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Mimir, the bodiless god of wisdom, plays a fundamental role in the stories of Odin and the Norse gods.

The Bodiless God of Wisdom: Mimir in Norse Mythology

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The god who transcends even Odin’s power, Mimir (or sometimes called Mim) is remembered throughout Norse mythology as the oracular head from which the two races of gods, the Aesir and Vanir, seek knowledge. Most significantly, Odin’s visit to Mimir to gain the power of the runes is the story most frequently highlighted by philologists and historians. However, though he is well known for his ethereal wisdom and namesake well at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of life, Mimir’s story begins long before Odin visits him for the secrets of the world.

Mimir and the Aesir-Vanir War

Believed to be of a race of giants whose birth preceded the gods during the creation of the world, Mimir is considered to be older than the Aesir and the Vanir, the two primary races of gods. The Aesir represent (approximately) power over the sky, while the Vanir gods are responsible primarily for fertility and the earth, and by extension, earthly desires. The precise nature of the relationship between these two groups of gods is highly debated, however one thing is certain: the two races went to war.

At the end of the Aesir-Vanir War, Mimir is exchanged as a hostage and taken by the Aesir. (Public domain)

At the end of the Aesir-Vanir War, Mimir is exchanged as a hostage and taken by the Aesir. ( Public domain )

Described in the Prose and Poetic Eddas , the nature of the Aesir and Vanir’s relationship pre-war is vague. Most sources agree that there was a period called the Golden Age where both clans interacted with one each other peacefully, engaging in games and sports among themselves. When a goddess, sometimes associated with Freyr, arrived in the land of the Aesir ( Asgard), her obsession with gold led the Aesir to attempt to murder her three times. It was following this that the Vanir, from whom the goddess came, declared war for the terrible treatment of their comrade.

The significance of the war to the story of Mimir is its outcome. Following years of battle in which neither side successfully defeated the other, a compromise was arranged instead. According to the Heimskringla, the saga of kings, hostages were exchanged: three from the Vanir (the gods Njord, Freyr, and Freya) and two from the Aesir. Mimir was given by the Aesir, and was considered one of the best counselors in existence. His wisdom and understanding made him an ideal advisor to Hoenir, who had also been given to the Vanir and was made a chieftain upon his arrival in their land, frequently referred to as Vanaheim. Hoenir was valued by the Aesir for helping to create humanity and bestowing reason upon them.

Odin finding Mimir’s headless body. (Public domain)

Odin finding Mimir’s headless body. ( Public domain )

How Mimir Lost His Head, and the Well of Wisdom

In the tale of the Aesir-Vanir War, Hoenir’s reason is nothing without Mimir’s wisdom. Hoenir’s inability to act without Mimir proved Mimir’s counsel supreme, and therefore called his own value into doubt. This directly led to his and Mimir’s downfall. The Vanir became suspect of Hoenir’s value, and believed themselves to have been duped by the Aesir to take on an unintelligent, useless hostage. They further determined Mimir to be a threat. Why Mimir is punished for Hoenir’s shortcomings is unclear, and left to interpretation, as is Hoenir’s fate. Nevertheless, Mimir is taken by the Vanir, decapitated, and returned to Odin.

According to legend, Odin then places Mimir’s head at the foot of the mythical Yggdrasil tree, protecting from deterioration with magic and herbs, as well as restoring Mimir’s power of speech. The well which bears Mimir’s name is in the same location, though from where the well came is not specifically delineated in literature—or does not survive. It is this well which becomes known as the Well of Knowledge, from which the secrets of the world can be gleaned with Mimir’s permission.

Odin consulting Mimir at the Well of Knowledge. (Carl Emil Doepler)

Odin consulting Mimir at the Well of Knowledge. ( Carl Emil Doepler )

Mimir’s Portrayal in Literature and the Arts

In art, Mimir is most frequently depicted as a head which looms over a well at the foot of Yggdrasil. Odin ensured Mimir’s wisdom was never lost, and he protected the decapitated head of the god by embalming it and enchanting it, allowing Mimir to continue to live and speak as nothing more than a bodiless head.

In exchange for his preservation—as well as Odin’s eye—Mimir gifts Odin the secrets of the runes, the early written language of the people of Scandinavia. Mimir’s disembodied existence, and its depiction in art, could have been intended to further emphasize his nature as a deity of wisdom. As such, there are other representations of Mimir that must be considered and discussed.

The literary sources that survive present Mimir in two ways. Most continue the theme of describing his existence as a disembodied head. However, there is debate among scholars as to whether or not his head was reattached to this body through magic.

The Prose Edda describes Mimir as drinking from the well with the horn Gjallarhorn (the horn itself belonging to Heimdall, who blows it at the onset of Ragnarok, the end of the world), rather than positioning him as merely a headless guardian of the well. This indicates a possibility that he regains his former form. However, because the Eddas and Heimskringla were written hundreds of years after the stories of the gods were originally transmitted, Mimir’s physical form and role at the well is therefore up for debate.

Illustrated title page of an 18th century edition of the Prose Edda, the Old Norse Icelandic manuscript, assumed to have been written or compiled by Snorri Sturluson. (Public domain)

Illustrated title page of an 18 th century edition of the Prose Edda, the Old Norse Icelandic manuscript, assumed to have been written or compiled by Snorri Sturluson. ( Public domain )

Mimir and his Infinite Wisdom

Another aspect of Mimir that is frequently discussed is the nature of his infinite wisdom and his uncanny ability to advise the gods themselves. Frequently he is considered a god of wisdom or understanding, whose well stems from his innate knowledge. Known as Mimisbrunnr, Mimir’s well is the axis of his knowledge, and is situated beneath one of the three roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. As such, the tree is occasionally called Mimameidr, in recognition of Mimir’s well. (This has been heavily debated, however, and some argue that Mimameidr is a different tree altogether.)

According to Snorri’s account of the well in his Prose Edda , the trees root leads to the land of the frost giants, called Jotunheimr, where the primordial force of Ginnungagap once was. The Ginnungagap is significant as it was the void from which everything in the world stemmed. As such, Mimir’s wisdom as infinite is far more understandable when discussed in relation with this void.

Odin the wanderer drinking from Mimir’s well of wisdom. (Public domain)

Odin the wanderer drinking from Mimir’s well of wisdom. ( Public domain )

The type of knowledge Mimir possesses is often considered to be ancestral: that is, knowledge about both traditions and the world order from its beginning to the present day. Though this is never explicitly described, scholars have extrapolated this belief from the types of advice Mimir has offered. His role as advisor to a chieftain indicates an understanding of the rules and regulations of Old Norse society, and his work with Odin and the runes appears to present the likelihood of what can be considered magical knowledge.

As the secret of the runes stretch back before the time of the gods (otherwise, one might wonder why Odin was not already familiar with them), it is believed that Mimir’s wisdom is therefore eternal and ancient.

Supposedly, Mimir’s wisdom further transcends the nine worlds , divided as they are among the branches and roots of Yggdrasil. What knowledge Mimir passed to Odin about the other worlds is not detailed, but it is believed this is one of the many ways by which Mimir aided Odin in becoming the wisest of the Aesir. Odin comes to possess knowledge of the other eight realms that no other god is known to have, therefore contributing to Odin’s position in the pantheon as the Alfather.

Ragnarök was a series of events, including an end of world battle, which led to the death of many gods, natural disasters and the submersion of the world. It is known as the “Twilight of the Gods”.  (Public domain)

Ragnarök was a series of events, including an end of world battle, which led to the death of many gods, natural disasters and the submersion of the world. It is known as the “Twilight of the Gods”.  ( Public domain )

Mimir: Wisdom in the Face of Ragnarok

Mimir further has a role to play in Ragnarok, the end of the world often also referred to as the “Twilight of the Gods”. As Mimir’s power appears to be all knowing, Odin flies to his well at the onset of the war to gain his advice. Once again, the details of his words of wisdom are vague, however the events of the war play out as foretold by the volva, a seeress who predicted the end of the Golden Age and the deaths of many gods, Odin included.

Whatever Mimir expressed to Odin therefore likely solidified his death as necessary to end one age and begin the next. Though this is speculation, it is useful to consider when examining the events of Ragnarok and the fall of the age of gods.

Odin speaks with Mimir’s head for the last time. (John Bauer)

Odin speaks with Mimir’s head for the last time. ( John Bauer )

Mimir plays an important role in the story of the Aesir. Despite being given to the Vanir, his decapitation leads to his return to the Aesir clan under the protection of Odin himself. His position as an all-knowing god, with power beyond Odin’s control, sets him up to be a pivotal component in Odin’s continued power, and the eventual “success” of the Aesir and Vanir against the gods and monsters of Loki during Ragnarok, the Norse end of the world.

With Mimir’s foresight, Odin and his comrades are prepared for the final battle between the trickster god’s army and those of the Aesir and Vanir, as the two team up for the end of the world. Had Mimir never suffered at the hands of the Vanir and lost his head, or had the Aesir-Vanir war never happened, Odin would not have had access to Mimir’s wisdom.

Top image: Mimir, the bodiless god of wisdom, plays a fundamental role in the stories of Odin and the Norse gods.        Source: GlitchKnitter / CC BY-NC 2.0

By Riley Winters

References

2020. “Mimir”. Britannica Online. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mimir

Bellows, H. A. 1923.  The Poetic Edda . American-Scandinavian Foundation.

Hollander, L.M. (Trans.) 1964. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway . University of Texas Press.

Lindow, J. 2002. Norse Mythology : A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs . Oxford University Press.

Short, W. 2020. “The First War.” Hurstwic.org. Available at: http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/mythology/myths/text/first_war.htm

Snorri Sturluson. 1995. Prose Edda . Trans. Anthony Faulkes. Everyman.

Comments

Hello Riley,

Aesir? The name looks a little like the Greek name for the god of War Ares I'm aware that name is also an horoscope Aries.

How many "there was War with the gods" stories out there?

I'm noticing that since reading the Cast Out Bible Book's of Enoch much of what was written in these Sacred Texts is beginning to line up with a majority of the Ancient World's stories of the quote the gods lived amongst us, the gods waged War and each pantheon that existed came to the end because of the Twilight of the gods or in Norses Case Ragnarok.

After Ragnarok a new era would emerge with Humanity.

I think at least in my opinion that Ragnarok was the Great Flood. After, the Flood Noah and his family leaves the Ark and humanity begins populate the Earth once more. Noah's family symbolized the direction that Human History was to embark on.

I know from Enoch 3 The Book of Giant's mentions the final battle between the Fallen Angel's who chose to break God's commandments while here on Earth went to War against The Angels who stood with God (this is the 2nd War in Heaven, the First war is made known in Revelation chapter 12).

I believe in The Bible and what The Bible says on all subjects and topics; I definitely believe in The Bible Book's of Enoch, which has moved me pass seeing the Ancient World's stories as Myth's too oh Wow, That Really did happen.

I think by utilizing Enoch we can match the Oral Stories with the Events that took place in The Time Before The Great Flood.

Why am I convinced of this well Noah and his family were witnesses to the Pre-Flood Era, Noah's sons and wives would have Oral told there children all about that World before the flood.

They would share with their children and grandchildren the names of the people who lived now in The Bible Book dubbed The Lesser Genesis The Book of Jubilees which is said to be written by Moses; an Angel informed Moses that the whole world from Adam & Eve up until The Tower of Babel spoke Hebrew which is the Language of God and the Angels.

That means with Tower of Babel and the introduction of many language's; the names of the people that lived before The Great Flood, changed. So those moments in time that The Ancient Civilizations told were true.

Are there any clues beside my Faith in God? Surprisingly yes go back and look at the temples that show the deities that the people worshipped in The Ancient World Assyria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Phonecia, Turkey (in The Bible Tyre) look and study the etched figures in the Stone.

Oh the one surprising thing that I read in Enoch well Enoch 3 The Book of Giant's was that there once was another Gilgamesh who walked the Earth; long before Nimrod Gilgamesh in Sumeria in the days after the Flood this Gilgamesh lived before The Great Flood.

Thank you for sharing such and exciting article as this I appreciate it very much looking forward to reading more of your articles Riley oh alright Goodbye for now!

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