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.


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

D is for Draupnir

Sindri then set another piece of gold on the fire as Brokkr worked the bellows. The fly bit Brokkr on the neck, and Sindri drew out a magnificent ring, Draupnir (“Dripper”[1]). From this ring, every ninth night, fall eight new golden rings of equal weight.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Draupnir, one of six magnificent gifts, is part of the story of how Thor got his hammer. And there’s plenty of deception involved.

Once again, a key player is Loki, the mischievous trickster. He is never satisfied with what he has, always on the lookout for more.

Loki cuts the hair of the goddess Sif.

One day he cut off the golden hair of Sif, Thor’s wife. Thor was not pleased and threatened Loki with breaking all his bones. But Loki pleaded for his life, promising that he could get the dwarves, master craftsmen, to replace Sif’s hair. Thor agreed, and Loki headed for Svartálfaheimr, the home of the Black Elves.

Loki was able to convince the sons of the dwarf, Ivaldi, to create a more beautiful head of hair for Sif than she had had before. But that’s not all they did. They also created two more gifts, Skidbladnir, a ship that could be folded up and put into a pocket, and Gungnir, the mightiest of swords.

“The third gift — an enormous hammer” by Elmer Boyd Smith. The dwarven Sons of Ivaldi forge the hammer Mjolnir for the god Thor while Loki watches on. On the table before them sits their other creations: the multiplying ring Draupnir, the boar Gullinbursti, the ship Skíðblaðnir, the spear Gungnir, and golden hair for the goddess Sif.

You’d think Loki would be pleased that he would return from Svartalfaheimr with more than he promised, but then that just wouldn’t be like Loki. Instead of returning with the replacement hair for Sif, the ship that always found favorable winds, and the mightiest of swords, he thought he’d like to remain with the dwarves, out of Thor’s sight, and able to cause more mischief. He came up with a bet for two dwarf brothers, Brokkr and Sindri, a challenge that they could not match the craftsmanship of Ivaldi’s sons by coming up with three more magnificent items. If they failed, Loki said they could have his head.

Brokkr and Sindri accepted the challenge. In his attempt to foil the two, Loki, a shape shifter, transformed himself into a fly and bit each of the dwarves as they worked to create Gullinbursti, a living boar with golden hair, who gave off light in the dark and could run better than any horse, even through water or air, and Draupnir, the magnificent ring.

Since his first efforts to foil the dwarves with his fly bites had failed, this third time, as Sindri set out to create a hammer for Thor, Loki bit him on the eyelid so that blood dripped into Sindri’s eyes. Sindri pulled out the hammer, Mjollnir, perfect in every way except that its handle was short.

Loki removed the six gifts and headed back to Asgard where he gave the replacement of Sif’s hair and the hammer, Mjollnir, to Thor; the ring, Draupnir, and the spear, Gungnir, to Odin; and the boar, Gullinburst, and the ship, Skidbladnir, to Freyr.

Brokkr and Sindri also traveled to Asgard, assured that their gifts would be accepted in spite of Mjollnir’s flaw. The gods agreed that Loki owed Brokkr and Sindri for their work. When the dwarves approached to take his head, Loki objected, saying he had agreed they could have his head, but not his neck, and removing his head would injure the neck. The dwarves therefore contented themselves with sewing Loki’s mouth shut. [2]

While this tale explains the origin of tools and gifts in the possession of the gods, I think the real lesson concerns Loki, the sometimes charming and sometimes devious trickster.

The trickster is an archetype in many early cultures. The spider, Anansi, in the Caribbean and West Africa, the coyote spirit and Kokopelli in Native American and First Nations traditions, leprechauns in Irish culture; the list goes on.

As frustrating as it is to decide whether to like or dislike Loki and other trickster beings, I appreciate the lessons they provide, that the world and all the people in it cannot be divided neatly into the good and the bad. There is a little of both in all of us.

The tales remind me of an interview I watched with Dustin Hoffman in which he described how he felt about playing villains. To paraphrase, he said no one, even a villain, thinks of themselves as a bad person. So playing a villain just means playing a person who thinks he is a good person but who got caught doing something bad.

I’m sure Loki would agree.

What happened to Draupnir? Odin placed it on the funeral pyre for his son, Baldur–one treasure to accompany another.

Reference to Draupnir can be found in the Poetic Eddas, stanzas 21 and 22 of Skrinismol, The Ballad of Skirnir.

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 65.

[2] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 43.

Image credits: By Willy Pogany – Uploaded to the English language Wikipedia in August 2008 by Bloodofox (log), Public Domain, Link

By Elmer Boyd Smith (1860 – 1943) – Page 88 of Brown, Abbie Farwell (1902). “In the Days of Giants: A Book of Norse Tales” Illustrations by E. Boyd Smith. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Public Domain, Link

B is for Baldr

Baldur (pronounced “BALD-er;” Old Norse Baldr, Old English and Old High German Balder) is one of the Aesir gods. He’s the son of Odin and Frigg [Freya], the husband of the obscure goddess Nanna, and the father of the god Forseti.

He’s loved by all the gods, goddesses, and beings of a more physical nature. So handsome, gracious, and cheerful is he that he actually gives off light.[1]

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Everyone loved Baldur. In a myth, that’s a clear sign that something bad is going to happen. Son of Odin, half-brother of Thor, it’s little wonder that Baldur’s mother (not Thor’s) loved him best. She took every step she could think of to protect him, just as Achilles’s mother Thetis, who dipped her son into the River Styx, believing it would protect him.

But she held onto Achilles by his heel, leaving this small portion of his body unprotected. And you know what happened to him.

Baldur’s mother Freya took a different approach to protecting him when he began dreaming of his death. She went to every thing in the world and asked them to promise not to harm her son. And they all promised. Whew!

When Freya reassured the gods–they all loved Baldur, remember–that she had extracted an oath from every thing in the world not to harm Baldur, they entertained themselves by throwing things at Baldur and watching them bounce off him.

What a way to show how much you love the guy. But it’s clear Freya solved the problem, right?

Well, not if there is a trickster in the midst. And Loki, the trickster, can be so charming when he wants to be. He pulled Freya to one side, probably implying he was only trying to help, and asked her if there was any chance she had overlooked something. That guy. So charming.

Freya admitted she hadn’t asked the mistletoe to protect her son, but what harm could mistletoe do?

Loki set out immediately to carve a spear from mistletoe. But he couldn’t take action himself because that would give him away to Freya. Instead, he gave the spear to the blind god Hodr, and convinced him to throw the spear at Baldur. Just like the other gods had been doing with other items.

Bad Loki.

Hodr threw the spear, it pierced Baldur, and Baldur died.

Sounds like the story of Oedipus, doesn’t it? Baldur dreams he will die soon. Just like Oedipus receives a prediction that he will kill his father and marry his mother and thereby bring catastrophe to his people. What’s a fellow supposed to do?

Oedipus leaves town. But what he doesn’t know is that the man he thinks is his father and the woman he considers his mother aren’t really his parents. His real father, King Laius, had similarly received a prophesy that his son would murder him, so he had abandoned Oedipus on the side of the road, expecting him to die.

But he didn’t. A shepherd found the baby and brought him to King Polybus and Queen Merope who raised him as their own.

When Oedipus leaves to avoid the prophesy, he heads for Thebes. He encounters a man on the road, quarrels with him, and kills him. That man is, of course, his real father, King Laius. When he arrives in Thebes, he discovers the king is dead, and the city is at the mercy of the Sphinx. When Oedipus answers the Sphinx’s riddle (What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?) he becomes king and marries the previous king’s widow, his mother Queen Jocasta.

What can we learn from all these tales of prophesies and precautions against them? I don’t like the fatalism of these stories, the sense that the future is pre-ordained, and nothing I can do will prevent it. Just another reason not to waste any time or money on fortune-tellers.

After giving it more thought, I decided the message in all of these tales is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a ruler or even a god, life throws curveballs that may interrupt the plans you have carefully made. Get over it. What’s important is how to react to the negatives. No one can guarantee nothing bad will ever happen. It isn’t necessarily fatalism. It’s just life.

If Thetis and Freya and King Laius and Oedipus had simply lived the best life possible instead of trying to take steps to foil the future, life might have turned out better.

For more information about Baldr’s death, see The Poetic Edda, the entire poem, Baldr’s Draumar, Baldr’s Dream.

[1] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 22.

Image credit: Public Domain, Link