Bragi, God of Poetry
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“Bragi, God of Poets”
(Published in The Troth's journal, "Idunna")
Greatly inspired by Vol. V of The Road to Bifrost by Thor and Audrey Sheil, back in print at:
Bragi is a somewhat ambiguous God in Norse mythology, both in terms of his origin, his functions, and his deeds. He is identified as a God of poetry, but at the same time Óđinn is the main God of poets. It should come as no surprise that there are Gods and Goddesses, not only in our own religion but in others as well, who include poetry within their spheres of influence. Such a wondrous and mighty thing as poetry can easily be seen as partaking of realms greater than the human. From there, it would be easy to conclude that it came from the Gods themselves (Grimm, 901).
After all, poetry can not only stir our hearts, but also our memories as well. In many pre-literate and proto-literate cultures (Heathen Germanic peoples being examples of the latter), poetry is used for such disparate purposes as keeping alive the deeds of Gods and heroes, keeping in mind the genealogies granting rights to titles and property, and even the location and nature of the boundary markers of village fields. Such uses of songs and poetry continue even today. That little song that helped you learn the alphabet is a good example “…Now I know my ABC’s; tell me what you think of me?” You’ll be able to sing it if you live to be one hundred years old, even if you can’t by then remember what you had for breakfast that very morning!
How did Bragi come into the picture, then as one described by Óđinn himself in Grímnismál 66 as the most awesome of skalds? Some think that he was a deified mortal poet, Bragi Boddason the Old, the first skald in the historical record. He lived in the early ninth century (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 168-169). Twenty strophes and half-strophes of his poem Ragnarsdrápa, written in honor of Ragnar Lođbrók (Hairy-Britches), a Heathen hero celebrated to this day, are preserved in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. In this poem, Bragi described mythological scenes on a shield he said was given to him by Ragnar himself, including Gefjon’s plow and Thórr’s battle with the Midgard Serpent (Turville-Petre, 15). Alternatively, Thórr’s battle with Jormungandr is presented in the form of a description of a carving depicting the event, which the poet had seen in a hall (Ellis Davidson, The Lost Beliefs…, 50-51).
Some hold that Bragi was deified for inventing skaldic poetry (Turville-Petre, 15). In any case, in the section of Snorri’s Prose Edda known as Skáldskaparmál = The Language of Poetry, Bragi is the one who gives the information on how to write skaldic verse, along with telling the myths which explain the kennings used in that school of poetry (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, 74). Bragi also told of Ermanaric and Svanhild (Gundarsson, Our Troth 197-198).
The deification or potential deification of a deceased human being is known from extant lore (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 168). Theoderic the Great, an Ostrogothic King, was evidently honored in this way, from the evidence of a surviving Runestone, as well as folklore, where he, like Óđinn, leads the Wild Hunt (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, 74 and 121). Snorri Sturluson states that all our Gods and Goddesses got their start that way, although this is of course by no means necessarily the case (Snorri, 25-28). Snorri was a Christian and whatever his agendas, if any, may have been in writing the Prose Edda, in addition to the stated one of helping aspiring writers of traditional poetry, they almost certainly did not include setting the scene for a public Heathen revival long after his death!
There are also those who think that Bragi is merely a hypostasis (aspect) of Óđinn. They base this on the fact that one of the High One’s many heiti (nicknames) is “Bragi,” one of whose meanings is “leader” (Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, 90).
Yet another possibility is that Bragi may be the son of Óđinn by the Jotunn Gunnlöđ conceived during the three nights he spent in her father’s dwelling preparing to steal the mead of poetry (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 168). While unattested in the lore, it does make a great deal of sense that a child conceived under such conditions might naturally become a poet of poets, and of course as is usual in the case of the offspring of God/Jotunn unions, a God as well. In any case, this idea seems to have gained some credence in the Heathen and Pagan communities, if what I found when searching “Bragi God” on google.com is any indication.
One task besides that of poetry which fell to Bragi, according to Hákonarmál, was to welcome the slain king Hákon the Good at Valhöll’s door and offer him the friendship of the Einherjar. This may indicate that Bragi indeed is a deified man, as the same act is carried out by the heroes Sigmundr and Sinfjötli for King Eiríkr Blood-Axe in Eiríksmál (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 169). Hence, they function as Óđinn’s henchmen (and in my opinion, share at least a bit in Óđinn’s role as a God of the Dead). On the other hand, the God Hermóđ, Balder’s brother, also welcomes Hákon. Given his ride to Hel, it should perhaps come as no surprise to see him associated with someone who has entered the realm of the Dead, broadly speaking. At the same time, the name Hermóđ is also applied to a legendary hero in the Hyndluljóđ (str. 2) and a Heremod (the form the name takes in Old English) is named in Beowulf as a Danish king (Turville-Petre, 185). Perhaps the God Hermóđ, although identified as a son of Óđinn, was also originally a man.
Another way of looking at the relationship between Bragi and Óđinn is to look at how Germanic and other kings maintained poets in their courts. These served as entertainment, storehouses of information of all kinds, and as publicity agents for their royal employers. If Óđinn as the Gramr Hliđskjalfar (King of Hliđskjalf) is seen as living like an earthly king, then Bragi becomes a divine prototype of a human poet in a king’s hall in Miđgarđr (Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths…, 164-165).
Bragi Boddason’s descendants on Miđgarđr were known as Bragnîngar (Grimm, 235), just as Ingvi Freyr’s earthly descendants, the early kings of Sweden, were known as Ynglingar. At least one scholar says that Bragi the poet was also a king (op. cit., 235). If that is indeed the case, then the parallels with Freyr at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden are all the more striking.
In Sigrdrífumál, Bragi is said to have Runes carved upon his tongue, as do Sleipnir’s teeth, the wolf’s claw, the eagle’s beak, the bear’s paw, the bridge’s end, the sledge-straps, and many other items. This probably should not be taken literally, but rather be seen as very powerful items through which the megin/might of the Runes can flow in great abundance (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 169).
The cup of oath-drinking is called the “bragarfull,” meaning “the best cup.” Sometimes it is called “Bragi’s cup” as well out of a false etymology which derives the adjective “bragr” = “the best” from the name of the God. Nevertheless, since alongside the swearing of oaths, songs are often sung and poems spoken at symbel, “Bragi’s cup” might have gotten its name directly from the God (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 169). A cognate to the word “bragr,” “brego,” also meaning “chief” or “best” occurs in Old English (Turville-Petre, 185).
However, an alternative etymology can be postulated for Bragi’s name. Such words for brain as Old English brëgen/brćgen, which evidently has a close cognate in Old Frisian can be understood as having to do with “understanding, cleverness, eloquence” and “imitation.” The first three meanings, at least, sound to me like good descriptions of Bragi’s character. The last one fits too, if one thinks of it as meaning that Bragi is imitated by earthly skalds. The term is evidently cognate with the Greek φρήν (phren) and its derivatives (Grimm 236). Oddly, this brings to mind the 19th century pseudo-scientific divination technique called phrenology, the reading of bumps on the head, which is of course the seat of intelligence.
A final etymology ties Bragi closely with Ćgir, whose name can be interpreted as “horror.” The Old English “brôga” and Old High German “pruoko” and “bruogo,” meaning “terror” are words with a similar meaning. Bragi appears prominently in the Eddaic poem called Oegisdrecka by Grimm (the normal Old Norse spelling would be something like Ćgisdrekka) and Lokasenna or The Flyting of Loki by most of us, and is in one place said to sit next to Ćgir (Grimm, 236-7). Also note that Ran and Ćgir are, like Óđinn, Bragi and Hermóđ mentioned earlier, associated with receiving the Dead. This theory on the origin of Bragi’s name, however seems to me to be less plausible than the other two, especially in the light of the fact that most scholars interpret Ćgir’s name as meaning “sea” and identify it as a cognate of the Latin word “aqua,” meaning “water” (Simek, 1-2).
Despite scholars’ use of Old High German and Anglo-Saxon cognates in an attempt to shed more light on Bragi, there is no evidence that he was worshipped or even known outside of Scandinavia (http://www.ealdriht.org/brego.html). Nevertheless, in modern times his cult has spread into both contemporary Continental Germanic Heathenry (Coulter, 63-64) and today’s Anglo-Saxon Heathenry
(http://www.ealdriht.org/brego.html) under the name “Brego,” a reconstructed equivalent of his name in Old Norse.
Scholars dispute among themselves, somewhat on the line of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” as to whether this adjective or the God Bragi came first. The adjective “bragr,” or Óđinn’s by-name “Bragi” could have been personified as a separate mythological personage (Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, 109). Such characters may or may not actually have had organized cults within “old-time” Heathenism. It has nevertheless also been postulated that nouns such as “bragi” grew from the name of the God in question. Freyr as a God versus “freyr” meaning “lord” would be another example, and similar examples also seem to exist in Hellenic mythology (Grimm, 338-339).
Bragi’s character, even in the sparse information which has come down to us, is rather complex. In Lokasenna, he is the first to be insulted by Loki. Bragi knows that Loki is seeking to start trouble in a frith-stead and responds by offering him a sword, arm-ring and horse to just sit down and shut up. Thus, at least here Bragi functions as a frith-weaver. Loki replies that Bragi has neither arm-rings nor horses since he is afraid of battles (where such things might be won). According to Loki, Bragi is a “pride of the bench,” indicating that he stays behind in the hall skulking among its benches while others go out to fight (Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths…, 164). Bragi says he would kill Loki if they were outside Ćgir and Ran’s hall. This indicates that perhaps Bragi was not so leery of combat after all!
Bragi, who is often depicted as a bearded old man, is nevertheless married to Iđunn, who guards the apples which keep the Gods youthful (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 168-169). He may have killed Iđunn’s brother, since she is accused in Lokasenna of sleeping with her brother’s killer. Nevertheless, someone else other than Bragi may be intended, since our Gods are not always monogamous! The evident age disparity between Bragi and Iđunn in itself makes for a rather odd couple (Coulter, 64). However, there is nothing in the lore that indicates that the two of them have marital problems, in stark contrast to Njorđr and Skađi.
Going from the more academic and scholarly works touching on the topic of Bragi to the works of Thor and Audrey Sheil is essentially a journey from an examination of a historical and mythological character to a description of a living and very personal God. While their conclusions are by no means the only ones possible, and are not in all cases based on or even supported by extant lore, these authors have a very real “feel” for spirituality and the Gods and their impressions and conclusions have proven highly useful to me over the years.
The Sheils feel that Bragi is best dealt with together with his wife, Iđunn. They see them as two essential parts of a whole. Iđunn’s name means “renewal,” and they link her name to the Ida Plains, i.e. the Plains of Renewal, where the Gods carry out their daily business. They suggest that this allegory is worth researching further. Remember that Iđunn’s apples renew the youth and vigor of the Gods. Considering the effects that poetry and song can have, it is fitting that Bragi is married to the Goddess of Renewal, Spring and Rebirth.
Many Heathens see Iđunn, like her possible southern counterpart Ostara, as a Goddess of Springtime as well as of renewal. In this spirit, the Sheils see Bragi as being in charge of Spring weather, just as Iđunn rules the Earth, flora and fauna of the season. He is the tutelary God of musicians, composers, instrument-makers, musical arrangers, and musical writers. The entire music industry falls under his sway as well, as do singers, vocalists, lyricists, poets and inspirational writers. His rulerships also include choreography, dancing, parties, picnics, concerts, happiness, literature (remember for a long time literature was all oral and often set to music), rhetoric, creative writing, fiction, orchestras, bands, vocalists, and bards. He can give life and a needed lift to any writing project. The Sheils also connect him to trees, to songbirds both wild and domestic (well, they sing!) and with those who breed, sell and keep them, as well as to nature lovers in general.
Bragi is also believed by Thor and Audrey to be the (Heathen) tutelary God of Ireland. Remember that plenty of Vikings settled there. The bardic traditions of the Celtic lands have much of Bragi’s nature within them.
Bragi and Iđunn are especially opposed to all despoiling and polluting. Their opposition to these things can be subtle but fierce, and they can be invoked to halt pollution and help repair the effects of environmental damage. Considering what is happening in Miđgarđr today, this is a very good thing to keep in mind!
In working with Bragi, the Sheils suggest Sunday as an especially good day. White, green, and gold with touches of red are the colors of choice. Floral incenses such as rose and apple blossom work best. Associated metals are brass, copper and gold. Ivy and birch are plants which resonate well with Bragi and his wife. “Their” animals include dogs, horses, robins, sparrows and all songbirds in general. Stones include emerald (remember Ireland is the “Emerald Isle”), jade (also green), and tiger’s eye. Harps are a special musical instrument for Bragi, and the dagger might be considered his weapon.
Once Bragi has been successfully invoked or one has managed to locate and go visit him in the Spae-Realms, watch for white, circular, gentle energy tinged with green and gold, or perhaps pale orange. In the Sheil’s work, he often appears as a man of about thirty with curly brown hair and bright blue eyes (Gods can assume different forms). He may wear a white tunic topped by a green and gold mantle. He often carries a harp (remember those Irish affinities) or other stringed instrument. His horse is brown or chestnut. Remember he mentions having a horse in Lokasenna.
You would do well to seek him on the Ida Plains (if you are allowed to fare forth to them), or in groves, great halls, apple orchards and brooks. He is also known as the Ás of Poetry, so it seems to me that poetry might be especially useful in seeking him out, getting to know him, and earning his special friendship.
For outdoor rites, it is easy to invoke Bragi and Iđunn near springs, wells, and small brooks. They are easy Deities with which to work, and are rarely unsafe even for the novice Heathen. Thor and Audrey Sheil suggest that a good way to work with Bragi is to invoke him when it is time to sing around the campfire and then watch the resulting fun! Despite their good natures, approachability and human-friendly energy, Iđunn and Bragi nevertheless have complex and deep ramifications.
A notable side-effect of work with Bragi (and Iđunn) is a tendency to arouse latent poetic and musical talents. This is one of the many pleasant surprises they can bring. They are glad to be helpful to folks, and are especially useful in deciphering the bardic-type lore of our own and related traditions. Individuals with close ties to Ireland may find Bragi particularly good to work with in this matter (Sheil, Road to Bifrost Volume V, 61-62, 99 and Old Norse Mysteries…, 10).
In closing, it occurs to me that Bragi, a God of unknown origin and ambiguous possible human/divine nature, may help us deal better with both the mysteries of life and the human condition and with the great Mystery embodied in the line of Óđinn’s Rune Song that tells us that none, not even the Rider of the Tree himself, know from whence rise the roots of Yggdrasil. Bede, an early English churchman, puts into the mouth of a Heathen Northumbrian nobleman that human life is like the flight of a sparrow through a king’s hall, “coming in from the darkness and returning to it” (Whitelock, 26), with where and what we were before birth and where we go and what we become after death being unknowns. For Bede of course, Christianity with its dogmatic pronouncements and neat little categories had the one valid Answer to this Mystery. The problem was that in acting as if its teachings partook of utter certainty, the Church had no room for dissent and certainly was unwilling to take “no” for an answer from those who wished to remain Heathen.
Maybe from our perspective over a millennium later, as we find out just how vast, mysterious and utterly incredible is the Universe we can perceive with our senses (without even taking into account other, more subtle realms in the Nine Worlds and the possibility of an infinite number of physical Universes), we are more ready to live with the Mystery of Existence, as modern philosophers have put it. Bragi certainly doesn’t seem to care whether we see him as a deified mortal man, or a divine son of Óđinn or what interpretation we attach to his name. He is, however, a good friend to us, the children of Askr and Embla, and an outstanding role model as a poet, troubadour, frith-weaver, and lover of all that is beautiful and ever-renewing in life and in the world. He even gives the hope that while few of us can hope to become Gods (and I myself am not sure I would even want to), we may all in some sense hope to ascend to their realm.
While he cannot deliver to us Capital-T “Truth” all in a neat little package (which we had better not question under pain of eternal torment), he can sing and celebrate the sheer wonder of the existence of the Multiverse and of our, and his place in it. Perhaps even more importantly, he can teach us to sing and celebrate it as well, and to preserve, protect and help our own little corner of the Multiverse to grow and evolve, so that those who shall come after us may do likewise!
It is my hope that the bibliographies at the end of my articles will be of help to readers interested in planning both their reading lists and their library expansions. The books that appear over and over are in most cases the ones which should be acquired first. I try to change the annotations for these frequently used books most times I include them.
Coulter, James Hjuka. Germanic Heathenry: A Practical Guide. n.p.: 1st Books, 2003. Heathenry with a continental German emphasis, overall quite good. To order, search “Heathenry” on www.amazon.com or send $24 to Irminen-Gesellschaft, PO Box 350, Sewell NJ, 08080 USA. Checks to be written directly to the IG. Shipping is included with the cost within the United States. Canada and Europe cost a bit more, so folks are encouraged to inquire first before ordering.
Ellis Davidson, H. R. Gods and Myths of the Viking Age. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996. Originally published in 1964 as Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, a less accurate title. Anything by this outstanding scholar and writer is highly recommended.
-----. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. One of the author’s later works. Some of the chapter titles are “Help from archaeology,” “Glimpses of the Gods” (includes inscriptions and theophoric personal and place-names), Contacts with the Otherworld” and “The Interpreters” (of the surviving lore from medieval times through Georges Dumézil).
-----. Pagan Scandinavia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967. Volume 58 in the series Ancient Peoples and Places, Dr. Glyn Daniel, General Editor.
Grimm, Jacob, trans. James Steven Stallybrass. Teutonic Mythology. New York, Dover Publications, 1966. This four volume work is a real treasure, as it both includes an enormous amount of scholarly information and preserves much folklore still extant in the 19th century that would now otherwise be lost. A must-have for the Heathen scholar/writer. In print again, for $119 www.amazon.com and well worth every penny. Just search for “Teutonic Mythology (4 vol. set).”
Gundarsson, KveldúlfR Hagan, Ed. Our Troth. n.p.: The (Ring of) Troth, 1993. A 711- page masterpiece of modern Heathen scholarship. A revised edition is in preparation. Most of the current out of print edition is available online at http://www.thetroth.org/resources/ourtroth
-----. Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs and Practices of the Northern Tradition. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993. A great “how-to” Heathen book. Currently only available as an e-book for US $12. http://www.aswynn.phpwebhosting.com/home1.html
Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda, (Second Edition, Revised). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962. This very poetic but rather archaic-sounding translation is readily available and is used frequently by English-speaking Heathens.
Sheil, Thor and Audrey. The Road to Bifrost Volume V: The Mysteries on Bifrost’s Path. New York: Trollwise Press, 1991. Highly useful, especially for hands-on work with our Gods and Goddesses. http://www.thortrains.com/bifrost/ordering.htm
-----. Old Norse Mysteries, Deities and Worship: The Meaning, Symbols and Worship of Norse Gods and Goddesses. New York, Trollwise Press, 1992. The title says it all.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1993. My favorite mythological dictionary. I try to use his spellings of Deity names, mythological places, etc. Out of print now, and used copies are selling for more than $200. Fortunately, there is interlibrary loan and there are copy shops!
Snorri Sturluson, trans. Jean Young. The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1954. Readily available and in print for half a century now. That in itself says much.
Turville-Petre, E. O. G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. A pivotal work in the field of Germanic religious studies. Still in print and something every Heathen who reads English should read more than once.
Whitelock, Dorothy. The Beginnings of English Society. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Volume 2 of The Pelican History of England, edited by J. E. Morpurgo. This book is a revision of a work originally published in 1952. The first chapter is entitled “The Heathen English.”
www.ealdriht.org. Angelseaxisce Ealdriht Asatru and Heathen Pages. The webpage of Thaet Angelseaxisce Ealdriht, or in Modern English, The Anglo-Saxon Eldright, a fine Heathen organization dedicated to the religion of the Pre-Christian English. Includes a page on Brego/Bragi (http://www.ealdriht.org/brego.html).
last modified 05/04/2010