Poems Before Ragnarok: Odin and the Runes

Imagine you are the king of a race of Gods.

But ruling the Gods bores you. It’s wisdom you seek, for even the Gods are not all-knowing. For the love of wisdom, you plucked out your own eye.

You’ve spent time with the dead, time with female shamans, and time on the battlefield, inspiring an all-consuming, almost spiritual lust for war. Those who you inspire are like whirling dervishes with weapons, dancing in an ecstasy of slaughter. Half of the noble dead will be yours, to take to your kingdom, where you can commune with them. The other half will go to the Goddess of Love, Sex, Sorcery and War, where they will reside in her hall of the dead.

You have stolen a magical wine, the mead of poetry, which gives you, your fellow deities, and a few lucky humans the gift of poetic language. As a result, you only speak in poems.

You know you are going to die, in the final battle at the End of the World; this has been prophesized. There will be a New World to come, but you won’t live to see it. Instead, you will be devoured.

What’s left to do? You are listless. You’ve already sacrificed one of your eyes for wisdom, risked your life for poetry, and battled gods and men alike. What possible agenda could drive you forward…

Back to the poetry: what good is poetry, if there’s no way to capture it?


There’s something about the written word, a hint of permanence…

The spoken word is easily forgotten. But the written word? It borders on magical.

In fact, for those cultures that first developed it, it was often intertwined with their ritual magical.

Spells, incantations, prayers; even divinations.

Yes, in the right hands, a sacred alphabet can open up the past, and peer into the future.

And so, God, king, wanderer, warrior, shaman, psychopomp…

Poet, it turns out you do have another quest…


Despite Odin’s movie appearances as a stately, mighty king, Norse mythology provides a far more nuanced characterization. Since the Romans loved to equate the Gods of their vassal states with their own, it’s quite telling that they didn’t conflate Odin with Jupiter, but with Mercury.

Mercury (Hermes in the Greek, Thoth in Egypt) was a trickster god, a messenger god, a wisdom god.

An Alchemical God.

He was also a Psychopomp, a being who led the spirits of the dead to the underworld.

But perhaps most significantly, he was a God of language; this was especially true for Mercury as Thoth.

And so, in one of the most retold narratives of Odin, he would go in search of a magical alphabet.

The Runes.


Then I was fertilized and grew wise;
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.

(From the Poetic Edda, translation by Daniel McCoy, author of The Viking Spirit: an Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion)

There are 9 worlds in Norse cosmology, all linked by one enormous ash tree, Yggdrasil. The name can be translated as Odin’s Horse; it can also be translated as Odin’s Gallows, or even as Terror.


For 9 days and 9 nights, Odin hung, suspended from the mighty tree.

A spear pierced his side to hold him up. He did not eat, nor did he drink.

In the Poetic Edda, a 13th century collection of Norse mythological poems, Odin states that he sacrificed “himself to himself” on the great tree; finally, after his 9 day/night ordeal was over, he looked down and saw the Runes. Screaming, he recovered them, and came down from the mighty Ash.

Odin’s Self Sacrifice, Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908); the shape of the border is the roughly the shape of the Rune Oss, which can represent Odin/God/Ash or Oak.


Odin has had such an impact on modern culture that at least in the Westernized world, we still invoke his name once a week.

Wednesday is Odin’s day.


So dear readers, as you engage in the magic of the written word, give a moment of thanks to Odin. He’s still out there, you know; probably wandering, waiting for Ragnarök, the final battle at the End of the World.

I like to think it will come on a Wednesday.


For more information see Mythcrafts’ page with academic and pop culture links to Norse Mythology.


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