The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 07 Jan 2018

The horn of milk

When I was a kid I had a book of “Myths and Legends of the Ages”, by Marion N. French. One of the myths was the story of Thor's ill-fated visit to Utgard. The jötunns of Utgard challenge Thor and Loki to various contests and defeat them all through a combination of talent and guile. In one of these contests, Thor is given a drinking horn and told that even the wimpiest of the jötunns is able to empty it of its contents in three drinks. (The jötunns are lying. The pointy end of the horn has been invisibly connected to the ocean.)

The book specified that the horn was full of milk, and as a sweet and innocent kiddie I did not question this. Decades later it hit me suddenly: no way was the horn filled with milk. When the mighty jötunns of Utgard are sitting around in their hall, they do not hold contests to see who can drink the most milk. Obviously, the horn was full of mead.

The next sentence I wrote in the draft version of this article was:

   In the canonical source material (poetic edda maybe?) the horn is full
   of *mead*. Of course it is.

In my drafts, I often write this sort of bald statement of fact, intending to go back later and check it, and perhaps produce a citation. As the quotation above betrays, I was absolutely certain that when I hunted down the original source it would contradict Ms. French and say mead. But I have now hunted down the canonical source material (in the Prose Edda, it turns out, not the Poetic one) and as far as I can tell it does not say mead!

Here is an extract of an 1880 translation by Rasmus Björn Anderson, provided by WikiSource:

He went into the hall, called his cup-bearer, and requested him to take the sconce-horn that his thanes were wont to drink from. The cup-bearer immediately brought forward the horn and handed it to Thor. Said Utgard-Loke: From this horn it is thought to be well drunk if it is emptied in one draught, some men empty it in two draughts, but there is no drinker so wretched that he cannot exhaust it in three.

For comparison, here is the 1916 translation of Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, provided by

He went into the hall and called his serving-boy, and bade him bring the sconce-horn which the henchmen were wont to drink off. Straightway the serving-lad came forward with the horn and put it into Thor's hand. Then said Útgarda-Loki: 'It is held that this horn is well drained if it is drunk off in one drink, but some drink it off in two; but no one is so poor a man at drinking that it fails to drain off in three.'

In both cases the following text details Thor's unsuccessful attempts to drain the horn, and Utgard-Loki's patronizing mockery of him after. But neither one mentions at any point what was in the horn.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the original Old Norse to see if the translators had elided this detail, and if it would look interesting. It was fun and it did look interesting. Here it is, courtesy of Heimskringla.NO:

Útgarða-Loki segir, at þat má vel vera, ok gengr inn í höllina ok kallar skutilsvein sinn, biðr, at hann taki vítishorn þat, er hirðmenn eru vanir at drekka af. Því næst kemr fram skutilsveinn með horninu ok fær Þór í hönd. Þá mælti Útgarða-Loki: "Af horni þessu þykkir þá vel drukkit, ef í einum drykk gengr af, en sumir menn drekka af í tveim drykkjum, en engi er svá lítill drykkjumaðr, at eigi gangi af í þrimr."

This was written in Old Norse around 1220, and I was astounded at how much of it is recognizable, at least when you already know what it is going to say. However, the following examples are all ill-informed speculation, and at least one of my confident claims is likely to be wrong. I hope that some of my Gentle Readers are Icelanders and can correct my more ridiculous errors.

“Höllina” is the hall. “Kallar” is to call in. The horn appears three times, as ‘horninu’, ‘horni’, and in ‘vítishorn’, which is a compound that specifies what kind of horn it is. “Þór í hönd” is “in Thor's hand”. (The ‘Þ’ is pronounced like the /th/ of “Thor”.) “Drekka”, “drukkit”, “drykk”, “drykkjum”, and “drykkjumaðr” are about drinking or draughts; “vel drukkit” is “well-drunk”. You can see the one-two-three in there as “einum-tveim-þrimr”. (Remember that the “þ” is a /th/.) One can almost see English in:

sumir menn drekka af í tveim drykkjum

which says “some men drink it in two drinks”. And “lítill drykkjumaðr” is a little-drinking-person, which I translated above as “wimp”.

It might be tempting to guess that “með horninu” is a mead-horn, but I'm pretty sure it is not; mead is “mjað” or “mjöð”. I'm not sure, but I think “með” here is just “with”, akin to modern German “mit”, so that:

næst kemr fram skutilsveinn með horninu

is something like “next, the skutilsveinn came with the horn”. (The skutilsveinn is something we don't have in English; compare trying to translate “designated hitter” into Old Norse.)

For a laugh, I tried putting this into Google Translate, and I was impressed with the results. It makes a heroic effort, and produces something that does capture some of the sense of the passage. It identifies the language as Icelandic, which while not correct, isn't entirely incorrect either. (The author, Snorri Sturluson, was in fact Icelandic.) Google somehow mistakes the horn for a corner, and it completely fails to get the obsolete term “hirðmenn” (roughly, “henchmen”), mistaking it for herdsmen. The skutilsveinn is one of the hirðmenn.

Anyway there is no mead here, and none in the rest of the story, which details Thor's unsuccessful attempts to drink the ocean. Nor is there any milk, which would be “mjólk”.

So where does that leave us? The jötunns challenge Thor to a drinking contest, and bring him a horn, and even though it was obviously mead, the story does not say what was in the horn.

Because why would they bother to say what was in the horn? It was obviously mead. When the boys crack open a cold one, you do not have to specify what it was that was cold, and nobody should suppose that it was a cold bottle of milk.

I imagine Marion N. French sitting by the fire, listening while Snorri tells the story of Thor and the enchanted drinking horn of Utgard:

“Utgarða-Loki called his skutilsveinn, and requested him to bring the penalty-horn that his hirðmen were wont to drink from…”

“Excuse me! Excuse me, Mr. Sturluson! Just what were they wont to drink from it?”

“Eh, what's that?”

”What beverage was in the horn?”

“Why, mead, of course. What did you think it was, milk?”

(Merriment ensues, liberally seasoned with patronizing mockery.)

(In preparing this article, I found it helpful to consult Zoëga's Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic of 1910.)

[ Addendum 2018-01-17: Holy cow, I was so wrong. It was so obviously not mead. I was so, so wrong. Amazingly, unbelievably wrong. ]

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