Showing posts with label Thor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thor. Show all posts

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thor Battles the Serpent of Midgard

Thor Visits the Giant Hymir

King Utgard Loke once foiled Thor’s plans. Angered by the king’s actions, Thor decided to take revenge on the Serpent of Midgard, also called the “gray cat”, the one who had deceived him so cunningly before.

A powerful ice giant lived at the end of heaven. His name was Hymir, or the dusky one *. Thor made his way to the giant, who invited the thunder god to be his guest. This giant was a loathsome host, not only because his wild and shaggy beard was frozen into icicles that gave him a frightful appearance. Thor first met up with the giant in the evening, when he was coming home from the hunt. The look the giant gave the young god was so penetrating and sharp that the tree Thor leant against broke in two. But  Hymir still greeted his guest in a friendly way and prepared a rich meal for him. How amazed he was when Thor immediately devoured two of the three oxen he had slaughtered and drank empty the barrel of mead.

When Hymir saw this hunger, he decided to go fishing the next morning. It would be too difficult to feed the hungry guest if he didn’t find some big fish!

Thor offered to go to sea with the giant if he would give him some bait. When Hymir said Thor should find his own bait, the god seized an oxen grazing near by, ripped off its head, and used this as bait.

Now Thor rowed the boat out to sea. Hymir had not intended to go so far, but Thor knew that they would come close to the Midgard Serpent, that horrible monster enveloping the world that had once stopped Thor in his tracks.

The giant began to fish for whales. Smaller fishes wouldn’t have stilled the hunger of his guest. The thunder god took the steer’s head and hung it on his fishing rod and searched for the serpent. It wasn’t long until the monster snapped at the steer’s head and the rod’s hook penetrated deep into the serpent’s jaws. Thor now pulled on the line with all his strength so that he could pull the horrible beast above the water’s surface and kill it with his hammer. Finally he pulled the head of the serpent above the water. It was horrible to gaze upon the poison-swollen jaws that now opened. The monster stared at his hunter with bulging eyes.

Thor kept his fire-spewing gaze locked on the monster and with his right hand seized his hammer. At the same moment the giant fell upon Thor from behind, who would naturally join forces with anything that could harm the gods.  He cut the fishing line in two, which Thor held in his left hand. The serpent sank back into the sea and terrible groans could be heard gurgling below the waves.

Thor in his rage threw his hammer after the beast. He even hit its head, but he couldn’t kill it. He now turned to the giant, who had cunningly spoiled his revenge. With one blow from his mighty fist, the giant hit Thor so hard on the ear, that he fell over the edge of the boat into the water. The god waded ashore and returned to Asgard, as if nothing had happened.

(*or one in a semi-conscious state)

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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.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reading the Fairy Tales of Knight Bluebeard and Knight Goldbeard

Goldbeard Variations

In the debate over the origin of Bluebeard, the identity of the knight has been variously attributed. Some see him as a medieval serial killer of noble birth while others associate him with sundry historical wife-killers. This is an entirely understandable interpretation of the brutal acts at the heart of this fairy tale. But the story also shares many of the elements of a romance and is therefore often read through the prism of such themes: a knight seeks to win the favor of a lady, courtship and marriage follow, expectations and conflicts arise within the marriage, the plucky heroine must develop ingenuity in the face of danger and the trajectory of her personal development is traced.
So how to read this "romance" that is steeped in blood, savagery and barbarism? In defense of Knight Bluebeard, I would argue that the story is not primarily about murder but rather about the cycle of life, death and rebirth. To get at the crux of this fairy tale, the blue beard of the knight offers some clues.

In German mythology the beards of important proto-historical kings were often color-coded. According to folk tradition, Charlemagne had a white, pointy beard, which in some descriptions was said to be gold (although supposedly in real life he was bald and had no beard at all). Kings Otto, Olaf and Friedrich Barbarossa were said to have red beards. The color of the beard was significant because it tied the king to a specific deity. Quite often the deity was Thor or Donar. Thor’s father was Woton, the god of the heavens. His mother was Nirdu-Fricka, the goddess of earth. Thor’s realm therefore was everything in between heaven and earth. His thunder and lightening announced rain, the life-giving element essential for crops, cattle, the fecundity of the earth and life itself. Thor’s beard was red, because this was the color most often associated with lightening in the minds of many Germanic tribes. However the North Friesian and Prussian tribes referred to the blue shimmer of the lightening god. Storms were thought to unleash a blue whip or the blue flame of the god. The beard of the deity was invoked to ward off danger or curse opponents: Donnerwetter! (Thunder Weather!) Blaue Feuer! (Blue Fire!) or in maledictions: Der Donner schlage Dich! (May thunder strike you down!) The lightening itself was likened to the arrows the god shot from heaven or the wedge-shaped stones catapulted by the god with his hammer or axe. Thor drove a cart pulled by goats, which were sacred to him. The skins of sacrificed goats were hung on poles or trees as weather charms. In this role as weather or thunder god, the deity was extremely important to pre-Christian tribes. The Lithuanian thunder god was called Perkunas and he purportedly had a black, crinkly beard. Zeus was the thunder god of the Greeks and by some accounts had a white beard. The Slavonic god was known as the Striker and had a tawny colored beard. In short, you knew the god and the earthly king he was associated with by the color of the beard.

As controller of weather, fertility and crops the god must have seemed fickle, capricious or even bi-polar. The bounty-bringing divinity was just as likely to send a bolt from heaven, striking the head of his victim and severing it from his body with hammer or axe. To appease such an inconstant god, sacrifices were offered. The blood or body parts of the victim were ritually poured or scattered over the ground, the carcass hung on a tree or pole or the body was burned. Animal sacrifice was common but human sacrifice has also been chronicled. It was believed these actions were essential to ward off the wrath of the god and assure the fertility of the earth. Folk memories of these rituals have been incorporated in numerous myths, but perhaps the stories of Osiris and Attis are the most representative. In Norse mythology the god Odin is both sacrificed to and sacrificed as victim. In fact the god-as-sacrifice is a common theme. These myths reflect a belief that the cycle of life-death-rebirth was crucial for the renewal of the earth. In the myth of Thor, the deity kills and consumes his goats each day. But in the evening he wondrously resuscitates them.

Thus the thunder or weather god was viewed both as protector against and unleasher of evil forces. Similarly, earthly kings were judged by the bounty, prosperity or terror created during their reign. A king’s accomplishments were commemorated in folk sayings, songs and stories where his royal parentage and divine ancestry were often emphasized. But this belief in kings as divine beings was changing. When Charlemagne was crowned king, the Church anointed him as God’s representative on earth, underscoring that he was not a deity himself. This was the new party line, so-to-speak and was accepted (at least by some folk). It represents a turning point in how kings and kingship were to be perceived.

In Knight Goldbeard, the otherworldly identity of the main character is suggested in the very first paragraph. Fairy tales and saga frequently use the word knight to denote a person skilled in warfare, usually of royal lineage, who is often imbued with supernatural powers. The specific knight here is further linked to the gods by the gold on his saddle and golden-threaded beard, a color frequently associated with heavenly beings. Like a god the knight freely bestows boons, favors and prosperity on the villagers. But like a fickle weather divinity, he inexplicably turns against those he favors. This fairy tale includes allusions to the sacrifices commonly made to Thor: the girl is described as laughing and jumping like a mountain goat, a reference to the animals sacrificed to the god and the sisters’ fate seems to be a direct reference to the sacrificial offerings hung on poles or trees. It is perhaps shocking to contemplate human sacrifice as a sub-text for a fairy tale, but other tales also include this grim element. The tale of the Goose Girl is probably based on a folk memory of the ritual sacrifice of horses.

In the tale of Knight Bluebeard, meterological elements evoking the weather god feature prominently: Bluebeard thunders (donnerte), the brothers hasten like lightening (wie der Blitz) and they storm up the stairs (stuermten die Treppe hinauf). But this story also contains a marriage and might allude to the sacred marriage between the sky god Thor and his earth goddess counterpart. It fits neatly within the template of myths concerning a union between a mortal and a god. Like the Supernatural Spouse in Fairy Sisters' July Wedding, Bluebeard stipulates certain taboos as condition of marriage. But mortals are frail creatures and mostly unable to fulfill the precepts of the gods. It is the violation of taboo that brings evil, pestilence and calamity into the world. According to Jacob Grimm a very ancient pattern of story telling (and one he traces back to Aeschylus) involves a young woman who, exploring the celestial dwelling of a god, goes from room to room with a key. Finally she opens the forbidden door and unleashes the fury of the gods. It is this crossing of the threshold that often signifies a form of self-destruction for the fairytale protagonist and ultimately redemption and transformation. (Another fairy tale with this theme is Child of Mary).

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