Kvasir, made of the joining of the Aesir and the Vanir, was the wisest of the gods: he combined head and heart. The gods jostled each other to be the next to ask him questions, and his answers to them were always wise. He observed keenly, and he interpreted what he saw correctly.
Soon enough, Kvasir turned to the gods and said, “I am going to travel now. I am going to see the nine worlds, see Midgard. There are questions to be answered that I have not yet been asked.”
“But you will come back to us?” they asked.
“I will come back,” said Kvasir. “There is the mystery of the net, after all, which one day will need to be untangled.”
“The what?” asked Thor. But Kvasir merely smiled, and he left the gods puzzling over his words, and he put on a traveling cloak, and he left Asgard and walked the rainbow bridge.
Kvasir went from town to town, from village to village. He met people of all kinds, and he treated them well and answered their questions, and there was not a place but was the better for Kvasir’s stopping there.
In those days there were two dark elves who lived in a fortress by the sea. They did magic there, and feats of alchemy. Like all dwarfs, they built things, wonderful, remarkable things, in their workshop and their forge. But there were things they had not yet made, and making those things obsessed them. They were brothers, and were called Fjalar and Galar.
When they heard that Kvasir was visiting a town nearby, they set out to meet him. Fjalar and Galar found Kvasir in the great hall, answering questions for the townsfolk, amazing all who listened. He told the people how to purify water and how to make cloth from nettles. He told one woman exactly who had stolen her knife, and why. Once he was done talking and the townsfolk had fed him, the dwarfs approached.
“We have a question to ask you that you have never been asked before,” they said. “But it must be asked in private. Will you come with us?”
“I will come,” said Kvasir.
They walked to the fortress. The seagulls screamed, and the brooding gray clouds were the same shade as the gray of the waves. The dwarfs led Kvasir to their workshop, deep within the walls of their fortress.
“What are those?” asked Kvasir.
“They are vats. They are called Son and Bodn.”
“I see. And what is that over there?”
“How can you be so wise when you do not know these things? It is a kettle. We call it Odrerir—ecstasy-giver.”
“And I see over here you have buckets of honey you have gathered. It is uncapped, and liquid.”
“Indeed we do,” said Fjalar.
Galar looked scornful. “If you were as wise as they say you are, you would know what our question to you would be before we asked it. And you would know what these things are for.”
Kvasir nodded in a resigned way. “It seems to me,” he said, “that if you were both intelligent and evil, you might have decided to kill your visitor and let his blood flow into the vats Son and Bodn. And then you would heat his blood gently in your kettle, Odrerir. And after that you would blend uncapped honey into the mixture and let it ferment until it became mead—the finest mead, a drink that will intoxicate anyone who drinks it but also give anyone who tastes it the gift of poetry and the gift of scholarship.”
“We are intelligent,” admitted Galar. “And perhaps there are those who might think us evil.”
And with that he slashed Kvasir’s throat, and they hung Kvasir by his feet above the vats until the last drop of his blood was drained. They warmed the blood and the honey in the kettle called Odrerir, and did other things to it of their own devising. They put berries into it, and stirred it with a stick. It bubbled, and then it ceased bubbling, and both of them sipped it and laughed, and each of the brothers found the verse and the poetry inside himself that he had never let out.
The gods came the next morning. “Kvasir,” they said. “He was last seen with you.”
“Yes,” said the dwarfs. “He came back with us, but when he realized that we are only dwarfs, and foolish and lacking in wisdom, he choked on his own knowledge. If only we had been able to ask him questions.”
“He died, you say?”
“Yes,” said Fjalar and Galar, and they gave the gods Kvasir’s bloodless body to take back to Asgard, for a god’s funeral and perhaps (because gods are not as others, and death is not always permanent for them) for a god’s eventual return.
Thus it was that the dwarfs had the mead of wisdom and poetry, and any person who wished to taste it needed to beg it from the dwarfs. But Galar and Fjalar gave the mead only to those they liked, and they liked nobody but themselves.
Still, there were those to whom they had obligations. The giant Gilling, for example, and his wife: the dwarfs invited them to come and visit their fortress, and one winter’s day they came.
“Let us go rowing in our boat,” the dwarfs told Gilling.
The giant’s weight made the boat ride low in the water, and the dwarfs rowed the boat onto the rocks just under the surface. Always before their boat had floated serenely above the rocks. Not this time. The boat crashed onto the rocks and overturned, throwing the giant into the sea.
“Swim back to the boat,” the brothers called to Gilling.
“I cannot swim,” he said, and that was the last thing he said, for a wave filled his open mouth with salt water, and his head hit the rocks, and in a moment he was lost to view.
Fjalar and Galar righted their boat and went home.
Gilling’s wife was waiting for them.
“Where is my husband?” she asked.