FOOD IN NORSE MYTHOLOGY
For an overview of Norse mythology, check out this website.
The role of food in Norse mythology is small but significant. While it’s common to encounter scenes of feasting in the myths, these feasts exist either to celebrate a past or current event or set the stage for future events. The food, though occasionally mentioned, is mostly a prop. However, while specific foods and dishes aren’t usually discussed, the contexts in which food is consumed prove to be incredibly important. It’s less about what the characters eat and more about how, when, and under what circumstances they eat.
One of the first mentions of food in the Prose Edda occurs in Gylfaginning, the rambling origin story for the world and the Norse pantheon, which is told in the form of a Q+A session between King Gylfi and Odin. Gylfi asks Odin how he feeds the large crowd of warriors who have fallen in battle and now reside in Valhalla, to which Odin replies that all of them are fed by the boar called Saehrímnir. Saehrímnir is cooked each night but reborn each morning, providing a never-ending supply of food that’s quite sufficient to feed all the warriors (also known as the Einherjar). He mentions that the cook is called Andhrímnir and the kettle in which they cook is called Eldhrímnir, but as far as I know, neither of these names is mentioned again.
To drink, the Einherjar have an infinite supply of mead that streams from the udders of the goat Heidrun. Heidrun stands on top of Valhalla, where she feeds on the leaves of the tree Lerad, which is presumed to be Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Her udder produces so much mead that no matter how many warriors fill Valhalla, they can all drink their fill.
In contrast to the Einherjar, Odin himself needs no food. Instead, he obtains both food and drink from wine and gives all the food on his table to his two wolves, Geri and Freki.
By telling the audience that the food of the gods is infinite, Gylfafinning works to de-emphasize food throughout the rest of the Prose Edda. After all, what’s the point of discussing food if you never have to worry about it and perhaps don’t even need to eat? When the gods do prepare food, the myths gloss over the minutiae of food preparation and consumption, only mentioning it when food plays a strategic role in storytelling.
One example of food playing a role in storytelling is also in Gylfaginning, though it reads more like one of the mythic and legendary tales found later in the Prose Edda. Gylfi asks if Thor had ever encountered a situation in which someone was stronger than him, so Odin tells the story of the time that Thor and Loki travelled to Utgard, the capital of giant land (Jotunheim). On the way, they encounter the giant Skrymir. The three begin to travel together and end up pooling their provisions. However, when Thor tries to open the food bag, he finds himself unable to untie it. Thor begins to attack Skrymir with his hammer, but Skrymir thinks it is simply an acorn falling on his head.
Later on, Thor, Loki, and Skrymir arrive in Jotunheim at the hall of King Utgarda-Loki. They rudely force their way inside and demand hospitality, prompting the King to challenge them to a series of competitions to prove their worth and earn their stay in the hall. One of these challenges is an eating contest in which Loki, the self-professed fastest eater in the world, competes against Logi in an eating contest. However, Logi thoroughly defeats Loki, consuming not only an entire trough of meat, but the bones and the trough itself. Then Thor, the self-professed best drinker in the world, partakes in a drinking contest in which he must consume a horn of mead in less than three sips. He expects to finish it easily, but after his third sip he finds that the horn is still mostly full.
These defeats enrage Thor and Loki, who aren’t used to being beaten, but the next day they find out they’d been deceived. Loki’s competitor Logi had been wildfire itself, giving Loki no chance to compete. The mead in Thor’s drinking horn had actually been the ocean, which he managed to lower enough to create tides. Earlier on, the food bag had been tied with magical iron wire, and Thor’s blows against Skrymir had actually been hitting a small mountain. If the gods had been allowed to complete these challenges without interference, they would have succeeded easily.
The use of food in this myth is mainly about the extension of hospitality. Hospitality is one of the most prominent motifs throughout the Norse myths, suggesting that Viking Age Scandinavia placed a great emphasis on proper host-guest relations. This story reverses many expectations, showing Thor and Loki being bad guests and Utgarda-Loki being a bad host. Skrymir, too, shows poor integrity when he pools his food with the gods and then prevents them from accessing it. This is not a story about food – rather, it’s a story about hospitality, reversal, and watching the gods fail (and laughing in the process) – but its bedrock is the expectation that food will be shared, provided, and politely accepted. Nothing would have happened if the characters weren’t hungry, or if they had complied with the accepted code of conduct regarding food.
Thor seems to be the Norse god most associated with food, likely due to his incredible strength and soft spot for ale. In Thrymskvida, a myth in the Elder Edda, Thor wakes to find his hammer missing. He finds that it’s been taken by the giants, and if he wants it back, the gods must send the goddess Freya to marry the giant Thrym. Freya understandably refuses, so Thor dresses like her and journeys to Jotunheim, where he pretends to be Thrym’s bride so he can reclaim his hammer. During the feast preceding the wedding, Thor eats “a whole ox, eight salmon too, and all of the dainties intended for the women; then [drinks] three casks of mead.” This behavior almost gives him away, but he still manages to reclaim his hammer.
Thrymskvida shows that the Vikings had similar food customs to modern Western people. Men were associated with strength and power, so they got meat and fish to eat. Women were associated with frailty and grace, so they got “dainties” to eat. Because men and women were viewed differently, treated differently, and given different roles, this logically translates into eating different things. Feasts seem to be associated with weddings, much as they are today, and people and gods throughout the myths celebrate all sorts of occasions with food. It’s clear that food isn’t just for sustenance, but for celebration. It’s also clear that deviating from socially acceptable food consumption, like “Freya” eating so much meat, is cause for concern.
We can’t talk about Norse mythology, food, and celebrations without mentioning alcohol. Mead and ale are mentioned so frequently in the myths that they blend into the background; it’s pretty much expected that every myth includes or at least mentions drinking. A prime example is the myth about Kvasir’s mead of poetry. According to this story, poetry is created when the Aesir and Vanir all spit into a giant vat as a symbol of peace, thereby creating the man named Kvasir. Kvasir is the wisest man to ever live, so some dwarves slaughter him and brew mead from his blood to get his wisdom for themselves. Through a series of entertaining events, Odin takes possession of the mead and brings it safely back to Asgard. The story of Kvasir’s mead equates mead with creativity, cooperation, and goodness, though this association probably isn’t literal. Instead, it shows that the pre-Christian Norse valued both poetry and mead very highly.
Almost every piece of media you can find about Norse mythology or the Vikings depicts extended drinking scenes, typically in large, rustic halls full of music, shouting, and lots of hairy white men. It’s hard to know how much of this is a caricature and how much is accurate; it’s true that alcohol was very common in the Viking Age, but several things make me question its prevalence. First of all, Vikings mostly drank water. When they did drink alcohol, it’s likely that they drank in moderation most of the time. Many sources of practical advice from this era state that upright men should drink little so they can keep their wits about them. In the Elder Edda, the section Havamál gives some of this advice:
“No worse provisions can be carried through country
than to be too drunk on ale.
It’s not as good as it’s said to be good
the ale of the sons of men:
for the more a man drinks, the less he knows
about his own intentions.
It’s the heron of forgetfulness that hovers over ale-gatherings,
and steals the wits of men
it’s the best ale-gathering when afterwards
each man can claim back his wits.”
Later on, this line of advice continues:
“A man shouldn’t clutch at his cup, but moderately drink his mead;
he should be sparing of speech or shut up;
no man will blame you for bad behavior
if you go early to bed.”
This mismatch – on the one hand, celebrating mead as the carrier of poetry, and on the other, warning against consuming too much – supports the idea that people in the Viking Age held a sort of reverence for mead. People respected and enjoyed it but were nonetheless wary of it. It’s surprisingly similar to how modern people view alcohol, which is interesting in the context of Viking media that shows nothing but rowdy drinking. This is equivalent to non-American media portraying Americans as nothing but truck-driving, gun-toting, flag-waving patriots. While both stereotypes ring true in certain situations, neither is a complete representation. Evidently, there’s a lot more to the story of Viking Age alcohol consumption than we thought.
So, having given a very brief overview of food and drink in Norse mythology, how can we translate these ideas into modern cooking? The truth is, we can’t. The few times that we get the names of specific dishes, we still don’t get much in the way of details. Therefore, instead of cooking dishes directly from the myths, we’ll do a little critical thinking about the kinds of foods that Vikings ate and would have pictured their gods eating.
I won’t give a full description of Viking Age food and drink – you can find that here, here, and here – but I will say that according to the very average amount of research I did for this post, Viking Age food wasn’t all that fancy. There aren’t any cookbooks from the era (~793-1066 CE), so most of the recipes you see online (like mine!) are just speculation. What we do know, according to archaeological and textual evidence, is that Vikings ate a lot of barley, which they baked into unleavened flatbread along with other grains, nuts, and legumes. Their bread wasn’t leavened, so it turned rock-hard when it cooled, forcing them to make it fresh for every meal. They ate a lot of fish and dairy products, as well as some meat. They grew and collected a handful of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Most of their food was prepared by boiling ingredients together in cauldrons suspended over fires, a method that likely pales in comparison to modern gas ranges but still makes me jealous. If anyone reading this wants to buy me a gift, I would love a cauldron…
Most of the myths involving food also involve revelry or travel. At the feasts in the hall of Utgarda-Loki and at Thrym’s wedding, the guests probably ate a lot of meat and drank a lot of ale or mead; at the latter event, we know for sure that meat was involved. Thor and Loki’s food bag probably would’ve contained nonperishable foods that could be eaten plain or cooked over fires, such as barley for bread and smoked meat or fish.
Since making salmon or beef for this post wouldn’t be interesting or original, I decided to try making some Viking-inspired flatbread, presumably similar to what people in the Norse myths would have eaten on the road or offered to guests. Since barley and rye are hard to find in modern supermarkets, the ingredients are pretty open to interpretation. I included some hazelnut and oat flour since those ingredients were available to Vikings, then added some extra stuff like honey and an egg to make it more edible. I took very loose inspiration from this source. I’m gonna walk you through it instead of making an official recipe since I think it’s more fitting for this sort of thing.
How to Make Viking-Inspired Flatbread
Start by measuring out your ingredients with a digital scale:
- 230 g very coarse oat flour (or other flour of choice)
- 75 g hazelnut flour (or other nut flour)
- 230 g all-purpose or whole wheat flour (can sub up to 115 g rye or barley flour)
- 300 g buttermilk
- 60 g honey
- 1 egg
- Pinch of salt
Combine all the ingredients with your hands until smooth and sticky. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead with floured hands until very smooth and no longer sticky, about 5 minutes. Keep adding flour if it gets too wet. Pat into a disk.
Cut the disk into eight roughly equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball.
Add more flour to the surface and to a rolling pin. Roll out the balls one at a time to about the size of a pita bread. They should be relatively thin but hold together when lifted. Make sure to use plenty of flour to keep the dough from sticking.
I tested three methods for cooking the flatbreads, which I’ve listed in order of preference:
- BROILER: heat the oven broiler on high. Add the flatbreads to an ungreased baking sheet and broil on each side for 2-3 minutes until puffy and covered in dark spots. This method produced the lightest, fluffiest bread and the most interesting texture. Definitely the best way to go.
- DRY SKILLET: heat a dry skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the flatbreads one at a time for 3-4 minutes per side, or until covered in dark spots. I did 4 minutes on the first side and 3 minutes on the second side. This method produced slightly drier bread than the other two but was otherwise pretty good.
- PAN FRIED: heat some butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the flatbreads one at a time for 3-4 minutes per side, or until covered in dark spots. Add more butter as necessary. I did 4 minutes on the first side and 3 minutes on the second side. This method was a bit richer due to the butter, but it required a lot of butter, didn’t cook evenly, and didn’t taste that much better.
I recommend eating these with Viking-appropriate toppings.
Savory options: butter, smoked fish, ground beef, roasted or pickled root vegetables, dill, sour cream, horseradish, sautéed spinach, eggs, mustard, etc.
Sweet options: yogurt or skyr (strained Icelandic yogurt), blackberries, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, elderberries, plums, honey, etc.
If you’ve read this far, great! I hope you enjoy my unique form of nerdiness! Please comment requests for other mythologies I can do – I’m thinking about doing Egyptian, Jewish, or Cherokee mythology next, but I’m open to suggestions.
Until next time,