Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Did Odin Hang from Yggdrasil?

It's a truism of modern mythography that Odin, Lord of the Runes, hanged himself from the branches of Yggdrasil, the old Norse Tree of Life.

But did he?

According to the famous passage from Hávamál:

I know that I hung

on the windy meiðr

all nine nights:

 with spear wounded

and given to Óðin,

myself to myself,

on that meiðr

of which no one knows

from what roots it runs.

Note that the poet repeats the word meiðr twice.

In modern translations, meiðr is nearly always rendered as "tree." But according to Cleasby and Vigfusson's monumental Icelandic-English Dictionary, meiðr actually means "post" or "beam," and refers to a timber stripped of bark and branches. They specifically note that "[t]he word can never be used of a living tree" (422).

In the entire corpus of Old Norse literature, meiðr nowhere else means "tree," even metaphorically.

If this is indeed the case, then, it would seem that the Hávamál-poet envisions Odin hanging from a gallows, not from the branches of a living tree, whether Yggdrasil or some other.

The standard assumption has generally been that Yggdrasil derives its very name from this episode of self-sacrifice: the "steed [drasil] of the Terrible One [Yggr, a by-name of Odin]." In the sideways-think that characterizes kennings, the "steed of the hanged" is a gallows-tree.

Do we need to rethink this explanation?

Or do we see here—as is not uncommon in myth—co-existing but mutually exclusive variants of the same story?


Richard Cleasby and Guðbrand Vigfússon, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, Second Edition (1975). Oxford.







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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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