Among Water-spirits Mimir is supreme and has a prominent position in the Eddic poems. If not a god, he is brought into close contact with gods, especially Odin, whose uncle he may have been.1
In the Voluspa Odin pledged his eye with Mimir, presumably to obtain secret knowledge from him. The eye is hidden in Mimir’s well, and Mimir daily drinks mead out of Odin’s pledge. But in another stanza a stream is said to issue from this pledge and it waters the tree Mjotvid, which Snorri, in his reference to this verse, takes to be Yggdrasil. Mimir’s well is thus under the tree, the well which in verse 19 is called “Urd’s well.” The redactor of the poem which spoke of Odin’s eye given as a pledge and hidden in a well beneath the tree which was watered by it, has added a new and contradictory verse. The well is that of the Water-spirit Mimir, and he daily drinks from this eye. As Boer says: the redactor “replaces the clear nature picture (of Odin giving a pledge in return for something else; i.e., water, which falls on the tree) with a meaningless one, that of Mimir drinking from the pledge.”2 The pledge, Odin’s eye, is generally regarded as the sun, the eye of the Heaven-god, seen reflected in the water or sinking into the sea — phenomena which may have given rise to the myth. Where the redactor speaks of Mimir’s drinking from this pledge, it is thought of as a cup or shell — a quite different myth from that of the eye.
From Snorri’s account of this myth, Mimir’s well is under that root of the ash Yggdrasil which turns towards the Frost-giants.
In it wisdom and understanding are stored. Mimir keeps the well and is full of ancient lore, because he drinks of the well from the Gjallar-horn. Odin came and craved one draught of the well, but did not obtain it till he had given his eye in pledge. Then Snorri quotes the Voluspa stanza which tells how Mimir drinks from Odin’s pledge.3 This contradicts what has just been said about the Gjallar-horn. There must have been different versions of the myth of Odin’s eye and of Mimir’s relation to it.
In Svipdagsmal Mimameid, “the tree of Mimir,” is given as a name of the world-tree.4
At the Doom of the gods Mimir’s sons, i.e., the rivers and brooks, are in violent motion.5
Another aspect of Mimir is given in Vafthrudnismal. Mimir, called Hoddmimer, “Hill-Mimir” or “Mimir of the treasure,” is owner of a wood (“Hoddmimer’s holt”), and in it are hidden a human pair, Lif and Lifthrasir (“Life” and “He who holds fast to life”). They survive the terrible Fimbul-winter at the end of the world. Meanwhile they feed on morning-dew, and from them come the folk who will people the renewed earth. According to Snorri, who quotes this verse, this human pair lie hidden in the holt during the fire of Surt.6 Whether this holt or grove is identical with the world-tree is not clear. It may have been regarded as existing underground at its roots where Mimir’s fountain was.
Another series of Mimir myths is connected with his head, cut off by the Vanir, as already told.7 Odin smeared it with worts that it should not rot, and sang words of magic (galdra) over it, and gave it such might that it told him of hidden matters. In Sigrdrifumal the Valkyrie Sigrdrifa instructs Sigurd in the wisdom of runes, and she says that he must learn “thought-runes” which Hropt (Odin) devised from the fluid which “dropped from Heiddraupnir’s head and from Hoddrofnir’s horn.” These are evidently names of Mimir. Then she continues:
Mimir’s head may at first have been nothing more than the source of the stream of which he was the guardian spirit or in which he dwelt, the source being the stream’s “head,” or “Mimir’s head,” and the name afterwards taken literally. An explanatory myth was then supplied, as well as stories of the wisdom-giving head which are not without parallels in Scandinavian custom and belief. In the Eyrbyggja-saga Freysten found a skull lying loose and uncovered on a scree called Geirvor. It sang a stave foretelling bloodshed at this spot and that men’s skulls would lie there.10 This was deemed a great portent.
Mimir’s connexion with Odin is shown by the title given to the latter by the skald Egill Skallagrimsson — “Mimir’s friend.”11
Mimir’s name in its different Eddic forms — Mimir, Mim, Mimi — is connected with words meaning “mindful,” “to brood over,” and it seems to have meant “the thinking one.” Inspiration, knowledge, prophecy were often associated with springs and streams, or with the spirits inhabiting them, and of these Mimir is an example, raised to a high place in Scandinavian myth. The name occurs in place-names of rivers, etc., in Germany (Mimling) and Sweden (Mimeså near the Mimessjö),
as well as in personal names, and bears witness to the widespread belief in a Water-spirit bearing this name.12
In the Thidriks-saga Mimir the smith is Siegfried’s master in smith-craft, as he is of Velint (Volund) in the Vilkina-saga, and in both he has supernatural attributes and possesses a wonderful sword. The Miming of Saxo’s Balder story, called satyrus silvarum, has also a magic sword and a magic bracelet which increases its owner’s wealth, like the ring Draupnir. The German hero-saga Biterolf speaks of Mime the old, a clever master-smith, who made the best swords that the world has ever seen.13
Saxo’s Miming, satyrus silvarum, might be a dwarf or a Wood-spirit, and the smiths who bear the name Mimir have elfin traits. Whether they are identical with the Eddic Mimir is uncertain. An elfin or dwarfish Wood-spirit, clever at smith-work, and full of wisdom, might also be connected with wells or springs, found often in forests. If they are all identical, we see how, all over the Teutonic area, one out of the host of spirits of the woods and waters rose to pre-eminence. Mimir as a Water-spirit was known in late Swedish folk-lore, haunting the Mimeså.14
In Snorri’s list of giants, Mimir is given as a giant’s name, though the notices of him do not suggest a giant personality. But if the son of Bolthorn, who gave Odin nine mighty songs, was Mimir, then he was at least a giant’s son. Mimir would then be the brother of Bestla, Odin’s mother.15