VIKING - 37: WHO STOLE IDUN'S APPLES? Single-handedly Loki Almost Brings Down Asgard
"None is so just and openhanded that they are not gladdened by a gift. None is so unselfish nor open-handed that they would turn away due reward".
"Hush, all of you! - aye, you in the corner at the back, that means you too!
I have another tale of the gods to tell you, a tale that very nearly ends in the gods' world ending and Loki's power surging. Let the hall-maids fill your cups, set yourselves down at your ease - as close to the hearth as your standing allows - and listen.
One bright summer's day out in the woods, when the birds were out hunting for their first meal of the day, Odin, Loki and Honir passed over the bridge Bifrost from Asgard into Midgard. They felt well in themselves, content in one another's company. They were off to look at a part of the Nine Worlds they had never before been.
The land was bathed in a faded blue, very nearly green aura that pricks out everything before the sun rises to its full height and lifts colours. These three crossed a barren plain that hitherto only winds had passed over. Even as man stirred in his slumbers before cock-crow in Midgard, the gods strode over sharp stony scree and made for the peak of a long-dead volcano.
Walking and talking helped pass the time, and in the fading light of day followed along the bed of a river that flowed milky-white down a glacier. Before them was a wide dale, a pattern of fields of crops that grew in shades of gold, brown and green.
Odin, Loki and Honir had not seen fit to take food with them, hoping to find something to eat along the way. They felt uneasy about the lack of food when they came across a herd of oxen. Loki looked them over, took hold of one and killed it. Meanwhile Odin and Honir gathered scattered branches and twigs from the ground in an oak grove and laid a fire. The ox was cut into large chunks which were laid on the fire.
The gods felt their saliva running from t he corners of their mouths at the rich smell of roasting meat. They hardly kept themselves from falling on it before it was properly cooked. When the meat seemed ready the fire was scattered and reached for the meat.
'It is not yet ready!' Odin stood again, taken aback. 'Plainly we were so hungry the time it took for this meat to only half-cook seemed too long'.
The other two raked the still-burning wood back together again and put the ox-meat back into it. A chill wind rushed through the dale and even though the sun still hastened across the heavens, chased by the wolf, the warmth had gone from the summer day. The three of them wrapped themselves in their cloaks and waited, hunched on the cold ground.
'Is it ready yet?' Honir asked. 'Shall I try it?'
'One day you will choke on your lack of confidence', Loki scolded, leaping to his feet. The fire was scattered again. 'It must be ready by now!'
Odin took a piece and screwed up his nose,
'Still not - yet it should be!'
'The fire is hot enough!' Honir spat.
Loki glowered down at the embers,
'And yet our meat is as raw as when we first put it in the fire!'
'There is something amiss', Odin looked up and about, sensing powers were at work.
'It is something perched up here on this branch', came the words and the gods looked up. An eagle sat there, a bigger eagle than they were used to seeing over Asgard.
'Let me eat my fill and I know then your ox-meat will be cooked to your taste'.
The gods stood, heads together, talking over the offer. Odin looked away and told the eagle there was nothing else for it.
Screeching suddenly, the eagle spread and flapped his great wings and swooped, settling on the meat. He snatched both shoulders and both halves of the rump. Eyeing the gods it started to tear away and gobble down the meat.
Angry, Loki raised his staff and hit the eagle with it. The bird was knocked off balance and dropped the meat, screeched again and took off. One end of his staff was lodged in the eagle's wings and Loki was unable to let go of it. He yelled and pulled, twisting it to no avail. The eagle flew fast and close enough to the ground to give the god a rough time. He was dragged across Midgard's ruddy earth, knees, legs and feet scratched by thorns and rocks until they bled like rivers.
'For pity's sake!' Loki yelled but the eagle ignored his pleas. It dragged Loki on his backside over the glacier until he was almost skinned raw.
'Have pity!' Loki yelled once more, the feeling in his outstretched arms that they would be torn from his body.
'Only if you swear -' the eagle soared into the air then, to stop Loki's pain.
'Whatever!' Loki screamed. 'Anything you say but have pity on me!'
'Swear that you will bring Idun with her apples from Asgard!
Loki shut his eyes tightly and pursed his lips. He said nothing. He knew the eagle must be one of the giants in this bird's shape. The eagle swooped once again and Loki grimaced in pain as his kneecaps, shins, ankles and toes were bashed time and again against rocks, boulders and gravel.
'Stop!' Loki yelled, 'I promise - I will do it!'
'Seven days from now', the eagle told him. 'Bring Idun over Bifrost, when the sun is at its height'.
'I will', Loki nodded, biting his upper lip.
The Trickster's hands became freed and he fell to the rocky ground. Slowly he gathered his strength and stood, looking over his wounds and grazes. In the darkness he limped back to his friends.
A guide to Norse belief systems, ritual and ideology. What surrounded these beliefs, what led to them and who were the gods? They had a very picturesque notion about the creation of the world, that drew partly on eastern religion. Like the Romans before them, everywhere the Norsemen went they took with them something of where they had been besides the trading they'd done.
Loki leads Idun astray
The seven days passed. Each time Loki saw Idun she was with her husband Bragi, with Thor or with Frey - never alone. Until on the last day he saw her alone, humming softly and carefree, warmed by the sun. She almost danced as she walked, untroubled by the world about, the petty spats, the suffering and battles on Midgard's plain below. Over one browned arm hung her basket of big, golden apples.
'Idun!' Loki called her.
Bragi's woman stopped and half-turned to see him near, an unasked question on her lips.
'I came at once! You cannot think - I hardly dare believe my eyes!'
'Slow, Loki', Idun laughed.
'Deep in the woods beyond Bifrost I came across a tree unlike all the rest I have seen in the Nine Worlds. It stands in a thwait by itself, blessed by the sun above'.
Idun's eyes opened wide and Loki's words brought the tree to life for her. Anyone less innocent would have seen his words for what they were, sham and straight out of his head.
'Idun, it bears big, golden apples', Loki prodded an apple in her basked. 'It is the same as yours. Perhaps, like yours, they are full with life unending. We should gather them as soon as we can!'
She smiled and nodded, and began to follow him toward Bifrost. He took her hand and led her over the rainbow bridge. Their feet barely touched the bridge as they crossed into Midgard. To where the eagle awaited them in a thicket.
Loki took Idun to the thicket, to where a crab-apple tree stood in the thwait. Idun laughed, but not in good humour, then sobbed bitterly,
'What do you take me for, Loki? These are not golden apples -'
Just then the eagle beat its huge wings and swooped, taking her into the blue sky and across the sea to Jotunheim. As Loki thought, the eagle was none other than one of the giants. In fact the eagle was Thjazi.
Thjazi took Idun high up to his storm-stronghold in Thrymhjem, high in the cold mountains past the glacier.
'This is where you will stay', Thjazi gloated. 'Without you and your enchanted apples the gods will age - and wither away just like the poor folk in Midgard. I am the one who will forever stay young!'
Although Snorri Sturlusson lived in Iceland long converted - by a national ballot, so to speak in AD1000 - he passed on the stories and beliefs held in pagan Scandinavia for posterity. The stories are colourful, as are the traditions in a part of the world often covered in ice and snow. Tradition was passing on the old stories in an oral sense, huddled around the hearth whilst strong winds groaned around their homes, bears and wolves hunted for easy prey. Even Vikings stayed indoors until the weather allowed them to sail!
The Prose Edda
The gods became fretful with Idun away. Without her enchanted apples they knew they would age more quickly, they would wither, their skin like tree bark. They began to sag and wrinkle within their shirts and robes. To an outsider they would be like any other old folk in Midgard. Their skin sagged over their rib-cages, puffy cheeks almost hid eyes that began to water in the chill of the evening, bloodshot like old sots who spent their lives at the ale benches.
One god's hands trembled as though with the palsy; another lost all his hair, what was left dangled over his eyebrows and ears - another lost control of his bowels. Their bones ached and they felt as if their bones were too heavy and their heads lolled. The spring in their step had gone, what was left was pain with every stride. The strength ebbed from them by the hour.
Their thoughts began to wander. One god began to lose his reason and lay into his neighbour for niggling shortcomings, another rambled like a fool. By and by fear gripped them, but they could not master their thoughts enough to see beyond only the life of a lit candle.
Odin knew he had to master his own growing weakness. He called on the gods to make their way to him. Idun and Loki were missing, the Allfather saw. He looked at them all before him, shuffling, ungainly, muttering.
'We must find Idun', he told them what they knew already. 'You know how we are without her. Who was the last to see her?'
'I saw Loki guide her over Bifrost', said Heimdall's manservant. This brought a gloomy silence. It was clear who was answerable for their ills.
'Somehow Loki must be caught', Odin said out aloud what they thought, but who among them was going to catch him?
They searched for him, they and their more able household servants, in every hall, outbuilding, nook and cranny. He was found, asleep in Idun's field, amongst a small pile of cores. He had to be manhandled back to Vallaskjalf where Odin charged him with the task of finding Idun.
'I know where she is', Loki smirked. 'It is true I walked out of Asgard with her. I had no choice in it, I was honour-bound'.
Hollow laughter echoed around the walls. Honour? :Loki? How could both be linked? Nevertheless he told them of being taken by the eagle, and being bashed about until he agreed to do the eagle - Thjazi's - bidding.
'Did you have to do his bidding?' Odin glowered.
Loki's eyes went down to the stone floor, unable to look the Allfather in the eye. Just then he looked snake-like in the way his eyes shifted.
'As you associate with eagles, perhaps we should carve the blood-eagle on your back?'
Loki drew back, horror-struck at the thought,
'No - Allfather', he dropped to his knees, hands clasped, begging.
'And you rib-cage will be broken asunder', Odin snarled.
'Like an eagle's wings!' Odin went on.
Loki went white with fear,
'I will find her, Allfather. Idun and her apples will be brought safely back!'
Odin pushed Loki away with one boot, that fell off his foot. Loki sneered, but cringed when the Allfather made a bony fist at him.
Freyja pulled Loki away with all her might and he followed her to her own hall, where she took down the falcon skin that hung there.
Loki told her,
'You are not quite the beauty you were, now you are bald and haggard'.
She said nothing, but stared at him. Her body shook and she wept golden tears as she handed the falcon skin to the Trickster.
A new slant on the Trickster God, Loki, to give him a more sympathetic hearing than hitherto. I've got a copy myself, still ploughing through it! (I seem to be permanently short of time these days). Take a look through and follow Loki through adventures interpreted by Yorkshirewoman Joanne Harris.
The Gospel of Loki
Idun gives the gods their apples
Thrymhjem seemed to grow out of the living rock, perched atop its steep cliff. Winds howled and groaned around the giant's stronghold, found their way into the great cave-like halls and chilled the very bones.
Loki alighted there in the early evening to find Thjazi was not around, not was his daughter Skadi. Thry had gone together to catch fish, so there would be no-one to challenge him when he stepped on the ledge to fly away with Idun. She sat before a fire in a smoke-filled side chamber of the main hall, huddled with her arms clasped around her shoulders in a vain bid to keep the cold at bay. She looked balefully at Loki as he stretched the falcon wings and mumbled the spell that would change him into a great gyrfalcon. He changed Idun into a walnut, the better for carrying down from these lofty heights. There was no other way she could have left Thrymhjem.
Not long afterward Thjazi came home with Skadi. Once he knew Idun was no longer about, he pulled on his eagle skin and set off across the high peaks, looking for Loki. There would be an age before Loki could think himself safe from Thjazi's grasp, and he giant had the greater wingspan by far! Loki was within sight of Asgard when Thjazi drew near.
Seated in Hlidskjalf, Odin the one-eyed could see across the Nine Worlds and nothing could hide from his gaze. No man nor elf, creature of any kind could move without him seeing. What the other gods were unable to see he fixed his one eye and followed, like an eagle. So it was that he saw Loki in his falcon shape with the great Thjazi close on his tail. He called on the gods to hasten as fast as their aching bones would allow onto the Iduvellir, the plain within Asgard's walls, to pile high all the wood, bundles of plane shavings and dead branches from the trees against the wall.
'Let the falcon in and then touch your torches to the heaped wood!'
Still summer air began to whirl with the stirrings on the Iduvellir. It was as though a storm were about to break. At last, just as the falcon flew over the wall the last bundle landed onto the pile and a lit torch landed after it. The flames shot up, hardly visble against the strong light of the sun, with a new wind brought down by the Allfather. Thjazi, unable to stop himself flew straight across the flames. He flapped his wings to no purpose and landed in a singed heap against the walls of Asgard. The gods blundered back through the gates and bludgeoned Thjazi to death with their walking sticks and any logs they could find.
Loki took off Frejya's falcon skin, looking over the wizened gods who clustered around him. Their eyes asked, begged him for knowledge of Idun's whereabouts. He laughed mockingly at them, but on seeing the Allfather looming over him, Loki crouched and took out the walnut from the pouch at his waist, chanting the spell that would being her back to her usual shape.
Idun stood, youthful and healthy as ever before the gods and took her basket of apples amongst them, handing out the golden fruit to the ailing, wizened, hardly recognisable gods and goddesses. The sighs that arose when the soft flesh of the fruit slipped between their lips sounded like a mild summer wind through the trees.
The Allfather smiled as he let the juice of his apple - squeezed between his gnarled and bony fingers - slide through his puffy lips. Not at once, but through the long dusk, the gods and goddesses regained their old selves, lithe, supple, the colour coming back to their hair and skin.