The Eye and the Well: Odin and Brigit

Image: Au fond du puit by William-D-WILD on DeviantArt

Odin and Brigit may not seem like the most similar deities, but they actually do have more in common than you might think. Both are patrons of poets, both give up an eye voluntarily, and both these losses are connected with water.

Protector of Poets

According to Cormac’s Glossary, Brigit was the goddess of poets, among other things:

Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician [woman of leechcraft,] Brigit the female smith [woman of smithwork] ; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit. Brigit, then, breo-aigit, breo-shaigit a fiery arrow’.

Odin was also a god of poets, who took the mead of poetry from a giant at great personal risk.

It was fermented from the blood of Kvasir, the wisest man living. After that it changed hands several times, and its owners hoarded it in barrels, but Odin managed to sneak into the cave where its final owner hid it, and drank it all down before escaping in the form of an eagle. Its owner gave chase, but the gods managed to kill him, and the mead of poetry was Odin’s to share with those he favoured:

Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Aesir and to those men who how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Aesir.
(Skaldskaparsmal 2: Byock’s trans.)

Loss of an Eye

Both the Norse god and the Irish goddess are patrons of poets, but they also share another characteristic: both of them give up an eye.

The story of Odin and Mimir is unclear, but the outline seems to be that he did it so he could drink from Mimir’s well, whose waters gave wisdom:

Wisdom and intelligence are hidden in the there, and Mimir is the well’s owner. He is full of wisdom because he drinks of the well from the Gjallarhorn. All-Father went there and asked for one drink of the well, but he did not get this until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge. As it says in The Sibyl’s Prophecy [Voluspa]:

Odin, I know all
where you hid the eye
in that famous
Well of Mimir.
Each morning
Mimir drinks mead
from Val-Father’s pledge.
Do you know now or what?
(The Sibyl’s Prophecy. 28)

(Skaldskaparamal 15, Byock’s trans.)

While Snorri’s version is clear, his source, the poem Voluspa is less so. Does Mimir literally drink from Odin’s eye, or is the eye in the well?

The second option seems more plausible, and brings us to Brigit. This time it is the Christian saint, and not the pagan goddess, and the story has a strong Christian spin. Brigit had a strong vocation, but her family objected to this. She got round them by plucking out her eye, no doubt thinking of Jesus’ injunction:

Her brothers were grieved at her depriving them of the bride-price. There were poor people living close to Dubthach’s house. She went one day carrying a small load for them. Her brothers, her father’s sons, who had come from Mag Lifi, met her. Some of them were laughing at her; others were not pleased with her, namely Bacéne, who said: ‘The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man though you like it or not.’ Thereupon she immediately thrusts her finger into her eye. ‘Here is that beautiful eye for you’, said Brigit. ‘I deem it unlikely’, said she, ‘that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.’ Her brothers rush about her at once save that there was no water near them to wash the wound. ‘Put’, said she, ‘my staff about this sod in front of you.’ That was done. A stream gushed forth from the earth. And she cursed Bacéne and his descendants, and said: ‘Soon your two eyes will burst in your head.’ And it happened thus.
(Bethu Brigid 15,trans. Donnchadh ÓhAodha)

After she washed the wound her eye was restored.1

Another story of someone giving up their eye involves a king, Eochaid, who when a poet demanded his right eye as payment, duly plucked it out to save his honour. He then had his servant lead him to the water, where he washed his face in three lots of water, but to no avail. His bloody socket gave the place its name (Dergderc, Red Hollow). However, God returned to him his eye because of his generosity.

John Carey links these stories to the Norse myth by suggesting that Odin created Mimir’s well by giving up his eye; this caused the water to gush forth so they could both drink from it. (He also refers to the myth of Boand, who profaned a sacred well and drowned when it rose up against her. In some versions, she also lost an eye and/or was warned that her eyes would burst if she went there. You could say she was an unsuccessful Odin.)

Of course the main difference between Odin and Brigit is that she got her eye back. But while Odin is usually described as a one-eyed old man, he can see to cast a spear. So either he has his eye when he needs it, or perhaps he no longer needs it at all.

The link between wells and eyes is a simple one: both are round, contained within a firm boundary, and glimmer with reflected light. Both have depths that cannot be seen, and are full of liquid. Brigit’s wells often cured blindness or eye diseases, and one, at Faughart, had an Eye Stone where pilgrims could bathe their eyes.2

Poetry and Sight

I’m not suggesting that the god/dess of poetry and poets would be unusually clear-sighted, but it is interesting that both Odin and Brigit lose an eye, have second sight, and can make others see illusions or see through them.

Also, sight in earlier times could be understood as an active thing:

Heroes and kings, including such diverse figures as Thórr, Sigurðr Fáfnisbani, and St. Ólafr, are said to have sharp eyes, which Annette Lassen argues is indicative of masculine strength. The piercing gaze reveals heroic nature, even through disguises. (Jacobs: 156)

It is fitting that heroic characters have “piercing” gazes, directed outwards. But perhaps these myths about losing an eye reflect the poet’s or seer’s experience: being able to see in two worlds at once, and constantly moving between the two. Odin manifests as a one-eyed man to remind us that he has an eye in both worlds, so to speak, while Brigit takes hers in and out as she pleases.

And finally, one heathen group’s take on Odin’s sacrifice:

odins_eye


1. I know this seems strange, but it helps to think of deities as being made of Lego or putty – they can be taken apart and put back together again, unlike us, or even have new bits added on, like Ganesha’s head.
2. Another connection to Boand: the other two stones are a head stone and a knee stone, echoing how Boand was strewn across the landscape.

Links:

Tobarin Suil – the Eye Well at Lough Hyde
St. Brigit’s well at Faughart
List of Holy Wells of Ireland
Which Eye Did Odin Sacrifice?
Mimir’s Well on Wikipedia
Bio and Cool-Looking Picture of Mimir

References:

Byock, Jesse 2005: The Prose Edda. Kindle.

Carey, John 1983: “Irish Parallels to the Myth of Odin’s Eye”, Folklore 94/2: 214-8. (pdf here)
Jacobs, M.A. 2014: “Hon stóð ok starði: Vision, Love and Gender in Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu,” Scandinavian Studies 86/2: 148-68.

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7 thoughts on “The Eye and the Well: Odin and Brigit

  1. Faye

    Thank you. this informative post gives an opportunity for further research. The stories are intriguing. The image is quite ‘stunning’. Keep writing!

    Like

    Reply
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