Drinking was a big thing in the Viking world. Producing alcohol is one way of purifying water and making it safe to drink, so most Vikings, even young ones, would have drunk weak alcohol every day.
Mead was a special drink. It was made from honey, which was relatively rare, so was mostly saved for special occasions. The gods also consumed divine mead. You can learn more about mead and alcohol in the Viking world here.
But of all the meads in the Viking world, one stands out as particularly special. The magical Mead of Poetry. It was believed that whoever drank the mead gained complete mastery of the spoken word, and bards were thought to have gained their talent from the mead.
But where did this mead come from and how did it get into the hands of men?
How was the Mead of Poetry Made?
The origin of the Mead of Poetry dates back to the Aesir-Vanir war, near the start of mythological time. The Aesir gods declared war on the Vanir because they believed their culture to be immoral. Among other things, sibling marriages were common among the Vanir, and the Aesir did not approve!
The Vanir actually seem to have won the war, but the two clans of gods came to a truce. Hostages were exchanged. This is when Freyr and Freyja, both Vanir gods, came to live in Asgard. The brother and sister were married before this time, but their marriage was dissolved when they joined the Aesir.
Honeir and Mimir were sent to live among the Vanir, which tragically ended in the death of Mimir and his transformation into a talking head.
When the two clans of goods shook hands on the truce, they all spit into a great bowl to create a seal. But when that was done, there was still a lot of liquid in the bowl and all that divine spittle was potent stuff! They didn’t want to waste it, so instead, they used the spittle to make Kvasir, the wisest of all beings.
Kvasir was so wise that there was no question that he could not answer. He traveled the nine worlds of the Norse cosmos and was welcome everywhere he went as he shared his knowledge freely.
When two dwarves named Fjalar and Galar encountered Kvasir, they realized that he was special. The dwarves were the craftsmen of the Norse cosmos, and they were always looking for magical ingredients to imbue into their work to make them magical as well. So, the dwarves kidnapped and killed Kvasir to obtain his blood.
They mixed Kvasir’s blood with honey to make a mead, which became the Mead of Poetry. This potent liquid would imbue the drinker with the powers of a poet or scholar.
These two not very nice dwarves went on to kill a giant couple, which understandably angered their son, the giant Suttungr. He went to avenge himself on the dwarves, but they begged for their lives, offering him the Mead of Poetry in exchange. The giant accepted.
Suttungr took the mead home and hid it in a mountain called Hnitbjorg and charged his daughter Gunnlod with its protection.
Odin’s Quest for the Mead of Poetry
It is well known that Odin would do anything to obtain knowledge. So, when he heard about the Mead of Poetry, he immediately had to pursue it.
Odin disguised himself as a wanderer called Bolverk and made his way to the mountain. There he decided that he would need to win the confidence of Baugi, Suttingr’s brother, who was guarding the entrance to the mountain.
Upon arrival in the area, Odin met nine slaves who were preparing to harvest hay with their scythes. He let them use his whetstone to sharpen their blades, and it worked so well that they all wanted to buy it. He threw it into the air among them and they fought among themselves for possession of the stone until they were all dead.
He then made his way to the house of Baugi, where the giant was complaining that his business was in ruins because all of his slaves had killed one another. Odin said that he would do the work for the giant in exchange for just a sip of Suttungr’s famous mead.
Baugi agreed and Odin worked for a season. When winter came, Odin as Bolverk asked for his reward. The god and the giant went to Suttungr to get the mead, but their request was denied.
Odin convinced Baugi that they would have to use a trick to get at the mead. He gave Baugi a drill and asked him to bore a hole into the mountain so that he could enter the mountain and get to the mead. Baugi in turn tried to deceive Odin by making the hole too small. But Odin was able to turn himself into a snake and crawl up the hole.
When he entered the mountain, the still-disguised Odin met Gunnlod, the giantess who protected the mead. He pretended to be in love with her and charmed her for three nights.
On the third night, he pretended to be upset that he did not have the words to fully describe his passion for Gunnlod. If only he could have a sip of the mead, he would be able to tell her exactly how he felt.
Gunnlod agreed and she said that he could have three sips of mead for the three nights that they had spent together. But Odin’s gulps were enormous, and he managed to drink all of the mead in those three sips.
It quickly became apparent that a heist was afoot, and Odin turned himself into an eagle and flew away to make his escape. But, in the meantime, Suttungr had discovered what had happened. He too took the shape of an eagle and pursued Odin to Asgard.
Odin made it to Asgard and managed to spit the mead into three drinking horns that had been prepared for the purpose. When Suttungr arrived at Asgard, the gods created a wall of fire around the fortress just as he passed the threshold, he was burned to death.
Nevertheless, his pursuit of Odin has been so close that he let some of the liquid fall to the ground of Midgard beneath while he was flying, either via his spittle or his pee. This liquid penetrated the world and became the source of poetic inspiration among men.
This spittle mead became known as the rhymester’s share, but the majority of the mead was kept in Asgard for the gods and their favored bards, such as the famous Bragi Boddason.
One symbol that often appears in the Viking world, and always in association with Odin, is the horned Triskelion. It is a symbol of three interlocking horns. No surviving sources specifically state that the symbol is linked with the mead of poetry, but it seems likely. It is associated with Odin, and the story specifically says that Odin spat the mead into three giant drinking horns.
Today the horned triskelion has become a symbol for poets, writers, actors, and other creative wordsmiths for their talent and to recognize Odin as their patron.