The traditional history of Viking societies is that they bequeathed a historical record full of blood, gore, and violence. Early medieval Scandinavia, which produced Vikings, was undoubtedly a highly violent and insecure milieu. 

The Vikings themselves were scorned by many more "advanced" civilizations, from the Frankish realms to the Islamic world and everywhere in between. 

Yet the fact that these societies could produce such violent and fearsome warriors is only part of the whole story. 

These societies were also responsible for some of the world's great literary feats – the rich tapestry of stories, poems, myths, and legends that we call the Norse sagas

At the heart of these sagas was poetry. It was such an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric of Viking societies that every communal celebration, festivity, or party had a skaldic poet to regale the revelers with flowery words. 

These poets were held in such high regard by the political elite who employed them that they were even associated with a deity, the Norse god of poetry, Bragi. 

In Norse mythology, Bragi, the son of Odin and possibly Frigg, is revered as the god of poetry, known for his wisdom and eloquence. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Easy on the eyes and ears 

Like many of the Norse gods, Bragi is a close relation to Odin, the All-Father of Norse mythology. Said to be his son, Bragi would be a brother to Thor, whilst there is some speculation about his mother being another Norse deity, the goddess Frigg

Given this proud lineage, it should be no surprise that Bragi is endowed, like all Norse gods, with superhuman qualities. 

According to the 13th-century Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson, who described many Norse gods in the Prose Edda, Bragi is "renowned for his wisdom, and most of all for fluency of speech and skill with words. He knows most of skaldship, and after him skaldship is called bragr..."

That the Vikings could celebrate and worship a god associated with poetry speaks volumes of the societal importance of literary language as a form of entertainment, education, and religious rite. 

As one of the principal gods in the Æsir, Bragi's influence extends beyond mere artistic expression, delving into the realms of wisdom and the celebration of the spoken word. 

His name is said to be derived from an Old Norse word meaning "wisdom," and he is portrayed not only with a harp in his hand – like a Viking Bacchus – but also said to be a figure of great handsomeness. 

Easy on the eyes and the ears, Bragi embodies the charm and grace that were said to often accompany the art of eloquence. 

An illustration titled "Loki taunts Bragi," published in 1908, depicts a scene from Lokasenna where Loki mocks Bragi during a feast. Illustration: W.G. Collingwood (1854-1932), Public domain

What do the sagas tell us about Bragi? 

If we scour the rich tapestry of Norse sagas, we find multiple stories involving Bragi and his poetic wonder. 

There is some friction between Bragi and Loki, the trickster god, as depicted in one story where the two trade barbs at each other during a feast. 

Loki chides Bragi for being more concerned with poetry than martial valor and skill, and snubs him when he enters the feast. In return, Bragi turns the other cheek and offers him gifts. 

This does nothing to soothe Loki's tongue, as he accuses Bragi of being afraid to fight anyone participating in that feast, including members of the Æsir or even elves. 

Eventually, Bragi's wife, the goddess Idunn, steps in, and here we learn that Bragi may have a dark past. When Idunn tries to defuse the situation, Loki reminds the peacemaker that she is married to a killer. 

Modern scholars have interpreted this to mean that Bragi may have been responsible for the death of Idunn's brother. 

Given the violence that plagued Viking societies, it should be no surprise that murder and violence were even a part of the Norse god of poetry's backstory and life. 

Bragi also takes part in a philosophical debate about the very nature of poetry in the second part of the Prose Edda, named the Skaldskaparmal (Old Norse for the "Language of Poetry"). 

His discussion takes place with Ægir, a jötunn who personifies the sea, and they discuss the definitions, nature, and origin of poetry. 

Bragi explains how the mead of poetry – a hefty drink – was made with the blood of Kvasir, a being born of the saliva of the Æsir and the Vanir

Kvasir was killed by two dwarves, and they mixed his blood with some honey – creating a potion that, when drunk, would give the drinker unbridled skaldic poetry skills and wisdom. 

Bragi's father, Odin, eventually drank this mead, passing on some of this skill to his son. 

Snorri Sturluson mentions in the Prose Edda a Norwegian court poet known as Bragi Boddason, who served several famous kings. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Human or god? The real Bragi 

Aside from the pages of Norse mythology, modern historians have concluded that Snorri Sturluson was indeed correct when he mentioned a true historical skaldic poet named Bragi. 

Sturluson, in the Prose Edda, describes this bard, Bragi Boddason, as a Norwegian court poet who served several famous kings, including the semi-historical, semi-legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, sometime in the first half of the 9th century. 

The famous king was said to have gifted Bragi, for his skaldic skills, a shield emblazoned with some of the most famous images of Norse mythology, including the world serpent, Jörmungandr

Boddason, however, was not the only skaldic poet bearing the god's name. Two more poets are mentioned in the sagas, though none are equal to Lothbrok's favorite bard. 

Stepping back from reality into mythology, the god Bragi stands as a compelling figure within the Norse pantheon. As the god of poetry, eloquence, and artistic inspiration, his influence permeates the cultural, social, and spiritual aspects of the Norse cosmos. 

Through the strings of his harp and honeyed words, he was the source of inspiration for many a skaldic poet and all those artists who wanted to express themselves with the grace and wisdom of a Norse god. 

For more information on Viking-era feasts and poems, visit History Today here.

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