WHEN THE AESIR and the Vanir had made a truce, and settled terms for a lasting peace, every single god and goddess spat into a great jar. This put the seal on their friendship, and because the Aesir were anxious that no one should forget it, even for one moment, they carried off the jar and out of the spittle they fashioned a man.
His name was Kvasir. He was so steeped in all matters and mysteries of the nine worlds since fire and ice first met in Ginnungagap that no god nor man nor giant nor dwarf ever regretted putting him a question or asking his opinion. And wherever Kvasir went, news of his coming went before him. When he reached some remote farm or hamlet, sewing and salting and scything and sword-play were laid aside; even children stopped chattering and listened to his words.
What was his secret? It was as much in his manner as in his mine of understanding. Questions of fact he answered with simple facts. But to ask Kvasir for his opinion — What shall I say? What do you think? What shall I do? — did not always mean getting a direct answer. Sitting back in his ill-fitting clothes, as often as not with his eyes closed, he would listen to recitals of problems and sorrows with a kind, grave, blank face. He took in and set everything in a wider frame. He never intruded or insisted; rather, he suggested. Often enough he answered a question with another question. He made gods and men, giants and dwarfs feel that they had been helped to answer their own questions.
The stories of Kvasir’s wisdom soon reached the ears of a most unpleasant pair of brothers, the dwarfs Fjalar and Galar. Their interest soon turned to envy and their envy to energy, for they could not admire anything without wanting it for themselves. They asked Kvasir to feast with them and a large gathering of dwarfs in their cave under the earth and, as was his custom, Kvasir accepted. The table was a long slab of uneven rock, the floor was grit and the wall-hangings were dripping stalactites; the talk was chiefly of profit and loss and petty revenge; the food, however, and the tableware, all made of hammered gold, were rather more pleasing.
After the feast, Fjalar and Galar asked Kvasir for a word in private. Kvasir followed them into a gloomy chamber, and that was a mistake. The two dwarfs had knives hidden in their sleeves, and at once they buried them in the wise man’s chest. His blood spurted out of his body and Fjalar and Galar caught it all in two large jars, Son and Bodn, and a cauldron called Odrorir. Kvasir’s heart stopped pumping and his drained white body lay still on the ground.
When, after a while, the Aesir sent a messenger to ask after Kvasir, the two dwarfs sent back word that he had unfortunately choked on his own learning, because there was no one in the nine worlds well- informed enough to compare and compete with him.
But Fjalar and Galar were delighted with what they had done. They poured honey into the jars and cauldron filled with Kvasir’s blood, and with ladles stirred the mixture. The blood and honey formed a sublime mead: whoever drank it became a poet or a wise man. The dwarfs kept this mead to themselves. No one else tasted it ; no one even heard about it.
One day the dwarf brothers entertained two gruesome guests, the giant Gilling and his wife. It was not long before they began to quarrel and Fjalar and Galar became more and more spiteful and full of hate. They suggested that Gilling might enjoy the sea breeze, and each taking an oar, rowed far out into the ocean surrounding Midgard. Then the dwarfs rammed their boat into a slimy, half-submerged rock. Gilling was alarmed and gripped one gunwale. His alarm was well-founded ; the boat foundered and capsized. Gilling was unable to swim and that was the end of Gilling! The two dwarfs cheerfully righted their craft and rowed back home, singing.
Fjalar and Galar described what had happened to Gilling’s wife.
‘An accident,’ said Fjalar.
If only he had been able to swim,’ Galar said sadly.
Gilling’s wife wept and wept and, sitting in their cave, the two dwarfs did not like the feel of the tepid water washing round their ankles. ‘I’ve an idea,’ whispered Fjalar to his brother. ‘Find a millstone, and go and wait above the entrance to the cave.’
Galar got up and went outside and Fjalar asked the giantess: ‘Would it help if you looked out to sea? I could show you the place where he drowned.’
Gilling’s wife stood up, sobbing, and Fjalar stepped aside for her as befits a host. And when the giantess stepped out into the daylight, Galar dropped the millstone on to her head.
‘I was sick of her wailing,’ said Fjalar.
When Gilling and his wife did not return to Jotunheim, their son Suttung set out in search of them. He looked at the dwarfs’ dismal faces and listened to their lengthy tales and then he seized both of them by the scruffs of their necks.
Holding one in each hand, a pair of danglers, he angrily waded a mile out to sea, until it was too deep even for him. Then Suttung dumped Fjalar and Galar on a skerry, a sopping rock standing just clear of the water. ‘It’s much too far for you to swim,’ he said. ‘Much too far. So when the tide rises …’
Fjalar looked at Galar and both brothers grimaced.
‘We’ve a suggestion,’ said Fjalar.
‘Since it has come to this,’ said Galar, ‘we’re willing to offer you our greatest treasure.’
Then Fjalar described their mead, both its origin and power, with a wealth of words.
‘Give us our lives,’ said Galar, ‘and we’ll give it to you.’ ‘Agreed,’ said Suttung.
So Suttung took the two dwarfs back to their cave and, since they clearly had no choice, they handed over Kvasir’s blood. The giant stumped back to Jotunheim, carrying Son in one hand and Bodn in the other and Odrorir under his arm. He took the precious liquid straight to the mountain Hnitbjorg where he lived. Suttung hewed a new chamber out of the rock at the heart of the mountain and hid the three crocks in it. And he told his daughter Gunnlod that she had one duty: ‘Guard this mead by day and guard it by night.’
Unlike the dwarf brothers, Suttung was boastful about his treasure. So it was not long before the gods learned about the divine mead, and heard how it had fallen into Suttung’s unholy hands. Odin himself elected to go to Jotunheim and bring the mead back to Asgard. The Masked God, the One-eyed God, God of the Gods, disguised himself as a giant of a man, and called himself Bolverk, worker of evil. He crossed the river that divided Asgard and Jotunheim and strode across a desert of shifting grey grit where nothing, not even a grassblade, could take root. Bolverk came to a curtain of mountains. He hurried over a snowy pass and at last walked dov!rn into a narrow green valley.
Nine thralls were working in a sloping field, men from Midgard with a taste for adventure and handsome reward. They were scything the succulent grass with long, slow sweeps, and seemed very weary.
‘Who is your master?’ Bolverk asked one thrall who had stopped work entirely.
‘Baugi,’ said one thrall.
‘Suttung’s brother,’ the thrall said, ‘the giant who guards Kvasir’s blood.’
‘Shall I sharpen your scythe?’ asked Bolverk affably.
The thrall was rather quick to agree to this, and when Bolverk drew a whetsione from his belt and began to put a new edge on the scythe, the other thralls crowded round in the hope he would hone their scythes too. Bolverk obliged, and the thralls all said that theirscythes had never been quite as sharp before; they complained that the giant Baugi was too hard a taskmaster; they pointed to acres of grass, still uncut, that lay before them; coming to the point, the thralls asked whether they could buy the hone.
‘I might think about selling it,’ said Bolverk, ‘but only to one man; and only to the one — if there is such a man here — who will feast me tonight in the manner to which I’m accustomed.’
The air was filled with shouts of agreement. ‘Yes,’ the thralls shouted. ‘Yes … Me … I will . . . Here … All right … I’m your man … Done … Agreed … Your hand on it!’
Bolverk looked at them with his one eye. He smiled grimly. Then he threw the whetstone into the air. In the sun it glinted, it looked like silver.
The thralls gasped. They raised their scythes and ran, all of them eager to be under the whetstone when it fell. It seemed to hang in the air, so high had Bolverk tossed it. The thralls jostled, they stepped backwards, they suddenly swung round; and in the end, in their confusion, they all slit one another’s throats. The nine of them lay in the long grass they had just cut.
Still smiling grimly, Bolverk caught the whetstone, tucked it into his belt, and walked back the way he had come.
The sun dawdled, and so did Allfather. Not until nearly midnight did he come down from the mountains again, and make his way to Baugi’s farm. He said his name was Bolverk and explained that he had been walking all day. Then he asked Baugi if he could give him some kind of a meal and let him stay overnight in one of the huge barns near to the farmhouse.
‘A fine time to ask,’ said Baugi abruptly.
Bolverk looked pained and asked Baugi what was wrong.
‘All my farmhands have been killed. That is what’s wrong!’ Baugi banged his fist on a trestle table, a blow so powerful it would have flattened a man’s head. ‘All nine of them. And how can I hope to find any more at this time of year?’
‘I’ve an idea,’ said Bolverk. ‘You can see I’m strong. Very strong. I can take on the work of nine men.’
Baugi looked Bolverk up and down, and smiled in disbelief, thinking Bolverk was a hollow boaster. ‘And if I agreed, what wages would you ask?’
‘Only this,’ said Bolverk. ‘One drink of Suttung’s mead.’
Baugi sniffed and shook his head.
‘I may be strong,’ said Bolverk. ‘But to be a poet: that’s the finest calling.’
‘That mead is nothing to do with me,’ said Baugi. ‘My brother has it in his safe-keeping; and no one except Gunnlod has ever seen a drop of it. That’s how things are.’
‘Well,’ said Bolverk. ‘Those are my terms.’
Baugi shrugged his shoulders and so Bolverk got up to leave.
‘I can talk to Suttung,’ said Baugi. He had little love for his brother; but he felt sure that, in any case, Bolverk would never be strong enough to keep his part of the bargain. ‘Work for me this summer, and I’ll tell my brother how you helped me out. That’s the best I can do.’
‘How far can I trust you?’ said Bolverk.
‘You’ll see,’ said Baugi.
For as long as the long days, Bolverk worked for Baugi. As the sun climbed out of the east, Bolverk walked to the green fields still thick with the honey-dew that fell every night from the branches of Yggdrasill. All day he worked under the bright skull of the sky. He worked while the sun hurried west until it seemed to hang, blood red, on the western skyline. Baugi was amazed that Bolverk was as good as his boast, and seemed to need so little rest ; bethought now that Bolverk must be more than merely human.
At the end of the summer, Bolverk asked Baugi for his wages. They went together to find Suttung at Hnitbjorg, and Baugi told his brother how Bolverk had helped him and asked for some of the divine mead.
‘Never,’ said Suttung. ‘Not a drop!’
‘Well,’ said Bolverk as soon as he was alone with Baugi, ‘I hope you’re not going to accept Suttung’s answer. I’ve worked for you all summer.’
‘I’ve kept my promise,’ Baugi said.
‘Why should he have it all for himself?’ said Bolverk. ‘Don’t you fancy a mouthful, Baugi? Since your brother won’t part with the mead willingly, let us see if we can trick him out of it.’
‘Impossible,’ said Baugi. ‘Do you know where it is hidden?’ He was rather nervous of Suttung; but he was also rather nervous of Bolverk. Bolverk pulled an auger called Rati out of his belt, and told the giant that with it he might be able to drill a hole through the mountain. ‘This is the least you can do in return for my work.’
Baugi took the auger and pressed the shank against the sheer rock face of the mountain Hnitbjorg; with both hands he turned the handle. He wondered how to get rid of the troublesome farmhand as he wound and wound and the auger sank into the mountain.
‘There!’ exclaimed the giant. ‘Right through!’ He withdrew the drill and wiped his brow.
Bolverk peered with his one eye into the dark passage left by the auger. Then he filled his lungs and blew fiercely into it. A shower of rock chippings blew back into his face, and Bolverk knew that Baugi had not, after all, cored the mountain. ‘Were you trying to cheat me?’ he said.
The giant said nothing. He drilled further into the mountain, vowing silently to dispose of Bolverk as soon as he could.
When Baugi withdrew the auger once more and Bolverk blew down the hole a second time, all the loose chippings were carried forward on the tide of air. Then Bolverk knew that the giant had bored right into the room at the heart of Hnitbjorg. At once he turned himself into a snake and shrithed into the auger hole.
Baugi stabbed at Bolverk with the point of the auger but he was not quick enough; the snake was already half-way down the passage on his way to Gunnlod and the divine mead. As soon as he reached the stronghold, Bolverk changed himself back into a giant of a man — one-eyed but handsome — and stood in front of Suttung’s daughter.
Gunnlod was sitting on a stool of solid gold. And at the sight of Bolverk, Suttung’s stern warning that she should guard the mead flew right out of her head. She was not sorry to have company. She sat and listened to Bolverk’s beguiling words and songs; she wrapped her arms around him; for three days they talked and laughed and for three nights they slept together. In the silent cave under Hnitbjorg, the heartless father of the gods made love to the spellbound daughter of Suttung. Then Gunnlod was drunk with passion and ready to give Bolverk whatever he desired. He asked for three draughts of Kvasir’s blood and Gunnlod took his hand and led him to the mead. With his first draught Bolverk emptied Odrorir, with his second draught Bodn, with his third draught Son. The father of the gods held all the divine mead in his mouth.
Then Odin turned himself into an eagle, flapped down the passage out of Hnitbjorg, and headed for Asgard. Suttung saw him and at once murmured the magic words known only to those who have drunk divine mead. Gods and giants and men and dwarfs saw a dark sight —one eagle pursuing another towards the kingdom of Asgard.
The Aesir quickly brought out jars and bowls, and laid them side by side so that they covered the whole courtyard just inside the great wall of Asgard. Anxiously they watched as Suttung came closer and closer to Odin.
The distant rustle became a whirr, and the whirr a terrible flapping and beating of wings. There was only a wingspan between the two birds. Then the eagle Odin dived in over the wall and spat the mead into the crocks assembled beneath him.
In his haste to escape Suttung, Odin could not help letting some mead spill outside the wall, but it was so little that the gods were not bothered about it. They said that anyone who wanted it could have it ; and that became the poetaster’s portion.
Suttung shrieked and wheeled away and shrieked again. He had lost through cunning what he had won through force, and there was nothing he could do.
And the gods? They had lost wise Kvasir, witness to the friendship between the Aesir and Vanir. But because of the cunning of Allfather, they had won back his blood. Once more Odin drank some of the precious mead. And from time to time he offered a draught to one of the Acsir or to a man or two in Midgard; he offered them the gift of poetry.