These will be rather lengthy compared to usual. So, let’s begin…
After Gangleri was told of the ship Skidbladnir and how it was the best ship and made from magik so that it could be folded into a pocket, he asked if there was ever a situation in which Thor was bested due to strength or magik. One of the high-ones replied “even if it has happened that something or other has been so powerful or strong that Thor has not managed to defeat it, there is no need to speak of it, for there is much evidence to show, and everyone is bound to believe, that Thor is mightiest”. Gangleri responds that he must have asked a question that they couldn’t answer and they replied that there is one tale that to them seems impossible to be true but they would tell him anyway. And that was the tale of Thor’s journey to Utgard.
Thor went on an expedition to Utgard and Loki went with him. They journeyed a while and eventually came to a peasant’s house where they were welcomed to stay for the night. That evening, Thor slaughtered his two goats, skinned them, and set them to cook in a pot. When they were cooked, he asked the peasant and his family if they would like to join them in their meal. The family sat to eat with Thor and Loki and Thor told them to eat all they wish but to throw the bones onto the goat skin laid on the floor. The peasant’s son, Thialfi, broke open the bone of the hind leg to eat the marrow, then threw the remaining bone onto the goat skin. After dinner, they all retired for the night. In the morning, Thor got up and blessed the bones with his hammer and the goats were brought back to life. But he noticed that one of the goats’ hind legs was limp and couldn’t walk properly. Realizing that one of the peasant’s family must have broken one of the bones, Thor gripped his hammer with rage and headed toward them. The peasant and his family stared and trembled in fear and when Thor saw that, he calmed down and instead of destroying them, took the son Thialfi and the daughter Roskva as his bondservants and they remain with him to this day. Thor left the goats at the peasant’s house, then he, Loki, and the two children went on their way. They crossed over the great deep sea and when they reached land, all went ashore. They walked until evening but couldn’t find much shelter. But that night, “they came upon a certain very large building. There was an entrance at one end and it was the full width of the building”. Seeing that it was empty, they entered the building to sleep. At midnight, there came a great earthquake that shook the whole building. Thor and his companions got up to seek safety, and Thor found a side-chamber on the right-hand side of the building and they sought shelter in that chamber. At dawn, Thor went out and saw someone lying a little way from him. It was a giant, and he was asleep and snoring mightily. Thor realized then what the rumbling the night before had been and gripped his hammer to smite the giant. But at the moment, the giant woke and stood up “and then they say that Thor for once was afraid to strike him with the hammer, and asked him his name”. The giant said his name was Skrymir, but he knew who Thor was and asked if he was trying to take his glove. Then, as Skrymir reached over and picked it up, Thor realized the building they slept in was the glove and the side chamber had been the thumb. Skryimer then asked Thor if he’d like his company, and Thor agreed. The party traveled together and Skrymier offered to carry all the food in his knapsack for them. So they put it all in the sack and he tied it up, and they went on their way. When night fell, they settled under a tree and the giant said that he was ready to sleep, but that Thor and the others could go ahead and eat. He went to sleep and Thor got the knapsack. But as much as he tried, he could not untie the sack. This made him angry and he went up to the sleeping giant and hit him in the forehead with Mjolnir. But the giant woke asking “has a leaf fallen on my head? Thor, have you eaten?” Thor said they had eaten and were going to bed. They went to sleep under another oak tree. And the lore says “to tell you the truth, it was not possible to sleep without fear”. At midnight the giant snored like the night before. So Thor struck him again and felt the hammer sink deep into the head. But the giant woke and asked “Did an acorn fall on my head? ANd what are you doing, Thor?” Thor said he had just woke up but was going back to sleep. He waited until he knew Skrymir was asleep again. Just before dawn, seeing the giant asleep on his side, Thor struck him in the temple until the hammer sunk in up to the handle. But again, he woke and asked if some sticks had been knocked down on him by some birds. Then he opened up the sack, the party ate breakfast, and headed on their way. Skrymir told them that if they continued East they would come to the castle called Utgard. He told them that the king there was Utagard-Loki and he and his men were bigger than even he, and that they hate cheekiness, so don’t “act big”, and if they can’t do that its best to just turn back. But, whatever they chose, his path was to the North so this is where they would part. The party went on their way without the giant. Eventually they found the castle and though Thor could not break open the gate around it, they managed to squeeze in through the bars. They entered the castle and the king, Utgard-Loki addressed them asking if they had any special strength or skill because “no one is allowed to stay here with us who does not have some art or skill in which he is superior to most people”.
Loki spoke first. He said that he believed he could give go at an eating contest. So they brought a trencher in the idle of the hall filled with meat. They sat Loki on one end and a giant named Logi on the other. Loki ate as fast as he could and so did Logi, and they met at the middle of the trencher. But whereas Loki had eaten all the meat and left nothing but bone, Logi had eaten the meat, and the bone, and even trencher. And so Loki lost the competition and Utgard-Loki asked Thialfi what skill he had that he could compete with. He said that he was a fast runner. So the king called a giant named Hugi to have a racing contest with Thialfi. In the first race, though Thialfi was very fast, Hugi made it to the finish so quick that he was able to turn back and meet Thialfi. In the second race, when Hugi crossed the finish, Thialfi was an arrow shot behind. And in the third race, he was so far ahead that when he finished, Thialfi had only made it halfway. So it was decided the contest was over, and Thialif had lost. Utgard-Loki asked Thor what contest he would give his try at. He said he believed he was quite good at drinking. So he was giving a horn that the king told him even the least of them could finish in three draughts. Thor drank once until he couldn’t hold his breath any more. And when he checked the horn, it seemed the drink had barely moved. He tried the second draught even longer this time, and still the liquid barely moved. On the third try, he drank even fighting losing his breath until he couldn’t hold it anymore, and though he could tell a greater difference this time, he still was not half gone through the drink. So Utgard-Loki asked if he’d like to try a different trial. Thor agreed, and Utgard-Loki told him that the young lads in Utgard liked to test their strength by trying to lift his cat off the ground. So Thor tried this. A large gray cat came out onto the floor, and Thor tried to lift him. As he lifted the cat arched his back but his feet never came off the ground. Thor lifted higher and higher until he couldn’t anymore. And the cat lifted only one paw off the ground. But not enough for Thor to have won. So they asked him if he wanted to try just one more event. Thor said he would be willing to fight anyone who wanted to try to fight him. But the king told him that no one there would want to do that since it would be beneath them to fight him after the losses he already had, but he brought out an old woman Elli, and had Thor wrestle with her. Thor pushed and pulled and strained. And the more he strained, the firmer she stood. But then she tried a couple of tricks and he quickly went down to one knee, and the match was over. By this time it was very late, and the party was given a place to sleep and hospitality, and in the morning given a great big breakfast and merry making. But then it was time to go on their way, and Utgard-Loki escorted them out to the road away from the castle. When it was time to part, Utgard-Loki spoke to Thor. He said “I must tell you the truth now”. He told Thor that he had been the giant that lead them here in disguise. The knapsack had been tied with a trick wire. And when he had hit Skrymir with his hammer, it would have killed him except that he had moved a tabletop-mountain over the place where Thor was hitting without him noticing and showed him that if he looked, he could see where there were now three distinct valleys (one deeper than the others) along where that mount lies. He then told him all the contests had been tricks too. Loki had eaten very fast. But Logi was wildfire and burned away all his food and the trencher. Thialfi ran fast. But Hugi was Utgard-Loki’s thought and no one can run as fast as that. The horn, he said, had been the sea, and that he’d notice it has lowered since he drank it. This is what we call the tides. The cat was actually the Midgard Serpent. And Elli was old age itself. “For there never has been anyone, and there never will be anyone, if they get so old that they experience old algae, that old age will not bring them all down”. Then, he told Thor that it would not be good for either of them if he tried to come back again because he would defend his castle from him this much or even more if he did. This made Thor angry, and had hurt his pride a bit. And he was so angry he grabbed Mjolnir and turned to swing. But Utgard-Loki and even the castle itself had disappeared. And Thor set it into his head that he would arrange to meet against the Midgard Serpent again and defeat him.
My thoughts: Utgard-Loki’s explanation of why they lost their contests is that they were all forces that could not be physically bested by anyone. Logi was wildfire, Hugi was thought, Elli was old age. This, to me, shows not only another example of the giants being primal and primordial forces and concepts, but also stages of life. In youth we rush with a passion toward all our goals, even toward adulthood and “being grown”. As adults, we often start thinking more before acting, and thinking and contemplating life in general more often. And then finally, if we make it to old age, old age itself takes us down eventually. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t beat them. It’s a natural process. Another thing that comes to mind in this story is humility. Not fake victim-blaming humility we hear about in “spiritual” guru talk. But true humility. Not thinking you are worse than others or that you don’t matter. But, accepting that as good as we may be, there is always someone that is better than us at some things, and that’s ok. And even if not in regards to other people, then a sense of humbleness at how small we are compared to the natural forces mentioned and the universe as whole. And how as much as we work WITH it, we are not its master. As for the mythos itself, we’ve spoken many times about the idea of self-fulfilled prophecy and how the things that Odin did to prevent Loki’s children from their role in Ragnarok actually put them where they needed to be in order to fulfill that prophecy. Is this a set destiny? Or self-fulfilled? In this story, I can’t help but wonder if Thor’s wounded pride from the cat making him determined to go out and fight Jormungandr and finally win (which he does attempt later), isn’t part of what leads to that being his lot at Ragnarok fighting him yet again. These are just some of the things that come to mind. But I’ve taken too much space already. Just some points to ponder until next time.
- Lokea (aka: Nikk)