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Chapter XIII: Heimdall

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The Watchman of the Gods

In the course of a walk along the sea-shore Odin once beheld nine beautiful giantesses, the wave maidens, Gialp, Greip, Egia, Augeia, Ulfrun, Aurgiafa, Sindur, Atla, and Iarnsaxa, sound asleep on the white sand. The god of the sky was so charmed with these beautiful creatures that, as the Eddas relate, he wedded all nine of them, and they combined, at the same moment, to bring forth a son, who received the name of Heimdall.

“Born was I of mothers nine,

Son I am of sisters nine.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

The nine mothers proceeded to nourish their babe on the strength of the earth, the moisture of the sea, and the heat of the sun, which singular diet proved so strengthening that the new god acquired his full growth in a remarkably short space of time, and hastened to join his father in Asgard. He found the gods proudly contemplating the rainbow bridge Bifröst, which they had just constructed out of fire, air, and water, the three materials which can still plainly be seen in its long arch, where glow the three primary colours: the red representing the fire, the blue the air, and the green the cool depths of the sea.

The Guardian of the Rainbow

This bridge connected heaven and earth, and ended under the shade of the mighty world-tree Yggdrasil, close beside the fountain where Mimir kept guard, and the only drawback to prevent the complete enjoyment of the glorious spectacle, was the fear lest the frost-giants should make their way over it and so gain entrance into Asgard.

The gods had been debating the advisability of appointing a trustworthy guardian, and they hailed the new recruit as one well-fitted to fulfil the onerous duties of the office.

Heimdall gladly undertook the responsibility and henceforth, night and day, he kept vigilant watch over the rainbow highway into Asgard.

“Bifröst i’ th’ east shone forth in brightest green;

On its top, in snow-white sheen,

Heimdal at his post was seen.”

Oehlenschläger (Pigott’s tr.).

To enable their watchman to detect the approach of any enemy from afar, the assembled gods bestowed upon him senses so keen that he is said to have been able to hear the grass grow on the hillside, and the wool on the sheep’s back; to see one hundred miles off as plainly by night as by day; and with all this he required less sleep than a bird.

“’Mongst shivering giants wider known

Than him who sits unmoved on high,

The guard of heaven, with sleepless eye.”

Lay of Skirner (Herbert’s tr.).

Heimdall was provided further with a flashing sword and a marvellous trumpet, called Giallar-horn, which the gods bade him blow whenever he saw their enemies approach, declaring that its sound would rouse all creatures in heaven, earth, and Nifl-heim. Its last dread blast would announce the arrival of that day when the final battle would be fought.

“To battle the gods are called

By the ancient

Gjallar-horn.

Loud blows Heimdall,

His sound is in the air.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

To keep this instrument, which was a symbol of the crescent moon, ever at hand, Heimdall either hung it on a branch of Yggdrasil above his head or sank it in the waters of Mimir’s well. In the latter it lay side by side with Odin’s eye, which was an emblem of the moon at its full.

Heimdall’s palace, called Himinbiorg, was situated on the highest point of the bridge, and here the gods often visited him to quaff the delicious mead which he set before them.

“’Tis Himminbjorg called

Where Heimdal, they say,

Hath dwelling and rule.

There the gods’ warder drinks,

In peaceful old halls,

Gladsome the good mead.”

Norse Mythology (R. B. Anderson).

Heimdall was always depicted in resplendent white armour, and he was therefore called the bright god. He was also known as the light, innocent, and graceful god, all of which names he fully deserved, for he was as good as he was beautiful, and all the gods loved him. Connected on his mothers’ side with the sea, he was sometimes included with the Vanas; and as the ancient Northmen, especially the Icelanders, to whom the surrounding sea appeared the most important element, fancied that all things had risen out of it, they attributed to him an all-embracing knowledge and imagined him particularly wise.

“Of Æsir the brightest—

He well foresaw

Like other Vanir.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Heimdall was further distinguished by his golden teeth, which flashed when he smiled, and won for him the surname of Gullintani (golden-toothed). He was also the proud possessor of a swift, golden-maned steed called Gull-top, which bore him to and fro over the quivering rainbow bridge. This he crossed many times a day, but particularly in the early morn, at which time, as herald of the day, he bore the name of Heimdellinger.

“Early up Bifröst

Ran Ulfrun’s son,

The mighty hornblower

Of Himinbiörg.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Loki and Freya

His extreme acuteness of hearing caused Heimdall to be disturbed one night by the sound of soft, catlike footsteps in the direction of Freya’s palace, Folkvang. Projecting his eagle gaze through the darkness, Heimdall perceived that the sound was produced by Loki, who, having stealthily entered the palace as a fly, had approached Freya’s bedside, and was trying to steal her shining golden necklace, Brisinga-men, the emblem of the fruitfulness of the earth.

Heimdall saw that the goddess was resting in her sleep in such a way that no one could possibly unclasp the necklace without awaking her. Loki stood hesitatingly by the bedside for a few moments, and then began rapidly to mutter the runes which enabled the gods to change their form at will. As he did this, Heimdall saw him shrivel up until he was changed to the size and form of a flea, when he crept under the bed-clothes and bit Freya’s side, thus causing her to change her position without being roused from sleep.

The clasp was now in view, and Loki, cautiously unfastening it, secured the coveted treasure, and forthwith proceeded to steal away with it. Heimdall immediately started out in pursuit of the midnight thief, and quickly overtaking him, he drew his sword from its scabbard, with intent to cut off his head, when the god transformed himself into a flickering blue flame. Quick as thought, Heimdall changed himself into a cloud and sent down a deluge of rain to quench the fire; but Loki as promptly altered his form to that of a huge polar bear, and opened wide his jaws to swallow the water. Heimdall, nothing daunted, then likewise assumed the form of a bear, and attacked fiercely; but the combat threatening to end disastrously for Loki, the latter changed himself into a seal, and, Heimdall imitating him, a last struggle took place, which ended in Loki being forced to give up the necklace, which was duly restored to Freya.

In this myth, Loki is an emblem of drought, or of the baleful effects of the too ardent heat of the sun, which comes to rob the earth (Freya) of its most cherished ornament (Brisinga-men). Heimdall is a personification of the gentle rain and dew, which after struggling for a while with his foe, the drought, eventually conquers him and forces him to relinquish his prize.

Heimdall’s Names

Heimdall has several other names, among which we find those of Hallinskide and Irmin, for at times he takes Odin’s place and is identified with that god, as well as with the other sword-gods, Er, Heru, Cheru and Tyr, who are all noted for their shining weapons. He, however, is most generally known as warder of the rainbow, and god of heaven, and of the fruitful rains and dews which bring refreshment to the earth.

Heimdall also shared with Bragi the honour of welcoming heroes to Valhalla, and, under the name of Riger, was considered the divine sire of the various classes which compose the human race, as appears in the following story:

The Story of Riger

“Sacred children,

Great and small,

Sons of Heimdall!”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Heimdall left his place in Asgard one day to wander upon the earth, as the gods were wont to do. He had not gone far ere he came to a poor hut on the seashore, where he found Ai (great grandfather) and Edda (great grandmother), a poor but worthy couple, who hospitably invited him to share their meagre meal of porridge. Heimdall, who gave his name as Riger, gladly accepted this invitation, and remained with the couple three whole days, teaching them many things. At the end of that time he left to resume his journey. Some time after his visit, Edda bore a dark-skinned thick-set boy, whom she called Thrall.

Thrall soon showed uncommon physical strength and a great aptitude for all heavy work; and when he had grown up he took to wife Thyr, a heavily built girl with sunburnt hands and flat feet, who, like her husband, laboured early and late. Many children were born to this couple and from them all the serfs or thralls of the Northland were descended.

“They had children

Lived and were happy;

They laid fences,

Enriched the plow-land,

Tended swine,

Herded goats,

Dug peat.”

Rigsmál (Du Chaillu’s version).

After leaving the poor hut on the barren seacoast Riger had pushed inland, where ere long he came to cultivated fields and a thrifty farmhouse. Entering this comfortable dwelling, he found Afi (grandfather) and Amma (grandmother), who hospitably invited him to sit down with them and share the plain but bountiful fare which was prepared for their meal.

Riger accepted the invitation and he remained three days with his hosts, imparting the while all manner of useful knowledge to them. After his departure from their house, Amma gave birth to a blue-eyed sturdy boy, whom she called Karl. As he grew up he exhibited great skill in agricultural pursuits, and in due course he married a buxom and thrifty wife named Snor, who bore him many children, from whom the race of husbandmen is descended.

“He did grow

And thrive well;

He broke oxen,

Made plows;

Timbered houses,

Made barns,

Made carts,

And drove the plow.”

Rigsmál (Du Chaillu’s version).

Leaving the house of this second couple, Riger continued his journey until he came to a hill, upon which was perched a stately castle. Here he was received by Fadir (father) and Modir (mother), who, delicately nurtured and luxuriously clad, received him cordially, and set before him dainty meats and rich wines.

Riger tarried three days with this couple, afterwards returning to Himinbiorg to resume his post as guardian of Asa-bridge; and ere long the lady of the castle bore a handsome, slenderly built little son, whom she called Jarl. This child early showed a great taste for the hunt and all manner of martial exercises, learned to understand runes, and lived to do great deeds of valour which made his name distinguished and added glory to his race. Having attained manhood, Jarl married Erna, an aristocratic, slender-waisted maiden, who ruled his household wisely and bore him many children, all destined to rule, the youngest of whom, Konur, became the first king of Denmark. This myth well illustrates the marked sense of class among the Northern races.

“Up grew

The sons of Jarl;

They brake horses,

Bent shields,

Smoothed shafts,

Shook ash spears

But Kon, the young,

Knew runes,

Everlasting runes

And life runes.”

Rigsmál (Du Chaillu’s version).


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