Learning Wisdom – The Lay of Woden

Many things we can learn in these worlds – the histories of things, the ways to make use of things, how to perform certain actions, how people have thought in the past and how people think in the present.  Can we learn to be wise?  Is the cultivation of wisdom a matter of “learning” like this?  We can look to Woden’s example for clarification on this matter.

Odin - Granger


Woden’s search for wisdom is inherent.  He is fundamentally tied to this quest – his character was born in this universe so that the quest for the truth could be expressed.  How did he go about his investigation?  Initially, he took forms and walked through worlds.  He performed roles; he enacted deeds.  He dealt with others, and he worked wonders.  Throughout all of this, he was learning.  He came to understand the nature of the physical universe: he came to know the characters of Gods, Men and Giants; he came to understand the natural forces, and he came to understand the powers of magic and sorcery.  He grew great in skill, strength, eloquence and intelligence.  None but Tiw could hold a sword to him; none but Thor could lift a weightier boulder.  In the Norse tradition, only Bragi is a better speaker, and the only one to match Woden’s intelligence is Frigge, his own wife – herself a figure of wisdom.  Very much like the Celtic figures of the Dagda – the “good” (lit. skilled) God – and Lugh, who was master of all talents, Woden is a figure boasting every single quality of excellence.  Woden became world-class across the board through the trials and travels he undertook in the many worlds.  But did this make him wise?

Odin and Mimir

Clearly for himself, he did not think so.  For he was not satisfied with these worldly feats.  Great intelligence, great power of speech, great might and great skill – these things are fine in themselves, but not even in conjunction with each other do they amount to “wisdom.”  Woden had to look elsewhere for wisdom true.  First he enquired, amongst all the beings, as to who was the wisest of all – and he learned that it was Mymer, the guardian of the world-well at the foot of the root of the great ash, who, by drinking from the font of fundamental being each morning, was rendered wise beyond all others.  So Woden took upon himself the final journey – the journey towards Mymer, held to be All-Wise.  And when he reached that place, and petitioned Mymer for a drink from that same well, Mymer gave a caution like this: “all those who drink from this pure spring, from which all the waters of all the worlds run, will be blinded to the forms and the figures that inhabit them.  All those that would be wise beyond wisdom must give off everything else: everything false, everything illusory, everything untrue, everything non-existent – and that is the whole world tree and all that grows from it, for that tree is but a growth itself from the real truth, the real thing, beyond which there is no other.”

Thus it was made known to Woden.  To drink from the well of reality required the sacrifice of false sight.  The eye that sees many; the eye that sees two – this eye had to go.  And this was the eye that saw skill and power; this was the eye that saw intelligence and poetry.  All beauty of the world came into this eye; all marvels that could be experienced came to this eye.  Truly, in order to drink from this well, everything that he had known had to be sacrificed.  All experience, all understanding, all memory, all learning.  All of it had to be given up for one drink alone of this well of utter truth.  And Woden – being the great seeker after wisdom that he is – made the deal.  He plucked out that eye with great fervour.  He didn’t even have to think about it.  What price can be placed upon wisdom, which is the power of power, the skill of skill, the intelligence of intelligence and the eloquence of eloquence?  None of his exploits, none of his abilities, none of his understanding and not even his relationships with all the many beings in the worlds – not even with his beloved ones, his family and close friends – none of it could hold him back from fulfilling his destiny, in accordance with his character and his true will.  So he made the penultimate sacrifice: he gave up the world for wisdom itself.  And Mymer, happy with that sacrifice, invited the eyeless Woden into the inner chamber; and within the inner chamber, in a hole in the ground, the gateway from this world of worlds into the worldless reality was revealed; and Woden set his face therein, and drank freely from the water, as much as he could in that instant.  And in that very instant, he realised absolute wisdom.

Mimir - Tuomas Turppa

Tuomas Turppa

But was it enough?  Having drunk from the well, Woden realised the truth of truth, the reality of reality.  He saw what no-one can see, and heard what no-one can hear.  He knew what no-one can know.  Only Mymer shared with him the understanding that was primitive, the knowledge that was there before even the firstborn had been revealed in the fire-licked ice; the knowledge that even that first one hadn’t known, and which none of his progeny had known but Mymer himself, who alone guarded the well of wells.  This would seem to be the height of it: the end of the quest.  But it was not satisfactory for Woden.  For he felt cheated: he had had his drink, but had only one eye to give.  What other world-eye could he give for wisdom’s draught in the future?  Mymer, guardian of the well, was free to drink as he pleased.  For him there was no world; there was the well alone, and it gifted wisdom freely.  Woden had his work to do in the outer worlds, along the spine of the tree, and out along all the branches upon which universes hung like leaves.  He could as easily take the water of wisdom with him as he could drown the world in that tiny hole in the ground – and mighty, skilled, and intelligent as he was, this was a feat beyond any, even the greatest of the great.

As he left the inner chamber, and retraced his steps along the root of the world tree, a wonder dawned on him though: for everywhere he looked, he saw the very same thing.  Everywhere he looked, he saw his own being.  There was nothing in his sight that was not his own self: the root was him, and the worlds upon it; and the tree that grew from that root was him, and all the miracles of expansion thereon were him as well.  The great eagle at the height of it was him, as was the dark dragon in the depth.  Nowhere he looked could he find anything other than Woden: his own true name, wordless, resounded in his ears, and every sound he heard was alike, and was him.  With one draught from that well, the world had been removed: he found he could see no world; he found he could see not one thing.  In giving up that eye, he’d given up all capacity for distinction and definition.  All that appeared to him was one continuous flow: he could not make out one character from another, nor distinguish any other from himself.  Was this the truth that Mymer had spoken of?  Was this wisdom true?


Unquestioningly, he took his place atop the high beams of the world tree.  He hung there, unmoving, for time upon time: nine days and nine nights , or so it is said – but who can reckon what length of time that can be, when one day of the world tree is an eternity for us?  There he hung, unmoving, without any breath.  Hanging motionless, all hunger and thirst held at bay.  And his direct intent had taken form in his hand: the great spear, Gungnir, that wavering staff that had skewered countless and never missed its mark, was for once held fast, pressed firm into his chest, into his heart.  Thence he bled: and bleeding out, and crying not, and empty of food and drink and breath, for all that time he waited on the world tree: and not a single thought came to him then.  Day after day he died a little more: or, Woden died, but something remained.  There was something in him now that could not die: some fire burned inexorably, unfaltering, that no wind could blow out, nor any water quench.  What was this fire?  His one eye, that eye of wisdom, drew deeper and deeper into that fire.  It burned in that fire: everything burned in that fire.

On the ninth night, at the coming of midnight, when the darkness was highest and the light was low, a flash arose from within.  The spark of that fire travelled, it illuminated the whole world.  Woden fell – or so it seemed – and flew back down the tree, down its enormous trunk: drawn along the roots, deep into the depths, deep into Mymer’s guard, and swiftly, directly, into that tiny gap where the waters of wisdom lay, there he flew, there he fell.  And in his fall, a most mighty wind raised up around him, as if the weight of the entire universe were pulling all along in its enormous wake: and the whole of the world tree, the immensity of universes and lives, was pulled, dragged by the power of that wind, down with Woden, leaf to root, branch to branch, all along its own length, deep within, into its very own source.  And Woden dived into those waters, which before had been impossible to reach (for so small was the gap), and the whole world came down with him: and the unspoken prophecy of earlier had come true, for as the world was drowned in the waters of wisdom, that wisdom was made forever available to Woden.  Woden ceased; Wisdom remained.  What had been called a world was only wisdom: what had been called Woden was only wisdom.  All that was was wisdom.  And Woden awoke on that tree, screaming, his first breath rushing through: and all that was made of pattern and shape was known to him, all that was weaved in the threads of existence was revealed to him.  The motive and method, the magic and mystery: whatever was, whether known or unknown, was known to him.  And he came down from that place and took up his role in the worlds: he stood as the wise King, the wisest of all beings, and worked in the wise way to bring wisdom into the lives of all.

Odin - W.T. White.jpeg

W. T. White

Thus it was that he came to be all-knowing, all-wise: it was by this path that he came to be what he had always been, which had only taken time to come about.  His role fulfilled itself, using the powers of space and time.  In sacrificing himself to himself on that world tree – in putting all of his power into the quest for his own truth – he freed himself from all illusions, and became the fit vessel for that wisdom to be dispersed amongst all beings that would look to him and follow him.  It’s for this feat, more than any other, that we worship Woden, that we give thanks to him and honour to him: for he is the one that showed us, his children, out of the way of darkness and into the way of eternal light.  He is the one who, without even a thought, dispelled the ignorance of world-delusion.  He is the one who shone before and after his birth and death, who emerges in these worlds to guide his chosen back into the way of rightness and reality.  Beyond the pursuit of pure wisdom, no goal is his: he has no plan, no method, no way and no cause – and yet, he continues to work, to function in the world, to perform great deeds and make noble sacrifices of himself.  What is him is love, especially for those who would free themselves from fear and confusion: and it’s this love alone which works, in the form of Woden, to build and break down his people for their greatest good, that they too might be made fit vessels for the wisdom that he sees alone, everywhere, in every thing.  This is the song of Woden, the love of love for love, the truth within every thing.  He learned this on that tree, and it can never leave him.  Has anyone else gained anything that will never leave?  Of all achievements, this will forever be the greatest: and it will echo on through eternity in each and every incarnation of Woden, in all of his followers, in all those who are in essence lovers of light.  What a gift to give the universe…

Brief Commentary:

If there’s one thing we can learn from this story, it’s persistence.  Not stubbornness, not intractability, but dogged persistence: to keep the true goal in mind, and to make all things work for it.  Woden is the expression of absolute devotion to wisdom and wisdom alone: all of his lives, all of his exploits, express only this one path, this one desire.  Many of us are drawn in like way to this quest, and Woden is the typical signpost on the way: he stands tall, saying both “it is possible” and “you will make it.”  By his own example he gives us courage, the sure knowledge that there is a Truth and the Knowing of it.

Furthermore, we know him after this myth as the wise ruler, the good King: rather than retreating from the worlds after his realisation, he remains there, works as well as he can – perfectly, in fact, such that none can fault him or his counsel given full knowledge of the situation!  In matters of war, magic, love, agriculture, governance, teaching, art and trickery, he’s masterful.  In fact, the same mastery he’d gained in all of his previous lives in all of the many worlds remained with him after that final realisation: but in all ways its use was rendered pure, devoid of any mind-games or egotistical ploys.  He had nothing to gain from anything, and everything to give.  He worked with all things as they are within themselves: as such he was the epitomy of harmony.  Never taking anything at face value, always reckoning everything at its depth, he knew lies before they were spoken and knew the heart of a man before ever seeing him.  Wrath came when needed; kindness when needed.  All things were needful: nothing was wasted.  And he never said “I alone am like this,” but rather made it known to all that all could be like this.  His way is open to all, and is followed by people around the world – throughout all worlds, in fact.


This story of Woden is somehow Christ-like, to take a more recent example.  The sacrifice on the tree is similar to the sacrifice on the cross, except, in the Germanic mind, the sacrifice is for wisdom, whereas in the Christian mind, the sacrifice is to remove sin.  Never mind that the meaning of the word “sin” is actually “ignorance,” not “wrong doing,” and that ignorance is the only thing in the way of pure wisdom – for us, as for many in the world (though not all), it makes more sense to make a sacrifice for something than it does to make one against something.  The effect, as far as wisdom is concerned, is the same, but the myth differs according to the propensities of the culture in which it emerges.  For us, we kill ourselves on the tree to get wisdom, for the benefit all beings; for the Christians, maybe they can kill themselves on the tree to get rid of sin (ignorance) for the benefit of all beings.  Slightly different flavours, but the same basic story.

If anything, this story – the story of Woden – is the underpinning myth of the Germanic worldview.  This is the story which tells us what it’s all about, what we’re here for, what we can do right now, and how it will affect things.  There are other stories which teach us the right way to interact with the worlds and each other, and some stories which are more just for amusement or interest (which is also fine – fun has its place!), but this story, more than all the rest, gives a firm direction to humans and shows us what we’re really capable of.  We are born of the Gods: the Gods put themselves in us and set us on our way.  Now we’ve come to the point where we can reckon Them and make work in Their name: the best work is to eradicate the false from oneself, thence to shine as a beacon of truth in the world.  We’re following the All-Father in this: what can go wrong?  Let his example lead us!


From the Newark Odinist Temple

I’m sure that there used to be stories attached to Frige and the Goddesses which spoke of wisdom and its revelation – these have been lost to us, unfortunately.  They’ll be retold in time, in new ways relevant to our current world.  The women of our kind will show these stories in their own lives, just as many of us are retracing Woden’s steps now.  The rebirth of our religion is not to dig up some corpse that’s been moulding for 1,000 years, but to witness the living revelation of its truth in our own lives.  We’re the vessels by which it’ll be born and raised, as much as the dead and the past form the foundation, the ground upon which our new hall will stand.

Through our experiences of their paths, the Gods will take shape in our lives.  From here our faith will spread, both within and without.  The thing for the moment is to experience: dive within, reckon the reality of the Gods and the eternal truth from which they (and we) spring, thereby solidifying our faith within ourselves.  We are not a prophet-led religion: we are not followers of any single human or even principle.  This is an organic movement, a natural emanation of a natural religion within a people.  As such, nature itself guides the whole process.  We all have our parts to play: but the best thing we can do is learn all we can from our guides (men, women, Gods, whatever beings guide us) and understand ourselves as deeply as possible.  Everything else will come right in its own time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s