All About Mead in Norse Mythology: Roles, Powers & History

What is mead?

Mead is an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey mixed with water, and sometimes with other ingredients such as fruits, spices, hops and grains.

All About Mead in Norse Mythology: Roles, Powers & History
Mystical Mead in Norse Mythology

The beverage itself is ancient, and among the first popular and widely produced types of alcoholic drinks.

Its origins can be traced back to the historical Vedic period (1700-1100 BCE), where the drink likely appeared in what is now the indian province of Punjab.

The formula and name of the beverage was carried across Europe and what is now the Middle East.

Creation of mead in Norse mythology

To stop the war going on between them, the warring Aesir and Vanir gods made a covenant of peace, and in token of it each party stept up to a vessel, and let fall into it their spittle (saliva), as atonements and treaties were often hallowed by mingling of bloods.

Here the holy spittle is equivalent to blood, and even turns into blood later on.

The token of peace (gridamark) was too precious to be wasted, so the gods shaped out of it a man named Kvâsir, the wisest and shrewdest of all beings.

This Kväsir travelled far in the world, and taught men wisdom. But when he came to the dwelling of two dwarfs, Fjalar and Galar, they slew him, and let his blood run into two vats, called Boðn and Sôn and a cauldron named Óðrœrir.

Then the dwarfs mixed the blood with honey, and 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. In short, this mead gave the drinker the skill to be a fræda-madr (sage).

The dwarves had not yet drunk of this divine mead, but had instead decided to continue on their adventures.

They had not gone very far, that they soon found the giant Gilling sound asleep, lying on a steep bank, and they maliciously rolled him into the water, where he perished.

Soon after, they employed trickery again and killed Gilling’s wife, by rolling a millstone over her when she went to save her husband from the water.

Gilling’s son, Suttûngr, learned of the treachery of the two dwarven brothers and nearly killed the two, had the dwarves not given up on their divine mead as an apology for killing Suttûngr’s father and mother.

Suttüngr preserved the mead carefully in Hnitbiorg, and made his daughter the fair Gunnlöd keeper of it.

To better protect the mead, Gunnlöd hid away the three vessels that contained the mead in a hollow mountain, where she kept watch over them at all times.

What she did not know however, was that Odin learned the location of the mead through his ever vigilant ravens, Muning and Hugin.

Odin recovers the mead

By this time, Odin had mastered the runic lore and had tasted the waters of Mimir’s fountain, so he was already the wisest of gods; but learning of the power of mead 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 Jötunheim.

Odin arrived from heaven to earth, and seeing nine labourers mowing hay, he asked them if their scythes wanted sharpening. They said they did, and he pulled a whetstone out of his belt, and sharpened their tools.

These cut so much better now, that the mowers began bargaining for the stone, but Odin threw it up in the air, and while each was trying to catch it, they all cut one another’s throats with their scythes.

At night Odin found a lodging with another giant, Suttûngr’s brother Baugi, who sorely complained that he had that day lost his nine men, and had not a workman left.

Odin, now calling himself Bölverkr (evil-doer), was ready to undertake nine men’s work, stipulating only for a drink of Suttûngr’s mead. Baugi said the mead belonged to his brother, but he would do his best to obtain the drink from him. Bölverkr accomplished the nine men’s work in summer, and when winter came demanded his wages.

They both went off to Suttûngr, but he would not part with a drop of mead. Bölverkr was cunning however, and proposed a stratagem to Baugi, to which the giant agreed.

Then Bölverkr produced a drill named Rati, and desired Baugi to bore the mountain through with it, which apparently the giant did; but when Bölverkr blew into the hole and the dust flew back in his face, he concluded that his ally was no honester than he should be.

Bölverkr made him bore again, and this time when he blew, the dust flew inwards. He now changed himself into a worm, and crept in at the hole ; Baugi plunged the drill in after him, but missed him.

The seduction of Gunnlod

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 mighttake a sip from each.

Odin made good use of this permission and drank so deeply that he completely drained all three vessels. at the first draught he drained Óðrœrir, at the second Boðn, at the third Sôn, and so he had all the mead.

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 fight towards Asgard.

He was still far from the gods realm when he became aware of a pursuer, and, indeed, Suttûngr, 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 Æsir 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 Suttûngr, 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 draughtof inspiration in such breathless haste that a few drops fell and were scattered over the earth.

There these drops became the portion of rhymesters and poets, the gods reserving the main draught for their own consumption, and only occasionally granting a taste to some favored mortal, who, immediately after, would win world-wide renown by his inspired songs.

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 his name, but they worshipped him as patron of eloquence, poetry, and son, and of all scalds.

What mead was used for in Norse mythology

Odin’s goat, Heidrun, produces the mead from the leaves of Yggdrasil

The tree Yggdrasil was ever green, its leaves never withering, it served as pasture-ground not only for Odin’s goat Heidrun, which supplied the heavenly mead the drink of the gods, but also for the stags Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr, and Durathor, from whose horns honey-dew dropped down upon the earth and furnished the water for all the rivers in the world.

Divination

In Norse mythology, blood was a divine and sacred substance. During religious rituals, blood was collected from sacrified animals for the purpose of divination.

The priest or priestess mixed together blood with either mead or ale, and then drank the mixture. With it’s power it proceeded to divine the future.

Drink for the warriors in Valhalla

Norse warriors who die in combat are collected by Valkyries and brought to the Great Hall of Valhalla, where they would feast and dine and bask in Odin’s presence day after day, until the day of Ragnarock arrives.

Whilst in Valhalla, Valkyrie maidens, nine in number according to some authorities, brought the fallen heroes great horns full of delicious mead and set before them huge portions of boar’s flesh, upon which they feasted heartily.

The usual Northern drink was beer or ale, but this worldy beverage was too coarse for the heavenly sphere. They therefore imagined that Odin Valfather kept his table liberally supplied with mead, which was daily furnished in great abundance by his she-goat Heidrun, who continually ate on the tender leaves and twigs on Lerad, Yggdrasil’s top-most branch.

Other uses for mead in Norse mythology

Throughout Norse mythology, mead is continously reffered to as the most precious drink of the gods, and often appears throughout many stories as a tool through which the gods manifest their powers.

The goddess of sea storms, Ran, and the Norse nations fancied that she entertained those drowned at sea in in her coral caves, where her couches were spread to receive them, and where the mead flowed freely as in Valhalla.

In iceland, dwarfs, ruled by Sindri, were said to occupy a hall in the Nida mountains, where they drank thesparkling mead.

In some variations, it is said that the water in Mimir’s fountain was in fact mead. Up until that time, Odin had not yet drunk such a liquid and had not achieved his full powers. This changed when Odin bargained with Mimir, and offered one of his eyes in exchange for a taste of the water (or mead) in his fountain.

Loki himself is known to have used the mead on a few occasions as a way to dull the senses of the gods or mortals, and then do all kinds of mischief upon them.

An interesting use of mead in Norse mythology involved hidden runes that were covered with mead, and then cast far and wide into the world. Some of these runes belong to the gods, some to the elves, some with the Vanir and even some belong to mortal men.


Resources:

  • The Mythology of All Races – Eddic by John Arnott MacCulloch, Louis Herbert Gray
  • The Norsemen Myths and Legends by Guerber Helene Adeline
  • Asgard and the Norse heroes by Katharine Boult
  • Old Norse stories by Sarah Powers Bradish
  • Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg & Anders Rasmus Bjorn
  • Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm
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