Children of the Gods: Jötunheim, jötnar, and Lay of Thrymr

The Norse lore and cosmology are incredibly complex. While we don’t have a holy book of any sort, heathenry is called “the religion of research” for a reason. There is much more to it than the few myths Neil Gaiman retold in his Norse Mythology, and Snorri’s Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Those writings, both academic and not quite so, ranging between analysis of each line of Völuspa and summaries of Norse shamanist techniques, need to be read through two filters. The first is that there are no written resources from the actual Viking period – it’s taken centuries before the sagas have been written down by Christians. The second – everyone who took it upon themselves to interpret them had an agenda of their own (disclaimer: so do I, only I’m not pretending that I’ve written an academic book). So I read perhaps 1% of what is available, tried to strip it from modern additions, reminded myself that a lot of the Viking-era resources are items the archeologists labelled “religious artifacts” (which translates to “no clue, really”)… then altered what needed to be altered in order to turn that sliver of knowledge into what is hopefully an entertaining, if dark, novel.

When the first round of beta-readers provided me with feedback, they pointed out that they often got lost among all the Gods and worlds and races. I was surprised to hear that despite Chris Hemsworth’s chest there were still people who didn’t even know who Thor was. I have added an index at the beginning of the book, or rather Loki did, where the Gods and the worlds get brief introductions. Finding the right balance between “I don’t understand a thing” and “here’s 50 pages describing the roofs of Heimdall’s hall” has been difficult and I have no clue whether I’ve managed. Here on the blog I’ve been writing a bit more about the Gods – this time I’m going to try and tackle a whole world…

 

Jötunheim

Jötunheim – the home of the jötnar, one of the heathen Nine Worlds, is where the book begins. The popular mistranslation of the word “jötunn” (singular for “jötnar”) as “ice giant” is something I blame Marvel for. In my book it’s also something of a racist slur when used by other peoples. The most accurate/literal translation of “jötnar” would be “the Eaters”.

In my book Jötunheim consists of two parts, the East and West. The Easterners, traders and sailors, are the ones the elves and humans tend to know. That part of Jötunheim is also the coldest, covered in snow and ice through most of the year. The mocking phrase “ice giants” was coined when the elves and human failed to understand the jötnar’s refusal to leave their home land for warmer pastures. Surely, they mocked, that meant that the ice giants loved the cold just as much as the dwarves of Svartálfheim adored spending their lives in their underground forges?

Impenetrable mountains divide the East from the West. The Westerners don’t possess much at all, apart from land itself, permanently half-dead trees and grass, the sort of cattle that can survive in those conditions, fish, wood, and exciting produce such as onions. The only foreign vegetable that even grows in the western soil is a potato, imported from Álfheim. Carrots or beetroots are delicacies that few but the nobles get to taste. Depending on the year, the grain crops range between disappointing and non-existent. Jötunheim’s main exports are sheep and sheepskins, salted fish, forged tools and weaponry, and, frankly, not much else. They might be tough and proud, but they’re also poor.

The jötnar adore and celebrate Freya, the Goddess of love and war, partly because all the other Gods seem to only wish to make their lives harder or end them altogether. Freyr, the God of fertility and crops, seems to laugh in their faces as the fields remain infertile and largely free of any crops. Idunn, the Goddess of youth and strength, and Eir, the Goddess of healing, keep the other Gods alive so that they can continue destroying Jötunheim. Odin the Slayer is the one in whose name Thor regularly invades Jötunheim to do what the Gods describe as “keeping the population in check”, and what the jötnar see as being massacred for no reason other than to please Odin’s blood lust.

 

Nine or ten worlds then?

The series is called The Ten Worlds, yet the Norse faith only lists nine, or rather Nine. (There are even different lists of which worlds fall under the “nine”!) Many of the heathens argue that Earth is the same as Midgard, the world of the humans in the original lore. My cycle is based on the opposite – that there are passages between the Nine Worlds and the tenth world, Earth, which has its own rules, geography, languages, etc.

This wasn’t entirely my own idea. Norse shamans have confirmed, as much as you’re willing to trust shamans’ confirmations, that the Earth and the Nine Worlds used to be one for a long time until they split into two Universes. Both academics and wyrdwalkers have attempted to place Jötunheim somewhere on Earth, eventually settling on Norway as the possible location. I must admit that as much as I’d like to say otherwise I have never visited either Norway or Jötunheim, can’t confirm or deny their overlap, but will let you know as soon as I find proof. For now, let’s agree that my Jötunheim overlaps, but is not Norway; the jötnar are not Norwegians; the second book in the cycle, Land of the Gods, is going to explore this further.

 

Gods and jötnar

The relationship between the two is, to put it mildly, complicated.

Ásgard, the world of the Gods, is protected as well as can be. Few roads lead there. One is Bifröst, the Rainbow Bridge, which connects Midgard, the world of humans, with Ásgard. Heimdall keeps watch to ensure the undesirables don’t make it through. The only other way, (or perhaps not the only) to enter Ásgard is to fly. Very few beings that are not Gods or birds are capable of flying. Most of the other worlds, except Midgard, are located too far to be considered dangerous. The West of Jötunheim, however, is only divided from Ásgard by a river. Ifing might be a river that can not be crossed, its current so strong it’s capable of destroying anything and anyone who dares to try. Still, the Gods are aware that there are few barriers that remain unbroken forever, and so remain afraid of the jötnar. Ásgard has everything. Jötunheim has very little but a lot of tough, resilient, hungry people. Hunger and poverty can be very motivating, and the Gods don’t feel like sharing.

Odin is known as a descendant of jötnar, Thor himself is the son of Odin and a jötunn woman, and Thor’s son Magni’s mother is another jötunn, Járnsaxa. This would make Magni 3/4 jötunn, if not more. The Gods have a weakness for jötunn women, but their generosity towards the chosen ones doesn’t extend beyond gold and jewellery. Once a jötunn enters Ásgard, they are never allowed to return and tell the others about everything that awaits on the other side of Ifing. And, as I mentioned, the population needs to be kept “in check”.

Thor and Loki regularly get into Thor’s chariot pulled by two magical goats and fly over Ifing. Thor then attacks settlements randomly, regardless of whether they are small villages or fortified towns, ensuring the jötnar never know where the danger is going to come from and never manage to organise against the Gods. This has ended all wars between Jötunheim’s various tribes once its nobles realised that, if anything, accommodating more goods and lands can attract Thor’s attention (and subsequent massacres) faster. Still, power and wealth have incredible allure. One of the local jarls has found a way to turn himself into the one and only King everyone wishes to serve. King Thrymr presides over the City of Light and, informally, over most of the West. There is no place where the taxes and prices are higher than in the City of Light. Nevertheless, flocks of those who can afford to live there are more than willing to pay for the privilege that means they won’t have to worry about their safety.

 

Járnsaxa and Magni

Járnsaxa, Thor’s jötunn lover, and Magni, his son, are seen both as the guarantee of the City’s safety, and as Thor’s whore and his bastard. King Thrymr, whose royal libido nearly rivals that of Thor, is aware that the God might one day find himself another lover and that Thor’s interest in his son is at best marginal. Basing the claim to royalty and rule over the only part of the world that remains relatively safe on nothing but Thor’s attraction to one woman, who, unlike the Gods, ages, is neither wise nor safe. As long as Járnsaxa, the King’s “valued advisor”, continues to use her body to entice the God and keep him pleased, she is paid and the kingdom safe. Magni has been thrown out of the house years (winters, in my book – the Viking calendar was so complicated I decided not to use it, but I couldn’t go with the Christian/Roman calendar either) earlier, not to interrupt the two lovers.

Thor’s continuing interest in Járnsaxa is what keeps the City safe and Thrymr the King that everyone follows. The taxes he puts on peoples living in the City and the laws enabling him to do whatever he feels like don’t make him a beloved ruler. If he wants to remain ont he throne and keep his head attached to his neck, he needs to find a more permanent solution. It would be even better if in the process he could increase his wealth and importance enough to share a (small) bit of it with the others, proving that the trickling theory is true…

 

King Thrymr and Mjölnir

The book begins with my retelling of one of the best known myths, Þrymskviða, or The Lay of Thrymr. Long story short, one day Thor wakes up to discover his magical hammer, Mjölnir, has disappeared. Loki dons Freya’s falcon cloak, which enables him to fly, and finds out that King Thrymr has hidden the hammer and will only return it in exchange for Freya’s hand. Understandably, the Goddess of love refuses to marry someone who smells of onions, therefore a solution is found: Thor, dressed in full bridal attire, accompanied by his bridesmaid Loki, travels to Jötunheim to recover his hammer. Hilarity (and death) ensues.

Those myths, stories told by the fire in exchange for ale and food, have always been rather fast-paced and plot-oriented, so to say. Some of those myths contradict each other, their timelines impossible. As I was re-reading them again and again, trying to put them in some sort of sensible order, I started having questions. The first appeared before the first verse of Þrymskviða even ended. How exactly does Thor’s most prized possession just disappear from Ásgard and make it into King Thrymr’s hands? Heimdall wouldn’t let a thief through the Rainbow Bridge (or would he…?) and Ifing, dividing the rich Ásgard and the hungry Jötunheim, is supposed to be impossible to cross without Thor’s chariot, goats, and faithful steward. What and how happened there?

How did Loki immediately know where to go? The Nine Worlds might not be the size of nine Earths, nevertheless, they’re worlds. Loki does not even bother with perfunctory search, going straight into King Thrymr’s hall, then bluntly asking “Your Grace, have you stolen Mjölnir?”. The King, who has apparently predicted that the Gods will guess what had happened and come right over, answers in the affirmative. He then demands Freya’s hand in marriage. If he could marry the Goddess herself, he would guarantee the safety of their shared dwelling forever. He’d also elevate his importance beyond all imagination, the only Goddess worshipped by the jötnar at his side. Freya hardly bothers to listen until the end before telling the other Gods where they can stick the hammer and marriage proposal.

In the original story the suggestion to dress Thor in bridal attire comes from Heimdall. I have always found this odd. There are very few resources of any sort left that mention Heimdall at all and my feeling here was that the author simply wanted to give Heimdall something to do. The idea of the Gods’ sentry coming up with an idea like this seems at best far-fetched, although it could be argued that someone who spends his life staring at one spot where nothing happens might be bored enough to come up with literally anything. If it weren’t Heimdall’s idea, though… then whose? Who could be motivated to do something like this, who would have the means to carry the operation out? In my version of the story, the theft happens within one night, Mjölnir exchanged for a letter that makes its way into the Gods’ hands the next morning. Heimdall would have to allow the thief to cross Bifröst carrying the hammer. The thief would then have to travel from Midgard to the East of Jötunheim, then from the East to the West, then back, all of this within one night. Thor’s steward, the only one who knows (vaguely) how to force the goats to carry the chariot over Ifing and back, is beyond all suspicion.

I had to find someone who had both the motive and the means to get into Thor’s bedroom, pick his most prized possession, then deliver it to the King. What would motivate the thief to do something so dangerous? What would this mean to Járnsaxa and Magni? What could someone like King Thrymr offer to convince someone to undergo a mission so dangerous and difficult? The King would achieve power beyond imagination. How does one pay for something like that?

If all goes well, you will learn all the answers and much more this September…

Photo: Iceland, to be replaced by Norway or Jötunheim once I make it there.