Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
ODIN'S SEARCH FOR WISDOM
HE wonderful ash-tree, Ygdrasil, made a far-spreading shade
against the fierce heat of the sun in summer, and a
stronghold against the piercing winds of winter. No man
could remember when it had been young. Little children
played under its branches, grew to be strong men and women,
lived to be old and weary and feeble, and died; and yet the
ash tree gave no signs of decay. Forever preserving its
freshness and beauty, it was to live as long as there were
men to look upon it, animals to feed under it, birds to
flutter among its branches. This mighty ash-tree touched and
bound all the worlds together in its
 wonderful circle of
life. One root it sent deep down into the sightless depths
of Hel, where the dead lived; another it fastened firmly in
Jotunheim, the dreary home of the giants; and with the third
it grasped Midgard, the dwelling-place of men. Serpents and
all kinds of worms gnawed continually at its roots, but were
never able to destroy them. Its branches spread out over the
whole earth, and the topmost boughs swayed in the clear air
of Asgard itself, rustling against the Valhal, the home of
the heroes who had done great deeds or died manfully in
battle. At the foot of the tree sat the three Norns,
wonderful spinners of fate, who weave the thread of every
man's life, making it what they will; and a strange weaving
it often was, cut off when the pattern was just beginning to
 And every day these Norns sprinkled the tree
with the water of life from the Urdar fountain, and so kept
it forever green. In the topmost branches sat an eagle
singing a strange song about the birth of the world, its
decay and death. Under its branches browsed all manner of
animals; among its leaves every kind of bird made its nest;
by day the rainbow hung under it; at night the pale northern
light flashed over it, and as the winds swept through its
rustling branches, the multitudinous murmur of the leaves
told strange stories of the past and of the future.
The giants were older than the gods, and knew so much more
of the past that the gods had to go to them for wisdom.
After a time, however, the gods became wiser than the
giants, or they would have ceased to
 be gods, and been
destroyed by the giants, instead of destroying them. When
the world was still young, and there were still many things
which even the gods had to learn, Odin was so anxious to
become wise that he went to a deep well whose waters touched
the roots of Ygdrasil itself. The keeper of the well was a
very old and very wise giant, named Mimer, or Memory, and he
gave no draughts out of the well until he was well paid; for
the well contained the water of wisdom, and whoever drank of
it became straightway wonderfully wise.
"Give me a draught of this clear water, Mimer," said Odin,
when he had reached the well, and was looking down into its
clear, fathomless depths.
Mimer, the keeper, was so old that
 he could remember
everything that had ever happened. His eyes were clear and
calm as the stars, his face was noble and restful, and his
long white beard flowed down to his waist.
"This water is only to be had at a great price," he said in
a wonderfully sweet, majestic tone. "I cannot give to all
who ask, but only to those who are able and willing to give
greatly in return," he continued.
If Odin had been less of a god he would have thought longer
and bargained sharper, but he was so godlike that he cared
more to be wise and great than for anything else.
"I will give you whatever you ask," he answered.
Mimer thought a moment. "You must leave an eye," he said at
Then he drew up a great draught of the sparkling
water, and Odin
 quenched his divine thirst and went away
rejoicing, although he had left an eye behind. Even the gods
could not be wise without struggle and toil and sacrifice.
So Odin became the wisest in all the worlds, and there was
no god or giant that could contend with him. There was one
giant, however, who was called all-wise in Jotunheim, with
whom many had contended in knowledge, with curious and
difficult questions, and had always been silenced and
killed, for then, as now, a man's life often depended on his
wisdom. Of this giant, Vafthrudner, and his wisdom many
wonderful stories were told, and even among the gods his
fame was great. One day as Odin sat thinking of many strange
things in the worlds, and many mysterious things in the
future, he thought of
 Vafthrudner. "I will go to Jotunheim
and measure wisdom with Vafthrudner, the wisest of the
giants," said he to Frigg, his wife, who was sitting by.
Then Frigg remembered those who had gone to contend with the
all-wise giant and had never come back, and a fear came over her
that the same fate might befall Odin.
"You are wisest in all the worlds, All-Father," she said;
"why should you seek a treacherous giant who knows not half
so much as you?"
But Odin, who feared nothing, could not be persuaded to
stay, and Frigg sadly said good-by as he passed out of
Asgard on his journey to Jotunheim. His blue mantle set with
stars and his golden helmet he left behind him, and as he
journeyed swiftly those who met him saw nothing godlike in
 him; nor did Vafthrudner when at last he stood at the giant's
"I am a simple traveller, Gangraad by name," he said, as
Vafthrudner came gruffly toward him. "I ask your hospitality
and a chance to strive with you in wisdom." The giant
laughed scornfully at the thought of a man coming to contend
with him for mastery in knowledge.
"You shall have all you want of it," he growled, "and if you
cannot answer my questions you shall never go hence alive."
He did not even ask Odin to sit down, but let him stand in the
hall, despising him too much to show him courtesy. After a
time he began to ask questions.
"Tell me, if you can, O wise Gangraad, the name of the river
which divides Asgard from Jotunheim."
 "The river Ifing, which never freezes over," answered Odin
quickly, as if it were the easiest question in the world;
and indeed it was to him, although no man could have
answered it. Vafthrudner looked up in great surprise when he
heard the reply.
"Good," he said, "you have answered rightly. Tell me, now,
the names of the horses that carry day and night across the
Before the words were fairly spoken Odin replied, "Skinfaxe
and Hrimfaxe." The giant could not conceal his surprise
that a man should know these things.
"Once more," he said quickly, as if he were risking
everything on one question; "tell me the name of the plain
where the Last Battle will be fought."
This was a terrible question, for the
 Last Battle was still
far off in the future, and only the gods and the greatest of
the giants knew where and when it would come. Odin bowed his
head when he heard the words, for to be ready for that
battle was the divine work of his life, and then said,
slowly and solemnly, "On the plain of Vigrid, which is one
hundred miles on each side."
Vafthrudner rose trembling from his seat. He knew now that
Gangraad was some great one in disguise, and that his own
life hung on the answers he himself would soon be forced
"Sit here beside me," he said, "for, whoever you are,
worthier antagonist has never entered these walls."
Then they sat down together in the rude stone hall, the
mightiest of the gods and the wisest of the giants, and
great contest in wisdom, with a life hanging in either
scale, went on between them. Wonderful secrets of the time
when no man was and the time when no man will be, those
silent walls listened to as Vafthrudner asked Odin one deep
question after another, the answer coming swiftly and
After a time the giant could ask no more, for he had
exhausted his wisdom.
"It is my turn now," said Odin, and
one after another he drew out from Vafthrudner the events of
the past, then the wonderful things of the race of giants,
and finally he began to question him of that dim, mysterious
future whose secrets only the gods know; and as he touched
these wonderful things Odin's eyes began to flash, and his
form began to grow larger and nobler until he seemed no longer the
humble Gangraad, but the mighty god
 he was, and Vafthrudner
trembled as he felt the coming doom nearing him with every
So hours went by, until at last Odin paused in his swift
questioning, stooped down and asked the giant, "What did
Odin whisper in the ear of Balder as he ascended the funeral
Only Odin himself could answer this question, and
Vafthrudner replied humbly and with awe, "Who but thyself,
All-father, knoweth the words thou didst say to thy son in
the days of old? I have brought my doom upon myself, for in
my ignorance I have contended with wisdom itself. Thou art
ever the wisest of all."
So Odin conquered, and Wisdom was victorious, as she always
has been even when she has contended with giants.