Heroes of Asgard - A. and E. Keary

Now upon a day it happened that Odin sat silent by the Well of Urd, and in the evening he mounted Air Throne with a troubled mind. Allfather could see into Dwarf Home from his high place, as well as over man's world; his keen eye pierced, also, the mountains and darkness of Jötunheim.

On this evening, a tear, the fate-sisters' gift, swam across his vision, and—behold, is that an answering tear which he sees down there in Dwarf Home, large, luminous, golden, in the dark heart of the earth? "Can dwarfs weep?" exclaimed Allfather, surprised as he looked a second and a third time, and went on looking. Fialar and Galar, the cunning dwarfs who had killed Kvasir, were kneeling beside the tear. "Is it theirs?" said Allfather again, "and do they repent?" No; it was not a tear; Odin knew it at last. More precious still, it was Kvasir's blood—golden mead now, because of the honey-drops from Earth's thousand bees and flowers which these thoughtless mischief-schemers, but wonder workers, had poured into it. "It is three," said Odin, "three precious draughts!—Odhærir is its name—and now the dwarfs will drink it, and the life and the light, and the sweetness of the world will be spilt, and the heart of the world will die!" But the dwarfs did not drink it; they could only sip it a little, just a drop or two at a time. The Father of Hosts watched how they were amusing themselves.

Fialar and Galar, and a whole army of the little blackfaced, crooked-limbed creatures, were tilting the big jars over to one side, whilst first one, and then another, sucked the skim of their golden sweetness, smacking their lips after it, grinning horribly, leaping up into the air with strange gestures; falling backwards with shut eyes some of them, as if asleep; tearing at the earth and the stones of their cavern homes others, like wild beasts; rolling forth beautiful, senseless, terrible words.

It was Fialar and Galar who did that; and behold, in a little while, one after another, the dwarfs gathered round them as they spoke, and listened, open-mouthed, with clenched fists, stamping, and roaring applause until at last they seized the weapons that lay near, cocked their earth caps, each alit with a coloured star, and marched in warlike fashion, led on by Fialar and Galar, straight up through their cavernous ways, to Manheim, and across it into the Frozen Land.

Giant Vafthrûdnir, that "Ancient Talker," he who sits ever in his Hall weaving new and intricate questions for the gods, saw them; and looking up towards the brooding heavens, he exchanged glances with the Father of Hosts. But the dwarfs did not come near Vafthrüdnir's Halls; they never looked aside at him, nor up to the Air Throne of the Asa; only rushed heedlessly on till they stumbled over the Giant Gilling, who was taking a nap upon the green bank of Ifing. Ifing looks a lazy stream; one can hardly see at first sight that it flows at all; but it flows, and flows quietly, unceasingly, and is so deep that neither god nor giant has ever yet been able to fathom it. It is, in fact, that stream which divides for ever the Jötuns from the Gods, and of it Odin himself once said:—

"Open shall it run

Throughout all time,

On that stream no ice shall be."

So the dwarfs found Gilling asleep; they knew how deep Ifing was, they knew that if they could once roll the giant Gilling in there he would never get out again, and then they should have done something worth speaking about.

"I have killed a giant," each dwarf might say, and, who knows, even the Æsir might begin to feel a little afraid of them.

"It all comes from drinking Kvasir's blood," they said, and then with their thousand little swords and spears, and sticks and stones, they worked away until they had plunged the sleeping giant into the stream. Allfather's piercing eye saw it all, and how the silly dwarfs jumped and danced about afterwards, and praised themselves, and defied the whole world, gods, giants and men.

"It is not for us," they said, "any more to run away before Skinfaxi the shining horse that draws day over humankind, whose mane sheds light instead of dew; we will dance before him and crown ourselves with gold, as the gods and as men do every morning.

But, in the midst of all their gleeful folly, the ground they stood upon began to shake under them, and an enormous darkness grew between them and the sky. Then the dwarfs stopped their rejoicing as if a spell had fallen upon them, dropping their weapons, huddling close to one another, cowering, whispering. Giant Suttung, son of that Gilling whom they had just slain, was coming upon them in great fury to avenge his father's death. They were dreadfully frightened; Giant Gilling asleep had been easy to manage, but a giant awake, a giant angry—they were not the same dwarfs that they had seemed half an hour ago—and so it happened that they quite easily let Suttung carry them all off to a low rock in the sea which was dry just then, but would be washed over by the morning tide. "There you are," said Suttung as he threw them all down upon the rock, "and there you shall stay until the hungry grey wave comes." "But then we shall be drowned," they all screeched at once, and the seamews started from their nests ashore and swooped round the lonely rock, and screeched as well. Suttung strode back to the shore and sat on the high rocks over the seamews' nests, and poked his fingers into the nests and played with the grey-winged birds, and paddled his feet in the breakers, and laughed and echoed the dwarfs and the seamews. "Drowned, drowned, yes, then you will be drowned." Then the dwarfs whispered together and consulted, they all talked at once, and every one of them said a different thing, for they were in fact a little intoxicated still by the sips they had taken of Odhærir. At last Fialar and Galar said the same thing over so often that the others began to listen to them. "The sky is getting quite grey," they said, "and the stars are going out, and Skinfaxi is coming, and the waves are gathering and gathering and gathering; hoarse are the voices of the Seaking's daughters; but why do we all sit chattering here instead of getting away as we might easily do if we did but bribe the giant Suttung with a gift." "Yes, yes, yes," shouted the silly little people, "shall we give him our cap jewels, or our swords, or our pick-axes, or our lanterns, or shall we promise to make him a necklace out of the fire of the sun and the flowers of the earth, or shall we build him a ship of ships?"

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


"Nonsense," said Fialar and Galar; "How should a giant care for such things as these? Our swords could not help him; he does not want pick-axes nor lanterns who lives amongst the mountains snows, nor ships who can stride across the sea, nor necklaces—Bah! A giant loves life, he drinks blood, he is greedy besides and longs to taste the gold mead of the gods."

Then all the dwarfs shouted together, "Let us give him our gold mead, our wondrous drink, Odhærir, our Kvasir's blood in three stone jars."

Odin heard from Air Throne's blue deep. He brooded over the scene. "The sweetness, and the life, and the light of the world, then," he said, "are to satiate a giant's greediness of food and blood"—and it was for mankind that he became Terror in the trembling Height. Allfather feared nothing for the gods at that time: could he not pierce into Jötunheim, and Svartheim, and Manheim alike? Suttung heard also from the Rock.—"And what may this Odhærir be worth that you boast of so much?" he shouted to the dwarfs. "Wisdom, and labour, and fire, and life, and love," said the dwarfs. "Tut, tut, tut!" answered Suttung. "Does it taste well?" "Honey and wine; like the blood of a God and the milk of the Earth." Then Suttung got up slowly from the rock, pressing it down with his hands into two little dells as he rose, and strode to the island, from which he took up all the dwarfs at a grasp—they clinging to his fists and wrists like needles to a magnet; and, with one swoop, threw them ashore just as the hungry waves began to lap and wash about the dwarf's-peril. So the dwarfs jumped, and leaped, and laughed, and sang, and chattered again, and ran on before Suttung, to fetch him the golden mead, Odhærir. Three big stone jars, all full. The Spirit-mover, the Peace-offer, the Peace-kiss. Suttung lifted the lids, and looked into the jars. "It doesn't look much," he said; "and, after all, I don't know that I shall care to taste it; but I'll take the jars home to my daughter Gunnlöd, and they will make a pretty treasure for her to keep."

Odin brooded over the scene. It was a grey winter's morning in Jötunheim—ice over all the rivers, snow upon the mountains, rime-writing across the woods, weird hoar letters straggling over the bare branches of the trees, writing such as giants and gods can read, but men see it only as pearl-drops of the cold. Suttung could read it well enough as he trudged along to his Mountain Home—better than he had ever read it before; for was he not bearing upon his shoulders the wondrous Kvasir's life-giving blood, Odhærir. Odin read it, "This is ominous, Odin; this is dark. Shall the gold mead be made captive in frozen halls?" For behold, the life-tear becomes dark in the dark land, as Suttung's huge door opened to let him in, him and his treasure, and then closed upon them both, Suttung gave the mead to his daughter Gunnlöd to keep, to guard it well, and—the heart of Manheim trembled, it was empty and cold. Then Odin looked north and south and east and west, over the whole world. "Come to me," he said, and two swift-winged ravens flew towards him. It seemed as if they came out of nothing; for in a moment they were not there and they were there. Their names were Hugin and Munin, and they came from the ends of the earth, where Odin sent them every morning. Every evening he was wont to say of them,—

"I fear me for Hugin,

Lest he come not back,

But much more for Munin."

Yet they never failed to come back, both of them, at the dim hour in which they recounted to the Father of Hosts the history of the day that was past, and the hope of the day that was to come. On this evening, Munin's song was so terrible that only the strength of a god could possibly have endured to its end. Hugin struck another note, profounder and sweet. Then said Odin, when cadence after cadence had filled his ears, and he had descended from Air Throne, "Night is the time for new counsels; let each one reflect until the morrow who is able to give advice helpful to the Æsir."

But when the jewelled horse ran up along the sky, from whence his mane shed light over the whole world, when giants and giantesses, and ghosts and dwarfs crouched beneath Yggdrasil's outer Root, when Heimdall ran up Bifröst and blew mightily his horn in Heaven's height, there was only one found who gave counsel to Odin, and that was Odin himself. "Odhærir," he said, "which is a god-gift, must come up to men's earthly dwellings. Go forth, Hugin, go forth Munin," said the Asa, and he also went forth alone, none knowing where he went, nor how.

So Odin journeyed for a long, long while towards Suttung's Hall, across the windy, wintry ways of Jötunheim, seeing well before him the yellow mead as he went, through rocks, and woods, and rivers, and through night itself, until at last it happened that Odin came into a meadow upon a summer morning in Giant Land. Nine slaves were mowing in the meadow, whetting some old rusty scythes which they had, working heavily, for they were senseless fellows, and the summer day grew faster upon them than their labour grew to completion. "You seem heavy-hearted," said Odin to the thralls; and they began to explain to him how rusty and old their scythes were, and that they had no whetstone to sharpen them with. Upon this Odin offered to whet their scythes for them with his whetstone: and no sooner had he done so than the scythes became so sharp that they could have cut stones as easily as grass. Instead of mowing, however, the thralls began to clamour round Odin, beseeching him to give his whetstone to them. "Give it to me! give it to me: give it to me!" cried one and another; and all the time Odin stood quietly amongst them, throwing his whetstone up in the air, and catching it as it fell. Then the thralls tried if they could catch it, leaning stupidly across one another, with their scythes in their hands. Was Allfather surprised at what happened next? He could hardly have been that; but he was sorry when, looking down as the whetstone fell, he saw all the thralls lying dead at his feet, killed by each other's sharpened weapons. "This is an Evil Land," said Odin, as he looked down on the dead thralls, "and I am a bringer of evil into it."

So he journeyed on till he came to the house of Suttung's brother, Baugi. Odin asked Baugi to give him a night's lodging, and Baugi, who knew no more than the thralls had done who this traveller was, consented, and began to talk to Odin of the trouble he was in. "This is hay harvest," he said, "as you must have seen, walking here through the meadows; and I have a mighty field to gather in, but how to do it puzzles me, because my nine slaves whom I sent out sound and well this morning, all fell dead about the middle of the day. How they managed it, I can't imagine, and it puts me out sadly, for summer days don't last long in Jötunheim." "Well," said Odin, "I'm not a bad hand at mowing, and I don't mind undertaking to do the work of nine thralls for you, Baugi, for a certain reward you may give me, if you will." "What is that?" inquired Baugi, eagerly. "A draught of that golden mead, Odhærir, which Suttung obtained from the dwarfs, and which his daughter Gunnlöd keeps for him." "Oh! that," said Baugi, "isn't so good as my homebrewed for a thirsty mower; but you shall have it. It is a bargain between us." So Odin worked for Baugi the whole summer through with the labour of nine instead of with the labour of one; and when the last field was reaped, and wintry mists were gathering, the god and the giant began to talk over their bargain again. "We will come together to Suttung's house," said Baugi, "and my brother shall give you the draught which you desire so much." But when the two came to Suttung's house, and asked him for the mead, Suttung was exceedingly angry, and would not hear a word about it from either of them. "You don't drink it yourself, brother," pleaded Baugi," although you might do so every day if you liked, without asking anybody's leave, or doing one stroke of work for it, whilst this man has toiled night and day for nine months that he might taste it only once." "Odhærir is for us giants, nevertheless," answered Suttung, "and well does my daughter Gunnlöd guard it from dwarfs and from men, from spectres, from Asyniur, and from Æsir. Have I not sworn that so it shall be guarded by all the snows of Jötunheim, and by the stormy waves, and by the yawning chasm of the abyss." Then Baugi knew that nothing more was to be said, and he advised Odin to go back with him at once, and drink beer. But Odin was not to be turned from his purpose so easily. "You promised me a draught of the gold mead, Baugi," he said, "and I can see it through the rock in its three treasure jars; sit down by me and look through the rock till you can see it too." So Odin and Baugi sat down together, and pierced the rock with their glances all that day until they had made a small hole in it; and at night, when Suttung was asleep, and when Gunnlöd was asleep, and whilst the gold mead shone steadily in the heart of the cave, Odin looked up towards Asgard, and said,—

"Little get I here by silence:

Of a well-assumed form I will make good use;

For few things fail the wise."

And then this strong wise Asa picked up from the ground the little, mean, wriggling form of a worm and put it on and crept noiselessly into the hole which he and Baugi had made,—

"The giant's ways are under me,

The giant's ways are over me,"

said Odin as he wriggled through the stone, but when he had got quite through to the inner side, to Gunnlöd's room, Odin took his proper form again.

"I see her upon her golden seat," he said as he looked upon the sleeping Gunnlöd where she lay, and Odin was surprised to see a giant-maid so beautiful. Surprised and sorry. "For I must leave her weeping," he mused. "How shall she not weep, defrauded of her treasure in an Evil Land." And Odin loved and pitied the beautiful maiden so much, that he would have returned to Asgard without the mead had that been possible. Alas for Gunnlöd, it was less possible than ever since Allfather had seen her. For Gunnlöd awoke in the light of Odin's glance and trembled, she did not know why, she did not know at first that he was an Asa, but, when he asked her for her treasure she could not keep it from him, she could not have kept anything from him. She rose from her golden couch, her blue eyes melted into the tenderness of a summer sky, she undid the bars and bolts and coverings of Odhærir, which she had guarded so faithfully till then, and knelt before Odin and stretched her hands towards him and said, "Drink, for I think you are a god."

A draught, a draught, a long, deep draught, and the spirit of the Asa was shaken through its height and through its depth, and again a draught of love flowing forth to the outermost, to the abysses, and one draught again—peace—in rushing, still.

Why are you weeping so, Gunnlöd? Oh! Why do you weep? Did you not give him your whole treasure, "your fervent love, your whole soul;" you kept nothing back, and Odhærir is for ever the inheritance of the gods. The dwarfs sold it for their lives, the giantess lost it of her love, gods win it for the world.

"It is for the Æsir, it is for men," said Odin. "It is Odin's booty, it is Odin's gift;" and immediately, in haste to share it, the Asa spread eagle's wings, and flew far up, away from the barren rock, and the black, cold halls of Suttung, towards his heavenly home. Alas for Gunnlöd! she has lost her treasure and her Asa too. How cold the cavern is now in which she sits! her light is gone out; she is left alone; she is left weeping upon her golden throne. But Odin soared upwards—flew on toward Asgard, and the Æsir came crowding upon the city's jewelled walls to watch his approach. And soon they perceived that two eagles were flying towards the city, the second pursuing the first. The pursuing eagle was Suttung, who, as soon as he found that his mead was gone, and that Odin eagle-wise had escaped his vengeance, spread also his eagle's wings, very strong and very swift, in pursuit. Suttung appeared to gain upon Odin. Frigga feared for her beloved. The Asyniur and the Æsir watched breathlessly. Frost giants and Storm giants came crowding up from the deeps to see. "Does Odin return amongst the gods?" they asked, "or will Suttung destroy him?" It was not possible, however, that the struggle should end in any way but one. The Divine bird dropped from the height upon his Hall—the High One's Hall—and then there burst from him such a flood of song that the widest limits of Æsir Land were overflowed—some sounds even spilt themselves upon the common earth. "It is Poetry herself, it is Odin's booty, it is Odin's gift. It is for the Æsir, it is for the Æsir," said a thousand and a thousand songs. "And for men," answered Allfather, with his million ringing, changing voices; "it is for men." "Such as have sufficient wit to make a right use of it," said Loki. And this was the first discordant note that troubled Asgard after Odin's return.

In this tale, or rather in this arrangement of tales, most of the chief gods are named, and one or two of the myths concerning them are hinted at. The sweet mixture made out of Kvasir's blood, and given to the giant Suttung to keep, was called, as we have seen, Odhærir. It was kept in three jars, and though the name of it as a whole was Odhærir, the portion in the second jar was also called "Sohn," and that in the third jar "Bohn." Odhærir is mentioned in two of the Elder Edda  Songs, and in the Younger Edda  an account is given of Odin bringing it up to Asgard. Neither of the Eddas, it must be remarked, mentions the banishment of the dwarfs and elves in connection with Kvasir's death. The golden mead, Odhærir, is supposed to signify poetry. The first syllable of the name means mind and feeling. Odhærir, spirit mover. "Sohn" means reconciliation, or the offer  of peace. "Bohn" means the acceptance  of peace,—these two latter names referring to the origin of Kvasir, who was created out of the peace made between the Æsir and the Vanir.

Simrock thinks that "Kvasir," meaning fermentation, implies the excitement necessary to poetry; that Odin, labouring for a draught of the precious mead, suggests that poetry can only be possessed through labour, and that his receiving it from the beautiful Gunnlöd, expresses it as the gift and crown of love. Odin drinking it three times signifies the intensity  through which poetry lives,—it is intoxication. Odin appears to have felt very wise after his three draughts; for he is made to say—

"Potent songs I learned,

And a draught obtained

Of the precious mead,

Then I began to bear fruit

And to know many things.

Word by word

I sought out words.

Fact by fact

I sought out facts.

Runes I graved,

Very large characters,

Very potent characters."

One of the Edda  songs is called the "High One's Lay." So we may conclude it was inspired by Suttung's mead. One or two of the strophes are worth quoting, just to show what the lay is like. The following are selected from different places and have no connection with one another.

"At ere the day is to be praised,

A sword after it is proved;

Ice after it has passed away,

Beer after it is drunk."

"Cattle die,

Kindred die,

We ourselves also die;

But I know one thing

That never dies—

Judgment on each one dead."

"I was once young,

I was journeying alone,

And lost my way;

Rich I thought myself

When I met another,

Man is the joy of man."

Here is a contrast—

"Two are adversaries;

The tongue is the bane of the head;

Under every cloak

I expect a hand."

"A firmer friend

No man ever gets

Than great sagacity."

"Given and requiters

Are longest friends."

"A worse provision

No man can carry

Than too much beer-bibbing

So, good is not, as it is said,

Beer for the sons of men."

"My garments in a field

I gave away

To two wooden men;

Heroes they seemed to be

When they got cloaks."

"Much too early

I came to many places

But too late to others;

The beer was drunk,

Or not ready

The disliked seldom hits the moment."

We often read of Odin disguising himself, some times in animal, more frequently in human form. He wanders about the world, and very curious stories are told about his adventures. Sometimes he asks his wife's leave before setting off,—

"Counsel thou me now, Frigg!

As I long to go

An all-wise giant to visit."

And Frigg answers,—

"In safety mayest thou go,

In safety return;

In safety on thy journeyings be;

May thy wit avail thee

When thou, father of men! shalt

Hold converse with the giant."

But Odin was not obliged to take long journeys himself when he wanted to know what was going on in the world,—he had, as we have seen, two messengers whom he sent out daily,—the Ravens Hugin and Munin, thought and memory,—

"Hugin and Munin

Each dawn take take their fight

Earth fields over;

I fear me for Hugin

Lest he come not back,

But much more for Munin."

Perhaps because of Munin being memory he was expected to fail first.

Odin looking over into Niflheim, is thus alluded to in an old song. The god is made to say,—

"I know that I hung

On a wind-rocked tree

Nine whole nights.

Downward I peered,

To runes applied myself,

Wailing learnt them,

Then fell down thence."

The next strophe tells how he got the draught of the precious mead. In this myth, it seems as if Odin hung upon Yggdrassil. Simrock mentions a singular little German tale which may possibly have some connection with it, and has evidently an Eastern origin. "A man," it says, "in danger of falling into a brook, held fast with one hand to a shrub whilst his feet rested on a small pine of grass. In this predicament, he saw two mice (day and night) gnawing at the root of the shrub, and the grass undermined by four worm heads. Then a dragon appeared and opened his mouth to swallow him up, whilst an elephant reached his trunk towards him At the same time he seized with eager mouth some honey which dropt from the tree." Simrock says that the eating of the honey is like people being occupied with frivolity whilst the world-battle goes on, but may not the story possibly have a little to do with Odin and Yggdrassil and Odhærir.

We heard before that Odin was connected with Air. We see him here on his High Throne looking over all worlds, wandering over the earth, piercing even to the deep, giving his eye to Mimer for wisdom—consequently having only one eye, one Sun in Heaven—some suppose that the pledged eye means the setting of the Sun nightly. Mimer, who guards the well, means the remembrance of the origin of things which was water—the strange waves that flowed into Ginnungagap. An odd story is told of Mimer, who was originally a giant though received by the Æsir, viz., that he was sent as a hostage to the Vanir, who cut off his head and sent it back to Odin. The head remained so wise that the father of the gods used to consult it on all important occasions; as the lay says—

"Odin speaks

With Mim's head."

Heimdall, guardian of the Bridge (whose exact name was "trembling rest") was perhaps the most important of the Vanir. He is represented in one old lay as travelling about the world by himself, which is a sure sign that he was originally a very great god indeed. Upon this journey he became the father of the three races of men, the Thralls, the Karls and the Jarls. The way in which these three races are compared with one another is very curious

The Thralls are described with "shrivelled skin, knotty knuckles, thick fingers, hideous faces, curved backs and protruding heels, they are made to erect fences, manure fields, tend swine, keep goats and dig turf." The Karls' children are said to be clothed in linen, to be ruddy headed and have twinkling eyes, and they grow up to "tame oxen, make ploughs, build houses, make carts and farm;" but the favoured, useless Jarls, "Light of hair, bright cheeks, eyes piercing as a serpent's," grow up to "shake the shield, to brandish spears,

"Horses to ride,

Dogs to slip,

swords to draw,

Swimming to practise."

Heimdall keeps the bridge alike from thunder god and frost giants, but at Ragnarök, the swarthy god Surtur, who lives on the borders of Muspellheim, will ride over it and shatter it to pieces. Heimdall's horn is mentioned,—this is supposed to mean the crescent moon, and Mimer's drinking horn also means the moon. Later, when the stories of the gods had dwindled down into weird, unholy legends, and Odin had sunk into the wild Huntsman, the crescent moon was his horn. One of Heimdall's names was Irmin, and this means "Shining." The milky way is called Irmin strasse or Irmin's way, and the wild hunt was supposed to go over the milky way, which is also called Waldemar's way in Denmark, and Waldemar is a common name of hunters.

Loki and his children in these myths are evidently the destructive principle, either physically, or morally, or both. Jörmungand and Fenrir are much alike. Jörmungand means "the universal Wolf," and of Fenrir it is said "he goes about revengeful, with open jaws devouring all things." Hela had originally another side to her character, but here as Loki s daughter she has only the nature of his other children.

The myth about Loki finding the half-burnt heart of a woman is said to be a very young one; and so perhaps it is not worth considering the meaning of.

The god about whom, next to Odin, most stories are told, is Thor. In some parts of the north he was a more prominent object of worship even than Odin, Norway and Iceland being especially devoted to his service.

Let us now hear how Thor went to Jötunheim.