The Great Myths #57: Loki’s Monstrous Children (Norse)

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High continued: “And Loki had other offspring too. There was a giantess called Angrboda in Giantland. With her Loki had three children. One was Fenriswolf, the second Iormungand (i.e. the Midgard serpent), the third is Hel. And when the gods realized that these three siblings were being brought up in Giantland, and when the gods traced prophecies stating that from these siblings great mischief and disaster would arise for them, then they all felt evil was to be expected from them, to begin with because of their mother’s nature, but still worse because of their father’s.

      “Then All-father sent the gods to get the children and bring them to him. And when they came to him he threw the serpent into that deep sea which lies round all lands, and this serpent grew so that it lies in the midst of the ocean encircling all lands and bites on its own tail. Hel he threw into Niflheim and gave her authority over nine worlds, such that she has to administer board and lodging to those sent to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age. She has great mansions there and her walls are exceptionally high and the gates great. Her hall is called Eliudnir, her dish Hunger, her knife Famine, the servant Ganglati, serving-maid Ganglot, her threshold where you enter Stumbling-block, her bed Sick-bed, her curtains Gleaming-bale. She is half black and half flesh-coloured—thus she is easily recognizable—and rather downcast and fierce-looking.

      “The Æsir brought up the wolf at home, and it was only Tyr who had the courage to approach the wolf and give it food. And when the gods saw how much it was growing each day, and all prophecies foretold that it was destined to cause them harm, then the Æsir adopted this plan, that they made a very strong fetter which they called Leyding and brought it to the wolf and suggested he should try his strength with the fetter. The wolf decided that it was not beyond its strength and let them do what they wished with it. At the first kick that the wolf made at it this fetter broke. Thus he loosed himself from Leyding. Next the Æsir made a second fetter twice as strong which they called Dromi, and asked the wolf again to try this fetter and declared that he would achieve great fame for his strength if such mighty pieces of engineering could not hold him. The wolf thought to himself that this fetter was very strong, but also that his strength had grown since he broke Leyding. It occurred to him that he would have to take some risks if he was to achieve fame, and allowed the fetter to be put on him. And when the Æsir declared they were ready, the wolf shook himself and knocked the fetter on the ground and strained hard, kicked with his feet, broke the fetter so that the fragments flew far away. Thus he struck himself out of Dromi. Since then it has been used as a saying to loose from Leyding or strike out of Dromi when something is achieved with great effort. After this the Æsir began to fear that they would not manage to get the wolf bound. Then All-father sent some one called Skirnir, Freyr’s messenger, down into the world of black-elves to some dwarfs and had a fetter called Gleipnir made. It was made of six ingredients: the sound of the cat’s footfall and the woman’s beard, the mountain’s roots and the bear’s sinews and the fish’s breath and bird’s spittle. And even if you did not know this information before, you can now discover true proofs that you are not being deceived in the following: you must have seen that a woman has no beard and there is no noise from a cat’s running and there are no roots under a mountain, and I declare now by my faith that everything I have told you is just as true even if there are some things that you cannot test.”

      Then spoke Gangleri: “I can indeed see that this is true. I can understand the things that you have given as proofs, but what was the fetter made like?”

      High said: “I can easily tell you that. The fetter was smooth and soft like a silken ribbon, but as firm and strong as you shall now hear. When the fetter was brought to the Æsir, they thanked the messenger heartily for carrying out their errand. Then the Æsir went out on to a lake called Amsvartnir, onto an island called Lyngvi, and summoned with them the wolf, showed him the silky band and bade him tear it and declared it was rather firmer than seemed likely, judging from its thickness, and passed it to each other and tried it by pulling at it with their hands, and it did not tear; yet the wolf, they said, would tear it. Then the wolf replied:

      “ ‘It looks to me with this ribbon as though I will gain no fame from it if I do tear apart such a slender band, but if it is made with art and trickery, then even if it does look thin, this band is not going on my legs.’

      “Then the Æsir said that he would soon tear apart a slender silken band, seeing that he had earlier broken great iron fetters,—‘but if you cannot manage to tear this band then you will present no terror to the gods, and so we will free you.’

      “The wolf said: ‘If you bind me so that I am unable to release myself, then you will be standing by in such a way that I should have to wait a long time before I got any help from you. I am reluctant to have this band put on me. But rather than that you question my courage, let some one put his hand in my mouth as a pledge that this is done in good faith.’

      “But all the Æsir looked at each other and found themselves in a dilemma and all refused to offer their hands until Tyr put forward his right hand and put it in the wolf’s mouth. And now when the wolf kicked, the band grew harder, and the harder he struggled, the tougher became the band. Then they all laughed except for Tyr. He lost his hand. When the Æsir saw that the wolf was thoroughly bound they took the cord that was hanging from the fetter, which is called Gelgia, and threaded it through a great stone slab—this is called Gioll—and fastened the slab far down in the ground. Then they took a great rock and thrust it even further into the ground—this is called Thviti—and used this rock as an anchoring-peg. The wolf stretched its jaws enormously and reacted violently and tried to bite them. They thrust into its mouth a certain sword; the hilt touches its lower gums and the point its upper ones. This is its gum-prop. It howls horribly and saliva runs from its mouth. This forms the river called Hope. There it will lie until Ragnarok.”

      Then spoke Gangleri: “It was a pretty terrible family that Loki begot, and all these siblings are important. But why did not the Æsir kill the wolf since they can expect evil from him?”

      High replied: “So greatly did the gods respect their holy places and places of sanctuary that they did not want to defile them with the wolf’s blood even though the prophecies say that he will be the death of Odin.”

– from the “Gylfaginning” in the Prose Edda,
translated by Anthony Faulkes, Edda, 26-29