Myths of Northern Lands
By H. A. Guerber
The Origin of Poetry
At the time of the dispute between the Asir and Vanas, when the peace articles had all been agreed upon, a vase was brought into the assembly into which both parties solemnly spat. From this saliva the gods created Kvasir, a being renowned for his wisdom and goodness, who went about the world answering all questions asked him, thus teaching and benefiting all mankind.
Bragi is shown with a harp and accompanied by his wife Idun in this 19th century painting by Nils Blommér. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The dwarfs, hearing about Kvasir's great wisdom, coveted it, and finding him asleep one day, two of their number, Fialar and Galar, treacherously slew him, and drained every drop of his blood into three vessels - the kettle Od-hroerir (inspiration) and the bowls Son (expiation) and Boden (offering). After duly mixing this blood with honey, they manufactured from it a sort of beverage so inspiring that any one who tasted it immediately became a poet, and could sing with a charm which was certain to win all hearts.
Now, although the dwarfs had brewed this marvelous mead for their own consumption, they did not even taste it, but hid it away in a secret place, while they went out in search of further adventures. They had not gone very far ere they found the giant Gilling also sound asleep lying on a steep bank, and maliciously rolled him into the water, where he perished. Then hastening to his dwelling, some climbed on the roof, carrying a huge millstone, while the others, entering, told the giantess that her husband was dead.
This news caused the poor woman great grief; but just as she was rushing out of the house to view Gilling's remains, the wicked dwarfs rolled the millstone down upon her head, and killed her. According to another account, the dwarfs invited the giant to go fishing with them, and succeeded in slaying him by sending him out in a leaky vessel, which sank beneath his weight.
The crime thus committed did not long remain unpunished, for although Gilling's wife was dead, he had left a brother, Suttung, who determined to avenge him. Seizing the dwarfs in his mighty grasp, this giant placed them on a shoal far out at sea, where they would surely have perished at the next high tide had they not succeeded in redeeming their lives by relinquishing their recently brewed mead. As soon as Suttung set them ashore, they therefore gave him the precious compound, which he intrusted to his daughter Gunlod, bidding her guard it night and day, and allow neither gods nor mortals to have even a taste. To fulfill this command, Gunlod carried the three vessels into the hollow mountain, where she kept watch over them with the most scrupulous care, little suspecting that Odin had discovered their place of concealment, thanks to the sharp eyes of his ever-vigilant ravens Hugin and Munin.
As Odin had mastered the runic lore and had tasted the waters of Mimir's fountain, he was already the wisest of gods; but hearing of the power of the draught of inspiration manufactured out of Kvasir's blood, he became very anxious to obtain possession of it also. With this purpose in view he therefore donned his broad-brimmed hat, wrapped himself in his cloud-hued cloak, and journeyed off to Jötun-heim. On his way to the giant's dwelling he passed by a field where nine ugly thralls were busy making hay. Odin paused for a moment, watched them work, and then proposed to whet their scythes, which seemed very dull indeed - an offer which the thralls eagerly accepted.
Drawing a whetstone from his bosom, Odin proceeded to sharpen the nine scythes, skillfully giving them such a keen edge that the thralls, finding their labor much lightened, asked for his whetstone. With good-humored acquiescence, Odin tossed the whetstone over the wall; but as the nine thralls simultaneously sprang forward to catch it, they wounded one another with their keen scythes. In anger at their respective carelessness, they now began to fight, and did not pause until they were all either mortally wounded or dead.
Quite undismayed by this tragedy, Odin continued on his way, and soon came to the house of the giant Baugi, a brother of Suttung, who received him very hospitably, and in the course of the conversation informed him that he was greatly embarrassed, as it was harvest time and all his workmen had just been found dead in the hayfield.
Odin, who on this occasion had given his name as Bolwerk (evil doer), promptly offered his services to the giant, promising to accomplish as much work as the nine thralls, and to labor diligently all summer in exchange for one single draught of Suttung's magic mead when the busy season was ended. This bargain was immediately concluded, and Baugi's new servant, Bolwerk, worked incessantly all summer long, more than fulfilling his part of the contract, and safely garnering all the grain before the autumn rains began to fall. When the first days of winter came, Bolwerk presented himself before his master, claiming his reward. But Baugi hesitated and demurred, saying he dared not openly ask his brother Suttung for a draught of inspiration, but would try to obtain it by cunning. Together, Bolwerk and Baugi then proceeded to the mountain where Gunlod dwelt, and as they could find no other mode of entering the secret cave, Odin produced his trusty auger, called Rati, and bade the giant bore with all his might to make a hole through which he might crawl into the mountain.
Baugi silently obeyed, and after a few moments' work withdrew the tool, saying that he had pierced through the mountain side, and that Odin would have no difficulty in slipping through. But the god, mistrusting this statement, merely blew into the hole, and when the dust and chips came flying into his face, he sternly bade Baugi resume his boring and never attempt to deceive him again.
The giant bored on, and when he withdrew his tool again, Odin ascertained that the hole was really finished. Changing himself into a worm, he wriggled through with such remarkable rapidity that he managed to escape, although Baugi treacherously thrust the sharp auger into the hole after him, intending to kill him.
"Rati's mouth I caused
To make a space,
And to gnaw the rock;
Over and under me
Were the Jötun's ways
Thus I my head did peril."
HÁVAMÁL (Thorpe's tr.)
Having reached the stalactite-hung cave, Odin reassumed his usual godlike form and starry mantle, and then presented himself before the beautiful Gunlod to exert all his fascinations to win her love, and coax her to grant him a sip from each of the vessels confided to her care.
Won by his passionate wooing, Gunlod consented to become his wife, and after he had spent three whole days with her in this retreat, she brought out the vessels from their secret hiding place, and told him he might take a sip from each.
"And a draught obtained Of the precious mead,
Drawn from Od-hroerir."
ODIN'S RUNE-SONG (Thorpe's tr.)
Odin made use of this permission to drink so deeply that he completely drained all three vessels, and then, having obtained all he wanted, and being intoxicated with love, poetry, and inspiration, he donned his eagle plumes, rose higher and higher up into the blue, and, after hovering for a moment over the mountain top, winged his heavy flight towards Asgard.
He was still very far from the gods' realm, however, when he suddenly became aware of a pursuer, and, turning his head, ascertained that Suttung, having also assumed the form of an eagle, was coming rapidly after him to compel him to surrender the stolen mead. Odin therefore flew faster and faster, straining every nerve to reach Asgard before the foe should overtake him, while the gods anxiously watched the race.
Seeing that Odin was greatly handicapped and would scarcely be able to escape, the Æsir hastily gathered all the combustible materials they could find, and as soon as he had flown over the ramparts of their dwelling, they set fire to the mass of fuel, so that the flames, rising high, singed the wings of Suttung, who, bewildered with pain, fell into the very midst of the fire, where he was burned to death.
As for Odin, he flew on to the spot where the gods had prepared vessels for the stolen mead, and disgorged the draught of inspiration in such breathless haste that a few drops were scattered over the earth. There they became the portion of rhymsters and poetasters, the gods reserving the divine beverage for their own consumption, and only occasionally vouchsafing a taste to some favored mortal, who, immediately after, won world-wide renown by his inspired songs.
"Of a well-assumed form
I made good use:
Few things fail the wise;
Is now come up
To men's earthly dwellings."
HÁVAMÁL (Thorpe's tr.)
As men and gods owed this priceless gift to Odin, they were ever ready to show him their gratitude, and not only called it by his name, but also worshiped him as god of eloquence, poetry, and song, and made him the patron of all scalds.
The God of Music
Although Odin had thus won the gift of poetry, he seldom made use of it himself. It was reserved for his son Bragi, the child of Gunlod, to become the god of poetry and music and to charm the world with his songs.
"White-bearded bard, ag'd
Bragi, his gold harp
Sweeps - and yet softer
Stealeth the day."
VIKING TALES OF THE NORTH
(R. B. Anderson)
As soon as Bragi was born in the stalactite-hung cave where Odin had won Gunlod's affections, the dwarfs presented him with a magic golden harp, and, setting him on board of one of their own vessels, sent him out into the wide world. As the boat gently passed out of subterranean darkness, and floated over the threshold of Nain, the realm of the dwarf of death, Bragi, the fair and immaculate young god, who until then had shown no signs of life, suddenly sat up, and, seizing the golden harp beside him, began to sing the wondrous song of life, which at times rose up to heaven, and then sank down to the underground realm of Hel, the goddess of death.
"Yggdrasil's ash is
Of all trees most excellent,
And of all ships, Skidbladnir;
Of the Æsir, Odin,
And of horses, Sleipnir;
Bifröst of bridges,
And of scalds, Bragi."
LAY OF GRIMNIR (Thorpe's tr.)
While he played the vessel was gently wafted over sunlit waters, and soon touched the shore. The god Bragi then proceeded on foot, threading his way through the bare and silent forest, playing as he walked. At the sound of his tender music the trees began to bud and bloom, and the grass underfoot was gemmed with countless flowers.
Here he met Idun, daughter of Ivald, the fair goddess of immortal youth, whom the dwarfs allowed to visit the earth from time to time, and at her approach nature invariably assumed its loveliest and gentlest aspect.
Bragi having secured this fair goddess for his wife hastened with her to Asgard, where both were warmly welcomed and where Odin, after tracing runes on Bragi's tongue, decreed that he should be the heavenly minstrel and compose songs in honor of the gods and of the heroes whom he received in Valhalla.
Worship of Bragi
As Bragi was god of poetry, eloquence, and song, the Northern races also called poetry by his name, and scalds of either sex were frequently designated as Braga-men or Braga-women. Bragi was greatly honored by all the Northern races, and hence his health was always drunk on solemn or festive occasions, but especially at funeral feasts and at Yule-tide celebrations.
When it was time to drink this toast, which was served in cups shaped like a ship, and was called the Bragaful, the sacred sign of the hammer was first made over it. Then the new ruler or head of the family solemnly pledged himself to some great deed of valor, which he was bound to execute within the year, unless he wished to be considered destitute of honor. Following his example, all the guests were then wont to make similar vows and declare what they would do; and as some of them, owing to previous potations, talked rather too freely of their intentions on these occasions, this custom seems to connect the god's name with the vulgar but very expressive English verb "to brag."
In art, Bragi is generally represented as an elderly man, with long white hair and beard, and holding the golden harp from which his fingers could draw such magic tones.