The Mead Serving Woman in the Edda

By Maria Kvilhaug
hvars þv aul dreckir,                   Where you drink ale
kios þv þer Iarðar megin,         
choose the Power of Earth
þviat Iorð tecr við aulþri             
for Earth takes up the ale
Hávamál, st. 137, Poetic Edda
I have tasted the sweet drink of life…all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it Honey-Mead (madhu).The glorious drops that I have drunk have set me free in wide space….The drop that we have drunk has entered our hearts; an immortal inside mortals...
(Rig Veda 8.48)
And the Holy Spirit…took Zoroaster´s hand and filled it with liquid all-encompassing knowledge and said “drink it”. And Zoroaster drank it, and all-encompassing wisdom was blended within Zoroaster…and he was in the Holy Spirit´s Wisdom for seven nights.
         (Zand Wahmand Yasht III 6-12)
Remarkable when they come from the Cauldron;
The Three Inspirations of Cerridwen
(The Book of Taliesin)

A recurrent motif of the Edda poems is the woman who serves mead to a god or to a hero. An in-depth study of every different setting in which this motif plays a role shows that there are striking structural similarities between them. In this essay, I am going to briefly go through the Edda stanzas that give information about the mead, the mead-serving woman and then briefly discuss their significance and shared context. For a more detailed in-depth study of the initiation and ritual aspects of this theme, see my thesis.

Hávamál – The High One´s Speech

The mead-woman motif occurs twice in the Hávamál in connection with what may very well describe some kind of initiation ritual in connection to the god Óðinn. In the Hávamál we find the oldest version of the story of Óðin´s quest for the mead of poetry.

Snorri Sturlusson explained that the mead of poetry had been created by the spit (essence) of all the Aesir and Vanir gods together after their truce, and that it contained all the divine knowledge of the universe. The mead took the shape of a sage that moved through the world so that everybody who so wished could get answer to their questions about the nature of existence. The sage, who went by the name Kvasir, was killed by two dwarfs who wished to monopolize all this knowledge for themselves. They do not succeed, and as they die, the giant Suttungr [Heavy with Mead] takes the three cauldrons of mead, the biggest of which is the Óðrerir [Spirit/Poetry/Ecstasy Blend]. The meaning of Suttung´s name suggest a link to the giant Mímir [“Memory” or “Murmurer”], who drinks from the sacred mead of universal memory and wisdom through his horn called Gjallarhorn [The Resounding Horn], and who, through the name of his horn, is identifiable with the god Heimdallr [“Great World”], a universe-deity who sees all and hears all.

The name of the cauldron Óðrerir is made from the word óðr ( which simultaneously means “spirit”, “poetry” and “ecstasy” and the word rerir which means a “stir”, a “blend” or a “brew”, as in a liquid substance of ingredients cooked together or blended. The word Óðr is also the name of the goddess Freyia´s lost husband, and is the word that makes up the name Óðinn [Óðr + -hinn (=”the”)], a meaning that identifies Frigg`s husband Óðinn and Freyia´s husband Óðr as one and the same. The separation between the two gods must have been created after the goddesses Frigg and Freyia separated into two goddesses from the original one, the older Germanic goddess Frija, the meaning of whose name has to do with love, peace, wisdom and sovereignty. The name of the cauldron also suggests some mystical identification between the mead and Óðinn himself.

Suttung´s daughter Gunnlöð [“Invitation to Battle” or “Battle Hospitality”] then guards the mead within the Hnítbergr [“Clashing Rock”]. The name of Gunnlöð´s abode suggests a comparative link to the mythical complex known in Greek mythology as the Symplegades – the perilous entrance to the world of the dead. These were described as rocky cliffs clashing together. There is indeed a myth about how two doves were sent to fetch the sacred Ambrosia, the nectar of immortality, in the Other World – and who had to go through the clashing rocks to reach it, where one of them died.

There is a similar entrance to the world of the dead in Indian mythology, described as two golden rocks clashing together, where the Soma-thief in the shape of an eagle tries to get the sacred drink known as Soma, which, exactly like the Old Norse mead, was a honey based liquid said to provide eloquence, wisdom and immortality. In Old Indian mythology, the sacred Soma is guarded by the dhisanas, the numerous hypostases of the great goddess Dhisana. The word is in fact etymologically linked to the Old Norse word dísir, referring to the female powers, which also guard the precious mead in the Edda lore. The common etymology added to their common function makes it natural to assume that the Old Norse dísir and their sacred miöðr share the same ancient origin as the Old Indian dhisanas and their sacred madhu – “honey” – another name for Soma. The time of separation between the eastern and the western traditions is probably thousands of years old.[1]

The name of Gunnlöð herself, which means Battle Hospitality/Invitation, is thought by many to indicate that she is in fact a valkyria, a thought that is strengthened by the fact that she serves the precious mead. The valkyriur are indeed said to be born among giants, and whenever they are presented with a family (usually a hostile father or brother), they are all giants. I will show, however, that the mead-serving woman comes from all the various worlds of the Old Norse cosmos and suggests that the borders between the worlds may not have been as geographically strict as we may think at first sight.

In Snorri´s account, the god Óðinn then sneaks into the mountain (a symbol of the world of the dead or the giants) in the shape of a serpent (a symbol of death and transformation) where he seduces Gunnlöð, sleeps with her for three nights before he drinks all the mead within the three cauldrons. Then he changes shape into an eagle (symbol of the ruler of death) and flies off to Ásgarðr where he leaves most of the mead. A few drops of mead landed in other worlds though, including the human world, which is why some people have the gift of poetry and eloquence to a certain degree.

The older version of this myth is found in the Edda poem Hávamál and tells a different story, where Óðinn openly enters the halls of Suttungr and displays his wisdom and eloquence. He swears a sacred ring-oath, which is a symbol of marriage, and is offered the precious mead by Gunnlöð while she sits on a throne – another symbol of marriage, kingship and initiation. His new wife then helps Óðinn escape and become a god, but he leaves her behind weeping.

   In stanza 105 of this poem, we are told (supposedly by the god himself):

Gunnlöð mer vm gaf                         Gunnlöð gave me
gvllnom stóli á                                   
from a golden throne
drycc ins dyra miaþar,                     the precious drink of mead…

Further on, stanza 140 of the Hávamál poem repeats the theme of the precious drink (drycc ins dyra miaðar), this time in connection with Óðin’s trials as he hangs on the World Tree for nine days and nights. After having peered down and picked up the runes, Óðinn receives nine powerful spell-songs and then has a drink of mead:

oc ec dryc of gat                             and I had a drink
ens dyra miaðar                            
of the precious mead
ausinn Oðreri
…                             ladled from Óðrerir

It is generally known that Óðrerir was the mythical cauldron that contained the mead of inspiration, knowledge and poetry, guarded by the giantess Gunnlöð. Stanza 140 makes it quite clear that the experiences of Óðinn in the halls of the giants, of Suttungr and of Gunnlöð, are mysteriously connected to Óðin´s trials by hanging on the World Tree.

It appears that the god hung on the World Tree, stabbed with spears, fasting, in order to descend (“peer down”) to a place where he simultaneously obtains the knowledge of the runes, learns the magical songs, and experiences the famous encounter with Suttungr and Gunnlöð – as told in stanzas 104-110 as well as by Snorri. Only then does the god learn to “be wise, learned, to grow and to live well”.

Hráfnagalðr Óðin´s eða Förspjallsljóð – Óðin´s Raven Charm or the Song of the First Speech

This often unknown poem is of obscure origin and has thus been much debated by scholars, the question being whether it is a “real” Edda poem (that is, dating back to Pagan times) or just “made up” later, by someone who was learned in Old Norse poetry and mythology but who was not an insider to Pagan religion. However it is, the poet certainly knew more about Pagan mythology and poetry than we do, and made a curious connection between Gunnlöð and the oldest among nórnir, Urðr, whose name means “Origin”:

2. Ætlun æsir illa gátu,                The Intentions of the Aesir are difficult riddles
verpir villtu vættar rúnom;        
 You want to throw heaviness to the runes     
Óðhrærir skyldi Urðr geyma
,      Urðr owes to hide the Óðrerir
máttk at veriamestum þorra         
I managed to use the greatest part

These stanzas are spoken by the god Óðinn who is referring to how he managed to drink almost all the mead of the cauldron Óðrerir which was guarded by Urðr, making us realize that he is talking about exactly the same incident that happened between him and Gunnlöð, making it clear that the poet identified Gunnlöð with the oldest nórn Urðr. The association with runes only strengthens this impression, as does the reference to riddles and secret divine intentions.   

The identification between the giantess Gunnlöð and the nórn Urðr offers us more insight into the mead-woman´s ultimate function, as well as into the nature and origin of the mead itself. The first among the nórnir is the one who made all the cosmic laws and carved all the fates of everyone who ever lived, live and will live, as is described in the Edda poem Völuspá.  She is responsible for nourishing the World Tree Yggdrasill from her sacred Urðarbrunnr, the Well of Origin.

This water, according to Snorri Sturlusson´s Prose Edda, has the quality that everyone who walks into it will come out transformed, shining, bright and “transparent like the inner membrane of an eggshell.” The water also nourishes the universe itself, revives it every day against the constant destruction that feeds on it. The same water is in fact the very origin of the universe. The World Tree, which is also called the Mjöðvið (The Mead Tree), actually springs from this cosmic water source, the Well of Origin. Other beings that constantly emerge from this Well of Origin are the individual nórns who follow each human being through his or her life. The relevant stanzas from the Edda poem Völuspá are as follows:

2. Niu man ek heima         Nine worlds I remember
Niu iviði                            Nine Within-Woods (=witches)
mjötvið mœran                  the sacred Mead Tree (=Yggdrasill)
fyr mold neðan          
       from the ground beneath
19. Ask veit ek standa,          I know an ash stands
heitir Yggdrasill                       
called The Steed of the Old One
hár baðmr, ausinn                
A high tree, poured over
hvíta auri;                                
with the white water-bottom-sand [water from the Well of Origin]
þaðan koma döggvar            
From there come the dew
þærs í dala falla;                       
that falls in the valleys
stendr æ yfir grœnn                 
it stands ever green above
Urðar brunni                              
the Well of Origin (the “ground” beneath the Mead Tree)
20. Þaðan koma meyjar          From there (the Well of Origin) come maidens
margs vitandi                            
much knowing:
þrjár, ór þeim sal            
           Three, from that hall
er und þolli stendr;                     
which stands beneath the tree (the ground=the hall=the water)
Urð hétu eina,                             
Origin the first was called
aðra Verðandi,                            
Happening Now the second
skáru á skíði,                              
They carved (runes) into the wood
Skuld ina þriðju;                        
Debt was the third;

þær lög lögðu,                          
 They laid down the laws
þær líf kuru                                 
They ruled the lives
alda börnum,                              
for the children of the ages
örlög seggja                               
they set the fate.

Adding to this source is the account of Snorri´s in the Prose Edda, to which I have referred above. The sources indicate a powerful connection between fate, the mead, the original cosmic waters and the runes. I earlier mentioned that it has been suggested that Gunnlöð was a valkyria. A valkyria is a specialized kind of nórn, spinning the life and choosing the death of warriors, so that the identification between the valkyria and the nórn makes sense. If Gunnlöð was a giantess, the identification with the nórn still makes sense. In the Edda poem Grottasöngr, giantesses are clearly identified not only as nórnir, but as valkyriur, moving among the hosts of warriors and choosing their fate.

Vegtamskviða eða Baldrs Draumar – The Song of Way-Wont or the Dreams of Baldr

In this poem, the god Baldr is plagued by evil omen dreams, and all the Aesir and Ásyniur (gods and goddesses) go to the sacred parliament by the Well of Origin (!) in order to discuss what the dreams may portend. In order to find out, Óðinn, as the great shaman of the Aesir, travels to Níflheimr, the world of the dead. He arrives at the “high hall of Hel” where he makes sure to move to the east (direction of sunrise and new beginnings/light) of the dangerous hall. With spell-songs he wakes up a long dead völva (a witch, female practitioner of the art of seiðr) and asks why the death-hall of Hel is decorated as if to welcome an honor guest. This is where it is revealed that the precious mead is in fact guarded by Hel in the world of the dead, as is said in stanza 7:

Her stændr Baldri        Here stands for Balder
of brvgginn mioðr,        
the brewed mead
skírar væigar,               
the bright power-drink
liggr skiolldr yfir         
is covered with shields

Thus we are seeing that the precious mead is guarded by a supernatural female both in the world of the giants (Suttung´s hall), the world of the fates (Urðr´s Well of Origin), and in Hel simultaneously. The question arises as to whether there really is a difference between the three worlds at all. Later, when Baldr is in fact dead and living like an honored guest in Hel´s hall, the hero Hermoðr makes the journey into Níflheimr in order to beg the queen of the dead to let Baldr return to the living. Precious mead is certainly associated with the realm of the dead. In Valhöll, valkyriur serve mead to the einheriar milked from the eternal goat Heiðrún (Bright Rune). Snorri provides a very detailed account of the journey to Hel:

Hermoðr has to borrow Óðin´s eight-legged steed Sleipnir, a horse that has the power to move in all worlds. The path is dangerous, slippery and dark, so dark that nothing can be seen, and only illuminated by a golden bridge called the Gjallarbrú [The Resounding Bridge], guarded by a giantess. When he crosses the bridge over the river Gjöll [Resounding], the bridge resounds powerfully, and the giantess comments that “you do not have the color of dead men” and wonders what he is doing in Hel if he is not dead. A 7th century memorial stone from Sweden shows the image of a giantess waiting by a bridge that is about to be crossed by a man riding an eight-legged steed. Significantly, she is offering a drinking horn to the visitor.

Skírnismál – The Speech of the Illuminated One

The poem Skírnismál also contains two references to the precious mead. This time, the mead is offered by another giantess, Gerðr [Enclosure]. The background story is that the god Freyr sits in Óðin´s seat Hlíðskiölf [The Shelf of Openings], from which he can gaze into all the cosmic worlds and see everything, even that which is hidden. Hidden deep within the realm of her father Gymir [“Hides (something)”], the maiden lives in a hall surrounded by flames and she is so shining bright that her arms illuminate the lands and the seas (as if she was the sun goddess Sól herself). Frey´s servant Skírnir [Illuminated One] offers to undertake the dangerous journey to her realm in order to ask if she will accept Frey´s hand in marriage.

Skírni´s journey to her realm is described almost exactly like Snorri describes the journey of Hermoðr: The journey is dangerous, slippery and dark, so dark that nothing can be seen. He is riding a magical horse borrowed by a god (in this case Freyr), a horse that is able to move “through the flames”. Just like Hel´s halls, Gerðr´s hall is described as high and dangerous. Adding to that, they are flaming. Just like the giantess asked Hermoðr his business in the world of the dead when he is so clearly alive, a “shepherd” asks Skírnir whether he is dead or dying, and realizing that he is neither, says that Skírnir cannot expect to see the maiden and live. We are clearly in the world of the dead, and it is easy to see that Gerðr might be a disguise for Hel.

When Gerðr realizes that an unusual guest (neither dead nor dying) has arrived, she orders her servant guardian (the shepherd) to allow entry to the visitor:

16. Inn biþþv hann ganga i occarn sal       Let him walk into our hall                        
oc drecca inn mera mioþ!                           
and drink the adored mead
þo ec hitt óvmc,                                             
Though I think it seems
at her vti se                                                       
that out here I see
minn broðvrbani                                      
      my brothers bane

Apart from our interest in her “adored mead”, Gerðr´s last comment, that Skírnir is her brother´s bane, provides an ingenious riddle. The answer to the riddle lies with Snorri, who explained that Skírnir is indeed the bane of a brother – Freyia´s brother – Freyr himself, on whose behalf Skírnir is acting. Skírnir, the Illuminated One, is the ultimate bane of the passion god because he demands the magical horse and the magical sword that Freyr will need in his last battle at Ragnarök. The god of passions is doomed to die because Skírnir took his most precious weapons.

The ultimate conclusion thus seems to be that Gerðr actually may be identified with the goddess Freyia. In the poem Lokasenna (st.32), it is indeed revealed that the siblings, Freyr and Freyia, made clandestine love. Like Gerðr, Freyia is said to live in a high and impenetrable hall that no one may enter unless she herself wills it so, a point that is also made in the Skírnismál, where only Gerðr decides if Skírnir may enter. Like Gerðr, Freyia is associated with flames, as she owns the Brisinga Mén – the Flame´s Jewel. Like Gerðr, Freyia is a recipient of the dead (Grímnismál st. 14), a function they both share with Hel. It is interesting to note here that even Gunnlöð is living in a realm that is described as slippery and dark, from which it is almost impossible to escape alive. Suttungr takes the shape of an eagle in pursuit of Óðinn, and a giant in eagle hide is indeed the very image of death itself in Old Norse myths. All of these maidens are mead-women guarding and offering the mead in an underworld realm.

Later on in the poem, Gerðr repeats the action of welcoming the hero, offering him the “frosty cup full of ancient mead”:

37. Heill verþv nv heldr, sveinn!     Be rather whole, lad!
oc tac viþ hrímcálki                        
 and take the Frosty Cup
fvllom forns miaðar                         
full of ancient mead

The “frosty cup” is a reference to death, which is a realm of ice cold, frost and mists. The “ancient” mead is a reference to its origin at the well of the beginning of the universe itself.

Hyndluljóð – The Song of the She-Wolf

The poem Hyndluljóð also refers to a precious drink. This time the mead-woman function is shared by a giantess, Hyndla, and a goddess, Freyia. Her lover Óttarr has “wagered for the gold of Valland” and the path is said to go to Valhöll, Óðin´s afterlife realm of warriors and valkyriur. Freyia has appeared before the young man in the moment of his sacrifice to the goddesses and transforms the young man into the sacrificial animal itself, a boar on the path to death. She rides him as she would a boar into the underworld, which is described as the “darkest of darkness”, and in which they find Freyia´s “sister”, “first among maidens” – an old, terrifying giantess living within a rock cave. She is called Hyndla, “the Bitch”, and we are likely talking about a wolf-bitch since the old lady keeps a stable of pitch-black male wolves on which she rides.

The antiquity of the wolf-riding giantess is revealed in art such as the Viking Age carving of a giantess riding a wolf using serpents for reins. The character of the wolf-rider shows up once in Snorri´s Prose Edda as well, where she is called Hýrokkin [The Fire Spinner]. Hýrokkin is invoked when the gods realize that for all their might, none of them, not even þórr the manly god, has the strength to push Baldr´s funeral ship on its way to Hel. Only the old giantess possesses this power, an indication that associates Hýrokkin and Hyndla with Hel herself. An unnamed wolf-riding giantess is also mentioned in the Edda poem Helgakviða Hundingsbani, where she is said to be a fylgja – a “follower” – indeed the kind of personal nórn that “follows” people through their lives. When she appears in the shape of a wolf-riding giantess, she is an omen of death. 

Freyia, riding her “boar”, convinces the old giantess to sit down and reveal esoteric knowledge about the interconnectedness between all beings in the universe, which is, apparently, the “heritage” that Óttarr needs in order to reach Valhöll. In aiding her adherent to Valhöll, Freyia acts in the manner of a valkyria. The Edda poem Grímnismál is indeed identifying Freyia as a sort of queen valkyria, since she “chooses the slain” – the Old Norse words used are kiosa vál, which are exactly the words that make up the word valkyria (“chooser of the slain”).

At the end of the underworld revelations, Freyia asks Hyndla if she will also offer to Óttarr the “ale of memory” so that he will be able to remember the revelations when he returns to the world of the living on the “third day”. Three days are exactly the time that Óðinn is said to have spent with Gunnlöð:

45. Ber þu minnis aul        Carry the Ale of Memory
minum gesti,                     
 to my guest,
sua hann aull mune          
 so that he can remember
ord at tina                          
all these words
þersar rædu                      
 that you have spoken
a þridia morni                   
on the third morning.

The theme of memory-loss after having resided in the underworld is in fact also mentioned in the Hávamál, stanza 13, where Óðinn reveals:

13. Ominnis hegri heitir         The Heron of Forgetfulness
sa er yfir a/lþrom þrvmir,       
sits above the ale-room
hann stelr geði gvma;             
He steals the power of many
þess fvgls fia/drom                 
 In his feathers
ec fiotraþr varc                      
 I was fettered
i garði Gvnnlaþar                 
 in the halls of Gunnlöð.

The reference to Gunnlöð ´s halls and the “ale-room” clearly reveals that the theme of forgetfulness has something to do with Óðin´s dealings with Gunnlöð, perhaps explaining why he left her behind in the underworld.  More importantly, the theme of memory and memory-loss is just another of the numerous evidence that links the mead-women to each other to the point of identification. Clearly, forgetfulness about the sacred teachings of the She-Wolf is a danger to both Óttarr and Óðinn.

Hyndla refuses to offer the drink of memory to Óttarr, offering a number of reasons that may mirror Óttar´s own fears, but Freyia then declares that she will give the drink to him:

50….hann skal drecka     …he shall drink
dyrar veigar,                    
the precious power-brew
bid ek Ottari                    
 and I bid that all gods
aull god duga                 
 shall help Óttarr.

It must be noted here that both Hyndla and Freyia appears to be mead-women. Hyndla represents the darkness of death, Freyia the brightness of life, two sides to the same coin, as Snorri suggested when he described Hel as half dark as death, half bright as life.

Hymiskviða – the Song of Hymn

The theme of the two-faced mead-woman seems to be present in the poem Hymiskviða, in which þórr and Tyr travel to the realm of the frost giants in order to find a cauldron big enough to contain all the sacred mead of the world giant Aegir. The realm of the frost giant Hymir is cold, dark and terrifying, but þórr receives unexpected help from a bright lady, who in the poem is identified as his mother. However, the bright and benevolent mother has a mother of her own, a terrible creature with nine hundred heads. The two are presented together to create the usual contrast between the hag and the beauty (st.8):

Ma/gr fann a/mmo mioc leiþa ser,     The boy found Grandmother a terrible sight
hafði ha/fda hvndrvð nío;              
Nine hundred heads the old one had;
enn a/nnvr gecc algvllin fram        
but another walked forth all golden
brvnhvít bera biorveig syni           
the bright-browed woman carried power drink to her son.

The fact that the all-golden, bright browed mead woman here is called þór´s mother, identifies her as the goddess Iórðr, the Earth goddess herself. The “power of Earth” is an important ingredient in the sacred mead, and is invoked while drinking, as we see in the stanzas I quoted in the beginning of this article. The Earth is, according to Snorri, incredibly powerful and ancient of years, and the people counted their lineages from her, being the ancestral mother of all who live. She makes everything grow and live, but also receives everything at death, “taking them back into herself”. This description could easily be applied to the goddesses of death, Hel, Rán and Freyia, and all their namesakes.

The Grandmother with the nine hundred heads must be identified as the giantess Nött, which means “Night”, since she is said to be Earth´s mother. In the Speech of Sígrdrífa, “Night and all her kind” are invoked together with the powers of daylight, the Earth herself, and the deities. The terrible Night is shown in contrast to the light-offering Earth make me think again of the description of Hel as half dark as a corpse, half bright as life.

Helgakviða Hundingsbani önnur – The Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani

In this poem, the hero, prince Helgi, receives the help and guidance of a valkyria who lets him know that he is a reincarnation of one Helgi Hiörvarðsson, and that she was his valkyria in that life. [2]  Helgi Hiörvarðsson had battled the giant Hati (“Hatred”) and the giant Hroðmar (“Furious Ocean”), but died at the Frekasteinn (“Rock of Greed”). The rock and the giant called Hatred possibly indicate that Helgi has to battle the qualities of hatred and greed within himself. Seen from this perspective, it seems plausible that the giant called Furious Ocean represents emotional rage, since water could easily be seen as a metaphor for emotions. The valkyria, who in the present life is called Sígrún (Victory Rune), aids the reincarnated Helgi in a new battle where he again overcomes two giants (Hoðbrodr – “Treasure Thorn” and Guðmundr – “Divine Origin”) before he, with the aid of his sorcerer brother Sinfiötli (“Pale Fetters”) overcomes a daughter of Rán called Hrímgerðr (“Frosty Enclosure”), who tries to drown the men in the shape of a wave. As she dies, the giantess reveals that the real reason that she has not been able to drown the men is the protection they have from Sígrún and her host of eight other valkyriur. The valkyriur are described as golden-bright and emanating rays of light as they move through the air and sea. The formula of light across the air and sea is identical to the effect of Gerðr´s shining arms in the Skírnismál.  

After having won the battle of the Rock of Greed in this life, Helgi lives in joy and glory with his valkyria bride, who continues to “ride the air and sea”. One day, the god Óðinn decides that he wishes Helgi´s presence in Valhöll among the einheriar, and lets a spear be thrown against the king – a symbol of the god wanting someone for himself.

Sígrún returns to her hibernating state, as the valkyriur all seem to do when their beloveds die, symbolized by her return to her home at Sefafell – The Mountain of Sleeping. But before Helgi leaves the Miðgarðr permanently, she wakes and goes into Helgi´s burial mound and sleeps with him in his grave, uttering the following words (stanza 43 and 46):

Nv em ec sva fegin fvndi ocrom,   Now I am as happy to see you again
sem átfrekir Oþins ha/car,            
as the hungry ravens of Óðinn
er val vito, varmar braðir,          
  when they see the slain corpses, their hot blood
eþa da/gglitir dagsbrvn siá.        
 Or when they moist with dew see the dawn
Vel scolom drecca  dyrar veigar,  Well shall we drink the precious power drink,
þott mist hafim mvnar oc landa;   
even if we have lost our lives and lands;
scal engi maþr angrlióþ qveþa,    
no man shall sing any angry songs of lament
þott mer a briosti beniar líti:        
even if he sees me wounded in my chest:
nv ero brvþir byrgþar i ha/gi,       
Now has the Bride arrived in the Burial Mound
lofda disir hiá oss liþnom             
 the high goddesses are with us corpses.

The stanzas clearly reveal a theme of drinking the precious mead within the burial mound and links it, like the other mead-woman stories, with a marriage bond. The valkyria compares her love with the blood thirsty ravens of Óðinn, and it has often been thought that the ravens that arrived at the battle-fields were indeed the visible shape of valkyriur. From Snorri we know that the valkyriur were thought to choose life and death, victory and loss bring the warriors, bring them to Valhöll and offer them the mead of the goat Heiðrún (bright rune). The Edda poems give a more complex image of valkyriur attached to human beings throughout lifetimes, like the nornir said to follow each person through their lives. The entry to Valhöll obviously requires a lot more than just to die in battle, it requires the guidance of the awoken fate goddess through difficult trials of personal evolution, and the union between the person and his valkyria in life and in death.  

Sigrdrifumál – The Speech of Sígrdrífa

Sefr a fialli fylcis dottir                   Sleeps on the mountain a ruler´s daughter
biort i brynio eptir bana Helga     
bright in her armor after the death of Helgi…
Hon mvn rikiom þer rvnar kenna    She will teach the courageous about runes
allar þer er aldir eignaz vildo,       
 all that people wish for the most
oc a mannz tvngo mela hveria,        
to be able to speak the languages of all men
lyf meþ lecning;                               
and to heal lives;
lifþv heill, konvngr!                        
Live you whole, king!
Grípisspá st. 15 and 17, Poetic Edda

The poem Sígrdrífumál constitutes the climax in the story of young Sígurð´s initiation quest. After liberating himself from a lifelong apprenticeship to the dwarf smith sorcerer Reginn (“The Ruler”), who also seems to represent negative qualities such as anger, hatred and greed, Sígurðr learns from a dying serpent and from talking birds about a mysterious maiden who sleeps on the mountain called Hindarfell, which means either Mountain of Obstacles or Mountain of the Doe. The maiden is a valkyria called Sígrdrífa, and is said to be a reincarnation of earlier valkyriur such as Sváva and Sígrún from the poems of Helgi Hiörvarðsson and his later reincarnation Helgi Hundingsbani. The chronology suggests that the editors of the Poetic Edda manuscript believed that Sígurðr was the third reincarnation, and that they believed that the same valkyria slept between the lives of the warriors (the Old Norse people believed in reincarnation), and that she assumed a new name every time her human was reborn.

Sígrdrífa sleeps high on the Hindarfjell, caught in an armor that has grown into her body. Like the mead in Hel itself, she is covered with shields, and like the mead-woman Gerðr, she is surrounded by a dangerous fire which illuminates the heavens. She is only woken by the hero Sígurðr, who knows no fear and who rides his very special horse called Grani through the terrible bright fire. Within the hall, he uncovers the valkyria beneath the shields and wakes up his ancient valkyria by cutting off her armor.

The valkyria wakes, laments the fate of human beings when the valkyria is asleep, offers prayers to the forces of light and darkness, to the gods and goddesses and to the holy Earth. She prays for wisdom, eloquence and healing hands in life, before she offers to Sígurðr the “ale of memory”, giving to the precious mead the same name as Freyia did in the Hyndluljóð.

Biór fori ec þer, brynþings apaldr!    Beer I take to you, apple-tree of armor-parliament!
magni blandinn oc megintíri;            
 It is blended with strength and powerful glory;
fvllr er hann lioþa oc licnstafa,         
It is filled with spell-songs and fortunate runes,
godra galdra oc gamanrvna             
  benevolent charms and runes of pleasure.
Sígrdífumál st. 5

The valkyria then proceeds by instructing Sígurðr in the sacred lore and secrets of the runes, counting up different kinds of runes and explaining how to use them, making it clear what is only subtly revealed in the Hávamál – that there is certainly a connection between the precious drink and the knowledge of runes.

Indeed, Sígrdrífa makes this rune-drink connection more than clear in the stanza 13 and 18, where she refers to how Óðinn, here called Hroptr [Shattered One], first discovered the runes. According to Sígrdrífa:

þer of réð,                               They (the runes) were cut
þer of reist,                            
 They were carved
þer vm hvgði Hroptr              
 They were known by Hroptr
af þeim legi,                             from the drink
er leciþ hafdi                           that had dripped
or ha/si Heiddra/pniss            
from the head of Bright Drops
oc or horni Hoddrofnis
            and the horns of Treasure Release
18. Allar váro af scafnar,                      All (the runes) were cut off
þer er váro a ristnar,                            
that had been carved in
oc hverfðar viþ inn helga mioþ            
and poured over with The Sacred Mead
oc sendar a viþa vega;                         
and sent out on the wide ways
þer ’ro meþ asom,                                
 Some are with the Aesir
þer ’ro meþ alfom,                                 
Some are with the elves
svmar meþ visom va/nom,                     
Some are with the wise Vanir
svmar hafa mennzkir menn.                  
Some are the properties of men

Oddrúnargrátr – The Lament of Oddrún

In the Oddrúnargrátr, we hear a version of a story told over various poems in the Edda, this time from the perspective of the valkyria Oddrún, a younger sister of Sígrdrífa/Brynhildr who unexpectedly turns up after the death of her older sister. A young man, Gunnarr, wishes to seek the valkyria who sleeps on a mountain, this time under the name Brynhildr (“Armor War” – a name that may be referring to the armor worn by Sígrdrífa before she was woken up by Sígurðr). Gunnarr receives the help and guidance of his brother in-law Sígurðr who has undertaken the journey before, when he woke his valkyria, the “Golden Goddess” (Gullna Dís) on the mountain. But Gunnarr is too timid to ride through the fire, and the two men conspire: They exchange their physical shapes (after his journey to the mountain of the valkyria, Sígurðr has magical powers), and wearing the shape of Gunnarr, Sígurðr goes through the fire and sleeps with the valkyria for three nights. Later, the valkyria Brynhildr arrives as Gunnarr´s wife, only to find out about the treason: how her husband never had the courage to enter her realm, so that she is now living with an unworthy man. She realizes that Sígurðr is to blame, and has him killed. However, in the manner of a valkyria, and because Sígurðr had in fact reaches her golden halls, she decides to save him from Hel. In the poem Helreiðr Brynhilds, we hear how the valkyria moves into Hel in order to save her lover.

Later on, Gunnarr obviously grow into more courage and maturity, for he receives the love of Brynhild´s sister Oddrún (Sharp Rune), and her love for him is symbolized by a drink:

12. Man ec, hvat þv meltir enn vm aptan,    I remember what you said that evening
þa er ec Gvnnari gerþag drecco;…            
when I brought to Gunnarr the drink…

Later, when Gunnarr faces death, we hear how Oddrún hears his song all the way to her realm and then tries to save him from Hel. She arrives too late, just in time to see how Gunnarr is taken by the ogress of death in the shape of a serpent. Obviously, in the valkyria stories we see how the valkyria has a function in death: salvation from Hel, from the frosty enclosure of the ogress who, as Hyndla said, offers only oblivion and loss of consciousness. The love of the golden, bright mead-woman clearly has to do with resurrection from the misty realm of ice and darkness, where the dead gradually disintegrate into the great cauldron of Hel from which all rivers stem.

What is also interesting about the Oddrúnargrátr is that we are offered a more detailed description of their realm. One would have assumed that the valkyriur lived in Valhöll, but in the Edda poems, the only place said to be the home of the valkyriur is Hlésey, the “Wind-Shielded Island”. This island happens to be the home of the ocean giant Aegir, who also happens to have nine daughters. The valkyriur tend to show up in groups of nine, so this is significant. The reference to a wind-shielded place is likewise significant, since wind is a metaphor for death in Old Norse poetry. Thus the valkyriur and their giant guardian, brother or father (obviously a fluid concept) are associated with a realm of immortality, shielded from the power of death.


Fjölsvinnsmál – The Speech of Much Knowing

This poem is a continuation of the poem Gróagalðr, where a young man invokes a dead völva exactly like Óðinn did in the Vegtamskviða. The völva is the young man´s mother, and when she asks why he has woken her from “the doors of death”, he explains that his stepmother has urged him to seek the maiden Menglöð, but that he fears that he is too young and inexperienced to undertake the difficult trials involved. The völva Gróa (“Growth”) sings nine spell-songs of advice that empower the young man to move into Útgarðr – the Outer World of the giants, where he arrives at a bright, golden hall surrounded by flames and a wall that will kill anyone who touches it.  The description of this realm is identical to the descriptions of the halls of Gerðr and similar to the descriptions of Freyia´s hall in the Flateyiarbók and with the flaming walls surrounding the valkyria Sígrdrífa. The death theme is strengthened by the young man now calling himself Vindkaldr – “Wind-Cold”, which is a symbol for being dead.

As usual, the obstacle to the realm is a powerful giant, a guardian servant who plays the same role as the shepherd did in Skírnismál, although the conversation is long and detailed. The giant´s name is Fjölsviðr, “Much Knowing”, and like Óðinn in the halls of Suttungr, the young man has to display his eloquence and knowledge to the giant before he is allowed entry to the bright hall. The word-duel between the young man and the ancient giant have to do with the realm of the maiden Menglöð and how to gain entry.  The task seems impossible, but when the young man suddenly remembers that his name is Svípdagr (“Swift Dawn”) and that he has in fact returned home after numerous deaths, and that the maiden in the hall is his true wife, the doors open by themselves and the maiden receives him with a loving embrace.

In this poem, the mead-offering is not actually mentioned, but the structure and themes of the poems follow the exact same basic patterns as the others. The name of the maiden, Menglöð, could in fact mean “Blend Invitation/Hospitality”, from menga – to blend (a mixture, a drink) and löð – “invitation” or “hospitality”. The name indicates an invitation to a drink, or even an invitation to blend together.

The descriptions of Menglöð and her realm thus offers even more insight into the concept of the Mead Woman and who she is behind all the various shapes and names she wears whenever meeting personally with a man who has dared to go through fire for her sake. Like the giantesses Gunnlöð and Gerðr, she lives in the realm of giants, which suspiciously resembles the world of the dead, and which is guarded by a very wise and dangerous giant.  Like the valkyriur, she is sleeping on a mountain, awaiting the arrival of her beloved, and like the valkyriur, she is associated with sleep and dreams. Like the valkyriur, too, is she described as sun-bright and in the company of nine maidens. Thus Menglöð would seem to be a valkyria. However, her hall is called “elfin”, which associates Menglöð to the immortal light elves in the three upper heavens, a feature she shares with the goddess Iðunn, whose name indicates a female stream that separates from the main stream and returns to the water source – and one may wonder if the water-source is not in fact the Well of Origin. Elfin Iðunn actually serves the same function as the mead-women through the fact that she offers the apples of immortality, just as the mead offers immortality. Iðunn is also associated with a tree, with memory, healing and rejuvenation, even resurrection, just like Menglöð is, and just as the old nórn Urðr is. I let the following lines speak for themselves:

8. Menglöð of heitir,         Her name is Invitation to Blend
en hana móðir of gat        
but her mother had her
við Svafrþorins syni;        
by the son of Sleep Thorn
hon hér ræðr                    
she rules here (in Útgarðr)
ok ríki hefir                  
     and owns the lands
eign ok auðsölum        
    the properties and the great halls.
19…. hvat þat barr heitir,           …what is the tree called
er breiask um lönd öll limar?»      
whose branches grow into all lands?
20. Mímameiðr hann heitir,   It is called the Tree of Memory
en þat mangi veit,                   
and few know
af hverjum rótum renn;        
 from where its roots have run…
35. …hvat þat bjarg heitir,    …what is that mountain called
ver ek sé brúði á                    
where I see the bright maiden sit
þjóðmæra þruma                 
 the Great Maiden is dreaming
36. Lyfjaberg þat heitir,        It is called the Mountain of Medicine
en þat hefir lengi verit          
and it has long been
sjúkum ok sárum gaman;     
 the joy of the sick and the wounded
heil verðr hver,                      
healed is every woman
þótt hafi árs sótt,                   
even from ages of sickness
ef þat klífr, kona                   
who climbs that mountain.
37… vat þær meyjar heita,      …what are the maidens called
er fyr Menglaðar knjám            
who by the knees of Menglöð
sitja sáttar saman?                   
 sit together in unity?
38. Hlíf heitir, önnur Hlífþrasa,    Life is one, another Life Tracker
þriðja Þjóðvarta, Björt ok Blíð,     
the third Guardian of People, Bright and Kind,
Blíðr, Fríð, Eir ok Örboða          
Nice, Peace, Healing Goddess and Bids Abundance
40. [Bjarga] svinnar,                  They offer salvation
hvar er menn blóta þær              
when men sacrifice to them
á stallhelgum stað;                      
in a high holy place;
eigi svá hátt forað                       
Never is the need so great
kemr at hölða sonum,                
  that can come to the people
hvern þær ór nauðum nema       
that she cannot remove the need.

The theme of memory – in fact of remembering oneself – is strongly present in this poem, as is the theme of healing. We also get the image of a realm where the world tree itself is growing from, associated with nine ladies. We are very likely back to the beginning of the cosmos, when nine witches came before the “mead tree”, as is said in Völuspá st. 2. In the Hyndluljóð, st. 35-37, we hear of how the “one” – probably Heimdallr, who is a personification of the universe – was born by nine giantesses:

35. Vard einn borin i ardaga                       One was born in the days or origin
rammaukin miok raugna kindar;                 
very powerful, of the rulers´ kind
niu baru þann naddgaufgann mann             
Nine women bore the famous man
iotna meyiar vid iardar þraum                    
Giant maidens by the Earth´s end

The next lines list up and name the nine mothers of the universe, all given different and more formidable names than the nice names of Menglöð`s  maidens. But as anyone who ever studied Norse poetry knows, characters will appear with ever new names that describe them. The nine maidens are mentioned in connection with the nine worlds that came before the present, and are also mentioned in Heimdalargalðr, quoted by Snorri in the Prose Edda, where the god Heimdallr reveals that nine maidens bore him. We also hear that there are nine daughters of the world giant Aegir who play a significant role as the waves and rivers of the world, as well as being the “lights of the gods”. In the poem Sólarljod, the Song of the Sun, we hear of the nine daughters of Njördr (!) who are awaiting in the underworld as the dying person awaits the nórna domr – the judgment of the norns, and are indeed associated with a drink:

Hér ’ru rúnar,                                         Here are runes                                
er ristit hafa                                            that have been carved                                                      
Njarðar dœtr níu:                                  by Njorð´s daughters nine:            
Ráðveig hin elzta                                   Counsel Drink the oldest    
ok Kreppvör hin yngsta                        Approaching Spring the youngest         
ok þeirra systr sjau.                               and their seven sisters.    

Is the Fjölsvinnsmál, by taking us to the Tree of Memory and its nine maidens taking us back to a place of cosmic beginnings? There is indeed two passages that identify the precious mead with the ingredients of cosmic creation.

In the Hyndluljóð, the revelation about the nine maidens is followed by a description of what made the early universe grow:

38. Sa var aukinn         It came to grow
iardar megni,               
with the power of Earth
sualkaulldum sæ          
with the cool cold ocean
ok sonardreyra            
and the blood of the boar.

The exact same formula is applied to describe the ingredients of the mead in the poem that we are to describe next.

Guðrunarkvíða önnur – The Second Poem of Guðrún

…þat var vm aukit       …That drink was imbued
Iarþar magni,                 
With the Power of Earth
svalcaldom se                  With the Cold Sea
oc sonar dreyra               And the Blood of the Boar
           Guðrunarkvíða önnur, st.23, Poetic Edda

In this poem, as we see above, the mead is described with the same formula as the magical, symbolical powers that caused creation itself. The poems of Guðrún (“Divine Rune”)are the only ones in the Edda poems known to us which describe a woman as the recipient of the mead and not just as the one who offers the mead. Since women were actually the ones who brewed alcoholic drinks in Viking Age society, it is somewhat witty that she is the only recipient who is able to recognize the ingredients of the drink.

Guðrún´s path to the mead follows the same structure of initiation through the underworld journey as the men´s path. She symbolically leaves everything she owns and cares for, walks into the wilderness and suffers a symbolic death. Then she walks down from the mountains and reaches a “high hall” where she is healed from great grief and where women teach her how to weave fate. Guðrún seems to be in the realm of the nornir, the rulers of all destinies, and employs her new powers with the intention of wreaking vengeance on her own brothers for the grief they have caused her. This is then when her mother arrives in order to heal Guðrún from her anger, a healing that is accompanied by the serving of a drink in a horn carved with secret runes that even the powerful and wise Guðrún cannot decipher. As she drinks the mead, she is healed from her anger against her brothers and declare the ingredients of the mead, as is quoted above.

That women also sought the realm of the mead-women is suggested in this story as well as in the Fjölsvinnsmál st. 36 where it is said that women may climb the Mountain of Medicine where the maidens are seated beneath the Tree of Memory, and be healed of grief and sorrow.

Another woman associated with the mead is Gullveigr in the Völuspá, a witch who conquers death. Her name means Gold Power Drink, and the word veigr in her name is often used to describe the precious mead, which is also golden in color.

The mead is also served by the goddess Síf in the Lokasenna, where she tries to ease the anger of Loki. Curiously enough, it is also served by a male god, Vidar the Silent. There is one other poem where a male serves the mead to another male, and that is the Grímnismál, where the young boy Agnarr (“Honor Warrior”) serves the mead to Óðinn and receives great cosmic revelations in return. I will write more about these cases later.

The fact that the  essentially same realm, the same mead, and the same woman is described within all the various worlds, the worlds of giants, gods, elves, norns and valkyriur, is only obscure and confusing as long as one insists that were are speaking of geographical borders and physical species. The underlying message is unifying, suggesting that there is a deeper reality behind the metaphors of poetry where a golden bright maiden serves a mead of wisdom, light, healing, universal memory and a path of salvation. The maiden seems to be associated with creation, death and fate, and indeed also with the fates that follow each person through their lives, spinning their fates. It is said that the fate must be woken lest she spins in a state of slumber, causing unfortunate lives. Perhaps we are seeing a path towards waking one´s own fate.

The references to death and the underworld are overwhelming in connection to the serving of the precious mead, so are esoteric teachings and the theme of resurrection. We are seeing a mythology that has to with initiation into the mysteries of death, resurrection, runes, spell-songs, fate and the afterlife. What is more, an in-depth study of the mead-women shows that we are speaking of the same concept as that found in the Old Indian concept of the dhisanas. The dhisanas were individual goddesses worshipped in plural, but who were known to be mere aspects – different shapes – of one original and unifying dhisana. In the Old Norse myths, we see that women from all realms – giantesses, norns, death-goddesses, valkyriur and ásyniur such as Earth and Freyia, all are described within the same kind of realm, performing the same essential function. What links all these different species of mead-serving females together are their shared functions, attributes and essential meaning, as well as the word dísir, which is applied to them all no matter what world they belong to on the surface. Freyia, the Vanadís, was worshipped in the Dísarsalinn – the Hall of the (one) Goddess – during the annual celebration known as dísablót – the Sacrifice to the (many) Goddesses. There certainly seems to be a pantheist concept of “many-one” at the heart of Norse mythology, which may be detected in the lore of the female powers. Although not discussed in this article, I am convinced that we find the same concept as well as in the lore of the male powers.






[1] Svava Jacobsdòttir: Gunnlöð and the Precious Mead in Acker/Larrington: The Poetic Edda, Essays on Old Norse Mythology

[2] Kragerud, Alv : Helgediktningen og reinkarnasjon, Scripta Islandica

[3] Hávamál st. 106

[4] Hávamál st. 108

[5] Hávamál st. 109

4 Responses to The Mead Serving Woman in the Edda

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  2. Alex says:

    In the AA system of “magick” valkyrie, sigdrifa in particular, are looked upon as manifestations of what they call the “holy gaurdian angel”, and the story, esp. Wagner’s version, is seen as a ritual to bring about an event they call knowledge and conversation. I highly recommend that you incorporate the summerian story of innana and the huluppu tree

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  4. Pingback: FFF6: Connecting with The Dark Wood «

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