Soma Kvasir – The Eddic-Vedic Myth Of The Meath of Poetry

Every so often, we happen across some element that is clearly the same thing across two (or more) Indo-European cultures; and which, regardless of the otherwise impressive span of distance between them (whether distance of time, or mere geography), even a lay-person can immediately grasp that we are talking about the same concept. 

Unfortunately, this can be something of a double-edged sword. Since it is so clearly and self-evidently similar, sustained and in-depth examination as to the precise characteristics of the coterminity – how it is similar, and how deep the co-identicative elements truly go – can occasionally be forgotten about. People may just leave it and move on to more challenging areas, taking as read what has already been in front of them as a ‘problem already solved’. 

And this creates a further issue when we are dealing with elements from various less perfectly attested Indo-European mytho-religious spheres, because there are often ‘gaps’ in our comprehension of these that can really only be filled in with some modicum of completeness via a properly expansive and extrusive comparative approach. 

One of these, is the undeniable relationship between Vedic/Hindu Soma, and the Nordic/Germanic Mead of Poetry. 

Now, before we get into the perhaps surprising areas in which the #NAS mytholinguistic approach has helped to fill in the vessels in question, we shall first take a brief look at each of these in their native context. Before making the constellation of connectivity between them, and seeing what underlying truths shall emerge from this churning. A process which I believe, shall demonstrate that Snorri Sturluson, when penning his Skaldskaparmal, was actually being far more authentic – and drawing from a far deeper well – of Indo-European scripture and lore than many would otherwise presume to be the case. And, alongside this, that certain of the Hindu beliefs around Soma/Amrit that are often thought to be much later developments … are actually also, themselves, far older in initial origins and inspiration. 

First, the Mead of Poetry, as described to us in the aforementioned Skaldskaparmal. 

This has its origins as the result of a meeting between two groups of Gods – the Aesir and the Vanir – at which both spat into a vat, the congealed product of which was a personified figure named Kvasir. This Kvasir is renowned for his sagacious wisdom … which apparently does not extend to not taking at face value the honeyed words of Nordic dwarves – two of whom killed him, and drained his blood into another vessel named Odrerir, as well as two further named Bodn and Son, in order to manufacture an elixer capable of conferring upon its quaffer the potency of wisdom and eloquency previously possessed by Kvasir. When somebody got suspicious as  to Kvasir’s whereabouts, the dwarves calmly explained that Kvasir was dead, having choked upon his own intellect – having been literally too smart for his own good. 

The dwarves then proceed to kill twice more – first Gillingr, and thence his wife (via drowning, and a rock respectively); before the son of Gillingr, Suttungr catches up with them. He places the two dwarves out upon an area of raised sea-floor that shall be covered at high tide (which, in a way, is contrapasso – as it is a rock and drowning that shall kill them); before relenting from his course following their begging for their lives and offering him the Mead of Poetry made of Kvasir that they have hoarded for themselves. 

Suttungr places his newfound treasure (of wisdom), in a secure location known as Hnitbjorg, under the guardianship of his daughter,  Gunnlod. And there it would perhaps have stayed if not – as with so many things – for the Great God Odin. 

Via mechanism of infiltration, involving the self-sacrifice of nine Thralls and the inconveniencing of their former master, Baugi, Suttungr’s brother – Odin – gains a promise of being granted access to the Mead. Which is then fulfilled against the wishes of just about everybody else involved, following His turning of brother against brother and enlisting the assistance of Baugi armed with an augur-drill to bore into the Hnitbjorg where the Mead has been secreted away. 

Odin proceeds to transform into a snake and makes His way into the Hnitbjorg down through the path laid out for Him by Baugi, and encounters Gunnlod, the custodian of the treasure; seduces Her, and then after three nights of such, is given the three vessels of which He drinks in their entirety, before turning into an eagle – and flies off to make His escape, although not without a drop of the precious Mead falling to earth , afore it could be delivered unto The Gods. 

There, it is held under Odin’s power and aegis – to be dispensed also to particular human figures who are deserving, so that they might become sages and poets of great, particular, and perspicacious renown and ability. 

The Soma, meanwhile, has a rather more complex and multifaceted series of tales to it – attested in quite an extensive array of Vedic hymnals and subsequent scripture and custom. We shall not seek to comprehensively address these here; only to provide those elements which form a cohesive set of narrative arcs of direct comparative value to the above-aforementioned Skaldskaparmal account. 

The first of these concerns the obtainment of the Amrit, the Elixir of Immortality [literally same root – A’Mrit, Non-Death] following the Samudra Manthan [‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’] – which, like the circumstances that produced Kvasir, features two groups coming together and engaging in a co-operative exercise which results in a miraculous liquid … that is promptly made off with by a malevolent interloper. Except where there are a pair of dwarves in the Nordic version of the story – in the Hindu iterations, there is at least initially only one: the demon Svarbhanu. Although I say ‘initially’, as the next stage in the story has Svarbhanu being decapitated by Vishnu – with the two resultant portions of his body becoming two separate beings due to their having already drunken of the Amrit by the time that this fate arrives. 

Now, it should be noted that there are an array of elements inherent in the Samudra Manthan incident which do not strictly align with the development of the Kvasir in the Old Norse account; and there are a number of potential reasons for that which we may, perhaps, delve into at another time. But suffice to say, there is sufficient coterminity between the two accounts for there to be probative value in the mentioning of it here. Particularly as it is only one portion of the overarching narrative. 

Also, lest there be any confusion – Soma and Amrit are frequently held to be coterminous, although the specific sense of each is often a little different in terms of meaning. Amrit referring most importantly to one quality of the Elixir in question (and it is interesting to note that some Hindu authorities are quick to point out that the proper interpretation of the ‘Amrit’ in question is actually congealed wisdom and spiritual empowerment – as that is what provisions immortality, or is itself undying); whereas Soma represents the more general name – and is also more frequently to be found in the hands of those whose business is the dispensing of death, rather than merely seeking to dispense with death entirely. Curiously, there is potentially a rather strong etymological coterminity between ‘Soma’ and ‘Kvasir’ also – ‘kvass’ effectively means to press, squeeze, crush; while ‘Soma’ in its archaic Indo-Iranian predicate of ‘sau-ma’, directly means the same thing. As we shall see – this is not the only area wherein a clear functional cognate is expressed, despite being found in different terms in their respective languages of recording. 

The next portion of the comparison is simpler, yet more figurative. For at this stage in the myth, it is evident that there are a number of complimentary elements which come together in constellation to almost … dance around the heart of the truth of the matter. In some Hymnals, we have Indra visiting the dwelling of Tvastr, to quaff three vessels of the Soma. In other Hymnals, we have Indra availed by the Falcon Shyena Who brings the Soma to Him. In still other hymnals we have Saraswati pointedly identified as playing a key role in the Soma’s derivation. Upon a surface examination, it might all seem a disparate and discordant mess. Yet if you know what you are doing with the various correspondences of Vedic mythology – the aforementioned fundamental unity nevertheless cannot help but emerge. Or you can take the short-cut offered via the Nordic interpretation – wherein, perhaps somewhat ironically, all of these guises and facings are dispensed with, and we instead have Odin … the God Who is so often in Disguise, simply presented as Himself to our understanding. 

Here are the facts. Shyena is Agni, and Agni is Rudra-Shiva – the Sky Father [see, for example, RV II 1 6; or, for that matter, AV XIII 4; and note also the prominent symbolic association of Raptors with the Sky Father and linkage to the Heavens – for example, the classical Apotheosis]. Soumya / Soma Deva is also often regarded as being Shiva. Tvastr, too, has strong connexion to the Sky Father – although for more details upon that, you shall have to await a forthcoming article upon the subject. [There is an unmistakable series of identifications of Soma with the Sky Father to be found in SV VI 2 II, as well – which also includes the employment of the “Red Bull” iconography symbolic of the Sky Father … that may perhaps recall an entirely more modern beverage some imbibe in order to improve mental and physical acuity and ascend via its having “given you wings”.] 

What I am saying, to put it succinctly – is that where the Nordic account has Odin bringing the Mead of Poetry to the Gods in the form of an Eagle … in the Vedic account, we have Shiva, in various forms, doing much the same thing. Including, funnily enough, liberating it from a “mountain” while in Falcon form [RV I 93 6]. This avian symbolism being considerably furthered in the famed Agnicayana rite – wherein an immense altar is constructed in the shape of the aforementioned Fire Raptor, and Roudran rites (prominently featuring the number three – three arrows in the quiver, three perambulations pouring water) are performed to appease Rudra Who is to be found there, and to ask Him to bless the person for whom the ritual has been conducted with His boon. 

If you were looking at it in constellation with the Nordic account – you would straightaway realize what was happening. Odin as Eagle brought the Mead of Poetry, and it is under His Charge to dispense to worthy humans as He sees fit. Making them, we might say in our Vedic terms – a Rsi, a Sage, a Brahmin [to reference me the DeviSukta, RV X 125]. 

Here, Rudra [well known to be the same deity as Odin] is also to be found as Eagle, bringing the Soma and allowing its benefits to accrue to those worthies who have properly propitiated the Great God. It is, you might say, an act of immanentization via mythic resonancy and Eliadian Eternal Recurrence. 

However, in order to more properly appreciate what is happening here, and just how well it is that this aligns with the Nordic account, we must rewind somewhat in terms of the latter. To where the Mead of Poetry is to be found. 

In the Skaldskaparmal, it is hidden in Hnitbjorg – the Clashing Rocks. Or, if you like, the Pressing Stones. Some more modern interpreters of the myth have simply taken this as a rather direct reference to the notion of a magical mountain which can open and close in order to hide a most vital treasure within it. And perhaps this is how it was indeed recalled by Sturluson’s day. There is certainly that aforementioned Vedic attestation for Shyena liberating the Soma from a Mountain to be taken into consideration. And, for  good measure, various RigVedic Hymnals in which Brihaspati [Galdrfodr, we would perhaps say in Old Norse] ventures into a Mountain in order to claim precious liquid wealth.

Except ‘Pressing Stones’ (or ‘Clashing Rocks’) are exactly what we would perhaps expect to find if we were endeavouring to crush a certain plant in order to obtain its juice. ‘Kvasir’, remember? And as it happens, this is a well-known element in the preparation of the Vedic Soma – the application of the “Press-Stones”. 

The notion of the Hnitbjorg as being ‘merely’ a magical mountain – has indeed guarded quite the treasure within it. The fact that it is no literal mountain at all – but rather the recollection of just exactly what we find directly and repeatedly attested for us in the Vedic Hymns. Indeed, RV X 94 is directly addressed to the Press Stones – and makes repeated references therein to ‘ten workers’, and the like. Perhaps the nine thralls encountered by Odin as Bolverker (which makes ten – especially as Odin then proceeds to do their work), who are then presented with a most miraculous stone to be used for the sharpening of the instruments which cut and harvest plants, are a further recollection of this.

Yet it is the next swathe of our narrative arc wherein I found myself to be genuinely shocked by unexpected and unlooked for correspondency. 

We shall switch back to the parallel (if abbreviated in many respects) accounting of Odin’s obtaining of the Mead of Poetry to be found in the Havamal: 

“Gunnlod gave me from the golden throne
a drink of the precious mead;
a poor reward I let her have in return,
for her open-heartedness,
for her heavy spirit.”

This is, as you may recall, the instance wherein Odin spends three nights with Gunnlod

And then we shall dance over to the Shukla Yajurveda [Book XIX]: 

“11 When, a delighted boy, I bruised my mother as I sucked her breast,
Free from my debt, O Agni, I become thereby. My parents are by me unharmed.
United are ye all: with bliss unite me. Parted are ye, keep me apart from evil.
12 The Asvins, the Physicians, Gods, stretched out the healing sacrifice,
Sarasvatî with speech was a Physician, all with heroic powers investing Indra.
13 Symbols of Dîkshâ are grass buds, of Prâyanîya sprouts of corn,
Of Soma-purchasing fried grains are symbols, Soma-shoots and meath.
14 Âtithya’s sign is Mâsara, the Gharma’s symbol Nagnahu.
Three nights with Surâ poured, this is the symbol of the Upasads.
15 Emblem of purchased Soma is Parisrut, foaming drink effused:
Indra’s balm milked for Indra by the Asvins and Sarasvatî.
16 The Sacrificer’s seat is the throne’s symbol, the jar containing Surâ of the Altar.
The mid-space is the northern Altar’s symbol: the cloth for filtering is the physician.
17 Altar by Altar is produced, power, holy grass by holy grass.
The stake is by the stake obtained, by Agni Agni carried forth.
18 The Asvins are the Soma store, Sarasvatî the sacred hearth.
For Indra formed is Indra s seat, the Matrons’ Hall, the house-lord’s fire.”

Now there is much that can and should be said about the exegesis of these lines – however I shall restrict myself only to pointing out the more important direct correspondences with the Nordic equivalent verses. 

“[After Three Nights] Gunnlod gave me from the golden throne a drink of the precious mead;” and what do we see in the Vedic text aforementioned ? 

Much the same. There is a Throne, where the vessel containing the bright/golden liquid is to be found. There is a rather otherworldly female figure acting as the custodian thereof (and, I would argue, with reference to certain other scriptural materials, the ’empowerer’ and ‘invester’ thereof and also therewith]. There is a period of three nights’ duration for the pouring forth, the preparation and the consumption of the elixir. 

There is also a most surprising further point of coterminity – the name of Gunnlod, with the Sanskrit term Upasads. The former, effectively means ‘Invitation to Battle’. The latter, has the habitual complexity of many a Sanskrit term, but has the sense of an ‘approach’; which includes drawing near for piety or the dispensation of wisdom [this is also how we get ‘Upanishad’], but also quite specifically – warfare, sieging, marching against, assault. There is no doubt something rather amusing in the manner in which, if I am right, a term which is linked to “Wisdom” and “Piety” in Sanskrit (inter alia), has become a much more pointed and less-multi-faceted “Warfare” reference in the Old Norse iteration of the rite and scripture. In any case, the potential saliency for Upasads in this verse of the Soma preparatory rite, is likely itself also intentionally including the bellicose (as well as the bella) connotation – for as we have repeatedly seen, the usage of Soma amongst the Aryans was not only for sages to engage in acts of true-seeing and eloquent composition … but for warriors going to war against otherwise unwinnable odd. 

However, the actual correlate for Gunnlod, particularly in terms of the role in the story – is not simply to be found in a single word of Sanskrit. But rather, in the aforementioned functional role(s) of Saraswati in both the rite, as well as the broader universe, broader realm of myth from whence it descends. 

Now, what is Gunnlod to Odin? Well, for a brief period, His lover. Saraswati, in a RigVedic context particularly, as Vak – is what to Rudra-Shiva-Brihaspati? His Consort. And what do we find Vak declaring within the famed DeviSukta [RV X 125] ? Well, several rather important points for our purposes. Three of them, in fact. 

“I make the man I love exceeding mighty, make him a sage, a Ṛṣi, and a Brahmin.” – or, phrased another way, She empowers Her Consort with the might of a poet, a sage (a pattern which is repeated in RV X 71 4, wherein Vak empowering a Vedic Sage is described as “She [hath] shown her beauty as a fond well-dressed woman to her husband.”)

“I bend the bow for Rudra that his arrow may strike and slay the hater of devotion.”, along with “I cherish and sustain high-swelling Soma, and Tvaṣṭar” – i.e., a martial empowerment for Her Consort (interestingly, potentially via sound, as well; the ‘Humkara’ of a twanging bow-string, has resonancy here], along with an emotionally attached and ‘sustaining’ one which is specifically keyed to two aforementioned theonyms applicable to Shiva, and which are also irreducibly linked to the flow of Soma (thus presumably also explaining the next line, wherein Vak effectively declares that She is what makes the operation of the liquid rite under our sustained discussion actually produce its desired-for results)

“I rouse and order battle for the people” – or, phrased slightly differently … an “Invitation to Battle”, you might say. 

There are further elements that can be said about all of this, including the strong connexion of Devi to ‘The Waters’ which act as a liminal for the fringes of the universe, beyond which is to be found the power of Brahman – and which would therefore suggest that Soma as an elixer is a distilled and congealed imbibable sliver and portal of that [which links well into the broader Shakta metaphysics and cosmology that I have so often extolled earlier]; yet for now it is, perhaps, enough to note thatthis sudden revelation that the female custodian and empowerer of the Soma/Meath of Poetry is in fact Shiva-Odin-Rudra’s consort provides new light upon the meaning of a certain verse of the Havamal, aptly enough numbered 108 in the Bellows translation:  

“Hardly, methinks, | would I home have come,
And left the giants’ land,
Had not Gunnloth helped me, | the maiden good,
Whose arms about me had been.”

In any case, there is one final element to our narrative arc, before we move to some concluding remarks – and that concerns the transmission of the Soma to the Gods. This occurs in a number of forms, contingent upon the circumstances, and we have already parsed the two major ones – the Three Vessels held in the possession of Tvastr, and the direct delivery via the Falcon Shyena. Both of these have easy coterminity with the later Nordic account; however, as applies the latter means of conveyance, there is one perhaps surprising further overlap. 

The largest gathering of people upon this Earth, is the Kumbh Mela observance celebrated every three years in a processional cycle of four sites (one at the confluence of the three holiest rivers, three at one river each). A full accounting of the significance and meaning of various aspects of the Kumbh Mela is well beyond the scope of this piece; so we shall instead satisfy ourselves (for the moment) by noting that what is celebrated here … is the falling to Earth of precious drops of the Amrit with which we began the Hindu section of this piece, en-route to its delivery to The Gods. This has some resonancy with the portion of the Mead of Poetry spilled by Odin as He flies away to Asgard, its would-be possessor in hot aerial pursuit; although it must be noted that whereas the spillage which occurs in the Nordic tale is held to be responsible for poor verses (purple prose, perhaps), no such negative connotation has accrued to the accidental discharge of the Amrit. I mention this occasion not only due to its potentially aligning another section of the ‘narrative arc’ of the underlying Indo-European myth of the Meath – but also because it is, in another way, reflective of what has happened with Sturluson’s account of proceedings.

Various people will tell you that the Kumbh Mela is some sort of relatively recent interpolation, and that it is based on little-to-nothing other than a temporal need for such a gathering. That is to say – that it has no archaic mythic underpinning nor saliency. And yet, if I am correct in my alignment of tales, it is alternatively possible that what we find encoded in the Kumbh Mela’s reason for convening … is the same portion of the archaic Indo-European myth and understanding that both the Soma and the Mead of Poetry accountings are based upon. 

In other words, it is something irreducibly ancient, that has nevertheless kept on going and found more recent preservation, in such a manner as to be presumed to be rather dubious in its authenticity. 

Which is what I mean when I suggest that it might be somewhat ‘reflective’ of at least some of Sturluson’s writing in these areas. After all, while it is understandable to look seriously sideways at some of his contribution – what we have hopefully demonstrated within the span of this piece, is that there are too many equivalencies, too many direct and yet hidden co-expressive features, for the salient details of the story to have been wrought by Sturluson’s own hand. That these linkages are neither a coincidental accident; nor merely two vastly disparate and dysjointed remembrances that just so happen to inadvertently coincide amidst two genetically and linguistically ‘cousin’ peoples scattered across two and a half thousand years or more. 

Instead, it seems to me quite likely that what Snorri Sturluson played his part in preserving, via his accounts in both the Skaldskaparmal and Havamal, is a summarized synopsis of a ritual (or rituals) formula of basically the same form, concept, and function of rites as those which have come down to us in the Vedas in this area. It must have been pretty seriously redacted, and pared back, of course – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not – but nevertheless it is still eminently recognizable to us, here today, for what it is. If we know where and how to look. 

There are further elements within the Skaldskaparmal to do with the Mead of Poetry which can and should be subjected to sustained #NAS mytholinguistic analysis (particularly focusing upon the ‘functional’ elements of the elixir); and in a further, future piece which I have already begun the research for – I hope to do just that. 

But for now, ’tis but a taste. 

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