One of the many pleasures of Viking life was drinking mead, it was used in religious ceremonies and social gatherings. Every king and jarl would have a meadhall where they lived and where they entertained guests. There are records of new meadhalls being built for royal visits – and even stories of meadhalls being burned to destroy rivals. (Ynglinga saga). Odin’s Aett are lucky enough to have a local meadery so we are always able to get hold of our favourite Viking tipple.
Mead was more than just a drink, it was the stuff of legends. In the Skáldskaparmál, Snorri tells us the mythological origin of mead.
It started with a war between the gods. The Æsir and the Vanir fought for many years but eventually a truce was agreed, to seal the truce all of the gods spat into a vat and from their spit they created a man named Kvasir who was the wisest man that ever lived. Kvasir travelled the world going wherever his wise counsel was needed. There was no question Kvasir could not answer.
One day he visited the home of two murderous dwarves Fjalar and Galar. The dwarves attacked and killed Kvasir and drained him of his blood which they mixed with honey and brewed into a magical mead which made anyone who drank it into an eloquent and wise skald. When the brew had finished they had three pots of mead which they called Óðrerir (stirrer of inspiration), Boðn (vessel), and Són (blood). When the gods went looking for Kvasir the dwarves said he had choked on his intelligence and sent them away.
Fjalar and Galar were intoxicated by their crime and hungered for more murder. They invited a giant, Gilling, and his wife to visit. They bade Gilling go fishing with them, but once they were out at sea they capsized their boat and laughed as the giant sank to the depths and drowned. They rowed home where they broke the news to Gilling’s wife, she was distraught and tore her hair with grief. Fjallar said they would take her to where her husband had drowned, but as she stepped over the threshold Galar dropped a millstone on her head as he was fed up of her weeping.
The dwarves had no friends or family and hadn’t accounted for Gilling and his wife having children who would avenge them. When Suttungr heard what had happened to his parents he went to the dwarves and demanded that their lives should be forfeit as payment for those they had taken. He bound them to a reef where the water would cover them at high tide and sat to watch them drown.
The dwarves pleaded and begged as the water crept higher and higher up their bodies, but Suttungr was not moved, eventually when only their faces remained out of the water they offered the magical mead as weregild. Suttungr agreed, and released the dwarves in exchange for the three pots of mead. He stored the mead in a place called Hnitbjörg and gave his daughter Gunnlöd the task of guarding it so no one but he could drink of it.
The story of Suttungr’s bargain with the dwarves eventually reached the ears of the Gods and Odin decreed that Kvasir’s blood was sacred and must therefore be retrieved and returned to Asgard. He himself set out to fetch the mead.
Odin realised that he could not go directly to Suttungr, he decided to approach him through his family. Suttungr had a brother Baugi who was a farmer, he had nine thralls who worked his land and he worked them long and hard for little reward. Odin disguised himself as a man and using the name Bölverk he headed to where Baugi farmed.
Odin came to a field where the thralls were cutting barley, it was hard work and they were struggling to make much progress as their tools were old and badly maintained. Odin offered them food and drink and said he would sharpen their scythes while they rested. Of course they accepted. When they returned to work they were able to get nine times as much cut as before. All of them clamoured to buy the whetstone, Odin threw it into the air between them and as they all scrambled to reach it they cut each other to ribbons with their newly sharpened scythes.
Odin continued on to the house of Baugi where he was received as a guest and offered hospitality for the night. As they talked Baugi complained that he was facing a terrible struggle as all his thralls were dead and he had no one to bring in his crops. Bölverk said he could do the work and offered his services in return for a drink of Suttungr’s mead. Baugi agreed, and set Bölverk to work the next day. Bölverk was true to his word and worked as hard as the nine thralls had previously, if not harder. The harvest was brought in in record time and Bölverk did all manner of other jobs to ensure Baugi had a successful year. At the end of the season he asked Baugi to pay his debt and so they both went to Suttungr’s, who refused to give even a single drop of the beverage. Suttungr said Baugi had no right to make such a promise and that the mead would stay safely in Hnitbjörg.
Now Odin knew where the mead was. He told Baugi that the debt must be paid, and since Suttungr would not give it willingly Baugi must help him take it. He gave Baugi a drill, Rati and told him to use it to drill a hole into the mountain Hnitbjörg. Twice Baugi claimed the hole was drilled but when Odin blew into it dust billowed out showing it was still only part way through, the third time no dust came out of the hole, but by this time Odin knew Baugi could not be trusted so he took the form of a snake and slid swiftly into the hole, Baugi stabbed at him with the drill but he was not quick enough and Odin made it through.
Inside the mountain Odin found Gunnlöd the giantess who was guarding her father’s treasure. Odin knew how lonely she had been all alone inside the mountain, he talked sweetly to her and told her how beautiful she was. Listening to his honeyed words Gunnlöd was persuaded to take him to her bed in return for a drink of mead. Odin wooed Gunnlöd for three nights, each time with a drink of mead promised to him. When they rose from the third night Odin asked for his promised drinks, with his first draught he emptied Óðrerir, with his second Boðn and with his last draught he emptied Són. Having swallowed all of the mead he transformed himself into an eagle and immediately set flight for Asgard.
Suttungr heard Gunnlöd’s cries as her lover absconded with the treasure she was guarding and furious at the the theft, he too took the shape of an eagle and flew after Odin in hot pursuit. Odin was slowed by the weight of the mead so Suttungr was soon gaining on him.
As the walls of Asgard came into sight Odin called to the Æsir to bring out all the vessels they could find, and as he swooped over the wall he spat the mead into the waiting vessels. But the chase was so furious and Suttungr was so close that the Eagle’s stomach churned and a blast of mead sprayed from his arse and fell to the ground. This was enough to let the other races have a taste of inspiration, but this skáldfífla hlutr (rhymesters share) was tainted and is why we have bad poetry and rap music. Unlike Suttungr, Odin did not try to keep the mead for himself, he shares it with the gods and with the truly gifted.