On the Windswept Tree
Hung was I on the windswept tree;
Nine full nights I hung,
Pierced by a spear, a pledge to the god,
To Odin, myself to myself,
On that tree which none can know the source
From whence its root has run.
None gave me bread, none brought a horn.
Then low to earth I looked.
I caught up the runes, roaring, I took them,
And fainting, back I fell.
Nine mighty lays I learned from the son
Of Bolthorn, Bestla’s father,
And a draught I had of the holy mead
Poured out of Odrerir.
Then fruitful I grew, and greatly to thrive,
In wisdom began to wax.
A single word to a second word led,
A single poem a second found.
Runes will you find, and fateful staves,
Very potent staves, very powerful staves,
Staves the great gods made, stained by the mighty sage,
And graven by the speaker of gods.
The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 138-142
In Norse mythology, the story of Odin’s sacrifice stands out as a classic metaphor for shamanic initiation. Odin goes to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, tethers his horse Sleipnir and then hangs himself facing down into the bottomless void beneath the roots. He suffers there in agony for nine days and nights until he sees the runes in the depths. Then he picks them up and is transformed.
Among his diverse and seemingly conflicting aspects, Odin is a poet. He hungers for knowledge. One thing that strikes me about this beautiful verse is its similarity to the writing process. As it often happens, I hang there, staring into the darkness of my mind, a blank screen, longing for a story and seeing only the void—and then, after fighting, clawing and whining my fill at the dispassionate silence, I relax, let go, and suddenly the words come.
Writing is hard work. Most days it sucks. But when this happens, when I touch the Mystery, it’s all worth it.
© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.