Norse mythology

All posts tagged Norse mythology

A to Z: Baldr

Published April 2, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, he’s so basic it’s almost cheating, but yep, here you go, today’s mythical figure is Baldr, son of Odin and Frigg.  There were a lot of options for B, but I wanted to go with Baldr because this is what he looks like in the Shin Megami Tensei games:

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

With a character design like that, how could I pass him up?

Oddly, he doesn’t show up in any MegaTen games until Devil Survivor, which started out on the Nintendo DS, though the one I’ve actually played was Devil Survivor Overclocked, the expanded 3DS remaster.  (Technically, I started the original version, but…)  He probably wasn’t used prior to that point because of his nature and personality, which I’ll get to in a minute.  The reason he got used in Devil Survivor was actually a plot thing:  they changed his name to Beldr (not entirely wrong, considering his name was Beldeg to the Anglo-Saxons) and made the “Bel” part derived from the Akkadian word for “lord” or “master” (which is entirely wrong), and the plot revolved around various demons whose names started with “Bel.”  (I won’t go into further detail, however, as I don’t want to spoil the game’s plot, in case anyone wants to play it and hasn’t yet.  It’s a good game, if you have the patience to get past the initial difficulty curve.  I can’t really recommend the manga adaptation, though.)

He’s not summonable in Devil Survivor, but he is summonable in Shin Megami Tensei IV and Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse, and this is his compendium entry from those games:

The god of light in Norse lore and son of Odin and Frigg.  He is married to Nanna and has two brothers, Hod and Hermod, and a son named Forseti.

He was loved by all the gods, but after having a nightmare of his death, Frigg made all the plants and animals swear not to harm Baldur.  Only the mistletoe was passed over as it was too young.  Hearing this, Loki tricked Hod into shooting a mistletoe at Baldur, which killed him.  Hel promised to revive Baldur if every living thing cried for him, but the giantess Thokk refused to weep.  When it was found that Thokk was Loki in disguise, the gods punished him.  With the world’s light gone, it took its first steps toward Ragnorak.

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Missing Letter Monday No “Z” – “Loki’s Christmas Guest”

Published December 25, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Loki’s Christmas Guest*

*Warning:  has very little Christmas-related content

            A particularly raucous — and raunchy — office Christmas party was playing out at full volume on the central television.  The one to the right featured the usual maddened, last-minute shopping at a particularly wild American mall.  The one to the left, of course, featured a rapid montage of mortals being trapped underneath the mistletoe:  that was always Loki’s favourite.  The chaos of the conflicting audio streams of the three monitors was the best music to his ears.  (Certainly far better than listening to just one of the streams by itself:  how the mortals could stand listening to so much of that unfiltered dreck mystified even him.)

The noise of someone pounding on the front door could be heard even over the delightful cacophony, however, and Loki wasn’t fool enough to think it was someone dropping over for a casual chat.  The friendly guests knocked:  they didn’t try to break the door in.

The obvious ill-will of their visitor didn’t stop Sigyn from answering the door, naturally.  She was far too dutiful for that.  Besides, she knew that Loki could handle anything any half-wit might want to dish out.  And only a half-wit would behave in such an uncivilised manner as their current guest.

“Where is he?!”

Ah.  Who else could it be, really?  Most of the other gods in Asgard had calmed down over the centuries, but that hot-head…he was never going to learn.

“My husband is observing mortals in the hall,” Sigyn replied, her voice melodious as always, uncowed by their guest’s barbaric fury.  Her constancy was both a blessing and a curse:  sometimes, it irritated Loki so much that he couldn’t stand to be in the same world as her, and other times it made her the loveliest female he had ever set eyes on.  Just at the moment, it was slightly annoying, but not worth more than an eye-roll or two.

As the interloper stormed his way into the den, Loki took the opportunity to revise his appearance a bit.  Visitors from other realms might not do more than twitch an eyebrow at the sight of a comfy, microfiber robe and warm, furry slippers, but an Aesir?  A risky prospect at best, and with that Aesir, a recipe for disaster.  But by the time Odin’s most comical son entered the hall, Loki was ‘appropriately’ dressed:  like his visitor, he suddenly looked as though it was still the Middle Ages.

“It’s all your fault!” Thor bellowed as soon as he arrived, beady eyes glaring at Loki above a fearsome scowl that was almost overwhelmed by the bushy, blond beard that hadn’t been groomed in eons, by the looks of it.

“That is usually your assessment for everything,” Loki agreed.  “What, exactly, have I done now?”

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Loki at Christmas Time

Published December 24, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

Among the gods who were no longer regularly worshiped, very little was more annoying than the sight of all the mortals getting excited for a religious festival.  Which one was most frustrating had changed with the years, of course.  Just at the present, Christmas was the most aggravating of all, even though it was — in large part — no longer religious in nature, being celebrated by any number of mortals who had little or no affection for Christianity.

While the period surrounding Christmas was frustrating for them all, it was worst to the Greek gods, because all their Roman counterparts inevitably came by, rubbing their noses in the continued popularity of Saturnalia.  After a few decades of that, Kronos started getting involved in the self-satisfied gloating, making it all the worse.  Most of the Greek gods tried to deal with it in an appropriately Stoic fashion — what Nietzsche would have called an Apollonian fashion, despite that Apollo was actually one of the ones least capable of Stoic reserve — but Hermes had never gone in for any of that self-denial nonsense.  If he didn’t like something, he didn’t deal with it.

So when the Roman gods came by to gloat, he usually went elsewhere.  He could count on his Roman counterpart to get distracted by the first pretty girl he saw — not that Hermes was any different — so he didn’t have to worry about being chased down to be gloated at elsewhere.

Usually, he went to hang out with other gods like himself.  Coyote was a favorite, even though he was still believed in, if not worshiped as such.  Still, in the past few centuries he was often standoffish, what with the European people coming in and oppressing his own people, and in the last few decades, he had started to become downright testy, because the white people were so rapidly destroying the natural world.  It was hard to blame him for his anger, but it certainly made him less pleasant company.  So Hermes had tried spending a few holiday seasons with Anansi, but such terrible things were happening in his part of the world that it wasn’t much fun to be around him, either.

This year, Hermes had hit on a good plan.  He would go to the frozen north and visit Loki.  The lands formerly inhabited by the vicious Vikings were now one of the most pleasant and peaceful regions of the world, and the other Norse gods still hadn’t forgiven Loki, so there wouldn’t be anyone pestering them.  Sure, there wouldn’t be any pretty girls — apart from Loki’s lovely wife, of course — but Hermes could go for a month or so without girls.

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W is for Wayland

Published April 27, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

W

Or Weland, Wieland or Volund.  So I probably should have gone with “Volund” yesterday, and found something else for today.  *sigh*

So, Wayland — however you want to spell his name — was a god and a blacksmith.  I’m going with the Anglo-Saxon name, but his story doesn’t actually differ from the Norse or Teutonic versions…except that in some of those there are Valkyries.  You may have heard of some of the things Wayland created:  he made Beowulf’s chainmail, the swords Gram, Balmung and Durandal, and it was claimed that he built all those stone circles and ancient barrows in England, as well as the chalk figures on the hills in the southern part of the country.

Wayland’s tale begins when he and his brothers encounter some swan maidens, and decide to settle down with them.  (This is where the Valkyries are in some of the Norse versions, needless to say.)  It goes great for a while, but then the swan maidens leave.  None of my sources say why, but if they were swan maidens, maybe they just found their wings/flying robes/whatevers and flew off again, as swan maidens usually do.

In any case, Wayland and his brothers want to find their brides again, and they all set out to search for them, but they’d never seen any movies (well, obviously) and so they split up.

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P is for Pyerun

Published April 19, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

P

Or Perunu.  Or Perkonis.  Or Peron.  Or…well, there are a lot of different names, but I’ve chosen (somewhat randomly) to go with Pyerun, which is the Russian name.  Some of the names actually mean “thunder” or something related to it, but not all of them.

Whatever you want to call him, he’s a thunder god, and it’s possible that his names are derivations — in the various local languages — from the same Indo-European root that also produced Paranjanya, which is another name for Indra, who is also a storm god.

Pyerun was a god of thunder, but also of rain — of storms in general, really — which gave him some fertility aspects, and a duty to use his thunder to wake the earth itself from the winter sleep.  He also daily rescued the sun from being imprisoned by darkness, which must have made him a very busy god!

What I’d like to focus on, however, are two particular aspects of Pyerun — or rather, two of his accouterments.  He had a chariot that he rode through the sky, which was pulled by a huge male goat.  Even more tellingingly, he had an axe that he used to kill demons, which no matter how many times he threw it, always returned to his hand.

So, even if you only know the dreamy movie version, I’m sure you recognize that Pyerun’s axe is obviously similar to Thor’s magic hammer, Mjöllnir.  But the chariot and the goat are also like Thor:  he, too, had a goat-driven chariot.  Of course, his was pulled by two goats, and they had the remarkable ability of returning to life after having been killed and eaten, so long as their bones were still undamaged.  (Thor gained some useful servants that way, actually:  once after killing and cooking Thor’s goats, the poor fellow providing the god hospitality broke open one of the leg bones for the marrow, so the goat came back to life lamed in one leg.  In recompense for ruining his goat, the man’s whole family became Thor’s servants.)

Naturally, the relative proximity of the two cultures in both time and space means that Pyerun (and his neighbors/other selves)  was almost certainly at least partially influenced by the Norse myths of Thor.

(Which probably means I should have done something else today, but this was fast, and I have a paper to write that’s been hampered by all sorts of unrelated stuff, so…this ended up being what I wrote about.  Sorry if it seems like a cop-out.)

Of course, on the other hand, Pyerun’s fertility aspects are absent in Thor, but present in many other storm gods, so Pyerun is more than just the Slavic version of Thor.  Likewise, so far as I know, Thor never rescued the sun from the darkness (or anything else, for that matter) so that also is Pyerun’s own tale.

K is for Kamadhenu

Published April 13, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

K

Kamadhenu is a cow who symbolizes fertility and creation in the Hindu belief system.  I’ve found two alternate versions of her origins:  in one, she’s the daughter of Rohini, the sun goddess, and in the other she’s the first being to emerge from the Sea of Milk after it’s been churned.  (The churning of the Sea of Milk was in order to create amrita, the divine food that makes the gods immortal.  So amrita is much like Idun’s golden apples, except that as far as I can tell the churning of the Sea of Milk was from the beginning the gods putting one over on the demons, rather than the tale of Idun’s abduction by Thiazi, where the gods deceiving the Jotunn only comes up late in the story…not that the Norse gods would ever be slow to kill a frost giant.)

Although the churning of the Sea of Milk is not a cosmogony, the Sea of Milk is the primal sea, so there may well be cosmogonic overtones, or at least hold-overs from some earlier cosmogonic tale.  (Hm.  Is that actually a word?  Maybe the word is “cosmogonical”?  No, that looks worse.  Well, even if it’s not a word, it’s formed the right way from an actual word…)

Cow_as_a_mother

An illustration from the Mahabharata. Wikimedia Commons.

One of my sources describes Kamadhenu as “the cow of plenty.”  Presumably, since she’s from a Hindu tradition, that doesn’t mean that her meat can literally be carved out as many times as one wants and it’ll always grow back again.  (Don’t laugh:  Thor had goats that could do that.  He’d have them killed, cooked and served, and as long as the bones weren’t damaged, he could bring them back to life again, fully-fleshed, the next day.)  I’m not sure if her “cow of plenty” function meant she had an ability to make all plants in her vicinity grow to abundance, or if it just meant she could give a never-ending supply of milk.

In any case, no matter what function “cow of plenty” describes, I came across a Ugandan myth involving a magical cow with powers of plenty, though in this case I think they absolutely mean the ability to provide endless milk.

This Ugandan cow of plenty belonged to Kintu, the original (and, at that time, only) human.  Eventually, Kintu fell in love with Nambi, the daughter of the sky god Gulu.  Kintu asked for his beloved’s hand in marriage, but her father wasn’t eager to have a human son-in-law, and didn’t want to play fair about it, either.  First, he stole Kintu’s magic cow and hid it among his own herds in the sky.  If that was a test to see if Kintu could figure out what happened to his cow, Kintu failed it, because he just tried to live quietly and patiently without milk, until Nambi told him where his cow had gone.

When Kintu showed up in the sky to reclaim his cow, Gulu set him four tasks, each one impossible.  Kintu was led to a hut filled with enough food for a hundred men and told to empty it by morning; when Kintu couldn’t eat it all, he dug holes in the floor and dumped the rest through the floor, letting it plummet back to earth, bringing life and fertility to the land and sea.  The second task was to split rocks with a soft axe made of copper, but Kintu was able to use wooden wedges and water to split the rocks, using the axe as a hammer instead of as an axe.  The third test was to fill up a bottomless water pot; Kintu used the clinging properties of dew to get around the inherent difficulties there.  The last task was for Kintu to pick out his cow from the herd as it was driven past in front of him.  Nambi didn’t wait to see if Kintu could do it; she turned into a bee and told her lover to choose the animals on whose horns she landed.  Then she landed not only on the horns of Kintu’s cow, but also on the horns of the three calves the cow had given birth to during her time in the heavens.

Kintu won his bride, but he also won the unpleasant attentions of one of her brothers:  Death, who started by hunting Kintu, and then continued to hunt his descendants ever after.

Most of that doesn’t actually tie in with Kamadhenu in the least, I realize, but once I started the story, I wanted to finish it.

Kamadhenu’s status as a cow with the power of fertility is reminiscent of Geush Urvan, a bull that embodied the power of the earth itself in ancient Iranian beliefs.  It lived for three thousand years, only to be killed by Mithras.  Once Geush Urvan was dead, the power that had once been housed in the earth passed the sky and the gods who lived there, while what little power remained in the bull’s body was broken down and made into all the plants and animals of the earthly realm.  (It was because of his killing of the universal bull that the Mithraic ceremonies in Roman times always centered around the ritual slaughter of a bull, of course.)

From Geush Urvan we can get to another primal bovine, another cow this time.  Specifically, Audumla, the second being ever to exist, according to the Norse story of creation.

Apparently, before there was life, there was the ice of Niflheim.  From that ice emerged Ymir, the primal frost giant.  He was soon followed by Auðumbla, a cow who must have been of quite prodigious size, because the primal frost giant — much larger than the garden-variety Jotunn of the later tales — was able to nourish himself by suckling directly at her teats.  While she was thus feeding the first giant, Auðumbla was licking away at the ice, and eventually revealed Buri, who would go on to father Odin and his brothers.  Eventually, Odin and his brothers slew Ymir (there’s a shock, right?) and the world was created from his corpse.  (But I don’t know what happened to Auðumbla.  Probably ended up in Odin’s stables…)

Okay, so that wasn’t so much “comparative cow mythology” as “a random collection of cow-related myths” but…okay, actually, I think I really like the term “comparative cow mythology.”  I need to find a place to use that in a story.  That’s fun.

I is for Idun

Published April 11, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

I

Eternal youth was not an issue that the gods of Asgard had to give much thought to.  Not usually.  Because they had a goddess of youth, a beautiful maid whose name was Idun.  She kept them all eternally young by giving them golden apples.

So long as they had Idun and her apples, the gods had nothing to fear from the ravages of time.

Of course, everyone else wanted Idun and the golden apples for themselves.  The Jotunn — as the greatest enemy of the gods — were especially desirous of the succulent flesh of those golden apples.

But the gods guarded Idun very closely, and no matter how many frost giants tried to get into Asgard to get at her, they always failed, and usually ended up with a pummeled skull for their troubles.  (You’d think Thor actually enjoyed killing them, looking at how eagerly he went about the task!  Oh, wait…he did enjoy it.)

But even the Jotunn sometimes found opportunities smiling upon them.

There was a powerful Jotunn shape-changer named Thiazi who preferred to spend most of his time in the form of a bird, swooping over Midgard.  Maybe he had a deep reason for it, or maybe it was just the thrill of flight.  All that matters is that one day he was flying overhead when he saw Odin, Loki and Honir in the midst of roasting an ox down on the surface of Midgard.  (Don’t ask me why:  maybe they were slumming it.)

But the ox wouldn’t burn, because it was under an enchantment.

Now, such a wise god as Odin and such a tricky god as Loki really ought to have been able to tell that.  They’ve got no excuse.  But Thiazi could see the enchantment, and he could see that here was a good chance to stick it to the gods a little.  He landed beside the ox — still in his eagle form — and told them about the enchantment on it, promising that he’d break the spell if they let him have all the meat he wanted from it.

Again, they shouldn’t have needed his help, and he knew that perfectly well.  Who could be better at breaking enchantments than the all-seeing Odin, or the eternally crafty Loki?  But Thiazi thought it would be silly to waste the opportunity, and that was why he made the offer.

To his great surprise, they accepted his offer.

So Thiazi broke the spell on the ox, waited for the meat to roast, and then grabbed hold of its succulent flesh in his beak and tore.

All the meat came off in one huge chunk, leaving nothing behind but bones and some entrails as Thiazi soared off into the sky.

The gods, outraged at seeing their dinner flying away, tried to stop Thiazi from getting away with his prize.

The only one who came close was Loki, who stabbed him in the side with a stick.  That shouldn’t have stopped Thiazi from flying away — and indeed it didn’t stop him! — but it did let Loki tag along, because he had fused his hands to the other side of the stick.

As to what happened next, well, you could ask Loki, or you could ask Thiazi, though you might find his answer rather mute.

Loki, for what it’s worth, claims that he was helpless as they flew along through the air over Midgard, and that Thiazi demanded a reward for safely releasing Loki.  (Thiazi’s daughter Skadi has a different tale to tell, insisting that the mischief was all Loki’s idea, because he thought it might be good for a laugh.)

Whatever the truth of the matter, Loki paid Thiazi’s price:  he smuggled Idun and her golden apples out of Asgard, handing her over to Thiazi.

But why did Idun go with him?  No one knows:  Loki says it was because he was just too charming to resist, and Idun never seems to want to answer the question.  Maybe we’re happier not knowing.

In any case, the gods felt Idun’s absence very quickly, and soon they were growing old at an alarming rate.  (Even faster than you or I!)

It was, predictably, the sharp-eyed Heimdall who let them know that Loki was behind the disappearance of Idun, and it was when they confronted Loki about Idun’s disappearance that he told them the sad tale of his near death at the talons of Thiazi.

None of the gods were terribly convinced by the story, but they didn’t really care, either.  All they cared about was getting Idun back, and since it was Loki who had lost her, it would have to be Loki who retrieved her, unless he wanted to be the first god to taste death.  (As often as they threatened to kill him, you would think Loki would have more fear of the monotony of the threats than of the threatened death.)

Well, Loki wasn’t particularly eager to be slowly bludgeoned to death by a Thor weakened with age, so he agreed to retrieve Idun and the golden apples.

Freyja had a cloak that allowed her to turn into a speedy hawk, and Loki borrowed it to go track down Thiazi.  Once he found Thiazi’s home, Loki waited in a tree as if he was an ordinary bird, and even Thiazi didn’t notice him there.  (Perhaps because he was molting a bit; even in hawk form, he was aging rapidly without Idun’s assistance.)

Eventually, Thiazi went out for another flight, and Loki hurriedly flew inside the instant the larger bird was gone.

For ease of transport, Loki turned Idun and her apples into a nut, then grabbed it up in one of his talons, and set off for Asgard as quickly as his wings would take him.

Thiazi returned home long before Loki could reach Asgard — he hadn’t even left Jotunnheim on his little flight, so the theft was all too quickly discovered — and he set out in pursuit, knowing that his massive eagle wings would let him fly far faster than Loki’s little hawk wings.

It might have gone badly for Loki if the gods hadn’t been expecting such a turn of events.  Foresight was, after all, Odin’s strong suit.

Loki zipped above the walls of Asgard and dove through an open window.  Then the gods raised a mighty bonfire on top of all the walls of Asgard, and the flames signed Thiazi’s feathers, sending him plummeting to the earth.  Dazed and helpless, Thiazi wasn’t able to get away in time, and Thor’s hammer crushed his skull, despite the wobble of age in Thor’s elbows.

Inside, Loki hastily restored Idun to her normal self — and she hadn’t even grown old, since she had never been deprived of her golden apples — and she distributed the golden apples to the gods, quickly restoring them to their normal selves.


*sigh*

I really didn’t want to use this one.  Not because it’s all that bad of a comparison, it’s just that I used Norse for “H” as well!  Plus I was trying to stay out of Europe as much as possible.  But all my other “I” leads sort of fizzled out…

Okay, right, sorry, on with the comparison.  Obviously, I’m going Greek again here, but at least it’s two-fold.

First, you’ve got Idun herself:  obviously she’s easily compared to Hebe, in that they’re both goddesses of youth.  In fact, both their names mean “youth.” On the other hand, there aren’t any myths involving Hebe being abducted or the gods growing old without her care.  Not as far as I know, anyway.  (Though there is at least one myth of her power being used to restore youth to an old mortal.  (Her husband’s nephew Iolaos, specifically.  Oddly, though, her husband’s mother is still alive, even though her grandson is aged and feeble.  How does that work?  Just what kind of woman is Alcmene anyway?))  She could, perhaps, also be compared to Ganymede, who rather took over Hebe’s job at some point.  And he’s often associated with eagles, his abduction having become — at some point — the work of an eagle (or Zeus in the form of an eagle) rather than the earlier whirlwind.  But there’s not really much in the way of myths about Ganymede, either, apart from his abduction and the price Zeus sent to his father in recompense.

The second comparison isn’t so much Idun as her golden apples:  there are golden apples in Greek mythology, too.  Actually, there are multiple types of golden apples, but I’m thinking here of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.  (The ones used to trick Atalanta are decidedly very different, as is the golden apple hurled by Eris at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis.  No way any of those apples confer immortality or eternal youth!)  The ancient texts don’t really go into a lot of detail about why the Hesperides are guarding those golden apples, but a lot of modern authors — myself included — have assumed that they play some role in the creation of nectar, and/or the eternal youth of the gods.

It’s funny, now that I think about it.

I really can’t think of a single ancient text that implies anything of the sort, but I was so convinced of it that I made the role of those golden apples in the creation of nectar a major plot point in one of my novels.

I wonder if that means our modern perception of this particular Greek myth has actually been colored by the Norse myth of Idun and her golden apples?

That’d actually be pretty cool.

 

H is for Hrimthurs

Published April 9, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

H

When the Aesir had only first claimed their dominion over the Vanir, the Jotunn and all the other beings, they had no home in which to live.  They needed a place they could fortify against their enemies, and so they contracted a master builder, who would create the magnificent walls of Asgard for them.

But this builder was such a master that he demanded the most astonishing price:  he would only build their walls if they gave him the goddess Freyja for his wife, with a dowry of the sun and the moon!

Not one god was willing to accept that, least of all Freyja!

But they wanted to see Asgard built, and they knew that this was the craftsman who would do the best job.  They argued about it long into the night, and eventually decided that the best thing to do was to get him to build the walls, but make sure they wouldn’t have to pay him.  (Even Freyja agreed to that.)  So they said they would accept his terms, so long as he built it in but a few short seasons — instead of the years he had initially asked for — and without any man’s (or god’s) help.

The builder, steadfast in his desire to marry the beautiful Freyja at any cost, agreed, but requested that he at least be allowed the help of his faithful stallion.

The gods were reluctant to allow even that.  (Freyja didn’t want to marry that filthy, unwashed, smelly builder!)

“What can he accomplish with a simple horse?” Loki pointed out.  “You’re all fretting about nothing, like a pack of old women.”

Thor — being Thor — threatened to hit Loki in the face with his hammer for making fun of him, but the rest of the gods reluctantly agreed with him, and told the builder that he could use his horse to aid him in his task.

But the builder’s horse was Svaðilfari, the finest and grandest horse any man — or god — had ever seen.  Svaðilfari could pull many tons of rock without breaking a sweat, and did so without any sign of complaint or strain.  The horse’s feats were so mighty that the gods feared they would have to hand Freyja over to the builder after all!  Loki laughed that maybe she should marry the horse, since it was the horse who had actually built the walls, but no one else found that funny, especially Freyja.  (Though, in truth, she probably would have preferred the horse to its owner.)

As the deadline was nearly up, and the walls were complete except for the gates, the gods began to fret, and demanded that — since he was the one who had gotten them into that situation — Loki must do something to get them out of it.  Otherwise, Odin assured him, he’d let his irritable son do whatever he wanted to Loki, which was likely to involve a magic hammer and Loki’s skull.

Not really wanting to have his head pounded into powder, Loki sighed, and agreed to distract the horse so the builder couldn’t finish his task.

Loki knew better than to try tempting the stallion out of the stable with a few apples.  That wouldn’t work on even a fine mortal horse, and Svaðilfari was anything but mortal.

There was only one thing Loki could do to stop the walls from being completed, much as he was loath to do it.

The next day, the builder was hard at work, when suddenly Svaðilfari stopped pulling the final load of stone, broke free from his harness, and went tearing off into the nearby woods.

Irritated that he might be denied the woman he loved after he had worked so hard for her, the builder chased after his horse, and soon found out that what had distracted his stallion had proved just how alike they two were:  Svaðilfari had run off after a mare in heat, and the mare was doing her very best not to get caught.

Feeling sorry for his horse, the builder rigged up a little surprise for the mare, making sure the stallion would be able to catch her.  He was sure, after all, that it would be over and done with in time for him to get Asgard finished up as agreed.

But it didn’t.

The deadline passed by, and the gates of Asgard still hadn’t been built.

Even worse, the gods were all smirking at the builder, and Thor made a crass comment about men who run off after strange women.  It had all been a set-up!  The builder could see that now, and in his rage, he bellowed his hatred of the Aesir and the Vanir, and threatened to bring his people back and tear down those walls he had worked so hard to build.

For the builder was one of the Hrimthurs, a particularly powerful kind of Jotunn.

Once the gods knew that the builder was really a frost giant, they wasted no time on further niceties.

Thor pulled out Mjöllnir, and shattered the builder’s skull as easily as an ordinary man would crush an egg.  Because, Hrimthurs or not, he was just a builder; he wasn’t a warrior.

The gods were talking and laughing, thoroughly pleased with themselves for having exposed the villain and prevented his evil plot to marry Freyja, when Loki returned.  They laughed further that Loki was still disguised as a mare, and had the passionate Svaðilfari still trailing after him.  Loki rolled his horse eyes at them, but couldn’t retort, since horses can’t talk.  Besides, he knew he would have the last laugh soon enough; Svaðilfari was the finest sire of horse-kind.  (And, indeed, Odin never again laughed at Loki’s dalliance with a horse after the mare-Loki gave birth to the swift Sleipnir!)

Proud of their might, the gods went into the newly built halls of Asgard to feast and celebrate their defeat of the wicked Hrimthurs.


had to include this myth, because it’s the origin of one of my favorite little tidbits of Norse mythology, namely the fact that Loki is Sleipnir’s mother.

It also reminds me of a very similar tale from Norse myths, namely that of the dwarven smith Alvis, who had created masterful weapons for the gods.  His price had been the hand of Thor’s daughter in marriage, and all the gods had agreed to that price up front.  But when it came time to pay Alvis, Thor suddenly realized that he really didn’t want a dwarf for a son-in-law.  So he sits down with the dwarf, and starts grilling him, peppering him with questions.  Alvis assumes that he’s just trying to be a responsible father (responsibility in non-combat situations being something rather alien to Thor) and answers them all, determined to let his knowledge and eloquence prove that he’s an ideal husband, despite being a dwarf.

But that hadn’t been Thor’s plan.  He kept Alvis talking all night, waiting for the sun’s first light, because he knew that as a dwarf, Alvis would turn to stone as soon as the light of the sun hit him.  (That would have changed a lot in The Hobbit!)  So here’s poor Alvis, looking to win himself a bride after he’s worked really hard making divine weapons, and what happens?  He’s betrayed to death, without having done anything wrong.  It’s not as though the weapons were faulty — I’m not sure, off-hand, if they included Mjöllnir, but I’m pretty sure they did include Gungnir, Odin’s spear — and it’s not as though he had demanded Thor’s daughter at the last minute, after the work had been finished.  It was an agreed-upon price up front.  Thor just stabbed him in the back because he could, and because he could get away with it.

It’s the same thing with the Jotunn who built the walls of Asgard.  He’s doing what he promised, despite them doing everything they can to hobble him, and he’s doing it for a price they already agreed to.  But they find a way to stop him from succeeding, and when he accidentally reveals he’s a frost giant, they kill him.  (Even though Odin himself is half frost giant, and Loki is either all frost giant or half frost giant.  (I’ve seen it said both ways.))  So, basically, in both of these stories — in which as far as I can tell we’re supposed to be rooting for the Aesir — we have the Norse gods bilking and killing someone who’s done them some very solid, important work.  And we’re supposed to laugh and cheer at this?  Because I get the feeling that’s how the Vikings reacted to it.

But let me set that aside for a moment, and get to the comparison part.  There’s a tale that’s very familiar to me about a city with magnificent walls, where the builders were bilked of their payment.  One of my sources for the Norse story even made the comparison for me, despite that it made it in a completely bass-ackwards way.  So, let me give you a summary of the story first, before I discuss the comparison further.

The city — as you might guess, coming from me — is Troy.

The builder is Poseidon, with a side-order of Apollo.  (In some versions, Apollo was only looking after King Laomedon’s flocks, whereas in other versions he, too, was doing the building.  From a Greek perspective, the former makes more sense, but since he may have originated as a gateway-guardian god of Troy, the latter might well be the older version.  In one version they’re also joined by Aiakos, a mortal son of Zeus, but that’s more to make the building of the walls of Troy directly predict its downfall at the hands of Aiakos’ descendants.)

The price is unknown (to us), but agreed upon in advance.

And Laomedon refuses to pay.  He even threatens his divine workers when they want to be paid.

Apollo sends a plague to his otherwise beloved Troy, and Poseidon sends a sea monster to attack the very walls he just built.

That might have been the end of Troy, if it hadn’t been for Heracles, who decided to slay the the sea monster, in exchange for either Laomedon’s fine horses or for one of his daughters.  (Or possibly both.  This is Heracles we’re talking about here.  He didn’t believe in being “small time.”)

But Laomedon didn’t pay him, either.  So Troy still fell, but to Heracles instead of to a sea monster, and the only one of Laomedon’s sons who survived became King Priam, having been ransomed by his sister Hesione.  (That’s a Greek pseudo-etymology for the non-Greek name Priamos, btw, as having come from the word for “I buy.”  It’s baloney, but the kind of thing that got repeated a lot.  To the extent that you can probably find it as a “true” etymology in some sources today.)

In the long run, Laomedon’s double refusals to pay are often regarded as the first step towards Troy’s destruction in the Trojan War.  (Though obviously there’s a lot more going on there, needless to say.  Especially since Apollo is Troy’s staunchest supporter…aside from Aphrodite, anyway.)

So while it’s true that there’s a strong parallel here of supernatural builders making mighty walls and the payment agreements being reneged upon, there’s also a phenomenal difference of tone.

In the Norse tales, we’re supposed to be — as far as I can tell — on the side of the ones refusing to pay.

In the Greek tale, we’re supposed to be on the side of the ones who are being bilked.

I think that tells us a world of details about the cultural differences between Vikings and ancient Greeks.

(Not that we really needed these myths to point out those differences.  But it’s always interesting to have things highlighted in unusual ways, right?)

 

B is for Bacab

Published April 2, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

B

The Bacabs are four Mayan deities — or the aspects of a single quadripartite deity — who were associated with the cardinal directions.  Each was also associated with a color:  the northern Bacab was associated with white, the eastern Bacab with red, the southern Bacab with yellow, and the western Bacab with black.

I haven’t been able to find much in the way of myth associated with them, apart that they held up the sky, and had escaped when the world was destroyed in a flood.  (Guess I missed them yesterday, lol!)  Of course, if they were holding up the sky, then they obviously couldn’t do much without dropping it, and that would be bad…so they probably featured in a lot of now-lost stories of destruction at the ends of the various ages of the Mayan calendar.  (Or maybe they wouldn’t have; maybe there weren’t even such stories in the first place.  I didn’t have as much time to research as I wanted, due to class work and work work.)  In any event, the one myth I saw mentioned that featured them was one of upheaval on a truly massive, “I think we should call the Avengers” scale.  (Okay, that sounded totally out of left field, but…it’s less crazy than you think, between my post for today on my other blog and between my plans for today IRL.  And, now that I think about it, gods like these (but fictional ones, not ones stolen from a real culture) would make a pretty sweet opponent for a superhero team…)

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex.  Wikimedia Commons.

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

As the gods who held up the sky — and had associations with weather, particularly rain — the Bacabs probably had a much larger ritual presence than a mythological one.  All the more so since the Maya had another set of four gods, the Chaacs, who had pretty much the same function, and who were closely associated — perhaps even somewhat conflated — with the Bacabs.  (And yes, the Chaacs had been in the running for Monday’s post.  But I had fewer good options for B, so the Bacabs won.)

Okay, so that seemed a bit light, I know.  But now we get to the comparative side!

Obviously, an easy comparison is Atlas, the Titan who holds up the sky in Greek mythology.  ‘Cause, you know, they both hold up the sky.  But that’s actually a pretty weak comparison.  After all, Atlas isn’t associated with any of the cardinal directions (in fact, his location was never quite certain and changed from version to version) and he isn’t associated with any colors as far as I know.  So let’s look for some better matches!

  • The Four Symbols.  Chinese (and Korean and Japanese).  This is very common in Japanese (and Korean) popular culture, so this was the first thing I thought of when I came across the Bacabs!  These four spirits are associated with colors and cardinal directions.  They also have animal forms and are not holding up the sky, but they are associated with constellations, so they are at least associated with the sky.  The northern spirit is the Black Turtle (Xuán Wū, or Genbu in Japanese), the eastern spirit is the Azure Dragon (Qīng Lóng, or Seiryu in Japanese), the southern spirit is the Vermilion Bird (Zhū Què, or Suzaku in Japanese), and the western spirit is the White Tiger (Baí Hǔ, or Byakko in Japanese).  None of the colors line up, but three colors are represented in both cases.  These four spirits are associated with the seasons, so that’s another tie to the rain and weather functions of the Bacabs, though again it’s not a perfect comparison.
  • The Four Heavenly Kings.  Buddhist.  This was the second comparison I thought of when I read about the Bacabs.  (Admittedly, I thought of them because I know their Japanese names from video games, but…ahem.  Moving on.)  They’re protective gods, and they don’t hold up the sky.  But they are associated with colors and the cardinal directions:  north (Vaiśravaṇa, or Bishamonten in Japanese) with yellow or green, east (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, or Jikokuten in Japanese) with white, south (Virūḍhaka or Zochoten in Japanese) with blue, and west (Virūpākṣa or Komokuten in Japanese) with red.  A number of the colors are the same, but not lined with the same direction.  (Which is hardly surprising.)  And their functions are different, so this is definitely a weak comparison when you get right down to it.
  • The Four Sons of Horus.  Egyptian.  Not a strong comparison, I’ll say that right now.  These four sons of Horus are each associated with a cardinal direction, but their primary role was as the heads on the canopic jars that received the Pharoah’s internal organs, and the jars were then left facing in the direction associated with the son of Horus in question.  (Though early canopic jars had the Pharaoh’s own head depicted on them.)  I saw an image on Wikimedia — a modern drawing of canopic jars — that depicted each jar a different color, and three of the four lined up exactly with the colors on the Four Heavenly Kings, but I don’t think that had anything to do with ancient Egyptian belief, and was modern cross-pollination of ideas, or whatever that might be called.  (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m no Egyptologist.)
  • The four dwarves who hold up the dome of the sky.  Norse.  Now this is a pretty good comparison!  They’re holding up the sky from the four corners of the world, just like the Bacabs.  They don’t have colors associated with them, and they probably didn’t see much in the way of worship (especially considering Norse dwarves turned to stone when hit by sunlight) but they’re still a pretty strong parallel.  Their names translate to Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western, and they’re believed to be associated with the four winds.

I didn’t find any perfect comparisons for the Bacabs — apart from the Chaacs, and even that’s a flawed comparison since they’re both Mayan — but there are several strong points of comparison between four cultures that are all quite distant and different from the Mayan culture.  (And also I found a Hindu comparison that I elected to leave out because it wasn’t four gods associated with the four cardinal directions, but eight gods associated with eight directions.)

Of course, the four cardinal directions are pretty universal.  Or rather, they’re always there, whether a culture comes to acknowledge them as important or not.  (Whether or not they are, in fact, important is a metaphysical speculation that I don’t really have time for right now.)  And colors are present in every culture, no matter how they’re named or recognized.  Beings holding up the sky…are also not uncommon.  After all, you cannot personally touch the sky (unless you’re on some really psychadelic medications) so it has to be far away, and before the advent of modern science, coming to the conclusion that it’s a dome of air and the color we see is the way it refract the light is not likely.  So some other explanation had to be arrived at, and some god(s) — or monster(s) — holding up the sky is as likely an explanation as any other, perhaps even a more likely explanation than any other.  (As silly as Aristotle’s crystal dome may sound to us now, it was actually an amazing leap forward in scientific thought at the time.)

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