The Norse god Odin is a relentless seeker after knowledge and wisdom, and is willing to sacrifice almost anything for this pursuit. The most outstanding feature of his appearance, his one eye, attests to this; he sacrificed his other eye for more wisdom. The tale of how he discovered the runes is another example of his unquenchable thirst for understanding the mysteries of life, not to mention his unstoppable will.
The runes are the written letters that were used by the Norse and other Germanic peoples before the adoption of the Latin alphabet in the later Middle Ages. Unlike the Latin alphabet, which is an essentially utilitarian script, the runes are symbols of some of the most powerful forces in the cosmos. In fact, the word “rune” and its cognates across past and present Germanic languages mean both “letter” and “secret/mystery.” The letters called “runes” allow one to access, interact with, and influence the world-shaping forces they symbolize. Thus, when Odin sought the runes, he wasn’t merely attempting to acquire a set of arbitrary representations of human vocal sounds. Rather, he was uncovering an extraordinarily potent system of magic.
Odin’s Discovery of the Runes
Yggdrasil grows out of the Well of Urd, a pool whose fathomless depths hold many of the most powerful forces and beings in the cosmos. Among these beings are the Norns, three sagacious maidens who exert more influence over the course of destiny than any other beings in the cosmos. One of the foremost techniques they use to shape destiny is carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. The symbols then carry these intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.
Odin watched the Norns from his seat in Asgard and envied their powers and their wisdom. And he bent his will toward the task of coming to know the runes.
Since the runes’ native home is in the Well of Urd with the Norns, and since the runes do not reveal themselves to any but those who prove themselves worthy of such fearful insights and abilities, Odin hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil, pierced himself with his spear, and peered downward into the shadowy waters below. He forbade any of the other gods to grant him the slightest aid, not even a sip of water. And he stared downward, and stared downward, and called to the runes.
He survived in this state, teetering on the precipice that separates the living from the dead, for no less than nine days and nights. At the end of the ninth night, he at last perceived shapes in the depths: the runes! They had accepted his sacrifice and shown themselves to him, revealing to him not only their forms, but also the secrets that lie within them. Having fixed this knowledge in his formidable memory, Odin ended his ordeal with a scream of exultation.
Having been initiated into the mysteries of the runes, Odin recounted:
Then I was fertilized and became wise;
I truly grew and thrived.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.
Equipped with the knowledge of how to wield the runes, he became one of the mightiest and most accomplished beings in the cosmos. He learned chants that enabled him to heal emotional and bodily wounds, to bind his enemies and render their weapons worthless, to free himself from constraints, to put out fires, to expose and banish practitioners of malevolent magic, to protect his friends in battle, to wake the dead, to win and keep a lover, and to perform many other feats like these.
“Sacrificing Myself to Myself”
Our source for the above tale is the Hávamál, an Old Norse poem that comprises part of the Poetic Edda. In the first of the two verses that describe Odin’s shamanic initiatory ordeal itself (written from Odin’s perspective), the god says that he was “given to Odin, myself to myself.” The Old Norse phrase that translates to English as “given to Odin” is gefinn Óðni, a phrase that occurs many times throughout the Eddas and sagas in the context of human sacrifices to Odin. And, in fact, the form these sacrifices take mirrors Odin’s ordeal in the Hávamál; the victim, invariably of noble birth, was stabbed, hung, or, more commonly, both at the same time.
Odin’s ordeal is therefore a sacrifice of himself to himself, and is the ultimate Odinnic sacrifice – for who could be a nobler offering to the god than the god himself?
So, it seems that a statement above is in need of qualification. Part of Odin survived the sacrifice in order to be the recipient of the sacrifice – in addition to the runes themselves – and another part of him did indeed die. This is suggested, not just by the imagery of death in these verses, but also by the imagery of rebirth and fecundity in the following verses that speak of his being “fertilized,” and, like a seedling, “growing,” and “thriving.”
Even a casual browsing of the Eddas and sagas alerts the reader to how accomplished, self-possessed, and inwardly strong many of their central figures are, especially the most Odinnic of them (such as Egill Skallagrimsson, Starkad, Sigurd, and Grettir Asmundarson). Perhaps their strength of character was largely due to the example set by their divine patron, with the songs sung in his honor telling of how he wasn’t afraid to sacrifice what we might call his “lower self” to his “higher self,” to live according to his values unconditionally, accepting whatever hardships arise from that pursuit, and allowing nothing, not even death, to stand between him and the attainment of his goals.
If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to learn more about Norse mythology, I recommend picking up one of the books listed in this guide: The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books. And if you’re particularly interested in the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples, you might want to take a look at my own book, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.
 The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 138-163.
 Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 42-50.