We’re all familiar with nose-to-tail eating, the idea that you should use all of an animal once it’s been slaughtered. Thanks to the taboo on cannibalism and various laws about indignity to dead bodies, we tend not to put human bodies to post-death use. Gods, however, are not so squeamish. The Norse gods in particular show thrift and ingenuity, as well as a strong stomach, in their use of their dead compatriots.
I should point out that the Norse gods could, on occasion, lay on a proper funeral: Baldr was buried with full honours. But the dead bodies of one giant and two gods were clearly too valuable to be left lying around.
Ymir: where do you hide a dead body?
Answer: everywhere. Ymir was the first being, formed in the space between ice and fire. The next generation of beings either came from his body or were licked from the ice by the cow Audhumla. The third generation included Odin and his two brothers, who killed Ymir and carved up his body to make the world:
Of Ymir’s flesh the earth was shaped,
the barren hills of his bones;
and of his skull the sky was shaped,
of his blood the briny sea.
(Vaf. 21, Hollander’s trans.)
Ymir’s death wasn’t just murder, it was genocide. Giants vary in actual size, but this primal being was so large, and so much blood ran from his body, that it nearly drowned all the other giants who were his descendants.
In an odd echo of Noah’s ark, we are told in the Prose Edda that the giant Bergelmir and his family managed to climb up onto his “wooden box” (Byock – the actual translation is unclear) and so avoid the flood. They then repopulated the giant realms.
Kvasir: blood is a special substance1
So clearly Odin and co.’s attempt to rid the world of their giant forebears did not work out as planned. Their next attempt to deal with a rival group didn’t work out as planned, either.
After the Aesir, with Odin as their leader, built the world and populated it with humans, they encountered another group of gods, the Vanir. This led to a war when the Aesir refused to share the tribute they received from their followers. Unfortunately, the two sides were so closely matched that neither could win, and they declared a truce.
There are two different versions of what happened next: 1) the Aesir and Vanir exchanged hostages, two each, and the Vanir then added Kvasir to show their generosity (Heimskringla), or 2) the two sides spat in a vat (or jar) to seal the truce, and the Aesir then decided to bring all that potential to life, in the form of Kvasir (Skaldskaparmal, Prose Edda.).
Either way, Kvasir then travelled about, teaching his great knowledge. No one could ask him a question he couldn’t answer. This seems to have annoyed two dwarves, who killed him and saved his blood in two vats. (They mixed it with honey, and this is the mead of poetry. Why exactly they were moved to do is not part of the story.)
Later their homicidal tendencies got the better of them again, and they killed a giant and his wife. The giant’s son (Suttung) came looking for revenge, and was given the mead as compensation. Like the dwarves, the giant hid it away, and Odin had to kill him and some other people to get it.
Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Aesir, and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the gift of the Aesir.
(Skald. 2, Byock’s trans.)
Two things stand out about Kvasir: his generosity versus the giant’s and dwarves’ costiveness, and how a living symbol of reconciliation became the cause of so much death.
His murderers, far from spreading his body about the landscape, hid him away in vats and lied about what happened. (They told the Aesir that Kvasir had choked on his knowledge because no one was around to ask him questions: clearly his generosity in spreading his knowledge was offensive to them in some way.)
Mimir: keep it to yourself
Our third “useful” death also comes from the Aesir – Vanir war. The Aesir sent two of their own as hostages to the Vanir: Mimir and Hoenir. One was wise, and the other handsome and well-spoken, but there was a catch: Hoenir would only speak when Mimir was around, otherwise he remained silent.
The Vanir, who had appointed the two as counsellors to honour them, suspected that they had been ripped off. So far, so understandable, but their next action was hard to understand. They cut off Mimir’s head, and sent it back to the Aesir.
Odin, however, was not going to lose Mimir’s wisdom so easily, and he rubbed the head with preserving herbs, and chanted spells over it, bringing it back to life.2 After that, he would go to the head for wisdom. It is not recorded how Mimir felt about life as a disembodied head.
Unlike Kvasir, who travelled about and shared his wisdom freely, Mimir travels twice at others’ behest, and talks to only one person: Hoenir or Odin.3 (Perhaps that is the point of the other origin story; the Vanir sent someone who shares his wisdom, but the Aesir’s wise man doesn’t reciprocate.)
His afterlife, consulted by one god and possibly stored under one of the roots of Yggdrasil, contrasts with the vicissitudes of Kvasir’s blood, which moves from owner to owner and then becomes Odin’s gift to others. (The speech of poets, spreading freely, could be seen as a return to the free circulation of wisdom that Kvasir originally intended.)
Murder as Mana
As a final note: yes, I am aware that many mythologies have deaths that bring benefits, and no doubt from the point of view of the Aesir and humans, all three were ultimately good things.
But it’s worth noting just how strange these myths are, with their hints of necromancy and such later magics as the Hand of Glory. (The hand had to come from a hanged man.) Just as a sacrifice cannot die of natural causes, perhaps the shock and terror of a violent end gave their bodies some extra mana that a normal death would not. The double taboo, of a murder followed by interference with a dead body, has to be part of the significance of these myths.
If nothing else, it reinforces the physicality of the Norse gods, by putting their murdered bodies front and centre. Since these bodies belong to gods, however, death is not the end.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Jesse Byock, Penguin Classics, 2005.
Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson, ed. and trans. Erling Monsen and A. H. Smith Courier Publications, 1990.
The Poetic Edda, Hollander, Lee M. (trans.), University of Texas, Austin 1962/1990. (2nd edition, revised)