I is for Iðunn

Idun (pronounced “EE-done;” from Old Norse Iðunn, “The Rejuvenating One”[1]) is a goddess who belongs to the Aesir tribe of deities. Her role in the pre-Christian mythology and religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples is unfortunately obscure, but she features prominently in one of the best-known mythological talesThe Kidnapping of Idun. In this tale, which comes to us from the skaldic poem Haustlöng and the Prose Edda, Idun is depicted as the owner and dispenser of a fruit that imparts immortality. In modern books on Norse mythology, these fruits are almost invariably considered to be apples, but this wasn’t necessarily the case in heathen times. The Old Norse word for “apple,” epli, was often used to denote any fruit or nut, and “apples” in the modern English sense didn’t arrive in Scandinavia until late in the Middle Ages.[2] Whatever species Idun’s produce belongs to, its ability to sustain the immortality of the gods and goddesses makes Idun an indispensable presence in Asgard.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Idun, the Aesir goddess of youth, possessed fruit, most often referred to as apples, that delayed aging in those who ate it. She was an important goddess to keep around. But one day she disappeared.

This story is an early one since Hoenir is still with the Aesir, before he was one of the Aesir hostages sent to the Vanir at the conclusion of the first Aesir-Vanir war.

The story begins when Loki, Odin, and Hoenir (see F is for Freyja for an earlier mention of Hoenir) traveled through a mountainous region where little food could be found. When they came upon a herd of oxen, they killed one and began to cook it over a fire, but it never cooked. When the three discussed how it could be that an ox over a fire wouldn’t cook, they heard a noise above. An eagle in the branches of a tree above them explained that he had cast a spell on the fire so that it would not cook the meat. The eagle offered to release the spell in return for first having his fill of the meat. The gods weren’t pleased, but agreed, and the eagle took the choicest pieces of the ox.

Loki wasn’t happy with the loss of the best pieces, so he grabbed a heavy branch and struck the eagle, who was in reality the giant, Thjazi. The branch stuck to Thjazi, who, with Loki still hanging on, flew high into the sky. Loki begged Thjazi to return him to earth. Thjazi agreed on the condition that Loki would bring him Idun and her fruit. Loki agreed but didn’t tell the other gods.

When the three returned to Asgard, Loki went to Idun and told her that they had found fruits on their journey that were far superior to hers. He offered to take her to the place and convinced her to bring her fruits with her to compare. Idun followed Loki, and when they reached the place, Thjazi arrived, again in the guise of an eagle, and took Idun away to his palace in Jotunheim.

Back in Asgard, the gods began to notice they were showing signs of age: sagging skin, greying hair. When they realized Idun was no longer in Asgard and had last been seen with Loki, they forced Loki to tell them what had happened. The gods insisted Loki do something to return Idun to Asgard.

Freya loaned Loki her hawk feather cloak which allowed Loki to change into the form of a hawk and fly to Jotunheim. When he reached Thjazi’s home, he discovered Thjazi was away. Delighted with his good luck, Loki transformed Idun and her fruit into a nut which he grabbed in his talons and headed back to Asgard.

When Thjazi returned and found Idun gone, he turned himself again into an eagle and began chasing Loki. As Loki approached Asgard, the gods built a pile of kindling around their fortress. Thjazi was so close behind Loki that once Loki had reached the fortress with Idun, the gods set the kindling afire, and Thjazi was unable to avoid flying into the burst of flames. His feathers caught on fire, he fell, and the gods killed him.

Loki isn’t such a bad guy in this story. He is just one of the guys, suffering the same troubles as the others, and trying to come to the defense of all three by attacking Thjazi in his eagle shape. But then he gets stuck and must turn to the enemy for help. Can anyone blame him for agreeing to Thjazi’s terms for his return to safety?

How might the story have changed if Loki trusted Odin and the other gods with his dilemma? Loki’s problem is that he always wants to do things alone, his way. If he needs help from others, he turns to trickery and guile, not honesty and trust.

But every story needs conflict, a villain to fight against. Giants aren’t enough in these tales. Loki, the betrayer, plays for and against both the good guys and the bad guys. His presence forces the others to show their true colors.

What can I learn from the story of the kidnapping of Idun? Maybe I need to figure out how to incorporate a Loki figure in the stories I write.

Reference to Idun and her apples can be found in the Poetic Edda, stanza 44, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir;  stanzas 19-20 of Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; stanzas 19, Harbarthsljoth, The Poem of Harbarthstanzas  16-18, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanza 3, Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym.

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 171.

[2] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 186.

Image credit: By John Bauerhttp://runeberg.org/gudasaga/, Public Domain, Link


H is for Heimdallr

Heimdall (pronounced “HAME-doll;” Old Norse Heimdallr, whose meaning/etymology is unknown[1]) is one of the Aesir gods and the ever-vigilant guardian of the gods’ stronghold, Asgard.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Alphabetical order may not be the most sensible way to introduce the characters, settings, and action of Norse mythology, but there is an opportunity for synchronicity to raise its head.

Yesterdays’ post, G is for Ginnungagap, and the previous day’s, F is for Freyr, introduced giants and the fear of the end of the cosmos they evoked among the gods. Remember, giants in Norse mythology are not just oversized beings. They are devourers, destroyers, worthy of being feared.

This is a good bit of introduction for Heimdall since the only aspect of this son of Odin that seems uncontested is that his role is to keep watch and to alert the other gods when giants approach Asgard.

Heimdall doesn’t get many mentions in the Poetic Edda, and even those he gets are often by reference to his role as watchman of the gods rather than by name. His home is Himinbjörg which sits at the top of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard (the land of humans) to Asgard (the land of gods). Heimdall’s responsibility is to be continuously watching and listening in order that he can use his horn, Gjallarhorn, to warn the gods of the arrival of the giants which marks the beginning of Ragnarok. Luckily, he needs little sleep, his sight is so good that he can see for hundreds of miles both day and night, and his excellent hearing allows him to hear grass growing on the ground and wool growing on the backs of sheep.[2]

One annotator of the Poetic Edda poem, Rigsthula, suggests that Rig is a name Heimdall takes while he traveled, though how he could both travel and serve as watchman for the gods is problematic. Later scholars believe Rig is Odin, not Heimdall, but I’ve included it in the list of references below because there is very little else in the Poetic Edda that references Heimdall.

In the poem, Rig stops at various locations where he impregnates the wives and from those pregnancies come all classes of humans: the thralls (slaves), peasants, and warriors.

Heimdall plays an important role at the end of the cosmos. I can’t help but think there were more tales of him that have been lost between the years of the mythic stories being passed on in the strictly oral tradition and their being collected in written form. More likely, once the stories were written down, the oral tradition faded because those who knew the stories were convinced writing them down would preserve them. But the written copies were lost, damaged, or discarded as unimportant once Christianity was adopted.

How much more have we lost when we began writing things down instead of remembering and telling them to others? Are we running the same risk again through converting everything that is written or drawn on paper into digital form, confident that the transformation will preserve the physical items forever?

From the Poetic Edda, stanzas 1, 27, 46, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; stanzas 13, 30, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; stanza 28, Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; stanzas 47 and 48, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanza 14,  Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; the entire poem, Rigsthula, The Song of Rig; stanzas 30, 37, 39-40,  Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla;

[1] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 153.
[2] Daniel McCoy, Norse Mythology for Smart People, Heimdall.

Image credit: By Nils AsplundOwn work, Vogler, 2010-10-14, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

G is for Ginnungagap

Ginnungagap is the bottomless abyss that was all there was prior to the beginning of the cosmos, and into which the cosmos will collapse once again during Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods,” only to be reborn as the cycle completes itself. As the Eddic poem Völuspá, “The Insight of the Seeress,” describes the time before the cosmos existed:

That was the age when nothing was;
There was no sand, nor sea, nor cool waves,
No earth nor sky nor grass there,
Only Ginnungagap.[1]

This chaos of perfect silence and darkness lay between the homeland of elemental fire, Muspelheim, and the homeland of elemental ice, Niflheim.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Once there was nothing but fire and ice. As the flames and frost drifted towards one another, meeting finally at Ginnungagap, the ice began to melt. From the drops the first creature, the giant Ymir, arose. From Ymir’s sweat more giants were born, and from the frost arose a cow named Audhumbla.

Audhumbla licked the ice and uncovered Buri, the first of the Aesir. Buri had a son, Bor, who married the giant Bestla, and they had three half-god, half-giant sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve. The three brothers slew Ymir and created the cosmos from his body.

The gods eventually created the first two humans, Ask and Embla, and built a wall around the place they created for them, Midgard, in order to protect them from the giants.

The giants in Norse mythology are always to be feared. The gods took many precautions to keep the giants from crossing into Asgard and Midgard. But they failed.

Eventually, the giants defeated the gods at Ragnarok and dragged the cosmos back to Ginnungagap. Ragnarok is not only the coming end of the world; it was the end of the world in the past. Out of Ginnungagap, the cosmos arose and will rise again. And the cycle of Norse mythology continues.

[1] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 3. Translation by Daniel McCoy. The original Old Norse text is as follows:

Ár var alda,
þar er ekki var,
var-a sandr né sær
né svalar unnir;
jörð fannsk æva
né upphiminn,
gap var ginnunga
en gras hvergi.

Image credit: Daniel McCoy, Ginnungagap.

F is for Freyr

Freyr (pronounced “FREY-ur;” Old Norse Freyr, “Lord;” sometimes anglicized as “Frey”) is a god who belongs to the Vanir tribe of deities. He’s also an honorary member of the other tribe of Norse gods, the Aesir, having arrived in their fortress, Asgard, as a hostage at the closing of the Aesir-Vanir War.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

When Loki returned from Svartálfaheimr, the home of the Black Elves, with the six gifts made by the elves, he gave Skidbladnir (the ship made of thin blades of wood which always has a favorable wind and can be folded up and put into one’s pocket) and Gullinbursti (the living boar with golden hair) to Freyr, one of the Vanir, not one of the Aesir. Loki’s inclusion of Freyr among his choice of recipients for his six magnificent gifts indicates how fully Freyr was integrated into the residents of Asgard.

Associated with fertility, health, and abundance, Freyr, also known as Frey, was a most-loved god who received frequent sacrifices at special occasions. Because two sacrifices each year during pre-Christian times went to Freyr–the autumn sacrifice in October and the midwinter, or yule, sacrifice in January–it is understandable that some of those pre-Christian traditions have carried into modern times. The term yule now refers to Christmas, but before the introduction of Christianity, yule was the name for the thirteen-day period beginning with the winter solstice that ended with the midwinter sacrifice. Some consider the tradition of serving ham for the Christmas meal goes back to the tradition of sacrificing Freyr’s favorite animal, the boar, during the yule sacrifice.

In spite of Freyr’s importance in the Norse pantheon and his presence in a number of tales, only one story exists that features him: the story of how he discovered and fell in love at first sight with his wife, the giantess Gerðr or Gerd. And even that one has him in the background, urging his servant Skirnir forward to convince Gerd to marry him.

For us, the word giant conjures up someone who is larger than usual. But the Old Norse word, jotun, conjures up more than great size. The word is closer in meaning to devourer, an indication of how fearful the giants were. But apparently some of them were fair of face and full of grace. At least in Freyr’s eyes.

The story begins with Freyr seated on Odin’s throne, Hlithskjolf. From that vantage point, a seat he really didn’t have any right to take, he can see everything on all nine levels of the cosmology. Seated there, Freyr spies Gerd, the beautiful daughter of the mountain giant, Gymir, in Jotunheim, the land of the giants. Freyr knew the elves, Aesir, and Vanir would oppose a marriage between him and a giant. He’s starting off with two strikes against him.

He also knew it would be difficult for Skirnir or anyone else to approach Gymir’s home in Jotunheim, so he offered Skirnir his horse, which can go through walls of fire, and his sword, which can fight giants on its own.

When Skirnir reaches the gate on the fence that surrounds Gymir’s home, he finds it guarded by vicious dogs. He moves on until he finds a herdsman seated near the fence who asks Skirnir if he is already dead or just on his way to dying, a sign of how treacherous it is to approach Gymir’s home. Gerd hears the noise outside the gate and bids her servant to allow Skirnir to enter.

At first, Skirnir offers Gerd golden apples, probably Idun‘s apples, a gift to ensure Gerd’s youth, if she will come with him to Freyr. When Gerd doesn’t agree, Skirnir offers her Draupner, the ring that drips eight rings just like it every nine days. Gerd refuses both gifts.

Where did Skirnir get Draupner since Odin placed it on Baldur’s pyre? Another of Odin’s sons, Hermóðr (Hermod), retrieved it when he rode Odin’s horse, Sleipner, to beg the goddess of death, Hel, to return Baldur to the land of the living.

Skirnir then turns to threats. First he threatens Gerd that he will cut off her head. Gerd responds that her father Gymir will retaliate. Skirnir then threatens her with being struck by a magic wand which would turn all men away from her so that she will live a lonely and loveless life.

When Gerd still does not agree, Skirnir turns to magic chants to make Gerd a spectacle to all, to remove joy from her life, to doom her to a marriage with a three-headed giant with whom she would live at the roots of the world. He also carves runes on her body which he says he can remove, if he wants to.

Gerd finally relents and agrees to marry Freyr, though she exacts some level of revenge by insisting that Freyr wait for nine days before meeting her in Barri, a leafy grove.

I had hoped our Norway trip would take us to Jotunheimen National Park, but our route is to the north of Norway’s Land of Giants. Maybe next time.

For source material about Freyr, see The Poetic Edda, stanzas 21, 53, The Voluspo, The Wise-Woman’s Prophecy; stanzas 5, 43, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; the entire poem, Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; prose introduction, stanzas 32-33, 35-37, 41-44, 55, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanzas 7, 32, Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; stanzas 30, 57 Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjorvarth; stanza 24, Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma, The Short Lay of Sigurth;

Image credit: By Frederic Lawrence – Speight, Ernest Edwin (1903). Volume 4 of Romance readers: Children of Odin. H. Marshall & Son., Public Domain, Link

F is for Freyja

Freya (Old Norse Freyja, “Lady”) is one of the preeminent goddesses in Norse mythology. She’s a member of the Vanir tribe of deities, but became an honorary member of the Aesir gods after the Aesir-Vanir War. Her father is Njord. Her mother is unknown, but could be NerthusFreyr is her brother. Her husband, named Odr in late Old Norse literature, is certainly none other than Odin, and, accordingly, Freya is ultimately identical with Odin’s wife Frigg. . . .

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Freyja, Frigg, Freya. So many ways to spell the name. Or do the names represent more than one goddess? I’ve decided to come down on the side of the three names all referring to the same goddess, and that she was Odin’s (or Odr’s) wife.

Freya was one of the Vanir, not the Aesir. She and her brother, Freyr, and their father Njord, were traded to the Aesir in exchange for Hœnir and Mimir going to the Vanir as hostages at the end of the Aesir-Vanir war.

Odin was one of the Aesir. A marriage between the two clans of gods makes sense, just as arranged marriages among the aristocracy of Europe from the Middle Ages onward helped strengthen the bonds between otherwise rival families.

Freya is associated with love, beauty, and fertility. She also is accused of sleeping with all the other gods, perhaps because her husband Odin leaves her alone so often as he spends most of his time traveling around the nine levels of the cosmos.

Of most interest to me is Freya’s association with the ability to see into the future, a quality of the Norse völva or seeress, a practitioner of seidr, Norse magic. Those who practiced seidr would enter a trance during which they could travel among the levels of the cosmos, divining the future in order to determine how to change the outcome through reweaving the strands of events.

It is her role as a völva or practitioner of seidr that led to the first Aesir-Vanir war. A völva lived an itinerant life, traveling from village to village to practice her trade. This was the life of Freya when she first came to Asgard, using the name Heiðr (“Bright”), where she foretold the future and how to amend it to those willing to pay her.

At some point, the Aesir realized that too many were taking advantage of Heiðr’s skills to advance their own desires instead of the communal values of honor, kin loyalty, and obedience to the law. They blamed her for their own shortcomings and called her Gullveig (“Gold-greed”). They tried to kill her by burning her three times, yet three times she came back to life.

The hostility between the Aesir and Vanir grew until war broke out. The Aesir fought following rules of combat, brute force, and weapons, while the Vanir used magic. The war continued until the two tribes became tired of the fighting and ended the war with an exchange of hostages.

There would be another war between the Aesir and Vanir. Watch for K is for Kvasir for more details.

More information about Freya (and Frigg) can be found in The Poetic Edda, stanzas 21-22, 25, and 53, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecystanza 14, Grimnisol, the Ballad of Grimnir;  the prose introduction, Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; stanzas 19, Harbarthsljoth, The Poem of Harbarth;prose introduction and stanzas 16, 20, 24-33, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wranglingstanzas 3-28, Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; the entire poem, Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla; and stanzas 7-8, Svipdagsmol, The Ballad of Svipdag.

Image credit: By Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905) – Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin. Page 214., Public Domain, Link

F is for Fenrir

Fenrir (pronounced “FEN-reer;” Old Norse Fenrir, “He Who Dwells in the Marshes”[1]) is the most infamous of the many wolves in Norse mythology. His importance for the pre-Christian Scandinavians is demonstrated by his being depicted on numerous surviving runestones, not to mention his ubiquity in Old Norse literary sources.

He’s the son of the god Loki and the giantess Angrboða, which makes him the brother of the serpent Jormungand and the underworld goddess Hel.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Fenrir, the wolf, contrasts with a number of other named wolves in Norse mythology. For instances, the wolves Geri and Freki (Old Norse, both meaning “the ravenous” or “greedy one”) accompany Odin and are often depicted at the side of his throne, as his protectors.

Fenrir, on the other hand, is no friend to Odin. Neither were Loki’s other two children.

The gods tried to banish Loki’s children in an attempt to escape the foreboding destiny they feared from them. They threw the Jormungand serpent into the sea where he then encircled Midgard, the land of humans. They relegated Hel to the underworld, also called Hel, one of several final destination for the dead. Perhaps they hoped she would be satisfied ruling over that portion of the Norse cosmos.

But Fenrir was scary. They decided they needed to keep him close, in Asgard. Fenrir grew quickly and soon became so large the gods feared he would destroy wherever he was kept. Binding him and locking him away seemed the only answer.

The gods used trickery and Fenrir’s vanity by telling Fenrir they wanted to challenge his strength by wrapping him in chains which he then would break free from. Over and over, they wrapped Fenrir with ever stronger chains, and each time Fenrir broke loose.

Eventually, the gods turned to the dwarves, the master craftsmen of the cosmos, and asked them to create a binding so strong that Fenrir couldn’t break free. The dwarves used ingredients that do not exist, such as the sound of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of mountains, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird, to create a ribbon they named Gleipnir. Since the materials used in the binding do not exist, there was no point in resisting it.

When Fenrir saw the lightweight ribbon, he became suspicious and only agreed to be bound with it if one of the gods would place his hand in Fenrir’s mouth while the gods bound him. Only one god, Tyr, was brave enough, though he knew he would lose his arm when Fenrir realized he couldn’t break free.

Once Fenrir was bound, the gods moved him to an isolated spot and held Gleipnir down with a large boulder. They also forced Fenrir’s mouth open with a sword to keep his jaws open.

And that should have been that. But this is mythology. More dramatic events must follow. Watch for R is for Ragnarök later this month.

The full story of the binding of Fenrir can be found in Norse Mythology for Smart People.

Tales of Fenrir are mentioned in the Poetic Edda, stanzas 40, 44, 47, and 51-53 of Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy.

Geri and Freki are mentioned in the Poetic Edda, stanza 19, of Grimnismol, the Ballad of Grimnir.

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 81.

Image credit: By George Wright (1872-1951) – Mabie, Hamilton Wright. 1908. Norse Stories Retold from the Eddas. Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. Frontispiece. Digitized version from the Internet Archive., Public Domain, Link

E is for Edda

The name “Edda” has been retroactively applied to this set of poems and is a reference to the Edda of Snorri Sturluson. . . . The authors of the poems are all anonymous. Debates have raged over the dates and locations of the poems’ composition; all we can really be certain about is that, due to the fact that some of the poems are obviously written in a manner that places them in dialogue with Christian ideas . . .  the poems must have been composed sometime between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, when Iceland and Scandinavia were being gradually Christianized.

The Poetic Edda is likely the single most important of all of our sources.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Until I began the research for this series of blog posts, I thought the word edda was an Old Norse or Old Icelandic word for saga. It turns out there is disagreement about just what the word means (though I subscribe to one theory, explained below).

There are two Eddas, the Poetic and the Prose Eddas.

The Poetic Edda, also referred to as the Elder Edda, consists largely of a number of poems with mythological and heroic themes, including many of the tales of the gods, as well as short prose sections providing explanations where needed. The authors of the poems are all anonymous. Some scholars believe the compiler of the Poetic Edda was an Icelander named Sæmunder the Wise, who lived from 1056 to 1133, though modern scholars doubt this attribution. Nonetheless, the Edda is still often referred to as the Sæmunder Edda.

Another Icelander, Snorri Sturlusson, is credited with collecting and writing down a number of the heroic cycles and stories that were previously only available in an oral tradition several hundred years later. He named his collection The Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, Snorri’s Edda, or the Prose Edda. Sturlsson came up with the name, Edda, for his work. Because of the similarity of the content of his work and the poetic version, the term Edda was applied to the Sæmunder collection as well.

Scholars have debated what the word means. Jacob Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm, saw commonality with a word in a poem, the Rigsthula, which translates roughly as great-grandmother. This led to the interpretation of the stories as Tales of a Grandmother, not at all accurate as a description of the works and very close in meaning to the somewhat demeaning phrase, old wives’ tales.

An explanation more to my liking is that the 19th century Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon identified the word Edda as the genitive form of the proper name of the place that both Sæmunder and Sturlsson lived, Oddi, a settlement in the southwest of Iceland. The use of the name of a place in titles, especially of old works, has been common throughout history. Consider The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example.

Because so many of the stories of the gods were first collected in written form in the Poetic Edda, I will point to the original poems as appropriate throughout the A to Z Challenge.

Keep in mind, however, that the stories contained in the Eddas addressed subjects the audience already knew about; they therefore do not contain what writers these days refer to as the backstories. Reading them is like reading 100-year-old letters in which the writer mentions someone the reader would know who is a mystery to readers a century later.

Image credit: Public Domain, Link