If you have been watching American Gods this season, or if you've ever seen an image of Odin, whether engraved or drawn, you've probably noticed one thing: his eyes are kind of funky. Ever wonder why? We'll tell you.
In the STARZ TV show, American Gods, Mr. Wednesday (also known as Odin) has heterochromia-- or, his eyes are two different colors. In many other depictions, he is missing an eye. But why? Was he born without it? Did he lose it in a bet? Or did he lose it in battle? That seems like the most likely explanation, doesn't it? After all, he is the All-Father of a warrior people.
How did Odin lose his eye?
Well, unless you're an ace student in Norse mythology, you may be surprised to know that the answer is none of the above.
Above all else, even before battle, Odin is the god of wisdom, and this thirst for acquiring it is never slaked. He wants to understand everything there is about life and the universe around him. You see, unlike the Abrahamic version of god, Odin isn't omniscient. Or, at least, he didn't start off that way.
(Kratos speaking with Mimir's head in God of War)
Odin sacrificed his eye to drink from Mirmir's Well, also known as the Well of Urd.
Mirmir and the Well of Urd
If you've played a certain recent video game, you're probably familiar with Mirmir. If not, know that he is a strange creature. Is he a god? Unknown. Is he a giant? Also unknown. A lot of sources seem to indicate that Mimir is sort of his own, strange being.
(Image credit: Odin Questions Mimir by Carl Emil Doepler, Jr. 1905)
He is, or was until Odin came along, the most knowledgeable being in the cosmos. At some point during the war between the Aesir and the Vanir, Mimir was beheaded by the Vanir during a hostage exchange. because they were frightened of being tricked by the Aesir. Which is a reasonable fear. When his head was sent back to the Aesir, Odin himself took it and preserved it using magical herbs so that he could keep Mimir as on as an advisor, even without a body. Most depictions of Mimir are just his head.
The Well of Urd is one of many wells in Norse mythology. It's hard to tell where it is because different texts say different things. Some say that it's one of the three wells below Yggradsil. Some say it's in the sky. Some say that Mimir himself is one of the three wells below Yggradsil, and that is the well that's referred to in the tale of how Odin lost his eye.
Whatever the well was or was not, it required the sacrifice of an eyeball in order to drink the draught of knowledge. To Odin, this was a very easy sacrifice. He plucked his own eye out of his head and dropped it in the well. Mimir then took his own drinking horn, dipped it into the well (which was now gross eyeball water), and then offered it to Odin to drink.
(Image credit: Madeline Von Foerster)
What did Odin learn? We don't know that specifically, but a few things are clear:
- A lot of wisdom comes from loss. Whether it's a body part, a possession, or even the life of a friend or family member, you're going to be wiser when you lose it.
- No sacrifice is too big to gain knowledge of the cosmos.
- For obvious reasons, the eye is sometimes used as a symbol or perception, just like the third-eye in Hinduism. Norse Mythology for Smart People (one of our favorite blogs here at AleHorn) posits that because he sacrificed the eye to Mimir's well whose name means The Rememberer, he gave it away with the goal of gaining, 'a sacred mode of perception informed by divine, ancestral wisdom.'
- He gave away something mundane and imperfect to receive something pure and perfect. Meaning, essentially, he sacrificed something small but grievous for something far better.
Not Odin's first sacrifice
As you probably know, this isn't Odin's first sacrifice in his eternal pursuit of knowledge. To learn the runes, he sacrificed himself by hanging upside down from Yggdrasil, stabbing himself with Gungnir, and depriving himself of water and food for nine days and nights.
Does this image of him remind you of something? How about a couple of things?
- The Hanged Man in Tarot is drawn in the same position Odin was said to hang. The Hanged Man represents great personal sacrifice for the sake of wisdom or magic; transformation of personality; and putting your life in hiatus to improve yourself.
(Image credit: Biddy Tarot)
- It's also similar to the Levicorpus spell from Harry Potter, which causes someone to hang upside down with one leg bent out. Every single person we see in the Harry Potter books get Levicorpus'd winds up committing a great sacrifice somewhere further down the line.
- In the video game, Bloodbourne, the Hunter's Mark is a rune that depicts a man hanging upside down. The group represented by the mark believe in self-sacrifice for insight and wisdom.
- In the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker is shown hanging upside down many times-- and always right before he makes some kind of sacrifice: on the cave on Hoth, under the vane in Cloud City, and in Dagobah.
Going back to Odin's eye, why does he have heterochromia on American Gods? Well, what if one of those eyes is a glass eye? If he wore a patch over it as he does in so many other depictions, he would be pretty conspicuous. And as a con man, the last thing he wants to be is conspicuous.
What have you sacrificed to gain wisdom? Was it worth it? And while you're at it, send us your American Gods fan theories. We're all going to need something good to lean on when Game of Thrones ends.
If you need a horn to dip into Mimir's Well, we've got one. Customize it with your favorite Norse symbol, or Game of Thrones house, or Celtic knot, or... whatever you want! Even the Hunter's Mark we mentioned above! We have the wisdom to engrave just about anything, just for you.