Heathens of Yorkshire
-by Robin Smith, March 2019
Bragi is respected as the god of poetry, eloquence and language. He is generally depicted as an elderly man, who has long white hair and a beard, and carries a golden harp that was given to him by dwarfs when he was born. He is the son of Odin and Gunlod, and although Odin himself is sometimes seen as god of eloquence and poetry, music and skalds, he reserved this gift to pass down to his son Bragi.
Bragi’s music was said to bring a barren forest to life, similarly to Iðunn’s presence making nature more beautiful, so it is no surprise that they were married. Their marriage was well-received in Asgard, where Odin drew runes on Bragi’s tongue and gave him his role of heavenly minstrel, who would write songs to honour both the gods and the heroes of Valhalla. Bragi was a loyal husband and when Iðunn, who tends the golden apples that keep the gods and goddesses youthful, fell from the branches of Yggdrasil to Helheim, he went with two other gods to find her and bring her back. However, when they found her she was extremely upset, too sad to move or speak, and so Bragi told the other gods to go back to Asgard and decided that he would stay with his wife until she was ready to leave. He was so moved that he even stopped singing and playing his harp. This story is often seen as a metaphor for autumn, with Iðunn’s fall from the tree representing leaves falling from trees, and the cease of Bragi’s music as a reference to the silencing of birdsong at this time of the year.
Bragi plays many roles, including that of a minstrel. Ægir, for example, liked to visit Asgard to be entertained by Bragi’s tales of the gods’ adventures and accomplishments. Bragi is seen not only as a skald to the gods, but also as an inspiration to humans. He also lends his name to the ale cup used at funerals to honour a dead king or over which to swear a solemn oath. The cup is known as bragarfull, which can mean ‘cup of Bragi’ or ‘leader’s cup’. The leader’s cup translation could come from using the word bragi to mean ‘leader’ or ‘foremost one’, the dead chief to whom the toast is dedicated, or Odin in his capacity as god of some of the dead. A sign of the sacred hammer would be made over the cup to bless the drink before it was used for making vows. Those of you who have attended a Heathens of Yorkshire blot may have noticed that, as cup bearer for the kindred, I always ask Bragi to bless the mead before we use it to hail the gods, wights or ancestors. Bragi, along with his brother Hermod, also welcomes fallen warriors to Valhalla.
There is some speculation that Bragi might just be a part of Odin’s complex character that became a god in his own right through misunderstanding. Evidence for this idea includes Bragi’s nickname of ‘Long-bearded One’, which is one of Odin’s many titles. Odin was also seen as the patron of eloquence, poetry, song and skalds. This theory asserts that rather than Odin passing on these aspects of his personality to his son, this side of him was gradually seen as separate to the rest of Odin’s character until this part of him became seen as a new and separate god. This theory is supported by the idea that Bragi seems to have been a relatively late addition to the Norse pantheon.
Another idea is that Bragi was originally a human skald who became mythologised over time. One example is the poet Bragi Boddason; it seems unlikely that he was simply named after the god since the word ‘bragi’ was used to mean poetry in general, but on the other hand it is also unlikely that he could have been turned into a mythological figure so quickly after his death. Like many of the figures in heathenry, there will always be conflicting ideas and different versions of the ‘truth’, but to me the important thing is what the gods represent. Bragi has influenced many aspects of heathen history; his name and variations upon it have been used to mean a lot of different things. As well as the word bragi for poetry, bragarmál was used for poetic diction. The previously mentioned word bragarfull to describe the funeral drink relates to the association between Bragi and banquets in Valhalla. Skalds were often called Braga-men or women, and Bragi has been honoured by many northern tribes who toasted his health at important festive occasions, especially funeral feasts and during Yule.
The modern English verb ‘to brag’ likely comes from Bragi’s name too, from the tradition of taking it in turns to boast whilst passing around a cup of mead that has been blessed by Bragi (in a very similar way to making an oath over the cup), which is another tradition that we still use in our sumbels now.