This is Why Odin Sacrificed His Eye


No figure is more significant in Norse mythology than the mighty “all-father” Odin. From creating the earthly realm in which the Vikings lived to hand-selecting fallen warriors to join him in the halls of Valhalla, Odin represents many things to the Norse people, perhaps none more than all-seeing wisdom. So determined was Odin to gain knowledge that he was willing to make great sacrifices to get it.

To satisfy his relentless thirst for wisdom, Odin sacrificed one of his eyes in exchange for a drink from Mimir’s well, which gave him the enlightenment he sought. In many ways, Odin’s sacrifice opened the door to deeper and broader knowledge on a scale only a god of his stature could appreciate.

Although he is recognized for many feats and accomplishments, Odin is, above all else, a god whose name is synonymous with deeper learning and unparalleled wisdom. 

As the old stories and myths demonstrate, Odin’s association with intellect on a higher plane than even other gods did not come easily.  It was only through great sacrifice that these attributes were earned.

Odin Sacrificed his Eye to Gain Wisdom

Specific accounts may vary as to the details (largely arising from differences in translation and interpretation). Still, the key elements of the story of how Odin lost his eye remain the same.

While Odin was always considered among the wisest gods, there was one whose knowledge rivaled or even exceeded his.  In some respects, the god Mimir was Odin’s intellectual and spiritual superior.

Odin became aware that Mimir regularly drank water from a well known as Mímisbrunnr (“Mimir’s Well”) and that these magical waters imparted Mimir with his incredible depth of knowledge.

When Odin requested permission to drink from the well, Mimir replied that there would be a steep price to pay.  In exchange for a guzzle of water from Mimisbrunnr, Odin had to sacrifice an eye.

The all-father obliged (how reluctantly or willingly is unknown). Odin gouged one of his eyes out of its socket and tossed it into the depths of the well’s waters as demanded.

Mimir then drew a drinking horn full of the mystical waters, which Odin quaffed down eagerly. Then, he awaited the infusion of knowledge that would make him the wisest among all Norse gods. [1]

It is said that what Odin sought by drinking water from Mimir’s well and gained by sacrificing his eye was not knowledge in an academic or scholarly sense, but rather, enlightenment and illumination in an ethereal and spiritual way.

What is clear is that once his thirst was quenched, Odin’s mental and intellectual powers were unmatched by any god.

What is the Meaning of Odin’s Sacrifice?

The myth of Odin’s great sacrifice served as a source of inspiration throughout the Viking era, indicating how wisdom and knowledge were viewed within Old Norse society.

Poems and sagas have been written about Odin’s exploits, and for centuries, scholars have analyzed the story of how Odin lost his eye and studied its various meanings.  

Through the lens of the Norse people during the Viking era, there are several valuable life lessons to be learned from Odin’s remarkable act:

  • The quest for knowledge is a noble pursuit, and even gods (Odin, no less) pursue it to great lengths.
  • In a general sense, this story conveys the message that when it comes to matters of higher learning and self-awareness, no sacrifice is too great if true enlightenment is the reward.
  • Odin exchanges half of his earthly vision for spiritual and ethereal knowledge, suggesting a distinction between knowledge in the human realm and knowledge in a godly plane.
  • The particular knowledge that Odin is said to have gained by sacrificing his eye is a comprehensive understanding of ancestral traditions, ancient histories, and invaluable teachings. [2]

Odin’s Bond with Mimir

As gatekeeper to the well from which Odin gained enlightenment, Mimir is the only figure in Norse mythology whose wisdom and intellect is viewed in the same light as Odin’s.

It can be argued that it was, in some respects, superior, for Viking lore relates how Odin sought counsel and advice from Mimir. And like so many Old Norse myths, there is tragedy and intrigue in the details.

According to Norse mythology, there were two factions of gods who went to war. After years of battling each other to a stalemate, the Aesirs (the side of Odin and Mimir) and the Vanirs agreed to put down their arms and exchange hostages as a mutual sign of peace and settlement.

Unfortunately, circumstances led to the Vanirs feeling that they had been betrayed, so they decapitated Mimir as an act of vengeance.

Incredibly, Odin brought the bodiless head back to life and even fully restored Mimir’s ability to think, reason, and speak. 

With his wisdom and intellect intact, Mimir provided valuable counsel and companionship to Odin while sharing with the Norse all-father his seemingly infinite knowledge of their Viking ancestors’ traditional ways.  

Through a deeper understanding of the Norse concept of cosmic apocalypse and rebirth, Odin accepted his preordained fate in the aftermath of Ragnarok (the Norse version of the end of days) due in large part to Mimir’s sage guidance. [3]

Which Eye did Odin Sacrifice?

When it comes to which eye Odin sacrificed to take his drink of water from Mimir’s well, answers are split because there is no definitive source to draw from. 

In some prominent depictions of Odin, including drawings and paintings associated with museums in Scandinavia, Odin is shown with his left eye missing. [4]

Other sources, however, refer to or depict Odin’s missing right eye. One particularly well-known drawing of Odin clearly shows him with a missing right eye (Source: The Norse Gods), while others depict Odin wearing an eye patch over his right eye. [5] Regardless of which eye Odin sacrificed, the message behind the act is undiminished.

Much of what is known today about Norse mythology and the myths and stories passed down through the generations is the result of poems and sagas written not by the Vikings themselves, but by poets and scholars such as the notable Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson in the early 1200s.

In the absence of a true written historical record, there are understandably gaps in the narrative.

Sturluson was a poet at heart, and he made every effort to adhere to the Skaldic (Old Norse style) form of poetry when writing his works.

Even though Sturluson’s Eddas are widely quoted and considered complete and authoritative Viking resources, it should be noted that he was a Christian writing about a society that worshipped pagan gods and upheld ideologies that were largely contrary to Christian teachings.

Odin is no Stranger to Acts of Sacrifice

Just as Odin sacrificed one of his eyes without hesitation to gain deep enlightenment in the ancient ways and the teachings of Viking ancestors, he also subjected himself to prolonged self-torture to unlock the mysterious, cosmic qualities of the Old Norse runes and share their untold power with humankind.

It was during Odin’s great suffering that the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.

The Yggdrasil is a mythic tree representing the Norse tree of life, and its branches hold the nine realms of the Viking universe.

It is from this tree standing in the center of the cosmos that Odin hung himself for nine days without food or water and refused the aid of anyone who came to help him.

As a further show of his humility, determination, and resolve, Odin also impaled himself with his spear.

Odin’s account of his self-sacrifice is written in the Poetic Edda:

“I ween that I hung on the windy tree,
Hung there for nine nights full nine;
With the spear, I was wounded, and offered I was,
To Odin, myself to myself.”

By the end of his ordeal, Odin had learned to read the ancient runes and decipher the encoded meanings of runic works.

Like his sacrifice at Mimir’s well, Odin endured great physical suffering to gain an intangible (although highly sought after and deeply cherished) reward. [6]

What Powers Does Odin Have?

As the undisputed all-father of Norse mythology, Odin has been depicted in various ways, from a scraggly wanderer dressed in a large robe and an oversized wizard’s hat (supposedly his favorite disguise) to a fierce, Herculean figure with chiseled, muscular features befitting the god of war.

Odin is considered the god of many things, namely:

  • War
  • The dead
  • Poetry
  • Magic and sorcery
  • Wisdom
  • Runes (Runic alphabet)
  • Healing

So prominently does Odin figure not only in Norse mythology but even older Germanic societies and cultures, that Wednesday is derived from the Germanic version of Odin’s name, Wotan, and translates to “Odin’s Day.”

As far as Odin’s powers, they are great, and they are many, as would be expected of the leader of all Norse gods.

Aside from his unparalleled knowledge and wisdom, Odin is also described as having the following unique and powerful attributes:

  • Shape-shifting – Odin can transform himself at will into the shape of any human or animal, depending on his circumstances or needs.
  • Combat and warfare – As the de facto god of war, Odin’s powers can influence a war’s outcome by empowering or weakening the combatants.  Odin can turn enemy soldiers blind, deaf, or paralyzed with fear.  He can infuse his warriors with superhuman strength or fill them with blinding rage.
  • Speak in riddles – Odin has been known to engage enemies in battles of intellect and has outwitted the likes of evil giants to get what he wants.
  • Heal –Odin is also a master of the healing arts.  There is perhaps no greater evidence of his healing ability than his masterful embalming and magical restoration of Mimir, who he brought back from the dead and transformed into his advisor.
  • Seer of the future and past – Not only does Odin has the power of all-knowing wisdom, but he is also a seer of future and past events.  This gift can also be a curse, as he was able to validate what was foretold to him by an oracle regarding the fate of all gods and living beings on Ragnarok’s arrival.
  • Mind control – Yet another ability tied to Odin’s mental and intellectual prowess is his ability to influence others’ minds, convincing them of the truthfulness of his words with a mere whisper.
  • Life and death – In preparation for the cataclysmic events of Ragnarok, Odin and his Valkyries not only hand-select fallen warriors from the field of battle to join him in Valhalla, but they also pre-determine who shall live and who shall die.  Odin was also reputed to have the power to inflict illness and injury upon those he considered threats or enemies. [7]

Odin’s Weapons and Companions

The all-father Odin is a multi-dimensional god whose greatness extends to many realms and facets of the Viking universe. 

It seems from Old Norse tales and stories that Odin had a hand in virtually every aspect of the Norse existence – the creation of the world, the birth of humankind, and most certainly the end of the world (and its rebirth).

Unlike his hammer-wielding son Thor, who is universally depicted as the ultimate armor-clad fighting machine, a common perception of Odin is that of a long-bearded old-man dressed in a long cloak and wide-brimmed hat, who would just as soon resort to cunning, trickery, and magic to defeat his enemies.  

In addition to his nondescript appearance (save for the fact that he only has one eye), references are made in Norse mythology of certain objects and select companions (of the animal variety) that are unique to Odin and part of his persona.  

Many depictions of Odin, both old and contemporary, feature these mythical accessories and animals:

  • Gungir – Forged by dwarves (reputed to be master crafters of weaponry), Odin’s favorite spear was his weapon of choice.  According to certain myths, the same dwarves who created Gungir were also responsible for crafting Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir.  

Although it may not have seen battle often, when Gungir was drawn, it was reputed to make the ground shake and enemies tremble.  The spear was also fabled to never fail to hit its intended mark once thrown by Odin.

  • Triple Horn – This is a common sight in depictions of Odin, as it was the horn from which he drank wine (it is said that Odin did not consume food, and survived on only wine).
  • Draupnir – A magical ring that multiplied every nine nights into eight new rings.
  • Huginn and Muninn – Odin is commonly depicted with two ravens perched on his neck or shoulders.  Huginn (thought) and Munnin (memory) served as his eyes abroad.  Each morning they flew off to distant lands on reconnaissance missions, returning each evening to share with Odin the things they saw and heard (they were well-versed in multiple languages) by whispering in his ear.

Odin relied heavily on his ravens as they were his eyes and ears in the different realms of the Viking universe serving dual roles as his spies and advisors.

  • Geri and Freki – These two ferocious wolves are Odin’s constant companions, sitting by his side in the halls of Valhalla (it is said that Odin did not eat and gave all of his food to his wolves).
  • Sleipnir – Whenever Odin needed to travel to distant lands, he did so on the back of his horse Sleipnir.  According to Norse mythology, Sleipnir had eight legs and unrivaled speed (and could even run across air and water).
  • The Valkyries – These maiden-warriors accompany Odin to fields of battle, where they select combatants who will live to fight another day and those who will fall.  Half of the fallen Viking warriors will join Odin and his Valkyries in the halls of Valhalla, where they will reside until the coming of Ragnarok. [8] [9]

Odin is Still Worshiped to this Day

The Viking Era came to an end as its people converted to Christianity and adopted Christian beliefs, but there are still those who revere Old Norse gods like Odin in the modern world.

There are pockets of followers of “the old way” (Forn Sidr) sprinkled throughout Scandinavia.

There is even one group of around 600 that is recognized as an official Nordic religious society by the Danish government. [10]

Indeed, the Asatro (also Asatru) movement, which is a revival of the worship of Norse gods and goddesses, has seen steady growth in recent years.

Aside from Norway and Sweden, it has gained in popularity in Iceland. Several thousand Icelanders consider themselves followers of what may very well be Iceland’s largest non-Christian church. [11]

Though he may not be worshiped with the same fervor as he was centuries ago, one-eyed Odin is still perceived as a symbol of wisdom and a champion for the pursuit of knowledge.

Those who study the old myths about Odin do so not to join him in the halls of Valhalla or to learn the secrets of ancient runes, but rather, to gain a deeper appreciation for self-enlightenment.

Conclusion

For all the brutality and bloodlust that is associated with the Viking warriors’ conquering ways, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the god whom they held in with the highest esteem considered his mind to be his most effective weapon and wisdom to be his greatest asset.

So much so that Odin was willing to make great sacrifices in exchange for unrivaled knowledge and enlightenment.

References:

[1] https://thevikingdragon.com/blogs/news/how-odin-sacrificed-his-eye-at-mimirs-well

[2] https://norse-mythology.org/tales/why-odin-is-one-eyed/

[3] https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/mimir-0014107

[4] https://historiska.se/norse-mythology/odin-en/

[5] https://thenorsegods.com/odin/

[6] https://mythopedia.com/norse-mythology/gods/odin/

[7] https://norse-mythology.net/odin-the-allfather-of-the-aesir-in-norse-mythology/

[8] https://www.worldhistoryedu.com/odin-origin-story-meaning-and-symbols/

[9] https://www.ancient.eu/odin/

[10] https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-viking-age/religion-magic-death-and-rituals/the-old-nordic-religion-today/

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/03/how-thousands-of-icelanders-started-worshiping-the-norse-gods-again/

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