Norse Mythology

The Hanging of Odin and Ragnarok

What is the myth of Odin’s hanging on Yggdrasill?

The strange myth of Odin’s sacrifice is another Norse myth sometimes seen as related to the Christian story. The source for this myth is a section of the Elder Edda known as the Havamal. Although the All Father and primary warrior god, Odin also has trickster and shamanic powers and is driven to understand ultimate mysteries, represented by the mysterious runes, some that can only be understood among the dead. It is to understand the wisdom of the dead that Odin sacrifices himself on the world tree, Yggdrasill. Odin’s quest for wisdom had already cost him an eye when he achieved wisdom at the spring of the talking head, Mimir, at the foot of Yggdrasill. In the hanging myth, Odin literally mounts his horse—the drasill—as “the Terrible One”—Ygg. Yggdrasill is “Odin’s Horse,” a kenning, or compound word, that replaces a usual word, in this case “gallows.” Hangings were an important aspect of the Odin cult. Odin hung on the “windswept tree” for nine days and nights. He was pierced by a spear and left by himself to die and so to learn the runic mysteries of the dead—the mysteries of life and death—before returning to continue his rule of Asgard and the world. The myth of Odin’s hanging reminds us not only of the Christian story of death and resurrection and the harrowing of Hell, but of the much earlier myth of the Mesopotamian Inanna’s descent into the Underworld to learn the mysteries embodied by her sister Erishkigal.


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