Old Norse stories have always been a solid foundation on which writers craft new fictional adventures. Many great works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasies The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings were heavily inspired by Norse tales. There are some works like Marvel’s Thor and the 2018 PS4 game God of War that sprinkle in the characters and backstory into a new or different version of the old tales. I wanted to take a deeper dive into the original tales, so I picked up a audio book copy of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman.
Norse Mythology (the book) can not cover all of the old tales, but the selections that Neil Gaiman chose provide the overarching history of the Norse gods from the beginning to the end. If you are interested in reading the books or want to know a slight bit more without spoilers, then skip down the the Take Away sections. Immediately below is my recollection/notes on the book.
In the beginning there was only two worlds Niflheim, the world of mist, sat at the top and Muspelheim, the world of fire sat at the bottom. In the middle was the Ginnungagap, the great abyss. Rivers of poison flowed down from Niflheim and hardened into ice. Sparks of fire flared up from Musphelheim. In the middle the sparks and flares combined with the ice and caused great storms. These storms cause the stars to be created and the drops that fell back down to the void precipitated into the first giant Ymir and a giant cow. Ymir fed from the milk the cow produced and the cow fed by licking ice flowing from Niflheim. Ymir was able to created other giants and ultimately led to the creation of Loki down the family tree a bit. Meanwhile as the cow was licking the ice, the ancestor to the gods, Buri, was shaped out of the ice.
Ultimately Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve were brought into existence and decided to kill the giant Ymir. The death of Ymir led to the beginning of the world Midgard. Ymir’s skin became the land, blood became the sea, bones became the mountain, and hair became the trees. Odin and his brothers herded the giants to a far away region, which would become Jotenheim, and placed Ymir’s eyelashes around them creating Midgard. At this point there isn’t much on how the other worlds were created or the tree that connects them all, Yggdrasil.
Odin got the power of magic by hanging himself on the world tree, Yggdrasil. Most of the items the gods received were crafted by the dwarves. Loki got in trouble for shaving Thor’s wife’s hair off and tried to trick the dwarves Brokk and Eitrii into creating items for the gods as part of a fake contest. Brokk saw through loki’s veiled attempt and made Loki promise his own head if they won. Loki turned into a fly and bit Brokk’s while working on Mjolnir, and that is why Mjolnir has a short hilt.
Throughout Norse history, Loki ends up having offspring. The first offspring mentioned is a horse gifted to Odin, Slepnir. Slepnir is the offspring of a horse Svadilfari and Loki after Loki attempted to distract the horse as a horse, so that a giant building a wall around Asgard would not finish in time forfeiting payment.
Loki’s had a wife Sigyn and with her two children Narfi and Vali. Loki also made children with the giant Angerboda and created three children that scared the gods so much, that they banished or restrained them.
I found the story of Utgarda-Loki vastly entertaining, and it was perhaps my favorite story told in the book. Utgarda-Loki meets Thor, Loki, and Thjalfi (Thor’s human servant who can run quickly) after the trio unwittingly stays in a odd cave that is giants mitt. Utgarda-Loki disguises himself as a large giant by the name of Skrymir. Utgarda-Loki convinces the trio to store their provisions in his sack as they are all heading to Utgard, the capital of Jotenheim, and he would not be burdened by the additional load. The traveling party gets to camp and Utgarda-Loki drops his provision sack and says he is going to sleep. Thor, Loki, and Thjalfi struggle to get the sack open and end up not eating. Throughout the night Thor is starving and annoyed by Utgarda-Loki’s snores. Thor attempts to wake him up three times by hitting him as hard as he can with Mjolnir, but Utgarda-Loki barely notices.
The next day when they reach Utgarda, Utgarda-Loki says good by as Skrymir and the three head into the city. Utgarda-Loki greets them as his true form and tells them they need to perform a feat if they want to spend the night in Utgard. Loki says he can eat faster than anyone and finds himself in a eating contest against a giant. The giant eats as fast as Loki, but the giant also ate the trough that the food was in, and therefore won cause he ate more. Thjalfi says he can run fast, so he is challenged by a race. As each race is almost halfway done, Thjalfi looks up to find that his opponent always beats him. Thor says that he can drink better than anyone. Utgarda-Loki has his cup bearer bring in his drinking horn and says he can drain it in one, but most giants need a second sip to drain it completely. Thor takes a sip and it doesn’t go down much at all. Thor takes a second swig and it goes down a inch. Utgarda-Loki allows Thor to take a third sip. Thor chugs as long as he can while going red in the face and the horn is drained down four inches or so. Thor is now upset and asks for a different challenge, perhaps one of strength. Utgarda-Loki says the children lift his cat to strength train, and he will allow Thor to demonstrate on his cat. Thor goes to life the cat and barely lifts him, just a paw off the ground. While he is lifting the cat, a earthquake happens in the background. Thor was still unable to completely lift the cat, so he fails that challenge. Thor is now fuming and asks for a third challenge, one of wrestling. Utgarda-Loki brings in the old frail wet-nurse for Thor to wrestle. Thor tries his hardest to take down the old wet-nurse, but she doesn’t really budge. The wet-nurse hits Thor on the knee and he drops down on to that knee. Utgarda-Loki yells that is enough, and while they failed to perform any feats, he will still allow them to stay the night.
The next morning Utgarda-Loki escorts the trio out of Utgard. Utgarda-Loki reveals that he was the giant Skrymir the whole time. He also reveals that the sack that held the provisions was tied with enchanted wire, so that the party would be unable to access their provisions. He informs Thor that he almost killed him when he was hitting him with his hammer. Utgarda-Loki put mountains between him Thor’s hammer and his head and points off to the distance showing three new valleys. Utgarda-Loki also comes clean about the feats that the three performed in Utgard. Loki was racing wildfire, enchanted to look like a giant, that can eat through anything with incredible speed. Thjalfi raced against thought in the body of a young giant, and he lost because thought is always faster than the body. The horn that Thor drank from was linked to the bottom of the ocean. Thor drank drained so much of the ocean that he created the tides. The cat was linked to the Jormungander, the world serpent. Thor almost brought on Ragnarok by moving the world serpent. The wet-nurse that Thor wrestled was old age, and Thor only lost his footing and not much more.
Utgarda-Loki revealed that he was horrified to find out how truly strong the Aesir. He mentioned he was uncomfortable even housing them overnight. Utgarda-Loki bans the Aesir from Utgard and promises they will never see it again. Utgarda-Loki vanishes and Utgard is gone from the background.