We learn how Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, gained True Wisdom so that he could see everything that was happening, and was about to happen, all at the same time. He had to pay a high price for the gift, as you will hear.
Read by Elizabeth Donnelly.
Adapted for Storynory by Charlotte Sebag-Montefiore.
This is Elizabeth..and I’m here with another myth about the Norse gods. This one tells the story of how Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, gained True Wisdom, but only by paying a high price for it.
The Norsemen lived long ago, roughly half way between the time of Jesus and today. They mostly came from the countries that are 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. They journeyed 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 all the way to North America.
The Vikings had several gods, the chief of whom was Odin. There are lots of different stories about him but in every one, one fact remains the same and that is that he had only one Eye, [and that] This is because he had sacrificed the other to gain wisdom in order to save the World. This story tells you how that happened.
Odin lived in Asgard, the home of the Norse 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 they called Midgard, he wandered about in a long dark blue cloak, with a beautiful silver clasp with letters called runes engraved on on it. These runes contained magic spells..
Odin’s cloak had a hood, to keep him dry, as umbrellas hadn’t been invented yet - and a traveller’s stick to help him beat back the bushes and branches back as he walked along. for there were no roads like there are today. As Odin was the father of the gods, we imagine him to look 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 might say, that he couldn’t possibly have had such a long beard as it 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, that he was very good at disguising himself, and he could and often did look quite different.
Sometimes Odin didn’t use his stick, but rode his wonderful magic horse Sleipnir, which had 8 legs and was 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 Santa Claus.
All the same, Odin sometimes got tired of walking and riding about. One day when he was really fed up with wandering, he had a good idea. “If only I could see everything that is going on,” he said to himself, “Then, I could stay at home.”. And he thought about this for a while. What he needed was True Wisdom. If only he had True Wisdom, he would be able to stay at home and see everything all at the same time, and even you can't do that on the internet.
But to gain True Wisdom, he knew he would have to have a drink from the Well guarded by Mimir, the wisest man in Midgard.
The next morning, Odin left Asgard.. He took his favourite knapsack, and set off for Mimir’s Well. The journey was dangerous. For he had to climb over rocky mountains with blizzards of snow and ice cold winds. The well was near where the giants lived in Jotunheim, and lay under a huge ash tree. Mimir 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.
As Odin tramped along the road to the well, he met a giant riding on the back of a reindeer. He immediately recognised this lofty fellow - he was the wisest of the giants who knew many things - but for all his wisdom, he did not see through Odin’s disguise. Odin had pulled himself up to the height of the giant, and fell into conversation with him. “There’s something I would dearly like to learn from you,” he said.
And the giant replied jovially: “Ho ho. before you can learn from me, you must answer three riddles. And if you answer any of them wrong, you will lose your head. But if you answer them right, you can ask me three questions on the same terms. Do you agree to my rules?”
This was not the sort of game Odin liked, -and can you blame him ?- but as he was so set on his mission, he consented to the giant’s terms.
‘Well,’ said the giant, ‘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. thank goodness for that! He knew the answers!
‘Ifling is the deadly cold river that freezes in an instant any living thing that falls into it...
Skinfaxe and Hrimfaxe are the horses that drive Day and Night across the sky.
The field for the Last Battle is Vigard. That’s where you and I are destined to fight at the End of Days.’
‘Hmph’, said the giant. ‘You keep your head’. The giant was disappointed, because he liked taking peoples’ heads off them and boiling them up for dinner. ‘Now it’s your turn’.
Odin asked: "What will be the last words that Odin will whisper into the ear of Baldur, his son?"
‘That’s not a fair question’ said the giant. ‘How could I possibly know that?
‘Well,” said Odin ‘ 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 the giant.
Odin shuddered. ‘That’s a lot to ask for. Is there no other way.?..’
“There is no other way. Many have asked for the wisdom of the waters, but not one has yet agreed to pay the price.”
Odin nodded. He was glad to leave the wise but fierce giant and walk on. The path was stony, and there was a bitterly cold wind and rain so that his cloak was soon wet through. He fingered the clasp and whispered the rune: his cloak dried, and the weather improved, but the path was still rough, and he had to be very 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.
Odin continued his journey. Eventually, after turning a sharp bend in the road he was able to see the huge Ash Tree bordering Jotunheim, the Giants’ Land. It was indeed a wonderful and a beautiful tree, very tall, and very deep-rooted, as ash trees generally are. Its deep roots drew wisdom from the four corners of the earth. And near the tree Mimir stood by his Well.
‘Ho there Odin, I’ve been waiting for you.’ said Mimir, for he 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 waters, but they do not get to drink from them. No one has yet agreed to my price. You must give me your right eye.”
Odin considered one last time if the price was too high. His pale blue eyes were the colour of the sky on a bright winter's day, when the frost is hard on the ground. His eyes could pick out the tiniest bird miles and miles away across the frozen tundra. If a human, or even a god, looked him in the eyes, they could not but feel a kind of awe. But in the end, he did have two of them.
‘I will pay your price, Mimir.” And so saying, he tore his right eye from his head. The pain was searing. He gave it to the guardian of the Well. Mimir handed him a horn brimming with the waters of wisdom. Odin took a deep drink.
Immediately 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 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 that would come to him, he laughed with happiness.
But seeing all the sorrows and troubles that would happen to humankind, he also knew what he could do to help. For even though the gods really have no need to trouble themselves about us mortals, and our puny lives and petty sufferings, they do actually care - at least some of the time. After he drank from the Well of True Wisdom, he knew that he must never let evil get the upper hand in the world of humans on a permanent basis. And at least we mortals can be grateful for that small mercy.
And that is the story of how Odin got his True Wisdom, and of how he lost his eye. It is just possible that that is how he got his name too, for odin or “odeen” - in Russian, means one. The story was adapted by Charlotte Sebag-Montefiore for Storynory.
I do hope that you enjoyed this Norse myth, and there are many other myths, including stories from the ancient Greek World, that you can hear for free on Storynory.com.