Idunn and Helen: People or Property?

When I was researching the story of how the giant Thiazi took the apples of immortality for the giants, one thing that kept jumping out at me was how often the goddess who kept the apples, Idunn, was treated as if she were property as well.

Imagine a modern story in which a woman is seized by a foreigner and taken away by him to his hideout. Would you describe that as a kidnap, or a theft? But yet people persist in referring to what happened to Idunn as a theft, or say that she was “stolen”.

I would have said that this was an isolated case, especially since in the myth, Idunn and her apples go back and forth from gods to giants to gods like a hacky-sack being tossed around, with no consideration given to how she might feel. I decided to check on a similar story, the Greek story of the Trojan War and how Helen was the cause of it. And although Helen chose to leave with Paris of her own will, many writers call it “theft”.

So why does it matter?

Well, for a long time women weren’t “persons” under the law, and so didn’t have many of the rights that “people” (read “men”) did. Not only could they not own property, they were property. An injury to a wife was in reality an injury to a husband, just as if you’d lamed his horse or broken his furniture.

Laws such as the Persons Act, passed in 1927 in Canada, gave women legal personhood and inadvertently exposed how ridiculous the whole thing was. This post from Language: a Feminist Guide, sums up the mindset:

The earliest meaning of ‘rape’ recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the act of taking by force, especially the seizure of property by violent means’. It subsequently developed a more specialised use, referring specifically to the taking of women by force: it was applied to the practice of bride abduction, as well as to sexual assaults committed without the intention to marry the victim. The framing of rape as a crime, in either case, was still about taking what did not belong to you: a woman could not be raped by her husband (or in the case of an enslaved woman, her master), since he was already her legal owner.

Which is why, for example, the Rape of the Sabine Women confuses the kidnapping of the Sabines by a group of Roman men with the subsequent rapes and impregnation of these women. To the modern mind a rape is forcible sexual penetration; but before that it meant a kidnapping of a woman who was someone else’s legal property.

So Helen, who actually left her husband, was “raped” by Paris or the Trojans, meaning that they injured her husband, Menelaus, by taking what was his.

In true bug-eyed-monster tradition, Thiazi carries Idunn away.
In true bug-eyed-monster tradition, Thiazi carries Idunn away. From Wikimedia.

And Idunn?

I once wanted to write a novel about the Njord – Skadi myth, and I realized early on that the whole question of Idunn’s part in the whole thing is not really fleshed out in the sources. (Admittedly, Norse myth doesn’t tend to focus on how the characters feel about what happens.) Of the two main sources for the story of Idunn, one is a skaldic poem, a rather terse form, and the other is Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, which retells the stories of Norse myth as a guide for poets.

The poem, Haustlöng, does indicate emotion where it serves the plot. When the giant Thiazi steals the gods’ meat, Loki is angry, which motivates him to strike at the giant. Then Thiazi drags him along behind him, and the poet tells us that Loki feared for himself, and was willing to bring Idunn to the giants to buy his freedom. Later, the gods are angry with him, and he has to free Idunn and bring her back.

Idunn is portrayed a passive victim throughout, passed from gods to giants to gods, so that you can see why writers tend to talk about her as if she were property – clearly the tellers of the original stories saw her that way. She has more in common with the Sabine Women than with Helen, who chose to leave with Paris.

She has the traditional female role: victim and pretext. She embodies the weakness that makes people uncomfortable with discussions of rape, pregnancy and other conditions that are seen as “feminine”. We could cheer a heroine like Brynhild, or Hervor, whose modern heir is someone like Ripley in the Aliens movies. Idunn, however, is closer to the hero’s wife or girlfriend, who exists so that the villain can kidnap her and taunt the hero into violence. (TV Tropes would call her a Disposable Woman.)

Haustlöng focuses on Loki’s part in the story, including a meta-textual moment where it refers to its main character as “the rouser of tales”:

8.Hymir’s kin-branch [giant] demanded
that the rouser of tales,
mad with pain,
to bring him the maid
who knew the Aesir’s old-age cure.
Brisingamen’s thief [Loki]
Got the gods’ lady {Idunn].
to the rock-Nidud’s [giant’s] courts to Brunnakr’s Bench.

9.The bright-shield-dwellers [giants] were not sorry
After this had taken place,
Since from the south
Idunn was now among the giants.
All Invgi-Frey’s kin,
At the Thing, were old and gray –
ugly-looking in their form…

11.I heard this, afterward,
the trier of Hoenir’s mind [Loki]
In a falcon’s flying-fur flew;
And with deceitful mind
Betrayed the playmate of the Aesir [Idunn] back,
And Morn’s father’s, with the wings of an eagle,
Sped after the hawk’s offspring [Loki].

(My own translation, following Faulkes, North and Anderson)

Unlike the poem Thrymskvida, where Freyja explodes in wrath at the idea of marrying a giant, we don’t get a scene where Idunn realizes she’s been tricked, or reacts to the idea that she’s being handed over to the giants.

idunnloki
Loki presumably spinning some tale to Idunn. From the asatru.ru site.

Snorri’s tale also avoids the question of how Idunn felt about the whole thing:

But at the time agreed upon, Loke coaxed Idun out of Asgard into a forest, saying that he had found apples that she would think very nice, and he requested her to take with her her own apples in order to compare them. Then came the giant Thjasse in the guise of an eagle, seized Idun and flew away with her to his home in Thrymheim. The asas were ill at ease on account of the disappearance of Idun,—they became gray-haired and old. They met in council and asked each other who last had seen Idun. The last that had been seen of her was that she had gone out of Asgard in company with Loke. Then Loke was seized and brought into the council, and he was threatened with death or torture. But he became frightened, and promised to bring Idun back from Jotunheim if Freyja would lend him the falcon-guise that she had. He got the falcon-guise, flew north into Jotunheim, and came one day to the giant Thjasse. The giant had rowed out to sea, and Idun was at home alone. Loke turned her into the likeness of a nut, held her in his claws and flew with all his might.

You would think that Idunn had every right to be furious.

A victim goddess?

I think that the feminine aspects of this myth make people uncomfortable, and that’s why Idunn’s part in it tends to get glossed over. In some ways I want to compare her to another goddess, Gefjun, except that Gefjun had sex with a giant of her own free will, as part of a trick she was playing on the Swedish king Gylfi. She retains her agency, even if intercourse with giants is supposed to be taboo for the goddesses.

The myth does show the gods as vulnerable, perhaps more vulnerable than any time except Ragnarök, aging and facing their deaths. Also, it (possibly) shows one of the goddesses becoming the sexual partner of a giant – a possibility the Aesir refuse to contemplate. This could help to explain the reluctance of Scandinavian poets and writers to dwell on this myth.


References:
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
The Younger Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Rasmus B. Andersson, Amazon Digital Services, 2011. (reprint for Kindle)
The Haustlo̧ng of þjódólfr of Hvinir Richard North (ed. and trans.), Enfield Lock, Middlesex, Hisarlik Press, 1997.

Clunies Ross, Margaret 1994: Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse myths in medieval Northern society, vol. 1, The Viking Society Vol. 7, Odense UP.
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.

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3 thoughts on “Idunn and Helen: People or Property?

  1. I wonder whether tales like this make it very discouraging for women to translate and research ancient records, knowing that they’ll have to constantly place everything said in context, constantly reframe it as “it was a different time, those things didn’t mean what they do today.” Yet also noting how little things have changed, how much our “enlightened” culture resembles its barbarous, bigoted roots. I’m sure if someone’s curious, nothing will stop them from reading and translating and recording, but to be hit in the face with this at every turn must be daunting, perhaps. That’s my guess, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know that sometimes it does, not just for me but for other women I know who are either academics or writers like myself. But sometimes even the most depressing myths reveal new aspects when examined, and of course all myths can be read in numerous ways.
      I think what depresses me more is when writers and scholars go on reproducing those same patterns, without ever thinking about what they’re doing. But all the work being done to reframe myths and bring obscure ones to our attention (like all the work that’s been done on the giants in Norse myth) gives me hope.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s wonderful to hear! Perhaps it took even more time for people to come around and develop to a point where this is possible. It’s all very educational for anyone who’s paying attention.

        Liked by 1 person

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