I have never heard the Norse version of how poetry was created. But thanks to Sam, who is reading The Prose Edda for the sheer pleasure of it, I now know about Skáldskapar Mjaðar: the Mead of Poetic Inspiration.
Here’s the story as I understand it.
Groups of warmongering Norse gods, Vanir and Æsir, agreed to a truce after a long and bitter battle. Each side spat in a vat to preserve the peace. The gods decided to keep the agreement safe by shaping their spittle into the form of a man they named Kvasir.
Kvasir was the wisest man on earth. He traveled the world— teaching, spreading knowledge, and correctly answering every question posed to him. (A lesson on the benefits of peace…)
But alas, evil dwarves Fjalar and Galar murdered Kvasir. They drained his blood and distilled it in Odhrǫrir, the magic caldron. (Apparently smarts are a downfall. The dwarves told the gods that Kvasir’s intelligence had suffocated him.)
Kvasir’s blood was mixed with honey to create the Mead of Poetic Inspiration. Poetry had once been the province of gods. But this drink held the power to turn all who imbibed it into skalds (poets) and blessed them with wisdom. Thus, skaldship spread.
Along came the giant Suttung. He sought revenge on the dwarves because they had killed his father, the giant Gilling, for sport. Suttung seized their precious mead and hid it in the center of a mountain with his daughter Gunnlöð standing guard.
But Óðin (a.k.a. Odin) was displeased that so vital a nectar was hidden in a remote cavern. Óðin was a biggie in the Norse pantheon. He was known as King of Asgard, ruler of the Aesir, father of the thunder god Thor and associated with battle, victory, death, wisdom, prophecy, and the hunt.
So Óðin disguised himself as a man and wooed Gunnlöð. After three nights of sex he got her to agree to offer him three sips of the mead. But he tricked her (or by some accounts she succumbed entirely to his charms). He emptied the first vessel with his first sip. His second swallow emptied the second vessel. His last swallow emptied the last vessel. Holding all the divine mead in his mouth, Óðin changed into an eagle and headed back to Asgard.
Suttung transformed into an eagle as well and gave chase. Óðin hurtled over the mountains. His people saw him coming and put out vessels in the courtyard. Óðin swooped low and spat the blessed mead into those containers. In the frenzy of the pursuit some of the mead came out “backwards.”
Yes, Óðin shat it.
Anyone that wants it can take that portion. It’s called skáldfífla hlutr, the rhymester’s share. It’s the portion for inferior poets.
Hey, I’ll take whatever portion I can get.
Quick update on the poetry-wise goodness that’s flowing my way.
- I was nominated for, but did not win, a 2014 Pushcart Prize. (Where’s my fairy godmother when I need her to turn the pumpkin of my work into a magical coach?)
- Houseboat did me the honor of featuring several of my poems along with some wonderfully evocative photographs.
- Read+Write: 30 Days of Poetry, a National Poetry Month project by Cuyahoga County Public Library, happened thanks to the hard work of poet Diane Kendig. I was fortunate that she selected one of my poems to appear during those 30 days. Along with the other 29 poets in the project, I received the gift of tickets to hear former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky read. Of course I show up in my badly scuffed shoes wearing clothes decades out of date because, well, that’s pretty much the best I can do. The event took place in Cleveland’s dazzlingly beautiful Playhouse Square complex, with an advance reception for Mr. Pinsky held in a plush mezzanine featuring a gorgeous painted ceiling and gilded walls. I tried to hide my hermit-doesn’t-know-how-to-talk-to-stranger issues by lurking near the tables with finger foods, which led to me licking my fingers after a few bites, which led to someone who doesn’t approve of barbarians handing me a napkin accompanied by a withering look.
- I was stunned by a beautifully written, deeply generous review of my book by Ivy Rutledge in the newest edition of Mom Egg Review.
What an abundance of blessings.