Odin, from Norse Mythology, is a sky god who inhabits the top most branches of the World Tree. The World Tree is huge. Its roots go deeply back into Time, through generations of peoples and cultures, through the changing millennia of Earth itself, to the very belly of beginnings. The branches of the World Tree grow far into the heavens and vanish from human sight.
Many sky gods feel superior to Earth, much like mind tends to feel superior to body. But Odin is drawn to storm, to clouds racing across the night sky split by lightning. Perhaps this passion stirred in him Desire — for Odin Desired beyond the realm of most sky gods. Odin wanted to drink from the stream of Time. He wanted Memory. He knew it would be painful; he knew he wouldn’t always be in control of memory. Still, he desired its gifts so much that he was willing to give one of his eyes so he could look inward.
Some fear the pain of memory and choose not to recollect. They become, as Joanna Macy puts it, “psychically numb.” Others crucify themselves with the pain of the past; they cannot see beyond it. They create a story that tells of their suffering, their wounding. They tell it over and over. It becomes who they are. It is a powerful drink, this gift of Memory.
From the gods’ dwelling place in the topmost branches of the World Tree, the story goes, Odin became aware of activity deep in its roots. He knew something important was happening there. But he could not see it clearly. It looked to be three women spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. He could almost hear the hum. But what were the mysterious hieroglyphs they carved in the roots of the tree? He wanted to Know.
Whereas the Viking ships sought adventure in conquest of outer seas, Odin leads us on an inner adventure in the deep Sea of Self. Odin is wise in the way of Ancient Mother Wisdom. He has heard that there is a Sacred Well of the Mother, that a drink from the well can give him Wisdom, can give him Sight. But he finds that a Holy Priestess protects the well. “I would drink of the waters of Wisdom,” he tells the Priestess of the well. “You can’t just come and take of it,” she says, “you must give up something as well.”
She would not tell him how much was required. Still, Odin knew it was his way of Seeing that he had to surrender. He wanted Vision. He wanted to see inward and not just outward. He offered his eye for a draught of the Waters of Wisdom.
When Odin drinks of the well, he experiences what it is like to become human: he experiences change and loss. Now as he sits in the top-most branches gazing into the depths, he can see more clearly. But what he sees is his own dying. There is something he still does not understand. “The mystery,” the myth tells us, is only revealed to the Worthy.” Suffering and death are part of the surrender. “I know I hung on that windy tree, swung there for nine long nights, wounded by my own blade, bloodied for Odin. Myself an offering to myself: bound to the tree that no man knows where the roots of it run.”
The violent images of “hanging” and a “sword in the side” are metaphors — and realities that reflect cultures of war and conflict. Although physical injury and death are pathways of Initiation, I prefer the equally powerful, but gentler, metaphor: that one must trans/form to allow more spirit light to enter. On The Tree of Life everything grows and changes, withers and dies, sprouts, and grows newly.
Odin is hung on the tree for nine nights. The birthing time (nine months) was spoken of as “nine-night” in folk language. It was a sacred time. From the birthing blood and waters, from the pain and letting go, new life was born. It was a time “to make sacred.” This is the core meaning of the word “sacrifice” (sacre/sacred; fice/make). Odin experiences “dying to himself” and transformation. As Odin surrenders, he “sees” the Runes, the words of wisdom rising from the depth of his consciousness. He knows them as initiations in the soul’s journey through life.
He can also hear, rising from roots, the sound of singing, singing and spinning. He hears the three Norns, busy with the weaving of creation. In Norse mythology, this is the way they are described: “Urd, the wise and ancient Norn, teaches lessons of the past while Verdandi, who is young and fearless and straight forward, bids good use of the present; and Skuld, who is closely veiled warns the Gods of future evil.”
When I come to this part of the story, I find myself re-inventing their song. The Old One sings of the Past: “These are the threads I bring. They are strong. They are rich in Memory. They are filled with gifts.” The Young One sings of her Beauty, of her joy and laughter. She chooses surprises. She chooses adventure. The third One, the One who creates the pattern, the One who creates the imprint on the future, she sees Beauty and Harmony. She sees growth and Love.
The stories surrounding the Nordic Runes have roots that go back to the 12th century. Yet, the wisdom that they offer still speaks clearly of the soul’s journey and the initiations along the way. Ralph Blum in his book on the Runes, calls them “Divine Play,” a guide along the Path. When I feel confused or blocked, I often look to the Runes for guidance and wisdom.