Odin’s Sacrifice: A Myth Written in the Stars

I know that I hung on that windy Tree

nine whole days and nights,

stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,

myself to my own self given,

high on that Tree of which none have heard

from what roots it rises to heaven.

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes,

then back I fell from there.

Hávamál 137-138[1]

The terrible ordeal of the Norse god Odin begins with these puzzling lines. They describe how Odin sacrifices himself on the World Tree to gain the wisdom of the Runes. In the Icelandic poems of the Poetic Edda, Odin is the god of wisdom, poetry, inspiration, intoxication, and the chooser of the slain. He is the Allfather, the father of the gods. He mingles in the affairs of mortals, bringing them glory, riches, or death. Most of all, he is the bringer of inspiration and poetry. As the Wise One, Odin is always in a relentless pursuit for knowledge and wisdom, but this knowledge comes with a great sacrifice.

Why was it necessary for Odin to hang himself from a tree in order to receive this powerful wisdom? And what is so special about the Runes? Let us join Odin in his bold quest and peer down into the deep. We might gain some wisdom for ourselves!

Star Myths

To understand why Odin hung himself from the tree we must do something we don’t regularly do anymore in these modern times: We must look up and gaze at the starry vault of heaven, towards the mythical realm of the gods.

By now, there is an increasing amount of evidence that this myth, and many other myths, are written in the stars. One researcher and writer in particular has already written extensively on the celestial nature of the world’s mythologies, legends, and folklore. His name is David Mathisen, the writer of the blog Star Myths of the World. His excellent analysis of the myth of Odin’s hanging came about through years of investigating myths from all over the world and through the writing of multiple volumes of books. 

It is mainly through his writings that my eyes have opened up to the possibility that we are dealing with celestial allegory in the stories that have been handed down to us over the course of thousands of years. By examining the celestial interpretations of myths from all over the world, I have learned to understand this language of symbols, and how to interpret what David Mathisen has coined as Star Myths. I have also discovered some things for myself along the way, which I would like to share with you here on Secrets of the Norse.

When we look at the stars of the night sky, it is hard to see anything resembling constellations. But some groups of stars really stand out, such as the three belt stars of Orion. Starting from there, it becomes easier to envision the larger figure that is formed from the stars around them. Cygnus the swan with its cross-like shape is also not too hard to find, and the Big Dipper in Ursa Major is perhaps the most widely-recognized of all.

But when you search for a guide on the constellations, these constellations often don’t really look like much. In fact, most of the modern constellations make little to no sense at all, and often they don’t seem to resemble anything. Why even bother giving them names like Big Bear or Hercules? However, there is a way of seeing the constellations that makes a lot more sense, and this is the way that the constellations were envisioned by H.A. Rey in his book The Stars: A New Way to See Them.

Below you can see the modern way of viewing Ursa Major, which doesn’t look very pretty, and barely resembles the silhouette of a bear. When looking at it the H.A. Rey way, the shape of the constellation looks more bearish, with a sort of saddle where the bucket of the Big Dipper is located. Personally, in the H.A. Rey version I see another way of making a bear out of it, in which the constellation resembles the head of a bear, with the four stars that make the bucket of the Big Dipper as its eye, and with its snout on the right. It is these constellations of H.A. Rey which David Mathisen has used for the past ten years or so in his analysis of Star Myths, and it is mainly these constellations of H.A. Rey that will be used to illustrate the myth of Odin’s hanging.

The Great Bear modern version and H.A. Rey version
Two versions of the Great Bear.

H.A. Rey’s way of viewing the constellations probably comes a lot closer to how the ancients actually envisioned the constellations, so his book could just as well have been named “The Stars: The Old Way to See Them”.  We don’t really have an ancient record outlining explicitly how the ancients viewed the constellations, but the artwork and texts of ancient people do leave us a lot of clues.

Sometimes though, in sacred texts and in oral traditions worldwide, the connections between certain stars, a planet, or even an entire constellation can be explicitly mentioned. Egyptologists for example, have found strong correlations between the god Osiris and the constellation Orion, mainly because this connection was explicitly mentioned in the ancient texts themselves. But most of the time, these connections are not immediately obvious, and the myths present themselves in riddles. 

There is evidence that not just single gods, but also their entire stories are written in the stars. But, as David Mathisen himself stresses, the fact that there is a celestial basis behind these stories doesn’t mean that there is no higher meaning to them. The point of the myths is not just to playfully describe the movements of planets and constellations, although that is an important part of it.

By observing the cycles of movement of the many-colored stars, the fiery band of the Milky Way, the Sun, the Moon, and the planets, it is as if we are looking into a mirror that makes us question what our place in this universe is, and the duality of those things which perish, and those things that stay with us throughout the eons.

If the Norse myths are based on this system of celestial allegory, and if people in other parts of the globe recognized the same constellations, then wouldn’t we expect to find some similarities in myths from different parts of the world? As it turns out, this is exactly the case. Let us look at a few parallels from other parts of the world that mirror the story of Odin’s hanging on the Tree before we will look at the celestial basis behind this myth.

Odin hanging on the World Tree by Emile Doepler (1905)
Odin hanging on the World-Tree by Emil Doepler (Public Domain, 1905)

Suffering at the Tree

Odin’s hanging from the tree is not a unique motif in the world of mythology, in fact we can find many stories that follow a similar core structure. These myths follow the pattern of the god that has to be sacrificed before rising again with renewed powers, and many of them involve a tree or a wooden pole from which the god is hanged. This tree or pole is symbolic of the Axis Mundi, the central axis around which our world revolves.

One of the earliest references to a World Tree or Tree of Life is found in ancient Egypt, in the legend of Osiris. The wicked Set wanted to get rid of his brother Osiris by tricking him as part of a game held during a banquet. All of the guests were asked by Set to lay down inside a coffin to see if it would fit their size. When it was Osiris’s turn to lay down into the coffin, it turned out to fit the size of his body perfectly. Set immediately nailed the coffin shut together with his 72 conspirators, and threw the coffin into the river Nile. The coffin with Osiris still in it floated all the way towards the Phoenician coast, where it got embedded inside a tamarisk tree. The tree grew and grew, enclosing the chest with Osiris in its trunk. Osiris remained suspended inside the tree before it was cut down with an axe by the king of Byblos. The tree was then made into a wooden pole to support the roof of the king’s palace, with Osiris’ coffin still inside it. 

So in Egypt too, we find a god hanging in a tree, but this time the god is placed inside a coffin as well. This legend also unites the idea of a tree with a wooden pole as the central axis on which the god hangs.

Venturing from ancient Egypt to the Indian subcontinent, we find the legend of the prince Siddharta Gautama, who sat for six days and nights under a fig tree struggling with the obstacles in his mind. After experiencing the many tricks of his mind he finally achieved a state of enlightenment. The tree under which he sat became the sacred Bodhi Tree, the Tree of Awakening. 

The ordeal of that other spiritual teacher, Jesus, is probably the most famous example of a hanged god. While the hanging of Jesus did not take place at a tree, he hung on what can be considered its closest alternative, a wooden cross or pole. When his suffering was complete he ascended up into the heavenly realm.

Because of the similarities between the stories of Odin’s hanging and the crucifixion of Jesus, many have postulated that the Norse myth must have been brought to Northern Europe along with Christianity. But if this same theme was already present in the Osiris myth of Egypt, predating the stories of the Bible, then is there really a need to assume that Odin’s hanging was copied from the Christian version? In some respects, such as the spear wound and the exposure to the elements, the stories are much alike. But the tree from which Odin hangs reminds more of the Egyptian tamarisk tree in which the body of Osiris is trapped.

What all these myths have in common is a divine figure who first has to go through some terrible ordeal before he can transcend to a higher level of awareness or existence. And somehow this divine quest for enlightenment is linked to a tree or a pole, which is also the centre of the world.

If the basis for these myths is celestial in nature, then which celestial feature could the World Tree as the central pole represent?

Yggdrasil the Norse World Tree by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1886)
Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1886)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many Indo-European myths – from the ancestors of the various peoples that came to conquer Europe and parts of Asia – feature a World Tree in their cosmology. Yggdrasil is what the Norse World Tree is called. It is described as an enormous evergreen tree that connects Heaven and Earth, surrounded by the Nine Realms of the Norse cosmology. Not only does Odin find nine runes by hanging on the tree, but here again we find the number nine in the nine different realms. As we will see, the number nine is a very important and constantly recurring number throughout Norse mythology.

The World Axis in the ancient cosmologies has often been identified either with the Milky Way, or with the imaginary line that can be drawn between the North and South Pole, extending in both directions into what we perceive from Earth as a heavenly sphere rotating around our planet. In the myth of Odin’s hanging, we can safely identify Yggdrasil with the band of the Milky Way that brightens the Night Sky as a broad band of stars and galactic nebulae. The Milky Way is none other than our own galaxy, in which our solar system is located. 

If one could view our Galaxy from above, it would appear as a disk with a bright center out of which emerge spiral arms. Since we are inside one of the spiralling arms of this disk, we perceive the Milky Way as a ring or a band that surrounds the Earth. Looking at this from a mythic perspective the way the ancients did, we could imagine our own planet as being one of the Worlds in this Cosmic Tree.

Snow-White Clay

David Mathisen has written about Odin’s hanging on the Tree in his Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology). Let us begin his analysis by looking at the following lines from the poem Völuspá, the Prophecy of the Volva, which is the Norse word for a seeress or oracle. This will provide us with more detail about Yggdrasil. This is from the translation of Ursula Dronke (1997):

An ash I know there stands,

Yggdrasill is its name,

a tall tree, showered

with shining loam.

From there come the dews

that drop in the valleys.

It stands forever green over

Urðr’s well.

Völuspá 19

The tree has three major roots which end in three sacred wells. One of these roots draws from the Urdarbrunnr, the Well of Urd, mentioned in the lines above.With the water from this sacred well, and with the snow-white clay that lies about it, the tree is sprinkled. David Mathisen identifies the evergreen tree Yggdrasil with the stars of the Milky Way that faithfully hold their place in the sky, both in winter and in summer. 

The Milky Way World Tree
The column of the Milky Way.

The image of the night sky shown above is created from a screenshot of the star-gazing software Stellarium. The band of the Milky Way raises itself up in the night sky as it rotates together with the stars to a vertical position, as you would imagine the trunk of a giant tree. When in this vertical position, the Milky Way can be seen as a column going up from the ground towards the vault of heaven.  

The brightest part of the Milky Way can be envisioned as the Well of Urd and the white clay that is sprinkled onto it. From here comes the dew drops into the valleys, as in the imagination of the poet that crafted this song. This part of the Milky Way is known as the Galactic Core, the very centre of our galaxy. Here too lies the region where we should look for the celestial identity of Odin. Somewhere on this starry tree a figure can be seen hanging.

Odin on Yggdrasil Tree Star Myth
The Milky Way band with the constellation Ophiuchus.

Odin’s Hanging

Hanging in the above image, looking down into the Galactic Core, is the constellation Ophiuchus. His Greek name means the ‘Snake Handler’, as Ophiuchus can be seen as a human figure holding two ends of one snake, or alternatively, holding two different snakes. As David Mathisen has observed, this same figure can be seen as a man hanging from a noose, if you see the snake as a rope with a noose instead. The head of the serpent, Serpens Caput, can be seen as the noose at the end of the rope. I have outlined the band of the Milky Way, which forms the tree from which Ophiuchus can be seen hanging.

What then about Odin wounding himself with a spear, and how does this tie in with Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself? The constellation Ophiuchus, as David Mathisen points out, was often portrayed as a person holding two objects, one in each hand, or as a person holding one single object in both hands, such as a spear. The stars left of Ophiuchus can be seen as one single spear, as shown in David Mathisen’s interpretation below:

Ophiuchus as Odin with spear (David Mathisen)
Ophiuchus as Odin with his spear Gungnir (David Mathisen’s interpretation)

The simplest explanation as I see it would be that the right half of Serpens forms Odin’s noose, and the left half forms the spear with which Odin stabs himself. The tail part of Serpens, if seen as Odin’s spear Gungnir, which he holds in his right hand, can be envisioned as ending in the region of his lower abdomen, wounding him.

David Mathisen also provides an alternative explanation which fits the riddle of Odin sacrificing himself to himself quite well. This explanation also involves the constellation Sagittarius as Odin, which is described in his Star Myths of the World Volume Four.

I have given a basic outline of David Mathisen’s interpretation of Odin’s hanging, which will be necessary if we want to continue the investigation of this myth and if we want to further unlock its secrets. I have left out a few of the details which can be read in his book, such as why Yggdrasil is described as a windy tree. But if you look at the image of the night sky below, and then take another look at the lines of the poem, you may be able to make a few more connections yourself between the myths and the stars in the sky…

Odin's Hanging Star Myth (David Mathisen)
Odin’s hanging envisioned in the constellations.

In the image above we can see how Ophiuchus as Odin forms the central figure, hanging on the Milky Way Tree. Below him you can see the Well of Urd in all its splendor. Added to this scene are also the constellations Sagittarius below, and the modern version of the constellation Hercules hanging above Ophiuchus.

In his book Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology), David Mathisen explains his interpretation of this myth in even more detail, as well as many other Norse myths. He also brings up the phenomenon of bog bodies, the possible role of Sagittarius in this myth, a celestial interpretation of the crucifixion and much more. So if you would like to know more about Norse Star Myths and Norse culture, I would highly recommend reading his book, as well as his blog posts on Star Myths of the World.

Some questions still remain though, and we have only just looked at the first two stanzas with which the myth of Odin’s hanging begins.


Where in the night sky can we find the runes that Odin takes?

What shape and color do the runes take in this myth, and what makes them worth this sacrifice?

Can we find an Odin falling down from the Tree screaming?


This and more requires some additional investigation.

David Mathisen himself has said in his writings that his interpretations don’t encompass the entire breadth of the myths, simply because of the vastness of the material. Entire volumes could be written on Norse Star Myths alone. Let us see this as an invitation to delve deeper into the celestial basis of the powerful stories that the poets of Northern Europe have left us!

Since I have become more and more versed in the language of the Star Myths, I have discovered some things for myself. We are now familiar with David Mathisen’s interpretation of the myth, so let’s see if we can take it even further in the next part of this series…


Part II   In Search of the Runes: The Runes in the Stars


Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Olive Bray translation

Source Text

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)

The Poetic Edda Volume II: Mythological Poems (Ursula Dronke 1997)

The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H.A. Rey 1976)

2 Comments

  1. Peter

    Hi Arthur, thanks for sharing! I did not read volume 4 from David. M but like to share an observation about the crucifixion (I apologize if he mentioned this idea already): at the time Jesus got crucified the curtain of the temple was torn apart. This could be a hint to the constellation of Ara/Templum and the curtain could be the Milke Way with it’s Great Rift. So indeed this would hint to the same region of the starry sky.

    • Arthur Koopmans

      Hi Peter! David Mathisen has linked the constellation Ophiuchus to Jesus as well, and provides arguments for why it can explain his hanging on the (celestial) cross. There are multiple cross-like constellations in that part of the sky, and Ophiuchus could be seen as one of them. Ophiuchus is also the 13th constellation of the zodiac, so the rest could be seen as his 12 apostles. Ophiuchus has one foot in the Milky Way, so he could be seen as of this world, but also of the world of the divine, as he argues. Ophiuchus itself can also be seen in the shape of a house or temple with two pillars. The curtain? I guess Scorpio could also be seen as a candidate for the unravelling curtain, placed right below Ophiuchus, and with its multiple “heads” as the unravelling threads of the fabric. Serpens may be the curtain when it’s still hanging in the temple. So Ophiuchus can play both Jesus on the cross and Odin on the tree.

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