Kvasir is attested to in the Prose Edda and in Heimskringla, as well as in skaldic poetry, in which it is said that he is wisest among the gods. He is not a major deity, however he is an important figure in the lore, in relation to Óðin and skaldic tradition.
Bragi explains to Ægir (a Jötunn god of the sea, and friend to the Æsir) that the gift of poetry came into the world through Kvasir, who was born when the Æsir and the Vanir came to a truce and “spit on it,” sealing their pact with the spit of all the gods of both tribes. Out of this mixture, and the desire for cosmic peace, arose Kvasir.
In an alternate telling, Kvasir is one of the Vanir hostages who is exchanged along with Freyr, Freya and Njörðr, and he brought with him his gifts of eloquence and diplomacy.
Kvasir was renowned for spreading wisdom and spiritual teachings wherever he went. He helped the gods capture Loki after the trickster ran off, having given himself away as the hand behind Baldr’s death. Kvasir helps Thor capture Loki (who had taken the form of a salmon) by recreating a fishing net out of the ashes and charred pattern of Loki’s own fishing net from the giantess Rán.
Kvasir goes on to continue spreading his wisdom until he is slain by two dwarfs, Fajalarr and Galarr. They mix Kvasir’s blood with honey, and a mystical substance is the result: a magical mead called Óðrerir. This divine substance was later fiercely guarded by Óðin, who bestowed it upon the world’s first poets – who in turn passed this gift on to the rest of humankind.
The murderous dwarfs were eventually forced to trade Óðrerir to the jötunn Suttung, after viciously killing his parents. Realizing the amazing prize he had won, Suttung hid the mead of poetry deep within a mountain, over which his daughter, Gunnlöd kept watch.
Suttung however, bragged and boasted that he had hoarded a treasure beyond measure, and such words came fast enough to the ears of Óðin. Donning the form of a farmer, Óðin set out for Jotunheim, offering his servitude to Suttung’s brother, Buagi.
After a long year of laboring in the fields, the disguised god asked Baugi for a drink of the sacred mead in payment for his work. The hapless giant drilled a small hole through the side of his brother’s mountain where the mead of poetry was hid. Óðin immediately changed himself into a serpent and slithered through the hole, and on the other side, within a cavern deep inside the mountain, he met a giantess.
Suttung’s lonely daughter, Gunnlöd immediately fell in love with Óðin, and he persuaded her to let him take three sips from Óðrerir over their three days and nights together. After three “sips” however, Óðin managed to drink all of the mead. He transformed once more, into the form of an eagle, and returned to Ásgard.
According to folklore, the colour of the mead of poetry was a rich, dark crimson. After Óðin drained the mead, the containers were cast out onto the earth, splashing the dregs upon the ground. Beets were said to have gotten their colour from these drops. Kvasir seems to have been important to the ancient Norse as a god of peace-making and mead production.
Thoughts on Kvasir
Kvasir is a “dead god” of creative inspiration, poetry and diplomacy. He is not an independent being, so much as belonging to Óðin, as the All-Father’s muse. Having been absorbed by Óðin, the All Father is looked to by most modern North pagans as the god of poetry.
More of an Alfar, Kvasir is among the exalted dead, and his ancestral memory is sometimes invoked in North pagan ceremony. Spiritual work with him is likely to involve Óðin.
Kvasir perhaps can be thought of as a different, distinct side of Óðin, like Frigga and her handmaids. Skaldic tradition holds that skalds began poetry sessions by referencing how the All-Father initiated them by giving them a sip of Óðrerir to drink. There’s no evidence that there was a cult dedicated specifically to Kvasir, but consumption of an alcoholic beverage in which he symbolically resided may indeed have been a part of skaldic initiations. As the god of ritual drink-sharing, Kvasir is sometimes called upon to help with sumbel or ritual toasting. He can be thought of the sacred present during a sumbel or blót, and called upon to help them go well.
Poetry and metaphor are the language of the divine, capable of describing the immortal and incomprehensible in human language. It is the medium through which the spiritual teachings of the North were passed on. Óðrerir means “Stirrer of Inspiration” or “Wod-stirrer.” Wod is the spark of passion or creative drive within you, which manifests whenever you feel the urge to jump in and give yourself whole-heartedly to an activity. It shows up both in artistic inspiration, berserker frenzy, and sexual passion.
The ritual imbibing of psychotropic substances (in which the spirit of a god dwells) can be found in traditions around the world. In Christianity, the Communion wine comes to mind. In some historical Hindu practices, a sacred drink is consumed in ritual called Soma. Soma is also the name of a deity who was transmuted into the liquid, which was safeguarded by the god Indra, who stole Soma similar to the way to Óðin stole Óðrerir: by taking the form of an eagle.
As the god-turned-substance who brings both wisdom and madness, and whom was struck down by primordial entities (dwarfs/titans), Kvasir has archetypal connections with Dionysus of Greece. As Christianity, Hinduism, and Hellenism share a common Indo-European cultural-religious seed, we can assume this is the same deity expressing himself through these differing cultural lenses.
Modern scholars have noted a connection between Kvasir and the Holy Grail of Celtic legend. This was a filled chalice which could restore wisdom to a land which had fallen into chaos. The Grail is depicted as having a consciousness of its own, speaking to the knights of the round table in dreams, and calling them to it. Skalds had the power, through their songs, praises or roasts, to make, restore, maintain or tear down the reputation of rulers. Just so, the Grail had the power to return to Arthur the power to rule.
Folklorists have noticed similarities between Kvasir and the English figure, John Barleycorn, a divine being whom is ritually consumed by his worshipers.
Suggested Signs and Symbols
Mead, and other festive alcoholic drinks. Toasts, saliva, “spitting on it” truces, poems, skalds and bards. Beetroot, ritual drinking horns, cups and chalices.
Óðrerir, John Barleycorn