Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thor Visits the Giant Skrymir

Thor Visits the Giant Skrymir

Thor wandered with Loki and Thialsi through the mountains a long, long time ago. Evening came and they arrived at a building they thought was a mountain shelter. They entered the hut and found all the rooms empty. Disappointed, because they had hoped for a hearty meal, they went to bed.
The companions lay hungry on the wooden slats of their beds. At midnight a terrifying noise could be heard. They thought it was an earthquake shattering the ground around them. The entire house groaned and creaked so the three crept into a smaller antechamber, where they believed themselves to be better protected. But the terrifying roar continued through the night.
The next morning when they got up and looked outside, they found a giant lying next to the hut in deep sleep and snoring frightfully. The giant had been the source of the terrifying sound during the night!
Thor was just about to wake the noisy fellow with his hammer when the sleeper awoke and looked around in amazement. He recognized Thor immediately and said his name was Skyrmir. Then he got up and looked for his glove. Thor looked on in wonder when he recognized the giant’s glove as the house they had been sleeping in! The little corner where they had crept for protection was the thumb of the giant’s glove!
Skyrmir observed the three travelers for a short time. He then took his breakfast and when he was finished he tied his belongings into a bundle and led the others into the forest. When they had walked for a while and it was evening, they rested. The giant lay down and left his food to his companions. But the bundle had been tied so tightly that Thor could not open it. He also tried waking the giant by striking the forehead of the sleeper with his hammer. It was all to no avail. The giant only rubbed his forehead in his sleep and probably thought a leaf or acorn had fallen on his head.
When the companions separated the next morning, Skrymir pointed out the way to King Utgard-Loke. But he instructed them to be unassuming and unpretentious in demeanor because otherwise things would go badly for them.
King Utgard received the strangers but did not think much of them. As he considered them carefully and even recognized Thor, he expressed his surprise that he was so small in stature. Hopefully, he said, his strength and skill were all the greater.
The next day several contests were held. Loki bragged that no one could surpass him in eating. He took a trough full of meat and ate until it was empty. The cook of the king ate the same sized portion, but also swallowed the bones. Loki was not pleased.
Thialsi began to race a young man named Hugin. Despite his incredible speed, his opponent won the race. Now it was Thor’s turn. He was to empty the wine in the drinking horn by taking one swallow, but at most three. Thor drank and drank but the level in the drinking horn did not diminish.
Then he was told to lift up the gray cat of the king. But he could hardly raise it a finger’s width from the ground. Finally he was to wrestle the old nursemaid of the king. But here, too, he was inferior.
This failure also troubled him and his companions. They decided to continue on their journey the next morning. When they took their leave the king said to them:
“Now it will be revealed to you that yesterday during the contest you were blinded by magic. Skrymir – that was me! When you administered the beatings to my brow, I used a mountain to protect myself. With your hammer you beat into that mountain three deep valleys. The cook who ate everything was the all-consuming wild fire, which nothing can withstand. Hugin, the racer, is actually my thinking, my thoughts. Even you, swift-footed Thialsi, could not win that race. The drinking horn was the world ocean and you drank so much of it that the water receded from the shore and an enormous ebbing resulted. The gray cat was the Midgard snake. You couldn’t tell that you were raising it to the heavens and it almost was ripped in two. That would have caused enormous trouble on earth. The old nursemaid was old age. It comes slowly and in stealth, but no one can keep old age at bay forever. Now return happily to your home!
As soon as he said this he vanished in the fog so that Thor could not fulfill his keenest desire to mow down the giant with his hammer. This time the three returned home to Aasgard but they were not as satisfied as they usually were.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Of Tooth Grinders, Tooth Cracklers and Red-bearded Thor

(Click on picture to enlarge.)

Germanic tribes revered Thor almost as much as they honored his father Wotan, the god of heaven.  Thor’s mother was Nirdu-Fricka, the goddess of the earth. Thus all things between heaven and earth, including the infinite universe, were Thor’s realm. He controlled the weather and, as god of thunder, he spread the benefice of the storm over the earth. By shattering the ground with his lightening blitz, he loosened the soil and enriched it with delicious rain. At the same time he cleared the atmosphere of humidity and steam with his stormy showers. (Germanic tribes attributed all harmful aspects of weather to another god, the treacherous Loki). Thor was also the most diligent fighter of the earth-hating giants.

Thor was large and strong of stature. A red beard enveloped his face and his hair and eyes gleamed like glowing coals. He rushed through the air like the wind in a cart pulled by two goats (Tooth Crackler and Tooth Grinder) and when his wheels touched down upon the clouds, the sound of thunder could be heard on earth.

But he could not cross the bridge Bifrost in this cart because it would have been set on fire under the cart's fiery wheels. If Thor wanted to attend the meeting of the gods at the Urd Fountain, he had to walk and wade through many streams.

Thor had three treasures. The first was his hammer, which he called Milnir (The Crusher). The second was a pair of steel gloves, which he needed when he used his hammer. The third was his magic belt. Whoever wore the belt doubled his normal strength.

The hammer had been made by two dwarves by the name Schlackensprueher (Cinder Sprayer) and Zischer (Hisser). Schlackensprueher wanted to give the gods an extraordinary gift. That is why he combined every piece of iron he could find, placed them all in the fire, melted them, and stirred them together. His brother Zischer had to work the bellows and Schlackensprueher warned him repeatedly that he must be careful not to stop a single time, because if the air stopped flowing even briefly, the entire piece would be ruined.
Zischer promised his utmost attention and pursued working the bellows with such zeal, that no one was his equal.

But among the tribe of Asen there lived a deceitful one, who did not wish anything good to come to his fellows. He wanted to harm them however he could. He was named Loki and quickly took action to ruin the work of the dwarves. He transformed himself into a fly and sat on the right eyelid of Zischer working the bellows. He bit him so murderously that the poor dwarf cried out in pain. When Schlackensprueher heard the screams of his brother, he called to him: “Persevere only a few more moments, then the hammer will be ready.”

The fly continued to bite him brutally so that the poor Zischer sweated beads of blood. Overcome by pain, he smote the fly with his hand. And so he released the bellows and Loki’s purpose was achieved. Because a single bellow-blow was missing, the hammer had a fault: it’s stem was somewhat too short.

Translated from Aus Unsere Vaeter Tagen by Hermine Moebius

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finding Thor in Fairy Tales

Reading the Swiss Fairy Tale: The Phantom Rider

The phantom in this Swiss fairy tale comes from a long line of bearded villains. Following the tradition of arch-rogue, this booted rider’s sole purpose in life is  to inflict harm on the local population.  He is thoroughly despicable like Knight Goldbeard or Eppela Gaila (hit links to read more). Yet, he is not simply an evildoer. His wrongdoings have been preserved in folk memory and have a faint otherworldly character. But what exactly sets his misdeeds apart and what elevates them to fairy tale status? 

The magic here is concealed in the minutiae of the narrative, those curious details provided toward the end of the story almost as an afterthought. The peculiar features of this knight are the spoon and comb found hidden in his beard and his enormous boots filled with dirt from the cloister garden. These attributes link him to other supernatural beings. What exactly the comb and spoon signify escapes the modern audience. But the dirt in his boots points to a Thor-like being, who is not solely preoccupied with destruction. Like Thor, the malaise many bearded knights leave behind ultimately sows the seeds of future prosperity, most readily manifest in a bounteous harvest.  The story in its current form has probably come down to us as a stub. Left out are the subsequent rich harvest, good fortune or success that usually follows a protagonist's encounter with the thunder god. This might be because storytellers eventually forgot the original beliefs associated with Thor, whose legends seem to have been revived in the tales of many bearded knights. In this story the character is human but his capacity for evil gives him otherworldly aura.  The reader only sees a strange man wearing tall boots with dirt in the tips and strange utensils tucked into his red beard. Reader beware: a red beard in fairy tales and saga is usually a reference to Thor or a Thor-like demigod.

Read more about bearded knights as Thor-like demi-gods in Reading Knight Bluebeard.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Phantom Rider Unleashes the Floodwaters of Spring

The Phantom Rider of Switzerland

On stormy spring nights the  Reuss River rushes wildly through the jagged rocks in the Aargau Valley in Switzerland. The river, swollen from the melted snow, causes the incoming tributaries to gush over their banks. On such wild spring evenings folk do not like to walk near the Muri Cloister for it is then that the ghostly Booted Rider is seen mounted on his snow-white steed. With his skull set backwards on his shoulders, the phantom rider can be seen racing through mountain and valley and often he is seen in two villages at the same time.

Once many, many years ago the rich cloister appointed a very treacherous overlord to be its protector. The abbot believed they had found the most capable man in the country because he multiplied the cloister’s treasures and prosperity year by year. But the good abbot was blinded by riches. He never saw the other face of the cloister’s protector, the face he showed the people in the valley. In truth he was the most hard-hearted man imaginable. Begging and pleading would not soften his stone-cold heart and when he saw a widow or orphan crying, he only laughed. He wore enormous boots, which extended far above his knees. When the poor people saw the evil overlord of the cloister come riding toward them on his mighty steed, they hid behind their houses and barns; the children ran screaming in terror: “The booted rider is coming!” and they all fled. They were terrified especially of his inhumanly gigantic head, his terrifying eyes and his horrible red beard.

He terrorized people of all sorts. The cloister was entitled to every tenth sheaf of corn that grew in the valley, but the overlord also viciously seized the eleventh and twelfth bundle of grain. He even stole the hay from the farmers, had their wood piles carted off and stole the fruit off the trees. In short, he did harm wherever he could. Woe to the person who was indebted to him! During the coldest days of winter he would turn the family out of its home and even ripped away the blankets from those who lay sick in bed. If they held up the cross to ward off his evil, he spat on them.

Near Schongau in the neighboring area of Lucerne there lived a pious woman. She decided to leave her entire property to the Muri Cloister in her will. The booted rider liked this idea. He rode over to the old woman to view her property. But while she sat at her table eating her soup, he told her she should also leave the cloister the small parcel of land that jutted into the larger piece of property. The woman became angry when she heard this and threw the booted rider out of her house. The small parcel he spoke of belonged to her niece, who lived there in a miserable straw hut. It was because of this poor family that the woman had left her extensive holdings to the cloister, so that her poor brother’s daughter would have the Muri Cloister nearby as sole protectorate.

But the booted rider could not forget the smaller property. Besides the extensive land holdings, he also wanted this smaller parcel. He stole the last will and testament from the old woman and by forging the woman’s handwriting, wrote the following: This shall include the little hut and property, which up to now has been occupied by my brother’s daughter.

When the pious woman died, the booted rider rode on his steed to the court and presented the will to the justice. Frightened, the poor brother’s daughter came to court and contested the false will. But the booted rider offered to swear an oath to the veracity of the document. He swore that as God was his true creator and judge ruling over him, he now stood on  cloister land.

He had barely finished uttering the words of this oath, when a blood-curdling scream emanated from his lips and he fell down dead. The people rushed forward and recognized he had made a false oath. In his thick red hair they found hidden a spoon and comb and his enormous boots had been filled in the tips with dirt from the cloister garden. So God had executed him on the spot.

Today when the children in the area misbehave and will not mind their grandmother, the window is opened and the following words called out into the darkness: 

“Booted rider, come gallop! 
Seize my misbehaving trollop!”   

The children promptly withdraw into the chimney corner and become as obedient as a white lamb being led on a slender string.