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Odin Discovers the Runes

The Elder Edda is a book of mythological stories of the Norse gods and goddesses and it is in here where we first see Odin learn about the runes. A story called Havamal1 or “Sayings of the High One2” tells us just how Odin first learned the runes.

Odin said:
I know that I hung on a high windy tree
for nine long nights;
pierced by a spear -Odin’s pledge-
given myself to myself.
No one can tell about that tree,
from what deep roots it rises.

They brought me no bread, no horn to drink from,
I gazed toward the ground.
Crying aloud, I caught up the runes;
finally I fell.

We see that Odin, in a shaman-like self-sacrificing ritual, deprives himself of food and drink as he hangs upside down on a tree. In some translations we are told that this tree is Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree. As the days drag out longer and longer for him, nine nights pass and it is then when Odin sees the shapes of the runes. Crying out, he catches up the runes and falls from the tree.

The poem goes on talking about the runes and how Odin knows how to carve them for magickal uses. There are a total of eighteen runes that are listed but we never are told the names nor hinted at what they may look like. However if you believe the stories and tales of Guido List then you would tend to accept the Armanen Runes to be the runes that Odin discovered. Of course there is no evidence to even come close to supporting List’s claim as his rune set being the very first and original rune set.

If you are looking for the section in the Hávamál where it talks about Odin and the runes, it starts on the 138th stanza in the poem. Or if your poem doesn’t tell you the stanza number look for the section “The Lay of Loaddfafnir” (which starts on the 111th stanza). Skim a little ahead and you should see it.


Footnotes / Notes:
1 - Hávamál is shown as Havamal to make searching easier.
2 - "High One" is a kenning for Odin.

All quotes from Poems of the Elder Edda translated by Patricia Terry ©1990 University of Pennsylvania Press.



This article has 2 responses.


weave - Mar 25, 2012

very interesting, I am studying the Runes and finding this information fascinating and particularly hints of what to read next… - Mar 26, 2012

I’m glad that you’re finding it interesting! If you’re looking for a good list of what to read next I do have a book list on the site ( If the list is too cumbersome to go through, I’d be more than happy to recommend a favorite book or two from the list. Just let me know!



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