ODIN GOES TO MIMIR’S WELL:
HIS SACRIFICE FOR WISDOM
So Odin, no longer riding on Sleipner, his eight-legged horse, no longer wearing his golden armor and his eagle-helmet, and without even his spear in his hand, traveled through Midgard, the World of Men, and made his way toward Jötunheim, the Realm of the Giants.
He was no longer called Odin All-Father, but Vegtam the Wanderer. He wore a cloak of dark blue and he carried a traveler’s staff in his hands. As he went toward Mimir’s Well, which was near to Jötunheim, he met a Giant riding on a great stag.
Odin seemed a man to men and a giant to giants. He walked beside the Giant on the great stag and the two talked together. “Who are you, brother?” Odin asked the Giant.
“I am Vafthrudner, the wisest of the Giants,” said the one who was riding on the stag. Odin knew him then. Vafthrudner was indeed the wisest of the Giants, and many went to try to gain wisdom from him. But those who went to him had to answer the riddles Vafthrudner asked, and if they failed to answer the Giant took their heads off.
“I am Vegtam the Wanderer,” Odin said, “and I know who you are, Vafthrudner. I would like to learn something from you.”
The Giant laughed, showing his teeth. “Ho, ho,” he said, “I am ready for a game with you. Do you know the stakes? You have my head if I cannot answer any question you ask. And if you cannot answer any question that I ask, then your head goes to me. Ho, ho, ho. Now let us begin.”
“I am ready,” Odin said.
“Then tell me,” said Vafthrudner, “tell me the name of the river that divides Asgard from Jötunheim?”
“Ifling is the name of that river,” said Odin. “Ifling that is dead cold, yet never frozen.”
“You have answered rightly, Wanderer,” said the Giant. “But you still have to answer other questions. What are the names of the horses that Day and Night drive across the sky?”
“Skinfaxe and Hrimfaxe,” Odin answered. Vafthrudner was startled to hear someone say the names that were known only to the Gods and to the wisest of the Giants. There was only one question now that he could ask before it came to the stranger’s turn to ask him questions.
“Tell me,” said Vafthrudner, “what is the name of the plain on which the last battle will be fought?”
“The Plain of Vigard,” said Odin, “the plain that is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles across.”
It was then Odin’s turn to ask Vafthrudner questions. “What will be the last words that Odin will whisper into the ear of Baldur, his dear son?” he asked.
The Giant Vafthrudner was very startled at that question. He sprang to the ground and looked at the stranger closely.
“Only Odin knows what his last words to Baldur will be,” he said, “and only Odin would have asked that question. You are Odin, Wanderer, and I cannot answer your question.”
“Then,” said Odin, “if you want to keep your head, answer me this. What price will Mimir ask for a drink from the Well of Wisdom that he guards?”
“He will ask for your right eye as a price, Odin,” said Vafthrudner.
“Will he ask nothing less than that?” said Odin.
“He will ask nothing less than that. Many have come to him for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, but no one yet has paid the price Mimir asks. I have answered your question, Odin. Now give up your claim to my head and let me go on my way.”
“I give up my claim to your head,” said Odin. Then Vafthrudner, the wisest of the Giants, went on his way, riding on his great Stag.
It was a terrible price that Mimir would ask for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, and Odin was very troubled when it was revealed to him. His right eye! For all time to be without the sight of his right eye! He almost turned back to Asgard, giving up his quest for wisdom.
He went on, turning neither to Asgard nor to Mimir’s Well. When he went toward the South he saw Muspelheim, where Surtur stood with the Flaming Sword, a terrible figure, who would one day join the Giants in their war against the Gods. When he turned North he heard the roaring of the cauldron Hvergelmer as it poured itself out of Niflheim, the place of darkness and dread. Odin knew that the world must not be left between Surtur, who would destroy it with fire, and Niflheim, that would take it back to Darkness and Nothingness. He, the eldest of the Gods, would have to win the wisdom that would help to save the world.
So, grimly, Odin turned and went toward Mimir’s Well. It was under the great root of Ygdrassil which grew out of Jötunheim. Mimir, the Guardian of the Well of Wisdom sat there with his deep eyes bent on the deep water. Mimir, who had drunk every day from the Well of Wisdom, knew who it was that stood before him.
“Hail, Odin, Eldest of the Gods,” he said.
Then Odin bowed to Mimir, the wisest of the world’s beings. “I want to drink from your well, Mimir,” he said.
“There is a price to be paid. Everyone who has come here to drink has been unwilling to pay that price. Will you, Eldest of the Gods, pay it?”
“I will not shrink from the price that has to be paid, Mimir,” said Odin.
“Then drink,” said Mimir. He filled up a great horn with water from the well and gave it to Odin.
Odin took the horn in both his hands and drank. As he drank all the future became clear to him. He saw all the sorrows and troubles that would fall upon Men and Gods. But he saw, too, why the sorrows and troubles had to fall, and he saw how they might be dealt with so that Gods and Men, by being noble in the days of sorrow and trouble, would leave in the world a force that one day, a day that was far off indeed, would destroy the evil that brought terror and sorrow and despair into the world.
Then when he had drunk out of the great horn that Mimir had given him, he put his hand to his face and he plucked out his right eye. The pain that Odin endured was terrible but he did not cry out. He bowed his head and put his cloak over his face, as Mimir took the eye and let it sink deep into the water of the Well of Wisdom. There the Eye of Odin stayed, shining up through the water, a sign to all who came to that place of the price that the Father of the Gods had paid for his wisdom.