Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry in Norse Mythology
For the ancient Vikings, poetry was a way to tell the stories of their gods, their religion, their heroes and villains. Works that have survived centuries are told with such eloquence; it would only be fitting that they had a story to explain their origin. Although there are several versions, they are always centered on a character of unique talents, named Kvasir.
As the exceptionally wise creator of poetry, Kvasir may have been considered a god, or at the very least, “of the gods”. His words gave him the ability to warm even the coldest of hearts, and his intrinsic knowledge would have certainly impressed the greatest of scholars. However, his story was not one of grand victories, spectacular works of literature, or philosophical revelations; instead, his story was rather short-lived.
The Whimsical Creation of Kvasir
Kvasir is briefly mentioned in various Norse texts and verses; the majority of information shared on him is found within the 13th century book, Prose Edda . This remarkable text by Snorri Sturluson is considered by scholars to be one of the most comprehensive sources on Norse myths. Within the Prose Edda , in the Skaldskaparmal, the story of Kvasir is told. The tale begins when Aegir, a sea giant who hosted many parties for the gods, asked Bragi about the origin of poetry. As Bragi was the official god of poetry, it was right that he told the story of Kvasir, and that story was triggered by a war of gods.
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Odin in eagle form (note the beard) obtaining the mead of poetry from Gunnlod, with Suttung in the background (detail of the Stora Hammars III runestone, c. 700 AD). (Harald Faith-Ell / Public Domain )
There were a few distinct families of gods, two of those being the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir were the wise and powerful warrior gods. As gods of war and conquest, they had impressive weapons and a few tricks up their sleeve. Gods like Odin, Frigg, Thor, and Loki were among the Aesir family. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Vanir were gods of a slightly more peaceful nature. They were gods of fertility, navigation, and agriculture, associated with exploration and abundance. Gods like Freya, Freyr, and their father, Njord were part of this family.
As with any group of opposing gods, war was inevitable. In some versions, the war between the Aesir and the Vanir began with the goddess Freya. She was a goddess with many magical abilities, a practitioner of seidr. This form of magic was extremely powerful and could change the course of fate. With this magic, Freya decided to travel the land and offer her services to paying clients. Soon enough, she made her way to Asgard, and the Aesir were immediately taken by her magic. However, this did not last long, as resentment for her magic began to boil over. They tried to kill her several times, but she always came back. In other versions, Freya is not mentioned and the magical woman responsible is simply referred to a Gullveig or Heid (“the gleaming one”).
This event led to a very long and tumultuous war. The Aesir fought with their warrior strength and the Vanir fought with their magic. Each made advances only to later fall back. It was a stalemate with no clear winner. Becoming rather bored with the toils of war, they decided to declare a truce. They negotiated over the rainbow bridge in Asgard, and each chose to exchange gods as an act of peace and respect. Some say that Kvasir was part of the group of Vanir to stay in Asgard, while others say he was created in a more whimsical way.
In this version, the gods negotiated over a spectacular feast in which delicious foods were consumed, and drinks were plentiful. They joked, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company for many hours. It seemed a true display of unity after long years of feuding. Finally, the evening had been exhausted, and it was time for the remaining Vanir to retire. On their way out a formidable symbol of unity was noticed - a spitting vat shared by both Vanir and Aesir. Freya took this as an invitation to utilize her magical abilities. She extended her hand deep within the vat and conjured up a human. Suddenly, before the gods stood a full-grown man, born from two once-opposing realms. Odin gave him his name: Kvasir. He was the best of both; he had the strong mind of a wise warrior and the kind heart of a curious explorer. He was Kvasir, the wisest, whose words were the most beautiful anyone had ever heard.
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"The Æsir Against the Vanir" (1882) by Karl Ehrenberg. ( Public Domain )
Kvasir’s Fateful Journey to see the World
As time went on, Kvasir grew restless in Asgard; he longed for something more. He wanted to explore the world and help people in ways only he could. So, Kvasir left the home of the gods and decided to travel throughout the land where mortals lived. He visited each town he came across and gave them helpful advice to further the development of mankind. He answered all questions posed to him, none too difficult. People gathered from all walks of life and listened to him speak; he was embraced and celebrated. Everywhere he went, people loved him. It seemed that Kvasir was accomplishing a lot of good, fulfilling his goal of changing the world for the better, but some became deeply jealous of his talents.
Eventually, Kvasir arrived in a town that appeared like any other. However, this town was different; clever dwarves lived on its outskirts, named Fjalar and Galar. Dwarves were known for their cleverness and resourcefulness; after all, they were the ones who had created the most precious gifts the gods had. Dwarves were also known to be tricksters and thieves, and indeed, Fjalar and Galar devised a deceptive plan. They desired the knowledge and beautiful words that Kvasir possessed. Accordingly, they made their way up to the town and found their target in a hall advising the people and answering their many questions. Upon approaching him, they piqued his curiosity by claiming they had a question so profound that not even he may be able to answer it, a question never asked by anyone. They required him to follow them to their home and workshop within a cave by a great body of water. Kvasir agreed and the dwarves escorted him away.
When Kvasir reached the dwarves’ home, they certainly had no such question for him. Kvasir was extremely observant; he instantly spotted and remarked on the curious vats, kettle, and honey that sat in their workshop. Fjalar and Galar teased him for asking what these objects were and for what purpose. They claimed that he should know the purpose all things serve, considering his vast intelligence. So, Kvasir made a rather bold statement and detailed how a person could use the vats, kettle, and honey to make a tasty mead from the blood of an unsuspecting victim. Well, this is exactly what the dwarves intended to do. They cut his throat and hung him over the vats, draining all the blood from his lifeless body. They brewed his blood in the kettle with honey and stored the magic mead within these containers.
Slaying of Kvasir, Die Edda by Franz Stassen ( Public Domain )
There are slightly different versions of Kvasir’s murder. One story claims that the dwarves attacked him while he rested. They did not invite him to their workshop, but rather, found him in a vulnerable state and killed him in a cowardly manner. Another version suggests that the dwarves invited him over for a delightful meal at a beautifully crafted golden table. They later lured him into a dark room and viciously stabbed him to death. Regardless of how the murder took place, the result is the same. The dwarves created a mead so powerful that anyone who tasted it upon their lips would instantly have the gift of infinite wisdom and poetic words.
From then on, the magic mead was referred to as “the mead of poetry”. The dwarves held onto this mead, keeping it securely hidden. By this time, the gods had heard of Kvasir’s disappearance and rumors of dwarf involvement and decided to pay the dwarves a visit. The dwarves persisted in their devious ways and told the gods that Kvasir’s great intelligence resulted in him choking to death on his own words in the presence of their “feeble” minds. The gods retrieved his body, seemingly unaware of the mead recently produced.
Fjalar and Galar were not done with their killing spree; they went on to murder two giants, Gilling and his wife. The more widely known versions say that they tricked Gilling into going fishing, and ultimately caused him to drown, and then pushed a giant boulder onto his wife’s head. This news traveled fast to their son, Suttung, and he hastily made his way to the dwarves’ home.
Suttung proceeded to place them on rocks about to be submerged beneath waves, until they confessed their wrongdoings. Panicked, the dwarves struck a deal and gave the giant all the mead of poetry. The precious mead was then stored among the land of the giants in Jotunheim, within a massive mountain called Hnitbjorg. Locked away for no one to taste, the giant kept it safe with his daughter, Gunnlod.
Giant Suttung and the dwarves, in The Heroes of Asgard, 1891 ( Public Domain )
Odin’s Quest to Acquire the Mead of Poetry
Odin’s trusty ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who sat on his shoulders would often venture out to surveil the world. They would return to Odin’s shoulders to whisper in his ear what they had found. Thanks to the Fjalar and Galar’s excessive gossiping, Odin found out about the magic mead and who it now belonged to. He set out on a quest, one that he knew would take a lot of effort and time, to retrieve the mead that rightfully belonged to him. He journeyed to Jotunheim and took a sharpening tool and a drill with him.
Odin could not approach Suttung on his own, as that was too risky; so, he decided to try his luck with Suttung’s brother, Baugi. First, he found his slaves, working the fields with scythes. He offered to sharpen their scythes with his tool, which they accepted without hesitation. This caused the slaves to want his sharpening tool for themselves, as Odin had predicted. He told them to gather close and that the person who could catch it, could have it. He threw the tool, and the slaves, who had forgotten to put down their scythes, franticly swung about in an effort to catch it. None were left alive when it was all over.
Now that Baugi had no slaves to tend the fields, Odin, under another name as to not give himself away, offered himself alone to do the job in exchange for a single sip of his brother’s mead. He worked tirelessly for an entire summer, completing the jobs of nine slaves and then some. The giant’s trust had finally been gained, and it was time for him to make his move. Baugi had gone to see Suttung to give his companion the sip that he had worked so hard for, but Suttung refused. Odin knew Baugi would be frustrated by this and convinced him to play a trick on his brother. They went to the mountain, and Baugi pierced a hole into the giant rock with Odin’s drill. When the hole was complete, Odin transformed into a snake and slithered down. Realizing what he had done, Baugi tried to stop him, but was unsuccessful.
Odin spent several days and nights in the mountain, seducing Gunnlod and begging her for just a sip of the precious mead. She was hesitant at first, but eventually succumbed to his advances and let him try a taste. She unlocked the cage where the mead sat protected and let Odin inside. He quicky gulped the entirety of the mead into his mouth and escaped, trapping her in the cage behind him.
Once Odin reached the crisp mountain air outside, he turned himself into an eagle and flew away. On his tail, and also in the form of an eagle, was Suttung, angry and determined to get the mead back.
Odin in the shape of an eagle flies away from Gunnlod, 1908. Source: Public Domain
They both flew at great speeds to Asgard where the other gods awaited Odin’s arrival. They created a fire trap and prepared vats for Odin to regurgitate the mead into. He flew over the trap just in time for the gods to set it afire, and Suttung died among the flames. The magic mead of poetry was now Odin’s gift, a gift he would not be so selfish to keep.
A Fitting End to a Tragic Tale
Although the death of Kvasir was rather tragic and maybe a bit unexpected, it may not have been the end of his story. Like many of the gods, death was not necessarily forever; certain tales say that Kvasir was brought back to life. However, things were not the same for him; he did not continue to travel the world or give humanity a helping hand. He seemingly faded into the background, with only one last mention of him given. In the Gylfaginning (Prose Edda) , the gods traveled to Loki’s home after his tricks had gone too far, and he was held responsible for the beautiful Baldr’s murder and failed resurrection. Kvasir played an integral role in investigating the scene at Loki’s home, and catching him hiding in the nearby waters disguised as a salmon.
No matter what remained of Kvasir, his true legacy is left behind in his generosity. He taught people how to make pure water for drinking and efficient ways to make clothing, among so many other things. He caused people to ponder and eventually come to their own conclusions on solutions to their problems. Odin bestowed the mead on his son, Bragi (god of poetry and music), and countless worthy mortals. Gifts that were meant for mankind were intended to be shared, not kept. That is what Kvasir would have wanted. Even today, his wise and inquisitive nature can still be felt in poems, books, or songs. The symbolism of his name represents the act of peacemaking through the process and consumption of light-hearted fermented beverages often practiced among many ancient societies. Perhaps, Kvasir’s story, filled with curiosity, adventure, deception and tragedy, is the perfect embodiment of his gifts to the world.
Top image: 'Odin and Gunnlöd'- illustration by Emil Doepler Younger (1855 – 1922), drinking the mead of poetry procured from Kvasir. Source: Emil Doepler the Younger/ Public Domain
By Jessica Nadeau
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