I woke up thinking today that I should start doing more exegesis of our lore – sort of like what I do in my approach to the creation narrative. I asked my assistant to randomly pick a bit of lore, and she suggested the Runatal section of the Havamal. This is the part that talks about Odin’s sacrifice on Yggdrasil by which He won the runes. I will preface this by noting that this is not an academic reading of this text. It is lectio divina, sacred reading for the purpose of devotion.
(Taking up the first stanza, here is the Bellows English translation, followed by the Old Norse, followed by my own translation)
- I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, | and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
- Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði á
nætr allar níu, geiri undaðr
ok gefinn Óðni,
sjalfr sjalfum mér,
á þeim meiði, er manngi veit
hvers af rótum renn.
- I know, that I hung upon the wind-twisted tree,
Nine full nights, wounded by spear,
And given to Odin
Self given for me myself,
Upon that tree, which no one knows
where each root runs (1).
Whenever I encounter this particular text, the first question that comes to my mind is what would you do in order to fulfill the fate the Gods have laid out for you? What would you do to do all that They asked of you, to rise up and become better in your living? There is a conscious choice embedded in this opening line, a conscious decision and irrevocable choice. This was not immutable law, but a God choosing that which led to all He later became. On the human level, this brings home to me that life is made of small choices. Atrocities happen by small, seemingly insignificant choices. The best of humanity is also revealed by the smallest of choices. Those choices are what define a life and more importantly, a character. We are, however, called to choose every day the type of person we want to become, and in this context, we have the capacity to choose devotion every day (and it is a choice). The little choices matter. That is not to say that I think Odin choosing to hang Himself on Yggdrasil was a “little” choice, rather that we are faced with choices large and small throughout each day of our lives and they matter. This is especially the case when we’re faced with the choice to make time for prayer or not, to make time for devotion or not, to center our lives around the Holy Powers …or not. How do we do that, how do we inspire ourselves to do that, and how do we do that consistently well?
That is the first thing that I think of when I read the opening line: I ween (know) that I hung on the windy tree… This verse also highlights the importance of Yggdrasil, the world tree, “steed of the terrible One,” within our cosmology. The Tree supports the architecture of the worlds and at the same time is indisputably tied to Odin. It is central to His deepest and darkest mystery. The Nornir, the Fates, tend the Tree and we can support it too. We can tend the Tree through our piety, our devotion, through cultivating an awareness of the sacrality of our world, of our duties to the Holy Powers, and our ongoing, transformative awareness of how Their presence infuses every atom of creation. Veit ek (I know) tells the reader that there is volition involved in this, conscious knowledge of what one is doing and why. Again, this goes back to conscious choice to do what needs to be done, what is correct to do, what will gain in Odin’s case power (2) and in our case greater devotional awareness, even with the knowledge that it will change everything, that it will hurt, that it will transform in uncontrollable, unplanned ways.
At the same time, when I read this verse, I visualize it, sometimes projecting myself into it as an observer in the hall of my soul’s memory. The Tree is wind-twisted (vindga), so what is that place wherein it rises like? Do the winds howl, drowning out Odin’s later shrieking (there is a later verse that mentions his shriek as He took up the runes)? What abrasive force must those winds have to bend and twist and shape a Tree as mighty as Yggdrasil? This echoes for me the breath by which Odin implanted our souls, starting with the creation of Askr and Embla, taking up wood and remaking it on an ontological level by the power of His breath.
Odin hung nætr allar níu (nine full nights). What is time to a God? With our sacred stories we enter not into human temporality but mythic time. Nine nights, nine eons – there is an incomprehensibility to the question of length of time here. It is always occurring. Part of Odin is always on the Tree. It has not yet occurred. It happened the last age and all of these temporalities are contained inside these three seemingly insignificant words.
He hung wounded by a spear and tradition tells us that it was His own spear (3). When I read this, I think of several things: the need for sacrifice (blood sacrifice) for some mysteries, the sacrality of sacrifice, the power of ordeal and the way pain can be used to open certain spiritual doors, and then, on a more visceral level, what it felt like to have the steel edge of a spear ripping into one’s flesh, driving deep into one’s viscera. Why a spear? It was not enough to hang and suffer. The blood and pain was a necessary part of this ordeal, a necessary key to open up the worlds to the runes and to bring (or perhaps lure) those runes through. Moreover, we have a God associated with the sword (Tyr) but the spear is particularly Odin’s. It’s a long-range weapon, one that takes keen aim and strong arm to use effectively. The sword may require those things as well, but the sword is not a long-range weapon. Is there something in the use of a long-range weapon here, something that hints at Odin fore seeing the long-range implications of His quest for power? I also consider the physical mechanics of aiming a long-range weapon successfully. I shoot fairly regularly and one of the things I really appreciate about using a gun is the focus required for a good, tight grouping. Is this a sign of His focused hunt for power? He later gives an eye for wisdom, so the visual, the power of sight and hard, ruthless focus is all embedded in His story.
To Whom was that blood sacrifice given? The answer of course is to Himself. Odin offered Himself to Himself for Himself (ok gefinn Óðni, sjalfr sjalfum mér). No one else is present in this retelling leaving the reader to conclude that Odin made this sacrifice of Himself to and for Himself and by Himself (4). Sacrifice is a powerful sacrament. Here, a God was sacrificed by a God. The implication of course is that Odin died on the Tree, became Yggr, the Terrible One. The epithets and heiti or by-names of Gods are important. They show facets of a God’s nature, allow us to conceptualize that which is too vast to ever be completely grasped. They also tap, each and every one, into particularly Mysteries of the God in question. Yggr occurs in the name of the Tree: Yggdrasil (drasill means steed). The adjectival form of this by-name, Ýgr, means ‘terrible,’ which of course can have two meanings. A thing can be terrible because it is terrifying, dreadful, and capable of inspiring terror, but something might also be terrible because it inspires awe. This latter usage is the older sense of the word. Something terrible is something that disturbs. It is something of power. I think both senses of the word apply here to Odin, especially if in using the name Yggr (5) we are invoking the corpse God Who died on Yggdrasil and then walked through death to claim to the runes, rising from the Tree full of power. There is another word etymologically related to Ýgr: ýggiungr: one who causes fear. This certainly applies to Odin (and in fact, my glossary notes that it’s used in the Voluspa for Odin (6)). Whatever other mask Odin may wear, however civilized He may seem, at His core, His time on the Tree effected an ontological change in this being, marked by the acquisition of this heiti, and at His core, He is Yggr.
I actually find the last two lines of this stanza the most perplexing and it may simply be that my Old Norse is piecemeal at best. These lines refer to Yggdrasil and note that no one knows to where its roots run…I have always taken this to refer to the Mystery of Odin’s hanging on the Tree. We know from later stanzas that when, as a result of His ordeal and sacrifice, the runes were opened up to Him, that He reached down to grasp them. Did He see the origin point of the Tree? This stanza for me likewise reminds the reader that there are Mysteries we will never plumb and that is part of the sacred order of things. The preposition af annoys me here though. It generally just means the place from or two which something may run or flow, but according to Zoega’s dictionary, it can have the meaning of “among” or even a temporal meaning: past or beyond a particular period of time. It may also have causal implications. I don’t know how to render that adequately in English. I say that in part because I want all of those meanings to be clearly represented in an English rendering. Why? Because this story is connected to our creation story, Odin being one of our primary creator Gods. Also, this is mythic time. If something has valence beyond the here and now, if the roots tell us that the origins of the Tree are prior to the creation of the worlds or even prior to the emergence of materiality and temporality itself, that the Tree is perhaps the pivot point upon which all of this turns, then I want to reflect that in my translation and I haven’t yet figured out a graceful way in which to do so. We don’t know, cannot know where the roots of the tree are, that is where it came from and when. It, like so much of what unfolds in this story is a mystery, a central mystery within our tradition.
Yggdrasil is also traditionally conceived of not just as a Tree but as a gallows (for Odin), so does something of its unknowability refer to the unknowability of death, or perhaps to the power of this God to traverse the path between death and life again – though then that raises the question of whether the Gods are alive in the same sense that we are (the answer to which I think is a ‘no’…they are more. The category of βιός may come from Them, and the vitality of existence but They are more than simply alive or dead or in between). We have mentions of Yggdrasil in the lore (7) but nothing about its point of origin. We do know that the Tree is holy though, not just from its place in the lore, but it is actually accorded this sobriquet in Stanza 27 of the Voluspa. The word here is helgum, which not only means ‘holy’ but more literally having been consecrated or made holy, rendered a fit place for the performance of sacred rites (Zoega). Coming from the word heilagr, there is a sense here not only of holiness but of inviolability.
The Tree is inviolable, yet it is hungry (as any rune master knows). The Tree is inviolable, yet it suffers (this is noted in several places. See note 6). It must be renewed by the work of the Nornir. The Tree is inviolable yet that is not an unchanging condition and does that mutability have something to do with why the blood of a God was required for the runes, with why it was upon Yggdrasil specifically Odin chose to hang?
These are not questions to which I ever expect a clear, cut and dried answer. That’s not how a μύθος works. They are, however, questions that drive me more deeply into contemplation of my God, and tangentially of my own relationship in service and devotion to Him. I look for key words here and for me, reading this stanza now, they are holy, sacrifice, suffering, power. The result: Yggr, the One who Brings Terror; or one might translate it I suppose as “the One Who evokes Awe.” I like both translations because Odin’s nature, as is the nature of any Deity, is more than can ever be fully known through one epithet or story. We are sensate creatures, and we process the world through our sensoria. Can we define our experiences with our Gods any other way than through the visceral experiences Their numen evokes in us?
I’ll stop here save only to note that as the spirit moves me, I’ll be doing regular exegesis of brief passages of our lore. Again, this is not an academic study of these passages, but lectio divina. If you have a particular verse or passage you would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I’ll get to it eventually (in the order they are received). Happy Tyr’s Day, folks.
- The preposition af seems to have multiple meanings, not just implications of place from which, but also of time – of moving past, beyond. My Old Norse is very basic, but looking at this, I almost want to translate it as “what from the root runs…” Looking at other translations, I know this is incorrect, but I can’t help but think there is more beneath the surface of this line than I’ve heretofore tapped.
- He clearly demonstrates in His stories that power, knowledge and wisdom are not the same. He doesn’t gain wisdom on the Tree. He gains power (and knowledge). Wisdom comes with another sacrifice, that of His eye to Mimir for a draught of the water of wisdom.
- The spear is a weapon particularly associated with Odin Who bears one duergar forged: Gungnir.
- I have, though, had UPG that at least for part of the time, Loki accompanied Him and drummed at the base of the Tree, keeping vigil while Odin hung.
- Yes, I anglicize His names promiscuously and inconsistently.
- Stanza 28 wherein Odin is referred to as “terror of the Gods” uses the word ýggiungr for “Terror of the Gods”.
- See Stanzas 19-20, 27, 45 of the Voluspa, stanzas 29, 31-34, and 44 of the Grimnismal , chapters 15 -16 of the Gylfaginning, and chapter 64 of the Skaldskaparmal, in addition to the Havamal stanza elaborated upon here.
My colleague Larissa is going to be offering an online course in Old Norse this summer, and I highly recommend it for those of you curious about the language. Larissa is an accomplished linguist and medievalist and I highly, highly recommend her class.
The Eddas are important texts for us Heathens. While they are not sacred in and of themselves, they contain doorways and windows to the sacred. We can learn important things about our Gods and ancestors through them. We do ourselves a disservice by reading in translation. There is a saying very well known in translation studies: “translator-traitor.” In other words, the moment you’re dealing with a text in translation, you’re not longer dealing with the actual text. There is so much that we miss. This is a fantastic opportunity to acquire the basics of what is for us as Heathens, a very important language.
Course Description: This course will be an intensive introduction to the Old Norse language and literature. It will provide an overview of Old Norse grammar, as well as a brief survey of the Eddas. Readings will include excerpts from Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda, Hávamál and Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, and others depending upon student interest. The course will run once a week for 10 weeks, from June 3rd – Aug. 5th. The instructor will provide materials. No prior knowledge of Old Norse or Icelandic is necessary. If interested, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time: Sundays at 7pm EST.
Price: $250, payable in 4 installments if necessary.
About the instructor: Larissa is currently a PhD student in Medieval Studies at Yale University. She has a BA in Political Science from Columbia University and an MA in Medieval Icelandic Studies from the University of Iceland. Her mission is to make Old Norse more accessible to a wider audience.
please contact her directly at larissa.parthenon at gmail.com if interested.