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Posts Tagged ‘Norse Mythology’

Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…

At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.

Jord (Earth) and Thor for Earth Day by Callego

My 2014 Earth Day illustration–a very particular interpretation of Thor’s mother, after watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the upteenth time.

But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalence in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…

In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.

The death of Ymir, as imagined by Lorenz Frolich

Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, got together and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.

Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.

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Idun and Loki FinalFinalFinal_edited-1

[UPDATE: I got 3rd runner up, plus some really nice comments from not only K Siegfried and the artist of a graphic novel, but from the artist who designed the famous Faroese Norse Mythology stamps! Check out the contest results here (and buy copies of my pic here!!!!!). You can also find my pic alongside a bunch of other illustrations of the myth on this Myths and Legends blog.]

[If you want the summary of the myth, just skip to the bottom!] I like “Abduction of Idun” much better than the usual “Rape of…”, though it has been suggested that there was a sexual element to the possession of this fertility goddess by first the gods, then the giants (then the gods again). Anyway, here is my picture! I first sketched the idea back 2 years ago when a student in my mythology course requested a pic of Iðunn, but ended up never finishing it (did this quick anime-esque portrait instead). I decided to resurrect it finally for the Midwinter Art Contest at the Norse Mythology Blog. Well, OK, this is potentially problematic, as I presented this paper on one version of the myth as a harvest poem (not a winter poem), but all the reasons that the skald Þjóðólfr found the myth productive for a harvest poem also recommend it for a Midwinter poem, as the theft of the fertility goddess Iðunn brings youth and springtime bounty to the giants, while the gods are left to grow old and grey. Given that, I decided that my Midwinter picture would also draw on the myth of the abduction of Iðunn as a way of dramatizing the coming of winter–the land of the giants, behind our giant-transmographied-to-eagle, is cold and snowy, typical given the association of the giants with inhospitable rocks and mountains in many of the myths, but the cold of those mountain tops (a giantish association that is hit on a few times in the poem) will soon be transferred to the land of the gods, behind their imposing wall (shown on the right with Loki in the shadows), as Iðunn’s powers and her life-giving apples (here shown golden[-ish], as seems to be indicated elsewhere in the mythic corpus) transform those wintry mountaintops into eternal Spring. It’s not difficult to see parallels to the Persephone myth, though of course we should be cautious about assuming the two goddesses play exactly the same role. Within Snorra Edda, I think the myth makes the most sense taken in the context of the competition between the gods and the giants, as a threat to the dominance of the gods. As Margaret Clunies Ross has pointed out in Prolonged Echoes v 1, during the “Mythological Present” we find a state of negative reciprocity between the gods and giants, as it is seen as appropriate and good from the POV of the myths for the gods to appropriate goods from giantland and for the male gods to sleep with giantesses (or marry them, in the case of the Vanir), while it is a threat to the cosmic order for a giant to appropriate anything from the gods or to seek sexual access to any of the goddesses (this is apparently behind the inherent threat of Loki’s existence according to at least one version of his origins, where his father is a giant [Fárbauti] and his mother is a goddess [Laufey–yes Marvel, you got that VERY wrong…]). The abduction of Iðunn is a great example of this sort of myth, where the community of the gods is penetrated (and yes, there is a productive overlap with sexual penetration there, highlighted in the fact that it is a goddess that is abducted) and their source of prosperity is taken–but since this is a myth in the mythic present, she is recovered (spoiler alert) and everything is returned to normal by the end. As I argue in my paper, this can be described in terms of the “Image of Limited Good” theory from anthropology–but you will have to read my paper for that.  😛

I’ve got a few of the early steps in the making of this pic on my tumblr, as well as the finished product. And as always, you can (AND SHOULD) buy copies at DeviantArt and Redbubble!

Snorri Sturluson’s prose version of this myth is the first given in Skáldskaparmál, the middle section in Snorra Edda (aka Prose Edda, Younger Edda), and the section of the poem Haustlöng that covers the myth is found a bit later in that same section (you should be able to find free versions of Snorri’s Edda online, but they are all pretty old–I recommend you pick up Anthony Faulkes’ translation instead). I wrote a paper on Haustlöng as a harvest poem a few years back (based on a section from my dissertation), so feel free to read that on Academia.edu (if you can’t read it on there w/o being a member, maybe I’ll put together a version for this blog). In the meantime, find my summary of the relevant part of the poem below (cut and pasted from my paper–sorry, not much time today).

Haustlöng, as preserved, consists of two myths, both also given in prose narratives in Snorra Edda—the Rape of the goddess Iðunn, whose apples grant the gods eternal youth, and Þórr’s duel with the giant Hrungnir. For the sake of time, I will focus on the Iðunn stanzas, where the connection to harvest time is clearest.

“We begin with a reference to the performance situation as Þjoðólfr wonders aloud how he shall repay the gift of a shield from Þorleifr, then tells us that he can see the journey of the famous gods on the shield. The giant Þjazi, diguised as an eagle, flies to where Óðinn, Loki and Hœnir are attempting to cook an ox. Said cooking goes poorly, and it is hinted that something (the eagle, in Snorri’s account), is responsible for this. Then the eagle speaks up from its perch in an ancient tree and asks for a share in the meal. They agree, and the ox, now cooked, is swiftly gobbled up by the eagle. Loki strikes the ravenous eagle with a pole. This pole sticks to the eagle, as well as to Loki’s hands, and the eagle flies off so violently that Loki is forced to sue for peace. Þjazi has him bring Iðunn to the home of the giants, and all the gods grow old and ugly, due to the lack of Iðunn’s apples, as Snorri explains for us. The gods find Loki and force him to bring Iðunn back. He does, and while chasing them Þjazi is caught and roasted alive in a fire prepared by the gods.”

Idunn takes a walk in the snow

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