The Masks of Odin by Elsa-Brita Titchenell
Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter 14

Thor and Loki in Jotunheim


A tale from the Younger Edda.



This entertaining episode must have afforded much amusement to an audience of simple people. It is apparently an event in the history of our globe, when freezing winds accompanied the lowering of the water level as the polar ice caps spread over the continents, absorbing more of the globe's water. At the same time there was a shift in the position of the Midgard serpent — the equator, or perhaps the arc of the Milky Way. There is no doubt the events denote a period of glaciation but which ice age is open to question.

This lay bears a striking resemblance in one particular to the gods' search for the caldron which is related in the Lay of Hymer (which follows it). In both tales Loki instigated a forbidden act which was to bring down the wrath of Thor on the luckless perpetrator, but here it is the farmer's son — a lesser cycle — who breaks the bone.

Like Vaftrudnismal (the Lay of Illusion), Thor's and Loki's visit to the giant world illustrates the misperceptions to which consciousness is subject in the worlds of the giants. We do not perceive things as they really are; all consciousnesses, even the gods, it seems, are beset by the illusion which marks existence in matter.

Thor and Loki in Jotunheim

Once an icy age drew over the lands, destroying crops and killing men and beasts. Thor, accompanied by Loki, set out to remonstrate with the giant Rasvalg who, in eagle guise, fanned freezing winds over Midgard. They had of course to take a roundabout route because, as noted earlier, Thor's chariot cannot cross the rainbow bridge Bifrost which connects the worlds of men and gods: its lightnings would set the bridge afire. So they forded the river Ifing (doubt) which marks the boundary between those worlds.

At Midgard they received the hospitality of a poor farmer who had two children, Tjalfe and Roskva. To supplement the meager fare, Thor slaughtered the two goats which pull his chariot, Tandgniostr and Tandgrisnir (toothgnasher and toothcrusher). He instructed his companions to lay the bones unbroken carefully in their skins. During the feast, Loki whispered to the farmer's son that he should taste the marrow which, he said, had magic properties, and the boy cracked a bone to do so. In the morning, Thor revived the animals with a blow of his hammer on each of the skins, only to find that one of his goats was lame. In a towering rage the Thunderer threatened to destroy the farmer and all his family, but the old man appeased the god by offering his two children to be Thor's servants. Thereupon Tjalfe (speed) joined the gods on their excursion while Roskva (work) stayed to await their return.

One night on their journey they sheltered in a curiously shaped structure containing two rooms, one very large, the other small. Disturbed and alarmed by a loud roaring noise, the travelers hid in the smaller of the two chambers. Emerging in the morning they found a monstrous giant asleep nearby: the house was his mitten, the roars were his snores. Beside him lay his sack of provender. Being hungry the two gods tried to open the satchel but even Thor was unable to undo the knots, so he set about trying to waken the giant. Three times he struck his hammer against the giant's skull, which caused the sleeper to stir and mutter something about flies, but failed to rouse him. The gods went hungry. However, to this day there are three valleys cleaving the mountain where the giant slept.

Eventually the two Aesir and Tjalfe reached the home of the king of the giants, whose name Utgardaloki means Loki-of-the-outermost-court. Here the gods were challenged to a series of contests. First, Tjalfe ran a race against the giants' champion but was ignominiously outdistanced. Then Loki, who by this time was ravenously hungry, offered to out-eat any giant. He too failed for, though the two finished together, the giant had consumed the platter as well as the food. Thor offered to drain any drinking-horn but, when he was handed a gigantic vessel, failed to lower the level more than a little. He was then asked to lift the giant's cat. Mortified by so simple a task, he nevertheless found himself unable to do more than raise one of its paws. He thereupon undertook to wrestle any giant and was laughingly faced with the giants' elderly nurse, who easily brought the Thunderer to one knee.

After these undignified defeats the gods left to return to their own sphere, accompanied part of the way by their host, who — once they were safely off the premises — proceeded to explain the illusions to which they had been prey. Though Tjalfe had the speed of lightning, his opponent in the race had been Thought, which easily outdistanced him. Loki's opponent was Logi (flame), which consumed not only the food but also the wooden platter. The horn Thor failed to drain had its tip in the ocean's depths; the whole giant world had quaked with fear as the level of the waters was considerably lowered. The cat was really the Midgard serpent Iormungandr, which Thor had moved to an alarming degree. As for the giants' elderly nurse, Elli, she was in reality old age, which brings everyone, even the gods, low in due time.

When Thor in a mighty rage raised his hammer to avenge these defeats by trickery, neither his host nor any city was to be seen on the flat plain that reached endlessly in all directions.

Chapter 15