Odin’s Discovery of the Runes

The Codex Runicus, a law code written in runes (c. 1300 CE)

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.

First, we’ll look at the tale itself. Then, we’ll consider two different but complimentary interpretations of the tale. The first is Odin’s “sacrificing himself to himself,” which presents a model of personal development. The second is what this tale tells us about how knowledge is acquired – if you look closely, it presents a perspective that’s fuller, richer, and more mature than the scientific method.

Odin’s Discovery of the Runes

At the center of the Norse cosmos stands the great tree Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil’s upper branches cradle Asgard, the home and fortress of the Aesir gods and goddesses, of whom Odin is the chief.

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.[1]

“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.[2]

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.

An Animistic Theory of Knowledge

The means by which Odin discovered the runes are unlike anything in modern science. When was the last time you heard of a chemist going out into the woods, suspending herself from a tree, fasting for several days, and staring down into a lake until the waters divulged to her some new chemical formula?

In all seriousness, though, we can gain much by asking: what are the underlying principles and techniques used by Odin to gain his knowledge of the runes? And how do these principles compare with the methods of science?

If these very questions seems absurd, it’s because the modern world has taught us that the scientific method is unquestionable, and that any claimed knowledge acquired outside of science can’t really be considered true knowledge until verified by science. But read on – you may be surprised by how well or how badly these taken-for-granted assertions stack up against the alternatives.

In the modern world, we tend to think that the scientific method has a monopoly on knowledge – that is, just as the medieval church claimed that “outside the church there is no salvation,” many, if not most, people nowadays believe that “outside of science there is no knowledge.” The softer formulation of this assertion is that while there may be other ways of acquiring legitimate knowledge, this knowledge is legitimate only provisionally – that is, if a scientific study “disproves” this other knowledge, the scientific knowledge invariably takes precedence. In either its stronger or weaker formulation, the underlying idea here is that the scientific method is the ultimate standard by which all claims to truth are to be judged.

When you question people who hold this perspective, their defenses almost always boil down to the statement that, as Richard Dawkins says, “science gets results.” Dawkins, one of the most dogmatic and fundamentalist of the contemporary apologists who treat science as a monotheistic religion, goes on to say: “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.”[3]

Of course science gets results. It would be extraordinarily difficult to dispute that. What can and should be disputed, however, are the claims that 1) the standard beliefs concerning why science gets results are the best way of conceptualizing science’s achievements, and that 2) the scientific method is a universally applicable standard that is inherently better and fuller than any and all other means of acquiring knowledge.

All worldviews are based on assumptions that can neither be proven nor disproven by any kind of “objective” standard. There’s simply no such thing as a truth that’s “self-evident” to all people, in all places, at all times. If there were such a truth, all people across time and space would inevitably come to hold the same beliefs about the world. In philosophy, this “problem” is called “infinite regress” – since the format of a logical proof requires that any statement be proven by another statement, there comes a point at which one has to arbitrarily limit this process of corroboration and refuse to examine one’s assumptions any further. Otherwise, the examination of assumptions would be carried on literally infinitely, and nothing would ever be “proven” or accomplished.

The proofs of science are no exception. There are unquestioned assumptions – myths – built into the scientific method. Without these assumptions, the scientific method doesn’t make sense at all. (This shouldn’t be taken to mean that the scientific method is objectively wrong, however, because, again, there isn’t any objective, impersonal, absolute standard by which knowledge or truth can be evaluated. The insistence on such a standard is just thinly-veiled monotheism.)

The foremost of these assumptions that undergirds the scientific method is the idea that the world is inert and will-less, effectively just a machine. As René Descartes, a 17th century philosopher whose writings were indispensable for the formation of science as we today think of it, wrote: “[Animals] have no mind at all, and… it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights, is able to tell the hours and measure the time more correctly than we can do with all our wisdom.”[4] For Descartes, only the human mind possesses anything like a will or consciousness. Humans can therefore tinker with the more-than-human world like a machine, but, by definition, we can never interact with it. It can never give us knowledge like the runes gave themselves to Odin. Knowledge can only be gained by being detached and observing the world, as if from a distance.

The scientific method is a simple reification of this assumption, this myth. By the scientific method, knowledge is gained by uprooting the subjects of the experiment from their original, worldly context, inserting them into a controlled environment designed to isolate certain variables, observing this artificial simulation from a position of as much remove as possible, and then quantifying the results. In order for these results to be considered valid, the experiment must be infinitely repeatable.

The pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples, exemplary animists, would laugh at this perspective. For them, as for the twentieth century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty,[5] our everyday perception shows us that the entire world is conscious and willful, and that we humans are conscious and willful precisely because we’re an inextricable part of this wider world. Our hands, which can touch, can also be touched. Our eyes, which can see, can also be seen. And if human limbs can be touched and touch in return, why can’t tree limbs, which can be touched, also touch in return? We’re all a part of the same field of perception, after all. For the animist, anything that can be perceived has some kind of ability to perceive in turn. (It should be noted that, in this perspective, bodies themselves think. Perception and cognition, being diffuse throughout the world, aren’t centralized in any specific organ, including the brain. Nor is there any need for the concept of an aloof, utterly incorporeal “mind” in the sense in which Descartes speaks of the mind and thought.)

Willful, sentient beings who are themselves and not anyone else by virtue of their relationships with all the other beings with whom they interact can’t be properly understood in an artificial, experimental context. Nor could the repeatability of the experiment be guaranteed if the willful, sentient beings who comprise its subjects were allowed to exercise their will. The scientist, meanwhile, would limit his or her knowledge of the beings on whom he or she experiments to the degree that he or she insists on remaining a detached observer rather than an involved participant. Of course, being an involved participant means that the outcome of the experiment might change, as would the knowledge that could be gleaned from it – to which the pre-Christian Germanic peoples would say, “duh.”

How, then, would an animist characterize the scientific method? If experimental subjects are conscious, feeling, thinking beings rather than machines, what’s actually going on during the implementation of the scientific method? Thankfully, the modern English language still retains a word to denote the process of treating a sentient, willful being as a mere object: “objectification.” Or, to use some synonyms: domination, abuse, slavery. This isn’t metaphor. Consider the words of a contemporary of Descartes, reflecting on the attitudes that were becoming commonplace among the experimental scientists of his day, and which, by today, have been enshrined as the unquestioned norm:

The scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor animals up on boards by the four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood, which was a great subject of controversy.[6]

Animistic worldviews insist that knowledge is inherently personal and participatory. Knowledge of something is an outgrowth of one’s relationships with that something. If I want to truly understand another human being, for example, on as deep a level as possible, I must win her goodwill and friendship, spend time with her in numerous different situations, and come to know her through the subtle, alchemical mixture of experiencing the world with her and patiently listening as she slowly divulges to me, bit by bit, the kinds of intimate secrets that one only reveals to one’s most trusted confidantes.

In this way, I will come to know her far more deeply than I would if I adopted the method suggested by another of the most influential forerunners of modern science, Francis Bacon, who spoke gleefully of “putting [nature] on the rack and extracting her secrets.” Bacon added, in suitably prophetic language, “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave… the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”[7]

One can easily criticize these sentiments for their nauseatingly calloused ethics. One can also criticize them for their superficial and immature perspective of how legitimate knowledge is acquired. Knowledge extracted under torture is seldom ever reliable; the one being tortured generally will, to return to Dawkins’s metaphor, jump through whatever hoops the torturer puts in front of him or her.

From an animistic perspective, then, the knowledge science brings to us isn’t exactly false, but it’s only applicable under very narrow, artificial, and in many cases downright horrifying conditions. The knowledge gleaned in the laboratory is only valid elsewhere if the world outside is made to resemble the laboratory as closely as possible by being rendered sterile, artificial, and controlled – which is exactly what modern civilization has had to do to the world in order to “get results” from the scientific method. (The degree to which this process is conscious or unconscious is a fascinating question in and of itself, but is unfortunately beyond the scope of this present article.)

The American Indian philosopher Vine Deloria, Jr. has aptly criticized the approach of Bacon, Descartes, and their modern followers in terms that could just as readily come from a pre-Christian Germanic perspective:

In order to maintain the fiction that the world is dead and that those who believe it is alive are succumbing to primitive superstition, scientists, and more broadly scientific explanation, have to reject any nuance of interpretation of activities in the natural world that imply natural sentience, or an ability to communicate back and forth between humans and nonhumans, or, leaving humans out of the picture, between nonhumans.

Science insists, at a great price in understanding, that the observer be as detached as possible from the event he or she is observing. I would contrast that with traditional indigenous peoples, who know that humans must participate in events. They must attempt to determine the spiritual
activity that supports or undergirds these physical activities, rather than determining how they can use those events for their material advantage.

Ironically, and it’s ironic because science prides itself on being a search for knowledge, this way of relating to the world allows Indians to gain information from birds, animals, rivers, and mountains which is inaccessible to modern scientists. Even more ironically, it allows Indians a degree of insight that Westerners will never achieve through science. Take meteorology. We know that seeding clouds with certain chemicals can bring rain. This method of dealing with natural forces is wholly mechanical and is in essence forcing nature to do our bidding. Yet Indians achieved the same goal of affecting the weather by conducting ceremonies to ask the spirits for rain. Science cannot affect winds, clouds, and storms except in very specific and limited ways, but Indians could affect all of these in a diametrically opposed manner, similar to the difference between attempting to get a slave to do something, and asking a friend for help.[8]

The means by which Odin obtained his insight into the runes came by following methods such as those advocated by Deloria rather than those of modern science. He didn’t “put the cosmos on a rack and extract her secrets.” Rather, he approached the runes on their own terms, even putting himself in great peril in order to demonstrate that he was worthy of receiving their knowledge and power. He patiently stared down into the Well of Urd for as long as it took – in this case, no less than nine days and nights – for them to appear to him. The knowledge he gained was given to him after he took care to establish a particular relationship with the runes, and when they showed themselves to him, he perceived them directly, in their original, lived context – not in an artificially controlled environment. After this startling, ecstatic encounter, he was able to “get results” of which, when we confine ourselves to the methods of science, we can only dream.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my book on the worldview at the heart of Norse mythology, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.

References:

[1] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 138-163.

[2] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 42-50.

[3] Dawkins, Richard. 2004. A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. p. 14-15.

[4] Descartes, René. 1997. Key Philosophical Writings. Translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross. Edited by Enrique Chávez-Arvizo. p. 109.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by John Wild, translated by Alphonso Lingis.

[6] Masson, Jeffrey Moussaiff, and Susan McCarthy. 1996. When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. p. 18.

[7] These two quotes come from New Organon and Temporis Partus Masculus, respectively. I present them here as quoted in:

Jensen, Derrick. 2000. A Language Older Than Words. p. 19-20.

[8] Vine Deloria. 2008. Interview. In How Shall I Live My Life?: On Liberating the Earth from Civilization. Edited by Derrick Jensen. p. 247.