I just returned from Iceland. People keep asking,
“So, how was it?”
“It was great,” I tell them.
However, what I really want to say is that it
changed my life; that when I look at the pictures,
my heart hurts with longing and my eyes begin to
shine; that something about it moved me deeply, in
ways I can never explain.
As an act of reverence for the enchantment
of Iceland, I set myself on a course of study I’d
neglected for too long—Norse mythology. In
1000 C.E., Iceland was the last European nation
to convert to Christianity, and even then it didn’t
outlaw the old ways—they thrive to this day. Jesus
and Odin walk together across the country’s fresh
green fields and glacial moraines.
Iceland was first settled by Norwegians, then
later by Celts, so the spiritual landscape is a
mélange of Norse mythology, archaic Christianity,
and Celtic mysticism. The gods of the Aesir
and Vanir jostle for space with the huldufólk or
“hidden people”—the elves, trolls, and fairies who
inhabit the mounds and outcroppings that rise
from the fields of every farm.
The veil between the seen and unseen world is
very thin in Iceland.
In Norse mythology, Odin was the oldest and
greatest of the gods. Long ago, when the world was
young, Odin disguised himself as a traveler and
went to find Mimir’s well, whose waters rose up
from the core of the earth to nourish Yggdrasil—
the world-tree. According to legend, one drink
from Mimir’s well would make a person wise.
When Odin found the well, he asked Mimir for
a drink. Mimir told him no, the water was only
for himself. But Odin could be persuasive. Finally
Mimir agreed, as long as Odin promised to do him
“What?” Odin asked.
“Give me one of your eyes.”
Without hesitation Odin performed the grisly
task, tossing his eye into the well. Mimir nodded,
handing Odin his horn.
Odin filled the horn and drank deeply. He
felt wisdom flooding through him, and he was
transformed. From then on, he was known as the
Blind God, although he still had one good eye.
Odin has many names and often travels in
disguise. He’s tricky that way. He also has two
ravens he calls Hugin and Munin, names which
mean “thought” and “memory.” They fly far and
wide and function as the eyes of Odin. When you
see a raven, Odin is watching. They return to sit
on his shoulders and whisper into his ears of all
the things they know and remember. So it is that
nothing eludes Odin’s grasp.
Odin once performed a great sacrifice to attain
a higher state of divinity. He hung himself on the
world-tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights
with nothing to eat and nothing to drink, his side
pierced by a spear. His agony transformed him—he
was now able to understand the sacred runes that
once had no meaning. His resilience unlocked the
secrets of the world.
Like gods everywhere, Odin stands as a metaphor
for that which is unrealized in us—our highest
manifestation. If each of us is the hero of our
own lives, as Joseph Campbell claims, then Odin’s
story—like the story of any sacrificial god—is our
story: evolution driven by the engine of resilience.
In a farmer’s field, far off the beaten track, my
wife, my friends, and I soaked in the rough-hewn
hot springs at Hruni. We let the warm waters wash
away the weariness every traveler knows. In the late
afternoon light, two ravens perched on the roof of
the stone cottage across the meadow—memory and
thought. Odin is here, I mused. Our traveling, our
struggles, and our sacrifices pull the threads that
help us unravel the mystery of our own lives. We
are all on the world-tree, wounded, and longing to
become who we really are. One day soon, on the
other side of these hardships, we will be able to read
all of the runes.
Peter Bolland is the
chair of the humanities
department and a
professor of philosophy
and humanities at
Southwestern College in
Chula Vista, California,
where he teaches world
religions, Asian philosophy,
world mythology, and
ethics. Bolland and his wife
Lori are members of the
Unity Center in San Diego,
where he teaches classes
on world spirituality and is
a frequent guest speaker.
OUR TRAVELING, OUR
STRUGGLES, AND OUR
SACRIFICES PULL THE
THREADS THAT HELP US
UNRAVEL THE MYSTERY …
THE VEIL BETWEEN THE SEEN
AND UNSEEN WORLD IS VERY
THIN IN ICELAND.