Aside from hosting the bravest warriors that fell in battle in his great hall, his relentless pursuit of knowledge caused him great bodily harm.
An Ancient All-Father
One of the most revered Norse gods was Odin. For many people in Viking societies, he was the supreme god, the chief of the vast Norse pantheon. Not only does he rule over the two pantheons of gods – the Aesir and the Vanir – but was also chief host and ruler of Valhalla, the "hall of the slain."
He was known as a god of war and death but was also associated with the runic alphabet, royalty, and knowledge.
The Old Norse religion was a northern branch evolving out of earlier Germanic paganism practiced in Late Antiquity.
Despite a supposed peak in worship during the Viking Age, the worship of Odin likely dates back much further and is believed to have evolved from the worship of the Germanic god, Wotan.
The depiction of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies is something akin to how Odin is described in the sagas, with a grey cloak, hat, and his spear, Gungnir.
He is accompanied by a pair of wolves, Geri and Freki, and ravens, Hugin and Munin.
Not such brainless brawlers
For many years, Vikings were often mischaracterized as mindless and bloodthirsty barbarians. This common misconception is slowly being wound back and changing thanks to a surge in analysis and renewed understanding about people in Viking societies.
Interestingly, Vikings, many of whom were adherents of the Old Norse religion, revered the god Odin. He was associated with a quest for knowledge, letters (the runic alphabet), and wisdom.
Whilst Thor – the Norse God of Thunder – was widely revered, Odin, as the All-Father, was widely respected for his intellectual insight. This reverence for such a figure contrast wildly with the perception of Vikings as mere brainless brawlers.
Throughout the rich tapestry of Norse sagas and myths, Odin is often presented as a god on a quest to better himself, to seek truth and knowledge.
This relentless pursuit of knowledge could often see him clash and conflict with some of the other Norse Gods. In one of his most dramatic adventures, Odin went on a pursuit of knowledge that took a huge physical toll.
Nestled among Yggdrasil's roots is Mimir's well, where Odin famously sacrificed his eye in exchange for a sip of its wisdom-filled waters. Illustration: The Viking Herald
What really happened at Mimir's well?
At the center of the nine Norse realms is the sprawling world tree, Yggdrasil. A rich part of the colorful cosmology and connectivity of the Old Norse religion, this tree was said to house a vast array of realms and creatures.
At its base, nestled amongst one of its giant roots, was Mimisbrunrr – Mimir's well. This was one of three such wells, but Mimir's well was said to have extra special properties.
Anyone said to sip its ethereal waters was said to be imbued with an unequaled amount of knowledge and wisdom. It should be no surprise then that Odin, in his unrelenting quest for knowledge, would want to drink from this well.
Odin's visit to Mimir's Well was later part of the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda compilation of Norse sagas and myths, chronicled in the 13th century CE by Icelandic author and politician Snorri Sturluson.
The most dramatic version of events arises in the Prose Edda, where Odin visits the well. Here, wanting to sip from the font of all knowledge, he must give a pledge before doing so.
He puts one of his eyes as a pledge to sip from the well. Whilst he receives wisdom and knowledge upon drinking, he has literally deformed himself in his quest for betterment.
In the Poetic Edda, however, there is some academic speculation about the contemporary meaning of the Old Norse text. Some modern scholars believe that the story involves Odin using Gjallarhorn, the horn belonging to the Norse god, Heimdallr, to drink from the well.
Other scholars have pointed out that a better translation of the stanza describing Odin's sip from the well may be that Heimdall himself lost an ear to drink from the well, much like Odin's pledge of his eye.
Other sacrifices on the quest for knowledge
In the rich tapestry of the Norse sagas and myths, this was not the only occasion that Odin would put himself in bodily harm to gain some form of knowledge.
Another famous sacrifice Odin was said to have made – again centered around Yggdrasil – was the ultimate sacrifice.
In another quest for knowledge, Odin hung himself from the branches of the mighty Yggdrasil. Enduring nine windswept days and nights, he was in a middle state between life and death.
Eventually, on the ninth night, he saw shapes form in the darkness: the runes.
These magical letters not only accepted his self-sacrifice (and granted him life again) but also uncovered all the mysterious and powerful secrets that lay within their knowledge.
The story of how Odin sacrificed his eye to gain deeper knowledge and wisdom is just one of the many colorful adventures that have ensured the Norse sagas and myths are just as popular now as they were a millennium ago.
Significant commitments or sacrifices are sometimes necessary for deeper understanding and growth during our formative years. However, we at The Viking Herald recommend a much safer way to gain wisdom and a deeper level of knowledge: study hard and always keep learning.
For more information on the Old Norse religion, read an article by BBC History Extra here.
This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.