Which eye did Odin sacrifice?

Posted in Tradition / Mythology / Germanic on Sunday, November 1, 2015 by Joel Höglund

From Gylfagynning and other sources we know that Odin scarified an eye into the well of Mímir in order to take part of its knowledge.

But under that root which turns toward the Rime-Giants is Mímir's Well, wherein wisdom and understanding are stored; and he is called Mímir, who keeps the well. He is full of ancient lore, since he drinks of the well from the Gjallar-Horn. Thither came Allfather and craved one drink of the well; but he got it not until he had laid his eye in pledge.

Snorri also quotes Völuspá, stanza 29:

I know where Othin's | eye is hidden,
Deep in the wide-famed | well of Mimir;
Mead from the pledge | of Othin each morn
Does Mimir drink: | would you know yet more?

Mímir essentially means "The Rememberer" and the poem also refers to him as being "full of ancient lore". When Odin paid his due to get the desired drink, did he also suddenly remember  this perennial wisdom, this ancient lore, as Mímir's name suggests?

If so, does this mean that this knowledge is accessible to anyone who manages to drink from the well, metaphorically speaking?

Is the price for wisdom really an eye, and if so, which one? Although there are many references of Odin as One-eyed, none mention which eye he is missing or how this sacrifice took place. Here, I'll give my best theory to which eye would make the most sense. We begin by studying a god that has made a similar sacrifice, namely Tyr, the god of law, justice and war.

Tyr and Fenrir, John Bauer

The great wolf Fenrír is one of Loki´s monstrous children with the giantess Angrboda, along with Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent that encircles the whole world, and Hel, Goddess of the underworld. The wolf however, the Gods kept and raised at home. As it soon grew to an enormous size, they soon decided on the need to tie it up. The Gods bidded the wolf to test his strength against first one fetter and then another twice as strong. Fenrír shattered them both. Then a third was made, by the dwarves, which magically became stronger the moreit was strained. From Gylfagynning, chapter 34:

"[The] Wolf answered: 'Touching this matter of the ribbon, it seems to me that I shall get no glory of it, though I snap asunder so slender a band; but if it be made with cunning and wiles, then, though it seem little, that band shall never come upon my feet.' Then the Æsir answered that he could easily snap apart a slight silken band, he who had before broken great fetters of iron,--'but if thou shalt not be able to burst this band, then thou wilt not be able to frighten the gods; and then we shall unloose thee.' The Wolf said: 'If ye bind me so that I shall not get free again, then ye will act in such a way that it will be late ere I receive help from you; I am unwilling that this band should be laid upon me. Yet rather than that ye should impugn my courage, let some one of you lay his hand in my mouth, for a pledge that this is done in good faith.' Each of the Æsir looked at his neighbor, and none was willing to part with his hand, until Týr stretched out his right hand and laid it in the Wolf's mouth. But when the Wolf lashed out, the fetter became hardened; and the more he struggled against it, the tighter the band was. Then all laughed except Týr: he lost his hand.

The wolf was thus fettered by a magic that would last until Ragnarök. But the victory was bought with the sacrifice of Tyr's right hand.

In the ninth chapter of Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty, The One-Eyed God and the One-Handed God, Georges Dumézil compares the sacrifices of both Odin and Tyr and their archetypal roles.

 Of Tyr, Dumézil writes that his action fits perfectly the role of a "jurist-god". What otherwise would have been a fraud is now, with Tyrs pledge, a legal agreement. Both the wolf and the gods willingly accept a risk in the hopes of gaining something.

Odin on the other hand is a magician-god associated with states of ecstasy or religious trance. The berserker warriors, are prime examples of this, and were also considered as Odin's men. This is thus not the cold calculated battle plans for soldiers and generals, but a rage that takes control of your whole body.

Now, we do not know which eye Odin sacrificed, but there are several mentions of our other god in this complementary pair. As the above quote from Snorri tells us and which is aslo confirmed by other sources, such as Loki´s tauntings in Lokasenna, stanza 38, it was the right hand that was offered by Tyr:

Be silent, Tyr! | for between two men
Friendship thou ne'er couldst fashion;
Fain would I tell | how Fenrir once
Thy right hand rent from thee

This gets interesting when we also consider the lateralization of the brain hemispheres. The human brain is divided into two large hemispheres, left and right, and they both control the opposite side of the body. In addition, the two hemispheres have for a long time been considered to have some very different traits. The left hemisphere has been associated with logic and reason, while the right side is connected to intuition and imagination. Somewhat reminds us of our god-pair Tyr and Odin?

Left and right brain hemispheres

There are many other books where you can read about this lateralization of the brain hemispheres, but the one that got me thinking in these terms was Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. This is actually a drawing instruction book, but notable for the method she puts forward of actually suppressing your left brain hemisphere, freeing you your right side to draw which, she suggests, is much better adapted to this. The table below is adapted from the book, page 39-41, 4th edition, and details the supposed traits of our two sides:

Left sideDescriptionRight sideDescription
Verbal Using words to name, describe, define. Nonverbal Using visual, nonverbal cognition to process perceptions.
Analytic Figuring things out step-by-step and part-by-part. Synthetic Putting parts together to form wholes. Perceiving things in context.
Symbolic Using a symbol to stand for something. Actual, real Relating to things as they are, in reality, at the present moment.
Abstract Taking out a small bit of information and using it to represent the whole. Analogic Seeing likeness among things; understanding metaphoric relationships.
Temporal Keeping track of time, sequencing one thing after another. Nontemporal Lacking a sense of time passing.
Literal Adhering to factual meaning of words or text: difficulty understanding metaphors. Imaginative Conjuring mental visual images, real or imagined.
Rational Drawing conclusions based on reason and accepted facts. Nonrational Not requiring a basis of reason or facts; willingness to suspend judgement.
Digital Using numbers as in counting. Spatial Seeing where things are located in space, in relation to other things, and how parts go together to form a whole.
Logical Drawing conclusions based on logic: one thing following another in a step-by-step order. For example, a mathematical theorem or a well-stated argument. Intuitive Making leaps of insight, often based on incomplete patterns, hunches, feelings, visual images, or visual connections. Able to jump across missing data.
Linear Thinking in terms of linked ideas, one thought directly following another, often leading to a convergent conclusion. The linear process can be brought to a halt by missing data. Holistic (Meaning "wholistic".) Seeing whole things all at once, in reality, and in all of their complexity; perceiving overall patterns and structures, often leading to divergent conclusions.

Betty Edwards further suggests that the left brain hemisphere is innately dominant over the right one in most humans. If this is true, how would the opposite be like? Although not trivial to answer,  you might get some idea of a right-brain state from the story of Jill Taylor. She suffered a stroke in her left brain hemisphere causing it to shut down temporarily and she gives a incredible retelling of her experience in the video below.

Her description of this right-brain state of mind is somewhat reminiscent of what Buddhist texts claim can be experienced through dedicated practice of meditation, or perhaps through the use of psychedelic drugs. Is this the same state that Odin has mastered and also the source of his wisdom?

Returning to the original question "Which eye did Odin sacrifice?" my conclusion is that following the logic of Tyr's sacrifice to law and order, symmetry suggests that Odin would have sacrificed his left eye to intuition and ecstasy. Of course we might never know. Perhaps we are not meant to know? Remember the riddle Odin asked Vafthrutnir, in Vafþrúðnismál, stanza 54:

Much have I fared, | much have I found,
Much have I got from the gods:
What spake Othin himself | in the ears of his son,
Ere in the bale-fire he burned?

Last updated on Sunday, February 14, 2016