Haustlöng – a Poem about Soul Retrieval

What The Poetic Metaphors of the Skaldic Poem Haustlöng reveals about the Myth of the Abduction of the Goddess Iðunn by the Giant Þiazi.

By Maria Kvilhaug (based on my own dissertation in Old Norse poetry of 2003: Myten om Iðunn og Tjatse I lys av skaldediktet Haustlöng og dets kjenninger [“The Myth of Iðunn and Þiazi in light of the Skaldic Poem Haustlöng and its kennings.”].)

Video relating the story:

Part I: Introducing the Myth, the Poem and Backgrounds

I.1 A Shield-Describing Poem

This dissertation began as a study of the background for the kennings (poetical metaphors) in Skaldic poetry with the poem Haustlöng as a starting point. The poem was composed around the year 900 A.D. by the poet Þjóðólfr ór Hvíni [Þióðolfr of Kvinir], who was a skald [bard, poet] at the court of king Harald Hárfagri. Haustlöng is what is called a “shield-poem” or an “image-describing poem”[1], that is, a poem describing the painted images on a shield. Þióðolfr received a precious, painted shield by a certain Þórleif and his payment for the shield was this poem. On one side of the shield was an illustration describing the myth of how the goddess Iðunn was stolen by the giant Þiazi, on the other side an illustration to the myth of Þórr and Hrungnir. This poem is thus a source which serves as evidence that these myths were authentic pagan myths already well known at the beginning of the 10th century. These myths were explained and retold by Snorri in his Prose Edda 320 years later.

I.2 Shamanistic Soul-Retrieval

I decided to focus on the first part of the poem describing the myth of Iðunn`s abduction with the emphasis on how the poetical metaphors applied in the poem may serve as an insight into how the mythical characters were perceived in the pagan era, since the metaphors describe these characters and because we know that these description were referring to actual Viking Age perceptions and cosmology. I will also look at how the myth may be analyzed as a description of a shamanistic journey with the purpose of retrieving a lost soul.

I.3 Skaldskáparmál, Snorri Sturlusson and Hidden Meanings in Poetical Metaphors

Snorri`s Skaldskáparmál [The Speech of the Creation of Poetry] is the second book of his Prose Edda.  The book begins with the story of how a “man” named Aegir [The Sea] or Hlér [“Wind-Shielded”=Immortal] arrives in Ásgarðr. In the party that follows, the giant is entertained by the tales of Bragi, god of poetry (and husband to Iðunn). Snorri used this story as an entry to his own explanation of the traditional Norse art of poetry. Through the mythical tales we are introduced to the mythological background for the use of poetical metaphors, or what Snorri called heiti and kenningar. Snorri`s mission was to make a study for “young poets who want to learn the language of poetry and collect a treasure of old poetical words, and who want to understand that which is cleverly disguised in runes”[2].

Heiti are poetical words or synonyms that take the place of the nouns of everyday life. They are often old-fashioned words no longer much used, that only survived as poetical words with the purpose of variation in the poetical vocabulary and to have an array of words to choose among in order to fit the rhymes.

A kenning is also such substitute, but here in the form of metaphors. The word comes from the expression kenna við – “to know (something) by (something else)”. It will always consist of at least two parts, where the basic word is “made known” by a second word that describes it. But each part may also be divided into a new two-part metaphor, so that one single kenning may consist of many parts.

According to Margaret Clunies-Ross, Snorri`s purpose must have been to show how the language of early Icelandic poetry expressed basic principles on the pagan Scandinavian religion. Snorri, she claims, was of the opinion that the pagan poetry represented a serious attempt to understand the underlying principles of the cosmos. She believes that this has to do with a particular medieval trend where scholars assumed that the auÞórrs and poets of the past had used metaphors and symbols called integumenta – “coverings”, in order to convey the inner meaning of their mythical narratives.[3] I personally believe that Snorri and his medieval contemporaries were correct in their assumption and that pagan poets really did apply a metaphorical language conveying hidden meanings.

I.4: The Myth of Iðunn and Þiazi – Snorri`s version (anno 1225 A.D.)

In Snorri`s work, the poet Bragi tells the story of Iðunn and Þiazi with an explanation of a kenning as a starting point. He wants to explain why Iðunn`, his wife, is called “Þiazi`s booty”. This is the entry to the entire treatise known as the Skaldskáparmál. It all begins with three Aesir, Óðinn, Loki and Hænir, going for a journey through “un-built mountains and forest”, that is, the wilderness. They have trouble finding food, and when they finally manage to kill a bull, it turns out impossible to cook it. The reason for this is the sorcery wielded by a huge eagle who turns out to be seated in the tree above the Aesir. This eagle is in reality the giant Þiazi [“The Slave-Binder”], who demands a share of the game if they want to succeed in cooking it. The Aesir agree, but are tricked: The eagle takes the whole bull.

This provokes Loki, who hits the eagle with a staff, but the staff glues itself between the shoulders of the eagle, and Loki`s hands are glued to the staff, and thus Þiazi flies away with Loki as a captive. Loki begs for mercy but is told that if he wants to be freed he has to swear to bring the goddess Iðunn with her apples to the giant. Loki promises to do this and as he returns home, he tricks the goddess out of Ásgarðr and lets the giant eagle abduct her. The gods immediately start to age, because only Iðunn can restore their youth and thus keep them immortal. The ageing, desperate Aesir accuse Loki of treason and demand that he shall get the goddess back.

Loki then borrows the falcon hide of Freyr and flies north to the giant worlds. He finds Iðunn, changes her into a nut and flies away with her. Þiazi follows in his eagle hide “so that it blew from his wings”, but is killed by a fire that the Aesir have put up as he enters the divine realms.

The consequences of the murder of Þiazi is that the giant`s daughter, Skaði , threatens to destroy Ásgarðr. The Aesir promise to appease her by giving her a husband among the Aesir and by making her laugh. Skaði  accepts this and marries Njörðr (because his feet are the most beautiful), and laughs only when Loki falls into her lap after having had a goat pulling his genitals. The joke can be understood if we realize that Skaði `s name means “harm”, “injury”, and Loki falls right into harm`s lap. Skaði  later divorces Njörðr and returns to her abode Þrýmrheim where she hunts in the mountains and enjoy the howling of wolves. She later has children by Óðinn who become the ancestors of several Norwegian royal clans.

The story ends with a short dialogue between Aegir and Bragi. Aegir wants to hear about the lineage of this Þiazi, and learns that he is one of Ölvaldi [Ale-Ruler]`s three sons. This giant was very rich and his sons had to share the gold after him by each taking a mouthful of it, which is why the gold is called “the mouth-speech of the giants” or the “tongue” or “words” or “speech” of the giants. Aegir has the last words, concluding that “this is cunningly disguised in runes.”


I.5: The Myth of Iðunn and Þiazi – Þióðolfr`s version (anno 900 A.D.)

I am going to render a translation/interpretation of the part of the poem Haustlöng describing the theft of Iðunn, following the suggestions of Finnúr Jónsson when it comes to the sentence building.[4] I have marked the interpreted meaning and the passages that may be read semi-literally, with bold.

In the first stanza, the bard Þióðolfr declares that he wishes to thank Þórleifr for a shield that he has given him. The shield is painted with mythical images, and Þióðolfr introduces us to the myth: He can see (on the shield) three gods and Þiazi. We are thus place in the beginning of the myth, which Þióðolfr`s audience knew was the story of how the three Aesir traveled and met Þiazi in the “un-built mountains.”

2. Snótar Ulfr                                 The Eloquent Woman`s Wolf (=Eloquent Woman=Iðunn)`s
fló glammi                                      flew with loud-sounding wing-flapping
fyr ó-skǫmmu at móti                   for a non-short time ago (=a very long time ago)
Segjǫndum Sagna                          to The Tellers of the Stories (=the Aesir/gods)
í gǫmlum                                         wearing the ancient
Gemlis ham;                                    shape of the Year-Old (=young bird=Eagle)
ǫrn settisk ár,                                 The Eagle settled in the beginning (of time)
þars æsir bǫ́ru mat á seyði;         where the Aesir carried food to the earth-oven
byrgi-Týr                                       The Fortress-Animal (=giant) of
bjarga Gefnar                                 the Mountains of the Provider (=giantess)(=Þiazi)*
vasa bleyði vændr.                         was no lowly coward.
* The metaphor indicates that Þiazi is “the Giant of the mountain of the Giantess”, which is the burial mound.
   3. Meðal-tálhreinn                      Partly Unblended Treason (=Þiazi)
vas tormiðluðr beina tívum;         was late to begin the cooking for the gods*
hjalmfaldinn                                   The helmet clad
hapta snytrir                                  Giver of Wisdom to the Chains (=gods)(=Óðinn)
kvað hvat valda því;                      claimed that someone was behind this
margspakr valkastar                    The Very Wise Corpse-Thrower of
bǫ́ru mǫ́r of nam                          Wave Guts Seagull (=Eagle)(=Þiazi)
mæla af fornum þolli;                   spoke from the Age-Old Tree (=Yggdrasill)
Hœnis vinr vasat hollr hǫ́num    Hænir`s Friend(=Loki) was not fond of him 
   4. Fjallgylðir                                 The Mountain Howler (=Wolf=Þiazi)
bað fet-Meila                                  asked Armor Step (Hænir)
deila sér fyllar                                 to share with him a part
af helgum skutli;                             of the sacred meal
hrafnásar vinr                                  The Friend of the Raven God(=Óðinn)(=Loki)
hlaut blása;                                      had to blow the fire
Vígfrekr                                             The Battle-Hungry
Vingvagna-Rǫgnir                           Ruler of the Wagon of Friendship (=Þiazi)
lét sígask ofan,                                let himself descend from above
þars vélsparir varnendr goða       to where the Loyal Protectors of Gods (=the three Aesir)
vǫ́ru farnir                                had arrived.  
5. Þekkiligr dróttinn foldar             The Decent King of the Earth (=Óðinn)
bað fljótt Fárbauta mǫg  deila      quickly told the Son of Farbauti (=Loki) to share
hval Várar þrymseilar                     the Whale of the Spring of the Roaring Belt (=the bull)
með þegnum,                                   with the Serving Man (=Þiazi)
en bragðvíss ósvífrandi ása           And the Cunning-Clever Defier of Gods (=Loki)
lagði at þat fjóra þjórhluti             now parted the bull in four
upp af breiðu bjóði                         up from the broad table (=altar)
 6. Ok svangr                                And the Hungry
faðir Marnar                                Father of Giantesses (=Þiazi)
át síðan slíðrliga okbjǫrn              then ate greedily the Yoke-Bear (=bull)
af eikirótum                                     on the oak-roots (=oak=ash=roots of Yggdrasill)
- þat vas fyr lǫngu -,                      -- This was a long time ago
áðr djúphugaðr hirði-Týr              before the Deep-of-Soul Hiding Beast (=Loki)
herfangs dræpi stǫngu                  battered the War-Trophy (=Þiazi) with a staff:
ballastan dolg vallar                      (he hit) the Powerful Enemy of Earth(=Þiazi)
ofan meðal herða                     from above between the shoulders.   
   7. Þá varð farmr arma Sigvinjar,   Then was The Burden of Sigyn`s Arms (=Loki),
sás ǫll regin eygja í bǫndum,            whom all gods perceive in chains,
fastr við fóstra ǫndurgoðs;               tied to The Educator of the Ski-Deity(=Skaði )(=Þiazi)
rǫ́ loddi við ramman                          The staff was glued to
reimuð Jǫtunheima,                           the Ghost of the Giant World (=Þiazi)
en hendr holls vinar Hœnis                and the hands of Hænis Faithful Friend (=Loki)
við stangar enda                                  were glued to the staff.
 8. Sveita nagr                                    The Vulture of the Flock (=Þiazi),
fló fangsæll of langan veg                   happy with the catch, flew a long way
með fróðgum tívi,                                 with the Clever God (=Loki)
svát ulfs faðir                                        so that the Wolf`s Father (=Loki)
mundi slitna sundr;                              was about to be torn apart
þá varð ofrúni Þórs                              Then Þórr`s Friend (=Loki)
biðja mǫ́lunaut miðjungs friðar,       had to beg for mercy from Giant-Child(=Þiazi)
hvat’s mátti;                                          Despite all his power
þungr Loptr vas of sprunginn             the heavy Airy One (=Loki) was about to break                                                      
9. Áttrunnr Hymis                                   The Lineage-Tree of Hymir (=Þiazi)
bað sagna hrœri, sorgœran,                  asked the Mover of Stories (=Loki), mad with pain,
fœra sér mey,                                            to bring to him The Maiden
þás kunni ellilyf ása;                                 Who Knows the Age-Cure of the Aesir (=Iðunn)
Brísings goða girðiþjófr                           The Belt-Thief of the Fiery Gods(=Loki)*
of kom síðan                                              Then he (Loki) led
Brunnakrs bekkjar dísi                              The Goddess of the Well-Field-Benches(=Iðunn)
í garða grjót-Níðaðar                         to the world of the Rock-Ruler (=Þiazi)
10. Byggvendr brattra barða                   The Residents of the Steep Mountains (=The Giants)
urðut hryggvir at þat;                                were then not sad (=were then very happy)
þá vas Iðunnr nýkomin                              that Iðunn had come
sunnan með jǫtnum;                                  from the South (=Ásgarðr) to the giants
allar áttir Ingvifreys,                                  All the clans of Yngvi-Freyr (=all the gods)
gamlar ok hárar,                                        ageing and grey-haired
gættusk at þingi --                                      went to the Parliament
regin vǫ́ru heldr hamljót                     The Kings (=The gods) were rather ugly to watch
11. Unz [text uncertain];                         Until they found the Blood-Hound of the Flowing Corpse Sea (=wolf=thief=Loki) of the Ale-Provider(=Iðunn), and bound the thief, the Tree of Treason (=Loki), who had led the Ale-Provider(=Iðunn) astray.
 þú skalt vélum véltr, Loki,                        ”You shall suffer terribly, Loki,”
- vreiðr mælti svá -,                                      thus spoke the angry one;
nema leiðir aptr                                            “until you return with
Mæra Mey, Stærandi Mun Hapta.             The Wonderful Maiden Who Increases the Joy of
                                                                   the Chains (=gods)(=divine joy) (=Iðunn).”       
12. Heyrðak svá,                                          I have heard this
þat hugreynandi Hœnis --                           that Hænir`s Intent-Tester (=Loki)
síðan sveik opt ǫ́su leikum -                     later tricked back the Lover of the Aesir (=Iðunn)
fló aukinn hauks bjalfa,                             he flew away in the shape of a hawk
ok lómhugaðr faðir Marnar,                     and the Father of the Giantess (=Þiazi)
ern fjaðrar blaðs                                         that swift wing-flapping
leikreginn lagði arnsúg at ǫglis barni    King-Tricker (=Þiazi) followed the Child of the
                                                                 Hawk (=Loki) with Eagle-Wind (=death).
13. Skǫpt hófu skjótt brinna,                    The wood began to burn
en ginnregin skófu,                                     that the Sacred Kings (=gods) had made into fuel
en sonr biðils Greipar sviðnar                   and the Lover of the Grasping
                                                                One(=giantess)(=Þiazi) burnt
sveipr varð í fǫr.                                       In suddenness his journey ended.


Part II: The Mythology that Carries the Poem

As we can see, the poem only refers to the first part of the myth about Iðunn and Þiazi – the part which is about Skaði is only indirectly suggested through kennings for Þiazi as the ”father of the giantess” or the ”father of the skiing deity” (Skaði  is the goddess of skiing). We are going to go through particular themes and characters in the story and see how the metaphors may provide clues to understanding the myth itself and pagan cosmology in general.

II.1: the Meaning of the Journey of the Three Gods

In the first stanza, we are introduced to a familiar scenario: Three gods are traveling abroad. The second stanza makes it clear that this happened a “non-short time ago”. That is typical Norse understatement signifying that this happened an extremely long time ago, in fact at the dawn of time itself.

The impression of archaic origins is strengthened by expressions such as “the old” eagle hide and the “age-old” tree. The scenario itself is known from other genesis myths. In Skaldskaparmál, Snorri tells a story about how the gold is known as the Otter-Ransom, and it begins in the same way, with Óðinn, Loki and Hænir out to explore the newly created world. What happens on that journey also has consequences for all descendants. In the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, we also hear about three gods who travel “out” in the beginning times. In the stanzas 17 and 18 the völva explains that Óðinn, Hænir and “Hlóðurr” [“Heat” – a probable heiti for Loki] “came out from the flock” and gave to human beings spirit, thought and vitality.

According to Mircea Eliade, all myths are tales of origin, beginnings and creations. They function to give humans existential orientations by explaining the sacred origins of their own practices. The myths are archetypical, they explain why the world became what it is. These genesis myths continue and compliment the first cosmic creation myth.[5] All the myths beginning with the three gods are in my opinion such genesis myths telling about the start of an important event. According to Gro Steinsland, the number three is not coincidental. Important cosmic events that create great change in the world always happen after the appearance of three gods, three norns or three giantesses. The number is dynamic and symbolizes change. [6]

Thus our first conclusion is that what happens in the myth of Iðunn and Þiazi is a myth of origin. But to what?


II.2: A Sacred Act

From stanza 4 we learn something that Snorri does not tell us: The meal of the gods is sacred, and the giant wants to partake in a sacred meal – a sacred act. A point is made out of how Loki has to work – that is, to “blow” to make the cooking fire, and I think that this is not coincidental. The stanza is about how this terrifying, enormous cosmic power – the eagle-giant “descends” into the sacred act, and how the “friend of the gods” is ordered to establish a particular and sacred course of action. Since the sacred act is a meal shared between cosmic powers, and involving the killing of a sacrificial animal (the bull), I lean towards to the sacred course of action known as sacrifice, performed by the friend of the gods, which not only refers to Loki but probably to a sacrificial priest.

II.3: The Verse-Smiths: How the Gods are Known

The three gods are referred to as “kings” (regin) and “sacred kings” (ginnregin). This could either just be understood as “rulers”, which is obvious since they are gods, or it could be taken more literally as referring to the Aesir as the fathers of royal lines. It could possibly be seen in connection with the kingship cult. That kings were seen as bodily incarnations of gods in some way or other is common in many ancient societies, and many scholars, the most famous being Folke Ström and Gro Steinsland, have emphasized the role of the kings as playing the role of the ancestral god in marriage with the giantess ancestral mother of the land/clan/tribe (Steinsland) or the great goddess (Ström). The god may have been perceived as intimately connected with the ruling king, in a way embodying him, whereas the goddess or giantess ancestral mother may have been represented by a priestess during rituals of sacred marriage. Thus “kings” may be referring to ancestors, divine ancestors, and be associated with the ritual of sacred marriage.

The gods are also called “the tellers of the stories” (segjandi sagna). This could refer to the gods being the tellers of this particular tale, but I find it tempting to draw a line to Snorri`s presentation of the gods in Gylfaginning and in Heimskringla.

Gylfaginning is framed by a story of how King Gylfi travels to Ásgarðr. We learn that the Aesir divine his approach and that they prepare great “optical illusions” for him, within which they tell his all about the gods, and the beginning, fate and end of the world. After the entire history of the world is told from beginning to end, Gylfi discovers that he is standing on an empty plain and that all the halls, walls and gods he had just seen and spoken to, are non-existent. He then goes home and tells everybody on the way what he has seen and head, and “one after the other people told these stories”. Not just that, but the Aesir then sat down together and held parliament and remembered what they had told Gylfi, and they gave people and places names according to their own tales.

It is in fact only after everything was told that the stories became real. I understand this as meaning that reality was in fact created by their stories.

The same theme is actually present in the Skaldskaparmál where it is Aegir who comes and listens to stories. There too we learn that “a lot of what the Aesir did there were just optical illusions”.

In Heimskringla we learn that Óðinn “said everything with rhyme, just like one today performs that which is called skaldskáp (poetry), and he and his temple priests were called verse-smiths.” The “temple priests” had already been identified as the other gods. A few lines down, the gods are called “charm-smiths”. It has been claimed that Snorri`s texts cannot be taken as a source to actual pagan mythology because he may have invented the stories himself, but this poem dating back to the climax of the Viking Age shows that the idea of the gods as storytellers is ancient and pagan in origin.

The Edda poem Völuspá is a poem that also tells the entire history of the universe from beginning to end. It is spoken by a völva as a divination that takes the form of seidr. This art was a form of operative divination which means that what is seen is also made to happen – the diviner does not just passively observe but actively makes things happen, as is testified by many descriptions of this practice in the sagas. In this case, the being who tells the story of the universe (and thus creates at the same time) is a witch who lived before time itself started (Völuspá st.2) and thus may be counted among the first beings, the creator entities. She, too, “tells” the world into being.

That the gods are verse- charm- and story-makers could on the simple level refer to the gods being powerful bards, but these are in fact gods, and what gods do has to do with the creation and maintenance of the world. One could get the impression that the gods were seen as a sort of magical divine bards who actually “told” the world into being. That the world is a story, dream or illusion is not an unusual idea in the history of the world. We have the saying of a Kalahari bushman rendered by Joseph Campbell in The Mythic Image: “There is a dream dreaming us” which testifies to the possible antiquity of the idea. We can also go closer to home: In the Old Indian Yogavasistha text (2.3.11) we learn that “the world is like the impression left by the telling of a story”.

I understand the concept of the gods as storytellers as a way of saying that what they did created a pattern of behavior and course of action for future generations to follow, a sort of matrix for the dramas of life, possibly ritual but also perhaps existential.

II.4: Hel and Fenrir: Þiazi – the Eagle of Death

The unwanted element in the sacrifice is the giant eagle Þiazi, who wants the entire sacrifice for himself. In order to understand this conflict, we need to understand who Þiazi is. The most obvious attribute is his eagle-hide, and his status as a giant. He is of enormous size, which is what Snorri meant when he described the giant as “not small”. These little descriptions are significant because this is how we know a character – through its particular attributes and functions. In Snorri`s Gylfaginning, we hear about two eagles – both described as giants in eagle disguise. One of them is called Hræsvelgr and sits by the “end of heaven”, and from his wings come “the wind across all people”. Both Snorri and the Edda poem Grimnismál emphasize the wing-flapping and the mysterious cosmic wind that it creates. What kind of wind is this? It is significant that the name of the giant eagle means “Corpse Swallower” and that he is situated in the northern end of the universe, which is synonymous with Hel, the realm of death. The wind of the wings of the giant eagle is the force of death, the beginning of invisible cosmic movement yet also the devourer of all life.

If we compare this with the way Þiazi is described, we see that both Snorri and Þióðolfr emphasized the blowing whistling sounds of wind when the eagle flaps his wings. We are probably speaking of exactly the same concept: death in the shape of an eagle. That impression is utterly strengthened by the metaphors Þióðolfr uses to describe Þiazi: He is the “corpse-thrower”, and he is very svangr – “hungry”. Moreover, he is the “seagull of entrails”. Snorri explained how masculine birds (such as seagulls) could be used as metaphors for the eagle, whereas entrails gives certain associations to corpses and death. Another bird metaphor is “the vulture of the flock”, again giving associations of death, or more specifically, the devouring, demolishing, destructive aspect of death that eats away at the remains of the dead. Again, Snorri mentioned vultures among the masculine birds that could in poetry replace the real meaning, “eagle”, and thus devouring death.

The other giant in eagle hide of the Gylfaginning also has similarities with Þiazi to the point of identification. Apart from the obvious “giant in eagle hide” formula, both sit in an age old, huge tree, and both are very knowledgeable.

Other associations to death is when Þiazi is called the “ghost of the giant world” and he is the giant of “the mountain of the giantess”, which refers to the burial mound. His name Þiazi means the “slave-binder”, and there is probably no more powerful abductor of “slaves” than death itself. Like the eagle Hræsvelgr, he lives in the wilderness, which was a common symbol of the underworld and death, and is associated with a giantess (Skaði ) who probably also symbolizes death, just like Hræsvelgr is associated with Hel, the lady of the underworld.

The second animal with which the giant is associated with is the “mountain-howler”, which means a wolf and is a symbol of death. He is also called the “wolf of the eloquent woman”. This refers to him as a thief and abductor of the goddess Iðunn, but it also connects him to wolves again. We also know that he lives in  Þrýmheimr [The World of the Drum] and that he is thus probably identifiable with the giant Þrýmr who stole Þórr`s hammer, and who had a giant sister representing death and old age. In this story, the sister is replaced by a daughter, Skaði , who (because of the meaning of her name) poetically represents harmful and fatal injury and thus death. In the story of Skaði `s marriage to Njörðr, we learn that wolves always howl in Þrýmheimr, wolves howls being an omen of death. Giantesses and wolves are closely connected in Norse myths.

The greatest wolf of all is the brother of Hel, Fenrir, whose name strongly indicates “greed”. Another wolf has offspring by a giantess in the Iron forest in the east, and among their descendants are the wolves that will devour Sun and Moon. The giantess Hýrokkin (Fire-Spinner), who is the only being in cosmos strong enough to push Baldr`s funeral ship into the ocean on his way to Hel, rides a wolf and has serpents for reins. The same steed is used by an unnamed giantess that meets Hedin, Helgi`s brother in the Song of Helgi Hjörvardsson, where she is an omen of Helgi`s death. In the Edda poem Hyndluljóð, the giantess Hyndla (She-Wolf) has (male) wolves in her stables in the dark underworld, that she can ride to Valhöll if she can be convinced to do so. It seems that we are always speaking of the same cosmic being, and that her most common name is Hel. Her realm, moreover, is guarded by “Hel-hounds”, and wolves (and serpents) are said to devour the corpses of the dead. The connection between male wolf and female giantess is very clear and always points to death and the underworld, which makes me think that they are all identifiable with the siblings Hel and Fenrir. Seeing as Þiazi is twice referred to as a wolf, and the importance placed in metaphors on his kinship with giantesses in this poem, I think that the wolf strengthens the idea that Þiazi represents death, as does his daughter Skaði .

Realizing that the eagle represents the death that devours everything offers a new understanding of the myth. The gods/ancestors who are establishing a ritual of sacrifice or a sacred meal, are confronted with their own mortality – in the end, only death receives nourishment.

II.5: Gender as a Metaphor Crucial to Understanding Myth

Iðunn is the first female character to appear in the poem, and plays a subtle role. The male-female polarity of the Norse cosmos should also be taken into consideration when trying to understand what she represents. This polarity traditionally employs male characters to describe the obvious, known, seen side of reality. The female characters are “behind the scenes”, subtle, mysterious powers, the unseen. This polarity is reflected in among other things the siblings Freyr and Freyja, who even by their names (actually titles) indicate “two sides to the same coin”. Freyr, the brother, represents fertility, crops, cultivated nature, mostly domestic animals (horse and pig), as well as law and order and kingship. His sister, on the other hand, represents magic, witchcraft, fate, death and hidden wisdom, the mysteries of initiation. She is primarily associated with wild animals (big cats and falcons).  Then there is the couple Óðinn and Frigg, where Óðinn represents that in human beings which seeks to uncover hidden knowledge – the known seeking the unknown – and Frigg is said to “know all fate but speaks not”, being in fact the unknown, the hidden knowledge.

Realizing that gender has a metaphorical role in itself in Old Norse poetry is important and gives us an indication that whereas the gods and Þiazi represent conscious, known powers, she represents the unknown, hidden and subtle power. It is significant that Loki easily gives her away only to realize the terrible consequences afterwards, when he learns how important her power actually is. It was difficult to see before it was lost.

If we then think that Óðinn is the giver of breath/spirit, Hænir the giver of thought/intelligence, and Loki/Hlóðurr the giver of passion, vitality and color, we realize that the gods may be representing what composes the known side of the human perception or point of view.

Þiazi, likewise, represents the direct, visible “first sight” aspect of death, which appears destructive and all-consuming.

Iðunn as a goddess will be representing some complementary, invisible, unknown, hidden aspect of the human point of view.

Skaði  as a giantess will be representing the invisible, mysterious, hidden aspects of death which reveals itself to be different from what appeared to be the case before Þiazi, the first sight image of destruction in death, was “murdered”.

It is time to explore what Iðunn actually represents in humanity and among gods in order to truly understand the myth.

II.6: The Knowledge-Hungry Goddess

The theft of a goddess is a recurring theme in Norse myths. Freyia is threatened with abduction by or unwanted marriage to giants in three different Norse myths, and Síf together with her in one of them.[7] Adding to that, we have stories about the theft of important attributes owned by the goddesses (Síf`s hair, Freyia`s necklace and Iðunn`s apples). These attributes may be seen as symbols of the power of the goddesses, eternal youth, fertility and secret knowledge. Most scholars today assume that Iðunn (and Síf) is a hypostases of Freyia[8]. Iðunn is the maiden aspect of the goddess with her gift of resurrection, rejuvenation and transformation. The apples of immortality (eternal rejuvenation, actually) may be seen as another image of the “precious mead” offered by the female characters in the myths to male initiates so that they may be resurrected from the underworld.[9]

The apples or fruits with which the goddess is so strongly associated (the gods may not have the apples without the goddess offering it), are known from numerous early Iron Age images in Germany and areas where Germanic tribes dwelled during the Iron Age, where she is the seated mother goddess Nehallennia who keeps a basket of apples on one side and a dog on the other. The image is extremely interesting because it includes the dog or wolf, which is an attribute of Hel and the giantesses who represent Hel, such as Skaði . It would appear that the characters represented in Norse mythology by Hel/Skaði and Iðunn/Freyia once were unified in this older goddess, a remnant of which is seen in Snorri`s description of Hel as half black as a rotting corpse (death) and half rosy-cheeked maiden (life). This original union is interesting in light of the story featuring exactly these two female opposites. The death vs. life theme is obviously extremely important in this story.

The first metaphor for Iðunn in the poem is Snót, according to Snorri a replacement word of “true description” for women who are “clever in speech” (Snótir heitir thær, er kyrrlátar eru – “Snótir are they called (feminine), who are eloquent (women)”. Thus Iðunn is associated with eloquence. This is important because learning to be eloquent was an important part of the mysterious initiation and an important result of drinking the precious mead of the underworld. It had to do with learning the art of poetry and perhaps to do with mastering poetry the way the gods did – as a way of creating reality.

Later, the goddess is called “the maiden who knows the age-cure of the Aesir” – which refers directly to her power to restore the youth of the gods. Without her, they would quickly grow old and die. As I argued in my thesis[10], resurrection from death and a sort of immortality was at stake when the initiate entered the golden halls of the underworld mead-serving maiden. The connection with the mead is strengthened when Iðunn in stanza 11 is called “ale-provider” twice.

The metaphor for Iðunn as “the goddess of the well-field-benches” is very complicated but if we take the words apart they start to make sense. The well is the water beneath the world tree from which the original norn Urðr nourished the world tree. That water, like the mead which was produced from it after it had flowed through the world tree and into the belly of the goddess in the shape of Heiðrún (“bright secret”), had the quality that anyone bathing in it or drinking it will be restored and transformed into a transparent light being (Snorri Gylfaginning). The field is harder to interpret but a field is always a part of the realm in the underworld in which the goddess with the mead is hiding. Benches and seating are metaphors for fate such as when Freyia chooses the arrangement of seating in Folkvangr - the “People-Field” (=the world, Freyia`s abode).

Finally, Iðunn is called ása leika – the lover/girlfriend/playmate of the Aesir. It is significant that Iðunn is the one singular lover of all the plural gods. This may be understood further in light of Loki`s true statement in the Edda poem Lokasenna when he tells Freyia that in the hall of Aegir, all the elves and gods have been her lovers. Loki ignores the fact that the hall of Aegir is a realm of immortality (Hlésey, the Wind-Shielded Island, shielded from the wind that is death) and exists outside of the world. He also ignores the fact that the loving embrace of the goddess is a part of the initiation through death and resurrection.

Iðunn is not very present in any of the Edda sources, which may be because she is just an aspect of Freyia. But in another poem, Óðinn`s Hráfngalðr or Forspjallsljóð, Iðunn  reappears in stanza 6. Here she is known as dís forvitin – the “knowledge-hungry goddess” who “dwells in the valleys”, a poetical formula otherwise used in the Völuspá to describe the “dew that falls in the valleys” from the well of Origin, from which norns and valkyrias ascend into the world. She is also called Frá Yggdrasils, the “seed of the world tree” and described as sinking down the ash (the world tree). The seed may be seen in connection with the apples of the goddess with which she may also be identified, and with nuts (Loki carries her home in the shape of a nut – a symbol for new life).

Iðunn is also called “the oldest of the In-Ruler`s, the youngest child”, a very cryptic statement that indicates that she is both old and young and that she is a daughter (result) of the forces that rules within.

The name of the goddess used in these poems, Iðunn, is derived from the word iðr and – unn, the latter just a suffix indicating a female. The word iðr refers to a small stream going out of a river that takes the opposite course of the main stream, returning to the source. I think that meaning is very significant if we realize that the goddess has something to do with enlightenment.

From all this, we may still be a bit puzzled as to what Iðunn, and consequentially, the great goddess in this aspect, really means. As pointed out, as a female she represents the unknown and the mysterious forces that are of great consequence but which are hard to perceive. As a restorer of life, provider of knowledge, eloquence, rejuvenation, potential for enlightenment, and her character as the essence of life or potential life (seed, fruit, nut), and as a unifying aspect that is the “lover” of all the  initiated gods and elves (=souls) that may access the realm of immortality, it is not entirely preposterous to suggest, as I do, that she represents the immortal soul, and the unifying all-soul at that, share by all individuals.



II.7: Restoring the Soul in shamanistic journeys

Understanding Iðunn as the immortal soul of the gods makes it a lot easier to understand the origin of this myth as a shamanistic journey of soul-retrieval. A shaman is someone who travels into other worlds, often in a different shape than the usual human body, and who brings revelations from the other side and from the gods. The shaman is an intermediary between different existential planes in the cosmos.[11] Loki`s journey, wearing the shape of a falcon, into another world is a typical shamanistic journey.

Shamanistic journeys are often about healing. A common explanation for sickness and death in shamanistic cultures is the loss of one`s soul. It is either the soul (or one of the souls) of a person that has lost its way during its many journeys in other worlds, or it has been abducted by powerful forces and kept in the underworld. Loss of soul will lead to sickness and eventually to death. The healing in a shamanistic culture is thus the journey to that other world where the soul is held captive or finds itself lost, so that it may be found and restored to its person.

The effect of the loss of Iðunn on the gods is immediate ageing and approaching death. Her role as the seed of life itself, and that her loss immediately brings about the action of changing shape so as to travel into the realm in which she is held captive, and the instant rejuvenation and healing experienced by the gods at her return, is a perfect description of a soul-retrieval.

Significantly, this interpretation opens up a new dimension in our understanding of the many theft-stories and of the significance and symbolic meaning of the goddess in her many shapes.


II.2: Loki – the Mover of the Stories

Finally, we must have a look at Loki, who plays an active role in this poem. Obviously, he assumes the role of the shaman, and thus represents the shamanic pattern to follow by human descendants. Let us now look at the metaphors describing Loki – metaphors by which Loki “was known” to the Norse audience.

He is called the “friend of the Raven-God” and “Hænir`s faithful friend. The Raven-God is Óðinn, and his ravens represent The Intent (Húginn) and The Memory (Muninn). Loki is a “friend” of (associated/allied with) intent and memory. He is also a friend of Hænir, who gave thought and intelligence to humans and thus represents conscious intelligence. Thus Loki is associated and allied with intent, thought and memory, corresponding with the original trinity representing intent/will, thought/intelligence and memory/spirit. He unifies these cosmic divine forces within himself, representing the three gods together.

As such, he is described as the cunning and clever god, the tester of Hænir`s Intent, that is, that fiery passionate part of ourselves which experiments with the intentions made by thought.

He is also the Mover of the Stories (sagna hrærir), showing that the poet was conscious about Loki`s role as a poetical character applied in the stories in order to create movement, drama and conflict – essential to all poetry and to the drama of life.

Importantly, Loki is the “child of the hawk”. We know of only one hawk in the Gylfaginning, and that is Verfölnir, which actually means “the One Who Diminishes Wind”. We know that wind is a metaphor for death, so to diminish it is significant, especially as we know that the myth is centered around the themes of death, resurrection and immortality. The hawk Verfölnir is seated “between the eyes” of the giant eagle that sits in the top of the world tree (the northern end of the world) and which indeed represents death. There seems to be a theme here of the hawk coming out of the eagle, and is interesting as the hawk and the falcon means the same thing according to Snorri, and because Loki flies in this shape in front of the eagle of death. In this myth, Loki and the hawk that diminishes death, represent the same thing: the conquering of death.











[1] Holtsmark, Anne, 1970, p.58-59

[2] Holm-Olsen, 1995, p.177

[3] Clunies-Ross, 1987

[4] Jónsson, Finnur, 1912: The sentence building of the poem is almost incomprehensible to moderen eyes, so Jónsson rearranged the words so as to make more sense. It is this rearrangement which is rendered here. The actual sentence building of the poem may be read at:ǫng_(B1)

[5] Strenski, 1989, p.72

[6] Steinsland, Gro, in Steinsland/Meulengracht Sørensen, 1999, p.59

[7] Þrýmrskvida, Snorri`s stories about Hrungnir and Sleipnir in Gylfaginning

[8] Holtsmark, Anne, 1970, Folke Ström, Britt-Mari Näsström, Else Mundal – all these professors have argued the case of goddess hypostases with Näsström taking it further than all the others by saying that all the goddesses and giantesses are aspects of the one. Noone has been able to counter this well-documented thesis of goddess hypostases.

[9] Kvilhaug (2004/2009)

[10] Ibid


[11] Vitebsky, 2001, Drury, 1989

4 Responses to Haustlöng – a Poem about Soul Retrieval

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  2. Tracey says:

    I am new to Norse mythology, but I am Wicce. Your information is filling in gaps that I heretofore did not understand. I am of Germanic descent and this is wonderful. Thank you for all your effort building site with its beautiful videos and reference materials!

  3. Susan eakle says:

    The symbolic image of the flapping of eagles wings sending a wind that blows over all people…. Setting invisible cosmic movement in motion…. Beginnings and endings….life and death… Is very interesting.
    It made me wonder if there was any cognate in the cosmology of the Vedas or if there is any Similar metaphor in Bronze Age mythology and, in particular, if there could be any kind of symbolic ideas in association with the tomb of the Eagles in the Orkneys.

  4. Pingback: Worshipping Giantesses (and possible castration) – WE ARE STAR STUFF

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