Today marks the ending of one of the most important observances in Asatru, the ritual sacrifice of Odin and the knowledge that he gained; it is a lesson to us all that nothing great is ever gained without suffering. Odin was already the All-Father, the leader of the Norse gods because of his age and power, but he took pains to gain knowledge as well. He had already built a throne, the Lidskialf, from which he could sit and see all things going on in Midgard, and the realms of the gods. While he sat on the throne, two ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory, perched on his shoulders and whispered in his ear of all the things they had seen as they flew the world over, so nothing was unknown to him. He had scried the giant Mimir in far-off Jotunheim, and travelled to see him; he knew that Mimir’s well was where a root of the world tree Yggdrasil ended, and that it contained all the knowledge of past, present, and future. He asked the giant for a drink from his well, so that he might gain this knowledge, and in return Mimir asked for one of his all-seeing eyes, that he might have vision of the entire world. Without hesitation, Odin plucked out an eye, which Mimir sank to the bottom of his well, and gave the god a drink; thus, by sacrifice, Odin gained wisdom.
In his greatest example of this, Odin hung himself on the branches of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, a sacrifice to himself, suffering a wound from his own spear. Swaying in the winds, he stared down into the depths, and as the last day dawned he saw patterns in the fallen branches, the wind and the earth, and learned the secrets of the runes. Symbols of magic, divination, and the powers of the universe, he carved them onto his spear, his helm, and taught favored mortals to do the same, so the runes could be used for divination and magic, as well as more mundane uses as markers and storytellers. Odin was a melancholy god, who knew the ultimate end of all things, even the gods, as unlike their Greek counterparts, the Aesir were not immortal, and thus the runes reflected powers greater than any god or mortal, the fates which no being could escape. Many are the tales of Odin bestowing a gift, then taking it away at a crucial moment; the most famous of these is in the Niebelung, as Sigmund, father of the dragon slayer Sigurd (better known as Sigfried in the German version), has been blessed with a magic sword that makes him unbeatable. In the midst of a battle with many foes, Odin appears, grabs Sigurd’s sword, and shatters it to pieces, resulting in his death. This is not seen as cruel, but the necessity of fate, which bestows gifts only to snatch them away, and reflects the generally fatalistic outlook of the Norse religion, which reminded you to enjoy yourself today, for disaster was looming tomorrow. Odin took a dim view of those who tried to propitiate him without any true sacrifice, and a story is told of a chieftain, hoping for the All-Father’s blessing, who imitated his ordeal, tying a silk cord loosely around his neck and having his men jab him with willow branches; as the prayer was offered, the cord changed to rope and the willows into spears, and his life was forfeit for dishonoring the sacrificial ritual.
You don’t need to be a user of the runes to see the lesson here; as pagans, we seek the knowledge of things long hidden, of the ways of the gods and spirits, and of the truth of our own natures. Whatever wisdom we gain comes at some cost, whether personal, in time, effort and will, or in judgments from others that may strain relationships, or in learning truths that may darken our view of life, we have all suffered to some extent for what we are. Odin reminds us that the price we pay is a must, that what we give up, what we endure, helps determine what we learn. So meditate upon what you have learned, and what you still hope to learn, think about the sacrifices you have made for your craft. Reflect on what each loss has taught you, for as many a general has said, there is no better teacher than defeat. Thank no power but yourself for what you have gained, and dwell upon what you have yet to struggle with, for as sure as the sun rises and sets, trials await in your future, but do not despair, for you will be the wiser for grappling with them.
“I wish I were a raven, on the shoulders of my Lord, I would give him sweet advice, and speak in wisdom’s tongue, I would fly with Odin to the edge of the world, and there we’d speak of times gone by and sing of times to come.”