Summary: Before Bragi, the long-bearded god, came to Valhalla, he met a beautiful woman in a deep forest, who asked him to judge a contest between herself and her brothers.
A/N: This story is largely fanciful, based on a few tantalizing hints. First: the notion of a connection between Iðunn and the sons of Ivaldi is attested, and the description of the story of Kvasir is well-known. There have been previous suggestions of Bragi’s connection to Kvasir, but as far as I know, this is nothing more than speculation. I have made up most of this, though I have tried to make it sound Norse mythology-ish, at least.
Many thanks to kimikocha and Husband, for beta-ing!
For Bragi, first maker of poetry
When gods die, sometimes they return in new ways. Kvasir was a god created from the spit of the Aesir and Vanir, or perhaps he was a man. He was not an ordinary sort of fellow, at any rate, but he was murdered by two dwarfs who cut his throat to make mead from his blood and that was the end of his first story, or at least his part in it. The story keeps going, and as he was a god of stories or of poetry or skaldishness, this shows you that he cannot have died the way a mortal might, to pass out of touch with this world.
In the rest of the story, it is told how Odin All-father made love to the giantess Gunnlod and stole the mead of Kvasir from Suttung her father to bring it back to the gods. The mead of poetry was returned to them, but Kvasir himself returned in a different form, nine months later, when Gunnlod gave birth to Odin’s son Bragi, who is called first maker of poetry; and who could he be but another form of Kvasir, with a sobriquet like that?
Bragi was not raised as a giant, because Gunnlod was not at all happy at having had a child by the Aesir who tricked her, stole the mead she was intended to be guarding, and killed her father Suttung. When he was still a child, she sent him away, and because she was still a little spiteful, she made certain to send him in the opposite direction from Valhalla, so that Odin should not know him.
For a long time he wandered from town to town, but he was as interested in everything, as kind and as eloquent as his blood-father Kvasir, so he was well-beloved, and rarely wanted for food or for shelter. In this way, he grew to what he thought was manhood—it being not wholly dissimilar to godhood. Once he became old enough for it, he found he could grow his facial hair very long, which he did, because this made people more willing to answer his questions. Perhaps they thought him to be a sage, which he was not, or not at first, but since asking many questions is often a first step towards wisdom, one might say the beard did help him become one. In any case, ever since, he has been called the long-bearded god.
One day he was walking down a winding road into an old forest, when he heard a maiden singing. It was a lovely song, and more than that, it was filled with scraps of notes that he was sure must have been stolen from the birds—but which birds, he did not know. So he resolved to go find the singer and ask.
He went up a hill and down a hill and around a hill, and then he turned away from the path and followed a silver stream that led him to a tree with pale bark, shining leaves, and the yellowest apples you ever saw. There was a girl sitting beneath it, singing a song as she plucked apples and placed them in a basket.
Bragi was very bashful indeed, for she was as lovely as her song, with hair like firelight and eyes as yellow as the apples she laid gently in her wicker basket. But still he wanted to know of the birds whose song she was weaving, so he went up to her and said, “May I know of the birds whose notes you use so cleverly?”
She looked up, and he thought her eyes sparkled like firelight caught in fine jewelry. “Many birds come to eat my apples,” she said, sounding pleased. “What would you like to know about them?”
“Oh—everything,” said Bragi, “for I would write a poem about the loveliness of their song, though I see now it is not so lovely as your smile.”
She arched an eyebrow. “You speak very fairly,” she told him. “But do you speak truthfully?”
“I try my best,” returned Bragi.
“Then if I were to ask you to judge a contest between me and my brothers, would you do it fairly?”
Bragi tugged at his long beard. “Yes,” he said, after a moment.
“And if you fairly judged in my favor,” she said, with an eager little bounce, “Would you be able to convince my brothers that you were right?”
“Oh, certainly,” said Bragi, relieved, for he had every faith in the quickness of his tongue.
“Good.” She patted his arm. “Come with me, then.”
This maiden was Iðunn. She was a light elf and her brothers were dark elves, for her mother was a light elf who had loved the same mortal father that her brothers’ mother had loved. But still, they were as close as if they had shared the both, except that her brothers refused to recognize Iðunn’s craft, which angered her.
She took Bragi to her brothers’ hall, where they lived with their father beneath a great ice-covered mountain. Her brothers greeted her enthusiastically when she entered, for they all loved her very much. They brought Iðunn and Bragi into Ivaldi’s hall, and there Iðunn’s father greeted them as well. He was an old man with a snow-white beard and Iðunn’s firelit eyes.
“This is Bragi, who has a long beard and a truthful heart,” Iðunn introduced her companion. “And he will judge whether my craft outshines yours, my brothers.”
The Sons of Ivaldi were intrigued by this. They exchanged many looks amongst one another. “It is true that we have had this argument many times,” said the eldest. “I do not think he will judge in your favor, Iðunn, and if he does, he may have some trouble getting us to agree.”
“I have told him so,” Iðunn responded steadily.
“Well, then, let us have a good meal first, and then we will have a contest,” said the second brother.
They had a very merry meal indeed. The mead flowed like water, honey-sweet—and Bragi noticed that it tasted slightly of apples and had a more heady flavor than any he had tasted before. There was a great roast of sweet meat, and it was accompanied by apple sauce. For the final dish, there was a rich apple pie swimming in thick cream.
Once they had finished their meal, Bragi noticed he felt lighter and that a pain in one of his legs from an old injury no longer pained him. He was surprised when he looked at Ivaldi, Iðunn’s mortal father, for the whiteness of his beard and hair had transmuted into a rich fiery copper, not unlike Iðunn’s own lovely hair.
The brothers took Bragi with them down into their forge, and Iðunn followed them. “Here is our craft,” said the youngest of them proudly. “See! We have made many wondrous things—this is a ring that may be thrown to the ground and it will become a shield. This is a piece of cloth that may be thrown into the air and it will become the swiftest bird in the world, who will take a message anywhere except to the dead. And this is a spear that may be thrown at an enemy and it will unerringly strike his heart.” One after another he laid out these wondrous things. The ring glittered in the firelight, and the cloth sparkled, for fine threads of gold had been woven through it, and the spear was burnished red at the tip as if with blood.
Bragi looked at each one of them with care. “Indeed,” he agreed, “these are items of great power and great beauty.”
The brothers looked smugly at Iðunn, who smiled faintly. “They are indeed, brothers,” she agreed as well. “And I have never claimed otherwise.”
Bragi, the first maker of poetry, turned to her. “And what is your craft, beautiful Iðunn?” he asked. “How may I know it?”
“You know it already,” she replied steadily. “For I am she who coaxed to life the apples that you ate at dinner, those that turned my father’s hair from white back to dark, that can trade age for youth and turn back time.”
Her brothers looked at one another. “It is not that we think your apples are not of great use,” the eldest said soothingly. “It is simply—well, it is not a craft, like the forges, is it? Those apples grew upon a tree, by themselves.”
Iðunn’s lips twitched. “And here, you see, we can never agree,” she explained. “So it is that we must ask for your opinion, wise Bragi.”
Bragi tugged at his beard. He walked around the items and inspected the forge. “I understand how these things were made, though I am not a blacksmith myself,” he said slowly. “But how is it you claim to have made that which a tree birthed, Iðunn?”
“For many years, I have studied the trees,” she replied. “For many years, I have grown living things in my garden. I brought the seeds and leaves of many trees together, slowly choosing the best qualities of each, as one might breed a horse. And I watered the trees and cared for them, weeded the area around them and watched them grow.”
Bragi nodded slowly. “I have decided,” he said. “I rule in favor of Iðunn.”
There followed a babble of protests from Iðunn’s brothers, most of them incomprehensible because they were talking over one another. Then Iðunn’s eldest brother held up a hand, and the others went quiet. “You will have to convince us,” he said mildly. “After all, our sister brought you, so we have no way of knowing you aren’t just saying what she told you to say. You must explain why you have ruled in favor of Iðunn.”
“Yes, of course,” Bragi agreed. “I am prepared to do so, but you must wait a moment, for I must arrange the words in my head for my mouth to speak.”
They waited patiently. Bragi, the long-bearded god, first maker of poetry, tugged at his beard and thought about how to fit together the words. Finally, after the candles had burned down an inch, he spoke, and this is what he said.
“Strong smiths, the sons of Ivaldi,
Makers of might, whose hands forge fiercely:
Indeed you are skilled.
Molding metal with tools,
You shape ugly earth to bright beauty,
With wits wise with lore, with the heavy hammer arm.
Worthily you work fine wires like weaving.”
The brothers nodded to one another, agreeing with this assessment. It was stated prettily, of course, but it did not tell them anything they did not already know.
“Then why, O wise smiths
Do you disdain the diligence
The nurturing knowledge, the grasp of growth?
Long hours learning must eager Iðunn have spent
Coaxing carefully the seeds she sows.
Do you mark the mother less because she gives instead of building—
Births the babe and sparks its soul?
Subtle the secrets of green and growing things
No less learned than fiery forge.”
This was where he started. There was more he said, for the first maker of poetry is not known for his brevity. Iðunn watched him and smiled wider for each moment that he spoke. When at length he finished, his words echoed through the hall. Iðunn’s brothers, the sons of Ivaldi, all looked upon one another, and, as one, they laid down the hammers of their forges. The eldest had tears in his eyes, so moving was the poetry of Bragi.
“I think we must confess to having done our sister a disservice,” the youngest brother said. “If she is able to sway to her cause one with such power over words, even if those were only half—no, a tenth as believable—as these were, I think I would feel honor-bound to accept. But the words are believable, and I see now that my sister’s craft rivals our own.” The eldest brother nodded. Only the middle brother seemed uncertain.
“Skillful words do not necessarily bespeak wisdom,” he cautioned. “Is this man a craftsman? Can we say he has the necessary understanding for us to believe him?”
“I am indeed a craftsman,” Bragi replied. “And you have all seen my craft just now, for it was hardly easy to sway both of your brothers to my cause. However, I put it to you that my argument is not made solely on the basis of the beauty of my words but ought to be self-evident in the argument that I have made.”
This the middle brother thought on for a long time. While he thought, the candle burned down another inch. Iðunn’s smile did not grow smaller, however. She watched Bragi from beneath the lashes of her eyes and saw that not only his words were handsome. Once the candle had burned down, the middle brother nodded slowly. “What I have decided is this: I am not sure if I agree that Iðunn is more skilled than we are, but I will accept that I have not done her justice in dismissing her craft all these years. Iðunn, I would be honored if you would show me more of your learning, that I may know it.”
Iðunn dipped her head. “That is all I ask,” she said quietly. “As for Bragi, who has worked a miracle and opened the ears of my brothers with heads as stubborn as oxen—name your reward.”
Bragi smiled at her broadly and tugged once again at his beard. “I think you already know what reward I would most cherish,” he murmured, “Fair Iðunn. Though I would not impose.”
Apples rose to her cheeks as she blushed. All her brothers began at once to hoot and cheer.
“I would be glad to give you such a reward,” she said, and Bragi smiled wider at once. “Come, let us speak with my father.”
And so it was that Bragi, the long-bearded god, the first maker of poetry, gained for himself another epithet—husband of Iðunn. And some time later, Bragi and Iðunn traveled to Valhalla, where Bragi discovered many facts about his history that he had not before known. But that is another story.