Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas
“Rati’s mouth I caused
To make a space,
And to gnaw the rock;
Over and under me
Were the Jötun’s ways:
Thus I my head did peril.”
Hávamál (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 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 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.”
Hávamál (Thorpe’s tr.).
B. E. Ward
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 his songs.
“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 Æsir, Odin,
And of horses, Sleipnir;
Bifröst 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 gentlest aspect.
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.