Since Odin first contacted me back in February, he’s been hovering in the background of my life, making his presence felt, watching, and occasionally offering advice or insight. He has helped me become a better leader and a better father, and is working with me on a number of my personal struggles.
He also told me a story: his own story. I offer here a shortened version, in his own words. In it, he gives an answer to an ancient riddle; and you may judge for yourself the truth of it.
What did Odin himself whisper in the ear of his dead son Balder before he burned on the pyre?
Now Odin strode through the shallows and gripped the gunwale. He climbed into the boat and stood over the body of his dead son. For some time he gazed at him. Slowly he took off his arm-ring Draupnir… and slipped it onto Balder’s arm. Then Odin bent down and put his mouth to Balder’s ear. Again he gazed at his son; then he left [the ship].
At a sign from Odin a servant stepped forward with a lighted brand. He set fire to the pyre and at once a steady plume of smoke, twisting and spiraling, rose into the calm air.
— from The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland
What did Odin say? Oddly enough, the first person to ask this question is Odin himself, disguised as a wanderer, in a riddle contest with the wise jotun Vafthrudnir. The loser of the contest wins death. When Odin poses this riddle, “Vafthrudnir looked long at his guest, and recognized him. He said in a low voice, ‘No one can tell what, long ago, you whispered in the ear of your son… I’ve pitted myself against Odin. You will always be wiser and wisest.'” (Crossley-Holland)
No answer to the riddle is given in the Lay of Vafthrudnir, or anywhere else in the Norse sagas. Some suggest that Odin promised Balder resurrection, since the it was foretold that Balder would rise again after Ragnarök to rule Asgard in Odin’s stead. Others say it is impossible to know, and that gods and men will be wondering until the end of time.
Here is Odin’s answer.
(Note: I cannot take strict dictation from him, at least not yet — I frequently get word-for-word phrases from him, but more often I get a gist and a vague indication of length. So while this definitely is a representation of Odin’s poetic style, it’s “noisy”, corrupted by my deficiencies as a medium.)
I am he
that binds together and breaks apart.
The edges of worlds, in these places I am at home — on the threshold, along the fringe of the forests girdling the villages, far above where the air fades into airlessness. I am he that parts the waters, I am he that distilled the blood of Ymir into the nine worlds. I am the oathmaker, the enforcer, the one that separates, divides, and orders.
Who is the oathbreaker? Who is the smith of lies, the changer of shapes, the twister of promises? He is my blood brother; he is my savior, he is my destroyer. He built a mighty wall that keeps safe my homes, and yet he will fell it. He brought me the Spear of Victory, he brought me my arm-ring Draupnir, and it is his son Sleipnir that I ride in battle; yet he and his children will engulf me and all I hold dear.
Loki! Loki of the tattered smile. He is my blood brother — but he is also my older brother.
They say he is the son of giants: Farbouti (‘Anger-Striker’) and Laufey (‘Leaf-Island’). But these are just other names for my own parents, Bur (‘son’) and Bestla (‘tree-bark’). They say he has two brothers, Helblindr (‘Hel-blind’) and BÃ½leistr (‘Bee-lightning’), but those are just two of my own nicknames.
When the world began —
When the ravenous fire first licked the noxious ice, and old Ymir drank the milk of the soft white cow Audumla, and the first giants and trolls and jotuns and Aesir crept about the edges of Ginnungagap, Loki was there, and my brothers Vili and Ve, and I was there too, and we were numbered three.
Loki was there when we slew Ymir — mighty and terrible and foul he was. Ymir we slew, Loki and Vili and Ve and I. And it was we three who slew him.
Then we built mountains from Ymir’s long bones, and shattered other bones into rocks and stones, and made soil from his flesh and the waters from his blood and raised up his vast vaulted skull to make the sky, we three, Loki, Vili, Ve, and I.
Enough mystery! You’ve guessed the riddle by now. Loki and I were one man. But in that most ancient time, it would be truer to say that only Loki was there; I was just a shadow of doubt in Loki’s wild young heart.
The stories say
that Vili, Ve, and I fashioned Asgard and made it a place of green grass and shining palaces, and erected the Rainbow Bridge to connect it with Midgard.
But the way I remember it, we gods built humble homes in the mountains between Midgard and Jotunheim, for we were friends with men and jotuns, and ruled over none; and there was much coming and going and commerce and mixing between us. But there was also strife, feuding between families, and black treachery.
The stories say that the Aesir and the Vanir fought a great war and Asgard’s walls were reduced to rubble; and the war ended in stalemate, and following the custom of the time, members of each tribe were sent to live with the other to ensure peace thereafter.
But the way I remember it, there was mixing and muddying of bloodlines, and shifting of alliegances, and distrust grew among all the Aesir, Vanir, and jotuns.
The stories say that the Aesir made a deal with a jotun to rebuild the wall of Asgard, and Loki tricked the stonemason into building it for free, and Loki joined with the jotun’s mighty workhorse and birthed Odin’s steed, Sleipnir.
But the way I remember it, Loki tricked the stonemason into building a great fortress for himself and his family, he and Angrboda and his three monstrous children, and his second wife Sigyn and her children, and Frigg and hers, and Freyja and hers, and the mistresses that came and went with each moon. Sleipnir was born indeed, but so were Hel and Fenris and Jormungandr, and many other children, grotesque and malformed half-beasts, terrible to look upon.
The stories say that I, Odin, climbed Yggdrasil and hanged myself from it, a sacrifice of myself to myself, for nine days and nine nights, until the wisdom of the runes were revealed to me.
But the way I remember it, Loki did not seek wisdom, and Mimir and the other wise jotuns did not have the courage to seek the deep knowledge of the tree; so the magic of the runes was unknown to all.
The stories say that the Norns advised the gods that the children of Loki would bring ruin on the world; and Odin sent Hel to Niflheim to look after the dead, and tossed Jormungandr into the ocean to become the Midgard Serpent, and Tyr sacrificed his hand so that the mighty wolf Fenris could be bound until Ragnarök.
But the way I remember it, Loki would not suffer his children to be treated in such a way. So Hel lived in her father’s castle, and the dead walked the earth without rest. And the Jormungandr grew and grew and ravaged the countryside with his brother Fenris, hunting at will, and even Loki could not control them.
The stories say that Idunn lived in Asgard and cared for the golden apples of youth, which kept the gods young forever.
But the way I remember it, the apples were argued and fought over and hoarded by many wrangling gods and jotuns, and many were immortal who would better have died, and many died who should have lived for ages.
The stories say that the great treasures of the gods — Odin’s Spear of Victory, Freyr’s golden boar, Thor’s hammer, and many others besides — were made by dwarves who were goaded into a treasure-crafting contest by Loki, to repay his theft of Sif’s golden hair.
But the way I remember it, Loki frequently visited the dwarves and cajoled them into making treasures and weapons for himself and his family; and he and his brood were a scourge of terror on the earth.
The way I remember it…
Midgard was a place of darkness and chaos.
There was no poetry, no art, no gentle rains or green grass; the sun and moon were erratic in their dances, and the seasons came and went as they would — spring now following fall, now preceding it; and summer passing suddenly into frightful winter. It was a world without oaths, without promises, without binding or cohesion. There were no edges, no borders; there was no separation, no division. All flowed together in a cacophony of strife and destruction.
There were patches of light, to be sure. Balder’s home among the highest, whitest peaks of Midgard was a haven of golden peace, though he had no skill in protection or politics, and one day he was murdered in his sleep. Thor was mighty and noble, but fell in with friends who twisted his heart and led him to darkness. Good times we had, great feasts and games and camaraderie, once in a while; but in the next moon, oaths of friendship were broken, and those that had dined together would slit each other’s throats.
The stories say that Ragnarök was the final conflagration, the age of axes and swords and shields asunder. All bonds were broken, all oaths were forsworn, all promises abandoned. Loki and Fenris broke their fetters, the dead were released from Hel, and the Midgard Serpent rose from the sea. Bifrost was broken and battle was joined for the last time; and all ended in fire and water.
But the way I remember it, there was no sudden ending, no breaking and loosing; for the bonds and fetters had never been put in place. Eon after eon passed, each one worse than the last; battle piled on battle, war piled on war, treachery on treachery, famine on famine, plague on plague, death piled upon death. Loki wrangled and wheedled and argued and fought for his castle, his children, and his wives, and lost them one by one. Mountains were leveled and seas raised up; the sun and moon struck each other and fell into the sea; and when black Surt came with his sword of fire to end all at last, there was but one soul left to draw breath: Loki.
Crippled and half-dead
he watched from a cave of safety as the fire licked from Surt’s sword and began to boil the seas. Anger burned in him, but also regret; for he saw how his greed, lust, and short-sightedness had destroyed the world he had made with his brothers. The shadow in his heart, the self-doubt that was Odin, had slowly grown stronger as the world had aged, and at last overcame him as the end drew close.
Loki the Shape Changer!
This time he reached out with his burning will and changed the shape of time.
Yggdrasil’s branches became roots.
Its roots became branches. Dragon became eagle, and eagle, dragon; the cock swallowed its cry; the blood and flesh of Ymir drew itself together and rose again, a living giant blotting out the sky; and in his pain and hatred, he battled blackened Surt.
All then fell dark —
And when the world began again
When the ravenous fire licked the noxious ice, and old Ymir drank the milk of the soft white cow Audumla, and the first giants and trolls and jotuns and Aesir crept about the edges of Ginnungagap, Loki was there, and my brothers Vili and Ve, and I was there too, and we were numbered four.
A second chance was made, and I, Loki, who is now Odin, became he that binds together and breaks apart. I parted the waters, and distilled the blood of Ymir into the nine worlds. I am the oathmaker, the enforcer, the one that separates, divides, and orders.
For a time there is green grass, and promises kept, and life and love in the sunlight.
But the price is terrible.
Loki, my older brother, myself who is closer than kin, is reduced to a trickster, a treacherous conniver. At the end his bitterness shall overcome him, and he shall cause the death of my son Balder; but this is no fault of his — the fault is mine. I who placed everything in its proper place, I had no place for him. His heart was not wholly evil, but it was twisted and delighted in power and cleverness. I could not cast him out of Asgard, I could not kill him — how could I reject myself so utterly? And so he became a poison that slowly strangled my stronghold.
So the fault is mine that Balder dies, as surely as it were my hand on the spear. I set myself to preserve the good in the world, to protect it from the evil; but I shall fail. And when my good son is placed on the pyre, I shall kneel at his side, and give him my sign of kingship, and whispering, beg his forgiveness.
And last, when the new sun rises beyond Ragnarök, the world will go on without oaths, without promises. There will be no breaking apart, nor gathering together; the waters will mix with the fires and the good mix with the evil. Asgard shall stand with no walls.
And yet, under Balder, it shall stand.