When Odin claimed the Mead of Wisdom and Poetry it was the final episode of a larger mythic cycle covered partly by the Prose Edda and partly by the Poetic Edda. It records the origins of the mead and its passage through existence, returning full circle to its starting point. Along the way, the mead is met by several of the beings who inhabit the World Tree; suggesting all of these different beings contribute to the progress of wisdom itself.
The mead’s first ingredient came about when the Aesir and Vanir Gods agreed a truce after their futile war. They all spat into a vat and out of their spittle arose a being called Kvasir.
The Vanir Gods are associated with wilderness, nature, fertility and possibly magic. The Aesir Gods seem more associated with the protection of social order, “civilization” and religious observance. Kvasir embodies their differences and their common peaceful interest. He contains everything those deities stood for, a compendium of cosmological knowledge. As Snorri Sturlason stated in the Prose Edda “He was so wise that no one could ask him a question that he could not answer”.
Kvasir explored the world and shared his knowledge generously. Unintentionally, he gained knowledge of death at the hands of two dwarves, Fjallar and Gallar who tricked him, wanting to possess his wisdom and keep it for themselves. They mixed Kvasir’s blood with honey, creating the Mead of Wisdom and Poetry, which they poured into three vessels called Óðrerir Boðn and Són.
Blood and honey are two interesting metaphors: here blood marks the loss of life; honey is known for its healing, nourishing and life-giving qualities. So the mead contains the bitter-sweet energies out of which rarefied, golden poetic awareness arises.
The mead changed from being an active presence (Kvasir), to being a passive but potent elixir that needed external force to propel it. It contained information about these polarities too. Fjallar’s and Gallar’s further murderous acts led them to be pursued by Suttung, a Giant who threatened them with death. They gave up the mead to save their own lives. Again the mead is associated with a negotiation between life and death.
Suttung also wanted to keep the mead to himself and carried it off to “Clashing Rock” a mountain whose name suggests mythical challenge. He placed it in the guardianship of his daughter Gunnlöð, whose name meaning “Battle Invitation/Hospitality” suggests a kind of warmth or cordiality that can arise out of conflict, harking back to the events that caused Kvasir’s creation. Her name also “harks forward” to her conflicted yet intimate and possibly warm relationship with Odin.
Kvasir readily shared wisdom, but he died because he advertised his ability. The dwarf and giant contingent wanted to hoard the advantage. The dwarves are a male-only race, which begs the question can true wisdom really stay exempt from the influence of the feminine? The giants, as wise and peaceable as some are, tend towards destruction and chaos. Can wisdom be wisdom without the re-balancing factors of creation and order?
The mead wasn’t going to go any further inside Clashing Rock, it had to be released in order to evolve. Should wisdom be secreted? Kvasir’s fate suggests possibly so. However, the exclusive possession of knowledge is something that consumes us still in an age of fake news and obfuscation. The suppression of truth is the tool of power. People will kill others to entirely possess what they know and keep the truth as a private asset for personal or factional gain. This myth is far from quaint and antiquated! The release of the sacred mead required the cunning, detachment and courage of a divine hero.
The Prose and Poetic Eddas corroborate each other in some aspects of Odin’s part in the story: he assumed a false identity “Bolverk”, using deception and guile to gain possession of the mead; he married Gunnlöð, either formally or informally; in both cases the mead was transferred from Gunnlöð to Odin; and in both cases Odin left Gunnlöð, escaping Suttung with the mead.
In the Prose Edda Gunnlöð simply agreed to lay with Odin/Bolverk for three nights and in exchange she offered him three drinks of the mead. Odin however stretched the agreement to mean emptying each of the three vessels entirely, one for each so-called “drink”!
In the Poetic Edda Odin swore a “ring-oath” which implies a formal marriage ceremony, after which Gunnlöð was left weeping because of Odin’s departure. Did she weep only because she was seduced and betrayed, or because she willingly helped him escape and then missed him? Translation variants add their own weight to certain ideas.
At face-value narrative, this tale could be enlisted into socio-political complaints pertaining to the “battle of the sexes”. If we read the myth only at that level we will miss a trick, failing to grasp how sacred and initiatory Gunnlöð’s and Odin’s union was. Even so, in my copy of the Poetic Edda (Sayings of the High One, verses 104 – 110) , Odin speaks of Gunnlöð with some respect, owning his treatment of her, describing her as “that good woman” and admitting he may never have escaped without her help. His tone is partly regretful, although he rejoiced that the mead had “come up” to Asgard. Odin had been initiated into the nature of feminine integrity and was duly indebted to it.
Lets “zoom out” of the drama and note the fundamental transactions described, from a shamanic perspective, referring to the symbolic imagery used in the Prose Edda.
Odin recaptured the mead by months of preparation. Initially he struck a deal with Suttung’s brother Baugi; within Odin’s Wyrdly provocative presence nine of Baugi’s land labourers accidentally killed themselves. Odin agreed to complete their scything work. Odin then persuaded Baugi to drill a hole in the mountainside to obtain the mead; at the life-or-death moment Odin tricked Baugi, turned into a snake, gaining access through the drilled channel, escaping Baugi’s death-blows. He entered the mountain/earth, the place of the feminine. Odin and Gunnlöð struck their deal, slept together for three nights and she transferred the mead to him. He turned into an eagle, escaping, but chased by Suttung, also turned into a bird of prey.
Snakes are symbols of death and transformation in many cultures. In the Northern tradition it is no different, for example, the Midgard Serpent is a giant that caused the flooding and destruction of Midgard at Ragnarök; yet after a while a new world emerged from the waters.
Odin, the creator-God in snake form suggests not only a phallic symbol but also the sperm that undergoes a life-threatening journey through an alien environment to get to its goal. In this new context the vessels, Óðrerir, Boðn and Són, could be seen as the uterus and ovaries, feminine organs of life and nurture resting as they do within the mountain/earth/body.
Odin must undergo a symbolic death to meet with the nature of the feminine; as a sperm literally does when it breaks through the membrane of the ovum in order to fertilize it. We must let go of our fears to meet with and learn from “the other”.
The alchemical marriage
The vessels’ names provide an etymological basis for consideration. “Óðrerir”, meaning stirrer of spirit/ecstasy/poetry is closely related to “Odin” and so represents the active masculine principle. Boðn probably means “vessel” and therefore relates to the feminine power of holding; the sacred cauldron which contains the alchemical potential. Són probably means “blood” or “reconciliation”. “Blood” in this new context could mean life and the creation of blood-kin. It’s other meaning – reconciliation – is a signifier of the sacred harmonization of the masculine and feminine, not only sexually, but spiritually and energetically. It again echoes the truce achieved by the Aesir and Vanir Gods.
Not only is biological life produced this way, but inspiration is released into the world, the inspiration of a dynamic harmony between polar opposites, masculine and feminine, which is both a tribute to their difference and their potentially powerful creative combination. As Odin consumes the mead he is nourished by the wisdom of the feminine and the sacred triad of energies it makes possible. Empowered, he transforms into an eagle and flies, conquering death once more.
The most iconic eagle in the mythologies is the one who sits at the top of the World Tree. Sometimes I think of the world tree as a shamanic representation of the human body. Then the eagle becomes the brain: the nerve centre receiver and transmitter of message and insight, the ultimate reconciler of information. Eagles have amazing eyesight too, so what Odin’s re-birth via the feminine afforded him was an expansive visionary awakening.
However, when Suttung, a Giant, transforms into an eagle, we are reminded that the eagle is a bird of prey. The flapping of its great wings creates wind, a chilling element often associated with death. Even as we are born we are pursued by death, which is unavoidably true and there is very little escape from this fact in the Northern Tradition.
Odin had to complete the journey initiated by Kvasir because although Kvasir knew everything, as a new being he was inexperienced and fallible. Odin was greatly experienced, cunning and ingenious; skeptical enough to protect himself and open enough to want to know more. This myth also compares the qualities of youth and age. Odin ensured the winning and widest dispersal of the mead; he who faced death consciously, not gullibly or accidentally.
This myth is as rich in meaning as the mead is rich in nourishment. Another aspect to consider is the role of Odin and Gunnlöð in the ancient rites of sovereignty. Odin was a sovereignty god which means he was associated with the lineage of kings. The heathen Anglo-Saxon kings named Woden (Odin) as their divine ancestor.
Rulers were only “sovereign” because they underwent ritual that conferred spiritual power upon them via the feminine, the sacred keeper of human and land fertility-wisdom. This initiated the king into co-operation with the land which supported him and his people.
Gunnlöð, as a Giantess is a force of nature personified. She resides with symbols of succour and wisdom (the mead) inside the earth/mountain. She agrees to transfer this great spiritual power to Odin by sexual union. The Poetic Edda associates Gunnlöð with the mead and a royal symbol in one sentence. Odin says:
“Gunnlöð gave me on her golden throne
a drink of the precious mead;”
Odin is now sitting on a throne, the one Gunnlöð is empowered to assign him through the mead, a sacramental agent that sanctifies their transformative union. It is also interesting to recall that Odin became a land worker, in the initial stages of his protracted ruse, assuming a direct relationship to the earth in order to eventually gain the “power drink”, as mead is often called.
This final episode in the myth concludes the epic journey of the mead with what I believe is its apotheosis, the realization of self (or “self-sovereignty”) through the reconciliation of the masculine and the feminine. This myth has universality for men and women. We all have recourse to masculine and feminine attributes within us – we are all part Gunnlöð and part Odin. We must all endeavour to access the latent wisdom within and if we do, external reconciliation is more likely to follow.
Eagle-Odin was so full of mead he had to defecate and so the mead scattered downward onto humans in Midgard, giving them wisdom and poetry too. I wonder if this is where the old wives’ tale comes from, concerning the supposed luck conferred upon you by bird poo!
Eventually Odin brought the majority of the mead back home to Asgard, via the essential participation of diverse beings in the World Tree and by virtue of a sacred initiation conducted through the feminine principle.
The circle is joined, the story is complete and potentially, so are we!
This article was by shamanic practitioner Rosemary Taylor. She gives rune readings via Skype, phone and in person by arrangement, or you can join her Facebook group, Rune Wisdom Update. She regularly runs courses in Glastonbury, Somerset, on all to do with the Northern Tradition, plus shamanic healing services are also available after consultation, including in-depth soul retrieval work, power animal healing and trauma clearing processes.
Visit www.sacredhill.co.uk for more details or email enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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