Friday, April 23, 2010

The Gods and Goddesses, Part Six

Loki's darker side, in the end, proves him to be more closely connected to the giants than to the gods. He is both father and mother to a brood of supernatural creatures; three of his children prove to be the bane of the gods, although one – the mystic horse Sleipnir – becomes the steed of Odin. Mating with the wicked giantess Angrboda ("harm-bidder"), Loki produces the three great monsters of Norse mythology: Fenrir, Jörmungand, and Hel.

Fenrir ("fen-dweller") is a giant and vicious wolf. As he grows from a pup, the gods realize that he will eventually be large enough to threaten them. They attempt to bind him, but he twice breaks the fetters they tie him with. Eventually, they present him with a dwarf-wrought magic fetter and challenge him to break it. He agrees to let them try it on him, as long as one god puts a hand into his mouth as insurance. Týr bravely offers his right hand, which is bitten off when the bonds prove unbreakable. Snorri writes, matter-of-factly, "when the wolf kicked, the bond became firmer, and the more he struggled, the harder the bond became. Then they all laughed, except Týr. He lost his hand." The wolf remains bound, with an upright sword between his jaws, until he is freed during the final battle of Ragnarök, in which he kills Odin.

Týr, as he survives in the Norse mythological corpus, is an enigmatic figure who is known mostly for this encounter with the wolf. Like all of the other gods, he is handicapped going into the final battle with the giants and monsters. He has only one hand, Odin has only one eye, Frey has given away his magic sword and must fight with an antler, and Thor has a hammer with a handle that is too short. Týr is thought to be a diminished version of an older sky-god, the very early Germanic god whose name has been reconstructed as Tîwaz. This god may once have been a primary god of certain tribes, as his name means "god" and is related to both the Greek Zeus and the Latin deus.

Jörmungand ("mighty wand") is the Midgard Serpent, the giant snake that lies beneath the oceans and encircles the world. He has several run-ins with Thor in the mythology, and is considered the archenemy of the Thunder God. At Ragnarök, his final contest with Thor will result in both of their deaths. Loki, as the father of both the wolf and the snake, is literally the "father of evil" – his children kill the two most powerful gods in the Norse cosmology.

Hel is the goddess who rules the underworld of the dead known as Niflheim ("mist-home"). While Odin and Freya divide fallen warriors and Thor gets the common folk, Hel receives those who die of sickness or old age. Old vikings were known to mark themselves with a spear-tip in their final moments in attempt to avoid a "straw death" – an inglorious end while lying on a mattress filled with straw rather than in the heat of battle. Snorri describes Hel: "She is half black and half the colour of flesh, and so she is easily recognized, and rather sad and grim-looking." Like her monstrous siblings, Hel helps assure the destruction of the gods by depriving them of Baldur, the bright and beautiful god.

Loki and Höðr by Emil Doepler (1905)

Several Eddic poems refer to the story of Baldur. The tale begins with the god's dreams of his own demise. Troubled, his mother Frigg extracts oaths from all things that they will not harm him - from fire and water, metal and stone, beasts and birds, diseases and poisons, snakes and trees. The other gods make a game of throwing weapons and stones at him, amusing themselves as the implements glance harmlessly off the blessed god. Loki, ever jealous, disguises himself as a woman (he is often seen changing gender) and finds out from Frigg that the one thing that can harm Baldur is the mistletoe, which the goddess considered too small and harmless to bother with. Loki gives a dart of mistletoe to the god Höðr, who has been unable to participate in the game on account of his blindness. Höðr ("warrior") is another character who is thought to descend from an older and larger god, in this case a god of war; as a god bereft of sight, he represents the arbitrary nature of success in battle. Loki eggs on the blind god, who throws the dart and instantly kills Baldur.

Odin sends Hermóð ("war-spirit"), who is either his son or his servant, down to Hel to bring Baldur back to the living. The goddess of the dead agrees, if everything that is in the world will weep for him. Everything does, except one mean-spirited giantess, who is suspected to be Loki in disguise. The gods lose Baldur forever, and Snorri says, "Odin took the loss the hardest, since he knew most clearly how great a damage and deprivation there was for the Æsir in Baldur's death." This is usually taken to mean that Baldur's death signals the beginning of Ragnarök, but make more sense in light of the handicapping of the gods as they enter their final battle; they are not only deprived of body parts and weapons, but also of their brightest ally, the Light God who could have combated the forces of darkness.

Baldur can also be seen as a god of the sun or of summer. When he descends, as the sun does at night or the summer does in winter, the world "weeps" – dew and frost are seen on all things – and his brightness and warmth are beloved by all things. In the poem Völuspá, the prophetess describes the birth of a new world after the destruction of Ragnarök:
Without sowing the fields will grow,
all ills will be healed, Baldr will come back;
Hod and Baldr, the gods of slaughter, will live happily together
in the sage's palaces.
In a new era, free of giants and monsters, the killer and the victim will live together in harmony, all wrongs forgiven.

Sigyn and Loki by Emil Doepler (1905)

After the death of Baldur and his imprisonment by Hel, Loki flees but is eventually captured. By this point, the playful Trickster is gone, and Loki is revealed as a giant and a mortal enemy of the gods. The Æsir murder a son he bore with the goddess Sigyn ("victorious girl-friend"), use the child's entrails to bind Loki to three stone slabs, and hang a snake above him who drips poison into the god's face. Loki's loyal wife holds a bowl over him to catch the poison; whenever she turns aside to empty the bowl, the poison drips on his face and his writhing causes earthquakes – one final Just-So Story of the god, who is now associated with rock and earth as an elemental giant.

As the bound Fenrir breaks free at Ragnarök, so the bound Loki. According to Völuspá, Loki will steer the mystic ship Naglfar ("corpse-ship") that brings all the enemies of the gods to the final battle. Snorri describes how the world will be flooded by the thrashing of the furious Midgard Serpent, and that the Naglfar will ride the waters. The prophetess of Völuspá says that the ship will come from the East, and that its passengers will be "Muspell's people." Muspell is the land of fire in the Norse creation myth, but the name derives from the Old High German muspilli ("doomsday") – a name that, at this point in the mythology, finally makes sense. "Muspell's people" are the giants who have, inevitably, come to fight the gods and bring about the end of all things. At the head of the monstrous forces, Loki has shed all aspects of godhood and allied himself completely with the giants.

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