Being a writer often means one needs to have a certain amount of inspiration along with the perspiration to write. Although I write a fair amount for a living, sometimes the inspiration can be, well…, lacking. You might say the muse has left the building. Some people may even say the muse never entered with me, and occasionally I would agree with them. But since we’re talking heathenry, perhaps it might be a good idea to talk about the Mead of Poetry, since that seems to be most applicable to writers.
The Story of Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry
The full story about Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry is told in the Prose Edda written down by Snorri Sturluson, but there are references to it in the Havamal. It’s an older story, and one we may not have all the versions of, but at least we have a story. I won’t recite it in it’s entirety; there are many good sites that have the story line, and you’re welcome to read it in the text.
For those with the tl;dr attention span, here’s the basic story:
The gods craft a man named Kvasir from their spit (ewww) that is so wise and knowledgeable, that he goes around the world imparting his wisdom to those who would learn it. Somehow Kvasir didn’t get the memo that two dwarves named Fjalar and Galar were up to no good and killed him. They crafted the mead of poetry from his blood (another ewww), and anyone who drank from it was given great wisdom and poetry. To make a long story short, a Jotun eventually kills the dwarves and secrets the mead in a mountain with his daughter. Odin gets wind of this, goes undercover, seduces the daughter, steals the mead in his beak, and flees in the form of an eagle back to Asgard with the Jotun on his heels, errr… tail feathers? So close, he poops out some of the mead, which was not saved. (And anyone can partake of the bird droppings with predictable results.) The rest Odin give to the Aesir and doles out sparingly to those people gifted with poetry.
So, is it Bird Crap?
I look at the story as a metaphor for the creative process. I’m pretty sure it fits to most anything creative whether it is writing, music, crafting, or some sort of handiwork. We all start out as, well, crappy beginners. Some of us may be better or gifted with the mead of poetry, but most of us deal with bird crap. I use writing as an example. Writing is hard work for those of us who do it for a living and work at honing our craft. When we first start out as writers, we’re basically consuming the bird crap Odin left behind. Eventually, we get better, but it takes practice and study.
In the Mead of Poetry story, Odin doesn’t just trick the Jotun and get the mead. Oh no. He first comes across nine field workers of the brother (Baugi) of the Jotun (Suttung) who has the mead. He calls himself Bölverkr and tricks them into killing themselves and then goes and visits their master, who is perplexed by his misfortune. Bölverkr/Odin makes a deal to work for Baugi for the season and do all the work his nine dead workers would do in exchange for a sip of the mead. Baugi agrees and Odin does the work, but Suttung is none too keen on giving him a sip.
Odin convinces Baugi to help him get the mead. It takes a few setbacks and the Jotun nearly skews the All Father when he shape changes into a snake and slithers into the hole in the mountain. There, he changes back and beguiles the daughter who sleeps with him three nights for three drinks of mead. Odin drinks all three jars in three sips.
We can take this story at face value and find it amusing, or we can actually consider what it means. I suspect it is a metaphor for how we acquire our skills as creatives. Let me explain.
Looking at this story, I see Odin doing a load of hard work. He works a full season doing farm labor for just the chance of maybe getting a sip of the precious spit man’s blood. He manages to convince a Jotun to help him obtain it, only to be betrayed by him. Then, he has to woo the daughter to get the mead. Luckily she obliges. Suppose she didn’t? Hmmm, that would’ve been tragic, but this is Odin, and he manages.
He carries the mead in his bill when he changes into an eagle, and regurgitates it (ewww) for the Aesir as he returns so that the gods have it. He is dogged by Suttung, who may be a metaphor for failure, as Odin craps out lousy mead of poetry while regurgitating the good stuff.
What does this all Mean?
I’m guessing that our ancestors recognized that being creative was hard work, and took skill and perseverance. That being said, anyone can be a writer, but it takes talent and hard work to become an author of any merit (all you have to do is pick up some of the self published works to see what I mean.) I’m not saying all self-published work is bad; I’m saying that a goodly portion is because many people have not taken the time to hone their craft. It’s like someone learning to play a musical instrument. Unless you’re a child protege, chances are if you’re good at playing an instrument, you worked at it. Even then, I’d bet the child proteges work hard to learn and master their craft. It also means that most of what people do, whether it’s poetry, writing, music, art, or anything else creative, isn’t great. Apparently Odin only gifts a select few with the real mead and not the bird crap. No wonder that drink tasted odd…