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For nine days and nine nights Odin hung from the world tree, Yggdrasil, pierced with a spear, without food and water, on a quest to obtain the sacred knowledge of the runes. The idea that wisdom is a thing that requires sacrifice – that it’s a thing that might be traded for, or something that might be won, like an object – permeates mythology, but what does it mean, to see wisdom this way? Odin is said to have been sacrificing “himself to himself” – how does that relate to the pursuit of wisdom, and what is wisdom, anyway? 

Odin stole the mead of poetry from the giants, and shared it with the gods and with men. This transaction (and ones like it), speak to the difficulty humans have in comprehending abstract concepts like wisdom or artistry, and how that struggle to understand – when coupled with our need to resolve ideas so that they can be set aside and others taken up – leads us to simplify and storify: to imagine a world where a deal with a magical creature can make us clever, or a potion can cause someone to fall in love. These stories are about helplessness in the face of our own limits as much as they are about simplifying something in an attempt to understand. If we struggle to see ourselves as wise or talented or lovable, the idea that those things can be obtained through a sacrifice to the gods, through sipping a magical mead, or by feeding someone (or yourself) a love potion allows us to imagine that reinventing ourselves is not only possible, but quickly achievable – sometimes with some pain, but perhaps just with a flip of the switch.

I don’t know if I’d call myself wise (is that because I am wise, or is it because I’m insecure about the modicum of wisdom that I’ve got?). My perspective is as flawed and biased as everyone else’s, and I often wonder if objective reality is as different from my perceptions as I suspect. What I do have is thirty years as a thoughtful adult, interested in understanding other people and the world, and the recognition that though some parts of my experience are universal, others aren’t, and if I want to learn and grow, I need to set ego aside, listen, think, and adapt. I know that I’ve changed over those thirty years – how I see the world, but also how I see myself – as an individual, and in relation to the people around me. Being open to evolving – curiosity, thoughtfulness – these things chip away at who I am, even as they open the door for me to become someone new. If this changing perspective is wisdom – or one way of thinking about it – then it does indeed involve an ongoing sacrifice of the self to the self.

Odin gouged out his eye and left it at the bottom of Mimir’s well to achieve supernatural understanding. The vision of Odin’s missing eye, then, is filtered through mystical water: his perceptions come from a great depth, and penetrate a veil. This points to another potential aspect of wisdom: seeing outside of personal context. Each of us is deeply embedded in the stuff of our own lives – like stones, at the bottom of a well. Everything that happens to us adds another layer of water between us and both the objective world, and the world as others experience it. The ability to look through that water, to penetrate that veil and understand objective reality as something independent of the self, populated additionally by other perspectives – equally valid, or at minimum worthy of consideration – that, too, is a source of wisdom, one that gets harder to draw from with each passing year. No wonder Odin’s pursuit of wisdom was unending, and took many forms!

We are symbolic creatures, living in a literal world: we struggle to hang on to complexity and nuance without simplifying it; to live with unanswered questions, awareness of bias, and mystery. I don’t know how good a job I do at pursuing wisdom – not as good as Odin, certainly, and I frequently end up mired in my own point of view, issues, and obsessions. The best anyone can do, perhaps, is to try to keep perspective, be aware of personal limitations, and know that the quest for wisdom is a journey with no final destination.