By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
The tale of how Odin got the mead of poetry from the enemies of the gods begins when the Aesir gods and the Vanir gods had ended their war. They wanted to make some token of the peace they had agreed to. So, all the members of both parties spit into a bucket, and from the spit of all the gods, they made a wise man named Kvasir.
Odrerir: ‘The Stirrer to Madness’
Kvasir was so wise that he could answer any question about any subject. He wandered through the whole world and all its realms, sharing his wisdom, and answering questions posed to him by whatever people and creatures he encountered. But two dwarven brothers became annoyed by his great wisdom and murdered him, and emptied out his supernatural blood into three large containers.
One of these containers was given the name Odrerir, meaning ‘the stirrer to madness’, a name containing the same root as we find in the name of the god Odin. In Old Norse, this root means ‘mad’, with the same ambiguity as the English word—either ‘crazy’ or ‘angry’, or potentially both.
Now, having killed wise Kvasir and emptied his blood into these buckets, for reasons unspecified, these dwarves next mixed his blood with honey inside these containers to make what sounds like a meaty mead.
This mead then changed hands when one of the enemies of the gods, named Suttung, threatened the dwarves with death unless they gave the mead to him. This anti-god then gave the mead to his daughter, Gunnloth, to guard for him in a cave inside of a mountain. But Odin somehow learned about this mead, and somehow knew that whoever drank it would become a poet or a wise man.
Odin as Evildoer
Always craving new wisdom, Odin ventured into the realm of his enemies. On such ventures, he almost always appears as his normal self—an old man dressed in gray, with a wide-brimmed hat and one eye—and yet is never recognized, and usually gives a transparently false name. For this journey, Odin took the name of Evildoer.
As Evildoer, Odin went to the brother of the anti-god who owned the mead. This brother of Suttung was named Baugi. Odin asked Baugi if there was work he needed doing on his farm, and this unsuspecting anti-god responded that there was plenty of work to be done on his farm.
Odin offered to do the work, but said that in return, Baugi would have to get his brother Suttung to give Odin three drinks of his magical bloody mead. All that summer Odin did the farm work. At the end, Odin asked that his temporary employer see to it that he got the payment he had demanded at the very beginning.
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Odin, the Shapeshifter
So Odin with his employer Baugi went before Suttung and asked Suttung to let Odin drink some of the mead. But Suttung rejected their request and sent Odin on his way with no mead. After all, Suttung had not been party to the agreement his brother had made about his property.
Odin was undeterred. Together with his employer Baugi, Odin traveled to the base of the mountain where Suttung’s daughter Gunnloth guarded the mead in her cave. There they began to drill a tunnel through the mountain into her cave.
When Baugi claimed that he had finished drilling the tunnel, Odin blew into it and the rock shards that blew back into his face told him that the tunnel was in fact not drilled all the way through. Now Odin’s suspicions were raised.
Odin told Baugi to keep drilling, and once Odin was satisfied that the tunnel was indeed complete this time, Odin changed himself into a snake and slithered into it. The treacherous Baugi stabbed after him with the drill, but Odin emerged in the cave unharmed. There Odin took on a human shape, possibly a younger shape than his normal one-eyed old man appearance.
Spilling the Mead of Poetry
The lady Gunnloth within found Odin enchanting and agreed to give him three drinks from the magical mead if he would agree to sleep with her for three nights. Odin did so, and at the end of the three nights, he went to the three containers of the mead, and with one gulp each, he drank it all down.
Odin now transformed himself once again, this time into an eagle, and flew off, hoping to reach the gates of the gods’ lands before he could be captured by the pursuing Suttung, who was himself a shape-changer and took on the appearance of a yet-larger eagle to follow Odin through the air. However, Odin reached the gates of the gods first.
Before Odin managed to get to the gates, though, he turned around to see how close his pursuer was to him and was frightened to see he was close indeed. Odin the eagle defecated some of the mead out onto the ground, outside of the gates.
That portion of mead outside the gates fell within the realm of humankind, and that is what Norse poets for centuries would insultingly claim had been drunk by their rival poets—’the eagle’s defecation’, or put more euphemistically, ‘the dose of the amateur poets’.
Common Questions about How Odin Got the Mead of Poetry
Odin‘s appearance usually didn’t change when he ventured into the realm of his enemies. On such ventures, he almost always appeared as his normal self—an old man dressed in gray, with a wide-brimmed hat and one eye.
Baugi was to tunnel through a mountain until he reached the inside of the cave in which the mead of poetry was held. After he claimed that he had finished the job, Odin blew into the tunnel but shards of rock blew back towards him. This told him that the tunnel was not drilled all the way through.
Odin, who had transformed himself into an eagle, defecated some of the mead of poetry he had drunk earlier on the ground before he reached the gate of the gods. This was called the eagle’s defecation, and the term was used by Norse poets to insult their rivals.