|Interesing books. Myths of the Norsemen - CHAPTER VI: BRAGI|
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CHAPTER VI: BRAGI
The Origin of Poetry
At the time of the dispute between the Жsir and Vanas, when peace
had been agreed upon, a vase was brought into the assembly into which
both parties solemnly spat. From this saliva the gods created Kvasir,
a being renowned for his wisdom and goodness, who went about the
world answering all questions asked him, thus teaching and benefiting
mankind. The dwarfs, hearing about Kvasir's great wisdom, coveted it,
and finding him asleep one day, two of their number, Fialar and Galar,
treacherously slew him, and drained every drop of his blood into
three vessels--the kettle Od-hroerir (inspiration) and the bowls Son
(expiation) and Boden (offering). After duly mixing this blood with
honey, they manufactured from it a sort of beverage so inspiring that
any one who tasted it immediately became a poet, and could sing with
a charm which was certain to win all hearts.
Now, although the dwarfs had brewed this marvellous mead for their own
consumption, they did not even taste it, but hid it away in a secret
place, while they went in search of further adventures. They had not
gone very far ere they found the giant Gilling also sound asleep,
lying on a steep bank, and they maliciously rolled him into the water,
where he perished. Then hastening to his dwelling, some climbed on
the roof, carrying a huge millstone, while the others, entering,
told the giantess that her husband was dead. This news caused the
poor creature great grief, and she rushed out of the house to view
Gilling's remains. As she passed through the door, the wicked dwarfs
rolled the millstone down upon her head, and killed her. According to
another account, the dwarfs invited the giant to go fishing with them,
and succeeded in slaying him by sending him out in a leaky vessel,
which sank beneath his weight.
The double crime thus committed did not long remain unpunished, for
Gilling's brother, Suttung, quickly went in search of the dwarfs,
determined to avenge him. Seizing them in his mighty grasp, the giant
conveyed them to a shoal far out at sea, where they would surely have
perished at the next high tide had they not succeeded in redeeming
their lives by promising to deliver to the giant their recently
brewed mead. As soon as Suttung set them ashore, they therefore
gave him the precious compound, which he entrusted to his daughter
Gunlod, bidding her guard it night and day, and allow neither gods
nor mortals to have so much as a taste. The better to fulfil this
command, Gunlod carried the three vessels into the hollow mountain,
where she kept watch over them with the most scrupulous care, nor
did she suspect that Odin had discovered their place of concealment,
thanks to the sharp eyes of his ever-vigilant ravens Hugin and Munin.
The Quest of the Draught
As Odin had mastered the runic lore and had tasted the waters of
Mimir's fountain, he was already the wisest of gods; but learning
of the power of the draught of inspiration manufactured out of
Kvasir's blood, he became very anxious to obtain possession of the
magic fluid. With this purpose in view he therefore donned his
broad-brimmed hat, wrapped himself in his cloud-hued cloak, and
journeyed off to Jцtun-heim. On his way to the giant's dwelling he
passed by a field where nine ugly thralls were busy making hay. Odin
paused for a moment, watching them at their work, and noticing that
their scythes seemed very dull indeed, he proposed to whet them,
an offer which the thralls eagerly accepted.
Drawing a whetstone from his bosom, Odin proceeded to sharpen the
nine scythes, skilfully giving them such a keen edge that the thralls,
delighted, begged that they might have the stone. With good-humoured
acquiescence, Odin tossed the whetstone over the wall; but as the
nine thralls simultaneously sprang forward to catch it, they wounded
one another with their keen scythes. In anger at their respective
carelessness, they now began to fight, and did not pause until they
were all either mortally wounded or dead.
Quite undismayed by this tragedy, Odin continued on his way, and
shortly after came to the house of the giant Baugi, a brother
of Suttung, who received him very hospitably. In the course of
conversation, Baugi informed him that he was greatly embarrassed,
as it was harvest time and all his workmen had just been found dead
in the hayfield.
Odin, who on this occasion had given his name as Bolwerk (evil doer),
promptly offered his services to the giant, promising to accomplish
as much work as the nine thralls, and to labour diligently all the
summer in exchange for one single draught of Suttung's magic mead when
the busy season was ended. This bargain was immediately concluded,
and Baugi's new servant, Bolwerk, worked incessantly all the summer
long, more than fulfilling his contract, and safely garnering all the
grain before the autumn rains began to fall. When the first days of
winter came, Bolwerk presented himself before his master, claiming
his reward. But Baugi hesitated and demurred, saying he dared not
openly ask his brother Suttung for the draught of inspiration, but
would try to obtain it by guile. Together, Bolwerk and Baugi then
proceeded to the mountain where Gunlod dwelt, and as they could find
no other mode of entering the secret cave, Odin produced his trusty
auger, called Rati, and bade the giant bore with all his might to
make a hole through which he might crawl into the interior.
Baugi silently obeyed, and after a few moments' work withdrew the tool,
saying that he had pierced through the mountain, and that Odin would
have no difficulty in slipping through. But the god, mistrusting this
statement, merely blew into the hole, and when the dust and chips came
flying into his face, he sternly bade Baugi resume his boring and not
attempt to deceive him again. The giant did as he was told, and when
he withdrew his tool again, Odin ascertained that the hole was really
finished. Changing himself into a snake, he wriggled through with
such remarkable rapidity that he managed to elude the sharp auger,
which Baugi treacherously thrust into the hole after him, intending
to kill him.
"Rati's mouth I caused
To make a space,
And to gnaw the rock;
Over and under me
Were the Jцtun's ways:
Thus I my head did peril."
Hбvamбl (Thorpe's tr.).
The Rape of the Draught
Having reached the interior of the mountain, Odin reassumed his usual
godlike form and starry mantle, and then presented himself in the
stalactite-hung cave before the beautiful Gunlod. He intended to win
her love as a means of inducing her to grant him a sip from each of
the vessels confided to her care.
Won by his passionate wooing, Gunlod consented to become his wife,
and after he had spent three whole days with her in this retreat,
she brought out the vessels from their secret hiding-place, and told
him he might take a sip from each.
"And a draught obtained
Of the precious mead,
Drawn from Od-hroerir."
Odin's Rune-Song (Thorpe's tr.).
Odin made good use of this permission and drank so deeply that he
completely drained all three vessels. Then, having obtained all that
he wanted, he emerged from the cave and, donning his eagle plumes,
rose high into the blue, and, after hovering for a moment over the
mountain top, winged his flight towards Asgard.
He was still far from the gods' realm when he became aware of a
pursuer, and, indeed, Suttung, having also assumed the form of an
eagle, was coming rapidly after him with intent to compel him to
surrender the stolen mead. Odin therefore flew faster and faster,
straining every nerve to reach Asgard before the foe should overtake
him, and as he drew near the gods anxiously watched the race.
Seeing that Odin would only with difficulty be able to escape, the
Жsir hastily gathered all the combustible materials they could find,
and as he flew over the ramparts of their dwelling, they set fire to
the mass of fuel, so that the flames, rising high, singed the wings
of Suttung, as he followed the god, and he fell into the very midst
of the fire, where he was burned to death.
As for Odin, he flew to where the gods had prepared vessels for
the stolen mead, and disgorged the draught of inspiration in such
breathless haste that a few drops fell and were scattered over the
earth. There they became the portion of rhymesters and poetasters,
the gods reserving the main draught for their own consumption, and
only occasionally vouchsafing a taste to some favoured mortal, who,
immediately after, would win world-wide renown by his inspired songs.
"Of a well-assumed form
I made good use:
Few things fail the wise;
Is now come up
To men's earthly dwellings."
Hбvamбl (Thorpe's tr.).
As men and gods owed the priceless gift to Odin, they were ever ready
to express to him their gratitude, and they not only called it by
his name, but they worshipped him as patron of eloquence, poetry,
and song, and of all scalds.
The God of Music
Although Odin had thus won the gift of poetry, he seldom made use of
it himself. It was reserved for his son Bragi, the child of Gunlod,
to become the god of poetry and music, and to charm the world with
"White-bearded bard, ag'd
Bragi, his gold harp
Sweeps--and yet softer
Stealeth the day."
Viking Tales of the North (R. B. Anderson).
As soon as Bragi was born in the stalactite-hung cave where Odin had
won Gunlod's affections, the dwarfs presented him with a magical golden
harp, and, setting him on one of their own vessels, they sent him out
into the wide world. As the boat gently passed out of subterranean
darkness, and floated over the threshold of Nain, the realm of the
dwarf of death, Bragi, the fair and immaculate young god, who until
then had shown no signs of life, suddenly sat up, and, seizing the
golden harp beside him, he began to sing the wondrous song of life,
which rose at times to heaven, and then sank down to the dread realm
of Hel, goddess of death.
"Yggdrasil's ash is
Of all trees most excellent,
And of all ships, Skidbladnir;
Of the Жsir, Odin,
And of horses, Sleipnir;
Bifrцst of bridges,
And of scalds, Bragi."
Lay of Grimnir (Thorpe's tr.).
While he played the vessel was wafted gently over sunlit waters, and
soon touched the shore. Bragi then proceeded on foot, threading his
way through the bare and silent forest, playing as he walked. At the
sound of his tender music the trees began to bud and bloom, and the
grass underfoot was gemmed with countless flowers.
Here he met Idun, daughter of Ivald, the fair goddess of immortal
youth, whom the dwarfs allowed to visit the earth from time to time,
when, at her approach, nature invariably assumed its loveliest and
It was only to be expected that two such beings should feel
attracted to each other, and Bragi soon won this fair goddess for his
wife. Together they hastened to Asgard, where both were warmly welcomed
and where Odin, after tracing runes on Bragi's tongue, decreed that
he should be the heavenly minstrel and composer of songs in honour
of the gods and of the heroes whom he received in Valhalla.
Worship of Bragi
As Bragi was god of poetry, eloquence, and song, the Northern
races also called poetry by his name, and scalds of either sex were
frequently designated as Braga-men or Braga-women. Bragi was greatly
honoured by all the Northern races, and hence his health was always
drunk on solemn or festive occasions, but especially at funeral feasts
and at Yuletide celebrations.
When it was time to drink this toast, which was served in cups shaped
like a ship, and was called the Bragaful, the sacred sign of the hammer
was first made over it. Then the new ruler or head of the family
solemnly pledged himself to some great deed of valour, which he was
bound to execute within the year, unless he wished to be considered
destitute of honour. Following his example, all the guests were then
wont to make similar vows and declare what they would do; and as some
of them, owing to previous potations, talked rather too freely of
their intentions on these occasions, this custom seems to connect the
god's name with the vulgar but very expressive English verb "to brag."
In art, Bragi is generally represented as an elderly man, with long
white hair and beard, and holding the golden harp from which his
fingers could draw such magic strains.