Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 17

Central Myths, Legends and Stories

With so many gods and even more legends, Norse Tradition is a treasure-trove of interesting tales regarding the gods and the worlds. One of the most interesting tales is that of Odin and Mimir, and that’s where this chapter begins.

Odin and Mimir

Mimir (“the wise one,”) was unparalleled in his wisdom and advice, save, possibly for Kvasir. Mimir had a spring or a well, called Mimisbrunnr, which contained the waters of wisdom.

As we’ve seen, Odin was always on the lookout for a way to increase his knowledge and perspicacity, and so, when Mimir asked him to leave one of his eyes as payment for partaking of the waters, Odin did so, gladly.

The following are three tales of Odin and his quest for, and attainment of, wisdom.

How Mimir Lost His Head

The association of Odin and Mimir would not end there, though. After the Aesir-Vanir War, the two camps sent members of their ranks as hostages to the other in the Norse tradition. The Aesirs sent to the Vanir were Hoenir and Mimir1516.

While in Vanaheim, home of the Vanirs, Hoenir quickly became regarded as a source of indomitable wisdom, or at least, that’s what they thought. Hoenir was simply regurgitating the words of Mimir, but the ruse continued.

Now, while Mimir held wisdom beyond the ages, Hoenir was much less schooled. While Mimir was with Hoenir, the latter appeared to be a sage, but once Mimir had left Hoenir’s side things unraveled rather quickly.

After Hoenir copped out of answering difficult questions one too many times, simply repeating, “Let others decide,” the Vanir cut Mimir’s head off, claiming that they’d been swindled and that the exchange of hostages hadn’t been fair. To show their disapproval further, they sent Mimir’s head back to the Aesirs.

Upon finding this, Odin was distraught. Mimir had been a friend and a trusted advisor to him, and so he preserved the head. Despite being decapitated, Mimir continued to offer Odin advice as a literal talking head.

Odin and the Runes

The Runic language of the Norse is fascinating. Runes were not simple pictorial or literary depictions of letters or words, but were intrinsically principles of power.

Odin was drawn to discovering these runes, but the process by which he would have to go to uncover them is right up there in self-mutilation for the sake of knowledge (if not simply humiliation with a nice payoff at the end) with the act of plucking out his own eye.

Odin, in furthering his quest for wisdom, travelled to the Well of Urd, the home of runic knowledge. The runes wouldn’t just show themselves to anyone—not even a god like Odin—whoever sought them had to prove themselves worthy of their power.

In order to show his worth and his tenacity, Odin hung himself from the world tree, Yggdrasil, stabbing himself in the side with his own lance. He would remain there for nine days, turning away any offers of aid from the other gods. During this time, Odin came close to death, but managed to live long enough for the runes to reveal themselves to him; his sacrifice had been accepted.

Once in possession of the knowledge of the runes, Odin freed himself from Yggdrasil and carried his knowledge back to the gods and, subsequently, mankind.

The Battle of Wits: A Final Tale of Odin’s Wisdom

While this portion of Norse lore happened after the death of Baldur (discussed later in the chapter,) it bears stating here.

Odin once set out to prove his sapience, by challenging a powerful seeress, named Vathruthnir. In order to protect his true identity, Odin donned disguise. The two would engage one another in a battle of wits17. As the exchange holds useful information about the Norse beliefs, a portion of this back-and-forth will be included, however briefly, here.

The seeress began the questioning, by asking Odin the names of the horses that drew the day and the night, respectively through the sky. Odin answered that the horses were Hrimfaxi, the drawer of the night; while Skinfaxi pulled the day.

Odin then asked Vathruthnir about the origins of the sun and the moon. To this, the seeress correctly responded that they were the children of the jötunn, Mundilfäri. The daughter, Sól, pulled the sun while Máni, Mundilfäri’s son, drove the moon.

The two went back and forth for quite some time, each proving worthy in their knowledge of the worlds and its inhabitants.

It wasn’t until Gagnráðr asked the seeress what Odin said to his son Baldur before setting him adrift in the Norse funerary tradition that his cover was blown.

Vathruthnir concluded that the only one who would know the answer to that would be Odin, but conceded that the latter had proven his superior wisdom.

The Tale of Sigurd and the Dragon

Not all important tales in mythology relate to Odin or, indeed, the gods themselves directly. The tale of Sigurd is one such myth, which is of particular relevance to the Norse Tradition.

Sigurd was the son of Sigmund and Hiordis. He was born after his father’s death at the hands of a disguised Odin who, having already killed Sigmund, shattered the fallen hero’s sword to pieces. Hiordis would go on to bear her late husband’s son, giving him the pieces of the sword his father had once carried.

Sigurd, often held to be a distant descendant of Odin, would be raised—partially by his mother and her new husband, the king Alf, but largely by Regin, who became his foster-father. It was Regin who would re-forge the sword of Sigurd’s fallen father, Sigmund.

Regin had a bit of a complicated history, as he had once been denied his share of gold at the killing of the dwarf, Ótr (also Otr, Ottar, Otter,) his brother. One day, while Otr was swimming in a pool at the base of a waterfall with the dwarf Andvari. In order to do this without her being any the wiser, Otr would don the form of, you guessed it, an otter.

One day, Otr was swimming in the pool when Loki (you just know something bad is about to happen) spotted the creature and, not knowing that the otter was actually Otr in disguise, slayed him. Loki went to show his prize to the king of the dwarves, Hreidmar. Unbeknownst to Loki, Hreidmar was the father of Otr, Regin and Fafnir (more on him in a minute.) The two brothers detained Loki, demanding recompense for their slain brother.

Loki, never one to pay his debts honestly, captured Andvari, the dwarf, and demanded her gold. This she gave, but among the bullion was a ring18 that would bring dire misfortune to any who wore it. Loki brought the treasure to the bereaved brothers and stuffed Otr’s body with it before covering the same with the rest of the gold. He left the ring atop the pile. Shortly thereafter, though, Fafnir killed his father and cut his brother out of his share of the gold.

Back to Sigurd: Regin approached Sigurd one day, telling him that he needed to choose a horse for himself. Sigurd set out to do this and, fortuitously, came across Odin on his way, the latter, in disguise. Odin divined the young man’s purpose and told him that the best way to choose his horse would be to chase a band of horses into a river, selecting only the one that swam successfully to the other side as his own. Sigurd did this, and this is how he ended up with his horse: A direct descendant of Odin’s own steed, Sleipnir.

After Sigurd had his steed, Regin approached him again, telling Sigurd about how his brother, Fafnir, had stolen the gold, literally from his dead brother Otr’s body. He also informed him that, due to the ring’s cursed power, Fafnir had become a dragon, and that the best way to slay him would be to dig a hole, climb into and cover it to lie in wait for Fafnir to come near. Sigurd listened to this advice, and was also counseled by Odin, again disguised, to dig a trench in addition to the hole in order to capture the slain dragon’s blood.

Regin went about forging Sigurd a sword, but when the latter went to test the blade by striking the anvil with it, the weapon splintered in his hand. Regin forged another, but this one also cracked. As they say, though, the third time’s the charm. Sigurd brought the fragments of his father’s sword to Regin, who re-forged it into a working blade, called Gram (alternately, Gramr.) When Sigurd went to test this blade, not the sword, but the anvil split with the blow. He was now ready to do battle.

Sigurd went to the dwelling of Fafnir and made the necessary preparations. Once lying in wait, Sigurd heard the mighty beast approaching and, at just the right moment, he leapt forth, killing Fafnir.

The blood drained into the trenches and Sigurd bathed in it. This gave him the ability to understand the language of the birds19, which proceeded to warn him that his mentor, Regin, had also been corrupted by the ring and was plotting Sigurd’s demise.

When Sigurd returned, gold in tow, he didn’t hesitate in killing Regin. While this wouldn’t be the end of the ring, it brought the chapter of Regin and Fafnir to a close.

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