N is for Nornir

In Norse mythology, the Norns (pronounced like “norms” with an “n” instead of the “m”; Old Norse Nornir) are three female divine beings who have more influence over the course of destiny than any other beings in the cosmos. They dwell within the Well of Urd beneath Yggdrasil, the great ash tree that stands at the center of the universe and holds the Nine Worlds in its branches and roots. They shape destiny by carving runes into the trunk of the tree, or, in some sagas and poems, by weaving destiny like a web or tapestry.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The three Norns who dwell within the Well of Urd are Urd (“What Once Was”), Verdandi (“What Is Coming into Being”) and Skuld (“What Shall Be”).

When I chose Norse mythology as the topic for the A to Z Challenge, I naively thought I could pull together some stories that I heard as a child and add a few descriptions of characters that I know have been used as inspiration for current culture heroes. But as I do the research, I have found so many sources from those who have in-depth knowledge of the tales, the players, and the religion or philosophy that binds them all together. I can barely scratch the surface. For a more thorough understanding of Norse mythology, I recommend the following sources:

Now back to the topic of the day. To answer the question “what are the Norns?” requires a complex knowledge of Norse and Germanic world views and many more words than I planned to put into any one of my posts during the April A to Z Challenge.

Let me try not to fall back on children’s fairytale versions in a simplified version of what I have learned about the Norns. Note: there are many other creatures in Norse mythology referred to as norns, without a capital n. Only the three who dwell within the well are known as Norns with a capital N.

Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld reside within the Well of Urd beneath the tree Yggdrasil. The tree connects all levels of the cosmos. The water from the well is drawn up the tree’s roots into the trunk and branches, and is eventually released through the leaves into the atmosphere where it collects and is returned to the earth as dew or rain. The movement of the water from the well is cyclical, with every bit of what flows through the tree nourishing the tree or returning to the Well.

The three Norns carve runes into the bark of the tree to declare what will happen to every living thing in the cosmos. For this reason, some refer to the Norns as fates or destiny. But just as the water that runs from the well, through the roots, up the trunk and out to the branches and leaves, and into the atmosphere will return and change the tree, other cycles in the world may affect what the Norns have written, causing the runes to change as well.

The pre-Christian northern Europeans believed it was possible to divine the future as well as change it. Freya introduced the magical power of seidr, to alter the future, to the Aesir.

Because the future can be altered, the work of the Norns never ends. As forces change the future, the Norns must incorporate those changes into the runes they carve on the trees.

Too simple, I admit. Perhaps by the time I reach Y is for Yggdrasil I will have absorbed more and can fill in some of the gaps.

For more about norns in general, see Poetic Edda, stanzas 8, 14, 19-20, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; stanza 111, Hovamol, The Ballad of the High One; stanza 49, Vafthruthnismol, The Ballad of Vafthruthnir; stanza 53, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; stanza 7, Svipdagsmol, The Ballad of Svipdag; stanzas 2, 4, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I, The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; stanza 18, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II, The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; stanzas 2, 24, Reginsmol, The Ballad of Regin; stanzas 11-13, 44, Fafnismol, The Ballad of Fafnir; stanza 17, Sigrdrifumol, The Ballad of the Victory-Bringer; stanza 7, Sigurtharkvitha En Skamma, The Short Lay of Sigurth; stanza 17, Atlakvitha En Grönlenzka, The Greenland Lay of Atli; stanza 13, Guthrunarhvot, Guthrun’s Inciting; stanza 28, Hamthesmol, The Ballad of Hamther

Image credit: By Amalia Schoppe. – Die Helden und Götter des Nordens, oder Das Buch der sagen. G. Gropius., Public Domain, Link

M is for Mjölnir

Sindri then put iron on the hearth, and told Brokkr that, for this next working, they must be especially meticulous, for a mistake would be more costly than with the previous two projects. Loki immediately stung Brokkr’s eyelid, and the blood blocked the dwarf’s eye, preventing him from properly seeing his work. Sindri produced a hammer of unsurpassed quality, which never missed its mark and would boomerang back to its owner after being thrown, but it had one flaw: the handle was short. Sindri lamented that this had almost ruined the piece, which was called Mjollnir (“Lightning”[1]). Nevertheless, sure of the great worth of their three treasures, Sindri and Brokkr made their way to Asgard to claim the wages that were due to them.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Without Loki, there would be no Mjollnir. It was Loki’s mischief, cutting off Sif’s golden hair, that resulted in his traveling to Svartálfaheimr to get the dwarves to make a replacement, along with two other gifts for the gods. And while there, he couldn’t help himself but to challenge other dwarves to make items even more wondrous than the three he already had. We have Loki to thank for Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir.

Without Mjollnir, would Thor have been as powerful? There would be far fewer tales without Mjollnir. One of my favorites wouldn’t have happened at all without Mjollnir because it is the tale of what happened when Thor lost his hammer.

One morning Thor realized Mjollnir was missing. Because all the Aesir relied on Thor and his hammer to protect Asgard, Thor was enraged and searched everywhere, without success.

Freya offered to help by loaning Loki, the shape shifter, her falcon feathers so he could fly to find Mjollnir. Loki took the feathers and flew in search of the hammer. Because Loki was sure one of the giants had stolen Mjollnir, he flew to Jotunheim where he again took his own shape as a god before he approached chief of the giants, Thrym.

Loki asked Thrym if he knew who had taken Mjollner. Thrym proudly admitted he had Thor’s hammer, and he had buried the hammer deep in the earth. He also said he would never return the hammer unless he could have Freya as his bride.

Loki used the falcon feathers and flew back to Asgard to tell Thor and the other gods what he learned. When Loki was finished, Heimdall–not Loki–suggested that Thor should disguise himself as Freya and go to Jotunheim to trick Thrym into giving him back his hammer. Thor objected, saying the other gods would mock him for the rest of his days. Loki pointed out that if Thor did not go to Jotunheim to retrieve Mjollnir, Asgard would be ruled by the giants.

Reluctantly, Thor agreed, and Loki offered to go with him as “Freya’s” servant.

When the two arrived at Thrym’s home, the giant bragged to all those who would hear that he finally had been given a gift worthy of him.

At dinner, Thor ate and drank so much that Thrym became suspicious. Loki quickly responded that the bride had been so looking forward to her arrival that she had not eaten or drunk anything for a week. This pleased Thrym so much that he lifted the veil and faced Thor’s glaring eyes. Thrym turned to Loki and said he had never seen such piercing eyes. Again Loki quickly responded by saying the bride had been so eager to come that she hadn’t slept.

After the ceremony, as was the custom, Thrym presented his bride with his most prized possession, the hammer Mjollnir. Once Thor had the hammer in his hands, he threw off the women’s clothing and struck and killed Thrym. After killing all the rest of the wedding guests, Thor and Loki returned to Asgard.

For more information about Mjollnir, see The Poetic Edda, stanza 51, Vafthruthnismol, The Ballad of Vafthruthnir; stanza 14, Harbarthsljoth, The Poem of Harbarth; stanza 37, Hymiskvitha,  The Lay of Hymir; stanzas 57, 59, 61, 63, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanzas 1, 31, Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym;

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 219-220.

Image credit: Public Domain, Link

M is for Miðgarðr

Midgard (Old Norse Miðgarðr, Gothic midjungards, Old English middangeard, Old Saxon middilgard, Old High German mittilgart or mittangard, Proto-Germanic *meðjanagarðaz,[1][2] “Middle Enclosure”) is one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology and an important concept in the pre-Christian worldview of all of the Germanic peoples. It’s the inhabited world, and roughly corresponds to the modern English word and concept of “civilization.” It’s the only one of the Nine Worlds that’s primarily located in the visible world; the others, while they may intersect with the visible world at various points, are first and foremost invisible locations.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People

Midgard is the visible world. Where humans live. In the middle. Between the land of the gods above and the land of the giants and chaos below. The place that should be most familiar to humans.

Most of the action in Norse mythology takes place outside Midgard. In fact, the gods seem to have been indifferent to humans. But they did take some steps to protect Midgard. When the gods created the cosmos from the body of the giant Ymir, they placed Ymir’s eyebrows around Midgard to serve as a fence or a wall, to protect it from the chaos that surrounded it.

One of Loki’s children, Jormungand, the serpent, lived in the sea that surrounded Midgard, where Odin threw him with the hope that being tossed against the rocks in the sea would kill him. But it didn’t. The serpent grew until it was so large that it circled the earth with enough room left to put its tail in its mouth.

While Jormungand surrounded Midgard, it was not for protection. The serpent was a threat to the humans of Midgard as well as the gods. Because Midgard is in the middle.

More on that when I get to R is for Ragnarok.

[1] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 264.

[2] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 214.

Image credit: By Image extracted from page 039 of Histoire des peuples du nord, et des Danois et des Normands, by WHEATON, Henry. Original held and digitised by the British Library. Copied from Flickr. Note: The colours, contrast and appearance of these illustrations are unlikely to be true to life. They are derived from scanned images that have been enhanced for machine interpretation and have been altered from their originals. This file is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library. View image on Flickr   View all images from book   View catalogue entry for book |   Public Domain Link

L is for Loki

Loki (pronounced “LOAK-ee;” Old Norse Loki . . .) is the wily trickster god of Norse mythology.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The children of Loki and the giantess, Angrboða: Fenrir the wolf; Jormungand, the serpent that surrounds Midgard; and Hel, the guardian of Hel

Loki is difficult to describe. He isn’t one of the Aesir, but he gets lumped with them because of his association with Odin, especially in the tales where Odin, Hoenir, and Loki travel together.

At least one of his parents was a giant, his father Farbauti. Not much is known about his mother, except her name, Laufey or Nal.

Loki is the father of Fenrir, Jormungand, and Hel, by the giant, Angrboda.

Loki, with his wife Sigyn, had one other child, Narfi or Nari.

And most mysteriously, Loki is the mother of Odin’s eight legged horse, Sleipnir, as a result of his shape-shifting into the form of a mare in order to lure the stallion Svadilfari away from his master’s task. Svadilfari’s master was a giant who had challenged the gods that he could complete building a protective wall around Asgard within one winter. The giant’s price for accomplishing the task: the hand of Freya as well as the sun and the moon.

The unnamed giant builder had originally proposed he could build the wall, with only the help of his stallion, in three seasons. Loki suggested to the gods that they accept the giant’s proposal but to insist the work be done in only one winter. The builder accepted.

Because the builder made progress so much more quickly than the gods had expected, they seized Loki and threatened to kill him if he could not come up with a solution to stop the progress so they would not have to give up Freya, the sun, and the moon. Loki’s shape-shifting solved the problem. The builder could not complete the wall without the assistance of his stallion. Freya, the sun, and the moon were not lost.

When the giant insisted he receive fair payment for the work he had done, the gods gave him what they considered he deserved, a fatal blow on his skull that broke the bones into pieces no larger than breadcrumbs.

Any tale involving Loki seems to involve ambiguity in its lessons.

Did the giant deserve death for not completing the work within one season instead of three seasons?

Did the gods act fairly when they insisted Loki take action to prevent the giant from completing the task?

Did Loki act on the gods’ behalf when he suggested changing the terms of the task from three seasons to one winter?

Was the giant’s intention–to plunge the whole cosmos into darkness by removing the sun and moon–so abominable that taking any action, including trickery, was appropriate to prevent it?

Those questions and others like them follow Loki in every tale that includes him. He is the reminder that the world is not black and white. That answers are not either true or false, good or bad. That reality includes a bit of all opposites, and living requires recognizing ambiguity exists everywhere. No one can escape it.

For more information about Loki, see the Poetic Edda, stanzas 15-18, 35,-51, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; all of Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; all of Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; stanzas 30, 42-43, Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla; stanzas 42, 50, Svipdagsmol – The Ballad of Svipdag; stanza 44, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I, The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; all of Reginsmol, The Ballad of Regin;

Image credit: By Willy Pogany – Originally from Colum, Padraic (1920). The Children of Odin. New York: The Macmillan Company. Illustrated by Pogany, Willy. As found at http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=colum&book=odin&story=_contents Uploaded 01:24, 23 August 2008 (UTC) by Bloodofox (talkcontribs) to en:wiki., Public Domain, Link

K is for Kvasir

At the conclusion of the Aesir-Vanir War, the Aesir and Vanir gods and goddesses sealed their truce by spitting into a great vat. From their spittle they formed a being whom they named Kvasir (“Fermented Berry Juice”[1]). Kvasir was the wisest human that had ever lived; none were able to present him with a question for which he didn’t have a satisfying answer. He became famous and traveled throughout the world giving counsel.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

The way I count them, there were two Aesir-Vanir wars. The first one began when the Aesir tried to kill Freya, a völva from the Vanir clan who traveled to Asgard, using the name Gullveig. Three times they tried to burn her to death. And three times she came back to life.

That first war ended after the two tribes realized they were equally strong, each using their own methods, with an exchange of hostages. The Vanir sent Njord and his twin children, Freyr and Freya, to live with the Aesir, and the Aesir sent Hoenir and Mimir to live with the Vanir.

We know from previous posts that Freyr and Freya assimilated with the Aesir so thoroughly that both are sometimes referred to as Aesir. But Hoenir and Mimir didn’t fare so well among the Vanir.

Impressed by Hoenir’s handsome appearance, the Vanir made him a chieftan and turned to him for advice. Initially they observed that Hoenir was able to dispense excellent advice, but they failed to noticed that he was only able to do so in the presence of Mimir, the creature who guarded the well at the bottom of one of the roots of Yggdrasil which held the source of wisdom in its waters. Hoenir was a good traveling companion, but didn’t stand up to challenges on his own.

When the Vanir noticed that Hoenir’s response to requests for advice were too often that they should let someone else decide, they felt they had been deceived. To respond, they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it to Asgard as a protest.

Fortunately, because Odin had obtained both knowledge of the runes and wisdom through drinking the water from Mimir’s well, he was able to chant magic poems over Mimir’s head and embalm it in herbs so he could continue to ask for Mimir’s counsel.

Thus began the second Aesir-Vanir War, or perhaps only the threat of another war.  Since the two tribes of gods already knew the outcome of any continuing battle would likely be the same as before, they decided to conclude or forestall hostilities this time by both Aesir and Vanir spitting into a vat, mixing their spittle. From the mixture a new being arose, Kvasir, an exceedingly wise being to serve as a reminder of their pledge never to take up hostilities again.

For more about Kvasir, see the tale of the Mead of Poetry in Daniel McCoy’s Norse Mythology for Smart People.

For source references to Kvasir, see The Prose Edda, license for use at www.gutenberg.org

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 184.


J is for Jötunheim

Jotunheim (pronounced “YO-tun-hame;” Old Norse Jötunheimr, “World of the Giants”) is one of the Nine Worlds, and, as the name implies, the homeland of the giants (Old Norse jötnar).

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Ragnarok began/will begin when the giants invade Asgard, home of the gods. For this reason, the gods take every precaution, including stationing Heimdall at the Bifrost rainbow bridge to warn the gods when the giants are coming.

It should be no surprise, then, that the tales pitting gods against giants occur in the land of the giants, Jotunheim. Following is a list of the best known of those tales.

One of the simplest to tell is the last, and since it involves Odin, the most important of the gods, and Mimir, who will be important later, that’s the one I’ll tell here.

The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons.

Odin was ever searching for knowledge and wisdom, willing to make significant sacrifices.

First, he willingly wounded himself with his spear, hung himself, and went without food and water for nine days (nine is a significant number in Norse mythology) to gain knowledge of the runes. Runes were much more than just letters; they were pictographs that held secrets and mysteries. Thus knowledge of the runes was the same as knowledge of magic.

Second, he knew wisdom was kept in a well in Jotunheim at the bottom of one of the roots of Yggdrasil, the tree that connects the nine worlds of the Norse cosmology.

The well was guarded by Mimir, a shadowy creature who may have been a god or a giant. Or maybe neither. That Mimir was one of two creatures the Aesir offered to the Vanir at the end of the first Aesir-Vanir war suggests to me that Mimur was Aesir, but there is likely equally convincing evidence I haven’t come across yet that he was not.

What is clear is that Mimir was exceptionally wise, and that the source of his wisdom was the liquid in the well.

Odin traveled to Mimir’s well and asked Mimir for a drink of the water. Mimir knew the value of the water and refused to give the visitor a drink unless he first sacrificed an eye. Because he, too, knew the value of the water, Odin cut out one of his eyes and dropped it into the well. In exchange for the god’s sacrifice, Mimir drew water from the well in a drinking horn and offered it to Odin.

The moral of the story, of course, is that no sacrifice is too great to gain wisdom. The rest of the story is tied with how the knowledge and wisdom is used, perhaps as evidenced through other tales, to be told later.

Image credits: By Image extracted from page 039 of Histoire des peuples du nord, et des Danois et des Normands, by WHEATON, Henry. Original held and digitised by the British Library. Copied from Flickr. Note: The colors, contrast and appearance of these illustrations are unlikely to be true to life. They are derived from scanned images that have been enhanced for machine interpretation and have been altered from their originals. This file is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library. View image on Flickr   View all images from book   View catalogue entry for book |   Public Domain Link

Public Domain, Link

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