Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Dwarven Wager

Ever the deceiver, tranquility and peace was a balance only ever to be overturned in the mind of Loki (for more about him, click here). Through cruel intelligence and expertly crafted trickery, even the mightiest of gods and beings had been lead astray by Loki's sleight of hand. Though friend to the Aesir of Asgard, Loki was never truly one of them. There were times, however, when the god paid the price for his mischief. This is the story of Loki's wager with the dwarves.

Sif - goddess of the fertile Earth
Drawing by John Charles Dollman.
Of all the Aesir, there existed a curious friendship between Loki and Thor, son of Odin and Thunder god. The two frequently adventured together to the realm of the giants, in the name of honour, or sometimes simply for sport (for the story of one such adventure, please click here). The powerful Jötunn (giants), and even other gods were jealous of Thor for the renowned beauty of his wife, the goddess Sif, patron of the fertile earth. Renowned particularly for her hair, gold as the wheat fields which abound on the earthly plains, Sif was also admired for her virtue. Ever thirsting for anarchy however, was Loki. One night, with mischievous designs, Loki quitely crept up behind the sleeping goddess and cut off her hair. When the thunder god received word of this, he was under no illusions as to who the perpetrator was. Seizing the god in rage, Thor would have broken every bone in Loki's body, had the trickster not sworn to travel to the land of the dwarves to acquire new hair of gold.

The anger of Thor soon sped Loki on his way. Coming to the searing heat of the dwarven forge, Loki encountered two dwarves, hard at work at the bellows and the anvil. The dwarves were brothers, Brokk and Eitri, the sons of Ívaldi and famous for their skill as craftsmen. Asking the dwarves if they would forge new hair worthy of the goddess Sif, the brothers got to work. Soon after, Brokk presented Loki with three gifts. First, the magnificent new hair of shining gold for Sif, second a magical ship, called Skíðblaðnir for Freyr (a fertility god), and finally, a mighty enchanted spear for Odin, King of the Gods, called Gungnir. Greedy for more wonders, Loki's spiteful nature came to a head once more. Loki flattered the dwarf, and said that Eitri could never make three gifts so marvellous as those of Brokk. Sensing the deception at work, Brokk said that if Eitri could, then he would take Loki's head. Loki agreed, as long as the dwarf take only his head and not the neck. The dwarves happily accepted, knowing that Loki would soon be humbled.

The Dwarves and their gifts
Print by Elmer Boyd Smith.
Beckoning to Brokk to work the bellows, Eitri took up the hammer and tongs. Now, when working metal at a forge, it is vital that the heat not be too strong, or too weak, to achieve the perfect malleability of the metal. Brokk knew this, and so did Loki. Fearing that the dwarves may succeed, Loki decided to hinder them. Laying out a pigskin upon the hearth, Eitri began work with the gold, as Brokk held the bellows steady. The work went well, except that a gadfly flew in the open window, and bit Brokk on the hand, to the irritation of the dwarf. Soon, Eitri took out the new gift, a great boar made of gold - Gullinbursti. The fires of the forge roaring, Eitri laid fresh gold in the burning hearth, bidding Brokk keep up the blast of air from the bellows. The gadfly now settled upon the dwarven smith's neck, and bit down once again, yet Brokk endured the pain, faithfully working the bellows. Eitri returned and drew out from the fires a splendid gold ring, called Draupnir. Turning to the forge a final time, Eitri set iron in its heart, as he began work on a powerful weapon, a fitting gift for the god of war. Turning to his brother once again, Eitri warned Brokk that the work would be spoiled if the blast from the bellows failed. The dwarf's hammer rose and fell, and the gadfly returned. This time, it settled upon Brokk's eyelid, and bit down hard. A trickle of blood ran into Brokk's eye, causing the dwarf to twitch in agony, but still, the work was completed, and a majestic hammer rose from the forge - Mjöllnir, the famous weapon of Thor.

Painting by Max Brückner.
Brokk emerged from the forge laden with all six gifts, and made haste to Valhalla, the hall of Odin in Asgard, to present the gifts and settle the bet with Loki before the Aesir. To Odin was given the spear Gungnir, enchanted so that it would never miss and always kill. To Sif was given the radiant hair, which would grow to her head as soon as it came upon her flesh. To Freyr was given Skíðblaðnir, a ship which would always have a favourable breeze in its sail, and could be collapsed and folded so as to fit in the god's pouch. Now Brokk brought forth Eitri's gifts. To Odin was given the ring, enchanted that every ninth night, eight identical rings would be born from it. To Freyr was given Gullinbursti, a boar forged with expert dwarven skill of gold, which could run through sky and earth with a swiftness to match the finest horse, and the lustre of the metal was such that no cave would be too dark for Gullinbursti to find his way. The dwarf then turned to Thor. To the Thunderer he presented Mjöllnir, and showed the god its might:

          " Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and quothed that Thor might smite
             as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer
             would not fail; and if he cast it forth at a foe, never would it miss,
             and never would Mjöllnir fly forth so far that it would not return to his hand... "
                                     - BROKK PRESENTS MJÖLLNIR TO THOR

The Aesir looked on in marvel at these mighty gifts, decreeing Mjöllnir the envy of them all, most potent of weapons it was, and mighty new scourge of the Jötunn. Thus it was that Eitri's gift was considered greatest of all. Brokk turned to Loki, ready to claim the god's head in triumph. Loki however, was not so easily foiled. Loki took up Mllnir and pointed to the fore-haft of the weapon. It was just slightly shorter than would be most comfortable to Thor's hand. The gods suddenly noticed this flaw and murmered.

Brokk however, realised the trickster craft. The gadfly in the forge had been Loki all along, and when the blood had flowed within his eye, the split second distraction had cost him the perfection within the great hammer. The Aesir sympathised with the dwarf, knowing Loki's tricks. Brokk came forth for Loki's head, but the god attempted to flee. Brokk pleaded with Thor for help, who promptly grabbed hold of Loki. All hope of escape gone, Loki unleashed his final trickery. The dwarf could indeed take his head, as their agreement originally was, but that agreement had also said that the dwarf could not touch his neck. Brokk shouted with frustration, as it is not possible to sever a head without touching the neck. Taking a knife and string, Brokk sewed Loki's mouth shut, so that the god may never boast of his wit and utter deceit ever again. The Aesir all looked on and laughed at Loki. Unlike Thor, who learned from his humiliation, Loki was furious at the gods for their laughter, and ever thereafter swore revenge...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced, 'episodic' version well suited to casual reading)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced, 'episodic' version well suited to casual reading)

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