Nordic Mythology – Odin
The Mythological and Historical Odin
The Sagas of Nordic Mythology paint Odin as the most persuasive of men. Nothing could resist the force of his words. He sometimes enlivened his people with poetic verses and he was not only a great poet, but it was he who taught the art of poetry to the Norsemen. He was the inventor of the runic characters, which may very well be called a sort of second speech. But what most contributed to him passing for a god was his skill in magic. He could run over the world in the twinkling of an eye; he had the command of the air and the tempests; he could transform himself into all sorts of shapes, could raise the dead, could foretell the future, could deprive his enemies of health and strength through enchantments and even discover all the treasures concealed in the earth. He knew how to sing so tender and melodious that the very plains and mountains would open and expand with delight; the ghosts (attracted by the sweetness of his songs) would leave their infernal caverns and stand motionless around him. Such is the legendary Odin of the North, and he was the great example that the Norsemen had to imitate in war and in peace.
Various classes of beings are mentioned in the Nordic Sagas. Life is a conflict between these beings, for the spiritual everywhere seeks to penetrate and govern the physical; but it also everywhere meets resistance. The Nordic divinities called Asa, Aesir or Æsir (pronounced “ICE-ir”) unite themselves with another group of divinities called Van or Vanir, and rule over heaven and earth. The giants war against the Aesir & Vanir. The elves belong to the Aesir, while the dwarfs align with the giants, yet also serve the Aesir.
Odin commanded the Aesir (whose country was situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and whose principal city was Asgard). Odin, having united under his banners the youth of the neighboring nations, marched toward the west and north of Europe, subduing all the peoples he met on his way and giving their kingdoms to his sons. Many Royal Families of Northern Europe are said to be descended from these sons. Thus Hengist and Horsa (the Saxon chiefs who conquered Britain in the fifth century) counted Odin in the number of their ancestors. The Royal Families of East Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway all also claim lineage from Odin.
After Odin had finished this glorious achievements he retired into Sweden, where (perceiving his end to be near) he gathering round him the friends and companions of his fortune. He gave himself nine wounds in the form of a circle with the point of a spear, and many other cuts in his skin with his sword. As he was dying he declared he was going back to Asgard to take his seat among the gods at an eternal banquet, where he would receive (with great honors) all who should expose themselves intrepidly in battle and die bravely with their swords in their hands. As soon as he had breathed his last breath, they carried his body to Sigtuna, where (in accordance with a custom introduced by him) his body was burned with much pomp and magnificence.
– Paraphrase from Norse Mythology (1884) by Rasmus B. Anderson
Odin: the All-Father
The first and eldest of the Aesir is Odin. He is called “All-father”, because he is the father of all the gods. All enterprise in peace and in war proceeds from him. He is the author of war and the inventor of poetry. All knowledge comes from him and (as has been said) he is the inventor of the runes. As the spirit of life, he permeates all animate and inanimate matter, the whole universe. He governs all things and although the other deities are powerful, they all serve and obey him as children do their father. He confers many favors on gods and men…
Odin is the all-pervading spirit of the world, and produces life & spirit (önd & aand). With the gods Hoener and Loder, he makes the first man & woman and gives them spirit. The name ‘Odin’ is derived from the verb vada (imperfect ód) “to walk” (compare watan, wuot, wuth, wüthen, wuothan, wodan). Besides “All-father”, Odin is also called Valfather (father of the slain), because he chooses all who fall in combat as his children. For their abode he has prepared Valhal (or Valhallah) and Vingolf, where they are called einherjes (heroes). In Asgard, Odin has 12 names, but in the Younger Edda is given 49 names…
Theeinherjes (heroes) are constantly the object of his care. He guides and protects the brave heroes through their whole life; he watches over their birth and over their whole development; gives them wonderful weapons, teaches them new arts of war; assists them in critical emergencies, accompanies them in war, and takes the impetus out of the enemy’s weapons; and when the warrior has at last grown old, he provides that they may not die upon their bed, but instead fall in honorable combat. Finally, he protects the social organization: he revenges murder, protects the sanctity of the oath, subdues hatred, and dispels anxieties and sorrows.
– Paraphrase from Norse Mythology (1884) by Rasmus B. Anderson
Odin: Inventor and Master of the Runes
The original meaning of the word ‘rune’ is “secret”, and it was used to signify a mysterious song, mysterious doctrine, mysterious speech, and mysterious writing. The Nordic peoples had an alphabet called runes, before they learned the so-called Roman characters. But what does it mean that Odin is the inventor of the runes? Odin’s runes are an expression of his being and represent the might and wisdom with which he rules all of nature, even its most secret phenomena. Odin, as master of the runes, is the spirit that subdues and controls physical nature. He governs the wind, the sea, the fire, and the spirit of the human being, the hate of the enemy and the love of women, etc. Everything submits to his mighty sway, and thus the runes were carved on all possible things in heaven and on earth.
The runes of Odin were carved on the shield which stands before the shining god, on the ear of Aarvak (the ever-wakeful), and on the hoof of Alsvin ; on the wheels that roll under Rogner’s chariot, on his horse’s reins, on the paw of the bear and on the tongue of Brage; on the claws of the wolf, on the beak of the eagle, on bloody wings and on the end of the rainbow bridge (the Bifröst); on glass, on gold, on wine and on herb; on Vile’s heart, on the point of his spear, on Grane’s breast, on the nails of the Norns (who rule the destiny of gods & men) and on the beak of the owl. All that were carved were afterwards scraped off, mixed with the holy mead and sent out into all parts of the world: some are with the Aesir, some with the elves, and some are with the sons of men.
Odin hung nine days on the Yggdrasil-World tree (the Nordic “tree of life”) and sacrificed himself to himself, and (as mentioned earlier) wounded himself with his own spear. Do you know that knowledge cannot be acquired without labor, struggle, sacrifice, and without solemn consecration of one’s self to a subject? Did you know that Odin gave his own eye in exchange for a drink from Mimer’s fountain? For the sake of this struggle to acquire knowledge, the spirit offers itself to itself. It knows what hardships and sufferings must be encountered on the road to knowledge, but it bravely faces these obstacles, it wants to wrestle with them; that is its greatness, its glory, and its power.
Nine nights Odin hangs on the Yggdrasil-World tree. Rome was not built in a day, nor is knowledge acquired in a day. The spirit is developed through a slow process. During those nine nights, Odin neither eats nor drinks: he fasts. You must also curb your bodily appetites, and, like Odin, look down into the depths and penetrate the mysteries of nature with your spirit. Then you will learn all those wonderful rune songs that Odin learned, crying, before he fell from the tree.
Odin is the author of the runic incantations that played such a conspicuous part in the social and religious life of the Norsemen. The belief in occultism was universal among Nordic peoples, and had its origin in their mythology, and (not surprisingly) Odin is also the inventor of the magical arts.
– Paraphrase from Norse Mythology (1884) by Rasmus B. Anderson
Nordic Mythology – The World Tree
The Yggdrasil-World Tree and its Roots
Yggdrasil World Tree is, in fact, the great tree of life, the Tree of Existence, wonderfully elaborated and extended through the whole system of the universe. It furnishes bodies for mankind from its branches; it strikes its roots through all worlds, and spreads its life-giving arms through the heavens. All life is cherished by it, even that of serpents (who devour its roots and seek to destroy it).
The name Yggdrasil is derived from Odin’s name: Yggr (the deep thinker), and drasill (carrier, horse). Yggdrasil, therefore, means “the Bearer of God”, a phrase which finds a literal explanation when Odin hangs nine nights on this tree before he discovered the Runes.
Yggdrasil, the Ash-tree of Existence, has its roots deep down in the kingdom of Hela (or Death); its trunk reaches up to heaven, spreads its main branches over the whole universe. Its main branches, with their buds and leaves stretch through all lands and times. These branches connect events, things suffered, things done, catastrophes, etc. Every leaf of it is like a biography, every fiber is like an act or a word, etc.
Yggdrasil has three grand roots far apart. One of them extends to the Aesir (the Nordic gods). Another to the hostile Jötunn/Giants (giant beings who are offspring of the chaos-giant Ymir). The third stands over Niflheim (the homeland of primordial darkness, cold, mist, and ice).
Under the root of Yggdrasil that stretches out toward the Jötunn/Giants is Mimer’s fountain, where wisdom and knowledge are hidden. Mimer, the fountain’s owner, is full of wisdom, because he drinks its waters every morning with the Gjallarhom (the “yelling horn” or “the loud sounding horn”).
The Jötunn/Giants are older than the Aesir, and looked deep into the darkness of the past. They had witnessed the birth of the gods and the beginning of the world. Therefore, the gods had to go to the Jötunn/Giants for knowledge. In the first song in the Elder Edda, a vala (or prophetess, from Jotunheim) is represented as rising up from the deep and unveiling the past and the future to gods and men.
Thus, there was a time when Odin had not yet acquired strength and wisdom. But, though self-sacrifice, he was able to acquire a drink from the celebrated Mimer (who dwells in the deep and has charge of the mighty runes). However, he had to leave one of his own eyes in exchange for it.
After the drink from Mimer’s fountain had given him strength, Odin slue the chaos-giant Ymir, raised of the crust of the earth, and created Midgard (meaning something like “Middle Enclosure”). Midgard is the terrestrial world, the only primarily visible world of Nordic Mythology’s Nine Worlds. A serpent lives in the sea and the wilderness that surrounds Midgard.
The power from which Odin was made able to form the upper world, came from the lower world and from Mimer’s fountain of wisdom. Mythology makes Mimer the first smith and chief artist, and keeper of treasures and the ruler of a group of dwarfs, underground artists, for originally these were and remained creative forces personified…
The Root of the Aesir, the Urdar-Fountain and the Norns
Under the root of Yggdrasil that extends to the Aesir (in heaven) is the holy Urdar-fountain. Here the gods sit in judgment. Every day they ride up hither on horseback over Bifrost (the rainbow), which is called the ‘bridge of the gods’. The gods who have horses ride them over this bridge, except for Thor, who has to go on foot. He cannot pass this Aesir-Bridge, for the thunder (which he is) would destroy it; therefore he daily wades through the rivers to get to the council of the gods.
The Jötunn/Giants cannot pass the Aesir-Bridge, since the red in it is burning fire and the waters of heaven roar around it. If it were easy for every one to walk over it, then the Giants would go up to heaven by that bridge, and perhaps succeed in bringing ruin upon the gods.
At the Urdar-fountain dwell also three maidens, named Urd, Verdande and Skuld (Present, Past and Future). These maidens fix the lifetime of all men, and are called Norns. They guard the fountain, which takes its name from the first and highest of the three, Urd. There are also other Norns, some of which are of heavenly origin, but others belong to the races of elves and dwarfs. The Norns who are of good origin are good themselves, and dispense good destinies. Those men to whom misfortunes happen ought to ascribe them to the evil Norns. Thus it is that some men are fortunate and wealthy, while others acquire neither riches nor honors; some live to a good old age, while others are cut off in their prime.
The Norns who dwell by the Urdar-fountain, draw water from this spring every day. With it, and the clay that lies around the fount, they sprinkle the ash, in order that the main branches may continue green, and not rot and wither away. This water is so holy that everything placed in the spring becomes as white as the film within an egg-shell. The dew that falls from the tree on the earth men call honey-dew, and it is the food of the bees. Finally, two swans swim in the Urdar-fountain, and they are the parents of the race of swans. Thus all the tribes of nature partake of the universal tree and all life is figured by the tree.
The Yggdrasil-World Tree, the Nations of Midgard, and the Universe
Furthermore it must be stated of the Ash Yggdrasil tree, that on its topmost branch sits an eagle who knows many things, and between the eagle’s eyes sits a hawk. A squirrel runs up and down the tree, seeking to cause strife between the eagle and the serpent Nidhug (who is together with many snakes & reptiles). Four stags leap about beneath its branches and feed on its buds.
As has been mentioned, its branches connect events together and every leaf is like a biography, every fiber is like an act. Its main branches are histories of nations; the rustle of it is the noise of human existence. It is Yggdrasil, the Tree of Existence. It is the past, the present, and the future; what was done, what is doing, what will be done; it is the infinite conjugation of the verb ‘to do’.
Yggdrasil is the tree of the experience of humanity. It has three roots, and experience teaches that there are, in reality, but three kinds of people in the world: some that work energetically for noble and eternal purposes (their root is in Asaheim); some that work equally energetically, but for evil and temporal ends (their root is in Jotunheim); and many who distinguish themselves only by sloth and impotence (their root is in Niflheim with the goddess Hela or death, in Hvergelmer, where the serpent Nidhug, with all his reptile brood, gnaws at their lives).
There is a deeply-laid plan in the universe, a close union between spirit and matter. There is no such thing as independent life or action. The ends of the threads wherewith our life is woven lie deeply hid in the abyss of the beginning. The mortal individual was merely a leaf, who imagines themselves to be something, but is in fact only a bud that unfolds itself and falls from the tree of the universe. The struggle between absolute necessity and free-will was an unsolved riddle in Nordic Mythology and still puzzles many today…