How Odin got his Wisdom

A new version of an old story written by Charlotte Sebag-Montefiore

The Norsemen lived long ago, roughly half way between the time of Jesus and today. They mostly came from the countries that are now part of Scandinavia, which is now rich, but was then very poor. Most people, except the Kings and jarls or chiefs, had a constant struggle against the cold, and against hunger and disease. Because they were so poor, many Norsemen sailed away – these were the Vikings – in long boats looking for somewhere easier, and perhaps warmer, to make a living. Some went to Britain, and to other parts of Europe including Normandy in France, and Sicily, and some went to Greenland and on to North America.

There are lots of different stories about Odin who was their chief god: they mostly agree that he had only one Eye, and that he sacrificed the other in order to gain wisdom to try to save the World. Today’s story tells you how that happened.

Odin lived in Asgard, the home of the Aesir and of other gods. As well as being god of war, battle, victory and death, he was also the god of magic, poetry, prophecy and wisdom. Like most of the gods, he didn’t stay in Asgard all the time. When he came down to earth, which the gods called Midgard, he wandered about in a long dark blue cloak, with a beautiful silver clasp with runes on it. These runes contained magic spells, but there were other runes as this was just an ancient form of writing. Odin had many adventures.

Odin’s cloak had a hood, to keep him dry – umbrellas hadn’t been invented – and a traveller’s stick to help him beat the bushes and branches back as he walked along. There were no roads like there are today. As Odin was the father of the gods, he is pictured as quite old. Which maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t for gods are immortal, aren’t they? Odin is often pictured with a very long white beard which reached down below his knees. You could say he looked rather like Gandalf: Tolkien did, who wrote the book Gandalf is in, so he ought to know. Or you could say, such a long beard was bound to get tangled and dirty, though perhaps as he was a god, he could keep it clean. Or you could say what is definitely true, and that is that although Odin often had a long white beard down below his knees, he was very good at disguising himself, and he could and often did look quite different.

The Norsemen believed that Odin and his two brothers made Midgard, where we live. This was quite a job. They had to kill Ymir, the Ancient Giant, and they used his body to make the earth, his bones and teeth to make the rocks and stones. Then they turned Ymir’s blood into rivers and lakes. His skull became the sky, with four dwarves to hold it up in the corners. I won’t tell you what they made the clouds from, it is too nasty, but Ymir’s eyebrows became a barrier between the Earth and Jotunheim, where the giants lived. As Ymir was a giant, his eyebrows were very big and bushy and made very big mountains. So you can see, recycling is not a new idea.

Sometimes Odin didn’t use his stick, but rode his wonderful magic horse Sleipnir, which had 8 legs and galloped terribly fast. Whether he was just fast anyway, or whether it was because he had 8 legs, I don’t know, though I do know that if I had 8 legs, I would trip up. Anyway, Sleipnir was so fast that Odin just flew along, or perhaps he just flew: after all, Sleipnir was a magic horse. Some people think he was the forerunner of the reindeer that pull the sleigh of St Nicholas, or Santa Claus.

All the same, Odin sometimes got tired of walking and riding about. People called him by a different name then, Wegtam, which means wanderer or Way-wanderer. One day when he was really fed up with wandering about, he had a good idea. “If only”, he said to himself “I could see everything that is going on and stay at home.”. And he thought about this for a while. The idea had lots of advantages, he could stay in Asgard, with all its home comforts…Wouldn’t you like to be able to see everything that’s going on without having to hang about in airports, stations or traffic blocks? Odin knew the answer to his own question: with True Wisdom, he would be able to stay at home and see everything. And to gain True Wisdom, he knew he would have to have a drink from Mimir’s well. It was Mimir who guarded the Well, whose water bestowed Wisdom. “Besides” said Odin to himself “as chief god, I should have wisdom, and use it for good and to save the World.”

The next morning, Odin left Asgard.. He took his favourite knapsack, and set off for Mimir’s Well. The journey was dangerous. The Wellwas near where the giants lived in Jotunheim, and lay under a giant ash tree called Yggdrasil. Mimir guarded and he was not at all hospitable. “He won’t give me a drink for nothing” said Odin “the price will be very high”. How right he was.

And dangers lay on the journey long before Odin got to the Well. He looked up and saw a huge giant striding by. Odin drew himself up till he was level and they fell into conversation. “Fee fi fo fum”, said the giant. “My name is Vafthrudner and I’ve got three riddles for you. Answer them wrong, and you’ll lose your head. Answer them right and it’s your turn.” This was not the sort of game Odin liked, – would you? – He wanted to keep his head, and hoped his god’s education would serve him well. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Well,” said Vaftthrudner, “these are the questions. What is the name of the river that divides Asgard from Jötunheim? What are the names of the horses that Day and Night drive across the sky? and what is the name of the plain on which the last battle will be fought?”

Odin breathed a sigh of relief. He knew the answers! and these are the answers he gave.
“Ifling is the deadly cold river that never freezes itself, though it will freezes in an instant any living thing that falls into it…
Skinfaxe and Hrimfaxe, these are the horses that drive Day and Night across the sky.
The field for the Last Battle is Vigard. It is vast, one hundred miles long, and one hundred miles wide. That’s where we are destined to fight at the End of Days, or as you giants call it, before the Long Night.”
“Damn,” said the Vaffthrudner, “you keep your head.” The giant liked taking peoples’ heads off them and boiling them up for dinner. He was not a very good cook. “And it’s your turn.”
Odin asked: “What will be the last words that Odin will whisper into the ear of Baldur, his dear son?”
“That’s not fair,” said the giant. “How could I know that?”
“Well,” said Odin “your questions weren’t easy either. Did you worry about being fair to me? No, you did not. But I don’t want your head, just tell me what I’ll have to give Mimir for a drink from the Well of Wisdom?”

“He will ask for your right eye,” said Vafthrudner.

Odin paled. “That’s a lot to ask for. Is there no other way?” he thought. He left the giant and walked on. The path was stony, and there was a bitter wind and rain so that his cloak was soon wet through. Odin fingered the clasp and whispered the rune: his cloak dried, and the weather improved, but the path was still stony, and he had to be careful where he put his feet. It was depressing, especially when Odin thought about the eye he would have to lose forever. And about the terrible pain. For when the gods were in Midgard, the Land of Men, they had to feel what men feel, and suffer what men and women suffer. But Odin knew he would have to forfeit his eye to gain the Wisdom he needed to save the World.

He continued his journey. Then he saw the huge ash tree bordering Jotunheim, the Giants’ Land. Yggdrasil was indeed a wonderful and a beautiful tree, very tall, and very deep-rooted, as ash trees generally are. Yggdrasil needed deep roots in order to draw wisdom from the 4 corners of the earth, and in order to withstand the storms of Jotunheim. (Trees with shallow roots may blow over).
“Ho there, Odin, I’ve been waiting for you,” said Mimir, for Mimir had drunk from the Well, and knew everything that would happen, and everyone’s name before they told him. “Are you thirsty?”
“Yes,” said Odin. “I have a great thirst for Wisdom, and yes, Mimir, I need to drink from your Well.”
Mimir laughed. “Many are thirsty for my water, but they do not drink. Not even the gods can drink without paying the Price. You must give me one of your beautiful blue eyes.”

Odin steeled himself. “I will pay the Price, Mimir.” He tore out his right eye and gave it to Mimir. In return Mimir handed him a great horn of water from the Well. For a while Odin could not drink, because of his pain. Then he drank and drank, and drained the horn to the last drop.

He saw everything that had happened and everything that was in the future. Most people don’t want to know the future, as some of it is not good news. But some people do want to know the future, and try to find it out, one way or another. Usually it does them no good, and my advice to you is to keep away from fortune tellers.
But Odin was not a person, he was a Norse god, and when he saw the joy to come, he laughed with happiness. But seeing all the sorrows and troubles that would happen to Mankind, and to the gods in the future, he also knew what he could do to help, and how goodness would strengthen and grow into a force that one day would overcome all evil and despair.

And that is the story of how Odin got his Wisdom, and of how he lost his eye. It is just possible that that is how he got his name too, for odin in Russian means one.

(The answer to last month’s riddle is: the tick)

Published by Charlotte Sebag-Montefiore

After many years working as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, I became an author. My years as a mother and grandmother gave me plenty of practice telling children stories. I have become very interested in dinosaurs and animals, and I really enjoy rhymes and riddles!

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