Hélène Adeline Guerber
Myths of the Norsemen|
Chapter VII: Idun
Idun, the personification of spring or immortal youth, who, according to some mythologists, had no birth and was never to taste death, was warmly welcomed by the gods when she made her appearance in Asgard with Bragi. To further win their affections she promised them a daily taste of the marvellous apples which she bore in her casket, and which had the power of conferring immortal youth and loveliness upon all who partook of them.
Thanks to this magic fruit, the Scandinavian gods, who, because they sprang from a mixed race, were not all immortal, warded off the approach of old age and disease, and remained vigorous, beautiful, and young through countless ages. These apples were therefore considered very precious indeed, and Idun carefully treasured them in her magic casket. No matter how many she drew out, the same number always remained for distribution at the feast of the gods, to whom alone she vouchsafed a taste, although dwarfs and giants were eager to obtain possession of the fruit.
One day, Odin, Hoenir, and Loki started out upon one of their usual excursions to earth, and, after wandering for a long while, they found themselves in a deserted region, where they could discover no hospitable dwelling. Weary and very hungry, the gods, perceiving a herd of oxen, slew one of the beasts, and, kindling a fire, they sat down beside it to rest while waiting for their meat to cook.
To their surprise, however, in spite of the roaring flames the carcass remained quite raw. Realising that some magic must be at work, they looked about them to discover what could hinder their cookery, when they perceived an eagle perched upon a tree above them. Seeing that he was an object of suspicion to the wayfarers, the bird addressed them and admitted that he it was who had prevented the fire from doing its accustomed work, but he offered to remove the spell if they would give him as much food as he could eat. The gods agreed to do this, whereupon the eagle, swooping downward, fanned the flames with his huge wings, and soon the meat was cooked. The eagle then made ready to carry off three quarters of the ox as his share, but this was too much for Loki, who seized a great stake lying near at hand, and began to belabour the voracious bird, forgetting that it was skilled in magic arts. To his great dismay one end of the stake stuck fast to the eagle’s back, the other to his hands, and he found himself dragged over stones and through briers, sometimes through the air, his arms almost torn out of their sockets. In vain he cried for mercy and implored the eagle to let him go; the bird flew on, until he promised any ransom his captor might ask in exchange for his release.
The seeming eagle, who was the storm giant Thiassi, at last agreed to release Loki upon one condition. He made him promise upon the most solemn of oaths that he would lure Idun out of Asgard, so that Thiassi might obtain possession of her and of her magic fruit.
Released at last, Loki returned to Odin and Hoenir, to whom, however, he was very careful not to confide the condition upon which he had obtained his freedom; and when they had returned to Asgard he began to plan how he might entice Idun outside of the gods’ abode. A few days later, Bragi being absent on one of his minstrel journeys, Loki sought Idun in the groves of Brunnaker, where she had taken up her abode, and by artfully describing some apples which grew at a short distance, and which he mendaciously declared were exactly like hers, he lured her away from Asgard with a crystal dish full of fruit, which she intended to compare with that which he extolled. No sooner had Idun left Asgard, however, than the deceiver Loki forsook her, and ere she could return to the shelter of the heavenly abode the storm giant Thiassi swept down from the north on his eagle wings, and catching her up in his cruel talons, he bore her swiftly away to his barren and desolate home of Thrym-heim.
Isolated from her beloved companions, Idun pined, grew pale and sad, but persistently refused to give Thiassi the smallest bite of her magic fruit, which, as he well knew, would make him beautiful and renew his strength and youth.
Time passed. The gods, thinking that Idun had accompanied her husband and would soon return, at first paid no heed to her departure, but little by little the beneficent effect of the last feast of apples passed away. They began to feel the approach of old age, and saw their youth and beauty disappear; so, becoming alarmed, they began to search for the missing goddess.
Close investigation revealed the fact that she had last been seen in Loki’s company, and when Odin sternly called him to account, he was forced to admit that he had betrayed her into the storm-giant’s power.
He assured the indignant gods, therefore, that he would leave no stone unturned in his efforts to secure the release of Idun, and, borrowing Freya’s falcon plumage, he flew off to Thrym-heim, where he found Idun alone, sadly mourning her exile from Asgard and her beloved Bragi. Changing the fair goddess into a nut according to some accounts, or according to others, into a swallow, Loki grasped her tightly between his claws, and then rapidly retraced his way to Asgard, hoping that he would reach the shelter of its high walls ere Thiassi returned from a fishing excursion in the Northern seas to which he had gone.
Meantime the gods had assembled on the ramparts of the heavenly city, and they were watching for the return of Loki with far more anxiety than they had felt for Odin when he went in search of Od-hroerir. Remembering the success of their ruse on that occasion, they had gathered great piles of fuel, which they were ready to set on fire at any moment.
Suddenly they saw Loki coming, but descried in his wake a great eagle. This was the giant Thiassi who had suddenly returned to Thrym-heim and found that his captive had been carried off by a falcon, in whom he readily recognised one of the gods. Hastily donning his eagle plumes he had given immediate chase and was rapidly overtaking his prey. Loki redoubled his efforts as he neared the walls of Asgard, and ere Thiassi overtook him he reached the goal and sank exhausted in the midst of the gods. Not a moment was lost in setting fire to the accumulated fuel, and as the pursuing Thiassi passed over the walls in his turn, the flames and smoke brought him to the ground crippled and half stunned, an easy prey to the gods, who fell ruthlessly upon him and slew him.
The Æsir were overjoyed at the recovery of Idun, and they hastened to partake of the precious apples which she had brought safely back. Feeling the return of their wonted strength and good looks with every mouthful they ate, they good-naturedly declared that it was no wonder if even the giants longed to taste the apples of perpetual youth. They vowed therefore that they would place Thiassi’s eyes as a constellation in the heavens, in order to soften any feeling of anger which his kinsmen might experience upon learning that he had been slain.
The physical explanation of this myth is obvious. Idun, the emblem of vegetation, is forcibly carried away in autumn, when Bragi is absent and the singing of the birds has ceased. The cold wintry wind, Thiassi, detains her in the frozen, barren north, where she cannot thrive, until Loki, the south wind, brings back the seed or the swallow, which are both precursors of the returning spring. The youth, beauty, and strength conferred by Idun are symbolical of Nature’s resurrection in spring after winter’s sleep, when colour and vigour return to the earth, which had grown wrinkled and grey.
As the disappearance of Idun (vegetation) was a yearly occurrence, we might expect to find other myths dealing with the striking phenomenon, and there is another favourite of the old scalds which, unfortunately, has come down to us only in a fragmentary and very incomplete form. According to this account, Idun was once sitting upon the branches of the sacred ash Yggdrasil when, growing suddenly faint, she loosed her hold and dropped to the ground beneath, and down to the lowest depths of Nifl-heim. There she lay, pale and motionless, gazing with fixed and horror-struck eyes upon the gruesome sights of Hel’s realm, trembling violently the while, like one overcome by penetrating cold.
Seeing that she did not return, Odin bade Bragi, Heimdall, and another of the gods go in search of her, giving them a white wolfskin to envelop her in, so that she should not suffer from the cold, and bidding them make every effort to rouse her from the stupor which his prescience told him had taken possession of her.
Idun passively allowed the gods to wrap her in the warm wolfskin, but she persistently refused to speak or move, and from her strange manner her husband sadly suspected that she had had a vision of great ills. The tears ran continuously down her pallid cheeks, and Bragi, overcome by her unhappiness, at length bade the other gods return to Asgard without him, vowing that he would remain beside his wife until she was ready to leave Hel’s dismal realm. The sight of her woe oppressed him so sorely that he had no heart for his usual merry songs, and the strings of his harp were mute while he remained in the underworld.
In this myth Idun’s fall from Yggdrasil is symbolical of the autumnal falling of the leaves, which lie limp and helpless on the cold bare ground until they are hidden from sight under the snow, represented by the wolfskin, which Odin, the sky, sends down to keep them warm; and the cessation of the birds’ songs is further typified by Bragi’s silent harp.
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