The Great Myths #41: Sacred Language & the Mead of Poetry (Norse)

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And Aegir went on: “How did this craft that you call poetry originate?”

Bragi replied: “The origin of it was that the gods had a dispute with the people called Vanir, and they appointed a peace-conference and made a truce by this procedure, that both sides went up to a vat and spat their spittle into it. But when they dispersed, the gods kept this symbol of truce and decided not to let it be wasted, and out of it made a man. His name was Kvasir, he was so wise that no one could ask him any questions to which he did not know the answer. He travelled widely through the world teaching people knowledge, and when he arrived as a guest to some dwarfs, Fialar and Galar, they called him to a private discussion with them and killed him. They poured hi blood into two vats and a pot, and the latter was called Odrerir, but the vats were called Son and Bodn. They mixed honey with the blood and it turned into the mead whoever drinks from which becomes a poet or scholar. The dwarfs told the Aesir that Kvasir had suffocated in intelligence because there was no one there educated enough to be able to ask him questions.

“Then these dwarfs invited to stay with them a giant called Gilling and his wife. Then the dwarfs invited Gilling to go out to sea in a boat with them. But as they went along the coast the dwarfs rowed on to a shoal and the boat capsized. Gilling could not swim and was drowned, but the dwarfs righted their boat and rowed to land. They told his wife what had happened and she was greatly distressed and wept loudly. Then Fialar asked her if it would be some consolation for her if she looked out to the sea where he had drowned, and she agreed. Then he told her his brother Galar that he was to go up above the doorway she was going out of and drop a millstone on her head, and declared he was weary of her howling; and Galar did so. When Gilling’s son Suttung found out about this, he went there and seized the dwarfs and took them out to sea and put them in a skerry below high-water level. They begged Suttung for quarter and offered him as atonement in compensation for his father the precious mead, and they were reconciled on these terms. Suttung took the mead home with him and put it for safe keeping in a place called Hnitbiorg, setting his daughter Gunnlod in charge of it. That is why we called poetry Kvasir’s blood or dwarfs’ drink or the contents or some term for liquid of Odrerir or Bodn or Son, or dwarfs’ transportation, because this mead brought them deliverance from the skerry, or Suttung’s mead or the liquid of Hnitbiorg.”

Then spoke Aegir: “I think it is an obscure wa to call poetry these names, but how did the Aesir get hold of Suttung’s mead?”

Bragi replied: “There is a story about it, that Odin set out from home and came to where nine slaves were mowing hay. He asked if they would like him to hone their scythes. They said yes. Then he took a whetstone from his belt and honed, and they thought the scythes were cutting very much better and asked if they could buy the whetstone. The price he set on it was that he who wished to buy must give what was reasonable for it, and they all said they wanted to and bade him sell it to them, but he threw the whetstone up in the air, and when all tried to catch it they dealt with each other in such a way that they all cut each other’s throats with the scythes. Odin sought lodging for the night with a giant called Baugi, Suttung’s brother. Baugi reckoned his economic affairs were going badly, and said his nine slaves had killed each other, and declared he did not know where he was going to get workmen from. Odin told him his name was Bolverk; he offered to take over the work of nine men for Baugi, and stipulated as his payment one drink from Suttung’s mead. Baugi said he had no say in the disposal of the mead, said that Suttung wanted to have it all to himself, but he said he would go with Bolverk and try whether they could get the mead. Bolverk did the work of nine men for Baugi during the summer, and when winter came he asked Baugi for his hire. Then they both set off. Baugi told his brother Suttung of his agreement with Bolverk, but Suttung flatly refused a single drop of the mead. Then Bolverk told Baugi that they would have to try some stratagems to see if they could get hold of the mead, and Baugi said that was a good idea. Then Bolverk got out an auger called Rati and instructed Baugi to bore a hole in the mountain, if the auger would cut. He did so. Then Baugi said that the mountain was bored through, but Bolverk blew into the auger-hole and the bits flew back at him. Then he realized that Baugi was trying to cheat him, and told him to bore through the mountain. Baugi bored again. And when Bolverk blew a second time, the bits flew inwards. Then Bolverk turned himself into the form of a snake and crawled into the auger-hole, and Baugi stabbed after him with the auger and missed him. Bolverk went to where Gunnlod was and lay with her for three nights and then she let him drink three draughts of the mead. In the first draught he drank everything out of Odrerir, and in the second out of Bodn, in the third out of Son, and then he had all the mead. Then he turned himself into the form of an eagle and flew as hard as he could. And when Suttung saw the eagle’s flight he got his own eagle shape and flew after him. And when the Aesir saw Odin flying they put their containers out in the courtyard, and when Odin came in over Asgard he spat out the mead into the container, but it was such a close thing for him that Suttung might have caught him that he sent some of the mead out backwards, and this was disregarded. Anyone took it that wanted it, and it is what we call the rhymester’s share. But Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Aesir and to those people who are skilled at composing poetry. Thus we call poetry Odin’s booty and find, and his drink and his gift and the Aesir’s drink.”

– from the “Skaldskaparmal” in the Prose Edda,
translated by Anthony Faulkes, Edda, 61-64