In Norse myth we have two stories involving the theft of a substance that confers a magical benefit to the user. Both involve the thief taking the form of an eagle. Both involve a pursuit with a god and a giant. Of course, the two myths have very different results, although in both cases the final score is Aesir 1, Jotunar 0.
One is the myth of the giant Þiazi kidnapping Iðunn to get the apples of immortality, the other is the story of how Oðin stole the mead of poetry from the giant Suttungr.
The Þiazi myth begins with the giant in eagle form getting into a dispute with the half-giant, half-god Loki, which Loki loses. Þiazi forces him to bring him Iðunn, along with the apples of immortality that she guards.
As the gods begin to age, they realize what Loki has done, and force him to rescue her. He takes on eagle-shape and turns Iðunn into a nut, then flies away with her, Þiazi in close pursuit. The gods light a bonfire on the walls of Asgard, and Þiazi burns to death.
The Suttungr story is much more complicated, but here is a fairly simplified version. (It could probably make a book of its own.) After a war between the two groups of gods, the Æsir and Vanir, they exchanged hostages, the Vanir giving Njörð and Freyr in exchange for Hœnir and Mimir. The Vanir threw in anther of them, Kvasir, whom Snorri call the “wisest of all” the gods. (Faulkes: 51)
Skaldskaparmal (Faulkes 61-2) tells it differently: according to this version the Æsir and Vanir, as part of the peace settlement, both spat in a vat. The Æsir took the spittle and made it into a man, who was so wise that no one could stump him, however hard the question. He travelled around, teaching wisdom, until two dwarves killed him and poured his blood into three containers. The blood they mixed with honey to make a mead, which conferred wisdom on anyone who drank it.
The Æsir, meanwhile, were searching for Kvasir, and traced him as far as the two dwarves. They told the gods Kvasir had suffocated from his own wisdom. The mead passed from the two dwarves to a giant named Suttungr, as recompense for them killing his father. Suttungr put the three vats in a cave, with his daughter Gunnlöð to guard it.
Oðin got wind of this, and in disguise he managed to get into the cave where the mead was. He seduced Gunnlöð and lay with her for three nights, in exchange for which she was to give him three sips of the mead.
However, Oðin’s three sips emptied the three vessels. He then changed into his eagle shape and fled. Suttungr saw him, deduced what had happened, and chased him, also in eagle form. Oðin made it to Asgard, where he vomited the mead into three vessels the other gods had waiting for him, except for a small amount he voided while Suttungr was chasing him, which is the mead responsible for bad poetry.
Once again we have the Spy vs. Spy element, with each side stealing from the other, in a tit-for-tat game. What’s interesting is that both have a double-cross element, with Loki betraying both gods and giants, while both Suttungr and Oðin cross each other in their attempts to take advantage of each other.
The Norse versions have apples of immortality, which guarantee the physical rejuvenation of the eater, and the mead of poetry, which offers the chance of the fame that the Homeric heroes seem to have regarded as their only shot at immortality. (The ancient Greek afterworld, such as it was, doesn’t seem like a great prospect. Better the fame the poets offer.) There are even gods for this; Iðunn and Hœnir.
Kvasir is sacrificed to make another one, since as long as he was alive, his wisdom, the combined knowledge of the Aesir and Vanir, was locked up in him, whereas once he had been killed, his blood was fermented into an elixir that could enlighten whoever drank it. (An unpleasantly vampiric notion.)
The Idunn story is the first in Skaldskaparmal, with Kvasir’s right after. Snorri must have seen the two as parallel, which fits with his general method; he liked to make connections between the stories he was telling, as part of his very literary style. (While Saxo Grammaticus likes to point a moral, Snorri likes to find similarites or some odd nugget of information.)
The bird-form is perhaps an Indo-European story element, as it appears in several other versions of this story:
The capture of the mead is often associated with birds. Oðin escaped with the mead in the appearance of an eagle, and Indra transformed himself into a falcon when he escaped with the amrta. In the Mahabhrata a great cycle is devoted to the capture of the mead by the bird Garuda, who is associated with fire and the sun. (Oosten 1986: 68)
The Garuda story is long and complex again, but there are certain familiar elements. Like Oðin, Garuda has to undergo a period as a humble worker, in this case a slave. There are snakes in this myth, too, but in this version they’re the bad guys, and Garuda has to bring them the soma, whereas in the Norse myth Oðin becomes a snake to enter Gunnlod’s cave and get the mead, later fleeing in bird form.
In the Indian version, the snakes don’t get the mead Garuda promised them, although he tricks them into freeing his mother before he has to hand it over. The soma goes to the gods instead, and Garuda is also freed.
In Irish mythology, the story of the sons of Tuireann is similar, having many of the element of the Norse stories, but jumbled up. The brothers are assigned the task of getting three apples of youth, from a carefully-guarded garden in the East. Like Oðin, they have to get through various obstacles to get near the apples, which they steal and fly off in the form of hawks. The sisters who guard the apples chase them, in the form of opsreys. The brothers manage to get back to their boat, having turned themselves into swans and taken to the sea to throw the sisters off.
Food of the Gods
Like Oðin, the Greek and Indian gods do not eat (or drink, unlike the poet’s god; “wine is to him both drink and meat (Gylf. 38). The Vedic gods are amrtah, “non-dying”, and their food is called amrtam, a neuter form of the same word. It was also identified with soma, but soma was a real entity, whereas amrtam was mythical only.
The Greek gods subsisted on ambrosia, which once again means “food of non-dying”. The Indo-European concern with horses surfaces here: both the Olympians and Mithras fed their horses on the same food that kept them immortal. (West 2007: 157-8)
The Irish gods drank the ale the smith god Goibnu brewed, and this kept them young. In the tale of Diarmit and Grainne we also hear of a rowan-tree, grown from a berry the Tuatha de Dannan dropped, the berries of which confer youth on whoever eats them. This tree was, of course, incredibly hard to find, and guarded by a son of the Tuatha, whom “neither weapon wounds nor fire bums, nor water drowns, so great is his magic.”
As is always the case, there is a get-out clause: he must be dealt three blows to the top of his head with his own iron club. In Ossetic myth (from the Caucasus) there is another story of magic food and its theft. There was a tree with life-giving apples, which three doves regularly stole and took overseas. One of them was wounded by the tree’s protector, but managed to escape. (West 2007: 159) The story then turns into a swan-maiden myth, as the young man heals the dove-woman and marries her. (Calarusso: 5)
There are similar myths from India and Iran:
In the Rigveda there are many allusions to the story that the Soma was brought to Indra from the furthest heaven by an eagle or falcon. In the most explicit account the Soma’s guardian Krsanu shot an arrow at the bird and sheared off one of its tail feathers––an analogue of the one dove from the flight that gets caught in the Homeric myth. According to the Avesta (Y. 10. 10–12) the Haoma (which corresponds to the Indian Soma) was first planted on the cosmic mountain Haraitı and then carried by birds to other more accessible mountains. (West 2007: 158-9.)
In another myth, closer to the Iðunn myth, from the Yajurveda, the amrtam was in the hands of the demons, so that they revived from death, but the devas died. The god Indra righted this by turning himself into a falcon and stealing the liquid for the gods and devas. (West 2007: 159.) The parallel between this and the verse from Haustlöng:
The bright-shield-dwellers [giants] were not unhappy after this, now Idunn was among the giants, newly arrived from the south. All Ingi-Freyr’s kin [Æsir] became old and grey in their assembly; the powers were rather ugly in form… (Faulkes: 80-1)
is striking. Of course, this “unnatural” state of affairs must be righted; everything ends gods-side up, as it should be in the mythical universe.
Two Types of Immortality
Both myths have their parallels in other Indo-European lore. Iðunn holds the food of immortality, and going by her name, the Rejuvenating One, she is also the power of regeneration in her own person. She represents both the personal immortality that the gods have, and the perpetuation of the family line.
Kvasir and Hœnir, on the other hand, represent a more impersonal form of immortality, the teachings of wisdom and memory as they are passed along. The mead of poetry represents the immortality the poets offer, the fame that Homeric and Nordic heroes strove for. In the pre-Christian period, this was as close to immortality as most could hope for.
What’s interesting is that both confer a benefit, but Iðunn’s apples, might seem at first like a raw food conferring a rather simple benefit. But actually the food has to be processed (eaten) before the benefit can be bestowed. As the food passes through the person, so the person’s memory passes through the family line.
Oðin’s mead, on the other hand, is a biological product that has been processed, and so represents immortality of a more rarefied type – poetic fame, which of course takes the physical action of the hero and transumtes it into art.
Colarusso, John 1989: “The Woman of the Myths: the Satanaya Cycle”, The Annual of the Society for the Study of Caucasia 2: 3-11.
Oosten. Jarich G., 1985: The war of the gods: the social code in Indo-European mythology, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London ; Boston.
West, M. L. 2007: Indo-European Poetry and Myth, OUP.
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