TEUTONIC MYTH AND LEGEND
by DONALD A. MACKENZIE
An Introduction to the Eddas & Sagas, Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc.
London, Gresham Publications 1912
Thor's Great Fishing
The Ocean Storm-god--His Hall--The Brewing Kettle--Ran and her Net--Her Nine Daughters--Thor and Tyr seek Hymer's Kettle--The Friendly Giantess--The Fisher of Whales--A Great Feast--Giant marvels at Thor--The Midgard Serpent--A Dread Conflict--Hymer's Terror--How Thor was baffled--The Broken Goblet--Hymer's Kettle captured--Flight of Thor and Tyr--A Running Battle--Mead for the Feast.
ĘGIR, the Ocean Storm-god, had long heard of the fame and wisdom of Odin and his Asa clan, and there fell a day when he went to visit them. Thus it came that vows of lasting friendship were sworn between them. The gods were in due season invited to a harvest-end feast in the dwelling of the storm-god in the midst of the Western Sea, and thither they journeyed together. It was from Ęgir's hall that Thor and Tyr set forth to do valiant deeds in the realm of the giant Hymer.
The kingdom of Ęgir is beyond Noatun, the safe ship haven of the god Njord, which ever had peace save when it was visited by Skade, "the stormy one". A fierce and aged giant is Ęgir, with long and foam-white beard, and black is his helmet. When he rises in the midst of Ocean, cold-hearted and turbulent, he shatters fair vessels in his wrath. Many ships has Angerboda, Hag of Ironwood, driven by her wild easterly winds into the very jaws of Ęgir.
In Ęgir's hall gold is used for fire, and his brewing kettles seethe and boll like stormy seas. His wife is Ran, the fair traitress. She is possessed of a great net, in which she catches seafarers when their ships are broken. So are men "drowned to Ran". At the sea bottom is her home, which gleams phosphorescent and golden; its roof is of silver and sun-gemmed azure. Nigh is it unto the House of Death. Eager is Ran to make captives, and those who would win her favour must needs, when they are drawn down to her, take with them offerings of gold, for she loves treasure, and her hoard is great. To those whom she receives without anger she offers a seat and a bed.
Nine giant maids are the chief daughters of Ran, and these are the mothers of Heimdal, the shining sentinel of beauteous Bif-rost. In gowns of blue they go forth. They have foam-white veils, and their locks are pale as sea froth. The sea maidens are ever at Ęgir's command, and by him are they sent abroad to be ship-tossing billows. Great rocks they love to scatter and throw down, and the shoreland they devour.
These giant maids at the beginning ground Ymer's body on the World-mill. And ever do they turn the great mill at the sea bottom. Angeyja and Eyrgjafa grind mould; Jarnsaxa is the crusher of the iron which comes from clay and the sea; Imder, Gjalp, and Greip are fire maids, for from the World-mill is fire sparked forth, and there is fire in the sea; Eistla, Eyrgjafa, and Ulfrun are also at work like the others. The sire of Gjalp and Greip was Geirrod, the fire-giant.
Now when Ęgir went to Asgard he was received by Odin and the other gods with pomp and in state. Together they drank mead, ancient and sweet, in spacious Valhal, which was adorned with burnished shields and made bright by shining swords. High sat the gods in their doom seats, and in full grandeur. By Bragi's side was Ęgir, and the sweet-voiced divine poet sang of Idun and her apples of immortal youth, and of Thjasse's death, and of how Odin took from Suttung's dwelling the skaldic-mead which Ivalde had stolen. Pleasant were the tales to Ęgir, and the gods, as we have told, he besought to visit him in his Ocean kingdom.
Thither at autumn equinox went Odin and his Asa clan to drink mead and hear ancient tales and the singing of skalds. But of mead there was not sufficient, because Ęgir was in need of a brewing kettle large enough to give due hospitality to the gods. He besought Thor to fetch the greatest kettle in the nine worlds; but nor Asa nor Vana-gods knew where it could be found until Tyr spake and said:
"Hymer, the dog-headed, my foster-father, hath the great kettle, which is exceedingly strong and a mile in depth. His dwelling is beyond the Rivers Elivagar, nigh to the borders of Nifel-heim."
"Thinkest thou that the kettle can be captured?" asked Thor.
"Yes," Tyr answered, "by stratagem it may be procured."
Then took Thor and Tyr the guise of young men, and they set forth in the thunder-god's chariot drawn by the two goats Tanngnjoster and Tanngrisner over ocean and through air. Nearly all day did they travel thus until they came unto the dwelling of Orvandel-Egil. There did Thor leave the horn-strong goats and his sublime car.
Across Elivagar they went, and past the vast fishing ground of Hymer, where he is wont to catch whales on great hooks. Then a great distance journeyed the gods on foot towards Hymer's dwelling through dense mountain woods and past dismal rocky caverns where dwell the fierce giants and monsters of Hymer's clan.
When they came to their journey's end, they entered the king giant's great stronghold, and there Tyr saw his grandmother--a giantess with numerous heads, who was fierce and awesome to behold. But his mother, who had great beauty, brought them mead to drink. When they were refreshed and strong again, she bade them hide behind a great post at the gable end, and beneath the Kettles of Hymer; because, as she warned them, the giant was wont to give ill treatment to strangers who came nigh to his dwelling.
At nightfall Thor and Tyr heard a mighty shout which was raised by the giant's servants. Whereat Hymer entered, carrying the whales he had caught. His long beard was white with hoar frost.
"Welcome art thou, indeed, O Hymer," his wife said. "My son, for whom I have long waited, has come to thy hall, and with him is one who is. an enemy of the giants and a friend of men. Behind yonder gable post have they with cunning concealed themselves."
Hymer was ill-pleased, and he turned fiercely towards the post, which suddenly went to pieces before his piercing gaze. Thereat the beam above it broke, and the Kettles fell down. Seven of them were thus broken, but one was so large and so strong that it was left whole, although it sank deep in the floor.
Forth then came Tyr and Thor. The giant had no pleasure in receiving them, but he bade them be seated at his table.
A great feast did he cause to be prepared. Three oxen were slain and roasted, and placed before the giant and the gods. Two of these did Thor eat, for he sought great strength. If the giant was angry before, he was still more angry when the meal was ended, for it was his purpose to slay his guests, as was his wont, if they failed to eat an equal share with him; but in this he was indeed thwarted.
Extravagant is our fare," Hymer growled n his displeasure; "on the morrow we must eat of fish."
Then to bed went they all, and sound was their sleep throughout the night.
At dawn Thor rose, and from the window he perceived that the giant was making ready his boat to go fishing. Hastily did the Asa-god dress himself. He placed his great hammer in his belt. He went towards the shore, and then he besought the giant to allow him to row with him in the great boat.
Hymer looked down upon him with contempt, and said: "Too small and frail art thou to be of help to me; besides, I row so far and stay at sea so long, that thou wouldst be chilled to death."
Thor answered: "I shall row as far as thou hast need of me, as far from land as is thy desire. Nor am I certain which of us twain would wish to return first."
The thunder-god was filled with wrath against the ice-giant because of his presumption, and was minded to strike him down with his hammer; but he remembered that he had need of all his strength elsewhere, and must not do aught to lessen it.
"What bait hast thou for me?" asked Thor.
Hymer answered with surly voice: "If thou wouldst fish, find thine own bait."
That Thor did with impatience. He hastened towards the giant's herd of great cattle, and seizing the largest bull, named Himinbrjoter, which signified "sky-cleaver", he snatched off its head and carried it towards the shore. Hymer watched him and received him in silence, and together they entered the boat and put to sea.
Both then seized the great billow-raising oars. At the bow rowed Hymer, and Thor was aft. So strongly did the Asa-god pull that the boat went through the water with great swiftness, whereat the giant was amazed. Endeavour as he might, putting forth his utmost strength, Hymer could not pull with half the strength of the Asa-god, who was still in youthful guise.
The giant at length grew weary, and when they reached the grounds where he was wont to catch flat fish, he bade his companion cease rowing. But that Thor refused to do.
"We have not yet," he said, "gone far enough to sea.
Soon they came to the grounds where whales are caught, and again the giant bade Thor to take rest, but he would not consent to do so.
"We must needs, Thor said, go much farther yet."
Farther and farther out to sea they rowed with exceeding great speed. Then was the cold heart of Hymer filled with sharp alarm.
"If we stop not now," he cried, "we shall be in danger of the dread Midgard serpent."
But Thor refused to pause, and rowed stronger and faster than before. Not once nor twice did Hymer, resting wearily on his oars, remonstrate with him, but in vain. Far out to sea the boat still sped, and rapid and strong were the oarsweeps of Thor. Nor did he pause until they were a great distance from land.
Then began the fishing. Hymer baited his hooks, and cast his line in the deep waters. Ere long he caught two great whales, and hauled them aboard. His eyes were bright with pleasure, and he turned towards Thor and challenged him to do as well.
Then did the great thunder-god get ready his fishing tackle, which was of great strength. An immense hook he baited with the head of Hymer's bull. Into the deep waters he flung his line, which, as it splashed, raised big billows, and he ran it out until the bait was dragged along the floor of the ocean.
Now right below the giant's boat lay the Midgard serpent, all slimy and horrible, on the sea bottom, with its mouth clutching the tail of its world-encircling body. When that great monster beheld the bait it was deceived, not perceiving that Thor's hook was within. Greedily it seized the bull's head and sought to devour it. Then did the great hook sink deep into its throat and stick there. Tortured was the serpent with terrible agony, and it began to writhe violently to be free; but its struggle was without avail. So the line it tugged fiercely to draw angler and boat beneath the waves.
But greater than the serpent's was the strength of Thor. With both hands the god grasped the line, and against the side of the boat he placed his feet and began to pull, twisting the line round the oar pins as he did so, and now and again making it fast. Violently rocked the boat, and the waves rose high, as the great Midgard serpent struggled with the thunder-god.
But Thor put forth his entire divine strength and he grew in stature as he pulled the line. At length his feet went through the boat's side, as it tilted over, and they reached to the ocean floor. Harder and harder he pulled, and unwillingly the serpent, stung with fierce pain, was hauled through the deep, until its monstrous head came in sight.
Awesome was the spectacle to Hymer, nor can words picture it. With fierce wrath did the thunder-god dart fiery looks at the serpent, while the great monster tossed on high its terrible head and spouted floods of venom upon him.
Click to enlarge
From the statue by B. E. Fogelberg
Hymer trembled with fear; his face was white as mountain snow. Scarce could he look upon the ferocious serpent, for ghastly it was, and bearded and venom-spotted. Great waves washed over the gunwale, and the giant feared that the boat would be swamped.
Still Thor struggled with the fierce monster until he dragged its head close to the edge of the boat. Then, twisting the line round the oar pin, he seized his great hammer and struck a mighty blow on the serpent's head.
The mountains shook with thunder, the caves howled loud, the ocean trembled with violence, and the whole world shrank together, but the Midgard serpent was not yet killed.
Thor prepared to strike another great blow, but Hymer in his fear cut the line, whereat the writhing monster sank back into the deep. The waves tossed high and the boat plunged with them.
Angrily Thor turned upon Hymer, and with his great right fist struck him a resounding blow. Headlong plunged the giant into the sea, but speedily and in great fear he scrambled back again into the boat. Yet if his fear of the serpent was great, no less was his fear of Thor.
Then set they to row back, and the boat went speedily. Thor spake not; he sat in sullen silence. Deep indeed was his wrath because he had slain not the serpent which ever threatened the gods in Asgard.
When the shore was reached the giant leapt out. Proudly he flung the two whales over his shoulder. But Thor carried the great boat, and went with it to the giant's stronghold.
They entered the castle. They sat down with Tyr beside them. Ill at ease was the giant because of Thor's great deeds, and him did he challenge to perform another feat of strength. He brought forth a goblet, and asked him to break it. Without rising from his seat, Thor flung it violently against a post, which was shattered in pieces; but the goblet remained whole, and it was brought back to the giant, who smiled well content.
Then Tyr's mother, whispering to Thor, bade him fling the goblet at Hymer's forehead, which was harder than aught else there. Thor did that right speedily. He seized the goblet, and struck the giant with it midway between his eyes. Nor broken was the giant's head, although the goblet fell shivered into small pieces on the table before him.
"A great treasure have I lost," Hymer cried. "Hot was the drink that came from my strong goblet."
The giant's heart was filled with anger against Thor, and him he would fain put to shame. So he challenged the Asa-god once again.
"One feat of strength remains for thee yet to do, thou boastful one," cried Hymer. "Seize yonder great kettle and carry it forth from my dwelling."
Tyr rose eagerly and ran to lift the kettle, which the gods waited for in Ęgir's hall; but in vain did he try to lift it. Twice he made endeavour without avail.
Then did Thor seize the kettle. He grasped it at the edge and shook it violently. Then he began to lift it. So heavy was it, and so great was the strength of Thor, that his feet went through the floor.
Hymer watched him with angry eyes, fearing he would take with him the great treasure. That was what Thor did, for he lifted the kettle first upon his shoulder and then upon his head, while the rings fell round his feet.
Then he darted outside, and Tyr went with him.
Nor did they stay to await the giant, but right speedily they hastened on their way. Thor took also with him Hymer's great boat.
A great distance did the gods journey through the wooded mountain recesses, and then behind them there rose a great clamour. Hymer was hastening in pursuit. From the rocky caverns his foul and strange-headed clan were issuing forth, and following fast as well. They bellowed like winter tempests, and from hill to hill cliff their voices rang. Trees groaned and were bowed down, and the earth shook.
Thor looked back, and when he beheld the host pursuing him he put down the boat and the kettle, and seized his hammer, Mjolner. That murderous weapon did he fling against the giants, and they were mowed down by it as oat straw is by a scythe. Not until he had slain all those who fled not did Thor swing high the boat and the kettle upon his shoulders, and with Tyr again pursue his way.
Elivagar they could not have crossed in safety had they not had Hymer's boat, for the waves ran high because of the violent writhings of the Midgard serpent as it lay wounded by hook and hammer on the rumbling floor of Ocean.
In due time did Thor reach the hall of Ęgir with the great kettle of Hymer. Then was brewed sufficient ale for the feast of harvest-end, and host and guests were made merry.
But Thor rejoiced most because of the blow he had struck the great Midgard serpent. For thus was he avenged upon it for causing his shame in the dwelling of the giant Utgard-Loke, who had so cunningly deceived him. Of that, his most strange adventure, the tale must next be told.
On the dark bottom of the great salt lake
Imprisoned lay the giant snake,
With naught his sullen sleep to break.
Huge whales disported amorous o'er his neck;
Little their sports the worm did reck,
Nor his dark, vengeful thoughts would check.
To move his iron fins he has no power,
Nor yet to harm the trembling shore,
With scaly rings he is covered o'er.
His head he seeks 'mid coral rocks to hide,
Nor e'er hath man his eye espied,
Nor could its deadly glare abide.
His eyelids half in drowsy stupor close,
But short and troubled his repose,
As his quick heavy breathing shows.
Muscles and crabs, and all the shelly race,
In spacious banks still crowd for place,
A grisly beard, around his face.
When Midgard's worm his fetters strives to break,
Riseth the sea, the mountains quake;
The fiends in Naastrand merry make.
Rejoicing flames from Hecla's caldron flash,
Huge molten stones with deafening crash
Fly out,--its scathed sides fire-streams wash.
The affrighted sons of Ask do feel the shock,
As the worm doth lie and rock,
And sullen waiteth Ragnarok.
To his foul craving maw naught e'er came ill;
It never he doth cease to fill;
Nath' more his hungry pain can still.
Upward by chance he turns his sleepy eye,
And, over him suspended nigh,
The gory head he doth espy.
The serpent taken with his own deceit,
Suspecting naught the daring cheat,
Ravenous gulps down the bait.
His leathern jaws the barbed steel compress,
His ponderous head must leave the abyss;
Dire was Jormungander's hiss.
In giant coils he writhes his length about,
Poisonous streams he speweth out,
But his struggles help him naught.
The mighty Thor knoweth no peer in fight,
The loathsome worm, his strength despite,
Now o'ermatched must yield the fight.
His grisly head Thor heaveth o'er the tide,
No mortal eye the sight may bide,
The scared waves haste i' th' sands to hide.
As when accursed Naastrand yawns and burns,
His impious throat 'gainst heaven he turns
And with his tail the ocean spurns.
The parched sky droops, darkness enwraps the sun;
Now the matchless strength is shown
Of the god whom warriors own.
Around his loins he draws his girdle tight,
His eye with triumph flashes bright,
The frail boat splits aneath his weight;
The frail boat splits,--but on the ocean's ground
Thor again hath footing found;
Within his arms the worm is bound.
Hymer, who in the strife no part had took,
But like a trembling aspen shook,
Rouseth him to avert the stroke.
In the last night, the vala hath decreed
Thor, in Odin's utmost need,
To the worm shall bow the head.
Thus, in sunk voice, the craven giant spoke,
Whilst from his belt a knife he took,
Forged by dwarfs aneath the rock.
Upon the magic belt straight 'gan to file;
Thor in bitter scorn to smile;
Mjolner swang in air the while.
In the worm's front full two-score leagues it fell;
From Gimle to the realms of hell
Echoed Jormungander's yell.
The ocean yawned; Thor's lightnings rent the sky;
Through the storm, the great sun's eye
Looked out on the fight from high.
Bif-rost i' th' east shone forth in brightest green
On its top, in snow-white sheen,
Heimdal at his post was seen.
On the charmed belt the dagger hath no power;
The star of Jotun-heim 'gan to lour;
But now, in Asgard's evil hour,
When all his efforts foiled tall Hymer saw,
Wading to the serpent's maw,
On the kedge he 'gan to saw.
The sun dismayed, hastened in clouds to hide,
Heimdal turned his head aside;
Thor was humbled in his pride.
The knife prevails, far down beneath the main,
The serpent, spent with toil and pain,
To the bottom sank again.
The giant fled, his head 'mid rocks to save,
Fearfully the god did rave,
With his lightnings tore the wave.
To madness stung, to think his conquest vain,
His ire no longer could contain,
Dared the worm to rise again.
His radiant form to its full height he drew,
And Mjolner through the billows blue
Swifter than the fire-bolt flew.
Hoped, yet, the worm had fallen beneath the stroke,
But the wily child of Loke
Waits her turn of Ragnarok.