Early every morning, Odin, the father of all the Gods, sat on his throne in a golden hall of Asgard. With his two wolves at his feet, and his two ravens, Huginn and Muginn, on his shoulders, he surveyed all the nine worlds. As the sun rose, Odin sent Huginn and Muginn out across the universe. The ravens visited the nine worlds, questioning the living and the dead. Then they returned at nightfall and whispered in Odin’s ear all they had seen and heard.
But one day, Odin decided that he had to gain for himself all the world’s wisdom and memory. To achieve this, he had to drink from the magic waters of Mimir’s well. Odin set out from Asgard and traveled to Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants. When he arrived at the magic well, Odin stood before the enormous head of the God Mimir. Though Mimir’s head had been severed from his body in the war between the Aesir and Vanir Gods, he still had great wisdom and memory and the power of speech.
“I must have a drink from your well” said Odin.
“Indeed?” asked Mimir. “Even a God must sacrifice in exchange for a drink from my waters.“
“Tell me what you wish me to sacrifice” said Odin.
“You must give me one of your eye” said Mimir.
“An eye is a small price to pay for all the wisdom and memory of the nine worlds.” said Odin.
Odin plucked out one eye and gave it to Mimir. In exchange, Mimir gave him a drink from his magic well. And there the eye of Odin stayed, shining up through the water, a sign to all who came to that place of the price the Father of the Gods had paid for the Wisdom of Ages.
Now Odin was pleased to have all the wisdom and memory of the nine worlds. Yet he wished to have more. He wanted to learn the secret runes — mysterious, written symbols that gave one magic powers over nature. Odin knew that the price of great knowledge was great suffering.
The runes’ native home is in the Well of Urd with the Norns, and since the runes do not reveal themselves to any but those who prove themselves worthy of such fearful insights and abilities, Odin hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil, pierced himself with his spear, and peered downward into the shadowy waters below. He forbade any of the other Gods to grant him the slightest aid, not even a sip of water. And he stared downward, and stared downward, and called to the runes.
He survived in this state, teetering on the precipice that separates the living from the dead, for nine windy days and nights. At the end of the ninth night, he at last perceived shapes in the depths: the runes. They had accepted his sacrifice and shown themselves to him, revealing to him not only their forms, but also the secrets that lie within them. Having fixed this knowledge in his formidable memory, Odin ended his ordeal with a scream of exultation!
Equipped with the knowledge of how to wield the runes, he became one of the mightiest and most accomplished beings in the cosmos. He learned chants that enabled him to heal emotional and bodily wounds, to bind his enemies and render their weapons worthless, to free himself from constraints, to put out fires, to expose and banish practitioners of malevolent magic, to protect his friends in battle, to wake the dead, to win and keep a lover, and to perform many other feats like these.
Odin carved the mysterious runes into wood, stone and bone. He carved them into the paw of the bear, the claws of the wolf and the beak of the eagle. Odin later passed on this knowledge to the Goddess Freya. She, in turn, taught him the magic of seidr. Heimdall, the God who guarded the Rainbow Bridge, taught the runes to mankind. The runes were carved into the end of the rainbow. In this way, he passed the runes on to men, so that they, too, could learn the secrets of nature.
The popular story of how Odin gained the runes is not to be found in any one saga and even when the relevant splinters are reassembled, the picture is incomplete. So you will find other tales and poems including others that go into the Mead of Poetry.
The Spiritual Runes: A Guide to the Ancestral Wisdom, By Harmonia Saille