Monday, April 9, 2012

Which God Has the "Greatest Boot"?


I recently began a new feature here at The Norse Mythology Blog called "Ask a Norse Mythologist." Anyone with a question about Norse mythology and Norse religion is welcome to contact me via the online form, and I'll do my best to answer here on the website. It may take me a while to get to your question, however. Even Odin needed nine nights to learn the secrets of the runes. These things take time.

Researching Norse mythology can sometimes be a lot of work

Almost as soon as the new feature was rolled out, I received this very nice message from Braden Almquist of Alberta, Canada:
I've been fascinated with everything Norse since I was twelve, but (as I'm sure you know) the tales are scattered and not always coherent. Recently, I came across something that I could use some help on.
This is a postcard from Alberta. Postcards were like analog versions
of text messages way back in the 1900s.
While reading and watching several videos, I came across a reference to one of the gods that I had near to no info about. This god was said to be making the "greatest boot." I have yet to find any info on this god outside that one reference. Today, I stumbled across your blog, and I believe you may be able to help me on this.
Any information regarding this character would be appreciated. Thank you for your time.
This is actually a very easy question to answer. I don't recall coming across that particular phrase, but it clearly refers to the god known as Víðarr – usually spelled Vidar in English texts.

In the thirteenth-century book called the Edda, Snorri Sturluson introduces the god like this:
Vidar is the name of one, the silent As. He has a thick shoe. He is almost equal in strength to Thor. He is a source of great support to the gods in all dangers.
In another section of the Edda, Snorri writes:
How shall Vidar be referred to? He may be called the silent As, possessor of the iron shoe, enemy and slayer of Fenriswolf, the gods' avenging As, father's homestead-inhabiting As and son of Odin, brother of the Æsir.
These passages raise a lot of questions. They are more understandable if you know that As or Ás is the singular form of Æsir, the Old Norse term for the gods – specifically, the tribe of gods that includes Odin and Thor. Also, Fenriswolf (or simply Fenris) is the giant wolf that will kill Odin at Ragnarök ("Doom of the Powers"), the future battle between the gods and the forces of darkness.

Vidar tying his shoelaces in a 19th-century illustration

Why is Vidar silent? Why does he have a thick shoe? Thor is the protector of the gods (and humans), so wouldn't "almost equal in strength to Thor" mean really strong? Who is this guy? The answers to all these questions can be found elsewhere in the Edda – and in the collection of Old Norse mythological and legendary poems known as the Poetic Edda.

One of the defining characteristics of Odin is his endless quest for knowledge about all things – but especially about his fate (and that of the other gods) at Ragnarök. He knows that he will be killed by the monstrous Fenris, and it seems that his son Vidar's sole purpose (get it? sole purpose?) in life is to prepare to avenge his father's future death. They really planned ahead in the old days!

Vidar's silence is usually interpreted as a ritual one. The young god vows to stay silent until he manages to accomplish his goal, like the teenage son in Little Miss Sunshine.

Vows of silence are totally hip

This same sense of single-minded dedication is also present in the poem Grímnismál ("Sayings of the Masked One"), when Odin says, in the midst of a mystic vision:
Brushwood grows and tall grass
widely in Vidar's land;
there the son gets off the back of a horse,
the brave one, to avenge his father.
Vidar is clearly too busy preparing for future battle to mow his lawn. Note to teenagers: this excuse for avoiding chores might not work so well in the 21st century.

Elsewhere in the Norse myths, Odin has a son named Váli specifically to avenge the killing of Balder, another one of his sons (it's all very complicated). The poem Baldrs draumar (“Balder's Dreams”) tells us that
[Váli] won't wash his hands nor comb his hair,
Until he's brought to the pyre Baldr's enemy.
This ritual of non-grooming is similar to the "playoff beard" of today's hockey players, who vow not to shave during the Stanley Cup playoffs. You're Canadian; I'm sure you understand. It also lines up with Vidar's vow of silence. These are both very public signs showing the dedication of the two young gods to their respective vengeance-bringing.

Vidar contemplates vengeance, no doubt silently

The parallels between the two gods are underscored by the fact that they will both survive the final battle at Ragnarök. The wise old giant of the poem Vafþrúðnismál (“Vafthrudnir's Sayings”) tells Odin that "Vidar and Vali will live in the temples of the gods" when Ragnarök is over. So we probably wouldn't be going too far if we guess that Odin had Vidar (like Váli) specifically so he could raise him as a god of vengeance.

What about this whole shoe thing, though? In Vafþrúðnismál, the giant tells Odin about the final battle:
The wolf will swallow the Father of Men,
Vidar will avenge this;
the cold jaws of the beast he will sunder in battle.
Snorri elaborates on exactly how Vidar will sunder the "cold jaws" of the wolf:
The wolf will swallow Odin. That will be the cause of his death. And immediately after Vidar will come forward and step with one foot on the lower jaw of the wolf. On this foot he will have a shoe for which the material has been being collected throughout all time: it is the waste pieces that people cut from their shoes at the toe and heel. Therefore anyone that is concerned to give assistance to the Æsir must throw these pieces away. With one hand he will grasp the wolf's upper jaw and tear apart its mouth and this will cause the wolf's death.
Talk about sundering! The 10th-century Gosforth Cross in England is thought to include a portrayal of Vidar fighting the wolf. Unfortunately, the foot with the great boot isn't visible (it's inside the wolf's mouth). It makes sense that you would need an especially thickly-soled shoe if you were planning to stick your foot inside the mouth of a giant wolf, doesn't it?

Vidar fighting the wolf on the Gosforth Cross
(you thought your dentist made you open wide)

The only thing we haven't addressed is Snorri's assertion that Vidar is "almost equal in strength to Thor." If he really is, shouldn't we see him in more of the Norse myths? Shouldn't he have some epic battles with Thor to see who's the most awesome of the Æsir?

Marvel Comics actually did try to imagine a battle
between Thor and Vidar. They forgot the giant boot.

The answer is actually quite simple. Thor's mortal enemy is the World Serpent, a snake so huge that it circles the entire planet as it lurks at the bottom of the ocean and waits for Ragnarök. The snake is the greatest and most terrifying of all the monsters of Norse mythology, and Thor is so evenly matched with it that they [SPOILER ALERT!] kill each other in the final battle.

Vidar's enemy is Fenris, the second most terrifying monster in all of Norse myth. Fenris is a giant wolf powerful enough to kill Odin, the chief of the Æsir – and Odin's no pushover! Vidar kills Fenris (and survives), so he must be the second strongest of the gods. Sometimes these things aren't so complicated.

I hope this avalanche of information tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the god with the "greatest boot." Thank you for being the first person to submit a question to the "Ask a Norse Mythologist" feature!


Unknown said...

no, thank you.
That was an excellent answer.

Ronald Kaiser said...

Thank you Karl-Erik for your Vidar portrait, a god we do not hear about very often. To me Vidar clearly represents the power of revenge and that is not an important part of Thor's task. Actually Vidar IS the god of revenge. Revenge was one important pillar in Germanic society and social structure. A free man was measured according to his ability to take revenge. To wait silently for years to conduct one final deadly stroke was the core of the germanic revenge culture represented in balders dreams i.e.: "[Váli] won't wash his hands nor comb his hair,
Until he's brought to the pyre Baldr's enemy."

Corky Swanson said...

I wish more would take vows of silence until they achieve their goal. It almost seems to be the reverse so often.

goldbot said...

Thanks for this awesome post! As a kid I had a book of Norse mythology and Vidar was my favourite, but he is seldom mentioned. This summarises his major points well. In my book I remember it also said he spent most of his time in his forest realm in silence chilling, so I guess that is a reference to his 'brushwood and grass' growing tall.

Unknown said...

I thought that Vali avenged his brothers deaththe day after he was born? I took the not washing and coming as part of the immediacy of his revenge or did I miss understand the story?

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...


I'd say that mythic time doesn't work quite the same as "normal" time; i.e. I wouldn't take the poetry quite so literally. The playoff beard concept really is a good way to think about what's happening here: an outward manifestation of a personal vow.

Unknown said...

Great article. I recently heard the song "Other Son of Odin" by the band Brothers of Metal and was wondering who they were talking about. With my limited knowledge I initially assumed it was talking about Baldur (since it mentions "surviving to the end"), but the whole shoe thing greatly confused me. This was very informative!

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