The war between the Vanir and the Aesir ended in a truce, symbolized by the two warring factions spitting into into a jar, that was then fashioned into a man – the wisest of men – Kvasir, who could answer any question. Kvasir traveled far and wide, sharing his wisdom, until he came to the home of two dwarfs, Fjalar and Galar. The dwarfs told him that they wanted to speak with him, but when they had lured him to a secluded place they murdered him, instead, and drained his blood into two jars (Son and Bodn) and the kettle Odrarer. They added honey to the blood of Kvasir and mixed it, creating the mead of poetry, a magical drink that when imbibed could turn anyone into a scholar or poet. They told the gods that Kvasir had choked on his wisdom, and considered the matter settled.
When an audience member asked Neil Gaiman how he came up with his stories, Gaiman noted that the question was one that must not be asked of writers: “where do you get your ideas.” It’s not so much a silly question as one whose answer is both obvious and elusive. Creativity is often treated as a mystery, both by those who do and do not possess it – as a kind of magic that normal people don’t have access to, or can access only under special circumstances. Rather than being seen as a normal part of human cognition, creativity is seen as a fickle muse, hard to grasp, that might slip away at any moment.
When Fjalar and Galar drowned the giant Gilling, and killed his wife (they dropped a mill-stone on her head when they grew tired of the way she cried for her husband), Gilling’s son Suttung seized them and set them on a low, barren island, leaving them to drown like his father. The dwarfs called out, offering Suttung their wonderful mead if he would let them go. Suttung’s agreement is why the mead is sometimes called ‘the ship of the dwarfs.’
If the mead of poetry has the ability to confer poetic gifts, is Fjalar and Galar’s loss of the mead a creative loss? The equivalent of “writer’s block” – a karmic retribution for how they got the mead in the first place, as well as their murder of Gilling and his wife? Faustian bargains made for knowledge (wisdom), or artistic talent never end well, and this lends weight to the conception of creativity as a gift that can be earned or given, but also lost or taken away. This idea of creativity and wisdom as magical gifts opens the door to stories about how the gods obtained such things themselves (Odin trading his eye for wisdom is one, the mead of poetry is another), so that they might in turn give them to humans.
Seeking the mead, Odin (using the name “Bölverk” – evil deed) tricked Suttung’s brother Bauge into hiring him, asking as payment only a drink of Suttung’s wonderful mead. Though Bauge had no control over his brother’s treasure, when the time came to make payment, he pleaded Bölverk’s case, but his brother refused to release even a drop of the precious elixir. Though Bauge tried to deceive Odin, ultimately the god managed to slip – in serpent form – through a hole his former master had drilled, and into the secret place where the mead was kept, guarded by Suttung’s daughter, Gunlad. Odin stayed with the giantess for three days; in turn, Gunlad gave him three drinks of the mead, and in three great gulps he drained Son, Bodn, and Odrarer before fleeing in eagle form. The mead became Odin’s gift, shared not just with the gods, but with those who would become masters of wisdom and poetry.
I don’t see creativity – artistry – as a gift from the gods; I see it as a muscle that everyone has, to varying degrees. Just as some people have the unique combination of skeletal structure and musculature to become body builders, artists have a greater natural gift for creativity – but what they also have is the temperament and drive to channel it into work that can be shared. “Ideas will turn up while you’re doing something else,” says Gaiman, and this speaks to the idea of creativity as something that exists at the edges of consciousness – where our perceptions, rather than being sharp and concrete, drift into one another. Given that, it’s no surprise that creativity sometimes seems magical: like magic – it thrives on the periphery, where ideas and memories are more symbolic than they are concrete. “Ideas come from confluence,” Gaiman continues, “essentially from daydreaming.” Artists pay attention to these daydreams, and apply craft and structure to turn them into art. It’s no more a mystery than a mechanic, working on a car, or a bricklayer, building a wall.
Ideas come together, building “on what came before … we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into new creations.” This aspect of creativity – the combining and recombining of existing ideas – is part of why I love mythology. The stories of gods, goddesses, magic and heroes are building blocks. They’re “what came before.” They’re human imagination – focused daydreams and ideas that can be reimagined, built on and embellished – the heart of where stories come from. Odin’s drink, then, is something that we all can tap into – we just need to get into the right state of mind to taste, and enjoy.