According to the stories of Norse mythology, the gods in Asgard possessed vats of mead that turned the drinker into a poet or a scholar. Yet, the mead itself is not the best part of this interesting tale. Before the mead reached its final resting place in Asgard, the special brew underwent a tremendous journey from its creation to its acquisition by the Norse gods. It is a story that starts and ends with the Norse divinities, but in between, dwarves, giants and murder all make a showing.
The story of the mead began at the end of the civil war between the Æsir and the Vanir, the two major clans of the Norse gods. When the gods finally made peace, they decided to seal their pact with an interesting method—they all spat into a vat.
Out of this divine vat of saliva, a life began to grow. A man named Kvasir emerged from the unpleasant substance. As can be expected—given that this man was born from the combined spittle of the gods—Kvasir was a very special person. He was, perhaps, the wisest being in existence at the time. He became renowned for his ability to answer correctly any and every question asked of him.
Kvasir did not squander his gift of knowledge. No, he traveled the world, spreading his wisdom and insight wherever he went. During his travels, Kvasir had the misfortune of crossing paths with two mischievous dwarves. Their names were Fjalar and Galar and they were dangerous company. The dwarves invited Kvasir to have a private conversation, and he agreed, likely thinking they would ask more questions for him to answer. When the dwarves got Kvasir alone, however, they immediately killed the wise man.
At this point, you may be wondering, “where is the mead?” Well, this is how the magical beverage was created: First, the dwarves opened the veins of Kvasir, draining his blood into two vats and a kettle. Next, they mixed honey into the blood. Eventually, the concoction fermented into a mead like no other—anyone who drank this mead would absorb some of the qualities of the murdered Kvasir, becoming either a poet or a scholar.
The mischievous dwarves stowed away their mead and were able to spread false information about the death of Kvasir, so as not to face the wrath of the Norse gods. The dwarves, however, could not keep their antics in check, even after getting away with murder and creating magical mead. The next chapter of this story occurred when the dwarves met with two giants. The dwarves rowed a giant named Gilling along a coastline, but in keeping with their ways, the dwarves intentionally steered their ship over rocks, causing the craft to capsize. As it happened, Gilling could not swim and the dwarves merely watched as the giant drowned. The other giant that the dwarves met was Gilling’s wife. They told her of the unfortunate death of her husband and shortly thereafter killed the giantess by dropping a stone on her head.
Even though Gilling and his wife were both killed fairly easily by the dwarves, the son of these two murdered giants was much more hardy. His name was Suttung, and when he heard of the murder of his parents, he immediately set off to hunt down the killers. Suttung quickly found the murderous dwarves and rowed them out to sea, where he planned to leave them to drown. Yet, the dwarves had a bargaining chip—they offered to give Suttung the magical mead in exchange for their lives. Despite the murder of his parents, Suttung accepted the offer.
Suttung brought the mead to a place called Hnitbjorg and placed his daughter, Gunnlod, in charge of defending the treasure. Yet, the mead would not stay with the giants for long. Eventually, a suave wanderer entered Hnitbjorg, searching for the mead of poetry and knowledge. The wanderer easily seduced the giantess and slept with her for three nights. After Gunnlod grew to trust the wanderer, she allowed the mysterious man to drink three times from the mead. Little did she know, that the wanderer was none other than Odin, the High One of the Norse gods. With his three drinks, he emptied the entire supply of mead.
Before Suttung and the giants noticed that all of their mead was missing, Odin transformed into an eagle and began frantically flying back to Asgard. When Suttung finally realized that the mead was stolen, he also shape shifted into a bird and gave chase. He almost caught Odin, but was deflected when Odin sprayed him with a stream of the stolen mead from his backside. Despite Suttung’s efforts, the mead was lost. Odin landed in Asgard and regurgitated the magical mead into a new set of vats. With that, the mead’s long journey was over.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.