Heroes of Asgard - A. and E. Keary

Through Flood and Fire

At length, Baldur and Bragi returned with the answer of the Norns, couched in mystic words, which Odin alone could understand. It revealed Loki's treacherous conduct to the Æsir, and declared that Idūn could only be brought back by Loki, who must go in search of her, clothed in Freyja's garments of falcon feathers.

Loki was very unwilling to venture on such a search; but Thor threatened him with instant death if he refused to obey Odin's commands, or failed to bring back Idūna; and, for his own safety he was obliged to allow Freyja to fasten the falcon wings to his shoulders, and to set off towards Thiassi's castle in Jötunheim, where he well knew that Idūna was imprisoned.

It was called a castle; but it was, in reality, a hollow in a dark rock; the sea broke against two sides of it; and, above, the sea-birds clamoured day and night.

There the giant had taken Idūna on the night on which she had left her grove; and, fearing lest Odin should spy her from Air Throne, he had shut her up in a gloomy chamber, and strictly forbidden her ever to come out. It was hard to be shut up from the fresh air and sunshine; and yet, perhaps, it was safer for Idūn than if she had been allowed to wander about Jötunheim, and see the monstrous sights that would have met her there.

She saw nothing but Thiassi himself and his servants, whom he had commanded to attend upon her; and they, being curious to see a stranger from a distant land, came in and out many times every day.

They were fair, Idūna saw—fair and smiling; and, at first, it relieved her to see such pleasant faces round her, when she had expected something horrible.

"Pity me!" she used to say to them; "pity me! I have been torn away from my home and my husband, and I see no hope of ever getting back." And she looked earnestly at them; but their pleasant faces never changed, and there was always—however bitterly Idūn might be weeping—the same smile on their lips.

At length Idūna, looking more narrowly at them, saw, when they turned their backs to her, that they were hollow behind; they were, in truth, Ellewomen, who have no hearts, and can never pity any one.

After Idūna saw this she looked no more at their smiling faces, but turned away her head and wept silently. It is very sad to live among Ellewomen when one is in trouble.

Every day the giant came and thundered at Idūna's door. "Have you made up your mind yet," he used to say, "to give me the apples? Something dreadful will happen to you if you take much longer to think of it." Idūna trembled very much every day, but still she had strength to say, "No;" for she knew that the most  dreadful thing would be for her to give to a wicked giant the gifts that had been entrusted to her for the use of the Æsir. The giant would have taken the apples by force if he could; but, whenever he put his hand into the casket, the fruit slipped from beneath his fingers, shrivelled into the size of a pea, and hid itself in crevices of the casket where his great fingers could not come—only when Idūna's little white hand touched it, it swelled again to its own size, and this she would never do while the giant was with her. So the days passed on, and Idūna would have died of grief among the smiling Ellewomen if it had not been for the moaning sound of the sea and the wild cry of the birds; "for, however others may smile, these pity me," she used to say, and it was like music to her.

One morning when she knew that the giant had gone out, and when the Ellewomen had left her alone, she stood for a long time at her window by the sea, watching the mermaids floating up and down on the waves, and looking at heaven with their sad blue eyes. She knew that they were mourning because they had no souls, and she thought within herself that even in prison it was better to belong to the Æsir than to be a mermaid or an Ellewoman, were they ever so free or happy.

While she was still occupied with these thoughts she heard her name spoken, and a bird with large wings flew in at the window, and, smoothing its feathers, stood upright before her. It was Loki in Freyja's garment of feathers, and he made her understand in a moment that he had come to set her free, and that there was no time to lose. He told her to conceal her casket carefully in her bosom, and then he said a few words over her, and she found herself changed into a sparrow, with the casket fastened among the feathers of her breast.

Then Loki spread his wings once more, and flew out of the window, and Idūna followed him. The sea-wind blew cold and rough, and her little wings fluttered with fear; but she struck them bravely out into the air and flew like an arrow over the water.

"This way lies Asgard," cried Loki, and the word gave her strength. But they had not gone far when a sound was heard above the sea, and the wind, and the call of the sea-birds. Thiassi had put on his eagle plumage, and was flying after them. For five days and five nights the three flew over the water that divides Jötunheim from Asgard, and, at the end of every day, they were closer together, for the giant was gaining on the other two.

All the five days the dwellers in Asgard stood on the walls of the city watching. On the sixth evening they saw a falcon and a sparrow, closely pursued by an eagle, flying towards Asgard.

"There will not be time," said Bragi, who had been calculating the speed at which they flew. "The eagle will reach them before they can get into the city."

But Odin desired a fire to be lighted upon the walls; and Thor and Tyr, with what strength remained to them, tore up the trees from the groves and gardens, and made a rampart of fire all round the city. The light of the fire showed Idūna her husband and her friends waiting for her. She made one last effort, and, rising high up in the air above the flames and smoke, she passed the walls, and dropped down safely at the foot of Odin's throne. The giant tried to follow; but, wearied with his long flight, he was unable to raise his enormous bulk sufficiently high in the air. The flames scorched his wings as he flew through them, and he fell among the flaming piles of wood, and was burnt to death.

How Idūn feasted the Æsir on her apples, how they grew young and beautiful again, and how spring, and green leaves, and music came back to the grove, I must leave you to imagine, for I have made my story long enough already; and if I say any more you will fancy that it is Bragi who has come among you, and that he has entered on his endless story.

Idūna has a connection with the underworld, carried away by a giant and kept captive in his frozen regions, the earth meanwhile becoming winterly, old; death threatening all things. Her story is curiously hinted at in the Elder Edda, where Idūna is represented as falling down from Yggdrasil's Ash into the nether world. Odin sends Heimdall and Bragi to bring her up again, and to ascertain from her if she has been able to discover anything about the destruction and duration of the world and heaven. Instead of answering she bursts into tears—the bright, tearful return of Spring—or may this mean the impossibility of wringing from Nature answers to the questions and longings that fill the heart, even the tender year with its messages of hope and hints of immortality is unable to give the full assurance for which we yearn.

Idūna is supposed to typify the Spring, and her falling into captivity for a time to the giant Thiassi corresponds to the falling of the leaf in Autumn. The union of Poetry with Spring seems very appropriate, and we must not forget to mention that Bragi's name calls to mind the old story of the Bragarfull. At feasts, in old times, it was the custom to drink from cups of mead. One to Odin for victory, one to Frey and one to Niörd for a good year and peace, and the fourth to Bragi. It was called the "Cup of Vows," and the drinker vowed over it to perform some great deed worthy of the song of a skald.

In connection with the story of Idūna—being, indeed, almost a sequel to it—we find the myth of Skadi, which is as follows:—

The giant Thiassi had a very tall daughter, called Skadi. When she found that her father never returned from his pursuit of Idūn, she put on her armour and set off to Asgard to revenge his death. The heroes, however, were not inclined to allow her the honour of a combat. They suggested to her that, perhaps, it would answer her purpose as well, if, instead of fighting them, she were to content herself with marrying one of their number, and it appeared to Skadi that this might possibly be revenge enough. The Æsir, however, could not make up their minds who should be the victim. It was agreed, at last, that they should all stand in some place of concealment where only their feet could be seen, and that Skadi should walk before them, and, by looking at the feet, choose her husband. Now, Skadi had privately made up her mind to marry Baldur; so, after looking carefully at all the feet, she stopped before a pair, which, from their beautiful shape, she thought could only belong to the handsome Sun-god. When, however, the figure belonging to the feet emerged from the hiding-place, it was discovered that she had chosen the bluff, gusty old Niörd instead of the beautiful young Baldur; and she was not particularly well pleased with her choice, though she was obliged to abide by it.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Asgard by A. and E. Keary


When Skadi and Niörd were married they found, as persons do find who marry each other for the shape of their feet, and other such wise reasons, that it was not at all an easy thing to live happily together. They could not even agree about the place where they should live. Skadi was never happy out of Thrymheim—the home of noise in misty Jötunheim, and Niörd could not forget pleasant Nöatun, and the clear, sunny seas where he had dwelt in his youth. At last they agreed that they would spend three days in Nöatun, and nine days in Thrymheim; but one day, when Niörd was returning to Nöatun, he could not help breaking out into the following song:—

"Of mountains I am weary,

Nine nights long and dreary,

All up the misty hill,

The wolf's long howl I heard.

Methought it sounded strangely—

Methought it sounded ill,

To the song of the swan bird."

And Skadi immediately answered:

"Never can I sleep

In my couch by the strand,

For the wild, restless waves

Rolling over the sand,

For the scream of the seagulls,

For the mew as he cries,

These sounds chase for ever

Sweet sleep from mine eyes."

Then, putting on a pair of snow-skates, she set off more swiftly than the wind, and Niörd never saw more of her. Ever afterwards, with her bow in her hand, she spent her time in chasing wild animals over the snow, and she is the queen and patroness of all skaters.

The next story is about Baldur, of whom Har says "that he is the best of the sons of Odin. So fair and dazzling that rays of light seem to issue from him, and thou mayest form some idea of the beauty of his hair when I tell thee that the whitest of all plants is called 'Baldur's brow' " (a plant in Sweden still called Baldur's eyebrow). Baldur is the mildest, the wisest, and the most eloquent of all the Æsir.

"Broad glance 'tis called

Where Baldur the Fair

Hath built him a bower

In that land where I know

The least loathliness lieth."