Within the Eddas that contain the most famous tales of Icelandic Mythology there are many gods. Mighty THOR the Champion and defender of the Gods! Sensuous FREYA who makes even Odin quake with fear when angered! TYR the fearless god of Victory! Yet amidst all of these gods and tales there is but a single god who can claim to be the god of poetry and his name is Od… BRAGI. The Skald of the Gods, the Fearless diplomat of the Aesir. Bragi is the god of poetry, the patron of Skalds, First Maker of Poetry and the best of poets. Yet there is an extremely common misconception in Norse mythology that all of these things the poetic inspiration, the gift of words, the magical ability of Bragi’s poetry to uplift the spirits and sway the hearts of man. That this somehow is the domain of Odin. So why is that and how did Bragi become so undeservedly ignored?
Who is Bragi?
Who do the gods and men look to for eloquence? For Inspiration? For Hope & Comfort? Whose voice quickens the soul calling forth tears from the eyes of even the most stoic of men? There is but one god with such power. Bragi! It is Bragi who travels with impunity across the realms as diplomat and skald. It is Bragi to whom the skalds praise and the sons of kings drank! It is Bragi that is the first poet the Lord and Chieftain of Poets and Creativity! It is Bragi’s Runesongs which comforts the Einherjar in Valhalla when they fear they are forgotten or ignored. It is Bragi who holds no fear in challenging Odin’s decisions or that of any other god. It is Bragi whose speech is so powerful runes form upon his tongue. When finally, Bragi must rest he comes to his beloved, singing to her in her orchards, his Golden Muse, his treasured wife, the lovely Idunn.
Now…That is who Bragi is, he is not incredibly complex no more than a rock star or countries diplomat would be. He is after all the God of Skalds, traveling poets who told stories in King’s Chambers and in mead halls of half-drunk farmers. As such in the Bardic Textbook known as the Prose Edda Bragi even forms the framing device of the section Skáldskaparmál or The Language of Poetry (AKA Poetic Diction) in English. Where he then goes on to tell stories including the well-known tale of The Mead of poetry as well as reveal many kennings which are poetic metaphors employed in Skaldic Poetry. They are typically used in place of a figures actual name in order to successfully rhyme a poem. In other words, Bragi the god was being used as a sort of teacher to the bards that used the Prose Edda to learn the tools of their trade.
Meanwhile in Ynglinga Saga the “Bragi Cup” is taken in hand and a vow is made before one ascends to inherit a Kingdom, then the Bragi cup is drank dry. In The Saga known as The History of Hacon the Good Bragi’s bowl is drank in a series of blessings alongside Odin’s, Njord’s and Freyr’s. Some have suggested that Bragi is merely an ascended Bard known as Bragi Boddason who served many Swedish Kings. Yet by this logic Thor is merely an amalgam of most Scandinavian Men as Thor or some derivative of it was and is an incredibly common name among the Scandinavian cultures. Much more likely his name was in honor of the God, as names can change or be earned over time in Old European cultures. Yet this speaks to the sheer magnitude of the question who is the God of Poetry in Norse Myth? That there are those who have even tried to unseat Bragi from his role as a god simply to allow Odin to take his place. Now the real question… how did Odin become known as the God of Poetry and why do people think he is?
Odin God of Poetry?
Odin is a god of many things Thieves, Prisoners, Hanged Men, Magicians, Death, Politicians, Travelers, Knowledge, etc. Yet there are many things he is attributed that he is not the god of, he is often called the God of War, yet this is far more the domain of Tyr, some call him a god of storms yet this is something more likely to be relegated to Thor or the Jotnar. He is often called the god of Inspiration, Eloquence and yes Poetry. After many years of research, I have found nothing to indicate this and have heard several explanations, none of which are at all satisfactory. Let us explore them shall we?
The Theft of the Mead of Poetry
One of the main arguments made for Odin being the god of poetry is the tale from Skáldskaparmál known as “The Theft of the Mead of Poetry” That Odin’s very theft of such a potent potion would portentously make him a rather poetical person would it not? Well by that logic we should call anyone who steals an original draft of Walt Whitman “America’s Poet” because they stole it, so they get credit for it right? While it is true that the Mead of Poetry supposedly gifts anyone who drinks the ability to be a poet or a scholar, this is not Odin alone as Odin gave the mead to the Aesir who also drank from it, while he quite literally shit out a part of the Mead of Poetry while escaping the giant he was stealing it from (Suttung) and this is known as the “Bad Poet’s Portion” as seen in this excerpt from Skáldskaparmál :
“When the Aesir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion.”
While many have attempted to claim that this story also details the conception of Bragi via Odin and Gunnlöd this is complete guesswork and despite the fact that Bragi is listed as a Son of Odin, so is Tyr and Tyr is shown in another tale to bear no “genetic” relation to Odin being in fact a Jotun in Eddic lore (See Hymiskvitha in the Poetic Edda). The reason I bring this up is that another explanation often given is that as the Son of Odin Bragi is merely subservient to his father’s grand poetic role, which is complete nonsense. Especially as one of the Kennings for Bragi is “First Maker of Poetry” so poetry itself is tied to Bragi. Bragi is also the one telling the story in Skáldskaparmál so why would he leave out his own birth? There is one other argument I have often heard as to why Odin is the god of Poetry, and it is even less well founded.
The Hávamál (Words of the One Eyed) is an amalgamation of several poems that is found in the Poetic Edda. It supposedly details Old Norse Philosophy but in fact mostly deals with common sense things like be hospitable to your neighbors, don’t be a drunk, don’t listen to idiots, never complement your wife until she’s dead simple stuff really. It is told by Odin and is often seen as evidence of his great gift of poetry as the Hávamál is a poem. But pretty much every story told by skalds was a poem, this same standard would make any god with a speaking role in Eddic Mythology a god of poetry. I don’t need to explain any further how foolish this argument is.
So, Who is the God of Poetry?
If it wasn’t already obvious the answer is Bragi, Bragi not only tells you stories he has an entire section in a Bardic textbook where he explains the art and reasoning behind Skaldic poetry. He is considered the first being to make poetry, the Best of Skalds, he is quite simply a Skald God. It can’t get more simple, he is a God of Eloquence, Poetry, Music, Writing, Speech, Inspiration and arguably Creativity. None of these things have anything to do with Odin. There are some that will argue that Odin is too the God of Poetry that his knowledge of Runes and his Wisdom is what makes him the god of poetry. To that I say what does Knowledge or the ability to read and write have to do with being a good poet? Poetry is creative expression not debate or dissertation. Both of which also fall into Bragi’s purview mind you. Odin throughout his stories is invariably trying to gather knowledge yes, for his own ends. As mentioned, before it is Bragi who comforts and sings to the Einherjar in Valhalla, not Odin. Odin is not the god of Poetry.
Bragi is, and well simply put I know many people have appealed to Odin for poetic inspiration and well…. put it this way if you’re lucky he didn’t listen and if he did it might be good to get an unbiased persons opinion as to the quality of your work. Given that you are appealing to the God of Thieves, Prisoners, Death, Hanged Men, and well Shit Poetry. Without which we would never be able to enjoy Bragi’s gift, actually good poetry.
J. Crawford (Translator and Editor), The Poetic Edda 2015
S. Sturluson (Author), J.L. Byock (Translator) The Prose Edda 2005
S. Sturluson (Author), A.H.Smith (Translator) Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings 2019