Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Mortality of Gods

The natural balance and harmony of everyday life is a delicate thing so easily overturned. The alarming speed with which this can transpire is a powerful reminder of its fragility. This much was a terrible truth as much to the gods of the Norse lands as it is to us today. For the Aesir who dwelled in the highest of the Nine Worlds struggled daily for their supremacy over the cosmos, with foes outside and within. Tales abound of their triumphs, and their perils, as they desperately try to stay the hand of Chaos. One such story is the legend of the Golden Apples.

The Eagle watches
Image taken from the 18th century Icelandic
manuscript SÁM 66
One day, three among the Aesir came down to Midgard in the realm of Men. These three were Odin, King of the gods, Loki the trickster and Hoenir, one of the gods who had helped Odin in the creation of the cosmos (for the story of the Creation, please click here). In their wanderings, they scaled vast mountains, stalked great plains and crossed mighty rivers and lakes. Weary from their toil, the gods soon desired rest from their journey, and sustenance for the road ahead. Reaching the crest of a large valley, the Aesir saw before them a great herd of oxen, grazing in the dale. Delighted by this fortuitous find, the gods took the most powerful bull from its brethren, in anticipation of the splendid feast they would soon enjoy. Coming to the eaves of a magnificent forest, the Aesir slaughtered the bullock and began to roast the fine meat, as they lay down to rest under a towering tree. A little while later, eager to dine, the gods looked into the pot and saw to their horror that the meat was as raw as though no flame had so much as touched it. Thinking they had made a mistake with the fire, they tried once again, and to their dismay, the meat still would not cook. As the gods took counsel as to what this bizarre turn of events might mean, a powerful voice sounded from the branches above. The voice declared that it had stayed the fire's heat. Looking up, the Aesir saw no man or god, but a mighty eagle, perched upon a strong bough, greater in stature by far than any eagle seen before. The eagle spoke once again, and declared that the meat would cook if they would allow him a share of the ox in return. Dying of hunger, the famished Aesir assented. The magnificent bird took flight, soaring down to the cooking pot, and in a clatter of talons, seized the two hams of the bullock, and both shoulders, the finest cuts of the ox. Furious at being the sport of a mere bird, Loki seized his spear, and thrust it into the eagle.

With a shout of pain and anger, the eagle leapt into the skies with the spear, and Loki, holding on for dear life. Flying low, the eagle dragged the trickster through the scrub and harsh mountains, the god writhing in pain from the battering. Loki begged the bird to release him, but the eagle was adamant, he would release Loki only if he would give him his word that he would send out of Asgard the lady Idunn and the Golden Apples. This was an audacious request indeed, for the Golden Apples of Asgard were the divine fruit which granted immortality to whomsoever would eat from them, and were a mighty gift indeed (just like the Golden Apples from Greek Mythology, which you can read about here). For Loki, who was not truly one of the gods (for more about this, please click here), to hand over such a cornerstone of the gods' strength would be a terrible sin indeed. But Loki, ever the deceiver and bent on spreading Chaos, saw now a perfect opportunity to bring about the anarchy he so craved. Agreeing to the eagle's request, Loki was at once released, and he returned to Odin and Hoenir, neglecting to mention the fell pact he had just made.

The Eagle and Idunn
Painting by Harry Theaker
On their return to golden Asgard, the gods were still as yet oblivious to the blasphemy about to unfold. One night, Loki came before Idunn, and spoke of some majestic apples he had found in a certain wood in Asgard. Unaware of Loki's lies, Idunn was intrigued, for it was though only the Golden Apples in her care were enchanted. Loki asked her if she would go to the wood, with the Golden Apples, so that she may compare them. This seemed reasonable to Idunn, so she quickly stole away from the confines of the fortress, heading for the open plains. At once, Idunn saw a shadow grow around her, and she looked up, seeing an enormous eagle swooping upon her. Snared in the creature's talons, Idunn was spirited away to the icy wastes of Jötunheim, the home of the fierce Jötunn, a race of cruel giants with whom the Aesir are continually at war (for more about this race, please click here). However, there is one among the Aesir who does not sleep, and the theft did not escape his gaze. For he was Heimdall, the vigilant watchman of the gods, who keeps an eternal sentry over the rainbow bridge which connects the realm of the gods and that of men, Bifrost. Here he awaits any sign of the coming end of the world, known as Ragnarök, ready to blast a warning on Gjall, a horn so loud its roar will shake the foundations of the Nine Worlds. Meanwhile, the Aesir were struck with anguish at the loss of the Golden Apples. Deprived of the source of their eternal youth, the gods grew feeble, and their hair was rapidly turning as white as the snows of Jötunheim. As their youth waned, so too did their strength, as even mighty Thor was bent with age. Panic spread throughout Asgard, as with the failing of the strength of the Aesir, there would be nothing to stop the Jötunn should they mount an attack on the Heavens. The dying gods held urgent council, desperate for knowledge of where Idunn and the Golden Apples had gone. Loki sat silent, relishing the agony he had unleashed. But to his horror, Heimdall took the floor, revealing the true extent of Loki's machinations. The watchman revealed that he had seen the eagle bear Idunn to Thrymheimr in the land of Jötunheim. Heimdall's revelations struck deep in Odin. For in that moment he realised the extent of the deception - the eagle was no true eagle at all, but had been the giant Thiazi, a Jötunn who dwelled in Thrymheimr and excelled in disguise. In a rage the Aesir seized Loki and threatened him with all manner of torture and death if he did not return Idunn and her Apples at once. Fearing for his life, Loki had no choice but to comply.

To assist him, the goddess Freyja lent Loki the magical hawk's plumage she possessed, which allowed its wearer to shape shift into the form of a hawk. Taking flight, Loki soared with all haste to Jötunheim. Coming to Thiazi's abode in the frozen mountains, Loki found Idunn and the Apples within, but the giant out. Transforming the lady into a nut, Loki snatched her and the Apples in his talons, and tore off back to Asgard. Just then the Jötunn returned, furious that his prize had gone. Spying a hawk on the horizon, Thiazi immediately took on his eagle form and soared after Loki. In Asgard, the Aesir saw Loki approach, tailed closely by Thiazi, and prepared a bonfire to guide Loki's way. As Loki sped over the ramparts and down to the courtyard, the Aesir lit the fires. Loki just managed to get through, but Thiazi was unable to stop in time, hurtling straight into the blaze. The flames burned his feathers, as his disguise began to unravel in the conflagration. Their anger at the giant's balsphemy still raw, the Aesir set upon him and slew him. Loki resumed his normal form and proudly presented Idunn and her Apples back to the gods, though in secret, he was maddened that his schemes had failed once again, and he ever after bore a grudge against Heimdall.

Original artwork by Carl Fredrick von Saltza
But all was not yet at peace. For in Jötunheim, Skadi, the daughter of Thiazi, had returned home and learned the truth of her father's fate. Seizing her arms and armour, she at once made for Asgard, determined to avenge her father. The Aesir, however, impressed by her loyalty and bravery, offered their reconciliation and desire for peace. Skadi requested two things, firstly, that she be granted a husband from among the Aesir, and secondly, that they make her happy. The gods agreed to her first request, and told her she may choose from any of the gods, on the condition that she make her choice based on looking at their feet only. So the line up began, and Skadi set about her inspection, hoping to choose Baldr, the famously handsome son of Odin. Coming to the fairest pair of feet she could find, Skadi announced that she had chosen. Looking up, however, it was with dismay that she saw it was not Baldr, but Njord, the rugged god of the sea. But her disappointment was short lived, for in response to Skadi's second request, Odin obliged by granting her the gift of laughter, something no frost giantess before had yet known. As a final mark of gratitude, Odin took the eyes of Thiazi and cast them into the Heavens where they would reside forever as a constellation in the night sky... 

United Kingdom

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

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)

(A fast paced 'episodic' version well suited to the casual reader)

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