Back in the ’90s I wrote a book called Asyniur, which attracted a certain amount of scorn because I named Freyja’s two cats as Bygul and Trjegul. Unfortuantely, this is not ancient lore but comes from a book by Diana Paxson, Brisingamen.
Considering the “lust to name” that Snorri brings to Norse myth, and the fact that Thor’s goats and Odin’s various exotic pets have names, it seems remiss of the ancient Northmen not to have names for Freyja’s cats.
However, I did escape another trap that lies awaiting the newbie – I did not place Iðunn in Breidablik. But I feel the pain of anyone who did. Bragi and Iðunn should have a home of their own. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee obviously agreed with me, and gave them one.
In fact, the issue of where Iðunn spends her time when she’s not feeding the Aesir’s faces is a much more involved one that you would think. When you think of apples, you might think of the Hesperides, and Avalon, and one could include Eden and the Irish Emain Ablach as well. But, in the other myths, the magical apples and the otherworldly address go together; in the Nordic version they seem to have separated.
It may be that Idunn does have a home, depending on how you read this verse from Haustlong:
The thief of Brising’s girdle [Brisingamen] afterwards caused the gods’ lady [Iðunn] to go into the rock-Nidud’s [giant’s] courts to Brunnakr’s bench.
Certainly Brunnakrs bekkjar dís translates as “Brunnakr’s bench-goddess” if read literally, although whether Brunnakr is in Thiazi’s domain or in Asgard is left open, since it appears after Thiazi has taken Iðunn captive.
Faulkes and Johnsson think Brunnakr has to do with Iðunn, but Turville-Petre says it is a place in Thiazi’s castle or domain. In Vigfússon’s and Powell’s translation, Iðunn is the “Fairy of Bourne-Acre”, so allowing for the old-fashioned translation they assume that Iðunn is the owner of it, just as Thiazi was of Thrymheim.
So we know that Iðunn resides somewhere, maybe Brunnakr, and some have assumed that she keeps her apples there. Yvette Grimes has gone so far as to assert that she has a grove there, with apple-trees, but that’s not in the sources.1 So we’re left with the question of where do the apples come from, and there isn’t really an answer.
The only suggestive thing about Brunnakr lies in its meaning: “Springfield”. Hoenir, Mimir, Frigga, Saga and the Norns are all associated with marshes, wells, or the water’s edge. I can’t help but feel there’s some mythology about water and wisdom that is lying around waiting to be gathered up.
Getting back to apple trees, Theo Vennemann has suggested that the Middle Eastern myth of Eden, which probably has pre-monotheistic roots, influenced the myths of the Hesperides and Avalon, all three being paradisical other-worlds which include a grove of apples (or one tree) and its menacing guardian. (The story of the Sons of Tuireann encodes the same ideas, but in slightly different form.)
All three, as well, feature the idea of the apples as restorative, or prolonging life, which is also found in the Irish story.
Norse myth, as we have it, is sadly short of paradiscal other-worlds, with or without apples. Valholl may seem a warrior’s wet dream, but it’s really just Odin’s training-ground. (Valholl means “Slaughter-Hall”.) Lotos-eaters need not apply.
Shining Fields and the Giants
However, in some of the more fantastic sagas, there appear a set of afterworlds or otherworlds who share the element Glas– in their names, and are much closer to the ideal of Avalon or Eden. (Scholars, like the bummers they are, think these worlds are influenced by Christian ideas.)
Glaesisvellir, which Vennemann cites, means “Shining Fields”2 and lies in the east or north. You’ll be surprised to hear that it is often said to be in Jotunheim, but since both “east” and “north” are code-words for “not around here”, both paradise and giant-world can be located there. Both are envisioned as far away and difficult to get to, but Jõtunheim is seen as cold, rocky and desolate3, while Glaesisvellir is, obviously, not. Samson’s saga splits the difference and puts it in the north-east:
Glasir Plains are situated to the east of Giantland, which lies to the east and north of the Baltic and extends in a north-easterly direction. Then there is the land known as Jotunheim, inhabited by giants and monsters, and from Jotunheim to Greenland extends a land called Svalbard [i.e. Spitbergen].4
Several fornaldursaga say that Glaesisvellir has a king, Gudmund, whose wealth and splendour are described in Saxo. Another saga, Hervarars saga, says that the woman warrior Hervor went there to live for awhile. (Paradise would have been noisy while she was in residence.)
Saxo Grammaticus also mentions him. He says Gudmund was of enormous size, but friendly and hospitable. (The Norsemen who have landed on his shore are at first dismayed by his bulk.) Or so he seems. For he tries to lure the men to eat, drink, or sleep with the women there, all of which would condemn them to life in the otherworld of Glaesisvellir. It is not clear if his great height means he’s a giant, but in many sagas he’s either the neighbour or brother of the giant-king Gerrioðr.5
There is also Glasislundr, Shining Grove, mentioned in Helgakvida Hiorvardssonar, or the Poem of Helgi Hiorvardsson. The king of Glasislundr is Hiorvard, and he wants to marry Sigrlinn, who is the most beautiful woman in the world. (He already has four wives, but let’s not spoil the romance.) After overcoming several obstacles, they get together, and their son becomes the hero of the story.
Within the borders of Glaesisvellir lay a realm called Odainsakr (“Field of the Undying”) or Udainsakr, which was described as a place where no one ever aged or died. It only appears in late sagas, from the 14th century, but that doesn’t mean the idea was a Christian one. Saxo Grammaticus also mentions it, but since he’s clearly a Christian, we’re none the wiser on the subject.6
We know that there was a a golden tree called Glasir in front of Valholl’s gates, “the most beautiful tree among gods and men”7(Skald. 34). In some translations it’s called a grove, so perhaps that is where Iðunn got her apples.
Saxo Grammaticus/ Peter Fischer, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson, The History of the Danes, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1996.
Atkinson, Hugh 2009: “vpp ec þér verp oc á avstr vega: throwing up in Ægir’s hall”, at academica.edu.
Clunies-Ross, Margaret 2005: “Frequent Flyers in Old Norse Myth”, in Travel and Travellers from Bede to Dampier, eds. Geraldine Barnes, Gabrielle Singleton, Cambridge Scholars Press.
Grimes, Yvette 2010: The Norse Myths, Hollow Earth Publishing.
Orchard, Andy, 1998/2002: Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell, London.
Pálsson, Hermann, and Paul Edwards (trans.) 1986: Seven Viking Romances, Penguin Classics.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Vennemann, Theo 2003: “Andromeda and the Apples of the Hesperides,” Europa Vasconica – Europa Semitica, Volume 138 of Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM], Walter de Gruyter: 591-652.
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