The Mead of Poetry - translated by Andreas Kornevall
The Mead of Poetry
Kvasir, the son of Gods' tears and spit, travelled into all the nine worlds and even through to the outer regions of the Giants, where he taught poetry and skill with rhetoric. He could answer every question anyone asked him. He gave instructions and was received well everywhere he went. One day, two dwarf-smiths named Fjalar and Galarr prepared a dinner for him in a golden dungeon deep in the ground where they lived. Into the stew they had thrown clusters of deadly nightshade flower petals. When Kvasir had eaten only a morsel, he instantly died. The dwarves drained all his blood into two large bronze vats, named Son and Bodn, and then proceeded to pour it all into a large kettle called Odrerir (the ecstasy-giver), where they mixed potent honey with his blood. Kvasir's bones were buried deep in the mountain and will one day be retrieved by a God.
It was known across the worlds that anyone who would ever drink of the blood of Kvasir would become a great poet and scholar, and would learn all the knowledge that the world has to offer, for in his blood was the wisdom of all. For Fjalar and Galarr however, their lot was cursed, instead insatiable madness and lust for gold was their award.
Kvasir had been deeply loved by all and his blood and tombstone belonged in the heavens of Asgard, not down and forgotten in the dungeons of greed. The giants first heard about the disappearance of Kvasir from the Spirit of the Mountain, and one giant named Gillingr and his wife went to visit both dwarves.
"I have heard that Kvasir was last seen in your abode, is this right?" Asked Gillingr as he stood before their oak doors. "He did and he was too wise for his own good." Fjalar responded. The dwarves worried about the giant's curiosity and thought they must be rid of him in case he discovered the liquid treasures. They told the giant, "we are going out fishing for our dinner, if you join us in the boat we can eat together?" Gillingr agreed to join them reluctantly, ever since the great floods in the beginning of time Giants have been weary of Ymir's blood, the ocean.
Their boat heaved in the waves and the wind lashed a grey assault onto the sullen cliffs. As they rowed further and further away from the shore, the sea started to boom in displeasure, the waves splashed on their faces. One breaking after another, their boat keeled and tilted. As Galarr took up his oar and he lifted it above his head and smacked it over Gillingr's head, surprising him from the back, the oar did not hurt his skull, instead he lost his balance and he fell into the water. The two dwarves left him to drown.
His wife, when she heard the news, uprooted boulders from her lamenting, her eyes soul-scalding, she wanted to smite anyone nearby. Fjalar and Galarr managed to hide far into the dungeon, they feared that she would suspect them. The dungeons in the mountain protected them for a time.
In their continuing madness the dwarves hid in their deepest chambers, and there they continuously added more honey and herbs to Kvasir's blood, making it more potent. The vats and the kettle hissed and cooked, spells were cast and muttered over the vat and the fire was kept white hot with their great bellows. Each time they tasted the sprite-elixir they were overcome with more cunning and more plotting - the curse of their greed drove them onwards. Until one day, the son of Gillingr arrived before their doors, but he did not knock. He tore down the granite rocks, crushing everything that stood in his way with his bare hands. He ripped apart the mountain until he found the dwarves, where he took them by their hair and walked them out to the frothy sea. After he'd put them on a cliff, Fjalar pleaded, "Don't kill us, we are working with the water of life, the mead of inspiration, that which makes us wise and gives us knowledge. Our work is not finished, please do not take our lives, I beg you, spare us. We can make a deal, if you spare our lives, you can have the mead of inspiration, the very blood of Kvasir."
To this Suttungr agreed.
The dwarves' lives ended in the cold mountains, where they suffered a lonely and painful old age, whimpering at their inevitable doom inside their silenced dungeons.
Suttungr took the vats and the kettle and brought it home, he kept it safe, deep into his hillside. His daughter Gunnlod watched over them day and night. She would sit in front of a bronze shield and comb her hair, reflecting her beauty; she was transfixed by her own allure and waited patiently for a suitor to arrive.
Odin sat on his throne and he could see into many secrets of the nine worlds and hear from his ravens about the fate of Kvasir. The blood of Kvasir belonged to the Aesir and the Vanir, Kvasir was the son of their pledges of peace, it was not right for it to be in the possession of Giants. Filled with rage, he saddled his horse. Sleipnir shot out like a hawk across the sky. Odin travelled day and night, until he arrived in the land of the Giants. Through cunning alone, he was going to take the mead of inspiration back to Valhalla, to take the blood back to those who had formed Kvasir, for the blood would nourish and give wisdom until the end of days.
Odin decided to travel to the farmstead of Suttungr's brother, Baugi. When he arrived, he came upon nine thrall giants mowing hay. The metal on their scythes had gone blunt, and they had worked for days without much progress, their brows sweating under a fierce sun. The Terrible One approached them and asked them if they wanted their scythes to be sharpened. They said yes, and from his belt he took out a whetstone and started to sharpen the scythes, they cut the grass and the work took seconds rather than hours to complete. They asked to buy the whetstone from him, but Odin quoted it as priceless. So they demanded it from him, ready to pay the price. Then instead of selling it to them, he cast the whetstone high up in the air and as it dropped, all of them followed its fall into the long grass. As it lay there, they all ran for it, and when they tried to grasp it some of them were pushed to the side, others were cut by someone's scythe, and their greed turned to violence. They started to strike each other with their sharp scythes, one cut at first, then a second, which drew blood, but when a third cut out a crimson fountain, the fight turned into a frenzy, with terrible screeching from the blades and a flurry of activity as seabirds fighting for a morsel of meat. Before long, there was no single winner, for all of them had fallen before the newly-sharpened blades of the deadly scythes.
When Baugi found them he could see that they had all killed each other. He grieved over his condition and the fate of his thralls, as he would have no chance of finding other workmen and thus the wheat would remain in the fields. As he was lamenting the fate of his farm, Odin approached him and introduced himself as Bolverkr. He said he would work and harvest the wheat, save the farm, and do the same work as nine giant thralls. "What price do you demand for such an undertaking?" asked Baugi. Odin replied, "Just one drink of Suttungr’s Mead from the mountain.” Baugi laughed, "You are asking two impossible tasks, nobody can access the chamber in the mountain, and there is no God or Giant alive who alone can harvest the large golden fields of Jotunhem.", Baugi turned his back and started to walk away, "Are you not willing to give me a chance?" Baugi turned around and offered him his scythe, "If you can cut this field of hay in one day, then I will believe you."
Bolverk sharpened his scythe and started to cut the hay, he quickly completed the entire stretch of the field, a job which should have taken days he did in an instant. He was taken on as a labourer, and over the late Summer and Autumn all the work was done with the utmost speed and quality, and so the farm thrived.
By the end of the autumn period when all the harvest and work had been completed, Bolverk asked Braugi about their deal and whether he could now have one sip of the mead held by his brother Suttung. Braugi told him that they would go together the next morning and seek out his brother under the mountain and ask him for a drop of the mead. The journey was long, away from the grasslands and up and across Giant territories which were covered with silent sky-spearing mountains that loomed over them as they walked.
Then in the distance they saw Suttung's mountain. There a cunning mist had started to girdle around its crown. As they approached they could make out a large black hole: the entrance to Suttung’s halls. Standing in front of his entrance, Braugi bellowed for his brother, causing freezing white boulders to surge and crumble down the mountain side. A moment passed and Suttung stood in front of his entrance.
"Dear brother, I made a bargain with this man called Bolverk to have a sip of the mead, if he could harvest the fields with the strength of nine giant thralls, this he did. He has helped the farm, so can he receive just one sip?"
Suttung thundered, "NO! The mead is not to be touched by man, Giants, Elves or Gods. It belongs to our family only, the answer is no! Get on your way, and do not waste my time by coming here as beggars." He walked back into the dark cave.
Braugi was uncomfortable with how he had fallen short in his promise to offer a drop of mead. Bolverk asked if he was prepared to try a more scheming way of getting the mead, and Braugi agreed.
They walked and clutched at the elbow of the mountain as they made progress through the bone-white snow. Bolverk stopped and started to push the snow aside to get down to the mountain-granite, then he took a small drill called Rati. Rati could bite into anything. With that Bolverk asked Braugi to start to drill into the mountain side with all his strength. Rati bit further and deeper into the side of the mountain, "Try and blow into the hole and see if we are through yet”, said Bolverk. Braugi blew into the hole but the dust flew out to his face, meaning the mountain had not been penetrated fully. Braugi tried again with all the strength he could muster. When Bolverk asked for the third time, the dust from the granite flew inwards, which was a sign that they had reached into the mountain halls. Then Bolverk disappeared, he was gone, Braugi looked around. Then he caught only a glimpse of a glittering silver serpent that had slid into the hole of the mountain. Bolverk was not who he said he was.
Now well inside the mountain Odin slithered inside a large rough-hewn chamber. Then he wound his way toward a bronze-lit room where beautiful Gunnlod was sitting facing her bronze shields. Next to her were rippling silken tapestries woven in liquid all inside the large vats, full of colour and prismatic reflections. She was a queenly figure with crescent shaped eyebrows and blossom-pink lips. Odin transformed into a God and met her gaze, full of magnetism, wizard dust whirling around him, and he carried such strong sorcery that Gunnlod was seduced instantly. She had found her suitor, whom she had longed in the lonely tomb-silence of the mountain. For three days they lay together encased in each other's limbs. Her heart was full of joy and so she forgot her responsibilities. When Odin asked if he could quench his thirst a little from the mead in the vats, she offered him kindly to take only three small sips. Odin walked towards the soul-water and there he cupped his hands and drank every drop out of the three large vats, Odrerir, Bodn and Son. Gunnlod witnessed him standing there having just drained her father's mead.
Then his head and body transformed into a golden eagle, he uttered that their child would be the first poet in the world, Bragi. He flew out of her chamber, through the inner dungeons, and out into the polar-blue sky. When Suttung heard the scream of Gunnlod, he understood he had been robbed by a powerful sorcerer. He took himself an eagle shape and followed after Odin in the skies. For days the chase was maintained, both flew out of the lands of Giants altogether and into the realms of the Aesir.
The Gods on their ramparts could see the two eagles flying towards them, one in flight the other in a furious chase. Straight away they set out the large vats as Odin had instructed them to, awaiting their great eagle to return to Asgard. He swooped down and surged up in the wind currents. Ever present on his tail was Suttung, who could almost nip his tail feathers. Odin had but one option to shake off his pursuer. He sent some mead out from his backside which splashed horribly into the face of Suttung. Some of this mead was caught in airstreams, and drops fell into our world, forever illuminating the poetry of men. With this diversion, Odin bought a few moments to manoeuvre and he crossed safely into the realm of the Aesir.
Suttung knew the chase had ended and flew back to brood upon revenge in his silent halls.
Odin regurgitated the blood of Kvasir and offered it to the Gods; a mother eagle feeding her chicks.
This life-blood of Kvasir has since given the Gods poetry. Some rare and select cups of mead were also given to humankind, and to the moon-children, Hjuki and Bil.
Exegesis: Eagle and Serpent
This story lies at the heart of the prose Edda. My own relationship to this story has been long and difficult. I have told it under thatched roofs, in shamanic centres, in the forest and gatherings. But it has never been an easy telling nor listening. When on the tongue, the insights and images of the story catch a fire. This is a story of our time. Odin through is actions is reflecting our inner desires and longings, in fact, he brings it to us in a high-res format for us all to see. Every person who stands on the stage, whether it is in politics, religion or art, is pursuing this desire to taste the mead, with all the reckoning that it brings, and the wrath of the Giants, the primordial powers. Our science is perpetually adding new elixirs to the cauldron and the sharp scythe of capitalistic society cuts giant fields every day, fighting over the scraps of meat it brings. The whetstone itself is found sharpening every blade of the agricultural machine. When we follow the trail to the mead of poetry, our quest is no longer for Eden or for a spiritual home, but it is to seduce, to cut, to taste and to feel this divine ecstasy it brings, we hold the cup and drink it for ourselves and splutter out a quiet vision of the desire for fame.
But in this story there is not just jewellery dust, but also a hardened gem in the form of psychological integration.
We learn about Odin's underworld journey that stirs up soul-powers and breaks down barriers. He shape-shifts into a serpent in order to release the wisdom waters (Kvasir's blood) which he will bring back as a gift of inspiration to the Gods. As he travels into the mountain, he takes the shape of a serpent. The serpent depicted in many cultures carries the power to shed its skin, to transform and to unlock knowledge. In Genesis the serpent reveals to Adam and Eve their own nakedness, sexuality and with that revelation they lose their immortality, they become vulnerable. Yet, they gain the knowledge of what is good and evil. Through tasting the fruit they break out from Eden, and outside God’s gates they are moved into the world of uncertainty, suffering and conflict, they become poets. In the same way, the coiled serpent of the Indian notion of kundalini rises up the body to reveal different states of consciousness and insight into the nature of reality, whilst it passes the many energy centres named chakras. The serpent can smell with its tongue, it can hear with its skin, and is particularly sensitive to low-frequency vibrations and tremblings from inside the earth. Traditionally linked with secret, chthonic, and oracular mysteries of knowledge, the snake reveals an active penetrating energy of fertility and potency with costs attached. The skin is shed from one initiatory passage to the other. The ouroboros, which is a symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail, portrays eternity with the continual renewal of life. The tunnel Odin is drilling through is the pathway through to inner meaning, to be taken without getting stuck or lost. Much baggage, attachments, and belongings must be shed, in this tunnel you can’t bring your armour, weapons and shield, they won’t fit in this narrow space. Once through the passage, there is a sudden meeting with joy, sensuality, and beauty, the beauty the soul longs for after it has drilled through hardening stone, once our stone walls have been broken, the mask is lifted. Here we find the beloved waiting for Odin in the depths of the halls. Across all Northern mythic narrative, it's by going into the unknown, into the dark regions, where the gods are given their powers, treasures, and gifts. Our imagination is best served when entering the unknown, creative potential needs an undefined region to work within.
Once the return begins, Odin transforms into an eagle. He ascends into spirit and flies high into the world of the Gods. When you merge the serpent and the eagle, a "winged serpent" is revealed: a dragon. All across the world you can hear stories of this winged serpent: the American Indian winged rattlesnakes, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent, the Egyptian winged-snake goddess Wadjet, and the serpent-tailed creator beings in Chinese myth. When a serpent is represented as winged, the eagle is present, forming a dynamic cosmic harmony of union between spirit and matter, heaven and earth. The serpent reveals the darkest times, the most difficult challenges (the raw tempering of soul), and the eagle flies high into illumination (the ascent of spirit). It's when these two images are joined – the serpent and the eagle – that we have the alchemical birth of the dragon. Here the dragon becomes a force of psychological integration and reveals a whole person who encompasses both hell and heaven.
The dragon speaks: you live a spiritual life, because you live a human life, that's enough.
With dragon wisdom you see your own shadow as well as light. In the same way as we see this within Odin. In this way, there is no need to project a shadow onto another person, or worse, a nation or group, this is the prevalent attitude when the soul and spirit journey is not complete, nor integrated, but only focused on the Eagle wings and the blinding light. When the sun shines down on the eagle from above, the wide pinions cast shadows, the snake is alerted and slithers to its hidden nest. Each person I have ever met who declares to be close to the light casts an instant shadow behind them which they cannot see, these shadows are their projection, arrogance, hubris, quick judgements and dogmatism. The shadow self (serpent) within lies hidden, coiled and denied. To deny the shadow starts the very engine of war, spiritual or material. For this, doubt is a good companion.
In the famous Greek myth, Icarus seeks spirit too soon and his uninitiated wings melt when approaching the burning spirit of the sun. Where the serpent is banned or actively avoided, it gives rise to only a partially complete psyche. In the Mead of Poetry, we hear how both the chthonic and the light are alchemically wed and that poetry and art is the soul-water that can sustain an integrated psyche, but we also hear of the shadows at play when we pursue the elixir.