Posts Tagged ‘Odin’

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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Gosh, it’s been way way too long since I’ve actually written about Norse mythology here, hasn’t it? Well, why not take on one of my favorites: Óðinn’s acquisition of the Mead of Poetry. Loosely based on a version of a talk I prepared but never gave relating to my recent research on the figure of the home and interior in the sagas (I’ve spoken twice, not including academic conferences, on the subject since, but this portion got edited out both times). Watch out, this turned into a super long post.


The abduction, as I illustrated it for the contest at the Norse Mythology blog.

In our approach to this particular narrative, I think it is helpful to point out the obvious comparison to (and contrast with) the story of the abduction of Iðunn, which I have previously illustrated and discussed. Both stories, after all, involve a Viking raid of sorts, the penetration of a rival community to acquire or reacquire a resource, sexual access to a woman of the rival group, shapeshifting into eagle form (among others), and a dramatic chase scene through the air back to the home of the gods–and both show up in approximately the same section of Prose Edda. Both poems are also set in the so-called “mythic present”, as opposed to the “mythic past” (the prehistory, creation, and ordering of the world) and the “mythic future” (the fall of the gods, disintegration of the world, and the coming of a new world). The mythic present is primarily about the gods attempting to maintain the status quo, meaning, doing their best to assert and maintain their superiority over the giants. Margaret Clunies Ross (whose book Prolonged Echoes informs a lot of this post and my other posts) has called this situation “negative reciprocity”, in that, rather than a reciprocal relationship between gods and giants (ie, fair exchange of goods, marriage alliances, etc, or on the other hand hostilities, whether theft, sexual access to women, or killing, like in a feud or war), the situation is instead one-sided, with the gods, by and large in the mythic present, having their way with the giants while rebuffing the giants’ attempts in the other direction (for example, giants die right and left throughout the mythic present, but the gods are mostly untouched–until Baldr’s death). We might think of it as an attempt to project and enforce a vertical relationship, such as you would have in the hierarchical relationships within the space of the Icelandic farmstead (from the landed family down to the lowest slave), onto the level of horizontal relationships between different groups–but again (or even in parallel with this), it also works well enough to read these as, say, “viking raids”, or as a mythic prototype for the relationship to the Saami, from whom the Germanic Scandinavians extracted tribute–certainly the myths serve to set up a properly demonic straw-man, justifying the aggression of the POV of the mythology.


Thor’s mother is the giantess “Earth”. There are several giantesses in the matrilines of the gods, even going back to Odin (who essentially creates the world by murdering his maternal great-grandfather). We may take the entry of several giantesses into the community of the gods as either wives or mistresses as a reinforcement of negative reciprocity in the myths, which tends to involve denying the giants sexual access to goddesses while the gods have their way with the giantesses. More on that another time, probably… And incidentally, my comic here is not intended as an accurate portrayal of the giantess Earth–when giantesses play the role of object of desire in the myths, they tend to look the part as well.

From the perspective of the gods (and the aristocratic Icelanders whose interests they may be taken to represent in the Eddas) the proper direction for action is outward from Ásgarðr (“Asgard”, “farm/enclosure of the gods”) towards the land of the giants–as with what we call “acquisition narratives”, such as the origin of the mead of poetry, in which the gods go to the giants and come back with something that is, in the mythic ideology of medieval Iceland, associated with the gods as representatives of Culture, with humanity, etc. When the opposite is the case–the action is directed against the gods, with the giants threatening either their women or their stuff (or just their assumption of superiority, as I can think of at least two instances where giantesses attempt to insist on a more reciprocal standing–more on that another time)–it is a crisis, the natural order of things is inverted (represented in one myth by Þórr getting dressed up as a bride) and (again, in the myths of the mythic present) the myth ends with the restoration of the status quo. The abduction of Iðunn is this latter sort of myth, while the story of the Mead of Poetry is of the former type–one of the most prototypical of the acquisition narratives to my mind.

I would say “welcome to the militant world of Viking mythology”, but keep in mind that the versions of the myths that we have were written down by Christian Icelanders two hundred years after the conversion. In fact, a possible interpretation of the significance of the myths in an Iceland that was Christian but still managed conflicts via bloodfeud (as well as more mundane settlements) is that they functioned as fantasies in which one’s rivals could be completely dominated and demonized–more on that another time, probably, esp. given that the situation isn’t too different in so many of our own stories…

Throughout the myths we find a prominent anxiety over the vulnerable interior at two symbolically conflated levels–that of the community (the home of the gods is marked out by a great wall, whose origin story is itself pretty interesting) and that of the body. One could in fact read the arc of the mythology as a whole (as preserved in the medieval Eddas) in terms of the anxiety of the gods over the threat of penetration, bodily, sexually (generally manifested either as threats to the women of a community or as threats to the virility/masculinity of a man), strategically, etc (all the while, of course, they constantly penetrate away when it comes to the land of the giants). Relevant here are several seminal studies on insults and gender in Old Norse lit (not too far off from us when we flip the bird or say “screw you”, or less bowdlerized forms, but you could be outlawed for such things in Medieval Iceland), but I think I’ll have to save that for another time.


Possibly Odin in eagle form, on Gotlandic picture stone Stora Hammars III. My own photo, so alas not adjusted to let the image show up more clearly…

The conflation of home/community and body with each other is not unique to the sagas and myths, of course, in particular in terms of the permeability of the body. It is an understandable and, I imagine, universal tendency to think of the home as what keeps the outside out and the inside in, and this concern over boundaries of course maps onto our concerns over our bodies as well, which we also think of in terms of inside/outside, and the integrity of which is often dependent on the integrity of our various shelters. This inside/outside symbolism is of course useful when constructing communal identity (“insiders” vs “outsiders”, to be “in” on something, etc), the perceived unity of the human body being rhetorically mobilized in the articulation of a cooperative unity of many bodies. We find this at play in the larger story of the mead of poetry.

The story begins with one version of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir (we might tentatively locate this at the end of the mythic past, but generally let’s think of the larger myth as representative of the mythic present). In their truce, they exchange hostages—not “hostages” like we are used to thinking, but representative members of one community go to live with the other community—since members of each community now live in the same spaces, they now constitute one community (at some level of signification anyway–arguably the Vanir members are still treated differently, as represented in the Eddas). In addition, and more pertinent to my point here, both sides spit in a big puddle. Wouldn’t it be great if we settled conflicts this way now…. The idea being, their bodily fluids—their insides—are now mixed, and so they are one. Óðinn doesn’t stop there, of course, and he turns this puddle of spit into a person, because mythology. The metaphor of shared bodies equating to communal unity is made concrete as the bodily fluids of both communities are now contained within one literal body.

The person created from the spit is called Kvasir. He turns out to be the wisest being in the world, and he goes around telling folks wise stuff. But then he runs into some dwarves who think he is a smartass, and they kill him (they excuse themselves, saying, essentially, that he choked on his own wisdom)—and of course, they take his blood and mix it with honey to make mead, an alcoholic beverage associated with the aristocratic male community in ancient Scandinavia, because mythology, again, though we will probably get tired of this explanation. These dwarves get into a feud with a giant, who takes the mead in compensation for their killing of his parents, and this giant, Suttungr, hides it in the middle of a mountain, guarded by his daughter Gunnlöð, because duh, that’s what you do when you have magical mead made from the blood of the wisest person in the universe, and before that from the spit of the gods (I know “Drunk History” is a thing–“Drunk Mythology” would be good, but you would have to do this myth in poetic form…).


The origin of the “rhymster’s share” (aka Odin loses his shit). Image from wikicommons.

So Óðinn finds out and he thinks “Well, that’s not a good way to use my spit, we don’t want the giants to have it”, so he disguises himself, which is typical enough for Óðinn, and goes to seduce Gunnlöð—also quite typical for Óðinn. Well, it’s kind of complicated getting there, as he has to trick Suttungr’s brother into helping him, but in the end he drills a hole into the mountain, turns into a snake, and penetrates the chamber where Gunnlöð is guarding the mead—and if that wasn’t Freudian enough for you all, then he sleeps with her for three nights. In return she lets him drink up all the mead, and he turns into an eagle and flies away, because (again) mythology. Well, Suttungr doesn’t like this, so he turns into an eagle as well and chases Óðinn back to Ásgarðr. When Óðinn gets there he pukes the mead into containers, making the mead of poetry, now refined a final time with this return to and from Óðinn’s gut, available for gods and humanity—so this is where poetic skill comes from. But Suttungr was so close behind him that Óðinn peed himself a bit, and that’s where bad pop songs come from. Read the story in full in Prose Edda (for which, as usual, I recommend Faulkes’ translation–I’m a fan of his edition of the book as well).

The anxiety over penetration (again, of various sorts, both metaphorical and less so) in the state of negative reciprocity that I discussed above is hopefully illustrated well enough between the “Mead” and “Abduction” myths (oh, and please don’t assume the “screw you” ideology noted in passing here is all there is to say about gender in the sagas–it’s true that we tend to consider the sagas written by aristocratic men for aristocratic men, but there is a lot more to women in medieval Iceland beyond saga anxiety over their potential for penetration…). Beyond that, there is a lot more to reading this myth in terms of an implicit symbolic conflation of body, hall, and community. The mead of poetry is an origin myth for a specific type of poetry, Skaldic poetry. The form of skaldic is interesting in itself, but that’s a bit of a complex topic to get into here. In practice, skaldic was a commodity of the aristocratic male (again, this is the general, but not universal, picture we get through the sagas). Poems were composed in honor of chieftains, kings, wealthy men, and the prototypical performance would involve poetry performed in honor of the patron in his hall, with all the other retainers there as well. The communal identity of this boys-club of warriors is both symbolically and concretely reinforced by the fact that they are all together in this hall, “their” hall, that they are drinking alcoholic beverages together, a standard warrior-band practice marked by aristocratic exclusivity (a potential reason for the difficulty of the form), and the fact that they are all participants in this oral poetic performance—in fact, ears are referred as mouths in one kenning, showing us that the appropriateness of the conflation of mead and poetry was not lost on them. They all take in the poetic mead together, symbolizing their communal identity, just like the Aesir and the Vanir become one by sharing their own bodily fluids–we emphasize our communal sense of belonging by symbolically constructing shared bodily insides (think of the blood-brother ceremony, for example, which actually shows up in the sagas as well). OK, OK, kinda gross, but you know, at least I’m not telling you the story of Loki and the goat…

This was a bit of a rambly and long commentary on this myth (sorry), but if you made it this far I hope you will check it out yourself–it is early in the Skáldskaparmál section of Prose Edda. We should note that it is contested how much of this myth actually goes back to the Viking age–I expect that at best Snorri (author of Prose Edda, fyi) misunderstood a bit here or there (as has been suggested for the containers involved), while at worst he invented things wholesale based off of obscure references to the poetic mead in early skaldic poetry. That said, that there was some idea of a mead of poetry that came from Óðinn is indeed clear from some of this earliest poetry, as even then the skalds would articulate their own poetic act as a sort of regurgitation of Óðinn’s gift, so I feel like it is fair enough to apply my interpretation from the previous paragraph to the Viking age court. And while we are certainly interested (from an academic perspective) in sorting out how much is “heathen” and how much is Christian reception of the myth, we should also remember that Viking age religion did not involve the sort of aggressive orthodoxy you find in, for example, Christianity–myths were certainly expressions of religious faith, but there was no fixed text to refer back to, and variance would have been the rule, even, potentially, from fjord to fjord and farm to farm.

And last but not least, for a bonus visualization of the myth check out Drachenseele’s illustration here, done for me as my reward for getting second in an art contest on deviantart! 😀

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