Asgard and the Gods
The Tales and Traditions of Our Northern Ancestors
BRAGI AND IDUNA
In the beginning the silence of death rested upon the immeasurable ocean, not a breath of wind stirred the air, not a wave rose on the surface of the deep; everything was motionless, dumb, without breath or life.
BRAGI AND HEIMDAL RECEIVING THE WARRIORS IN WALHALLA
A vessel, the ship of the Dwarfs, crossed the silent waste of water. Bragi, the divine singer, was lying on the deck asleep, sunk in the dream of life; he was without spot or blemish, and his golden-stringed harp lay at his side. When the vessel glided over the threshold of Nain, the Dwarf of Death, the god awoke, touched the strings of his harp and sang a song that echoed throughout the nine worlds, describing the rapture of existence, the rage of battle and the charm of victory, and the joy and happiness of love. This song wakened dumb nature out of her trance.
Whether the god of poetry were the son of Odin or not, we cannot tell; the skalds do not inform us. But poetry cannot die, it always rises out of death to a new life and rejoices the hearts of both gods and men.
Bragi landed on the shore, singing his noble song about the awakening of nature and the blossoming of new life; and he wandered through the growing, budding woods as he sang. Then Iduna rose before him from amongst the grasses, flowers and foliage, the goddess of immortal youth, the youngest daughter of Iwaldi, the Dwarf, who hid life in the deep and afterwards sent it again to the upper world when the right time had come.
Iduna was beautiful in her crown of flowers and leaves; she was beautiful as the dawn. When the god saw her, his song of love became more glowing and intense. He stretched out his arms and she sank upon his breast, for the poet must needs marry youth and beauty.
After they were united, they went to the blessed ever-green heights of Asgard, where the Ases received them with joy. Then Iduna gave them to eat of the apple of ever-renewed youth.
When the gods and Einheriar had eaten their fill of the flesh of Sahrimnir, Bragi touched the strings of his harp and sang the praises of the heroes. But this pleasant life in Asgard, and the married happiness of the divine poet, were once broken by a severe trial, as we shall presently see.
Odin, Hönir and Loki were travelling about the world together to see what were the joys and sorrows, works and labours of the dwellers upon earth. They went a long way, and at length came to a densely wooded mountain where there was nothing to eat. They could find no hospitable house in which-to take shelter; could hear no friendly voice calling to them. The autumn wind was blowing the tops of the oaks and firs.
When they reached the valley, they saw a herd of cattle grazing in the meadow. They caught one of the animals and slaughtered it; they cut it up and prepared to cook it for their supper. The fire, kindled by Loki, blazed up, and they thought the beef would soon be cooked. But when they looked to see, it was still quite raw. This happened a second and a third time; the Ases were astonished and wondered what to do.
Suddenly they heard a voice above them saying that he who prevented the beef from cooking was sitting above them in a branch of the tree. On looking up they saw a gigantic eagle through the leaves of the oak, busily engaged in trying to put out the fire by flapping his wings. He promised to allow them to cook their supper if they would give him some of it. When they had agreed to do so, he flew down, fanned the fire, and very soon supper was ready.
They all sat down together, but the eagle ate so quickly that it seemed as though he would devour the whole bullock. Loki was dreadfully hungry, and getting into a rage, snatched up a stake and stabbed at the gigantic bird with it. The eagle flew up into the air when he felt the blow. The stake had fastened itself to the feathers of the bird and Loki's hands were glued to the other end.
The eagle flew so low that Loki's feet dragged along the ground and hit against any stones and stumps that might be in the way, while his arms felt as if they were dislocated. He shrieked and groaned and begged for mercy of the Storm-giant, who, as he well knew, was hidden under the eagle's dress.
"Very well," said the giant, "I will set thee free if thou wilt promise to bring me Iduna and her golden apples."
Loki swore to do so, and, as soon as he was set free, limped back to his companions. Under the circumstances the travellers determined to go home, and they must have been provided with seven-league boots, for they arrived at Asgard on the following day.
Beautiful Iduna was going about her household duties, dressed in green and wearing a garland of leaves, the crown of unfading youth. Bragi was away from home journeying as a minstrel. She collected her apples, which she usually gave the Ases at breakfast time.
At this moment Loki came up to her quickly, and looking round to see that no one was near, whispered
"Gentle and lovely goddess, follow me quickly out of the castle gate, for I have discovered a strange tree covered with golden fruit like thine."
This was a request the goddess could not decline. She put some of her apples in a crystal dish and followed the traitor through Asgard, and on into the dark wood.
All at once the Storm-wind roared through the trees; and Thiassi, the giant in the eagle's dress, rushed up, caught the terrified goddess in his talons, and flew with her to dreary wintry Thrymheim, where spring flowers cannot bloom, not yet can youth survive.
Loki slunk back to Asgard, and quietly kept his secret about Iduna to himself. "The longer hence they notice it, the better," he cunningly thought to himself.
The Ases for a long time did not know that Iduna had been stolen; they thought she had gone away on a journey. But when days and weeks had passed their hair began to turn grey, the colour left their cheeks and their faces showed the folds and wrinkles of age. The goddesses, even Freya herself, discovered Signs of approaching old age, when they looked at their faces in the mirror of a clear stream.
They all asked for Iduna and sought her high and low. The last time she was seen, she was walking with Loki. The cunning Ase was questioned; his lies did not help him; Thor threatened to break all his limbs, and raised his hammer for the purpose: then Loki confessed, and promised to bring back the giver of youth, if Freya would lend him her falcon-dress.
The request was granted, and he flew away at once to Thrymheim, the dwelling of the Storm-giant Thiassi.
The giant was at sea, and Iduna was sitting lonely and sad in an uncomfortable room, made of roughly hewn logs. Loki told her to be of good courage and changed her into a nut.
Then he flew over rocks and chasms with his light burden towards Asenheim.
Meanwhile the giant came home from his sea voyage. He had always hitherto begged his prisoner in vain to give him a slice of the apple of youth, that his horrible deformity might be transformed into the beauty of youth. As soon as he discovered Iduna's flight, he put on his eagle's dress and rushed after the fugitives with the speed of the storm.
The Ases watched the wild chase anxiously. They collected shavings and bits of wood before the fortress, and when the falcon had reached the shelter of the wall with his charge, they set fire to the wood, and the flames towered up into the air, singeing the wings of the pursuing eagle and bringing him to the ground.
Thiassi was then slain, but Thor threw his eyes up into the heavens where they shone henceforth as stars every night.
On his return, Bragi found his wife at home and heard from her all that had happened. He saw how Skadi, daughter of the Storm-giant, appeared in helmet and chain armour to avenge her father's death. And he afterwards told the whole story, ending with how Ögir, the god of the sea, had made expiation to the war-like maiden.
It is interesting to see how the genius of Odin's skalds united the god of poetry in marriage with the goddess of spring, the giver of renewed youth, and interwove the changes of the seasons into the myth. Bragi, who came out of the unknown distance, awoke mental life and also nature out of their trances; Iduna, who brought spring and youth into the world, became his wife. She gave the Ases the golden fruit of renewed youth, a fruit which was perhaps identical with the golden fruit that the Grecian hero Herakles carried away from the Hesperides.
In the same way as the autumn winds tear the leaves from the trees, the Storm-giant stole Iduna, and as the green meadows are covered with ice and snow in winter, so Iduna had to spend some time in the giant's uncomfortable house, while the gods themselves grew old and their hair turned grey.
Then Loki, probably the south wind, had to go and set Iduna free. The Storm-giant had gone on a voyage to the north, where his power lasted until the coming of spring. So the imprisoned spring was delivered from its bonds, and when the giant made his way into Asgard he was slain; i.e., the storms of winter were confined within certain bounds.
Uller appears in the Edda as the cheery and sturdy god of winter, who, caring nothing for wind or snowstorm, used to go out on long journeys on his skates or snow-shoes.
Whenever he reached a lake or fiord which was not frozen, he transformed his shoes into a boat, and, making the winds and waves obey him, passed over to the other side.
Snow-shoes, as they are still worn in Norway and Iceland, are light shoes, very large and shaped like a boat turning up at the ends. With their help it is easy to slide quickly down hill, and they may have been the shoes alluded to in the stories of Uller; still, skates were also used at that time to glide over the frozen lakes. These shoes were also compared with a shield; thus the shield is called Uller's ship in several places.
When the god skated over the ice, he always carried with him his shield, deadly arrows, and bow made of the yew-tree. The pliable wood of the yew was the most suitable for making bows for use either in hunting or in war. Uller, therefore, lived in the palace Ydalir, the yew-vale.
ULLER, THE BOWMAN
As he protected plants and seeds from the severe attacks of the frosts of the north by covering the ground with a coating of snow, he was regarded as the benefactor of mortal men, and was called the friend of Baldur, the giver of every blessing and joy.
Once when out hunting, Uller saw beautiful Skadi, the bold huntress, of whom we shall have more to tell further on. He fell in love with her, and as she was by this time separated from her first husband, Niörder, she willingly consented to marry him. At the wedding the storms all played dance music in every tune, for the time when the day and night were of equal length in autumn was past, and winter, the happiest time for marriage, had begun.
Vulder with the Anglo-Saxons meant divine glory, or even God himself, and it seems that the Northern god Uller was thus characterised in heathen times. This was perhaps a consequence of the glory of the Northern winter night, which is often brilliantly lighted by the snow, the dazzling ice, and the Aurora borealis, the great Northern Light.