to Tacitus, a Roman historian (fl. AD 100), he recorded an older tradition practised by the Cimbri, an ancient Germanic tribe. The Cimbri sacrificed their victims to Wodan (Woden), the Germanic form of Odin (some called him by his Roman name, Mercury), by hanging their victims over a cauldron. The priestess then cut the hanged victims’ throats, so that they would bleed in the cauldron, before their bodies were thrown into sacred lakes.
This custom was practised by the Cimbri had nothing to do with learning runes, but the sacrifices were used as a mean to appease Wodan (Odin).
|The dialogue in Vafthrudnismal (“Vafthrudnir’s Sayings”) begin with Odin telling his wife, Frigg, that he would visit the giant Vafthrudnir, who was reputed to be the wisest of giants. Frigg would have preferred that Odin stay at home, then facing such powerful giant, but she didn’t dissuade him.
Odin arrived at Vafthrudnir’s hall, disguised as a human wanderer. Odin introduced himself as Gagnrad, seeking the wisdom of Vafthrudnir. Vafthrudnir warned him that if he is seeking answers, then Gagnrad (Odin) should be willing to answer his questions. However, should either one not able to answer any question that person would lose his head.
Vafthrudnir began asking a series of questions to Odin, and then Odin would ask him a set of questions. This game of test of wisdom seemed to reveal different aspects of mythology. Most of Vafthrudnir’s questions deal with the name of animals (eg. horses), geography (names of rivers), and where the final battle (Ragnarok) would take place.
Odin’s 18 questions ranged from the Creation to Ragnarok. Most interesting are the questions concerning both events, particularly the human and gods that would survive Ragnarok.
It seemed that Odin was most interested in the second last answer, of how he would die. Vafthrudnir told him that Odin would be swallowed up by the wolf Fenrir, and that he would be avenged by Vidar, Odin’s son.
With this answer, Odin ended the game with the last unanswerable question, which was –
“…what did Odin say into the ear of his son before he mounted the pyre?”
Vafthrudnir realised that this Gagnrad was really Odin in guise, admitted that he didn’t know what Odin whispered to Balder, Odin’s dead son.
So the poem ended. Though Odin won, we don’t know what happened to Vafthrudnir after the contest. Did Vafthrudnir lose his head?