The Norse God Odin, Part Two: Initiation, Sacrifice and the Runes

By Rosemary Taylor

As I explained in my last article, Odin Part One – Journeying God of Magical and Social Wisdom, Odin travels throughout the Nine Worlds in his quest for wisdom, and to avert his own prophesied end that was told to him by a Seeress. He gains amazing resources along the way, including the runes and the mead of wisdom and poetry. He grows in magical and transformative power.

I also ventured that gaining this kind of occult wisdom may not be everyone’s path in life. If this path is your choice then you might well ask what were the processes, the methods by which he gained such power? Enough information is given in the Poetic and Prose Eddas to establish that he engages in forms of initiation and sacrifice in order to alter or expand consciousness, gaining knowledge of himself and the nature of reality.

Definitions for “Initiation” and “Sacrifice” provide some interesting reflections. Initiation can mean to start or begin something; sacrifice can mean to put an end to life (in order to receive boon from a deity). The story of Odin resonates here, as it falls into a cycle of creation and destruction:

Firstly, Odin creates the Earth-realm of Midgard; the heavens that arch over the top of the World Tree; and he empowers Hella to rule the underworld zone called “Hel”. He initiates the primal three-level structure of reality.

Finally, his destiny (or Wyrd) is innately bound up with the destruction of that reality. He fulfils certain actions, that inevitably lead to the rising up of the Giants against Asgard (the realm of the Aesir Gods and the Asynjur Goddesses) headed by Loki, once blood-brother, now sworn enemy. Odin sacrifices himself defending his creation, in the battle known as Ragnarök.

Odin’s entire godhood is bounded by keynote acts of initiation and sacrifice; likewise his godly powers increase via experiential death and rebirth processes which accrue him wisdom. Another way of putting this is to say: Odin is the very intelligence within the energies of initiation and sacrifice.

We all have a relationship to his special powers, for although one definition of initiation means “the act of admitting someone into an obscure society or group”, our birth is the admission into a not-so-obscure society called human kind!

Another meaning for sacrifice is to give up something valued for the sake of other considerations. The word sacrifice holds a negative connotation for us because we assume we are going to “lose out” and we tend to neglect the other side of the equation – what we receive in return. In the poem called “the Sayings of the High One”, Odin directly challenges:

“do you know how to ask, do you know how to sacrifice,
do you know how to dispatch, do you know how to slaughter?
Better not to pray than to sacrifice too much:
one gift always calls for another;
better not dispatched than too many slaughtered.”

Odin reminds us that there is balance in all things and that there should be fair expectations of mutual benefit on both sides – “one gift always calls for another”. This parity of gain needs to be considered before we enter into any agreement, mundane or spiritual, otherwise “better not”. He is not advocating total selflessness, but a measured understanding of the loss and gain involved; a negotiation of power, not a negation of power.

People can be superstitious about working with Odin, seeing him as a God of Sacrifice and fearing what might be expected of them; or assuming that a difficult loss should be attributed to his influence. The above quote puts this matter straight for me. Odin is not a god greedy for sacrifice, but one who understands the natural harmony of mutual gain. He also upholds the sacredness of any transaction, once determined. So we must take responsibility for our choices. Things that happen as a consequence are part of our Wyrd – our destiny – and no god gives a better example of striving to master one’s personal destiny than Odin. We feel loss because we make deep bonds with things, places, people and activities. We cannot prevent sacrifice if we are to experience change and growth, it is a natural element of human existence.

An example: new parents sacrifice their youthful freedom in order to experience the joy of bringing children into the world; in opening to that sacred transaction, they initiate more deeply into the experiences of nurture and protection and gain precious wisdom that expands them in return. Sacrifices can be challenging, but where there is death of one aspect, there is birth of another. All the natural life phases we pass through can be considered a series of sacrifices. Finally we give up life in the physical body for an experience of the non-physical realm of spirit.

So I honour Odin for illustrating a convincing experience of life, putting aside for one moment the glorious, fantastical-seeming events of mythology! His final, unavoidable death mirrors a truth we must all face. So we should investigate Odin’s example to understand what his wisdom can offer us.

Again, in “the Sayings of the High One” Odin gives an account of his initiation upon the World Tree, gaining the runes as a result:

“I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run”


Although the World Tree is a metaphor for life, the term “windswept” also associates it with death because wind, a chilling element in the North, implies the cold grip of death. The World Tree is also an access point for rebirth, via death. This is plainly true as the World Tree contains the afterlife realms of Hel and Valhalla. So in the first line alone, Odin is identifying an initiatory meeting with the transformative power of death.

Odin is closely associated with a magical object, a spear called Gungnir that he hurled emphatically to initiate the war between the Aesir and the Vanir Gods. It is a symbol of his will, authority and leadership over others, but most importantly in this context, his authority with himself. Gungnir takes him as close to death as possible without actually dying.

What does he get in exchange?

It is said that at a point near death, your past flashes before your eyes. Here it appears to be no different, except as a God-Creator, Odin’s “past” might be a bit more cosmic than average:

“With no bread did they refresh me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then fell back from there.”

Starved and thirsty (in an altered state) Odin looked down. What did he see? From what we are told in the Eddas, associated with the roots of the World Tree were the three Wells of Wyrd: one was called “Urd”, or “Origins” and so this well contained knowledge of everything that has been, a place where the Gods gathered to make decisions; the second was named after Mimir, a wise Giant, possibly Odin’s uncle, who initiated Odin at the well in a different myth.

Either way, Odin has recorded interaction with these two wells. The wells are not really separate belonging as they do to the World Tree, which contains and connects all life and all experience.

Upon peering into the well the “past” flashed before Odin – or everything that has happened, in the form of runes that encompass the mysteries of the cosmos.

The runes are ciphers for interpreting Wyrd, emanating out of the Wells of Wyrd; sacred tools that could help Odin understand or change his destiny. The sacrifice of himself to himself was fulfilled and the fruit of sacrifice (wisdom) was realized in the runes.

Odin’s scream interests me. I am reminded that the first humanoid being to form from the meeting of cosmic fire with cosmic ice before Odin’s time was a Frost-Giant called Ymir. Ymir means “scream”. Life came into being with a scream, like the first cry of a baby. Odin has a direct relationship with Ymir, because he and his brothers destroyed Ymir to create our material reality out of his giant body – the seas, Midgard, the stars and the Heavens. Odin’s scream echoes a more ancient scream and a more ancient birth; these reinforce a sense of his own spiritual rebirth.

What were the tangible benefits of this initiation and the others he underwent? He describes the effect:

“Then I began to quicken and be wise,
and to grow and prosper;
one word from another word found a word for me,
one deed from another deed found a deed for me.”

Odin gained a new level of facility with his Wyrd, which wisdom of the runes would provide; an increased sense of aliveness and flow; a kind of serendipity that made him more effective, more abundant, productive and empowered. He gained congruency by moving beyond the fear of death.

When we face our personal shadows and re-negotiate the power they hold, we experience a release of fear and an influx of power, rather like the perception of facility, capacity, flow and grace that Odin describes. When we let go of one energy, there is room for another. The myth records a process that is true and ever-relevant.

The nature of myth is both symbolic and authentic. In shamanic healing work we honour the symbolism, but remove the element of actual physical danger. We revisit the perceived life-threat from the past to move through the experience of death and loss by helping the failed rebirth to manifest. We build a sense of pathway through challenge that enables us to face future tests.

None of this means that Odin’s initiation on the World Tree was far-fetched, but to what degree is was symbolic and what degree factually correct, we cannot say. We do know that elite bands of warrior-shamans of which Odin was the patron God, underwent initiations to merge with their bear or wolf totems. These probably included fasting, extreme heat and ceremonial dance. In so doing they achieved an ecstatic and furious altered state that enabled them to meet the visceral horror of the battlefield and become ferocious warriors.

Yes, but was it worth it? Odin died after all.

The point of initiatory experiences is to shed fear, to accustom yourself to the reality of death and the truth of its transformative power, so when you face actual death you are ready and masterful. The point of choosing initiation when there is no compulsion is the acceleration of empowerment.

Odin was warned he would die at Ragnarök. He was told he would be consumed by a giant wolf, perhaps reminiscent of the ferocious wolf-warriors who benefitted from his patronage. His initiations and sacrifices may have been intended to gain wisdom that would prevent his death, but the golden by-product was a greater fearlessness in the face of death. Initiations help you to know yourself, trust yourself and find your capacity for greatness.

Odin led himself freely to another sacrifice, this time the ultimate one. He was empowered to serve his clan right to the end, to remain an inspiration to others. These are very special qualities of leadership. We may not be old-time warriors and face battle the way Odin did, but life holds old fears and new challenges which need some means of resolution.

We remember and thank this god for bringing us the runes; but perhaps the most precious wisdom Odin left us was the power of initiation and sacrifice in the mastery of fear… otherwise there would be no practical runes.

[The final part of this series is Odin, Part Three: The Mead of Wisdom and Poetry, and the Sacred Marriage.]

This article was by shamanic practitioner Rosemary Taylor. She gives rune readings via Skype, phone and in person by arrangement, or you can join her Facebook group, Rune Wisdom Update. She regularly runs courses in Glastonbury, Somerset, on all to do with the Northern Tradition, plus shamanic healing services are also available after consultation, including in-depth soul retrieval work, power animal healing and trauma clearing processes.

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