The Mead of Poetry and Regeneration — a story from the Prose Edda

Magical regenerating, inspiring and intoxicating drinks

The myth of the mead of poetry is found in most detail in Snorri Sturlason's Edda (Skáldskaparmál 1), as told here below. There is a slightly different account given in the poem Hávamál. Scaldic poetry of the last part of the pagan period contains many references to this myth in the form of kennings. For example, referring to the mead as "Kvasir's blood" or as "Oðinn's theft". As the guardian of the mead of poetry, Oðinn can be regarded as the god of poetry. Therefore it is not surprising that poets often wrote (or sang) about Oðinn or that they referred to the poet-inspiring mead that the god had stolen.

There are interesting points of contact between this Norse myth and the story told in the Rig Veda about the origins of the intoxicating drink "soma". For example: in the Norse myth, Oðinn escaped with the mead by changing into the shape of an eagle; in the Indian story, an eagle helped Indra to steal the soma. This suggests that there might have been a common source of these stories in older Indo-Germanic traditions concerning a precious drink that had been obtained from the Other World.

The text — from the Prose Edda

At  the end of the war between the Æsir and the Vanir, all of the gods and goddesses sealed their truce by spitting into a great jar. Rather than letting this spittle be wasted, the gods decided to fashion a man from the spittle. His name was Kvasir, and he was so steeped in the knowledge of the nine worlds that he became renowned for his ability to answer people's questions. 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, Fjalar and Galar, they called him to a private discussion with them and killed him. They poured his blood into two vats and a pot [or cauldron]; the latter was called Oðrerir, but the vats were called Son and Boðn. They mixed honey with the blood and it turned into the mead, whoever drinks from which becomes a poet or a scholar. The dwarfs told the Æsir that Kvasir had suffocated in intelligence because there was no one there educated enough to be able to ask him questions.

The dwarves then invited a giant called Gilling and his wife to their home. They asked him to go rowing on the sea with them and after they were far out to sea they upset the boat. Gilling was unable to swim and was drowned while the dwarves righted the boat and rowed home. They told Gilling's wife of the accident and she became very upset and began weeping. Fjalar asked her if she would be comforted by looking out to sea in the direction of where Gilling had been drowned. She wanted to do this and Fjalar then told Galar to climb above the door and drop a stone onto her and thus end her wailing. When Gilling's son Suttung learned of what had occurred he went to the dwarves, seized them and put them on a skerry covered by the tide. The dwarves begged Suttung for their lives and offered them the mead as compensation for his father. Suttung took the mead home and set his daughter Gunnlöð as its guardian.

Oðinn left Asgard one day and happened upon nine serfs mowing hay. He offered to sharpen their scythes and they agreed. Oðinn took a hone and edged their tools and the serfs thought the tools cut much better and wanted to buy the hone. Oðinn said the one who bought it should pay by giving a banquet. The serfs replied they were all willing to do this and asked him to hand over the hone. Oðinn threw the hone into the air and in their efforts to catch it the serfs killed one another.

Oðinn sought lodging that night with the giant Baugi, Suttung's brother. Baugi said things were not going well for him since he had found nine of his serfs killed and had no hope fo finding other labourers. Oðinn, using the name Bölverk, offered to do the work of nine men for the rest of the season in exchange for one drink of Suttung's mead. Baugi said he had nothing to do with Suttung's mead, but he would go along with Bölverk to try to obtain the mead.

At  the end of the summer Bölverk presented himself to his master and asked for his reward. Bölverk and Baugi went to Suttung and Baugi explained the bargain he had struck with Bölverk. Suttung refused to allow a single drop of the mead to leave his control. Bölverk told Baugi they would have to obtain the mead through guile and trickery. Together Baugi and Bölverk went to the mountain where Gunnlöð dwelt. Bölverk brought out the drill called Rati and bid Baugi bore through the mountain. Baugi bored through the stone and told Bölverk he was done. Bölverk blew into the hole and chips flew into his face. Bölverk realized Baugi was trying to cheat him. He told Baugi to continue to bore until he was through the mountain. Baugi bored again and when he stopped Bölverk blew into the hole and the chips were blown right through. Bölverk then changed himself into a serpent and crawled through the hole left by the drill. Baugi stabbed at him with the drill but missed.

After entering the mountain Oðinn resumed his normal form and spent three nights with Gunnlöð in exchange for three drinks of the mead. With his first drink he drank up all that was in Oðrerir, with his second, Boðn, and all of Son with his third. Having gained all of the mead Oðinn then donned his eagle plumes and flew for Asgard. While still far from Asgard, Oðinn realized he was being pursued. Having seen the eagle depart the mountain Suttung also changed into eagle shape and set off in pursuit. Realizing he might be caught, Oðinn flew faster and faster while the Æsir prepared vessels to receive the mead. Seeing the eagle pursuing Oðinn, the Æsir gathered combustible material and piled it inside the walls of Asgard. As Oðinn cleared the walls, the materials were set on fire and the flames reached up and singed the wings of Suttung causing him to fall into the fire where he burned to death.

Oðinn flew to the vessels that had been prepared and spat the mead into the crocks with such force and urgency that a few drops of the mead fell and this became the poetasters' share. Anyone tasting this mead would gain the ability to compose world-renowned poetry.