The story about The Mead of Poetry follows the end of the Aesir-Vanir war. When the gods agreed upon peace they all spat into a jar in a manner common to the vikings. Rather than throwing out the spittle the gods created a man out of it whom they called Kvasir. Having been created in such a fashion Kvasir had gained both great knowledge and an even greater mastery of poetry.
His abilities were such that he could answer any question he was asked. Being so eloquent with words he also became the world’s first poet and was the first to create the traditional Norse songs called skalds.
With these great gifts of wisdom and creativity, Kvasir was soon envied by many and for that, he had to pay the ultimate price. As in so many stories of the Norse gods, this one also is about creation, envy, murder, and battle. In the end, Odin literally swooped in and liberated the mead of poetry from the arch enemies of the Aesir, a band of giants.
How it all came to be follows in this great story.
Kvasir spread wisdom and joy among men
Once upon a time, there lived a man named Kvasir. He was so wise that no one could ask him a question to which he did not know the answer. And who was so eloquent that his words dripped from his lips like notes of music from a lute. For Kvasir was the first poet who ever lived, the first of those wise makers of songs whom the Norse folk named skalds. This Kvasir received his precious gifts wonderfully; for he was made by the Aesir and Vanir gods, those two mighty races, to celebrate the peace which was evermore to be between them.
Up and down the world Kvasir traveled, lending his wisdom to the use of men, his brothers; and wherever he went he brought smiles and joy and comfort, for with his wisdom he found the cause of all men’s troubles, and with his songs, he healed them. This is what the poets have been doing in all the ages ever since. Folk declare that every skald has a drop of Kvasir’s blood in him. This is the tale which is told to show how it happened that Kvasir’s blessed skill has never been lost to the world.
Two envious dwarfs
There were two wicked dwarfs named Fjalar and Galar who envied Kvasir his power over the hearts of men, and who plotted to destroy him. So one day they invited him to dine, and while he was there, they begged him to come aside with them, for they had a very secret question to ask, which only he could answer. Kvasir never refused to turn his wisdom to another’s help; so, nothing suspecting, he went with them to hear their trouble.
Thereupon this sly pair of wicked dwarfs led him into a lonely corner. Treacherously they slew Kvasir; and because their cunning taught them that his blood must be precious, they saved it in three huge kettles, and mixing it with honey, made thereof a magic drink. Truly, a magic drink it was; for whoever tasted of Kvasir’s blood was straightway filled with Kvasir’s spirit, so that his heart taught wisdom and his lips uttered the sweetest poesy. Thus the wicked dwarfs became possessed of a wonderful treasure.
Kvasir is missed by the gods
When the gods missed the silver voice of Kvasir echoing up from the world below, they were alarmed, for Kvasir was very dear to them. They inquired what had become of him, and finally, the wily dwarfs answered that the good poet had been drowned in his own wisdom. But Father Odin, who had tasted another wise draught from Mimer’s well, knew that this was not the truth, and kept his watchful eye upon the dark doings of Fjalar and Galar.
Not long after this, the dwarfs committed another wicked deed. They invited the giant Gilling to row out to sea with them, and when they were a long distance from shore, the wicked fellows upset the boat and drowned the giant, who could not swim. They rowed back to land and told the giant’s wife how the “accident” had happened. Then there were giant shrieks and howls enough to deafen all the world, for the poor giantess was heartbroken, and her grief was a giant grief. Her sobs annoyed the cruel-hearted dwarfs. So Fjalar, pretending to sympathize, offered to take her where she could look upon the spot where her dear husband had last been seen. As she passed through the gateway, the other dwarf, to whom his brother had made a sign, let a huge millstone fall upon her head. That was the ending of her, and of her sorrow, which had so disturbed the little people, crooked in heart as in body.
The revenge of Suttung
Punishment was in store for them. Suttung, the huge son of Gilling, learned the story of his parent’s death, and in a dreadful rage, he came roaring to the home of the dwarfs. He seized one of them in each big fist and wading far out to sea, set the wretched little fellows on a rock which at high tide would be covered with water.
“Stay there,” he cried, “and drown as my father drowned!” The dwarfs screamed thereat for mercy so loudly that he had to listen before he went away.
“Only let us off, Suttung,” they begged, “and you shall have the precious mead made from Kvasir’s blood.”
Now Suttung was very anxious to own this same mead, so at last, he agreed to the bargain. He carried them back to land, and they gave him the kettles in which they had mixed the magic fluid. Suttung took them away to his cave in the mountains and left his fair daughter Gunnlöd in charge of them. All day and all night she watched by the precious kettles, to see that no one came to steal or taste of the mead; for Suttung thought of it as his greatest treasure and no wonder.
Odin the Allfather had seen all these deeds from his seat above the heavens, and his eye had followed longingly the passage of the wondrous mead, for Odin longed to have a draught of it. Odin had wisdom, he had drained that draught from the bottom of Mimer’s mystic fountain, but he lacked the skill of speech that comes from drinking Kvasir’s blood. He wanted the mead for himself and for his children in Asgard, and it seemed a shame that this precious treasure should be wasted upon the wicked giants who were their enemies.
Odin steps in
One day Odin put on his favorite disguise as a wandering old man and set out for Giant Land, where Suttung dwelt. By and by he came to a field where nine workmen were cutting hay. Now, these were the servants of Baugi, the brother of Suttung, and this Odin knew. He walked up to the men and watched them working for a little while.
“Ho!” he exclaimed at last, “your scythes are dull. Shall I sharpen them for you?” The men were glad enough to accept his offer, so Odin took a whetstone from his pocket and sharpened all the scythes most wonderfully. Then the men wanted to buy the stone; each man would have it for his own, and they started quarreling over it. To make matters more exciting, Odin tossed the whetstone into their midst, saying:
“Let him have it who catches it!” Then indeed there was trouble! The men fought with one another for the stone, slashing right and left with their sharp scythes until everyone was killed. Odin hastened away and went up to the house where Baugi lived. Presently home came Baugi, complaining loudly and bitterly because his quarrelsome servants had killed one another so that in the end there was no one left to do his work.
The work of nine men
“What am I going to do?” he cried. “Here it is mowing time, and I have not a single man to help me in the field!”
Then Odin spoke up. “I will help you,” he said. “I am a stout fellow, and I can do the work of nine men if I am paid the price I ask.”
“What is the price which you ask?” queried Baugi eagerly, for he saw that this stranger was a mighty man, and he thought that perhaps he could do as he boasted.
“I ask that you get me a drink of Suttung’s mead,” Odin answered.
Then Baugi eyed him sharply. “You are one of the gods,” he said, “or you would not know about the precious mead. Therefore I know that you can do my work, the work of nine men. I cannot give you the mead. It is my brother’s, and he is very jealous of it, for he wishes it all himself. But if you will work for me all the summer, when winter comes I will go with you to Suttung’s home and try what I can do to get a draught for you.”
Odin demands payment
So they made the bargain, and all summer Father Odin worked in the fields of Baugi, doing the work of nine men. When the winter came, he demanded his pay. So then they set out for Suttung’s home, which was a cave deep down in the mountains, where it seems not hard to hide one’s treasures. First Baugi went to his brother and told him of the agreement between him and the stranger, begging for a gift of the magic mead wherewith to pay the stout laborer who had done the work of nine. But Suttung refused to spare even a taste of the precious liquor.
“This laborer of yours is one of the gods, our enemies,” he said. “Indeed, I will not give him a taste of the precious mead. What are you thinking of, brother!” Then he talked to Baugi till the giant was ready to forget his promise to Odin, and to desire only the death of the stranger who had come forward to help him.
Baugi returned to Odin with the news that the mead was not to be had with Suttung’s consent. “Then we must get it without his consent,” declared Odin. “We must use our wits to steal it from under his nose. You must help me, Baugi, for you have promised.”
Baugi bores into the mountain
Baugi agreed to this, but in his heart, he meant to entrap Odin to his death. Odin now took from his pocket an auger such as the one used to bore holes. “Look, now,” he said. “You shall bore a hole into the roof of Suttung’s cave, and when the hole is large enough, I will crawl through and get the mead.”
“Very well,” nodded Baugi, and he began to bore into the mountain with all his might and main. At last, he cried, “There, it is done; the mountain is pierced through!” But when Odin blew into the hole to see whether it did indeed go through into the cave, the dust made by the auger flew into his face. Thus he knew that Baugi was deceiving him, and thenceforth he was on his guard, which was fortunate.
“Try again,” said Odin sternly. “Bore a little deeper, friend Baugi.” So Baugi went to work once more, and this time when he said the hole was finished, Odin found that his word was true, for the dust blew through the hole and disappeared in the cave. Now Odin was ready to try the plan which he had been forming.
Odin the shapeshifter
Odin’s wisdom taught him many tricks, and among them, he knew the secret of changing his form into that of any creature he chose. He turned himself into a worm, a long, slender, wiggly worm, just small enough to be able to enter the hole that Baugi had pierced. In a moment he had thrust his head into the opening and was wriggling out of sight before Baugi had even guessed what he meant to do. Baugi jumped forward and made a stab at him with the pointed auger, but it was too late. The worm’s striped tail quivered out of sight, and Baugi’s wicked attempt was spoiled.
When Odin had crept through the hole, he found himself in a dark, damp cavern, where at first he could see nothing. He changed himself back into his own noble form, and then he began to hunt for the kettles of magic mead. Presently he came to a little chamber, carefully hidden in a secret corner of this secret grotto,—a chamber locked and barred and bolted on the inside so that no one could enter by the door. Suttung had never thought of such a thing as that a stranger might enter through a hole in the roof!
Gunnlöd guardian of the mead
At the back of this tiny room, three kettles stood on the floor. Beside the kettles, with her head resting on her elbow, sat a beautiful maiden, sound asleep. It was Gunnlöd, Suttung’s daughter, the guardian of the mead. Odin stepped up to her very softly, and bending over, kissed her gently upon the forehead. Gunnlöd awoke with a start, and at first, she was horrified to find a stranger in the cave where it seemed impossible that a stranger could enter. But when she saw the beauty of Odin’s face and the kind look of his eye, she was no longer afraid, but glad that he had come. For poor Gunnlöd often grew lonesome in this gloomy cellar-home, where Suttung kept her prisoner day and night to watch over the three kettles.
“Dear maiden,” said Odin, “I have come a long, long distance to see you. Will you not welcome me to stay a little while?”
Gunnlöd looked at him kindly. “Who are you, and why have you come so far to see me?” she asked.
“I am Odin, from Asgard. The way is long and I am thirsty. Can I not taste the mead that you have there?”
Gunnlöd hesitated. “My father told me to never let a soul taste the mead,” she said “I am sorry for you, however, poor fellow. You look very tired and thirsty. You may have one little sip.” Then Odin kissed her and thanked her, and tarried there with such pleasant words for the maiden that before he was ready to go she granted him what he asked, three draughts, only three draughts of the mead.
Three draughts of mead
Now Odin took up the first kettle to drink, and with one draught he drained the whole. He did the same by the next, and the next, till before she knew it, Gunnlöd found herself guarding three empty kettles. Odin had gained what he came for, and it was time for him to be gone before Suttung would come to seek him in the cave. He kissed fair Gunnlöd once again, with a sigh to think that he must treat her so unfairly. Then he changed himself into an eagle, and away he flew to carry the precious mead home to Asgard.
Meanwhile, Baugi had told the giant Suttung how Odin the worm had pierced through into his treasure-cave; and when Suttung, who was watching, saw the great eagle fly forth, he guessed who this eagle must be. Suttung also put on an eagle’s plumage, and a wonderful chase began. Whirr, whirr! The two enormous birds winged their way toward Asgard, Suttung close upon the other’s flight. Over the mountains, they flew, and the world was darkened as if by the passage of heavy storm clouds, while the trees, blown by the breeze from their wings, swayed, and bent almost to the ground.
Eagles flight to Asgard
It was a close race; but Odin was the swifter of the two, and at last, he had the mead safe in Asgard, where the gods were waiting with huge dishes to receive it from his mouth. Suttung was so close upon him, however, that he jostled Odin even as he was filling the last dish, and some of the mead was spilled about in every direction over the world. Men rushed from far and near to taste of these wasted drops of Kvasir’s blood, and many had just enough to make them dizzy, but not enough to make them wise. These people are the poor poets, the makers of bad verses, whom one finds to this day satisfied with their meager, stolen portion, scattered drops of the sacred draught.
The mead that Odin had captured he gave to the gods, a wondrous gift; and they, in turn, cherished it as their most precious treasure. It was given into the special charge of old Bragi of the white beard because his taste of the magic mead had made him wise and eloquent above all others. He was the sweetest singer of all the Æsir, and his speech was poetry. Sometimes Bragi gave a draught of Kvasir’s blood to some favored mortal, and then he also became a great poet. He did not do this often,—only once or twice in the memory of an old man; for the precious mead must be made to last a long, long time, until the world is ready to drop to pieces because this world without its poets would be too dreadful a place to imagine.