As the most revered amongst all Norse deities, Odin was known by many titles including the All-Father, King of Asgard, and Patron of Rulers. He is especially known for his desire for knowledge and his willingness to do anything to gain it. There are in fact, many accounts of his many quests for wisdom and knowledge.
Of these accounts, one talks about Odin hanging himself from the tree of life Yggdrasil. Being such a mighty god, many wonder why he would possibly choose to do this. In this post, we will explore his reason for hanging himself as well as explore his unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
His Everlasting Quest For Wisdom
Before you can understand why Odin chose to hang himself from Yggdrasil, you must first understand his never-ending search for knowledge and the motivation behind it. Some believed that his search for it was not a selfish motive but a way for him to prevent Ragnarok, which would see to the destruction of the gods and the world he helped create. Others, however, believe that his motives were selfish. They believe that he only wanted to acquire more knowledge so that he could become the most powerful being. After all, there is a famous saying that knowledge is power. He believed that by being the most powerful being, he would be able to evade his death, which was prophesied to happen during Ragnarok at the hands of Fenrir.
Whatever his motivation was, it is clear that Odin wanted to know everything so that nothing under the cosmos could be hidden from him. For that, he traveled far and wide interacting with every being said to be the wisest of them all, including seers, prophets, kings, and philosophers. Among these interactions was the great battle of wisdom between him and the wisest giant Vafthrudnir. It is said that Odin disguised himself as a human wander named Gagnrad and went to Vafthrudnir’s hall seeking his wisdom. Vafthrudnir lay the condition that for him to answer him, Gagnrad (Odin) must also be willing to answer his questions. Whoever of the two would not be able to answer a question would be beheaded. Odin won the battle after finding out from Vafthrudnir everything he knew about Ragnarok.
Aside from speaking to the wise, Odin also had other ways of gaining information. One of them was through his two ravens, Muninn, meaning ‘memory’, and Huginn meaning ‘thought’. Each day, Odin would send the birds out around the world to gather as much information as possible and report back to him in his hall Valaskialf. Another source of his wisdom was through Mimir’s bodiless head, which Odin preserved after the Vanir beheaded him out of anger.
Odin even resorted to lying and betrayal to acquire knowledge. This is seen in the time when he stole the mead of poetry. This mead was brewed from honey and the blood of an extremely wise Vanir god called Kvasir. He was killed by his two dwarf servants who grew tired of his continuous lectures. It was said that whoever drank the mead would gain knowledge and be magically skilled in poetry. As such, the mead became a very precious source of divine wisdom. When Odin came to know of it, he wanted it for himself. By this time, the mead ended up in the hands of a giant named Suttung, who acquired it from the dwarves as penance for killing his mother. Suttung hid the mead in the mountains and had his daughter guard it. To acquire the mead, Odin first went through Baugi, Suttung’s brother, and tricked him into boring a hole in the mountain. He then tricked Suttung’s daughter by pretending to sleep with her for three nights only to drain the entire mead. He then shapeshifted into an eagle and flew back to Asgard where containers were waiting for him. Suttung chased after him, causing him to spill a beat of the mead, but eventually, he succeeded in transferring most of it into the containers.
The most extreme thing, however, that Odin had to do for knowledge was the self-sacrifices he made. For example, he lost his eye to be able to drink from Mimir’s well, which was also known as the well of Knowledge/wisdom. But the most extreme self-sacrifice was the near-death experience when he pierce himself with his spear and was hanged from Yggdrasil.
Odin Hanging From Yggdrasil
We’ve just described to you the quests and speculations of the motivations behind Odin’s thirst for knowledge. From this, you can understand or at least imagine the lengths he would go to become more knowledgeable. So, it would now be easier for you to understand why the All-Father decided to hang himself from the Tree of Life. The simple answer to this question is that he did this to acquire an understanding of the Old Norse runes. But why were these runes important? To understand this, we must first discuss who the Norns were and their vital role in the story.
One could say that the Norns were the most powerful entities to have ever existed. They lived in and guarded the Well of Urd, from which the great Yggdrasil grew. The Norns were made up of three goddesses namely, Urd (Past), Verðandi (Present), Skuld (Future). These three were the most powerful because they controlled and shaped the fates of every creature in the cosmos, including the gods who must also bow to fate. One of their most common techniques of crafting fate was rune carvings. These runes, however, only revealed themselves to those who were deemed worthy.
Given the power of the Norns and the runes, it’s natural that Odin would have an interest in them. He grew envious of the kind of power and wisdom the Norns had. Wanting to acquire the knowledge of the runes and the powers beyond it, Odin finally decided to take action and prove his worthiness. To do that, he struck himself with his spear and hung himself for nine days and night from Yggdrasil. He ordered that no creature or being should help him by offering him food, drink, or any other form of aid.
After the ninth day and night, the runes finally revealed themselves to Odin and he was able to understand them. With the knowledge of the runes, Odin also gained powerful charms. After the ordeal, he was able to heal wounds, wake the dead, bind enemies, and put out fire among many others.
Odin’s determination and sacrifice to learn the runes and the secret power behind them is a demonstration of the sacrifices we make to also gain knowledge. We sacrifice our time, money, and for some even health. The process of learning is tedious but what you gain from it makes it worth it. After all, nothing valuable ever comes easily.