In Havamal, a poem recounted within Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Edda, Óðinn tells that he stabbed himself with a spear and hung on a tree for nine nights, not eating or drinking, in order to attain the knowledge of the runes which are
gifted to him by various characters from the races of men, elves, dwarves and Jottun.
This is a passage that originally caused me great confusion and cost a great amount of Óð, energy, to decode. This expenditure of effort is not at all, however, a bad thing as the staff attainment of knowledge tastes most sweet when it feels deserved and an individual who cannot decode knowledge independently is not capable of any more than imitation of what came before. In saying this, and in the spirit of the philosophy “seek and your shall find”, I believe it appropriate to bolster the limited resources available for decoding the mythology and elaborating on scant information I have found elsewhere, compiling it into something more readable and cohesive, and to help you to help yourself.
There are many different views over such a short passage, ranging from one extreme to another and encompassing a variety of topics; I have read interpretations of this text in which Óðinn is referred to as a kind of pagan ascetic who tortures himself purposefully to come closer to death and thus have a kind of “near death experience”. As much as I admire the creativity of such an interpretation, I believe this interpretation to be no more than coincidental in regards to the original meaning of the text. I will here present my own view, which is subject to change if I find another alternative to be more likely.
So, what is Óðinn’s ‘hanging really all about? Here is an extract from the relevant text in Old Norse and then modern English:
Snorri’s Poetic Edda, Havamal 137-138:
Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði anetr allar nío,geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,sialfr sialfom mer,a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,nysta ec niþr,nam ec vp rvnar,opandi nam,fell ec aptr þaðan.
I understand that I hung on the windy tree, Hung there for a full nine nights; With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was, to Óðinn, myself to myself, On the tree that none may know what root beneath it runs. None made me happy with a loaf or horn,And there below I looked;I took up the runes, shrieking I took them, And forthwith back I fell.
Beginning with etymology:
Yggdrasil: Yggr (deathly/sleepy), drosull (steed).
Dwarf: From proto-Germanic *dweurg, meaning “deceiver”.
Elf: from proto Indo European *althaz, meaning “pure”.
Jotunn: From proto Indo European *etunaz, meaning “of large appetite”.
Asgard: From As, meaning “spirit”, and Gard, meaning “home”
Dvalin: Idleness, lack of action
Bölþorn: meaning “thorn of misfortune” is the maternal grandfather of Óðinn.
Asviđr: From As, meaning spirit, and vidr, meaning “forest”, “tree” or “woodland”.
The main message behind Óðinn’s hanging:
The tree of life represents the female placenta, the organ that grows within a woman during pregnancy which has veins that spread out in the shape of an Oak. Óðinn represents the spirit, the life force, the enduring energy which permeates all of humanity and is actualized through will; it is similar to the Hindu concept of Prana. The word Óð even means the energy of the self. Ergo, in the poem Havamal, the spirit recounts its torture on the tree, the placenta, on which it hangs for nine long days, the nine months of pregnancy.
“Myself to myself” of course refers to the sense of circular time within pre-Christian theology and central Heathen tenet of reincarnation. Óðinn, or the figure who manifests as him and writes this poem (acting almost as a Messiah figure) is recounting the events of his former life, and how the will of Spirit, translated as Óðinn, is spent in each life on Yggdrasil, the spiritual tree, before it returns
Óðinn also recounts that he has been here before, that he will learn the runes, drink from Oðroerir (the “soul stirrer” symbolised by a cup of mead but likely representing breast milk) and then he will slip back again into darkness, a continual process that extends as far as we know. Odinn was hanging on the tree, the placenta, for nine nights. Notice that it does not say “days and nights”? This is because in the darkness of the womb there is nothing but night, and a healthy pregnancy lasts for a full nine months on the tree.
The spear represents the umbilical chord which is “stabbed” through the unborn child while it is on the tree. During pregnancy, a child does not consume food or drink, and hence is “not provided with a loaf or horn”. Shrieking into life, the newly born child takes the runes (Rune translating into English loosely as “spell” or “secret”) as they learn throughout their life.
Finally, the stanza ends by saying “forthwith back, I fell” to symbolise that once the runes (life skills and wisdom) are learnt, Óðinn, the spirit, returns back to the womb and the process begins again.
Snorri’s Poetic Edda, Havamal, 139-142:
The placenta, tree of life, Yggdrasil.
Complete with Gungnir spear (umbilical chord)
Nine mighty songs I learned from the great
son of Bölþorn, Bestla’s father;
I drank a measure of the wondrous mead,
with the Soulstirrer’s drops I was showered.
Ere long I bare fruit, and throve full well,
I grew and waxed in wisdom;
word following word, I found me words,
deed following deed, I wrought deeds.
Hidden Runes shalt thou seek and interpreted signs,
many symbols of might and power,
by the great Singer painted, by the high Powers fashioned,
graved by the Utterer of gods.
For the Æsier engraved Óđinn, for elves engraved Daïn,
Dvalin the dawdler for dwarfs,Ásviðr for Jötunns, and I myself,
engraved some for the sons of men.
Though subject to change, it is my personal hypothesis that since the name Bestla comes from the word “bark” and that the bark is the daughter of the thorn, Óðinn (the spirit) learns nine important lessons from nature itself, and also drinks the mead known as Óðroerir, “soul stirrer”, which I hypothesise to refer to breast milk drank in the younger years when the spirit returns to life.
Throughout his life, the speaker bears spiritual fruit and blossoms like the tree that he learnt from, symbolised by Bölþorn. All human beings, at least in pagan times, were encourage to think of themselves as a tree, continually growing and branching out into new direction and bearing fruit for the nourishment of others. “Word following word”, IE learning from the words of others, the speaker wrought words of his own, “deed following deed”, IE learning from the actions of others, the speaker learns action.
Stanza 141 commands the reader to seek out secrets and hidden signs in order to improve their knowledge throughout life.
I don’t wish to elaborate on the racialist aspects of heathenry in this article but will cover it in depth in future as it will become tangential.
Additional subliminal meanings (to be expanded in later articles):
As we touched upon in Article 9, the tree Yggdrasil is likely also, as well as symbolising the placenta, an elegant metaphor for the Kundalini, the electromagnetic system that dictates human thought and emotion. One can be said to move further up the tree (tree of knowledge) as one approaches enlightenment and purity (the word Elf coming from *altaz, meaning white or pure).
Logically speaking, for an individual to hang themselves from a tree they must first reach the top of this tree, IE complete enlightenment and purity, which is symbolised through Asgard. To complete the process of reaching the very top of the tree, Odin, the will and power of the spirit must be sacrificed, meaning symbolically that enlightenment is attained through the death of the spirit or the Óð.
Óðinn is more or less synonymous with the Hindu concept of Prana, and the Germanic word for willpower and life force was Óð.
The World Tree in other religious traditions:
Norse paganism is not the only pre-Christian tradition to utilise the symbolism of the world tree as a representation of planes of consciousness within the Universe/Brahman. It is also found within Hinduism as the holy fig tree Asvattha:
Yama while instructing Naciketa describes the eternal Asvattha tree with its root upwards and branches downwards, which is the pure immortal Brahman, in which all these worlds are situated, and beyond which there is nothing else (Katha Upanishad Verse II.vi.1):
Katha Upanishad, sixth Valli, verse 1:
This ancient Aswattha tree has its root above and branches below. That is pure, That is Brahman, That alone is called the Immortal. All the worlds rest in That. None goes beyond That. This verily is That. This verse indicates the origin of the tree of creation (the Samsara–Vriksha), which is rooted above in Brahman, the Supreme, and sends its branches downward into the phenomenal world. Heat and cold, pleasure and pain, birth and death, and all the shifting conditions of the mortal realm–these are the branches; but the origin of the tree, the Brahman, is eternally pure, unchanging, free and deathless. From the highest angelic form to the minutest atom, all created things have their origin in Him. He is the foundation of the universe. There is nothing beyond Him.
Krishna tells us that the Asvattha tree having neither end nor beginning nor stationariness whatsoever has its roots upwards and branches downwards whose branches are nourished by the Gunas and whose infinite roots spread in the form of action in the human world which though strong are to be cut off by the forceful weapon of detachment to seek the celestial abode from which there is no return:
Bhagavad Gita, chapter 15, verse 1 to 4:
çrî bhagavån uvåca –
ürdhva-mülam adha˙ çåkham açvatthaµ pråhur avyayam
chandåµsi yasya par√åni yas taµ veda sa vedavit
adhaç cordhvaµ pras®tås tasya çåkhå
adhaç ca mülåny-anusantatåni
na rüpam asyeha tathopalabhyate
nånto na cådir na ca sampratiß†hå
açvattham enaµ suvirü∂ha-mülaµ
asa∫ga-çastre√a d®∂hena chittvå
tata˙ padaµ tat parimårgitavyaµ
yasmin gatå na nivartanti bhüya˙
tam eva cådyaµ purußaµ prapadye
yata˙ prav®tti˙ pras®tå purå√î
Bhagavan Shri Krishna said: It has been told that there is an imperishable banyan tree that has its roots above, its branches below and its leaves are the Vedic mantras. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.
In Hungarian shamanism, the tree Égig érő fa. The Égig érő fa is the tree which contains nine realms which can only be accessed by the shamans
The Hungarian religion is also the foundation of the “Princess in the Tower” fairy-tale stories that all European children have grown up on. In the original tales, which were devised thousands of years ago, the princess was in actuality held captive by a dragon in a tree, not a tower. As we understand from comparative mythology, the symbolism of the snake or dragon is found all over, including in the Jewish myth of the Garden of Eden, in which Eve is also tempted by a dragon/snake in a tree.
Therefore, it is easy to see that the dragon that lives within the world tree and kidnaps the princess is symbolic of unrighteousness and sin, and that the world tree can represent the various ways in which that human spirit can express itself and branch out in numerous directions.
The Tree within paganism: Infinite interpretation and significance
If one fails to understand the significance of a symbolic interpretation of pre-Christian religion, that person has failed to attain any knowledge from the myths, runes and texts. By all means, you can continue to believe either that Odin is not real in that his essence is insignificant, or that Odin is real, in that he physically exists or even that he exists as a distinctive consciousness; both of these conclusions are incorrect, and herein lies the wisdom of paganism, which lies within the subtlety of interpretation and understanding, and within a careful study of the riddles set forward by our ancestors in the distant past.
There is so much significance behind the tree itself that it warrants the writing of an entire tome, something I intend to do when time and sufficient understanding permits me to do so. The symbolism of the tree can be found everywhere in nature, from the branched-shaped veins which carry the life fluid (blood) around our vessel of consciousness to the “family tree” which for each of us comprises our origin and history, and the lives (genes) that have lived before in the body of our ancestors, which ties in with the philosophy of Oðalism advocated by the venerable Varg Vikernes, who I owe much to in my personal journey.
For an excellent and thorough article purely on the significance of the tree itself, and anything and everything the tree religiously symbolizes, please take the time to read this excellent article on Jungian Genealogy: https://jungiangenealogy.weebly.com/cosmic-tree.html
If you have an interesting and unique interpretatation of the significance of Yggdrasil within paganism or in fact any trees, I would be fascinated to hear from you in the comments below. I will continue writing if you continue reading.