Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Trials of Thor

The stories of mythology are rich with stories of the trials of men and heroes against mighty foes. But at times the gods, too, are tested and their weaknesses revealed. For the deities of the pagan religions, unlike the lone god of the Abrahamic faiths, are portrayed as far from perfect, and susceptible to very human faults. This is particularly true in the sagas of the Norse gods, who are not even truly immortal, remaining so only so long as they eat from the Blessed fruit – which on one occasion was hidden from them, with disastrous consequences. The Norse gods live, fight and die, and venture forth from Asgard to partake in splendid adventures. Most famous of these deities is undoubtedly the son of Odin, the god of thunder and war - Thor.

Thor -The Thunder God
Painting by Mårten Eskil Winge.
Though the Aesir, or war gods, of Asgard and the Jötunn of Jötunheim (for more on these, please click here) were on occasion the most terrible of foes, there were also times when both god and giant turned their hands to means other than war to humiliate the other. The harmony of the Nine Worlds depended on a delicate and fragile balance of power between the various races of the cosmos, a balance which the cruel Jötunn ever sought to overturn. There were times when the balance had to be restored, when the Jötunn needed to be shown their true place, for ever present was the looming prospect of Ragnarök, the day of all out war, when the Nine Worlds will be overturned with fire – a day which must be delayed at all costs. The supremacy of the gods depended on this. Our story here is one such time when the gods made such a visit upon the Jötunn.

Thor and Loki did one day take leave of Asgard for the towering heights of Útgarða, home to the King of the Giants amid the cruel wastelands of Jötunheim. Coming late one night on the Earth to a lowly hut, the two gods were warmly received by a small family, noble in spirit yet desperately poor. Unable to afford meat, the hosts offer a vegetable soup, not knowing that their guests were something more than the ordinary travelers. Taking pity on them, Thor slaughtered Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, the two goats which pulled the thunder god’s chariot through the sky. Asking that they spare the skins and bones, Thor and his company have their merry feast, although Thjálfi, the son of the host family, secretly snapped one of the goat’s bones so as to acquire the marrow. Waking next morning, Thor strides over to the remains of his loyal goats, and waves Mjöllnir – the famous hammer of Thor – over the bones. For the goats were no mere earthly goats, for at the Thunderer’s command, they returned to life, ready to serve their master once more. The god, however, soon noticed that one of his goats was lame in one leg, since its bone had been broken by the boy the night before. Rounding on the family in fury, Thor took along Thjálfi on his journey as repayment.

Drawing by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine.
When night fell once again on their journey, the travelers chanced upon a strange hall in the wilderness. Door as wide as the walls, and possessed of many passages leading into it, the gods made camp for the night. Their sleep was not easy, broken by loud roars, and tremors in the Earth. Uneasy, Thor left the hall early in the morning and walked into the light. To his shock, he saw what had caused the noises in the night, a vast giant, sleeping in the forest. Turning back, he realised that the strange hall his kin had slept in was in fact the giant’s glove, so mighty in stature was he. Roused from his slumber, the giant introduced himself as Skrýmir, and offered to guide them to Útgarða, even offering to carry their provisions for them. The gods agreed, relieved that the mighty Jötunn was not hostile. Night fell once more, and Skrýmir began to snore loudly once again. Thor turned to their bag of provisions, desperately hungry. To his rage, the giant had tied the knot tight, too tight for the god to undo. The snoring bored into their heads all night until the Thunderer could tolerate it no longer. Taking up Mjöllnir, Thor “smote down upon the middle of his crown”. A mighty talisman which had conquered so many foes, and lain bare so many citadels, the blow should have slain the giant outright. Skrýmir raised an eyelid for a moment, thinking a leaf must have fallen upon his head, before once again falling asleep. Growing angry once again, Thor raised his Hammer high and smote the giant once again. “An acorn must have fallen on me”, spoke the weary Skrýmir. Enraged, Thor drew upon all his strength and smashed Mjöllnir onto the giant’s skull. Skrýmir sat up, bidding good morning to Thor, he explained that there must have been birds sleeping in the trees above him, for he thought he felt twigs and dirt fall upon him in his sleep. Telling the gods that they were almost there, Skrýmir ran ahead to prepare a welcome for them, his massive frame soon carrying him to Útgarða.

At last reaching the mighty fortress, Thor, Loki and Thjálfi crept through the grating into the vast hall, whereupon they were welcomed by Útgarða-Loki, King of the Jötunn and Master of Útgarða. Proclaiming loudly how puny the Aesir were compared with the Jötunn, the giant king challenged the gods to beat them at any event. Loki, the trickster, stepped forward, boldly claiming to be able to out eat any amongst them. Nodding in assent, Útgarða-Loki sent forth the giant Logi to challenge him. A vast banquet was laid and set in a trough, and the match began. God and giant ate quickly, and soon met in the middle of the trough. Having devoured all his food, Loki felt sure of victory, but to his dismay, saw that Logi had not only eaten all his food, but had consumed bones, plates and trough too. So the Giants claimed their first victory. Shocked, but not beaten, this time young Thjálfi stepped forward, claiming that no giant was such a runner as he. The giant Hugi accepted the challenge and the race began. Thjálfi ran swiftly, more swiftly than any man has done since, but upon reaching the halfway line, saw to his horror that Hugi had already finished. They raced once again, and again, but each time Thjálfi was easily beaten.

Útgarða-Loki turned to Thor and asked what task he would stake. Thor proudly stated that there was no other who could drink such as he. The king sent for a drinking horn, telling the thunder god:

                   “ 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 he fails to drain it off in three ”
                                    - THE GIANT KING CHALLENGES THOR

Thor looked at the horn, which did not seem so big to him, though quite long. Putting it to his lips he drew breath and gulped like never before. Looking at the top of the horn, Thor saw to his rage that the level had barely dropped. He tried once again, and again, and made the level of the liquid fall just enough to be noticeable but no more. Laughing hysterically, the giants offered some easier tasks for Thor. The King sent out his own cat, asking if Thor was strong enough to lift it. Strongest of all the gods, and wearer of a belt which granted hyper strength, Thor felt sure he could at least do this. Heaving with all his divine might, the cat arched its back, and eventually, lifted just one paw off the ground. Laughing roundly at the god’s effort, the king issued his final challenge. After Thor proclaimed that he would readily wrestle any of the Jötunn, Útgarða-Loki sent forth his own nurse, a lady, bent with extreme age, to spar with the god. The two struggled and strained, and the withered lady brought the Thunderer down onto one knee. Humbled and utterly humiliated, Thor and his party stormed out of the fortress.

Útgarða-Loki explains to Thor
Drawing by Louise Huard.
Once in the wilderness again, Thor saw Útgarða-Loki approaching him. Telling the giant that he had shamed him, Thor was appalled with himself. The giant however, smiled and explained. Skrýmir had been him all along, and when he had bound their provisions he had done so in iron, and when Thor had struck him, he had struck the Earth itself. Pointing out three large canyons on the wilderness, Útgarða-Loki showed the god his folly. Whilst Loki was indeed a swift eater, his opponent in reality was Fire, which devours all in its path. Whilst Thjálfi was indeed a powerful runner, his opponent was in reality Thought, swifter than all else. Thor, though a formidable drinker, failed to see that the other end of the horn was in the Ocean itself, impossible for man to drain. The king’s cat was in reality the World Serpent, Jörmungand, so vast that he can circle the world and take his own tail in his mouth (for more about him, please click here). As for the ancient lady with whom the god had wrestled, she was Old Age herself, which overcomes all. Congratulating Thor on managing to raise the cat’s paw, and being forced onto one knee only by Old Age, Útgarða-Loki departed, warning the gods never to set foot in his lands again. Thor had been tested and humiliated, but he had learned valuable lessons.

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

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