Where did poetry come from? According to Snorri, it is the gift of Odin—but Snorri’s tale of the honey-mead that turns all drinkers into poets is dismissed by modern critics as “one of his more imaginative efforts.”
The tale tells us more about this 13th-century Icelandic chieftain—poetry and mead being two of Snorri Sturluson’s favorite things—than it tells us what people really believed in pagan Scandinavia. Like most of what we think of as Norse mythology, it was written to impress the 14-year-old king of Norway.
As I learned while researching his life for my biography, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Snorri traveled to Norway in 1218 expecting to be named to the post of King’s Skald.
Skalds, or court poets, had been a fixture at the Norwegian court for 400 years. They were swordsmen, occasionally. But more often, skalds were a king’s ambassadors, counselors, and keepers of history. They were part of the high ritual of his royal court, upholding the Viking virtues of generosity and valor. They legitimized his claim to kingship. Sometimes skalds were scolds (the two words are cognates), able to say in verse what no one dared tell a king straight. They were also entertainers: A skald was a bard, a troubador, a singer of tales—a time-binder, weaving the past into the present.
We know the names of over 200 skalds from before 1300, including Snorri, one of his nieces, and three of his nephews. We can read (or, at least, experts can) hundreds of their verses: In the standard edition, they fill a thousand two-column pages. What skalds thought important enough to put into words provides most of what we know today about the inner lives of people in the Viking age, what they loved, what they despised. The big surprise is how much they adored poetry.
But when Snorri came to Norway for the first time in 1218, he found that the 14-year-old king despised Viking poetry. King Hakon would rather read the romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table than hear poems recited about the splendid deeds of his own ancestors. He thought skaldic poetry was too hard to understand.
He was right about that.
I think of skaldic poetry as a cross between a riddle and a trivia quiz. The riddle part involves disentangling the interlaced phrases so that they form grammatical sentences. The quiz part is the kennings. As I wrote earlier in this series, Snorri defined kennings and may even have coined the term. “Otter of the ocean,” for a ship, is an easy one, as is “spear clash” for battle. It’s a double kenning if you call a sword “fire of the spear clash,” and you can extend it even further by calling a warrior “wielder of the fire of the spear clash.”
It can take a while to solve these puzzles. But once you have, the meaning of a skaldic poem was often a letdown. As one expert in Viking poetry sighs, “When one has unravelled the meaning behind the kennings, one finds that almost a whole stanza contains only the equivalent of the statement ‘I am uttering poetry.’”
Young king Hakon was not the only king of Norway to acknowledge he had no taste for the stuff.
But Snorri thought skaldic poetry was wonderful. He also saw it as his ticket to power at the Norwegian court. Everyone knew the best skalds were Icelanders. Being a skald had for generations been a way for an Icelander to get a foot in the door at the court of Norway. It was a mark of distinction, and Snorri had fully expected it to work in his case.
It didn’t. Snorri went home to Iceland in 1220 disappointed. He began writing his Edda to introduce the young king to his heritage. To convince King Hakon of the importance of poets, Snorri made up the tale of how Odin gave men the gift of poetry. According to one scholar, his tale perverts an ancient ceremony known from Celtic sources. To consecrate a king a sacred maiden sleeps with the chosen man, then serves him a ritual drink. Snorri turns it into a comic seduction scene: one night of blissful sex for a lonely giant girl in exchange for one sip of the mead of poetry.
Here is how I tell it in Song of the Vikings:
The story begins with the feud between the Aesir gods (Odin and Thor among them) and the Vanir gods (who included the love gods Freyr and Freyja). They declared a truce and each spat into a crock to mark it.
Odin took the spittle and made it into a man. Truce-man traveled far and wide, teaching men wisdom, until he was killed by the dwarves. (They told Odin that Truce-man had choked on his own learning.)
The dwarves poured his blood into a kettle and two crocks, mixed it with honey and made the mead of poetry. To pay off a killing, the dwarves gave the mead to the giant Suttung, who hid it in the depths of a mountain with his daughter as its guard.
Odin set out to fetch it. He tricked Suttung’s brother into helping him, and they bored a hole through the mountain. Odin changed into a snake and slithered in, returning to his glorious god-form to seduce Suttung’s lonely daughter. He lay with her for three nights; for each night she paid him a sip of mead. On the first sip, he drank dry the kettle. With the next two sips, he emptied the crocks.
Then he transformed himself into an eagle and took off. Suttung spied the fleeing bird. Suspicious, he changed into his giant eagle form and made chase. It was a near thing. To clear the wall of Asgard, Odin had to squirt some of the mead out backwards—the men who licked it up can write only doggerel. The rest of the mead he spat into the vessels the gods had set out. He shared it with certain exceptional men; they are called poets.
So whenever you hear a really bad poem, imagine the poet on his hands and knees outside the wall of Valhalla, licking up bird droppings.
Image: Mead of Poetry from an Icelandic manuscript by Ólafur Brynjúlfsson
Nancy Marie Brown is the author of Song of the Viking: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, a biography of the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain and writer, Snorri Sturluson. She blogs at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com.