Óðinn and Gunnlǫð – the Initiation of a God

This article is taken from a chapter of my 2004 thesis (published as book in 2009): The Maiden with the Mead – a Goddess of Initiation in Norse Myths?”


to chapter: Hávamál St. 104-110

104. Enn aldna iotun ec sotta,                                 To the old giant I went
nu em ec aptr um kominn,                                        now I have come back again
fát gat ec thegiandi thar;                                          Little I would have got there, without speaking
margom orthom melta ec i minn frama                    many words I used to my advantage
i Suttungs sǫlom.                                                      In the hall of Suttungr
105. Gunnlad mer um gaf gullnom stóli á                Gunnlǫð gave me, from her golden throne
drycc ins dyra miathar; ill ithgiold                         the precious drink of mead; a poor payment
let ec hana eptir hafa                                               I let her have in return
sins ins heila hugar                                                 for her whole soul[1]
sins ins svara seva                                       for her burdened spirit
106. Rata munn letomc rúms um fá                         I made a way for myself with the auger`s mouth
oc om griot gnaga; yfir oc undir                             and gnawed through the mountain; above and underneath
stodomc iotna vegir, svahetta ec hafdi til                were the paths of the giants; thus I risked my head
107. Vel keyptz litar hefi ec vel notith                      he well-bought thing I have well enjoyed
fáss er frothom vant; thviat Ódrerir                         The wise lack for little; for Poetry Stir
er nu upp kominn á alda vés iartha                         has now come up here, to Earth´s old sanctuary
108. Ifi er mer á, at ec vera en kominn                     I doubt that I would have come back
iotna gordom or, ef ec Gunnladar ne nytac,             from the halls of giants, if I had not used Gunnlǫð
ennar godo kono, theirrar er lagdomc arm yfir       - that good woman, whom I put my arms around
109. Ens hindra dags gengo hrim þursar                 From the next day on the frost-ogres went              
Hava ráths at fregna, Hava hallo i;                          to ask advice from the High One, in the High One`s hall
at Balverci theur spurdo,                                          about Harm-Doer they asked
ef hann veri med barndom cominn                           if he had come among the binding powers [the gods]
etha hefdi hanom Suttungr of sóit                             or if he had died by Suttungr´s hands
110, Báugeith Óðinn hygg ek at unnit hafij              A ring-oath, I believe that Óðinn swore
Hvat skal hans trygdom trua?                                   who can now trust his words?
Suttung svikinn hann let sumbli fra                           he stole Suttungr´s drink by treason
oc grotta Gunnlado.                                                 and made Gunnlǫð weep

Appendix II to chapter:   Hávamál St. 138-141

138. Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meidi a                              I know that I hung in the wind-swept tree
netr alla nio, geiri undathr                                                nine whole nights, stabbed with spears
oc gefinn Odni, sialfr sialfom mer                                     and given to Óðinn, given self to myself
a theim meithi, er mangi veit                                             on that tree of which few know
hvers hann af rótom renn                                                from where its roots run
139.Vith hleifi mic seldo                                                   No bread was given to me
ne vith hornigi, nysta ec nithr,                                          they brought no horn – I peered down
nam ec up rúnar,                                                            I took up the runes
opandi nam, fell ec aptr thadan                                      screaming I took them, then I fell back there


140. Fimbulliod nío nam ec enom   ;                              Nine powerful spell-songs I learned from
fregia syni Balthorns, Bestla fathir                                 the famous son of Bolthorn, Bestla´s father
oc ec dryc of gat ens dyra miathar                                  and I had a drink of precious mead
asinn Odreri                                                                  served from Poetry Stir
141. Tha nam ec frovaz                                                   Then I learned to be wise
oc frothr vera, oc vaxa oc vel hafaz;                               and to be learned; and grow, and to live well
ord mer af ordi orz leitadi                                               words from words found more words to me
verc mer af verki verks leitadi                                         deed from deeds found more deeds for me

[1] húgr:
soul, spirit, will, intent, desire, thought, heart, love


Gunnlǫð means “Invitation to Battle”, a name which according to Simek would be rather more typical for a valkyria than for a giantess, suitable for the figure of the valkyria who hands out mead.[1] The oldest written version of the story is to be found in the Hávamál poem St. 104-110, where Óðinn himself tells the story of his conquest.

In the stanzas Óðinn tells of how he entered the hall of the “old giant” – Suttungr – speaking so well for himself that he saved his life in that alien realm. A lady sitting on a golden throne offers him “a precious drink of mead”. The lady is Gunnlǫð, Suttungr´s daughter, and her appearance is queen-like. We learn that Óðinn had sworn a sacred ring-oath before he had relations with her. The speaking in the hall of the maiden´s father, the oath, the ritual offering of mead and the subsequent embrace between the god and the giantess all seem to indicate a wedding.[2] Gunnlǫð proceeds to help Óðinn in his effort to get out of the hall of the giants, in fact, he admits that he would not have been able to escape without her help. Gnawing himself out through the mountain “with the mouth of Rati”, risking his head between paths of giants, Óðinn manages to return up to “Earth´s old shrine”, bringing with him the drink that Gunnlǫð gave him, Óðrerir, or “Poetry Stir”. Óðinn concludes the story by naming himself Harm-Doer and oath-breaker, for he left Gunnlǫð behind, weeping, and he stole the mead by treason. He also tells how the frost-ogres ask themselves whether he had died by Suttungr´s hands or had “come among the gods”.


St. 107 identifies the precious mead as Óðrerir, a cauldron of mead whose history Snorri explains in Skáldskaparmál. Snorri also asserts that it was this mead that Gunnlǫð gave to Óðinn. More to the point, Óðrerir was, according to Snorri, the biggest one of the three cauldrons in which the mead was kept. Thus we have two sources that identify Gunnlǫð`s precious mead with the “mead of poetry”.It is mead that is the essence of the primordial truce between the two tribes of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The mead contains divine wisdom and all the intelligence of the world. Anyone drinking it will become a sage and a great poet.[3] In Snorri´s version, a great point is made out of the fact that Óðinn manages to escape with the mead inside of himself, to be held forever after in the divine realm of Ásgarðr. The Hávamál version asserts that, because of his troubles and his relation to Gunnlǫð, Óðinn could now bring the mead “up” into the shrine of Earth.


Apparently, most scholars consider the trials of Óðinn on the world tree as something completely separate from his sacred marriage to Gunnlǫð.[4] However, Óðrerir does indeed appear in a different set of Hávamál stanzas which, to my view, may connect the two events. Stanzas 138-139 tells the tale of how Óðinn (or a þul identifying himself with Óðinn, see Ch.3.1) hangs in a wind-swept tree for nine whole nights, stabbed, thirsting and starving. He is given to Óðinn, he is giving “self to himself”, and, peering down, he has a vision: screaming, he takes the runes “up”, falling backwards. As mentioned in Ch. 3.1 and 3.3, Óðins trials on the World Tree is generally understood as a ritual of initiation. But as Schjødt pointed out (Ch. 3.1), the initiation is only complete when the result is that the initiate achieves a new position, status or spiritual level. Thus the stanzas 138-139 lose their meaning without the St. 141 which tells of how Óðinn became a sage after his trials. In between we have St. 140: explaining how Óðinn learns nine powerful charms from a giant, his maternal uncle, and, in the same breath, has a drink of precious mead, ladled out from Óðrerir. Only then he learns to grow, be wise, and be eloquent.[5] To read the trials of Óðinn as reflecting a ritual of initiation, as most scholars do, it is necessary to consider all the stanzas from his trials to the result, that is, St. 138 to St. 141. St. 140 makes it clear that the precious mead, Óðrerir, and the learning of galðr was part of the same ritual as the one where Óðinn hangs on a tree. Óðrerir is certainly connected a description of Gunnlǫð´s mead, as testified by Snorri and by Hávamál St. 107.


Snorri does not mention Óðins sacrifice in his version of the Gunnlǫð story; however, he does not mention that important event anywhere. As we saw in Ch. 2.4, violent ritual sacrifice, even if symbolic, may simply have been too incomprehensible, too alien or even too Pagan for him to try and explain. Indeed, one does not need Snorri´s Skáldskaparmál version to form a complete picture of one version of the story independently. The connection between St. 140 and St. 107 through the name of the mead that Óðinn drinks, Óðrerir, convinces me that there is a strong connection between Óðins self-sacrifice not only with the discovery of the sacred runes, but also with the learning of charms from an old giant and the ritual drinking and marriage with a lady of the other world. 


4.3: An Underlying Structure of Themes

Assuming that the two sets of stanzas from the Hávamál that we have discussed are indeed connected through the mead-theme, we may form an image of at least one version of the story, and we may detect an underlying structure:

First, we have what I would call a “vision quest- theme”. Óðinn, or the one trying to resemble him, undergoes trials of hardship, pain and fasting in order to achieve a vision. Second, we have a “vision-theme”. The I-person “peers down” and picks up sacred knowledge. Third, we have a “descending- theme”: Our hero descends into the world within the mountains, filled with the paths of otherworldly creatures, and ruled by giants, a deadly realm where one risks one´s head. Only cleverness (the use of many words, eloquence), may save the life of the one who descends. My reason for the use of the world “descend” is because I believe there is reason to assume that the realm in question is a kind of Underworld or, indeed, another image of the world of the dead. I will discuss this below. Four, we have a “trial-theme”. Óðinn has to face an old, dangerous giant, whether it is Suttungr, Gunnlǫð´s father, or Bolþorn, his own maternal uncle, who will only receive him and teach him if he shows himself eloquent and smart enough. After the learning of nine spell-songs, we are led over to the fifth theme, the “Maiden-theme”, which is where the culmination of the hero´s trials takes place: his meeting with the queen-like Maiden on her golden throne, her offering of the “precious drink”, the “Poetry Stir”, and her own soul, heart and embrace. The result of the trials and the union with the Maiden-figure is knowledge of runes, of charms, and the escape from that deadly realm which surrounds the Maiden. He also becomes exceedingly wise and eloquent. The betrayal-theme in the story of Óðinn and Gunnlǫð is very interesting but there is no space to discuss it to any extent in this study.


4.4: The Maiden and her Kin: A Realm of Death?

Gunnlǫð is seated, queen-like, on a golden throne. She dwells within a place called Hnitbjǫrg –the “Beating Rock”.[6] And she is a guardian. Hnitbjǫrg is usually understood to be a mountain, since bjǫrg means “layers of rock”[7]. Gunnlǫð stays within the rock-layers. This is in accordance with her role as a giantess, since giantesses are frequently related to rock, stone and mountain. The giantess Hyndla, for example, is said to live in a rock cave.[8] The guardian role is shared with other giantesses: Móðguðr –“Furious Battle”[9]- is the guardian of the river Giǫll –“Loud Noise” and the bridge Gjallarbrú –the “Resounding Bridge”[10] – which lead the way to Hel. In the Helreið Brynhildar we see how the entry into Hel`s realm is guarded by an ogress. Is Gunnlǫð´s dwelling also a death-realm?


The “Eagle-proof”

Gunnlǫð is the daughter of giants. In Snorri´s version of the story of Óðinn and Gunnlǫð, her father, Suttungr, appears as a giant in eagle´s disguise, much like Hræsvelgr. We already mentioned this “Corpse-Swallower” in Ch. 4.1, and find the image of death as a giant-eagle worth scrutinizing, especially since it will show up again in the heroic poems of chapter 6. The eagle is mentioned as the origin of all winds in Óðins ninth question in the poem Váfþruðnismál, St. 36 and 37 (see App.III). Snorri gives further information about Corpse-Swallower”:

“At the northernmost end of heaven there sits a giant called Hræsvelgr. He has eagle form. From his wings they say wind comes over all men.”[11]


Snorri´s addition is valuable because it locates Hræsvelgr´s residence in the northern end of heaven. The north is the direction of Níflheimr and Hel, the world of the dead. In the Gylfaginning, Snorri makes Níflheimr the opposite part of the south in the primeval universe, which, logically, must be to the north[12]. In the Skáldskaparmál, Hermóðr, who is riding to Hel, has to go “north and down”[13]. The Vǫluspá declares that the hall on “Corpse-beach” has doors looking to the north, and this is where the great serpent Níðhǫggr sucks the bodies of the dead.[14]  The eagle Corpse-Swallower, then, must belong to Níflheimr, the Misty World of Hel, where, perhaps, as his name indicates, he tears at corpses in the same manner as the serpent Níðhǫggr and the other uncountable serpents (such as Svafnir) by the well, Hvergelmir, at the root of Yggdrasill the World Tree.


Another great eagle connected to Yggdrasill and the heavens, is the unnamed eagle sitting in the branches of the ash. It is exceedingly wise, yet it keeps an ongoing quarrel with the serpent Níðhǫggr. [15]. Between its eyes sits a hawk called Veðrfǫlnir“Wind-Diminishing”,[16]  apparently the wind-creating eagle´s anti-thesis sitting right in the middle of its own eyes. Are we, in the eagle of the World Tree, perhaps seeing yet another image of our wind-creating Hræsvelgr?


Another giant in eagle´s disguise is Þiazi, father of Skaði, a giantess turned goddess through marriage among the Aesir. In the skaldic poem Haustlǫng by Þióðolfr af Kvinir, who lived around the year 900 A.D., Þiazi captures the goddess Iðunn.[17] Snorri relates the poem and gives a summary of the story in the Skáldskaparmál.[18]Iðunn is the goddess “who knows the age-cure of the Aesir”, that is, she is the keeper of the apples that give the gods eternal youth. When Þiazi takes her away, the gods grow old and feeble, and realize that they will die unless Iðunn is brought back from the giant world. Eventually, wearing a falcon´s disguise, Loki manages to bring her back. He is followed by Þiazi in the shape of an eagle. The flight in bird´s disguise with a stolen (or rather retrieved) treasure from the giant in eagle´s disguise is quite reminiscent of Óðins flight from Suttungr in eagle´s shape.


The giant´s association with death seems to me obvious: when offered a piece of the holy meal, it takes the whole steak. It flies off with Loki who is mysteriously stuck to it when first daring to touch it. The flight, we realize, means the death of Loki, unless he brings Iðunn to the giant´s world. Yet his escape is only temporary; the theft of Iðunn by the eagle also signifies old age and death – for all the gods. The image of the falcon flying from the eagle reminds me of the image of the eagle with a “wind-diminishing” hawk in between its eyes. If we take the eagle´s daughter, Skaði into account, we will realize that her name literally means “harm, accident, death”.[19] Skaði´s association to death is further enhanced by her pleasure in wolves, mountains, and hunting. The giantess´s presence appears to threaten the divine world itself, whose inhabitants do all they can to appease her. The link to the eagle in the World Tree is there: Þiazi is first seen sitting in the top of an enormous tree. The link to Hel is there in the figure of Skaði. Finally, the link to the corpse-swallowing wind-creator is not lacking either: both Snorri and Þióðolfr make a point out of how the wind is whistling when the Þiazi beats his wings.


It should be added, in this respect, that the serpent-infested well in Níflheimr, Hvergelmir, may be translated as “Eagle Cauldron”. A number of primeval giants, such asthe first being in the Cosmos, Aurgelmir (“Aurr-Eagle”), and his descendants Bergelmir (“Fruit Eagle «or “Clear Eagle”) and Þruðgelmir (“Power Eagle”) have names that may be related to “Eagle”[20].


A giant in eagle´s disguise, then, may be a symbol of the devouring world of death. To be able to take off with the maiden that the eagle guards, it appears to be necessary to “kill” it, as Loki and the gods do in the Haustlǫng.  It is tempting to suggest that death itself, in its all-devouring aspect, is “killed” when the maiden is rescued. The eagle is also associated with knowledge, as Snorri observed in the Skáldskaparmál. 


The Inside of a Mountain or Rock


The inside of a rock, filled with the pathways of giants, where Óðinn literally risks his life, may very well denote a realm of death: the burial mound or tomb. As Lotte Motz has pointed out, stones and boulders of magical endowment was a common concept in the Norse tradition, believed to be the dwellings of spirits and of the dead.[21] Hilda Ellis Davidson describes the burial mound and the mound as such as sites where certain people would go for wisdom and inspiration, and in which would sometimes dwell elves or other spirit beings that could be sacrificed to.[22]


Jacobsdottir translates Hnitbjǫrg as “Collision-Cliffs”, regarding it as “the cliffs which crash together”. According to her, they are a perfect image of the Symplegades of Greek mythology; the cliffs which crash together around the perilous entrance to the world of the undead, the obstacle that the hero had to pass if he wished to find treasure in the other world. In the Old Indian epic Mahabharata, the eagle Garuda (like all “soma thiefs”) has to pass through a wheel of flame to reach the soma, Water of Life. The wheel is pictured as golden, razor-sharp reeds that crash together in the blink of an eye. Jacobsdottir also convincingly shows how the serpent- and eagle-symbolisms of Óðinn´s disguise in Snorri´s version have their counterparts in Indian soma mythology.[23]  Our aim here, however, is not to understand the myth in light of comparative mythology, but to find the meaning within the Norse imagery itself. It is highly interesting that Óðinn takes upon himself the very imagery associated with the powers of death: the serpent and the eagle are both prominent characters in the realm of Hel.




There are several allusions to noise in the names just mentioned. Gunnlǫð dwells in the “Beating Rock” (or “Collision-Cliffs”). As we shall discuss below, there is a puzzling similarity between the meaning of her father´s name and his association with a drink, and the doings of the giant Mímir, who drinks through a horn called the “Resounding Horn”. Suttungr´s father is called Gillingr which means “the Noisy One” or “Screamer[24]”. His wife was murdered with a millstone because the dwarf who killed her was weary of her howling.[25]The noise is associated with the realm of death with its barking dogs, boundary river Loud Noiseand its Resounding Bridge. All in all, the main imagery of the story may all be traced back to Hel´s realm, and to some degree, to Mimi’s Well of Wisdom.


4.5: The Initiations and Arts of Óðinn


Above we have seen that Óðinn learned the official arts of spell-songs or charms (galðr), the mastery of runes, and the use of eloquence in the ancient realm of the giants and in connection with a wedding to a giantess. There are reasons to believe that the specific area of Giant-world that he is visiting is the realm of death, through some symbolic characters and characteristics which resemble those of Níflheimr. Gunnlǫð may indeed be the mistress of death in disguise, and her embraces usually mean only the “pleasures” of death itself.[26]Óðinn´s escape alive from that realm, carrying with him the hidden and well-guarded mead of poetry and divine wisdom, means that he is in fact conquering death. Conquering death, gathering wisdom in the underworld, and returning with the arts of runes and galðr are not the only wisdom-quests that Óðinn undertakes. I believe that one should see all the arts of Óðinn and his manner of learning them in connection with each other.


Drink of Memory


Suttungr´s name deserves mention. It means “Heavy with Drink” – one would perhaps assume him to be heavy with the very precious mead of memory and wisdom of which he is the owner. One other giant is associated with drinking in the mythology, and that is Mímir, whose name possibly means “Rememberer”.[27] He is full of learning because he drinks from the Mímisbrunnr – the Well of Memory, one of the three wells beneath the world tree –in the heart of the giant world. The well contains wisdom and knowledge.[28] I believe it is worthwhile to note, here, that the mead served by the “Maiden” in other stories is often called the mead of memory (minnisdrykk). Mímir uses the Gjallarhorn – the Resounding Horn – to drink from. Óðinn paid one of his eyes in order to have a drink from that well [29] – we must assume through the same horn. In the Vǫluspá, St. 28, the payment of Óðinn´s eye is somehow connected to the sad and violent fate of the world, whereas in the Hávamál, we may get the feeling that Óðinn´s breaking of the ring-oath has terrible, though unmentioned, consequences. This link in itself is thin, but


I find that there is a connection between Óðinn in Suttungr´s realm and in that of Mímir, through the character of the two giants Suttungr and Mímir, who are both connected with a drink of wisdom, and both connected with what we shall call “Óðinn´s initiation”. The two giants may very well be identical. The well of Mímir is generally understood to be situated by a different root than that of Hel, just as the well of Urðr is thought to be by a third root. I believe we should not be too geographic in our understandings of the mythic universe. All the wells have that in common that they are situated at a root of the world tree, and we will see that the borders between the realms may not be as strict as they seem. We ought to remember that the runes which Óðinn “picked up” while hanging from the world tree, were indeed first carved into that very tree by Urðr and her norns, as is clearly stated in Vǫluspá St. 20. Thus, Óðinn has to move into the world of the norns to pick up the runes of fate, into the world of the giants to pick up the drink of memory, and, as we will see, into the world of death in order to drink the precious mead of the Maiden. In every case, Óðinn is initiated into sacred knowledge by a well at the root of the world tree, and in every case the root is connected to a water source.[30]




 “Njǫrð´s daughter was Freyia, she was a blótgyðja (sacrificial priestess), and she was the first who taught the Aesir to practice seiðr, like the Vanir used to”.[31]


That art which “contained the most power”, that of seiðr, was taught to Óðinn and the Aesir gods by the Vanir goddess Freyia. Snorri explains that seiðr originally was an art of the Vanir. Freyia came to the Aesir after the war between the tribes. The art of seiðr, then, is related to the truce meeting between the Aesir and the Vanir. The same is the case with the mead of poetry, which was created during that very truce, or, according to another text, originated solely among the Vanir.[32] The art of seiðr must have come to the Aesir around the same time as the art of poetry that Óðinn later brought back from the Hnitbjǫrg and Gunnlǫð. We do not know any more details of this myth, but it places Freyia in a position of teacher and Óðinn as her student. As we shall see later, Freyia is identifiable as the Maiden with the Mead and thus with the giantess Gunnlǫð. The links we have discussed convince me that Óðinn´s initiation on the world tree is really associated both with his learning of seiðr from Freyia, runes (from the norns?), galðr from the “old giant”, poetry and wisdom from Gunnlǫð, and with Mimi’s drink of Memory.


[1] Simek, 1996, p. 124-125

[2] See Ch. 3.2

[3] Faulkes, 1987, p. 62-64.

[4] I have not been able to find anyone else who makes this connection.

[5] See appendix II for the original text

[6] Simek, 1996, p. 154

[7] Norrøn Ordbok

[8] Hyndluljod, St. 1

[9] Simek, 1996, p. 220

[10]  Simek, 1996, p. 111

[11] Faulkes, 1987, p. 20

[12] Faulkes, 1987, p. 9, 10

[13] Faulkes, 1987, p. 50

[14] Voluspá, St. 38, 39

[15] Faulkes, 1987, p. 18

[16]From vedr, n.:  “wind, stormy weather”, and folna, “go pale, go dry, go less (folnan, f., “diminishing”), Norrøn Ordbok

[17] Haustlong, St. 2-13 (Jónsson, 1912)

[18] Faulkes, 1987, p.59-61, 86-88

[19] Norrøn Ordbok

[20] Gelmir –“the year-old”, is a poetic synonym for “eagle” (Norrøn Ordbok) In the first Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, the shrieking of eagles is related to Creation. Ber –“berry” or “clear”, thrud –“power”, “might”, (Norrøn Ordbok). Aurr may signify “resplendant”, “shining”, “gold” related to liquids(Näsström 2001, p.148)

[21] Motz, 1983, p. 6-7

[22] Davidson, 1964, p. 154-157

[23] Jakobsdottir, 2002, p. 48-51

[24]  Simek, 1996, p. 08

[25] Faulkes, 1987, p. 62. The dwarf is the same who killed Kvasir and Gillingr.

[26] See Ch. 4.1 on how death may be described as a wedding or sexual union with the mistress of death

[27] Simek, 1996, p. 216

[28] Faulkes, 1987, p. 17

[29] Faulkes, 1987, p. 17

[30] Folke Ström, 1954, also identified the three wells with each other through a different kind of argument.

[31] Snorres Kongesagaer, 1944, p. 4 (my translation)

[32] Faulkes, 1987, p.62.64: Snorri`s Skáldskaparmál claims that Kvasir, whose blood became the mead of poetry, was created from the spit of the two tribes of gods during their truce meeting. But in the Heimskringla, Snorri claims that Kvasir was the wisest man among the Vanir and that he came to Ásgardr together with the Njordr-family.(Snorres Kongesagaer, 144, p. 4). Apparently there were two versions of the story.

One Response to Óðinn and Gunnlǫð – the Initiation of a God

  1. Sibyl Delamora says:

    Thoughtful suggestions – I was enlightened by the insight ! Does anyone know where I can get access to a fillable 2014 NY DTF ST-140 document to fill out ?

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