The theft of the mead

In a recent article, I discussed the theft of fire in the Rig Veda, and this may remind us of another similar incident of theft from the gods, viz. the theft of mead or soma by a falcon.  In the Indian context, the two substances are addressed together here –

Mātariśvan carried the one from the sky; the falcon churned the other from the mountain.
Agni and Soma, grown with sacred words, you made space for the sacrificial ritual.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 1 Sūkta 93 verse 6 by Ṛṣi Gotama Rāhūgaṇa; my own translation]

Like the theft of fire, the stealing of soma also has its parallels in other Indo-European literature, and, specifically, in the stealing of the mead by Odin in the form of an eagle, which we find in the Old Norse literature.  This article will present some of the core themes in both these stories.  In both stories, mead, or soma, is stolen by an eagle from a heavily defended place.  The Scandinavian story is found in the Skáldskaparmál of the prose Edda and the Hávamál of the poetic Edda.  The Indian account is found in Book 4 of the Rig Veda by Ṛṣi Vāmadeva Gautama, and aspects of the story are further elaborated in later texts such as the Brāhmaṇas and epic literature.

In the Hávamál, we read a first-person account by the hero Odin.  The mead was hidden the mountain Hnitbjörg by one of the eotens, Suttung, and Odin bores into it with an auger named ‘Rati’ to reach the ‘mead of poetry’ –

“I bored me a road there with Rati’s tusk
and made room to pass through the rock;
while the ways of the Jötuns stretched over and under,
I dared my life for a draught.”

[Hávamál 103; trans. Olive Bray; ed. D. L. Ashliman]

A slightly different account of this incident from the Skáldskaparmál is depicted in the image below, where Suttung’s brother, Baugi, has been co-opted by Odin, now disguised in the form of Bölverk, to do the drilling.

Odin and the jötunn Baugi who bores through the mountain – Wikimedia Commons (Ólafur Brynjúlfsson)

In the Rig Veda, the story similarly begins with a first-person account by the hero Indra of his attack on a fortified place, although this may possibly relate to the effect of having already drunk the soma –

Energised [by the soma], I tore open 99 fortresses of [the demon] Śambara,
And finally the hundred-most dwelling where I brought Divo̍dāsam Atithi̱gva

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 4 Sūkta 26 verse 3; my own translation]

In the Old Norse account, the mead is guarded by his daughter, Gunnlöð, who is seduced by Odin so that he can take the mead.  Odin then turns himself into an eagle in order to make his getaway, and he is hotly pursued by Suttung, who also takes on the form of an eagle.

“Then he turned himself into the shape of an eagle and flew as furiously as he could; but when Suttungr saw the eagle’s flight, he too assumed the fashion of an eagle and flew after him.”

[from Skáldskaparmál; trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur]

This chase scene perhaps reminds us of the playful chasing behaviours of real birds, and, indeed, the getaway is vividly depicted in both stories.  In the Rig Veda, similarly, the mead was guarded by the archer Kr̥śānu, who shoots an arrow at the equally fast-fleeing eagle and only narrowly misses, brushing off a single feather from the eagle’s body –

The eagle screeched down through the sky, as it carried down the bountiful [soma],
as the quick-thinking Kṛśānu released his bow and sent arrows down at him.
The eagle, now soaring upwards, carried Indra’s own drink (like Bhujyu) from the mountain-peak,
and then a feather of this flying, darting bird fell, between them.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 4 Sūkta 27 verses 3-4ab; my own translation]

The eagle-form Odin likewise gets away, and back to his companion gods, the Æsir, with the mead, which he transfers to them as follows –

“When the Æsir saw Odin flying, straightway they set out their vats in the court; and when Odin came into Ásgard, he spat up the mead into the vats. Nevertheless he came so near to being caught by Suttungr that he sent some mead backwards”

[from Skáldskaparmál; trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur]

This last part of the story is depicted below, with the eagle-form Odin reaching the vats set out by the Æsir and spitting out the mead, although he perhaps gets scared at being chased so closely by Suttung, also in eagle-form, right behind him in the picture, and that is why ‘he sent some mead backwards’ and excreted it.  It is perhaps a coincidence that the mead is painted in very fiery form, reminding us of the fire-theft mythologies.

Óðin stealing the mead of poetry – Wikimedia Commons (Ólafur Brynjúlfsson)

For those humans who are able to join the Æsir in being able to drink the mead, its power is such that it enable them to compose good poetry.

“But Odin gave the mead of Suttungr to the Æsir and to those men who possess the ability to compose. Therefore we call poesy Odin’s Booty and Find, and his Drink and Gift, and the Drink of the Æsir.”

[from Skáldskaparmál; trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur]

Similarly, soma has immense power for mortals, which when ingested, similarly elevates mortals to the level of the Æsir.

“We have drunk soma; we have become immortal; we have reached the light; we have known the gods”

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 8 Sūkta 48 verse 3ab by Ṛṣi Pragātha Kaṇva; my own translation]

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