The Bodiless God of Wisdom: Mimir in Norse Mythology
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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.
- The Twelve Most Important Gods in Norse Mythology
- Epic Battle Equals Doom or Twilight for Norse Gods? Ragnarök: The Real Message in the Myth
- The Saga of Gestumblindi and Odin’s Riddles
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)
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)
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
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.