The Axis of the world was Yggdrasill. That ash soared and its branches fanned over gods and men and giants and dwarfs. It sheltered all creation. One root dug deep into Niflheim and under that root the spring Hvergelmir seethed and growled like water in a cauldron. Down there the dragon Nidhogg ripped apart corpses. Between mouthfuls, he sent the squirrel Ratatosk whisking up the trunk from deepest earth to heaven; it carried insults to the eagle who sat on the topmost bough, with a hawk perched on its brow. And Nidhogg was not content with corpses; he and his vile accomplices gnawed at the root of Yggdrasill itself, trying to loosen what was firm and put an end to the eternal.
Other creatures, too, attacked and preyed off the living tree – four stags nibbled at the new leaves, and goats tugged and tore off the tender shoots. Parts of the huge trunk were peeling, parts were soft and rotten. Yggdrasill whispered and Yggdrasill groaned.
A second root curled into Asgard. Under that root flowered the well of Urd, the spring of destiny, where the gods gathered each day and held a court of justice. The three Norns lived near by, Fate and Being and Necessity. They shaped the life of each man from his first day to his last. And every day they sprinkled water on the branches of Yggdrasill and nourished the suffering tree.
The third root burrowed into that part of Jotunheim held by the frost giants. Under that root bubbled the spring guarded by the wise Mimir, and the water in that well gave insight to those who tasted it. The god Heimdall left his shrieking horn there until the day when he would need it to summon every living creature to Ragnarok. And Odin had given one eye for a single draught from it. He won immense knowledge there and with it the thirst for yet greater wisdom. So the Terrible One approached Yggdrasill alone.
Odin said: ‘I hung from that windswept tree, hung there for nine long nights; I was pierced with a spear; I was an offering to Odin, myself to myself.
‘No one has ever known or will ever know the roots of that ancient tree.
‘No one came to comfort me with bread, no one received me with a drink from a horn. I peered at the worlds below; I seized the runes, shrieking I seized them; then I fell black.
‘From Bolthor’s famous son, Bestla’s father, I learned nine powerful songs. I was able to drain the precious mead from the cauldron Odrorir.
‘Then I began to thrive, my wisdom grew; I prospered and was fruitful. One word gainers me many words; one deed gained me many deeds.
‘The charms I know are not known by the wives of kings or by any man. The first is called Help because it can comfort grief and lessen pain and cure sickness.
‘I know a second: any man who hopes to become a healer needs to know it.
‘I know a third: if I should sorely need help to hold back my enemy, I can blunt my opponent’s blade and soften his staff so he cannot wound me.
‘I know a fourth: if anyone should bind me hand and foot, this charm is so great the the locks spring apart, releasing my limbs; I can walk free.
‘I know a fifth: if I should see a well aimed arrow speeding to its mark, I can catch it however fast it flies; I have only to fix it with my eye.
‘I know a sixth: if anyone thinks to finish me by sending a sapling’s roots engraved with runes, that hero – full of spleen – will only destroy himself.
‘I know a seventh: if I should see the hall roof burst into flames over the heads of my chosen comrades, I can quench the blaze however fierce it may be; I know the charm.
‘I know an eighth: all men would be well advised to learn it: if hatred takes root in men’s minds, I can uproot it.
‘I know a ninth: if I should need to save my ship in a storm, I can calm the wind that whips off wavecrests and put the sea to sleep.
‘I know a tenth: if ever I see witches flying on rafters, I can sing so that they go into a whirl and cannot change back into their day shapes or find their way to their own front doors.
‘I know an eleventh: if I have to lead loyal, long-haired friends into a fight, I can sing behind my shield and they will go from strength to strength – unscathed to the battle, unscathed after battle; unscathed they return home.
‘I know a twelfth: if I see a hanged man swinging from a tree, with his heels above his head, I can cut and color the runes so that he will come down and talk to me.
‘I know a thirteenth: if I sprinkle water over a child, he will never fall in the thick of battle, nor falter and sink in the sword-play.
‘I know a fourteenth: if I so desire, I can tell men the names of the gods and the elves one by one – few fools can do this!
‘I know a fifteenth: the dwarf Thjodrorir sang it in front of Delling’s doors, a charm of power for the gods, glory for the elves, wisdom for Odin.
‘I know a sixteenth: if I long for love-play, I can turn the mind and win the heart of a white-armed woman.
‘I know a seventeenth: such a charm that a young girl will be loath to forsake me.
‘I know an eighteenth: I will never tell it to a girl or a married woman unless I am lying in her arms or she is my own sister! What you and you alone know is always the most potent. And that is the last of the charms.’
These were the words of Odin before there were men. These were his words, after his death, when he rose again.