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Features tales of the Norse warrior gods, from Thor and Frey to Baldur and Fenrir.
A Giant - A Cow - and a Hero
IN the beginning of ages there lived a cow, whose breath was sweet, and whose milk was bitter. This cow was called Audhumla, and she lived all by herself on a frosty, misty plain, where there was nothing to be seen but heaps of snow and ice piled strangely over one another. Far away to the north it was night, far away to the south it was day; but all around where Audhumla lay a cold, grey twilight reigned. By and by a giant came out of the dark north, and lay down upon the ice near Audhumla. "You must let me drink of your milk," said the giant to the cow; and though her milk was bitter, he liked it well, and for him it was certainly good enough.
After a little while the cow looked all round her for something to eat, and she saw a very few grains of salt sprinkled over the ice; so she licked the salt, and breathed with her sweet breath, and then long golden locks rose out of the ice, and the southern day shone upon them, which made them look bright and glittering.
The giant frowned when he saw the glitter of the golden hair; but Audhumla licked the pure salt again, and a head of a man rose out of the ice. The head was more handsome than could be described, and a wonderful light beamed out of its clear blue eyes. The giant frowned still more when he saw the head; but Audhumla licked the salt a third time, and then an entire man arose—a hero majestic in strength and marvellous in beauty.
Now, it happened that when the giant looked full in the face of that beautiful man, he hated him with his whole heart, and, what was still worse, he took a terrible oath, by all the snows of Ginnungagap, that he would never cease fighting until either he or Buri, the hero, should lie dead upon the ground. And he kept his vow; he did not cease fighting until Buri had fallen beneath his cruel blows. I cannot tell how it could be that one so wicked should be able to conquer one so majestic and so beautiful; but so it was, and afterwards, when the sons of the hero began to grow up, the giant and his sons fought against them too, and were very near conquering them many times.
But there was of the sons of the heroes one of very great strength and wisdom, called Odin, who, after many combats, did at last slay the great old giant, and pierced his body through with his keen spear, so that the blood swelled forth in a mighty torrent, broad and deep, and all the hideous giant brood were drowned in it excepting one, who ran away panting and afraid.
After this Odin called round him his sons, brothers, and cousins, and spoke to them thus: "Heroes, we have won a great victory; our enemies are dead, or have run away from us. We cannot stay any longer here, where there is nothing evil for us to fight against."
The heroes looked round them at the words of Odin. North, south, east, and west there was no one to fight against them anywhere, and they called out with one voice, "It is well spoken, Odin; we follow you."
"Southward," answered Odin, "heat lies, and northward night. From the dim east the sun begins his journey westward home."
"Westward home!" shouted they all; and westward they went.
Odin rode in the midst of them, and they all paid to him reverence and homage as to a king and father. On his right hand rode Thor, Odin's strong, warlike, eldest son. On his left hand rode Baldur, the most beautiful and exalted of his children; for the very light of the sun itself shone forth from his pure and noble brow. After him came Tyr the Brave; the Silent Vidar; Hödur, who, alas! was born blind; Hermod, the Flying Word; Bragi, Hænir, and many more mighty lords and heroes; and then came a shell chariot, in which sat Frigga, the wife of Odin, with all her daughters, friends, and tirewomen.
Eleven months they journeyed westward, enlivening the way with cheerful songs and conversation, and at the twelfth new moon they pitched their tents upon a range of hills which stood near the borders of an inland sea. The greater part of one night they were disturbed by mysterious whisperings, which appeared to proceed from the sea-coast, and creep up the mountain side; but as Tyr, who got up half a dozen times, and ran furiously about among the gorse and bushes, always returned saying that he could see no one, Frigga and her maidens at length resigned themselves to sleep, though they certainly trembled and started a good deal at intervals. Odin lay awake all night, however; for he felt certain that something unusual was going to happen. And such proved to be the case; for in the morning, before the tents were struck, a most terrific hurricane levelled the poles, and tore in pieces the damask coverings, swept from over the water furiously up the mountain gorges, round the base of the hills, and up again all along their steep sides right in the faces of the heroes.
Thor swung himself backwards and forwards, and threw stones in every possible direction. Tyr sat down on the top of a precipice, and defied the winds to displace him; whilst Baldur vainly endeavoured to comfort his poor mother, Frigga. But Odin stepped forth calm and unruffled, spread his arms towards the sky, and called out to the spirits of the wind, "Cease, strange Vanir (for that was the name by which they were called), cease your rough play, and tell us in what manner we have offended you that you serve us thus."
The winds laughed in a whispered chorus at the words of the brave king, and, after a few low titterings, sank into silence. But each sound in dying grew into a shape: one by one the strange, loose-limbed, uncertain forms stepped forth from caves, from gorges, dropped from the tree-tops, or rose out of the grass—each wind-gust a separate Van.
Then Niörd, their leader, stood forward from the rest of them, and said, "We know, O mighty Odin, how you and your company are truly the Æsir—that is to say, the lords of the whole earth—since you slew the huge, wicked giant. We, too, are lords, not of the earth, but of the sea and air, and we thought to have had glorious sport in fighting one against another; but if such be not your pleasure, let us, instead of that, shake hands." And, as he spoke, Niörd held out his long, cold hand, which was like a windbag to the touch. Odin grasped it heartily, as did all the Æsir; for they liked the appearance of the good-natured, gusty chief, whom they begged to become one of their company, and live henceforth with them.
To this Niörd consented, whistled good-bye to his kinsfolk, and strode cheerfully along amongst his new friends. After this they journeyed on and on steadily westward until they reached the summit of a lofty mountain, called the Meeting Hill. There they all sat round in a circle, and took a general survey of the surrounding neighbourhood.
As they sat talking together Baldur looked up suddenly, and said, "Is it not strange, Father Odin, that we do not find any traces of that giant who fled from us, and who escaped drowning in his father's blood?"
"Perhaps he has fallen into Niflheim, and so perished," remarked Thor.
But Niörd pointed northward, where the troubled ocean rolled, and said, "Yonder, beyond that sea, lies the snowy region of Jötunheim. It is there the giant lives, and builds cities and castles, and brings up his children—a more hideous brood even than the old one."
"How do you know that, Niörd?" asked Odin.
"I have seen him many times," answered Niörd,
"both before I came to live with you, and also since then, at night, when I have not been able to sleep, and have made little journeys to Jötunheim, to pass the time away."
"This is indeed terrible news," said Frigga; "for the giants will come again out of Jötunheim and devastate the earth."
"Not so," answered Odin, "not so, my dear Frigga; for here, upon this very hill, we will build for ourselves a city, from which we will keep guard over the poor earth, with its weak men and women, and from whence we will go forth to make war upon Jötunheim."
"That is remarkably well said, Father Odin," observed Thor, laughing amidst his red beard.
Tyr shouted, and Vidar smiled, but said nothing; and then all the Æsir set to work with their whole strength and industry to build for themselves a glorious city on the summit of the mountain. For days, and weeks, and months, and years they worked, and never wearied; so strong a purpose was in them, so determined and powerful were they to fulfil it. Even Frigga and her ladies did not disdain to fetch stones in their marble wheelbarrows, or to draw water from the well in golden buckets, and then, with delicate hands, to mix the mortar upon silver plates. And so that city rose by beautiful degrees, stone above stone, tower above tower, height above height, until it crowned the hill.
Then all the Æsir stood at a little distance, and looked at it, and sighed from their great happiness. Towering at a giddy height in the centre of the city rose Odin's seat, called Air Throne, from whence he could see over the whole earth. On one side of Air Throne stood the Palace of Friends, where Frigga was to live; on the other rose the glittering Gladsheim, a palace roofed entirely with golden shields, and whose great hall, Valhalla, had a ceiling covered with spears, benches spread with coats of mail, and five hundred and forty entrance-gates, through each of which eight hundred men might ride abreast. There was also a large iron smithy, situated on the eastern side of the city, where the Æsir might forge their arms and shape their armour. That night they all supped in Valhalla, and drank to the health of their strong, new home, "The City of Asgard," as Bragi, their chief orator, said it ought to be called.CHAPTER 2
Air Throne, the Dwarfs and the light Elves
IN the morning Odin mounted Air Throne, and looked over the whole earth, whilst the Æsir stood all round waiting to hear what he thought about it.
"The earth is very beautiful," said Odin, from the top of his throne, "very beautiful in every part, even to the shores of the dark North Sea; but, alas! the men of the earth are puny and fearful. At this moment I see a three-headed giant striding out of Jötunheim. He throws a shepherd-boy into the sea, and puts the whole of the flock into his pocket. Now he takes them out again one by one, and cracks their bones as if they were hazel-nuts, whilst, all the time, men look on, and do nothing."
"Father," cried Thor in a rage, "last night I forged for myself a belt, a glove, and a hammer, with which three things I will go forth alone to Jötunheim."
Thor went, and Odin looked again.
"The men of the earth are idle and stupid," said Odin. "There are dwarfs and elves, who live amongst them, and play tricks which they cannot understand, and do not know how to prevent. At this moment I see a husbandman sowing grains of wheat in the furrows, whilst a dwarf runs after him, and changes them into stones. Again, I see two hideous little beings, who are holding under water the head of one, the wisest of men, until he dies; they mix his blood with honey; they have put it into three stone jars, and hidden it away."
Then Odin was very angry with the dwarfs, for he saw that they were bent on mischief; so he called to him Hermod, his Flying Word, and despatched him with a message to the dwarfs and light elves, to say that Odin sent his compliments, and would be glad to speak with them, in his palace of Gladsheim, upon a matter of some importance.
When they received Hermod's summons the dwarfs and light elves were very much surprised, not quite knowing whether to feel honoured or afraid. However, they put on their pertest manners, and went clustering after Hermod like a swarm of ladybirds.
When they were arrived in the great city they found Odin descended from his throne, and sitting with the rest of the Æsir in the Judgment Hall of Gladsheim. Hermod flew in, saluted his master, and pointed to the dwarfs and elves hanging like a cloud in the doorway to show that he had fulfilled his mission. Then Odin beckoned the little people to come forward. Cowering and whispering they peeped over one another's shoulders; now running on a little way into the hall, now back again, half curious, half afraid; and it was not until Odin had beckoned three times that they finally reached his footstool. Then Odin spoke to them in calm, low, serious tones about the wickedness of their mischievous propensities. Some, the very worst of them, only laughed in a forward, hardened manner; but a great many looked up surprised and a little pleased at the novelty of serious words; whilst the light elves all wept, for they were tender-hearted little things. At length Odin spoke to the two dwarfs by name whom he had seen drowning the wise man. "Whose blood was it," he asked, "that you mixed with honey and put into jars?"
"Oh," said the dwarfs, jumping up into the air, and clapping their hands, "that was Kvasir's blood. Don't you know who Kvasir was? He sprang up out of the peace made between the Vanir and yourselves, and has been wandering about these seven years or more; so wise he was that men thought he must be a god. Well, just now we found him lying in a meadow drowned in his own wisdom; so we mixed his blood with honey, and put it into three great jars to keep. Was not that well done, Odin?"
"Well done!" answered Odin. "Well done! You cruel, cowardly, lying dwarfs! I myself saw you kill him. For shame! for shame!" and then Odin proceeded to pass sentence upon them all. Those who had been the most wicked, he said, were to live, henceforth, a long way underground, and were to spend their time in throwing fuel upon the great earth's central fire; whilst those who had only been mischievous were to work in the gold and diamond mines, fashioning precious stones and metals. They might all come up at night, Odin said; but must vanish at the dawn. Then he waved his hand, and the dwarfs turned round, shrilly chattering, scampered down the palace-steps, out of the city, over the green fields, to their unknown, deep-buried earth-homes. But the light elves still lingered, with upturned, tearful, smiling faces, like sunshiny morning dew.
"And you," said Odin, looking them through and through with his serious eyes, "and you——"
"Oh! indeed, Odin," interrupted they, speaking all together in quick, uncertain tones; "Oh! indeed, Odin, we are not so very wicked. We have never done anybody any harm."
"Have you ever done anybody any good?" asked Odin.
"Oh! no, indeed," answered the light elves, "we have never done anything at all."
"You may go, then," said Odin, "to live amongst the flowers, and play with the wild bees and summer insects. You must, however, find something to do, or you will get to be mischievous like the dwarfs."
"If only we had any one to teach us," said the light elves, "for we are such foolish little people."
Odin looked round inquiringly upon the Æsir; but amongst them there was no teacher found for the silly little elves. Then he turned to Niörd, who nodded his head good-naturedly, and said, "Yes, yes, I will see about it;" and then he strode out of the Judgment Hall, right away through the city gates, and sat down upon the mountain's edge.
After awhile he began to whistle in a most alarming manner, louder and louder, in strong wild gusts, now advancing, now retreating; then he dropped his voice a little, lower and lower, until it became a bird-like whistle—low, soft, enticing music, like a spirit's call; and far away from the south a little fluttering answer came, sweet as the invitation itself, nearer and nearer until the two sounds dropped into one another. Then through the clear sky two forms came floating, wonderfully fair—a brother and sister—their beautiful arms twined round one another, their golden hair bathed in sunlight, and supported by the wind.
"My son and daughter," said Niörd, proudly, to the surrounding Æsir, "Frey and Freyja, Summer and Beauty, hand in hand."
When Frey and Freyja dropped upon the hill Niörd took his son by the hand, led him gracefully to the foot of the throne, and said, "Look here, dear brother Lord, what a fair young instructor I have brought for your pretty little elves."
Odin was very much pleased with the appearance of Frey; but, before constituting him king and schoolmaster of the light elves, he desired to know what his accomplishments were, and what he considered himself competent to teach.
Excerpted from Tales of the Norse Warrior Gods by A. Keary, E. Keary, C. E. Brock. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted December 14, 2013