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Kvasir

Kvasir

In Norse mythology, Kvasir is a god created from the saliva of all the other gods as a pledge of peace after the war between the Aesir and the Vanir.

Indeed, the Aesir and the Vanir spat in the same cup to express their oath of reconciliation and then they formed this new god of the wisest from their saliva.

Kvasir was then murdered by the dwarves Fjalar and Galar who created the poetic mead by mixing his blood with honey. The mead then became an object of covetousness, and the god Odin ended up taking it for the benefit of the gods and the poets.

The strange myth of the birth of Kvasir from the spittle of the gods has served the criticism of scholars who do not support the seriousness of the whole text that transcribed it.

However, the myth of Kvasir has been compared to a Hindu myth, thus allowing to rehabilitate this story that would be an evolution of an original proto-Indo-European myth.

Etymology

The name Kvasir is said to be derived from the Old Slavic term kvasǔ meaning "fermented drink". Kvas is found today in some Scandinavian languages, it refers to crushed fruit in Jutland Danish, and to the mash of crushed fruit in Norwegian.

Mentions in the Eddas

The capture of Loki

Kvasir is first mentioned in chapter 50 of Gylfaginning in Snorri's Edda. This chapter tells of the capture of the evil god Loki by the Aesir, who intend to punish him for having caused the death of the god Baldr. Loki having fled hides in a house on a mountain.

Alone, he invents the fishing net. Then he sees the Aesir arrive in search of him and throws the net into the fire before hiding in the river, transformed into a salmon. Kvasir enters the house first and is described as "the wisest of all".

Seeing the ashes left by the net he understands its usefulness to catch fish, so the Aesir make one in turn. The Aesir divide into two groups and go up the river, eventually capturing Loki.

Kvasir's Murder and Poetic Mead

The only important myth concerning Kvasir is told in chapter 2 of the Skáldskaparmál part of Snorri's Edda, which explains his birth, his murder and the creation and fate of the poetic mead created from his blood.

In the Skáldskaparmál, the giant Ægir is invited to a banquet of the Aesir and he talks with Bragi. He asks him where the art of poetry comes from. Bragi then tells the myth of the poetic mead.

The peace between the Aesir and the Vanir is sealed when all spit in the same vat. The Aesir then create Kvasir from the spit so as not to lose the pledge of peace.

He is then killed by the dwarf brothers Fjalar and Galar who had invited him. They collect his blood in two vats called Són ("blood") and Boðn ("vessel"), and a cauldron called Óðrœrir ("that which excites the spirit"), mix it with honey and create mead that allows the one who drinks it to become a scalper and a scholar.

The dwarves claim that Kvasir choked on his knowledge. They later invite the giant Gilling and his wife, and kill them too. The giant's brother, Suttung, threatens to kill the dwarves but eventually gets redress through the gift of mead.

He takes the mead home to the "mountains of Hnitbjǫrg", and has it guarded by his daughter Gunnlöð.

The way in which Odin then recovers the poetic mead is also told, in less detail, in the Eddic poem Hávamál in stanzas 103 to 110.

Odin, disguised as Bolverk, takes lodging with the giant Baugi who is Suttung's brother. He offers to do the work of the giant's nine slaves who had previously killed each other thanks to Odin's trickery, in exchange for a sip of Suttung's mead.

But the latter refuses. Odin and Baugi then drilled the mountain containing the mead with a tendril and Odin slipped into the hole transformed into a snake.

The god then spends three nights with Gunnlöð, who allows him to take three sips of the mead. However, the god managed to swallow everything in three sips and flew away in the form of an eagle.

Seeing this, Suttung pursues him also metamorphosed into an eagle. When Odin arrived at Asgard, he regurgitated the mead in vats but some of it was lost due to precipitation.

This lost mead is then the share of the bad poets, whereas the mead kept is that of the Aesir and the true poets, and constitutes then a gift of Odin.

viking-jewelry

In the Saga of the Ynglingar

The Heimskringla is a work written around 1225 tracing the history of the kings of Norway, of which the first part, the Saga of the Ynglingar, explains the beginnings of the Swedish royal dynasty from which the Norwegian kings came.

To do this, the author Snorri Sturluson used the mythological sources at his disposal, and tells a strongly evhemeristic version of the Norse myths, so the gods are presented as men. According to chapter 2, Odin is a great warrior leader and magician from Asia ("Asaland") who is worshipped by his men.

Chapter 4 of the Saga of the Ynglingar tells of the war with the Vanir who then inhabit "Vanaland". When neither side wins, the two peoples decide to make peace by exchanging hostages.

The Vanir offer Niord and Freyr in exchange for the Aesir Hœnir and Mímir who is very intelligent. Then the Vanir also offer "the wisest of them all", Kvasir. There is no further mention of Kvasir in the book.

Theories

Ancient customs

In some archaic cultures, to accelerate the fermentation of fruits, men chewed berries and spit them into a container (this was a communal activity), which is reminiscent of the creation myth of Kvasir.

In addition, mixing saliva and swallowing intoxicating beverages in a fixed ceremonial place was an essential way of concluding a peace and union between archaic tribes, which would also attest to the antiquity of the myth.

An invented character

The details of the myth of Kvasir appear only in the texts of Snorri Sturluson, a scholar and poet who wrote his works around 1220-1225, a few centuries after the official Christianization of the last Viking kingdoms.

For the writing, he used preserved mythological poems, but doubts remain about the veracity of some stories, which may contain narrative inventions of the author.

For these reasons, the German scholar Eugen Mogk has questioned the reliability of Snorri's Edda as a serious source for Norse mythology, arguing that Snorri Sturluson used sources that are probably no more numerous than those available today.

Eugen Mogk considers that Snorri was more a creator than a witness of Norse myths. Thus Mogk asserts that the very existence of Kvasir and the creation of the poetic mead would be an invention or a misinterpretation.

Mogk believes that Snorri invented the name Kvasir by drawing on similarly constructed names of other characters in Norse mythology; Byggvir with bygg "barley," Eldir with eldr "fire," etc. He believes that Snorri overdid it by using the name Kvasir in his own words.

He believes that Snorri over-interpreted the kenning kvasis dreyri from a scaldic poem to mean poetry, which Snorri would have understood to mean "Kvasir's blood" (according to Mogk, this kenning translates rather as "the liquid kvas"), leading him to personify the poetic mead as Kvasir.

The dwarves would then have been logically designated as the creators of mead, since they are generally credited with making all divine equipment.

Snorri would then have been inspired by the traditional technique to accelerate the fermentation and to make a friendship to explain the existence of Kvasir.

Comparative mythology

Georges Dumézil openly challenged Eugen Mogk's theory as hypercritical in an attempt to "rehabilitate Snorri" through comparative mythology. He did note correspondences between Snorri Sturluson's Norse account of Kvasir's murder with another Hindu myth found in the Mahābhārata where the demon Mada, "drunkenness," is said to correspond to Kvasir.

The corresponding Norse and Indian myths are said to derive from an original proto-Indo-European myth. Indeed, among the Indians, the two Nasatya want to join the divine community, but Indra refuses, which causes a conflict.

The Nasatya then create the demon Mada capable of swallowing the universe in one bite. Scared, Indra agrees to let the Nasatya join them. The gods destroy the dangerous Mada in four parts and the intoxication is distributed between drink, women, play and hunting.

The obvious differences can be explained by the opposite evolution of Indian and Icelandic societies over time since the dispersion.

Drunkenness" is considered beneficial in the Nordic myth, and evil in the Indian, which however reflects the social reality where in India any intoxicating drink is bad.

A common pattern emerges; during the difficult constitution of the divine society by representatives of similar functions, two antagonistic groups make peace under the aegis of a character artificially created and embodying the drink or drunkenness.

This character of enormous power is split into several parts, for the benefit or misfortune of men. Georges Dumézil considers that the Germanic myth of Kvazir is undoubtedly more faithful to the proto-Indo-European myth, from which India would have departed more.