The majority of knowledge myths detail how mankind comes by knowledge, always at some price. The gods, or God, has knowledge already, but mankind is completely ignorant. The Norse, however, have a knowledge myth where the gods seek out knowledge.
We begin with Odin, who knows about Ragnarok, which will destroy not just the world, but all of the gods as well. This is fated to be. It will happen. No one can change that, not even the gods. However, Ragnarok doesn’t have a set tour date. It can be postponed. And that is Odin’s quest.
He starts out by seeking the Well of Mimir. Mimir is just a head, having lost his body long ago. He spends his time gazing into the well and guarding it from others, selling drinks of it for those who want to know more.
A momentary aside from our retelling. The scene in Avengers Age of Ultron where Thor goes into a pool of water in a cave is a direct nod to this Norse myth. Recall that Thor was seeking knowledge about his vision from the Scarlet Witch. While we aren’t privy to exactly what he saw, we know that learned from his time in the well because he came back to help create the Vision. And now back to our regularly scheduled myth.
Odin pays for a drink by plucking an eye out of his head, counting this a good bargain. I would like to pause a moment. He willingly plucked out his eye! I wear contacts, and it took me years to get used to jabbing a finger in my eyes. No way would I ever pluck one out (I get squeamish when movies and TV shows do anything to eyes). He doesn’t stop there, though. The knowledge from the well isn’t enough. Next he literally hangs himself from and crucifies himself to Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Don’t dwell too long on the logistics of nailing himself to the tree. We just have to go with the myth and say he was able to do it. He’s a god, after all.
Odin sacrifices himself to himself. I know, I know, that makes no flipping sense whatsoever. Except, maybe, it does. A sacrifice to be meaningful has to be of high quality, and there is nothing better than Odin. At the same time, a sacrifice must be made to someone, and since Odin is the All-father, he is the natural choice for a sacrifice to be made to. Moreover, Odin is essentially being reborn. He must sacrifice his old life in order to take up a life of knowledge. So, through the vivid metaphor of sacrificing his own life, he metaphorically can be reborn (or maybe literally, he is a god, after all).
With this sacrifice, he gains wisdom and the knowledge of the runes. You’ve likely seen pictures of the runes before, as they’re a popular staple for fantasy literature, and make a nifty font. These runes make up the Norse alphabet, known as FUTHARK after the first six letters of the alphabet (TH is one letter, known as thorn). The alphabet is usually arranged in a table of six columns (again, FUTHARK) with three rows, for a total of 18 runes. Each of these runes not only has a name, but a power, which is why Odin wanted them in the first place.
I’m going to take an aside to discuss a little bit of numerology in this myth. Odin hangs from the tree for nine days, which is also the number of worlds connected by Yggdrasil. The FUTHARK number 18, 2 x 9, or 6 x 3, as it is laid out. And, of course, 9 is also 3 x 3. Three, then, is of prime (pun intended) importance to the Norse. It pops up in their mythology over and over again. The three brothers uncovered from the ice, the three beginning realms of Muspellheim, Nifleheim, and the gap between them, Ginnungagap.
With the knowledge from the well and now the runes, Odin has the power to delay the onset of Ragnarok, which he will put to good use in some later myths we’ll examine. But for now we need to examine a little more closely.
Knowledge has a price, which is well established from looking at the myths of Pandora and Eden. However, as stated before, mankind pays this price in those myths, whereas Odin pays for it in the Norse. This is very important. Clearly, the Norse people did not view their gods as all-knowing, not even All-Father Odin, at least not until he obtained that knowledge. This puts the Norse gods on a level not far removed from people. They have power and immortality, but they have limitations just like humanity.
Also, this is a society that values knowledge, perhaps even more so than the other cultures and their knowledge myths. Knowledge is so important and powerful that even the gods needed to pay a price for it, and a heavy one at that. Giving up half of his vision (a metaphor for being able to see in other ways) is one thing, but Odin literally makes a sacrifice out of himself for the power that comes with knowledge.
The ultimate form of that knowledge is also telling. The knowledge of fire from Prometheus and the knowledge of Good and Evil from Eden are important forms, showing the duality of nature, but with the Norse it’s something different. The runic letters that make up the alphabet allow them to write, to give permanence to their language. While the Genesis creation emphasizes the power of language from the outset, Odin’s knowledge myth demonstrates that the Norse, too, hold this to be important, especially in a world fated to be destroyed.
The threat of Ragnarok is ever-present in the myth, but the use of writing gives a chance of something greater. Not only will this power help Odin to delay Ragnarok, but, perhaps, the writing will be the one thing that survives the destruction of the gods and men. This is a way for the story, for the knowledge, of what happened before to survive beyond the lives of gods and men. Up until this alphabet, the Norse could only pass on stories orally, and if a people died, so did their story.