Lands of Legend: Yggdrasill

Yggdrasill, known in Old Norse as Mimameidr, was the World Tree, a towering ash that held up the universe. It grew from the corpse of Ymir, who was oldest of all the giants and killed by the sons of the first god. His blood became the saltwater of the oceans; from his bones rose mountains. His flesh turned to earth and his skull was the sky, with his brains for the clouds. Even the maggots on his corpse were repurposed in this cosmic disembowelment. They transformed into dwarves that held up the sky.

And there was war between the Norse gods and the giants pretty much forever after.

In early Norse legend there were said to be nine worlds growing on the world tree. The realm of mortals was called Midgard. Ygdrasill had three vast roots, each drawing strength from different waters. One reached into Asgard, home of the gods, where it was tended by the goddesses known as the Norns. They were guardians of Urdarbrunnr, the Well of Fate.

The way between Asgard and Midgard was across the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. The gods lived on the other side of it within a fortress that was built on trickery, broken oaths and murder. The builder of its colossal walls was promised as payment the sun, the moon and the beautiful goddess Freyja, if he could finish his work by the end of a single winter – but when he came too near to earning the gods’ treasures, the gods (well, specifically Loki) sabotaged him so that they would not have to pay up. The builder revealed himself to be a very angry giant, upon which discovery the gods felt their oaths were null and void and Thor smashed his head open.

Within Asgard was the hall of Valhalla, where fallen heroes went to feast in the company of Odin. They ate the meat of the boar Schrimnir, who returned to life each day only to be killed and eaten again, and drank mead milked from the goat Heidrum, who fed on the leaves of Yggdrasill.

The second of Yggdrasill’s roots led to Jotunheim, realm of the giants, and it was watered by the well Mimisbrunnr, a source of wisdom so powerful that Odin gave up an eye to drink from it. In Jotunheim was the city of Utgard, ruled by Utgardloki, a king of giants. He once tricked Thor, Loki and their friend Thialfi into a series of impossible tasks. Thialfi was set against a giant called Hugi in a foot race, but was really trying and failing to outrun Thought itself. Loki was equally unlucky in his eating contest against Logi, who was Fire. Thor was asked to drain a horn that was full of the world’s oceans, to lift a cat that was in fact Jormungand the World Serpent, and wrestle an old woman who was Old Age, implacable even to gods.

It’s fun little get-togethers like this, by the way, that lead howling battles and a lot of dead giants and all the way to Ragnarok, that being the end of the world. Thank you, performative masculinity.

The third root of Yggdrasill plunged into the dark and cold underworld of Niflheim, where it drew water from the well of Hvergelmir but was constantly gnawed upon by the serpent Nidhogge. The Kingfisher Book of Mythology calls it an ‘evil dragon-monster’ but I feel that’s unnecessarily judgy, just because Nidhogge liked to snack on dead people too. Niflheim was one of the first places to ever exist, the other being its counterbalance, the raging fires of Muspell. The land of the dead could be found in Niflheim, ruled over by Loki’s daughter Hel, as could Nastrond, the shore of corpses. Which, incidentally, is where Nidhogge liked to hang out.

The four winds ran across Yggrasill’s branches in the shape of deer, feeding off its buds, and a squirrel darted along the trunk, passing insults from the eagle that lived in the uppermost branches to the serpent at its roots, then back again. I cannot find an origin for that feud but I would really love to know more. Meanwhile, beneath the roots of the universe lay Ymir, shifting uneasily in his death from time to time, causing the tree and the worlds it carried to sway.

Yggdrasill survived Ragnarok. What, though, might happen if Ymir ever woke up all the way?

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yggdrasill, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from around the World – ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherin Headlam (Kingfisher Publications, 1998), Bulfinch’s Mythology – Thomas Bulfinch (Gramercy Books, 2003)

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Ladies of Legend: The Fates

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moirai, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/slavic-star-goddess-zorya-guardian-doomsday-hound-and-servant-sun-god-006303, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/z/zorya.html, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html#Zeus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotho, http://www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Sudice_(mythology),

Welcome to the last installment of Ladies of Legend! I tried to post yesterday but the website crashed, which seems rather ominous given who I’m talking about. Let’s try again.

Fate, according to the Reader’s Digest Word Power dictionary, is ‘the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined’. It also refers to the cross-cultural mythic tradition that the biggest of the big guns, the manipulators of destiny itself, are a trio of women.

In Greek mythology, they are known as the Moirai, or Moerae, meaning ‘apportioners’. When a baby was born, it was said they would appear within three days to decided the course of the child’s life. The fates of mortals were threads to them, to be spun together and, in due time, cut off. They also ruled over the fates of the gods. They are described (Fragments 1018, from Stobaeus, Anthology, trans. Campbell) as sitting ‘nearest of the gods to the throne of Zeus’, weaving their work on adamantine shuttles, and some sources claim that he alone could control them, but other accounts imply that the Moirai were completely independent and that Zeus, too, was subject to their will. Which is obviously the version I like better.

The three figures of the Moirai were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. They are usually described as old women, dressed in white robes and sometimes crowns, each either carrying a staff or a symbol of her work. According to some versions, the Moirai were the daughters of Nyx, goddess of night, giving them the siblings Thanatos (god of peaceful death), Nemesis (goddess of vengeance) and the Keres (goddesses of violent death). Other sources say that their mother was Themis, goddess of divine law, and their father was Zeus, with the goddesses Eunomia (of law and order), Dike (of justice) and Eirene (of peace) as their sisters. Yet another account has them as the children of Ananke, goddess of inevitability and necessity.

Clotho’s role was to spin the thread of life. It was she who decided when a person was born and when they died, and one time when the notorious Tantalus murdered his son, the gods piled all the bits of the dismembered boy into a cauldron and Clotho brought him back to life. Being the original multi-tasker, she also helped Hermes invent the alphabet. Lachesis, meanwhile, was the measurer. It was up to her how much life any individual received, measuring it precisely with her rod, and her other duty was Reincarnation Instructor, providing the options – animal and human – for souls to take on as their new life. Atropos, meanwhile, was the eldest of the three sisters, and wielder of the shears that could end any (and every) thread of life. The nature of death was her particular province. During certain battles of the gods, the three of them took a more active role in dealing out judgement, wielding bronze clubs to take down their enemies.

The Moirai had companions in their work – Eileithyia, the Minoan goddess of childbirth, and the Erinyes, or Furies, who punished evil-doers. But the Moirai could also be placated, or even tricked. Athenian brides offered the Moirai locks of hair. Booze would also do the trick. Alcestis, widow of Admetus, once got all three Moirai thoroughly drunk and Clotho admitted that if a replacement could be found to go into the Underworld in Admetus’ stead, he would be freed. Alcestis gave up her own life, but was rescued by Heracles when Death came to get her, so the lovers both cheated destiny and survived.

The Roman parallel to the Moirai were the Parcae, or Fata: Nona, Decima and Morta. They were known as ‘the sparing ones’ and were, of course, anything but. On the day that a child’s name was chosen – this being the ninth day after birth for a boy and the eighth day for a girl – the Parcae would decide upon how long the child’s life would be.

In Slavonic mythology, there are the Sudice, also known – depending on region – as the Sudičky, Suđaje, Rodzanice, Narecznice, Sudiczki, Sojenice or Rojenice. At the birth of every child, it was the Sudice who foretold their destiny. The Slavic Fates appeared as three elderly spinners, the first with an oversize lower lip from licking the thread, the second with a thumb widened from handling the fibres, and the third with a foot swollen from turning the spinning wheel.

Another Slavonic trio of goddesses were the Zoryas, guardians of the universe who kept the Doomsday Hound Simargl chained to the star Polaris. The maiden figure was Zorya Utrenyaya, the Dawn, a warrior spirit and patroness of horses. Her duty was to open the gates so that her father Dazbog’s sun chariot could pass through. She was Zwezda Dnieca in Polish, Dennitsa in Eastern Slavonic and Auseklis in Latvian. The mother figure was Zorya Vechernyaya, the Dusk or Twilight, who closed the gates after the return of the sun chariot. She was Zwezda Wieczórniaia in Polish. The crone figure was Zorya Polunoshnaya, the Midnight, also known as Zwezda Polnica or Polunocnica. She was associated with witchcraft and the Underworld. The three guardians could merge to form the warrior goddess Zorya, who used her veil to shield warriors from death. She lived on Bouyan Island, home of the sun, where the winds of the North, East and West all met. Zorya was married to the god Perun in some versions, while in others her husband was Myesyats, the god of the moon, making her the mother of the stars.

Like the Sudice, the Norns of Norse myth were said to manifest at births to map out the child’s future life. The judgement of Norns nearly always meant a death sentence. There were many such spirits – unlucky people were known to bemoan the malice of their personal Fates – but there were three giantesses said to be the greatest of the Norns. These are Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld, associated respectively with the past, presence and future. One of their duties was to draw water from the Well of Urðr to pour over Yggdrasill, the World Tree, to keep it alive.

Though the mythic traditions vary from region to region, the Fates tend to represent the natural order of things, and woe betide you if you go against it. They are the warriors of the law, the guardians of justice. Fate may not always be kind, but it can be named. It can even, occasionally, be defied. And it might just win your war for you.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Reviews – Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2017

From the emergence of Ymir, ancestor of the giants, from the first waters of the worlds, to the end of all things at Ragnarok – from the tricks and treachery of Loki to the wisdom and wickedness of Odin, the adventures of Thor and the betrayal of Balder, these are the legends of the Norse gods as you have never known them before.

I have a long-standing love of Norse mythology and while I knew many of these stories, some I didn’t. It was a delight to read Gaiman’s vivid retellings, all infused with his recognisable wry wit. I particularly loved a twist on the story of Balder that gave a more prominent role to – avoiding spoilers! – a shadowy female character I’ve always been fascinated by. Gaiman has a wonderful turn of phrase and by making all references to Ragnarok in future tense, the stories have a fresh shock of immediacy. This is a book I’m certain I’ll re-read.

The Mighty Jane Foster and other Asgardian legends

So I went to see Thor: The Dark World yesterday. I know virtually nil about comics but who doesn’t like a superhero movie and anyway NORSE MYTHOLOGY, THERE IS NORSE MYTHOLOGY ON THE BIG SCREEN. I watched the prologue of the first movie bouncing up and down on my sofa shrieking ‘Frost giants! Frost giants!’ – obviously I expected to enjoy this one. What I did not expect was to find myself writing a post about it the next day. But you see, I went into that cinema and saw an action film that got it right.

Beware: there are spoilers for pretty much everything.

The premise of the film does not include frost giants, sadly, but in their place as villains of the story are the ancient Dark Elves, who predate the current universe and seek to eradicate the taint of light with an almost infinitely powerful force called the Aether. Thwarted by the armies of Asgard, they have waited a long time for their chance. They get it when human scientist Jane Foster falls through a crack in reality to the place where the Aether was hidden so long ago. Knowing only that she is in danger, Thor returns to Earth to find her and gets there in time to see the Aether blast away the policemen who try to arrest her. It’s not just Jane who is in trouble. It’s everybody.

Let’s start with Jane. I love Jane Foster. I love that the woman Thor fell for is a brilliant scientist, that she has a passion completely separate from him and that this is not condemned by the narrative. I love that when she gets to Asgard she’s trying to figure out how everything works, and she guesses right, and that Thor thinks this is wonderful. After he left her in New Mexico, Jane tried to find him with science; it’s implied she only gave up after she heard about his very visible presence in New York and realised he’d been back to Earth without even bothering to make a phone call.

So what does Jane do? She tries dating again. And the guy she picks is actually really nice. Of course, their first date is interrupted by the joint misbehaviour of Jane’s friend Darcy and interdimensional physics, and then her Norse god love interest returns to apologise for his lengthy absence from her life, so a second date was never on the cards. But it could have been. And she’d have been okay.

I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

Also, Darcy! Darcy, Jane’s snarky best friend, who hires interns behind her back and takes other people’s shoes to perform inappropriate scientific experiments! Not only do their conversations mean The Dark World passes the Bechdel test with ease, they are witty and intelligent and establish a friendship that is another thing Jane has entirely independent of Thor. Darcy is not there simply to hold out tissues during an emotional scene or provide romantic conflict. She’s a person in her own right.

In fact, the biggest thing I love about this film is how it treats its female characters. From Frigga’s development into a multifaceted heroine (and frankly a better role model for her sons than Odin), to the eternally capable Sif, to random Asgardian doctors who didn’t HAVE to be female, they just were, there are a range of significant speaking roles for women in The Dark World. Sadly, none of the big parts were given to women of colour (I can’t be sure about minor roles without a rewatch), but having this many women and treating them this well is a big step in the right direction that will hopefully lead to even better things in the future.

Now to the male characters – I’d better start with Thor, as it is his movie. He’s had to cope with an awful lot over the past two years, what with his brother’s multiple betrayals, the destruction and subsequent rebuilding of the Bifrost, joining the Avengers as their honorary god, and dealing with the outbreak of war across the Nine Worlds. None of this leaves any time for visiting Jane, so he gets Heimdall to keep an eye on her from afar. That would be creepy and stalkerish if he didn’t so clearly have her wellbeing at the forefront of his mind. I still don’t know if I’m entirely happy with it, but in general Thor is very respectful of Jane’s boundaries. I think the best word to describe his behaviour is courtly. What’s more, he genuinely thinks she’s wonderful. He doesn’t ever patronise or second guess her. If she says a weird gizmo on a stick will save the world, he will charge forward armed with a gizmo on a stick. There’s a guy worth falling in love with!

One of the things that frustrated me about the original Thor movie was the way Odin’s dodgy actions went largely unchallenged. In the scene where Loki learns his true heritage, he makes one very telling statement: I am the monster parents tell their children about at night. Loki’s later genocide attempt makes a lot more sense when you place that in the context of his upbringing; Odin may preach peace now, but the frost giants have always been the enemy, the ‘monsters’, not really people at all. How can it be a bad thing if you rid the universe of the monsters?

Essentially, Thor copies what his father says, Loki what Odin does, and I think that’s what lies at the heart of Loki’s sense of betrayal. He doesn’t know what he wants to be any more. Thor suffers a similar realisation in The Dark World. He loves his father, but he doesn’t want to be like him.

Loki, meanwhile, is a whole godful of angst. I do not blame Thor in the slightest for being sick of him, but Odin’s solution – rot in a transparent prison cell surrounded by other people I hate and brood on your wrongs forever! – doesn’t really help Loki’s ever precarious mental state. That leaves Frigga as the only member of the family still trying to connect with him, and the only one he doesn’t want to hurt. Seeing him care so much about her, particularly the aftermath of his grief in the cell, brought back that labyrinthine complexity of character from the first movie. He’s so magnificently screwed up! But everything he does makes its own strange kind of sense. I particularly loved how adorably manic he was when freed from his cell, bounding along at Thor’s side playing silly tricks and forgetting they were meant to be sneaky. He even got the chance to do something heroic, though only he would follow that up by taking over Asgard in disguise. It’s kind of sweet – Loki’s version of sweet – that he uses his ill-gotten position to give Thor his blessing. Odin might not have been so understanding.

Who even knows what he’s done to Odin. And what he plans to do with all that power now he’s got it. Watch out, universe.

Visually, this is a gorgeous film, from beautiful costuming to the glorious spectacle of Asgard. (Did a single one of the main female characters wear high heels even once? I think not. Bonus points for sensible shoes!) The plot mostly works, and what doesn’t make sense is held together with good pacing and excellent acting. It’s intelligent. It makes emotional sense. It’s fun. The Ninth Doctor turns into an evil elf! Things blow up! Jane’s team get together after saving the world and eat breakfast cereal!

I want more action movies like this.