The story of Odin begins with three brothers going to take out a giant.
What we modern folks tend to forget is that there are a lot of places in the world where you can feel a presence there. Back-country hikers have reported this; sometimes city folks get it. This feeling of something giant and alive…
And in the case of Odin’s people, utterly hostile.
They were moving into a landscape where you had the killing ice (Ymir) and some nice hot springs attached to some killing fire (Surtur). How the hell do you deal with that? By being tougher than anything else? By being smarter?
It’s telling that Odin, who’s name means ‘inspired / mad poet’, is credited with ultimately being the ruler of the gods because his move was to -reinterpret- everything.
It’s brilliant. What’s going to kill you the quickest in an icy environment? The weather! So the clouds become the ‘brains’ of Ymir. Blood is life and you need to tell your people that the ocean is blood. The sky and mountaintops? Skull and bone. Danger there. Death there. But when you see the grasses and the trees, they are safe places for us humans.
It’s a map to survive up there and it worked. Odin’s wisdom allowed people to be formed (made from trees and that’s relevant later). Its embodiment in spoken, dramatic language, enabled it to be passed on no matter what linguistic or cultural changes were brought on.
Now, the broad strokes are there, but that wasn’t enough. Wisdom had to be gained by delving deep into the secrets of the land. To understand this, you need to take a look at the story of Mimir’s Well.
The basics are this: Odin goes to the land of the frost giants, at the edge of creation, and visits this Well that feeds the world tree. There, he meets the wise Mimir, who offers him a drink from the well if Odin sacrifices an eye. He does and the icy drink fills him with wisdom and knowledge of many useful charms.
Words do alter dramatically over time. The word ‘well’ used to not mean a hole in the ground where you drew water (ala Sleeping Beauty). It could also mean ‘to well up’, a place where water spewed from the ground. A spring.
Another overlooked word in the telling of Mimir’s tale was that it was set in the land of the giants. What would a well look like to a giant? Could it be a piece of turbulent ocean? A delta where raging glacial rivers met the sea?
At Mimir’s well, Odin did something recognizable to most cultures at the time: a three-fold sacrifice. By naming Mimir, it connected to another story, where Odin sent his friend and likely uncle out as a permanent ambassador to another group of gods, the Vanir, which resulted in Mimir’s death.
That’s the first sacrifice.
The second is a flesh sacrifice, the eye, but even that positioning is important because that injury would be immediately recognizable to a certain class of people: sailors. Eye injuries on the open sea were uncommon but definitely a risk.
Then we get to the Well. Odin had a nickname, the Drowned God (to be fair, he had a lot of nicknames). That icy drink? Consider if Odin’s third sacrifice involved drowning.
All of these three sacrifices were made to understand how turbulent waters work and how to unlock the life-giving properties of how to sail.
Moving on, Odin had tackled how to sail and fish and navigate the choppy waters through a three-fold sacrifice but he needed more. Saying to watch the weather (the clouds are Ymir’s brains) and -knowing- how to watch the weather are two different things.
As the story goes, he found the Norns (fates), discovered that they wrote the future of everyone in distinct shapes (the runes) and then hung himself on the World-Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nights, pierced in the side by a spear, hanging between life and death, to figure those shapes out.
Taking that story apart, the shape of the ritual becomes familiar to any student of history: the vision quest. It’s composed of 3 days and 3 nights without food or water. You remove yourself from the cycle of the world in order to gain wisdom. Odin needed to do this ritual 3 times (3×3 = 9 days and nights) and added the inverse of the sacrifices he had done before.
Friends surrounded Odin but, bound, Odin could not take their aid (hung), he offered up his flesh (‘stabbed’ with a spear, though more likely someone cut his flesh and gave it up), and finally instead of drowning he could drink nothing.
So what did he get out of that? The stories say he got the runes. A mystical set of shapes the Norns used that meant ‘secret / mystery’ and also were useful as a writing system.
What if it -was- more than a writing system? Adrian Bejan, a Romanian physicist, proposed a concept in 1995 called Constructal Law, which people consider may be as fundamental a premise in physics as Newton’s Laws of Motion. Bejan’s premise presents like this:
For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.p. 71, Thermodynamic Optimization of Complex Energy Systems (edited by Adrian Bejan, Eden Mamut)
These systems are predictable and replicable; they reflect in systems as simple as the branches of a river to the flow of blood vessels to the organization of lungs to (no joke) human emotion and culture (remember how I mentioned earlier that humans carved from trees was relevant?).
Those runes. Those things brought back from a time where Odin had to bend his already brilliant head out of shape. It’s not just a language.
In essence, it’s scientific notation.
It’s a set of flow forms.
Embedded in language so that it will be easy to remember, it’s a predictive text that can offer insight into anything from how the waves are flowing to if your neighbor is going to murder you.
Unfortunately, it’s also a lost technology. Acculturation into the encroachment of civilized societies slowly made it less prominent. Ultimately, others understood it to be nothing more or less than a system of writing.
It’s still there though, that wisdom, waiting. For an utgar-Loki to point it out and for an Odin to pierce the veil of deep time and flow the vision back together.