Njord and Skadi: the Divine Divorce

This is an extremely condensed look at the myth of Njord and Skadi. For a much more detailed study, see my book Njord and Skadi: a Myth Explored.

The myth of Njord and Skadi could also be called the Divine Divorce. Usually, even unhappily married deities stay together, but these two bucked the trend. Skadi married Njord as part of a settlement after the gods killed her father, but the marriage didn’t last.

Popular sources describe this story as a nature-myth, with the sea-god and the mountain-goddess being unable to find common ground. This myth, however, has multiple meanings, and goes to the heart of Norse myth and the god-giant conflict that will bring destruction.

Their myth is actually the second half of a story that begins with Skadi’s father, and his death at the hands of the gods.

Thiazi was a giant, and he forced the trickster god Loki to kidnap Idunn, who held the apples of immortality, for him. When the gods realized what Loki had done, they made him rescue Idunn, and killed Thiazi.

Everything was okay, until Thiazi’s daughter Skadi turned up in Asgard demanding compensation and atonement. (This was the legal formula used for a settlement in a feud.) This took two parts: one of them would marry her to end the feud, and they had to make her laugh. The gods set their own condition: she had to choose her husband by his feet. As a result, she got the sea-god Njord instead of Odin’s son and heir, Baldr.

This made the second part more difficult, but Loki managed to amuse her, and the marriage went ahead. The couple then spent nine nights each in their own properties, but Skadi disliked the sea and Njord couldn’t stand the mountains. So they went their separate ways, although Skadi is still counted as a goddess.

Famous for being divorced

They became the couple that were famous for not getting along. Thórdr Sjáreksson mentioned them in a poem, quoted by Snorri Sturluson:

Gudrun became herself her sons’ slayer;
the wise god-bride [Skadi] could not love the Van;
Kialar [Odin] trained horses well;
Hamdir is said not to have held back in swordplay.
(Faulkes’s trans.)

In addition, they influenced Saxo Grammaticus‘ story of the hero Hadingus and his love Ragnilda, who after a period of marriage begin to long for the sea or the mountains. The story of Kormak the Skald and his love Steingerd also features a foot, in this case hers. As she peeps through a door at him, he sees her foot and falls for her.

Sea vs. Mountains

What most people remember about this myth is the rather comic laments Skadi and Njord utter in a poem, quoted by Snorri, about how much they hated each other’s homes:

But when Njord came back from the mountains to Noatun he sang this:

Weary am I of the mountains,
Not long was I there,
Only nine nights.
The howl of the wolves
Methought sounded ill
To the song of the swans.

Skade then sang this:

Sleep I could not
On my sea-strand couch,
For the scream of the sea-fowl.
There wakes me,
As he comes from the sea,
Every morning the mew.

(Gylfaginning 23)

Certainly a goddess of skis and skates who hunts with her bow is different from a god of sailors, fishermen and merchants.

Skadi seems like a winter goddess, while Njord’s activities would have been mainly in the summer, shipping season. Many scholars see the two as opposing seasons, although several add the idea of light and darkness to the mix.

Opinions differ on whether the mountains or seas were a better food source, or whether both were needed for survival in the medieval Norse world. Most likely, both were needed, but the symbolism of coast vs. mountains probably transcended such mundane concerns.

Skadi, like the Saami, lived inland, while the Norse preferred the coast, leading some to see this as ethnically coded. (The Saami skied and used arrows as well.) Like the Saami, the giants were outsiders, and perhaps Njord married Skadi because he could mediate between outside and inside, Asgard and Utgard.

Bloodfeud vs. Wergild

Bloodfeuds are a major part of the Icelandic sagas, and like feuds anywhere, they could drag on through generations and cost many lives. Paying wergild was supposed to end the violence and settle the matter. Of course, it often wasn’t that simple.

You can see the raiding and killing between the gods and giants in a similar way, although the killing is one-sided. No gods die until the Ragnarök. That is why when Thiazi has Loki kidnap Idunn, it raises the stakes. Now there’s no need to wait for the end of time; the giants can just sit back and wait for the gods to die of old age.

Of course, it doesn’t end like that, and Thiazi dies in flames, betrayed by Loki just as the gods were. (Loki’s divided loyalties are another topic entirely.) Thiazi’s death is just another in a long line of giants who fell foul of the gods, including the Master Builder, Hrungnir, and Geirrod.

Skadi’s arrival changes the game again, and it’s interesting that the gods play along, instead of killing her too. She and her family must have been more powerful than we know. Perhaps, also, the gods were smart enough to seize the chance of a truce. (Another such is after Baldr’s death, when they feast with the giant Aegir.)

At any rate, they make a bargain with Skadi, and while her demand for a husband may seem strange, it was a traditional way of ending a war or a feud. (It may have been a bit hard on the two chosen, but that’s politics.) The failure of the marriage may in part reflect the larger failure of the two groups to find any peace that would keep off Ragnarök.

The Relatives We Don’t Talk About

Margaret Clunies-Ross and others have seen the tension between gods and giants as stemming the gods’ refusal to share resources and intermarry with what is after all their kin. Also, Rasmus Kristensen points out that the gods have based their identity on not being giants, so it’s not surprising that they want nothing to do with them.

Njord becomes more important when you look at the myth this way, for two reasons. First, as a Vanir god he isn’t related to the giants the way the Aesir are, so there’s less at stake in marrying one. He only has an interest in the Aesir – Jotun fight insofar as he sides with the Aesir.

Second, as a god who was sent as a hostage to ensure peace between the Aesir and Vanir, and a god who stills the winds and the sea, he was ideal as a mediator between the gods and an angry, grieving giantess.

Skadi, in asking for Baldr, was following her father’s pattern and aiming very high, but a Vanir was realistically the best she could hope for. And it seems that Njord, also, couldn’t marry an Aesir goddess, so Skadi was his best bet too.

Burlesque Myth?

When you consider all these points, it makes more sense that the Skadi story seems like a parody. Skadi is like a hero in a tale, although she should really be setting out on either a bridal-quest or a quest for vengeance. Perhaps because she’s a woman, she combines the two in her demand for compensation.

She chooses the wrong Cinderella, and then Loki takes one for the team to make her laugh. (His trick with the goat, with his balls tied the nanny-goat’s beard, could be seen as a joke on Thiazi dragging him along, as well as Skadi’s masculine attire and attitude.) Then Njord is handed over like a fairy-tale princess. The marriage is anything but a fairy tale, however, and they divorce.

Earlier scholars dismissed this myth because it was too much like a folktale, or because it seemed insufficiently serious. But if we accept Peter Orton’s idea that the whole Edda is a commentary on itself, you can see the Njord-Skadi myth as an ironic, parodic comment on many aspects of Norse myth, in which an attempt to reconcile the gods and giants fails, and the giants are main characters while the gods play minor roles, and the happily-ever-after turns sour almost immediately.

Loki aside, no one suffers anything more than lack of sleep in this story. No one dies, and Skadi ends up ensconced among the gods. Njord gets the smaller blessing of no more nights in the mountains, and the peace he craves.


References:
Clunies Ross, Margaret 1989: “Why Skadi Laughed: Comic Seriousness in An Old Norse Narrative”, Maal og Minne: 1–14.
Holm, Ingunn 2002: “A Landscape beyond the Infield/Outfield Categories: An Example from Eastern Norway”, Norwegian Archaeological Review 35/2: 67-80.
Karlsdottir, Alice 1992: “Njordr and Skadhi: the Marriage of Light and Darkness”, Mountain Thunder 7 (Winter): 19-21.
Kristensen, Rasmus Tranem 2007: “Why was Ođinn Killed By Fenrir? A Structural Analysis of Kinship Structures in Old Norse Myths of Creation and Eschatology”, in Reflections on Old Norse myths, Studies in Viking and medieval Scandinavia 1, eds. Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen, Brepols, Turnhout.
Lincoln, Bruce 1999: “Gautrek’s Saga and the Gift-Fox”, in Theorizing Myth, University of Chicago, 1999. (Reprinted from The Ship as Symbol in Prehistoric and Medieval Scandinavia): 171-82.
Lindow, John 1992: “Loki and Skadi” in Snorrastefna, ed. Ulfar Bragason, Stofnunn Sigurdar Nordals, Reykjavik: 130–141.
McKinnell, John 2005: Meeting the other in Norse myth and legend, D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge.
Orton, Peter 1998-2001: review of “Kommentar zu Leideren der Edda”, in Saga-Book of the Viking Society 25: 226-9.

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