Mimir’s Gift

[From Odhroerir: Nine Devotional Tales of Odin’s Journeys, © 2005]

When the messenger arrived from the Vanir to deliver my uncle’s severed head to me, I was ready and waiting.  The message of contempt and derision the boy had memorized at their behest did not come as a surprise to me; nor did the contents of the blood-soaked leather bag at his belt.  Mimir was dead.  I had foreseen this.  Oh, I had read the threads of Wyrd in the Well that morning, as I did every morning, and I had known for weeks what the increasingly hostile situation in Vanaheim would lead to.  But it had not required scrying or sorcery to see this coming, only common sense.  It had been a mistake to send Hoenir to Vanaheim as a hostage, despite his amiable good looks and easy charm.  He was slow in thought and reaction, and relied on our uncle’s wisdom entirely too much, deferring to him before making every decision, consulting him on every question the Vanir put to him.  Finally, it had gotten to be too much for them.  Convinced that Hoenir was an idiot (he was not; he was simply unsure and deliberate—a bad combination), and that they had gotten the bad end of our hostage exchange, they had reacted— not by killing my brother, as might have been expected, but by killing the sage he relied on, and who we all relied on.  My uncle.

With the head in my possession, I had to act quickly.  In my private workroom, I had already gathered the supplies I would need: the herbs and resins for drying out the fluids and preserving the flesh, the oils for keeping the skin flexible and supple.  I had also prepared all the runic formulas and galdrs I would need to perform the act of resurrection itself.  I first washed the head thoroughly, taking special care to cleanse the blood from the neck-stump, and then I set to work.  The process took nine days.  The eyes had to be removed (for there were no herbal compounds that would preserve them), their sockets filled with stones and the lids stitched shut.  Incisions had to be made in the skin in order to insert herbal pastes, and then stitched shut again.  The entire head had to be soaked in a salt bath, and then dried and soaked in resin, and then treated with herbs again.  During all this time, I worked alone and tirelessly, speaking to no one and pausing only to take small amounts of wine and bread to keep up my energy.  And then at last it was time to begin chanting the spells, a lengthy process in itself; now I would sing the head of my uncle back to life— or if not life, at least a clumsy approximation of it in which he would be able to see, hear and speak.

As I worked, as I sang, I remembered.  In my mind’s eye, I saw my uncle alive again, whole and hale.  I saw him at his post, beside the dark depths of the Well he guarded, on that fateful night— fateful for me, at any rate.  And here I need to digress briefly.  When you first learned this story, you may have been told that there is only one Well, the Well of Urdh, and that it extends throughout all the worlds.  You may also have been told that there are three different Wells—Urdh’s Well in Asgard, Mimir’s Well in Jotunheim, and Hvergelmir, the great bubbling cauldron that feeds into them both, in Nifelheim.  Both statements are correct.  (Yes, I know; another one of those paradoxes I so adore.)  There are three Wells, but in reality they are only one Well, which manifests differently in each of those three worlds.  Thus in Nifelheim the Well churns and foams, and in Asgard it is white and opaque.  In Jotunheim, it is as black as ink, a mirror- like blackness that reflects the barren mountainscape surrounding it.  An all-consuming, devouring blackness that sucks at you and tries to pull you downward to drown you in its depths.

On the night I went to see him there, the sky was filled with a thousand stars, which were reflected in the Well as if imprisoned there—a thousand cold points of light, glimmering and winking.  Beckoning.  The coolness of the air seemed to mirror the coolness that emanated from those black waters, their still surface unbroken by so much as even a single ripple.  I approached slowly, softly, my boots making no sound on the dirt path, yet he looked up when I was still some distance away, those inscrutable slate eyes finding me effortlessly in the darkness, though there was no moon.  Silently, he watched as I drew nearer, his eyes devouring my presence even as the Well did.  There are few beings who have ever caused me to tremble.  Mimir was one such.  That cool, calm gaze commanded everything and everyone around him with no effort at all, even as the depths of wisdom held within those eyes humbled and subdued all who saw him.  The Vanir must have used clever magic indeed, to have been able to lift their hands against him!  But that thought was of the present; with an effort, I submersed myself into the past again.  Mimir, my mother’s brother, watched as I approached.  Some said he was her twin, and I believed it, so like her was he in looks as well as temperament, with the same white-blond hair and unfathomable eyes, serious yet not unkind expression, and air of utter and unquestionable authority.  As I drew alongside him and turned to face him, he gazed at me with eyes that simply saw all there was to see of me—and I, Odin, actually hesitated, and faltered before beginning to speak.

“Uncle,” I said at last.  “I—”

“I know why you have come, nephew,” he interrupted me, that deep, rumbling, sonorous voice seeming to penetrate my very bones.  “I have been waiting for you.”  He paused, his inscrutable grey eyes appraising me.  The urge to look away was overwhelming, but I forced myself to hold his gaze until at last he continued.  “I am the only being who has ever drunk from the Well.  Every morning, noon and evening I drink from its dark depths; I drink of what has been, and what will be, and what may be but is not yet formed.  I drink of possibilities and potential, and of lost opportunities and broken dreams.  And I tell you this: there is a terrible price for such wisdom.  In my case, I know the price I will pay; it looms over me as a shadow darker than the waters of the Well, and draws nearer every time I drink.”  Those eyes bored into me, their expression not unkind but as unmovable as the bedrock of the earth.  He even placed a hand on my shoulder. “What price will you pay, boy?  I have no wish to harm you.  I have been your teacher and your mentor, and I look upon you as the son I never had myself.  It is in your wyrd to drink from the Well, and to follow me in the ways of wisdom.  In fact, in time your wisdom will even exceed my own.  I have foreseen it.  But the Well hungers, and if you offer it nothing in return for its waters, the price it will exact in the fullness of time will be more severe than you can now imagine.  As it will be for me.  In return for the terrible gift of vision it offers, you must give something of great value to you.  What will it be?”

I stood frozen, considering his words.  He was testing me, I knew; if I could not figure out the proper offering to make on my own, from his words, all would be for naught and my request would be refused.  I pondered the riddle he had set before me.  Already I knew much and saw much; I had been schooled in ancient arcane lore and its uses by both my mother and my uncle, and from my throne at Hlidskjalf I looked out over the Nine Worlds daily and saw all there was to see in all of existence.  Nothing that was born or lived or died escaped my notice; no action committed could be hidden from my sight.  And yet, for all that I saw, I knew how limited my vision truly was, or I would not have come here.  It was if I could view the surface of a lake intimately, and see every ripple, every shimmer of light, and every insect that skated across its waters, but could not penetrate its depths.  The idea that I would someday exceed my uncle in wisdom did not seem possible to me, but I had to know more than I knew now.  The need to know, to see, was a hunger that burned in my veins and made my blood feel like fire that threatened to consume me.  I would pay any price to see what Mimir saw, to know what he knew, no matter how terrible that knowledge might be.  And suddenly I knew what the price was, what offering the Well required of me.

Wordlessly, I stretched open the lid of one of my eyes (no, I am not going to tell you which one), and with my fingertips grasped the eyeball and plucked it from its socket.  Pain burned where my eye had been, and I felt blood gush hot down the side of my face.  “My vision is what I treasure most,” I said to my uncle.  “Since vision is what the Well offers, vision is the price I will pay for its gift.”  I cast my eye into the Well, watching as the dark waters swallowed it.  But to my surprise it did not vanish into the blackness of the Well; somewhere in its depths it glimmered like one of the reflected stars, a point of brightness imprisoned there forever.

My uncle smiled, a rare thing for him.  Then he unslung his huge drinking horn and, bending over the Well, dipped it into the black waters to fill it.  I fancied I saw a glimmer of pride in those slate-grey eyes as he handed the horn to me.  “Drink deep, nephew.”

And I did.  The water touched my lips with an impenetrable coldness, like a kiss of the ice of Nifelheim.  I took my first sip, and that coldness washed through me, filling every cell and nerve ending.  I had the eerie sensation of being disconnected from my body; I was no longer the one drinking the water, but a spectator, watching from above as I drank it.  This is what the dead feel, I thought to myself.  This is how the dead see.  Except that was not quite true, because the me that was drinking from the horn still lived and moved, and I found that if I willed it I could center my awareness in my body again, while the other half of me watched with the detachment of an impartial observer, critically examining every move I made and every thought that wandered through my consciousness.

Undaunted by this strangeness, I drained the horn.  Suddenly my awareness split even further.   Now I was not only the me holding the horn and the me who was a detached observer, I was also the me who now resided in the depths of the Well, looking out through the sacrificed eye.  Reality separated itself into two parallel realms of light and darkness, being and potential, two realms that mirrored each other.  In the light realm, I acted and observed, thought and analyzed.  In the dark realm, I saw the entire history of my past actions, thoughts and feelings laid out before me like a tapestry, as well as all my future possibilities.  And not just my own, but everyone’s; I saw the past and the possible futures of every being and every world that existed, as well as every being and world that did not yet exist.  With one eye I saw all that was, and with the other I saw all that had been, could be, and might be.  And these two parallel realms of consciousness were bound together by a single thread, a single point of awareness through which I could enter and explore at will.

I nearly staggered under the weight of the sudden knowledge that rushed over me, the visions both wished for and unbidden.  It was too much; trying to take it all in at once would drive me mad.  Mimir placed a hand on my shoulder to steady me.  “You will grow used to it, in time,” he said, his tone more gentle than I had ever before heard it.  Or if not used to it, you will find ways to manage the flow of knowledge that is now yours.  I told you there would be a terrible price, my boy.  What I did not tell you—for it would not have deterred you, nor would you have believed me—is that the knowledge itself is the price.  The split awareness you now have is both a gift and a curse, and the gift of your eye is but a symbol of that awareness.”

As he spoke, my hand wandered to my empty eye socket, or the socket that should have been empty.  But there was no blood running down my face, and no raw, empty socket where my eye had been.  The eye was still there, where it had always been, warm and
alive and seeing normally.  And yet it also still glimmered in the depths of the Well, and through it I saw into the layers of past and future.  I blinked, and Mimir laughed at my surprise—a deep, rumbling laugh like the stirring of an earthquake—and clapped me on the back.

“Yes, my boy, both things are true: your eye is both is the Well, and in your head where it always has been.  Just as your awareness is now split, so you can see both of these realities; they both exist, and both are equally real. Neither is an illusion, nor do they contradict each other, for they are both part of the wholeness of what is.”

With one eye still on the past, in the present I finished the last of the spells that would restore the head of my uncle to life, or at least to a shadow of the life he had once known.  As I finished the last verse of the awakening song, the flesh changed, softening and becoming lifelike once again.  The muscles of the cheeks moved, and the lips twitched into a smile.  With one final surge of power, I passed my hand over the stitched eyelids, from which both eyes had been extracted.  The stitches vanished as if they had never been.  And the slate-grey eyes opened.