The Mead of Poetry

Odin in eagle form obtaining the mead of poetry from Gunnlod, with Suttung in the background (detail of the Stora Hammars III runestone, c. 700 CE)

This article is divided into three parts. The first section recounts the tale of Odin’s theft of the mead of poetry (Old Norse Óðrœrir, “Stirrer of Inspiration“). The second and third sections explore what this tale shows us about the pre-Christian worldview of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, and compares these aspects of their worldview with the dominant worldview of modern society.

The Mead of Poetry

At the conclusion of the Aesir-Vanir War, the Aesir and Vanir gods and goddesses sealed their truce by spitting into a great vat. From their spittle they formed a being whom they named Kvasir (“Fermented Berry Juice”[1]). Kvasir was the wisest human that had ever lived; none were able to present him with a question for which he didn’t have a satisfying answer. He became famous and traveled throughout the world giving counsel.

Kvasir was invited to the home of two dwarves, Fjalar (“Deceiver”[2]) and Galar (“Screamer”[3]). Upon his arrival, the dwarves slew Kvasir and brewed mead with his blood. This mead contained Kvasir’s ability to dispense wisdom, and was appropriately named Óðrœrir (“Stirrer of Inspiration”). Any who drank of it would become a poet or a scholar.

When the gods questioned them about Kvasir’s disappearance, Fjalar and Galar told them that Kvasir had choked on his wisdom.

The two dwarves apparently delighted in murder. Soon after this incident, they took the giant Gilling out to sea and drowned him for sport. The sounds of Gilling’s weeping wife irritated them, so they killed her as well, this time by dropping a millstone on her head as she passed under the doorway of their house.

But this last mischief got the dwarves into trouble. When Gilling’s son, Suttung (“Heavy with Drink”[4]), learned of his father’s murder, he seized the dwarves and, at low tide, carried them out to a reef that would soon be covered by the waves. The dwarves pleaded for their lives, and Suttung granted their request only when they agreed to give him the mead they had brewed with Kvasir’s blood. Suttung hid the vats of mead in a chamber beneath the mountain Hnitbjorg (“Pulsing Rock”[5]), where he appointed his daughter Gunnlod (“Invitation to Battle”[6]) to watch over them.

Now Odin, the chief of the gods, who is restless and unstoppable in his pursuit of wisdom, was displeased with the precious mead’s being hoarded away beneath a mountain. He bent his will toward acquiring it for himself and those he deemed worthy of its powers.

Disguised as a wandering farmhand, Odin went to the farm of Suttung’s brother, Baugi. There he found nine servants mowing hay. He approached them, took out a whetstone from under his cloak, and offered to sharpen their scythes. They eagerly agreed, and afterwards marveled at how well their scythes cut the hay. They all declared this to be the finest whetstone they had ever seen, and each asked to purchase it. Odin consented to sell it, “but,” he warned them, “you must pay a high price.” He then threw the stone into the air, and, in their scramble to catch it, the nine killed each other with their scythes.

Odin then went to Baugi’s door and introducted himself as “Bölverkr” (“Worker of Misfortune”). He offered to do the work of the nine servants who had, as he told it, so basely killed each other in a dispute in the field earlier that day. As his reward, he demanded a sip of Suttung’s mead.

Baugi responded that he had no control of the mead and that Suttung guarded it jealously, but that if Bölverkr could truly perform the work of nine men, he would help the apparent farmhand to obtain his desire.

At the end of the growing season, Odin had fulfilled his promise to the giant, who agreed to accompany him to Suttung to inquire about the mead. Suttung, however, angrily refused. The disguised god, reminding Baugi of their bargain, convinced the giant to aid him in gaining access to Gunnlod’s dwelling. The two went to a part of the mountain that Baugi knew to be nearest to the underground chamber. Odin took an auger out from his cloak and handed it to Baugi for hill to drill through the rock. The giant did so, and after much work announced that the hole was finished. Odin blew into the hole to verify Baugi’s claim, and when the rock-dust blew back into his face, he knew that his companion had lied to him. The suspicious god then bade the giant to finish what he had started. When Baugi proclaimed the hole to be complete for a second time, Odin once again blew into the hole. This time the debris were blown through the hole.

Odin thanked Baugi for his help, shifted his shape into that of a snake, and crawled into the hole. Baugi stabbed after him with the auger, but Odin made it through just in time.

Once inside, he assumed the form of a charming young man and made his way to where Gunnlod guarded the mead. He won her favor and secured a promise from her that, if he would sleep with her for three nights, she would grant him three sips of the mead. After the third night, Odin went to the mead, which was in three vats, and consumed the contents of each vat in a single draught.

Odin then changed his shape yet again, this time into that of an eagle, and flew off toward Asgard, the gods’ celestial stronghold, with his prize in his throat. Suttung soon discovered this trickery, took on the form of another eagle, and flew off in pursuit of Odin.

When the gods spied their leader approaching with Suttung close behind him, they set out several vessels at the rim of their fortress. Odin reached the abode of his fellow gods before Suttung could catch him, and the giant retreated in anguish. As Odin came to the containers, he regurgitated the mead into them. As he did so, however, a few drops fell from his beak to Midgard, the world of humankind, below. These drops are the source of the abilities of all bad and mediocre poets and scholars. But the true poets and scholars are those to whom Odin dispenses his mead personally and with care.[7][8]

The Origin of Truth and Knowledge

As entertaining as this tale is, it’s also extraordinarily rich in themes that reveal some of the most important differences between the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples on the one hand and the worldview of modern society on the other. The first of these differences we’ll consider has to do with where thoughts come from.

In the modern world, we take it for granted that we arrive at our beliefs through an active process over which we have total control. We call this process “reason.” But any logical proof has to start with an assumption – that is, a statement for which one can’t offer any proof, but rather simply accepts on its own merits. This is so because of the “problem” of “infinite regress:” for every statement one attempts to validate rationally, an additional statement must be added to the chain to support that first statement, a process which can only continue infinitely if the process isn’t stopped somewhere. When and why do we stop this process, then? When can we know when we’ve hit upon an idea that’s so sound that it would be superfluous to question it?

René Descartes, the seventeenth-century French philosopher who was one of the foremost prophets of the modern, rationalistic worldview, held that some truths are simply self-evident and cannot be called into question. Tellingly, the principal notion that Descartes pointed to as a self-evident truth from which other truths could be deduced was, “I think, therefore I am.”

But no truth is self-evident. If there were such a thing as a self-evident truth, everyone, everywhere, would already believe in it, and argumentation would be unnecessary.

“I think, therefore I am” rests on especially shifty ground in this regard. “I think” – how many assumptions are embedded within these two little words! For one thing, “I think” presupposes “I am,” not the other way around; in order for me to have agency in the thinking process, I must first, of course, exist. Even more importantly for our purposes here, “I think” presupposes that my thoughts come from myself and not from anyone or anywhere else. History is brimming with people who have held diametrically opposed views on the ultimate origins of thought. Take, for example, the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote, “We never come to thoughts. They come to us.”[9]

Evidently, Descartes’s “self-evident truth” is anything but.

In my opinion, Heidegger overstates his case. Some parts of the thought process we can rightly ascribe to ourselves. But his larger point, that there are parts of the thought process over which we don’t have control, mirrors the indigenous Germanic perspective on thought very nicely.

As the tale of Odin’s theft of the Mead of Poetry shows, the pre-Christian Germanic peoples held that the kinds of visionary insights that can make a person into a true poet or scholar – the kinds of insights that can form the basis of a logical proof – come from Odin.

The fact that this gift is symbolized by mead is far from random. One of the central rituals of the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples was the sumbl (Old Norse) or symbel (Old English), which was centered around the drinking of alcohol to induce a state of ecstasy. It was held that one can more readily perceive truth in this inspired state, when one finds it hard to not be utterly honest with oneself and others. In this ritual context, the drinker is closer to the gods and to the sacred realities that undergird the profane reality of everyday life than when one’s inner faculties are bound to the kind of cold, dispassionate mindsets that we in the modern world prize.[10]

Our modern preference for detached analysis is no accident, and has a traceable history of its own. Prior to roughly the fourth century BCE, the view that truth came in rare flashes of ecstatic insight (what we today might call “aha! moments”) was the norm, at least amongst the European peoples of the period, and likely across much of the rest of the world as well. This esteem for the rare and special came under heavy criticism among the Greeks, however, who linked these preferences to a hierarchical social structure that many wanted to replace with something more egalitarian and democratic. Because of this preference for the common and mundane over the elite, the Greeks – including extremely influential philosophers such as Aristotle – began to turn away from inspired thought, seeking to replace it entirely (or at least largely) with the kind of detached analysis that most people today hold to be the sole legitimate means of uncovering truth. The Greeks’ reasons for doing so weren’t really rational, but rather human.[11]

To be sure, the ancient Germanic peoples no doubt held that a more sober, analytical mode of thought had its place as well. But the thoughts that they arrived at through such means were secondary and profane, and derived from the thoughts that were given to them during fleeting moments of ecstatic insight, in much the same way as the contents of any logical proof are derived from an initial assumption that cannot itself be logically supported.

In light of the failure of the rationalistic worldview to account for the origins of the life-determining assumptions that form the basis of any and all thought, might it not be wise to concede that the heathen Germanic people were on to something?

All Knowledge is Personal Knowledge

So, in the perspective of the people who told the tale of the Mead of Poetry around their hearth-fires on long winter nights, ultimate knowledge comes from the gods and arrives in flashes of overpowering inspiration.

In the modern world, we insist on dividing thought into two black and white categories: “objective” and “subjective.” But where in this dichotomy should we place the Germanic method of acquiring insight? Nowhere, of course.

The text of the tale as it’s recorded in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda could hardly have been worded in a way that more directly dissolves the object-subject dichotomy if this had been a conscious aim of Snorri’s (which we can safely assume it wasn’t). Snorri writes that “anyone who drinks of the mead will become a poet or a scholar.” In the terms of the subject-object dichotomy, poetry is a “subjective” activity because of the creativity and imagination it involves, whereas the work of the scholar is “objective” because of the dispassionate observation and analysis that he or she brings to his or her topic. But if, as in the above tale, poetry and scholarship have the same source – namely, the inspired thought of Odin – what then?

Then the subject-object dichotomy is useless. Observation and analysis can never be truly dispassionate, and creativity and imagination have some bearing on truth (they don’t belong solely to the realm of aesthetics or fantasy).

How, in this perspective, should we characterize knowledge? Rather than being “objective” or “subjective,” knowledge is personal – that is, all knowledge is held by someone with a particular perspective on reality, whose knowledge comes from someone in particular, and this knowledge is inevitably a knowledge of something to which the giver and the receiver of the knowledge stand in a particular relation. In other words, knowledge and truth are attributes of our relationships rather than things that just “are.” As our relationships with those around us – our fellow humans, gods, animals, trees, grasses, rivers, mountains, stars, clouds, winds (all of which are perceived to have personalities in the animistic Germanic worldview) – change, truth and knowledge change as well.

Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that different people hold such different views on what constitutes reality, since their relationships with those around them are different. Whether an idea is right or wrong can be judged only with reference to a particular matrix of interpersonal relationships, not by any absolute, impersonal, static – “objective” – standard.

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[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 184.

[2] Ibid. p. 84.

[3] Ibid. p. 97.

[4] Ibid. p. 304.

[5] Ibid. p. 154.

[6] Ibid. p. 124-125.

[7] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 104-110.

[8] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skálskaparmál.

[9] Heidegger, Martin. 1971. Poetry, Language, Thought. Edited and translated by Albert Hofstadter. p. 6.

[10] Bauschatz, Paul C. 1978. The Germanic Ritual Feast. In The Nordic Languages and Modern Linguistics 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, University of Texas at Austin, April 5-9, 1976. Edited by John Weinstock.

[11] Hatab, Lawrence J. 1990. Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths.

[12] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 5. The original Old Norse text reads, “hverr, er af drekkr, verðr skáld eða fræðamaðr.”

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