Chapter 19. The Sacrificed Poet: Germanic Myths

As was previously shown, Starkaðr is the Odinic hero par excellence; he is given his poetic consecration by Odin, as well as his martial consecration; he is killed by an Odinic god. Odin, like Starkaðr, is closely associated both with war [1] and with poetry. [2] A number of myths cluster around the theme of Odin as poet, consecration myths showing how the god received his poetic wisdom, and the theme of the sacrificed poet is found in these myths (though sometimes the sacrifice is only partial). Thus a brief look at the poetic Odin and his consecrations will be valuable. Odin is a complex god; for the Dumézilian, he has associations in the first and second functions, possibly due to functional slippage; he is both the beneficent ruling father god and a maleficent Rudraic god (and here we might have first and second function duality again, for Rudra can be located in the dark aspect of the warrior caste). [3] It would be impossible to solve these problems or simplify Odin in this short chapter, but both aspects of Odin’s persona, dark and light, will be examined here.
The Ynglingasaga tells us, of Odin:
Mælti hann alt hendingum svá sem nú er þat kveðit, er skáldskapr heitir. Hann ok hofgoðar hans heita ljóðasmiðir, þvíat sú íþrótt hófsk af þeim í Norðrlöndum. Óðinn kunni svá gera, at í orrostu urðu óvinir hans blindir eða daufir eða óttafullir, en vápn þeira bitu eigi heldr en vendir, en hans menn fóru brynjulausir ok váru galnir sem hundar eða vargar, bitu í skjöldu sína, váru sterkir sem birnir eða griðungar. Þeir drápu mannfólkit en hvártki eldr né járn orti á þá. Það er kallaðr berserksgangr.
All he spoke was in rimes, as is now the case in what is called skaldship. He and his temple priests are called songsmiths, because that art began with them in the northern lands. [4] Óthin was able to cause his enemies to be blind or deaf or fearful in battle, and he could cause their swords to cut no better than wands. His own men went to battle without coats of mail and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were strong as bears or bulls. They killed people, and neither fire nor iron affected them. This is called berserker rage.
Ynglingasaga chapter 6 [5]
This collocation of skaldship and war madness is no accident; war madness and poetic madness are closely related, as we have seen in the case of Starkaðr (and Tyrtaeus). Thus Odin was pictured as actually singing damaging song-spells against opposing military forces, and protecting his own troops by runes. In the Hávamál, he uses rune magic for the following ends: stanza 148: he dulls the swords of his foes; stanza 150: he stays their spears; stanzas 156, 158: he protects his friends in battle; stanza 160: he brings victory. [6] One expects that his songs also caused berserker rage among his troops. [7]
Odin’s mastery of magic is connected with his gift for poetry. After a description of Odin’s many sources of occult knowledge (Mímir’s head, hanged men, ravens), the Ynglingasaga tells us that “By these means he became very wise in his lore. And all these skills he taught with those runes and songs which are called magic songs [charms]. For this reason the Aesir are called Workers of Magic.” [8] He used words to control the forces of nature, fire, wind, the sea, and guardians of buried treasure. [9]
Odin’s skill with poetry and war is linked to the fact that he is a specialist in madness—and poetry was seen as a form of ecstatic intoxication, as we shall see. His name, etymologically linked with the Latin uātēs ‘prophet, poet’, as well as with the Irish fáith ‘prophet’, means ‘rage, fury, possessed’. Old Norse Ōðinn is from Proto-Germanic *Wōðanaz, in turn from *Wātónos and the adjective *wātós; related words are Old Norse óðr, German Wut ‘rage, possession, fury’; Gothic wōths, ‘possessed’. Wodan is glossed by Adam of Bremen as furor, ‘[martial] madness’. Though Adam explicitly refers to the furor as military, a cognate word in English shows that Odin’s madness also has a poetic application: Old English wōð ‘chant’—presumably, madness-induced or madness-inducing song. [10] It is curious that a god should be “possessed” (by a higher god?), a “prophet” as it were. Apollo is prophet of Zeus, [11] but there a lesser god broadcasts the will of a higher god, while Odin heads his own pantheon.
Thus Odin, the war god, the magician, the poet, is “consecrated” with poetic wisdom. There are numerous attestations of this theme in Odinic mythology, all of them involving poetic sacrifice. The simplest of them is the story of Mímir’s well. Mímir had a well under a root of Yggdrasil, the world tree. [12] Mímir is a wisdom figure because he drinks from this well. [13] Odin went there and asked for a drink of the well, but was refused unless he left an eye as a pledge. The Völuspá shows that the springwater is seen as mead:
alt veit ek, Óðinn!
hvar þú auga falt:
í inum mœra
Mímis brunni;
drekkr mjöð Mímir
morgin hverjan
af veði Valföðrs
Vituð ér enn eða hvat?
Well know I, Ygg [Odin], where thy eye is hidden:
in the wondrous well of Mímir;
each morn Mímir his mead doth drink
out of Fjolnir’s [Odin’s] pledge: know ye further, or how?
Völuspá 28 [14]
Thus, poetic knowledge can come only at a price, the sacrifice of an eye, dismemberment. The theme of poetic knowledge as intoxication and madness is also here, for the water is mead. [15] In addition, we have the story, referred to in the previous chapter, of Odin hanging for nine days, “wounded with a spear,” apparently dead, as a result of which he receives magical and poetic wisdom, learning “nine mighty songs from the famous son of Bölthórn, father of Bestla, [16] and drinking “precious mead.” [17] Verse leads to verse, poem to poem. Thus, according to the interpretation discussed earlier, Odin gains his poetic knowledge by dying, visiting the world of the dead, and then returning to life. [18] Our main theme, the death of the poet, is here again. It is the death, the ultimate marginalization, of the god that brings about his mastery of poetic knowledge. A related consecration theme has Odin receive his knowledge from dead men—thus he is hangaguð ‘god of the hanged men’. [19] Even though Odin gets wisdom from his hanging, this is still linked with his drinking mead—poetry again is intoxication, madness.
In an important interpretation, Jere Fleck correlates the Mímir’s well consecration, and the Kvasir consecration, still to be discussed, to the hanging. He sees it as Odin’s accession to fatherhood of his pantheon, sacred kingship, and outlines its trifunctional character. To become the sacred king, the god must take responsibility for all three functions. The second function (war) is represented by secular kingship—a statement that Fleck does not adequately document, though we have mentioned the significance of the possible origination of secular kingship in the warrior class. The third function is represented by sexual imagery in the hanging scene—the phallic Yggdrasil between male heaven and female earth; Odin’s blood from his wound drops as sperma to fill Mímir’s well and fertilize the earth below. This is a hieros gamos that brings about Odin’s ritual rebirth, and has relations to cyclic cosmogony. [20]
Fleck’s theory is strongest in his correlation of the different consecrations, which are obviously but enigmatically related; but it is weakest in his assignment of aspects of Odin’s hanging to a Dumézilian framework. Secular kingship is still more closely connected to the first function than to the second, and the phallic interpretations seem strained. However, the triple-death theme discussed in chapter 18 might fit neatly into Fleck’s theory; the wound from a weapon (spear, perhaps) is a more convincing tie to the second function; the well, which Fleck ties closely to the hanging scene, is unproblematically related to the third function.
The next consecration, Odin between the fires in the Grímnismál, is quite similar to the hanging story; in fact it is parallel, as Fleck notes. [21] After a heavenly quarrel, in which Odin’s wife, Frigg, accuses a favorite of Odin, Geirröð, king of the Goths, of torturing his guests out of stinginess, Odin resolves to travel incognito to Geirröð and vindicate him. He arrives at the king’s court in a dark mantle, calling himself “The Masked One,” Grimnir. Geirröð has been made wary by a messenger from Frigg, who has told him that a magician is coming to bewitch him. When Odin refuses to state his business, the suspicious Geirröð tortures the god, placing him between two fires for eight nights. Agnar, Geirröð’s youngest son, is the only one who takes pity on the guest; offering him drink, he criticizes his father for letting this wanderer be tormented without cause. The torture of the fire heats Odin into knowledge and he sings the metrical contents of the Grímnismál. He describes the mansions of the gods, the world tree, and ends with a list of his names, including this stanza:
Saðr ok Svipall
ok Sanngetall,
Herteitr ok Hnikarr,
Bileygr, Báleygr,
Bölverkr, Fjölnir,
Grímr ok Grímnir,
Glapsviðr ok Fjölsviðr;
Truthful, Changeable, Truth-getter,
Battle-happy, Overthrower,
Death-worker, Many-shaped, One-Eyed, Fire-eyed,
Lore-master, Masked, and Deceitful.
Grímnismál stanza 47 [22]
The ambiguity of Odin as poet—both truthful and deceitful—reminds one of Hesiod’s Muses. And this is a double consecration scene: Odin has received knowledge as a result of his fiery suspension, and begins to pass it on as soon as Agnar befriends him. As he finishes his song, he unveils his chief name to Geirröð and prophesies the king’s death. The ruler draws his sword to loose the divinity but falls on it accidentally, and Agnar succeeds to the kingship. According to Fleck’s interpretation, Odin’s transferral of “numinous knowledge” to the youngest son has fitted him for his regal calling. [23] Thus a poetic consecration of a god leads to a royal consecration of his king—a remarkable, and rare, attestation of the theme of king as poet-prophet. Here again Odin is hanged, tortured, and fasts for eight days; at the end of which time he receives poetic knowledge. The heating motif has led commentators to see parallels in the Indian tapas, [24] where we also find the pattern: asceticism, hanging, heat, numinous knowledge, throne. For our purposes, the important theme of Odin’s near death or death, partial sacrifice, followed by reception of poetic knowledge, is here. But equally intriguing is the theme of the stingy host receiving the wandering poet-guest; far from treating the poet hospitably, he tortures him, and pays the price for his misdeed. His youngest son is defined as good by his hospitality to and pity for the guest (and his pity and hospitality show that Geirröð is to be blamed, even though Frigg has compounded the difficulty of his test by making him suspicious). Combined with the hospitality motif is the story of the disguised god testing the mortal, and the theme of regal succession.
Our next consecration story, the myth of Kvasir, is the classic mead-poetry myth in the literature, and a central Germanic and Indo-European myth also, one of the key myths reflecting the ideological assimilation of the third function (here the Vanir, whom Dumézil associates with the third function) into the trifunctional societal totality (here represented by the Aesir, whom Dumézil associates with the sovereignty and warrior functions). [25]
Ok enn mælti Ægir: “Hvaðan af hefir hafizt sú íþrótt, er þér kallið skáldskap?”
Bragi svarar: “Þat váru upphöf til þess, at goðin höfðu ósætt við þat fólk, er Vanir heita. En þeir lögðu með sér friðstefnu ok settu grið á þá lund, at þeir gengu hvárirtveggju til eins kers ok spýttu í hráka sínum. En at skilnaði þá tóku goðin ok vildu eigi láta týnast þat griðamark ok sköpuðu þar ór mann. Sá heitir Kvasir. Hann er svá vitr, at engi spyrr hann þeira hluta, er eigi kann hann órlausn. Hann fór víða um heim at kenna mönnum frœði …
Aegir asked again: “Where did the accomplishment known as poetry come from?”
Bragi answered: The beginning of it was the gods were at war with the people known as the Vanir and they arranged for a peacemeeting between them and made a truce in this way: they both went up to a crock and spat into it. When they were going away, the gods took the truce token and would not allow it to be lost, and made of it a man. He was called Kvasir. He is so wise that nobody asks him any question he is unable to answer. He travelled far and wide over the world to teach men wisdom …
Skáldskaparmál ch. 5, in Prose Edda [26]
Kvasir, the embodiment of poetry, is accordingly “an onomastic personification of an intoxicating drink, which recalls the kvas of the Slavs,” [27] a drink made of squashed vegetables, fermented by spittle. As Dumézil notes, “we are here dealing with a ceremonial or communal drink, sanctioning the agreement between two social groups,” thus requiring “the spittle of all concerned.” Apparently there is a communal feast involved. [28] Thus poetry is the sign (“token”) of the assimilation of the third function to the first two. [29] He is a micro-being for the mechanism of unified society: he contains the spit of every god. The poet, perhaps because he is the medium for communication, the medium of intrafunctional exchange and understanding, can be thus the representative of the unified society.
This intoxication-man of reconciliation, the token of all society, is understandably omniscient; he travels throughout the world acting as a culture hero for men and is also something of a riddle master: “nobody asks him any question he is unable to answer.”
But in his travels he runs afoul of two murderous dwarves, Fjalar and Galar, after accepting an invitation to feast with them. “These called him aside for a word in private and killed him …” [30] Thus we have once again the guest-friend situation, the defiled feast, the murder by trickery. Androgeos, Aesop, and Hesiod were thus killed by their hosts, by trickery, far from home. This situation is clearly elemental to the Indo-European mind, expressive of profound evil.
Most important for our central theme is the central datum: the poetry man must be killed. Only his death will unleash the power of intoxicating inspiration, possession, and knowledge. The poet is the emblem of unified society; only the poet’s death can infuse inspiration, wisdom, and poetry into the group. Though the death is a temporary setback to the furtherance of poetic knowledge, it will in the end only serve to disseminate it more widely.
The dwarves let Kvasir’s blood run into three vessels; they then mix honey into it, “and it became the mead which makes whoever drinks of it a poet or scholar” (ok varð þar af mjöðr sá, er hverr, er af drekkr, verðr skáld eða frœða-maðr). Thus poetry was called “the blood of Kvasir” (Kvasis dreyri) in skaldic poetry. [31] When one drinks the mead of inspiration, one drinks the death of Kvasir, as it were. The creative processes—sacral, prophetic possession—are dependent on a primeval sacrifice. [32]
The dwarves, as they continue to pursue their murderous inclinations, drown a giant, Gilling, and when they are threatened by the giant’s son, Suttung, they offer the mead as weregild, ransom, which brings about a reconciliation. Even after his death, Kvasir is acting as a mediating, conciliating force. Odin later sleeps with Suttung’s daughter, the guardian of the mead, drinks the three crocks of poetry-mead, and escapes from Suttung’s house in the form of an eagle. Suttung also transforms into an eagle shape and pursues Odin, but the god reaches Asgard and regurgitates the mead into crocks (though letting some spill to the ground before he reaches his destination); hereafter it has been drunk by the Aesir and by poets.
Overarching this story is the theme of poetic inspiration as intoxication, which we have seen especially in Irish myth, but also in Greece. Odin is the first to drink the mead; he then dispenses it, acting as the prophet of Kvasir, as it were. He shares the ecstatic wisdom of the sacrificed, reconciled unity of the functions to gods and poets. This ecstatic drunkenness is of course quite different from modern, secularized drunkenness: “In Scandinavia the ecstatic states produced by alcohol and poetry are holy, taking their place in ritual and even bringing men into communion with the gods,” writes Turville-Petre. [33]
A parallel myth from India provides an enlightening contrast. The general body of gods, headed by Indra (the story reflects Epic, not Vedic, theology) refuses to allow the Nasatya twins (classic third function gods) access to the Soma sacrifice, as the twins are not proper gods. The situation escalates into open conflict. The Nasatya have an ascetic ally who creates for them a monster, “Drunkenness” (Mada), who threatens to destroy the world. The gods cannot conquer such a monster, and they allow the Nasatya to enter their company. The ascetic, aided by the gods, cuts up “Drunkenness” into four pieces: drink, women, gambling, and hunting. [34]
The correspondences with the Scandinavian myth are clear, and nothing substantial needs to be added to Dumézil’s analysis. [35] There is a war of classes, first and second versus the third. Intoxication, given concrete, bodily form, is associated with the unification. After the reconciliation, intoxication is killed, divided into discrete parts, and its influence continues among men and gods.
For our purposes, we note that there is no mention of poetry here. In fact, as Dumézil notes, the Indic intoxication is negative—used as a weapon against the main gods, it threatens to destroy the world; its four dismembered parts are negative influences—enticing, but habit-forming, destructive. However, if we can associate the Indic intoxication with poetry through comparative analysis, the myth may point up the destructive possibilities of the art; certainly the two myths together point up the ambiguity of intoxication. The Indic intoxication has a strong martial orientation; we see the third function using drunkenness as a weapon in war. In Scandinavia, though, intoxication is poetry, magic, wisdom, and power (Kvasir is wisest of the Aesir).
However, positive aspects of Indic intoxication can be found in the phenomenon of Soma and myths associated with it. “Soma is said to stimulate the voice, and to be the leader of poets. Those who drink it become immortal and know the gods.” [36] We should remember that allowing Nasatya to partake of the Soma sacrifice is the goal of the whole Mada myth. In one myth, Indra, assisted by an eagle (or falcon), or in the form of an eagle, steals soma/ambrosia, prized because it gives immortality, from demonic guardians. Thus, this aspect of the Kvasir story, the positive, magical side of drunkenness, guarded by demonic creatures and stolen from them, has an Indic parallel. [37]
A final Odin-consecration theme is found in the Ynglingasaga variant tradition of the war of Aesir and Vanir. [38] The two sides send hostages to each other; the Vanir send Kvasir, “the cleverest among them,” to the Aesir. There is no mention of a subsequent death. (And the Prose Edda has him, still alive, acting as the wisest of the Vanir in the myth of vengeance taken upon Loki.)
However, the theme of poetic knowledge through sacrificial dismemberment surfaces in the other side of the story, the hostages sent from the Aesir to the Vanir: Hoenir, a large, handsome chieftainlike “man,” and Mímir, a wisdom figure. Hoenir is described; then “together with him the Aesir sent one called Mímir, a very wise man; and the Vanir in return sent the one who was the cleverest among them. His name was Kvasir.” [39] This may be an exchange of poets. It is certainly an exchange of the wisest, it seems, and wisdom usually equates with poetry in these stories, as the omniscience of Kvasir shows.
The Vanir, feeling cheated in the exchange (as Hoenir is quite dense, receiving guidance from Mímir as to what he should say), behead Mímir and send the head back to the Aesir. Odin, however, preserves the head with herbs and brings it to life with charms, “giving it magic power so that it would answer him and tell him many occult things.” [40] Thus Mímir, a wisdom figure (and we have seen such figures are poets or sources of poetry), is a hostage, a guest, and is killed treacherously by those who have promised his safety. Dismembered, his head ends up in Odin’s possession and supplies him with knowledge (= poetry). Again, the poet effects reconciliation between the functions; his death brings about poetic knowledge. [41]
Another example of the theme of torture of the poet is found in the expulsion, imprisonment, and torture of a satirist, the god Loki, recounted in the Lokasenna. [42] Loki’s nature is extremely problematic—sometimes he can have a sympathetic trickster side, but he is usually demonic. [43] Here Loki is the satirist, but the dark satirist, a creature of evil; his very malevolence causes him to tell the truth unsparingly. This evil satire is the first of many parallels with Irish poets in this story.
The scene is a feast; [44] all the gods (with the exception of Thor) are gathered in the hall of Aegir. They admire their host’s servants, so Loki kills one of them, seemingly because he simply resents the idea of praise. The gods, outraged, drive the murderer from the feast, into the woods. This is the first expulsion, in which Loki is expelled not as a poet, but simply as a murderer.
Loki returns, but before entering the feast, he tells Aegir’s other servant: “brawls and bickering I bring the gods, their ale I shall mix with evil.” [45] Thus the poet, as in Ireland, causes strife. Entering the feast hall, Loki asks for a place at the banquet table. Though Bragi denies him, Odin relents, fearing Loki’s lewd words. He orders Vithar to rise so “the Father of the Wolf” (úlfs föður) may take his seat. The slanderous god joins the feast. Bragi offers Loki a sword, horse, and arm ring if he will not satirize him, [46] and then adds a threat. Loki, unfazed, describes Bragi’s cowardice in battle.
There follows a long dialogue in which Loki slanders all of the gods in turn, to their bitter chagrin; his satire is divided between martial and sexual blame. The gods are womanish; the goddesses are promiscuous; most practice perversions and incest; scatological references are frequent. Loki boasts of his adulterous conquests, in particular a rendezvous with Sif, Thor’s wife. At this point, Thor arrives on the scene; Loki proceeds to oppose him with words, but Thor threatens to kill the satirist, and Loki, admitting that Thor’s hammer is the only thing he fears, leaves the banquet with a curse: the gods will never again brew for a banquet, and the banquet hall will burn. Thus Loki is expelled from the banquet of the gods a second time, this time as a poet. The poet’s verbal weapons bow before the brute force of real weapons, just as Cuchulainn’s spears prevailed against malevolent satirists.
Possibly the curse was fulfilled, [47] and Loki hides. When he is caught, the gods
Hann var bundinn með þörmum sonar síns Vála … Skaði tók eitrorm ok festi upp yfir annlit Loka; draup þar ór eitr. Sigyn kona Loka sat þar ok helt munnlaug undir eitrit. En er munnlaugin var full, bar hón út eitrit; en meðan draup eitrit á Loka. Þá kippðist hann svá hart við, at þaðan af skalf jörð öll; þat eru nú kallaðir landsskjálftar.
bound him with the guts of his son Nari … Skathi took a venomous serpent and hung it about Loki’s face so that its poison dripped on him. Loki’s wife Sigyn sat by him and held a bowl under the poison, and she carried it out whenever it was full; but meanwhile the poison dripped on Loki. Then he writhed so fearfully that all the earth shook: men call this “earthquakes” nowadays.
Prose ending of Lokasenna [48]
Thus the satirist is, as it were, society’s poison, the most evil. He is expelled, once for murder, once for slander. But after he is captured by the gods, he is bound and tortured by drops of poison that cause him monstrous writhings. Just as the exiling poet is exiled, or the murderous poet is executed, so the poisonous poet is poisoned.
These myths raise a number of intriguing questions. First of all, Starkaðr seems unambiguously a warrior-poet—although chiefly a warrior, he is also a famous poet. We have seen, in Greece, Ireland, and Scandinavia, poetry residing strongly in the warrior function. In Odin’s myths, though, poetry seems allied to his first-function aspects—Odin as priest and king—and his omniscience seems clearly linked to his capacity for ruling. [49] Poetry is linked to magic, and we need only mention the importance of the “magical sovereign” in Dumézil’s mythical theory. [50] However, as we have seen, Odin does use his occult poetic knowledge for martial purposes, as the Irish poets did. Like Starkaðr, he is something of a warrior-poet. [51] This may be a result of Scandinavian functional slippage, though.
And the figure of Kvasir is originally a clear-cut third-function figure (in one tradition), though he ends up as a member of the Aesir, and thus a symbol of the totality of the functions. Since Kvasir ends up in the belly of Odin, who dispenses him to gods and men, perhaps this represents the king’s ability to orchestrate and reconcile the functions. [52] But the king is dependent on poetry, the poet, and the sacrifice of the poet as the orchestrating medium. The question of the association of the poet with the three levels of Indo-European society remains unresolved; the poet may simply be a transfunctional phenomenon. However, associations with the warrior level are very strong.
Another aspect of these myths deserves comment. We started by looking at putatively historical stories of exiled or executed poets, though obviously mythical or folkloric motifs were combined with the narratives. Then we found, in the stories of Marsyas and other mythical poets, overtly mythical stories that had many of the same themes; Aesop and Socrates were even viewed as Marsyas figures. Then in examining the theme of the poet’s ambiguously protective and inimical gods, we evaluated Indo-European epic, Starkaðr and Suibhne, as possibly related to the theme, applied to heroes who were full-fledged poets as well as warriors. Now, behind Starkaðr, we find the theme of the killed and expelled poets applied to the divine level. Gods are behind mythical heroes; mythical, superhuman heroes are behind revered historical figures. The mythical theme lives on in increasingly secular trappings, ending up as “history.”
To take the myths back a further step: Eliade’s thesis, that myths of beginnings, creation, and first fathers lie behind all myth and all sacrality, was taken by him to great lengths, [53] but can still be useful when used as one of a number of important thematic tools. Here we merely note that a myth of the unification of the three functions is a myth of the beginnings of society, and the death of a divine poet is associated with it. Also, the tree Odin hangs on is Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree; in another consecration myth, he drinks from a well lying under the same tree. The cosmic tree implies beginnings. [54] Yggdrasil is called Mīmameiðr ‘Mímir’s tree’, [55] so Mímir, one of Odin’s sources of wisdom, is closely linked to the tree. If Fleck’s interpretation of the Odinic hanging is correct, all of these myths may be connected, and the myth relates overtly to the Germanic myths of destruction and renewal, Ragnarok and its aftermath.
Thus myths of the sacrifice of a primeval man perhaps lie behind the Odinic myths of sacrificed poet. In Germanic myth, we have the myth of the giant Ymir, killed and dismembered to create the world. Puhvel, starting from Roman myth, has discussed an Indo-European cosmology involving the sacrifice of a “twin” (Ymir, Yamá, Remus, Púruṣa, Gayomart) by a “man” (Mannus, Mánu, Rōmulus). [56] Just as the deaths of Kvasir and Mímir were associated with the unification of the three classes to form a totality of society, the primordial twin sacrifice is linked to the formation of society in its three functions: “Remus had to die as part of the act of creation which led to the birth of the three Roman ‘tribes’ (Ramnes, Luceres, Tities) and the accession of Romulus to his role as first king.” [57] In the same way, the brahmins, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas, and śūdras come from the sacrificed body of Puruṣa, [58] and three Germanic tribes derive from the Twin and the Man. [59]
By this interpretation, the killing of the poet may reflect the death of the sacred being needed to consecrate a cosmic beginning. [60] The poet’s sacrality and ability to mediate between the functions make this possible.
The usefulness of the mediating poet is shown by a final myth associated with the cosmic tree. “A squirrel called Ratatosk [Gnaw-tooth] springs up and down the ash tree and conveys words of abuse exchanged between the eagle [who sits at the top of Yggdrasil [61] ] and Niðhögg [the serpent that gnaws at the root of Yggdrasil [62] ].” [63] The squirrelly satirist is thus invaluable in the cosmic scheme of things, mediating between the highest and lowest points in the world tree. The poet does the same on a societal level, mediating between the “highest” and “lowest” functions, though the mediation is not always welcome.


[ back ] 1. See Turville-Petre 1964:50; Dumézil 1973a:29; Kershaw 2000 passim; Miller 2000:313 (the death of warriors on the battlefield is a sacrifice to Odin).
[ back ] 2. See Turville-Petre 1964:35–41; Dumézil 1973a:29; Kershaw 2000:77.
[ back ] 3. See Dumézil 1983:87, with bibliography; Puhvel 1987:200.
[ back ] 4. An explicit attestation of the theme of poet as priest; see above, chapter 17, final paragraph; chapter 18, Starkaðr’s death.
[ back ] 5. Translation from Dumézil 1973a:28.
[ back ] 6. Cf. De Vries 1956 2:73; see above, chapter 17, on poetic possession and war fury. In the Iliad, Apollo “bewitched” (ethelxe) the Greeks’ hearts in their breasts as they are routed (XV 321–322); cf. Janko 1992 ad loc.
[ back ] 7. For discussions of Odin’s connections with the berserker phenomenon, see De Vries 1956 2:97; Puhvel 1987:196. Puhvel mentions the term for an outlaw berserker type, vargr í véum ‘temple robber’, but literally ‘wolf in sanctuary’. Clandestine murder was called morðvargr, lit. ‘murder wolf’, Grágás, an old Icelandic law code, 1.23. We are reminded of Aesop as temple robber, Alcaeus and Suibhne in the wolf thickets (ch. 9; ch. 18); cf. Gerstein 1972; Kershaw 2000:42–67. See chapter 17 above, on the furor heroicus of Cuchulainn.
[ back ] 8. Ynglingasaga chapter 7; translation from Dumézil 1973a:28: Af þessum hlutum varð hann stórliga fróðr. Allar þessar íþróttir kendi hann með rúnum ok ljóðum þeim, er galdrar heita. Fyrir því eru Æsir kallaðir galdrasmiðir.
[ back ] 9. Ynglingasaga chapter 7.
[ back ] 10. See Puhvel 1987:193; Dumézil 1973a:36–37; Chadwick 1952; Chadwick and Chadwick 1932 1:620; Haugen 1983:6; Watkins 1995:117–118. On Adam of Bremen, De Vries 1956 2:94n1. Cf. shamanic ecstasy, induced by song or dance, below, this chapter; also chapter 3 (Archilochus); chapter 16 (Greek shamanism and poetry).
[ back ] 11. See Hymn to Apollo 132; Jebb 1912:24; Burkert 1985:148.
[ back ] 12. Mímir = ‘memory’, see Fleck 1971:393; Dumézil 1959a:228n101a; Haugen 1983:13. Cf. the Muses’ connection with Mnemosyne ‘memory’, their mother, Hesiod Theogony 53–54, 915–917; Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 429–430; Detienne 1996:41–42; chapter 2 (Aesop and the statue of Mnemosyne).
[ back ] 13. Gylfaginning 15, in Prose Edda, Young 1973:43. hann er fullr af vísindum, fyrir því at hann drekkr ór brunninum. Text in Lorenz 1984; Jónsson 1954.
[ back ] 14. Translation from Hollander 1962:6. For the equation of eye with spring in Indo-European and Semitic lexicography, see Puhvel 1987:194n1; cf. Fleck 1971:399n199.
[ back ] 15. For one-eyed figures in Indo-European myth, see Dumézil 1974. The Greek Muses are also associated with springs, Hesiod Theogony 1–4. The idea might be prophetic powers given by drinking water from sacred springs. See above, chapter 16, the Muses and the Castalian spring.
[ back ] 16. This seems to be a reference to an Odinic consecration we know little about, in which he receives knowledge from a giant. Cf. the Lay of Vafthrudnir, in which Odin engages in a wisdom contest with the giant, “The Mighty in Riddles.” Haugen discusses the theme of Odin’s receiving knowledge from a Sibyl (1983:13). Clearly, the source of Odin’s poetic, numinous knowledge was an obsessive theme in Germanic myth.
[ back ] 17. See chapter 18, Starkathr’s execution of Vikar compared to Odin’s death/consecration. Also, van Hamel 1932, for Irish parallels; Fleck 1971. For interpretation, see Turville-Petre 1964:323: Pipping sees shamanism here; Ström emphasizes the theme of wisdom from world of death. Fleck (1981) opposes a shamanic interpretation, arguing that one must judge shamanism against a complete shamanic complex, and that the whole complex is not present in Odin mythology, cf. Haugen 1983:20. However, there are important shamanic themes that are recognizable even outside of the totality of the shamanic complex, and one need not find the whole dossier before one can use the word “shamanic.” Cf. Buchholz 1971:19; H. Chadwick 1899.
[ back ] 18. Another main avenue of interpretation is that the hanging was an initiation (cf. Turville-Petre 1964:50n50); but Turville-Petre notes that symbolic death was always an aspect of initiation, so the two interpretations are not exclusive. A major article by Fleck interprets Odin’s hanging as the inverted hanging given to sacrificial victims who are to be drained of their blood (1971:126).
[ back ] 19. See Hávamál st. 157; Hollander 1962:39n89; Turville-Petre 1964:43. Cf. Fleck 1971:130n61.
[ back ] 20. Fleck 1971:400–403. Cf. Talley 1974.
[ back ] 21. Fleck 1981:61.
[ back ] 22. Translation Haugen 1983:12.
[ back ] 23. Fleck 1970; cf. Haugen 1983:9–10.
[ back ] 24. See Fleck 1971:131–136, with further bibliography.
[ back ] 25. See Van Hamel 1934; further bibliography in Turville-Petre 1964:323.
[ back ] 26. See Young 1954:100.
[ back ] 27. Dumézil 1973a:21; De Vries 1956 2:67–72. Cf. also Norwegian kvase, Danish kvase, English quash; Turville-Petre 1964:40n36.
[ back ] 28. Cf. Benveniste for the German guilds, conuiuia, which are “a means of reconciliation (1973:60–61). Once the crime is over and paid for, an alliance becomes established and we return to the notion of the guild.” Benveniste notes that a “sacred banquet” is at the very center of the notion of the guild. Thus Kvasir represents the sacral feast of reconciliation, not just a simple intoxicant.
[ back ] 29. And in a variant text in the Ynglingasaga (4, see Dumézil 1973a:9), Kvasir is explicitly a member of the Vanir, a third-function figure, but he is introduced into the two higher functions as a hostage, thus becoming a member of the Aesir. We find him acting as one of the Aesir in an episode in the Prose Edda, Young 1954:85, where he is even called the wisest of all the Aesir. Thus Kvasir is a member of both the Vanir and Aesir, the mediator between the two.
[ back ] 30. ok þá er hann kom at heimboði til nökkurra, Fjalars ok Galars, þá kölluðu þeir hann með sér á einmæli ok drápu hann …
[ back ] 31. See Turville-Petre 1964:39.
[ back ] 32. Fleck shows the actual ritual realities behind this motif, for Germanic hanged victims were bled, and the blood retained in containers, 1971:127n45.
[ back ] 33. Turville-Petre 1964:40n38, see further bibliography listed there. Also, Eliade 1964:221, for shamanic intoxication through mushrooms. Donald Ward suggests that there may be ancient connotations in the fact that grain alcohol is referred to as spiritus. However, cf. ecstatic techniques in which the supernatural being “whispers in the ear” of the shaman, “in the same way in which ‘birds’ inspire the epic bards.” “Magico-religious music” and dancing induce the trance. Mushroom intoxication, by comparison, appears to be “late and derivative … a mechanical and corrupt method of reproducing ‘ecstasy,’” Eliade 1964:222–223, see also 416, 477, 493. Perhaps drunkenness is only a metaphor for poetic/prophetic possession. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in the Paris Review interviews, tells of being constantly asked if he wrote A Hundred Years of Solitude on hallucinogens, but responds that such questioners know nothing of the creative process, which requires full, unimpaired concentration and good health (Plimpton 1984:329).
[ back ] 34. Mahābhārata 3(33)123–125; van Buitenen 1973 2:460–462.
[ back ] 35. Dumézil 1973a:22–25.
[ back ] 36. Turville-Petre 1964:41. See O’Flaherty 1981:119–138.
[ back ] 37. Rig Veda 4.26–27, in O’Flaherty 1981:128–131; Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā 37.14a; in O’Flaherty 1975:280–281, further references on p. 337. See discussion of the soma (amṛta) / poetic mead parallels in Fleck 1971:404–405.
[ back ] 38. Ynglingasaga 4; translation in Dumézil 1973a:8–10.
[ back ] 39. Með honum sendu Æsir þann, er Mímir hét, inn vitrasti maðr, en Vanir fengu þar í mót þann, er spakastr var í þeira flokki. Sá hét Kvasir.
[ back ] 40. Þá tóku þeir Mími ok hálshjoggu ok sendu höfuðit Ásum. Óðinn tók höfuðit ok smurði urtum þeim, er eigi mátti fúna, ok kvað þar yfir galdra ok magnaði svá, at þat mælti við hann ok sagði honum marga leynda hluti. The Poetic Edda has two other references to the wisdom of Mímir’s head, Völuspá, st. 45, and Sigrdrífumál, st. 16. For the mantic severed head in Greece and Ireland, see above, chapter 16 (Orpheus).
[ back ] 41. Cf. Dumézil 1959a:224–230, on the relationship of Mímir and Hoenir; Dumézil 1948:111–121.
[ back ] 42. However, some (notably Ström) have interpreted Loki as an Odinic hypostasis, see Turville-Petre 1964:324. For interpretation of the Lokasenna, see Dumézil 1959a:112–113. Ström and others interpret the poem as a late, Christian attack on the heathen gods; Dumézil argues that a consistent element of heathen myth is a tolerant view of the gods’ “human” failings.
[ back ] 43. “More ink has been spilt on Loki than on any other figure in Norse myth. This, in itself, is enough to show how little scholars agree, and how far we are from understanding him,” writes Turville-Petre (1964:324), who summarizes interpretation of the figure. As Loki shows, the trickster figure and the demonic figure are not mutually exclusive.
[ back ] 44. Cf. Haugen 1983:16–18, 23n18 for the feast of the gods as an Indo-European motif. See also Dumézil’s first book, Le festin d’Immortalité, 1924:11–15, 51–60.
[ back ] 45. St. 3, translation in Hollander 1962:91. jöll ok áfu / færi ek ása sonum, / ok blend ek þeim svá meini mjöð. See above, chapter 17. The very power of the satirist is what causes his or her exile.
[ back ] 46. An exact parallel to the Irish motif, see above, chapter 17 (the men of Leinster offer jewelry to Aithirne to stay away and not satirize them; also, king Eochaid gives Aithirne his eye).
[ back ] 47. As Hollander suggests (1962:103n58).
[ back ] 48. Trans. Hollander 1962:103. This same story of Loki’s imprisonment and torture is found in the Prose Edda, see Young 1954:85, but there the gods are taking vengeance for the death of Baldr. For the poison theme, cf. above, chapter 17, “The Poisonous Poet.”
[ back ] 49. See the two articles by Fleck, 1981 and 1970, on the “knowledgecriterion” for sacred kingship. Thus, as it were, one had to be a poet-prophet to become king. For knowledge and poetry in Hesiod’s consecration, see above, chapter 6. For the dependence of the ruler on poetry and poets, see Duban 1980; Roth 1976.
[ back ] 50. See Dumézil 1977 for Dumézil’s nearly final thoughts on Indo-European sovereign gods. For Varuṇa as king, see 74; on his magic, 64–65. Cf. the section on Odin, “Oðinn roi et magicien,” 189–196.
[ back ] 51. We may note that Indra is a key imbiber of Soma, which inspires him to war fury; see Rig Veda 9.113.1, “Let Indra the killer of Vṛta drink Soma in Śaryaṇāvat, gathering his strength within himself, to do a great heroic deed. O drop of Soma, flow for Indra,” translation O’Flaherty, śaryaṇāvati somamindraḥ pibatu vṛtrahā / balaṃ dadhāna ātmani kariṣyan vīryaṃ mahadindrāyendo pari srava.
[ back ] 52. See Dumézil 1959b:408, 412; 1973b:38–42; Lincoln 1975b:131n39, with further bibliography. The king “contains” priests, warriors, and commoners in his body. For sacred kingship in Germany, Fleck 1981 and 1970. Cf. Jean Cocteau’s film, Le Sang d’ un poète; Dubuisson 1978.
[ back ] 53. Eliade’s most central thematic books are The Sacred and the Profane (1959) and The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (1971).
[ back ] 54. For tree as cosmic symbol, see Eliade 1963b:265–330; 1959:147–151. On Yggdrasil, Eliade 1963b:265, 276–277; De Vries 1956 2:380–383.
[ back ] 55. Puhvel 1987:218; Fleck 1971:386.
[ back ] 56. See Puhvel 1975, summarized in Puhvel 1987:284–290. For different interpretations of the Romulus-Remus myth, see Bremmer and Horsfall 1987:34–38; Bannon 1997:158–173.
[ back ] 57. Puhvel 1987:288; 1975:155; Propertius 4.1.31. Cf. Burkert 1962a:366–367. For exhaustive examination of the theme of the sacrificed brother, see the work of Heino Gehrts, discussed by Ward 1982b. In the pattern studied by Gehrts, the king’s brother, who is killed, often in battle, endows the surviving brother with redoubled powers of kingship and battle prowess. See also Gehrts 1967:262–282. Cf. below, chapter 27, the warrior as double of the king in African ritual.
[ back ] 58. Rig Veda 10.90; cf. bibliography in O’Flaherty 1975:314.
[ back ] 59. Puhvel 1975:308.
[ back ] 60. Just as Remus’s death is “an essential consecrational act for the good of the new urban creation” (Puhvel 1975:149).
[ back ] 61. Cf. De Vries 1956 2:380–381; Dumézil 1973a:143n11; 141.
[ back ] 62. Cf. Dumézil 1973a:144.
[ back ] 63. Gylfaginning 16, Prose Edda, Young 1954:45, Íkorni sá, er heitir Ratatoskr, renn upp ok niðr eftir askinum ok berr öfundarorð milli arnarins ok Níðhöggs.