During the pagan era, Odin was respected as the mysterious and omniscient god of war, wisdom, death and fate. Sacrifices were often made to him, particularly in times of conflict. He was also feared, particularly because he sometimes travelled through the human world in disguise, meddling in people’s affairs or changing the course of battles.
This brief and exquisitely mystical story links Odin to the Vikings’ only form of writing during the pagan era – by carving rune-letters into wood, stone, metal or bone. The myth appears in 25 cryptic verses of a poem called Havamal (‘The Sayings of the High One’), possibly dating back to the ninth century.
Usually claimed to be in Odin’s own words, it describes him sacrificing “himself to himself” by hanging upside-down on a lonely tree for nine nights. Finally, he has a vision of the runes, alongside the secrets of many esoteric spells.
Most surviving Viking stories are very down to earth, but this one demonstrates that the old pagan religion had a highly mystical and spiritual side.
Odin was the god of war and kingship, but he was also a god of knowledge and magic.
He was constantly seeking more wisdom and new information. He travelled the Nine Worlds to learn all that he could and often went to great lengths to find secret knowledge. He was never satisfied, however, and was always pushing himself further to become the wisest sage alive.
In his most dramatic act, Odin made the ultimate sacrifice to learn a secret that was hidden deep in the well of fate. To learn the magic of the runes, Odin gave himself as a human sacrifice.
The story of how Odin discovered the runes provides a vivid image not only of the god, but of ritual practices that were actually performed in the Norse world.
Odin’s Sacrifice to Himself
Odin was on a constant hunt for knowledge and had already done many things in his quest for now information.
He had stolen the Poetry of Mead in the form of an eagle and visited the realm of Hel to learn about Ragnarök from a dead seer.
He was constantly getting news from his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who flew throughout the Nine Worlds to bring back every bit of information they could find.
He had also made a great sacrifice to learn more. When Mímir had said that something must be given up to drink from his well and acquire its knowledge, Odin had plucked out his own right eye and thrown it into the water to get just a sip.
There was still more to learn, however.
Odin watched the Norns, knowing that they knew more than anyone else about the world. The three goddesses wove the strands of fate among Yggdrasil’s roots, but rarely shared their knowledge with others.
He knew that another great sacrifice would be required to learn more. He decided to make the greatest sacrifice he could to get a glimpse of the Norns’ wisdom.
Odin hanged himself from the branches of Yggdrasil as a human sacrifice. He made it a blood sacrifice by piercing himself with a spear.
For nine days and nights the god hung on the tree. From his position in the branches he looked down into the Well of Urd by which the Norns wove fate and waited for its mysteries to be revealed.
Some of the creatures that lived in the World Tree’s branches approached him during his ordeal. The eagle in the tree’s bows and the squirrel Ratatoskr watched his suffering but he forbade them from bringing him any food or water.
The Well of Urd slowly began to reveal things to him. The image of an ancient god taught him nine magical songs, but he remained in the tree knowing that there was more to see.
He learned nine words of great power but continued his sacrifice.
At the end of the ninth day he was barely clinging to life. Just before the moment of death, his sacrifice was accepted and the well showed him the runes.
The lost alphabet was more than just a system of writing. Each symbol carried with it magic and when used in the correct way the runes could be used to weave powerful spells.
Odin screamed as the knowledge entered his mind and fell from the tree. By offering the ultimate sacrifice, himself, he had learned the greatest magical power in the universe.