Norse Stories Retold from the Eddas - H. W. Mabie

How Loke Was Punished

In the beginning Loke had been the brother of Odin, and one of the foremost of the gods, but the lawlessness and passion that were in him had won the mastery, and in earth and heaven he was fast bringing ruin and sorrow. What the hard-hearted frost-giants had always tried to do and failed, Loke did; for in the end the evil in him destroyed Asgard, and brought in the long winter of storm and darkness. It was he who stole Sif's hair and Freyja's necklace, who persuaded Idun to go into the woods that the giant Thjasse might carry off her apples, who stung the dwarf so that the handle of Thor's hammer was shortened, who induced Thor to go on his dangerous journey to Geirrod; but worst of all his crimes was the killing of Balder, and the refusal to weep for him when all the world was in tears.

After bringing so much sorrow upon others, suffering at last came to him. Not long after Balder 's death the sea-god Æger gave a great feast, and brewed ale for the gods in the great kettle which Thor had taken from the giant Hymer. All the gods were there save Thor, and they tried to be merry, although they were sad enough at heart. In the midst of them sat Loke, gloomy and silent, as if his terrible crime had drawn a black line around him. The feast went on merrily; but he seemed to have no part in it, for no one spoke to him. Great horns of ale passed from hand to hand, and as they talked and feasted the gods forgot for a moment the sorrow that lay upon all the world.

"Æger," said one, "these are good servants of yours. They are quick of eye and foot, and one lacks nothing under their care."

Loke was so full of rage that he could not endure that even the servants of the other gods should be praised, and with flashing eyes and a face black with hate he sprang from his place and struck the servant nearest him so violently that he fell dead on the floor. A silence of horror fell on all the gods at this new sin, and then with fierce indignation they drove him out, and shut the doors against him forever. Loke strode off furiously for a little distance, and then turned and came back. The gods meantime had become merry again.

"What are they talking about?" he asked another servant who was standing without.

"They are telling their great deeds," answered the servant; "but no one has anything good to say of you."

Maddened by these words, Loke forgot his fear in a terrible rage, strode back into the hall and stood there like a thunder-cloud; when the gods saw him they became suddenly silent.

"I have travelled hither from a long distance," said he hoarsely, "and I am thirsty; who will give me to drink of the mead?"

No one spoke or stirred. Loke's face grew blacker.

"Why are you all silent?" he cried; "have you lost your tongues? Will you find place for me here, or do you turn me away?"

Brage looked at him steadily and fearlessly. "The gods will never more make room for you," he said.

When he heard these words, Loke ceased to look like a god, for the fury and hate of a devil were in his face. He cursed the gods until every face was pale with horror. Like an accusing conscience he told them all their faults and sins; he made them feel their weaknesses so keenly that Vidar, the silent god, rose to give him his seat and silence him, but now that his fury was let loose nothing could stop him. One by one he called each god by his name, and dragged his weaknesses into the view of all, and last of all he came to Sif, Thor's wife, and cursed her; and now a low muttering was heard afar off, and then a distant roll of thunder deepening into awful peals that echoed and re-echoed among the hills. The gods sat silent in their places, and even Loke grew dumb. Great flashes of lightning flamed through the hall, and made his dark face more terrible to look at. Crash followed close upon crash until the mountains quaked, and the great hall trembled; then came a blinding flash, and Thor stood in the midst swinging Mjolner, and looking as if he would smite the world into fragments. He looked at Loke, and Loke, cowering before Thor's terrible eyes of fire, walked out of the hall cursing Æger as he went, and wishing that flames might break upon his realm and devour it and him.

And now Loke, no longer a god in nature or in rank, became an outcast and a fugitive flying from the wrath of the gods whom he had insulted and wronged. He went from place to place until he came upon a deep valley among the mountains, so entirely shut in that he thought no one from Asgard could ever look into it. There he built a house in the hollows of the rocks, with four doors through which he could look in every direction, so that no one could come near his hiding-place without his knowing it. He took on many disguises; often in the daytime he took the shape of a salmon and hid in the deep waters, where he floated solitary and motionless while the gods were searching for him far and wide.

Days and weeks passed away, and Loke began to think he was safe from the pursuit of his enemies. He began to busy and amuse himself as he used to do before he was shut out of Asgard. He had always been a skilful fisherman, and now, as he sat alone in his house before the fire, he took flax and yarn and began to knit the meshes of the first net that was made since the world began. His eyes burnt at the thought of the new sport which he was going to have, and his cunning hand wove thread after thread into the growing web. Odin, looking down from his lofty throne, saw the busy weaver, and quickly calling Thor, the strongest, and Kvaser, the keenest of the gods, was soon on the journey to Loke's home among the mountains. Loke was so busy with his net that he did not see them until they were close at hand; then he sprang up, threw the net into the fire, and running to the river changed himself into a salmon, and dove deep into the still waters. When the gods entered the house Loke was nowhere to be found, but the sharp-eyed Kvaser found the half-burnt net among the glowing embers. He pulled it out and held it before Odin and Thor.

"I know what it is," he said in a moment; "it is a net for fishing; Loke was always a fisherman. Then, as if the thought had suddenly come to him, he added, "He has changed himself into a fish and is hiding in that river."

Odin and Thor were rejoiced to find their enemy so close at hand, and they all began to work on the half-burnt net and quickly finished it. Then they went softly down to the water, threw it in, and drew it slowly up the stream from shore to shore. But Loke swam between two large stones in the bed of the stream and the net only grazed him as it passed over. The gods finding the net empty hung a great stone on it, and, going back to the starting place, drew it slowly up stream again. Never, since the beginning of things, had there been such fishing before! The noisy river rolled swiftly down to the sea, the steep mountains rose on either side and shut out the sun so that even at mid-day it was like twilight. When Loke saw the net coming a second time and found that he could not escape, he waited until it was close at hand, and then with a mighty leap shot over it and plunged into a waterfall just where the river rushed into the sea.

The gods saw the great fish leap into the air and fall into the water, and they instantly turned around and dragged the net toward the sea, Thor wading after it in the middle of the stream. As the net came nearer and nearer Loke saw that he must either swim out into the sea or leap back again over the net. He waited until the shadow of the net was over him, and then with a mighty leap shot into the air and over the net; but Thor was watching, and his strong hand closed round the shining fish. Loke managed to slip through Thor's fingers, but Thor held him by the tail, and that, as the story goes, is the reason why the salmon's tail is so thin and pointed.

Then the gods, glad at heart that they had caught the slayer of Balder, changed Loke into his natural shape and dragged him to a cavern in the mountains near at hand, where they fastened three great rocks, having pierced them first with holes. Loke's two fierce sons, Vale and Nare, they also seized, and changed Vale into a wolf, and immediately he sprang upon his brother and devoured him. Then the gods bound Loke, hand and foot, to the great stones, with iron fetters, and, to make his punishment the more terrible, they hung a serpent over him, which moment by moment through ages and ages dropped poison on his face. Loke's wife, Sigyn, when she saw his agony, stood beside him and caught the venom in a cup, as it fell drop by drop; but when the cup was full and she turned to empty it the poison fell on Loke, and he writhed so terribly that the whole earth trembled and quaked. So Loke was punished, and so he lay, chained and suffering, until the last great battle set him free.