Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri: Part VII

The last myth in this series is the Death of Baldur. It is Snorri’s “greatest achievement as a storyteller,” according to some scholars. They compare it to Shakespeare’s plays, with its balance of comic and tragic. Of course, others fault it for the same thing. A 19th-century scholar slammed it as a “burlesque.” One in the early 20th century chastized Snorri for his “irresponsible treatment” of tradition. Snorri, he sniffed, made myths into “novellas.”

That’s why we remember them, it seems to me.

There’s a version of Baldur’s death in Saxo Grammaticus’s Latin History of the Danes, but since Jacob Grimm (of the famous fairy tale brothers) wrote his German Mythology in 1835, no one has consider it the “real” myth. In his book Grimm cites Snorri’s Edda, but he gives Snorri no credit as an author. He quotes him. He allows that Snorri makes “conjectures.” But when comparing Snorri’s Edda to Saxo’s History of the Danes, Grimm finds the Icelandic text “a purer authority for the Norse religion”—no matter that Snorri and Saxo were writing at roughly the same time. “As for demanding proofs of the genuineness of Norse mythology, we have really got past that now,” Grimm asserts. He finds the myth of Baldur “one of the most ingenious and beautiful in the Edda,” noting it has been “handed down in a later form with variations: and there is no better example of fluctuations in a god-myth.” By the “later form” he means Saxo’s, written between 1185 and 1223. The pure version is Snorri’s, written between 1220 and 1241. Grimm does not find his conclusion illogical; he sees no teller behind Snorri’s tale.

The god Baldur, Odin’s second son, is fair and white as a daisy, Snorri writes, “and so bright that light shines from him.” His palace is called Breidablik, “Broad Gleaming”: “This is in heaven,” Snorri says. Baldur is like the sun in the sky. He is the wisest of the gods, the most eloquent, and the most merciful—but “none of his decisions can be fulfilled,” Snorri writes. He’s beautiful, but totally useless.

In Norse mythology as we know it, Baldur the Beautiful does nothing but die.

Here’s the story as I tell it in my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths:

One night, Baldur began to have bad dreams. Hearing of this, his mother Frigg exacted a promise from everything on earth not to hurt him. Fire and water, iron and stone, soil, trees, animals, birds, snakes, illnesses, and even poisons agreed to leave Baldur alone.

After that, the gods entertained themselves with Baldur-target practice. They shot arrows at him, hit him with spears, pelted him with stones. Nothing hurt him. The gods thought this was glorious, Snorri writes. Except Loki the Trickster. He was jealous. He put on a disguise and wormed up to Frigg. “Have all things sworn oaths not to harm Baldur?”

“There grows a shoot of a tree to the west of Valhalla,” Frigg replied. “It is called mistletoe. It seemed young to me to demand the oath from.”

Loki made a dart of mistletoe and sought out the blind god Hod. “Why are you not shooting at Baldur?”

“Because I cannot see where Baldur is,” Hod replied testily.

“I will direct you,” Loki offered. He gave Hod the dart. Hod tossed it, and Baldur died. Says Snorri, “This was the unluckiest deed ever done among gods and men.”

Reading this story you probably wondered how a dart made of mistletoe could kill anyone.

It couldn’t.

Snorri had no idea what mistletoe was. It doesn’t grow in Iceland, and is rare in Norway. It is not a tree, but a parasitic vine found in the tops of oaks. The “golden bough” of folklore, it was gathered in some cultures at the summer solstice; picking it caused the days to shorten. Originally, it seems, the death of Baldur was a drama of the agricultural year.

Snorri did not see it that way. In his mythology, time is not cyclical. Baldur does not die off and come back each year like summer. Instead, Baldur’s death causes Ragnarok, in which the old gods are killed and the old earth destroyed in a fiery cataclysm.

Baldur’s death at his brother Hod’s hand is mentioned in the “Song of the Sibyl,” an older poem that Snorri knew and often quotes, though he doesn’t say who wrote it, as he does for most of the poems he quotes in the Edda. In the “Song of the Sibyl,” mistletoe is also Baldur’s bane. Snorri didn’t make that part up. But the plant’s attraction for him (and the “Sibyl” poet) was not any special mythic meaning. What Snorri liked was its name: mistilsteinn. Other Icelandic words ending in “-teinn” referred to swords. And Mist? It’s the name of a valkyrie. A plant named “valkyrie’s sword” must be deadly.

The “Song of the Sibyl” doesn’t say Frigg forced an oath out of everything else on earth to keep Baldur safe. The poem doesn’t say Loki wheedled the secret from her or guided blind Hod’s hand—it doesn’t mention Loki in this context at all.

No one but Snorri says what happened next: Weeping, Frigg begged someone to ride to Hel and offer the goddess of death a ransom to give Baldur back. Hermod—a god in no other story—volunteered. He took Odin’s horse, eight-legged Sleipnir, and set off.

Meanwhile, the gods held Baldur’s funeral. It’s strangely comic—with many details exclusive to Snorri. They carried his body in procession to the sea, Freyr in his chariot drawn by the golden boar; Freyja in hers, drawn by giant cats.

They built Baldur’s pyre on his warship, but when they tried to launch it, they could not: Their grief had sapped their strength, and they had to send to Giantland for help. “A great company of frost-giants and mountain-giants” arrived, including a giantess “riding a wolf and using vipers as reins.” Odin called four of his berserks to see to her mount, but “they were unable to hold it without knocking it down,” Snorri says. The giantess launched the ship “with the first touch, so that flame flew from the rollers and all lands quaked,” performing with a fingertip what all the gods were powerless to accomplish.

That made Thor angry. He never liked a giant to one-up him. “He grasped his hammer and was about to smash her head until all the gods begged for grace for her.”

Nanna, Baldur’s loving wife, then collapsed and died of grief; she was placed on the funeral pyre on the ship beside her husband. (No other source mentions Nanna’s death.) The gods led Baldur’s horse to the pyre and slaughtered it. Odin placed his magic ring, Draupnir, on Baldur’s breast.

Then Thor consecrated the pyre with his hammer and it was set alight. Returning to his place, he stumbled on a dwarf: “Thor kicked at him with his foot,” Snorri writes, “and thrust him into the fire and he was burned.”

The scene shifts back to Hermod’s Hel-ride. Snorri was inspired here by the apocryphal story of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, as told in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which was popular in 13th-century Iceland. Christ, in the Icelandic translation, rode a great white horse into Hell. Hermod rode the eight-legged Sleipnir, also white. He rode for nine nights, through valleys dark and deep, until he reached the river dividing the world from the underworld. He rode onto a bridge covered with glowing gold. The maiden guarding the bridge stopped him. Five battalions of dead warriors had just crossed, she said, but Hermod made more noise. “Why are you riding here on the road to Hel?” she asked. (For Snorri, Hel is both a person and the place she inhabits.)

He was chasing Baldur, Hermod replied. “Have you seen him?”     

“Yes, he crossed the bridge. Downwards and northwards lies the road to Hel.”
Hermod rode on until he reached Hel’s gates. “Then he dismounted from the horse and tightened its girth”—a nice detail showing Snorri really did know horses—“mounted and spurred it on.” Sleipnir leaped the gate. Hermod rode up to Hel’s great hall, where he found Baldur sitting in the seat of honor. Hermod stayed the night.

In the morning, he described the great weeping in Asgard and asked Hel if Baldur could ride home with him. (Baldur’s horse, burned on the pyre, was safe in Hel’s stables.)

Hel is not a monster, in Snorri’s tale, but a queen. She gave it some thought. Was Baldur really so beloved? she wondered. She would put it to the test. “If all things in the world, alive or dead, weep for him,” she decreed, “then he shall go back.” If anything refuses to weep, he stays in Hel.

The gods “sent all over the world messengers to request that Baldur be wept out of Hel. And all did this, the people and animals and the earth and the stones and trees and every metal, just as you will have seen that these things weep when they come out of frost and into heat,” Snorri writes. (He liked to include these little just-so stories.)

Everything wept, that is, except a certain ugly giantess. “It is presumed,” Snorri added, “that this was Loki” in disguise.

No other source makes Loki the Trickster so clearly responsible for taking Baldur the Beautiful from the world. With Baldur’s death, chaos is unleashed. The gods have lost their luck, the end of the world is nigh: Ragnarok, when Loki and his horrible children, the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent, will join forces with the giants to destroy the gods.

This is the last of the seven Norse myths we wouldn’t have without Snorri. Now that you know how much of Norse mythology he made up, I hope you agree with me that Snorri Sturluson is not only an amazingly creative writer, but the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan. It originally appeared on the science fiction and fantasy lovers website

You can read the complete series here:

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri: Part VI

As I’ve stressed in this series, Snorri Sturluson’s Edda is our main source for what we know of as Norse mythology. And it was written to impress a 14-year-old king. That explains why Norse mythology is so full of adolescent humor—especially when it comes to sex.

The Norse gods certainly had odd love lives. According to Snorri, Odin traded a lonely giantess three nights of blissful sex for three drafts of the mead of poetry. Another lucky giantess bore him valiant Vidar, one of the few gods who survived Ragnarok, the terrible last battle between gods and giants. Odin coupled with his daughter Earth to beget the mighty Thor, the Thunder God. Of course, Odin was married all this time. His long-suffering wife, wise Frigg, was the mother of Baldur the Beautiful, at whose death the whole world wept (we’ll get to that story next week).

Njord, god of the sea, married the giantess Skadi as part of a peace treaty. She wanted to marry beautiful Baldur and was told she could have him—if she could pick him out from a line-up looking only at his feet. Njord, it turned out, had prettier feet. But he and Skadi didn’t get along. He hated the mountains, she hated the sea: He hated the nighttime howling of the wolves, she hated the early morning ruckus of the gulls. So they divorced. Afterwards, Skadi was honored as the goddess of skiing. She and Odin took up together and had several sons, including Skjold, the founder of the Danish dynasty (known to the writer of Beowulf as Scyld Shefing). Njord married his sister and had two children, the twin love gods Freyr and Freyja.

Then there’s Loki, Odin’s two-faced blood-brother, whose love affairs led to so much trouble. Loki, of course, was the reason why the giantess Skadi was owed a husband in the first place: His mischief had caused Skadi’s father to be killed. In addition to getting a husband, Skadi had another price for peace. The gods had to make her laugh. She considered this impossible. “Then Loki did as follows,” Snorri writes. “He tied a cord round the beard of a certain nanny-goat and the other end round his testicles, and they drew each other back and forth and both squealed loudly. Then Loki let himself drop in Skadi’s lap, and she laughed.”

Loki, writes Snorri, was “pleasing and handsome in appearance, evil in character, very capricious in behavior. He possessed to a greater degree than others the kind of learning that is called cunning…. He was always getting the Aesir into a complete fix and often got them out of it by trickery.”

With his loyal wife, Loki had a godly son. In the shape of a mare, he was the mother of Odin’s wonderful eight-legged horse Sleipnir, which I wrote about in part two of this series.

But on an evil giantess Loki begot three monsters: the Midgard Serpent; Hel, the half-black goddess of death; and the giant wolf, Fenrir.

Odin sent for Loki’s monstrous children. He threw the serpent into the sea, where it grew so huge it wrapped itself around the whole world. It lurked in the deeps, biting its own tail, until taking revenge at Ragnarok and slaying Thor with a blast of its poisonous breath.

Odin sent Hel to Niflheim, where she became the harsh and heartless queen over all who died of sickness or old age. In her hall, “damp with sleet,” they ate off plates of hunger and slept in sickbeds.

The giant wolf, Fenrir, the gods raised as a pet until it grew frighteningly large. Then they got from the dwarves a leash bound from the sound of a cat’s footstep, a woman’s beard, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.

Fenrir would not let them tie him up until Tyr, the brave god of war for whom Tuesday was named, put his hand in the wolf’s mouth as a pledge of the gods’ good faith. The wolf could not break free of this leash no matter how hard he struggled, and the gods refused to let him loose. It had been a trick all along.

“Then they all laughed except for Tyr,” Snorri writes. “He lost his hand.”

It’s a classic Snorri line. Like the story of Skadi picking her bridegroom by his beautiful feet, and how Loki made her laugh, the story of the binding of Fenrir—and how Tyr lost his hand—is known only to Snorri. As I’ve said before, no one in Iceland or Norway had worshipped the old gods for 200 years when Snorri was writing his Edda. People still knew some of the old stories, in various versions. And there were hints in the kennings, the circumlocutions for which skaldic poetry was reknowned. Snorri memorized many poems and collected many tales. From these he took what he liked and retold the myths, making things up when need be. Then he added his master touch, what one scholar has labeled a “peculiar grim humor.” The modern writer Michael Chabon describes it as a “bright thread of silliness, of mockery and self-mockery” running through the tales. And it is Snorri’s comic versions that have come down to us as Norse mythology.

Next week, in the last post in this series, I’ll examine Snorri’s masterpiece as a creative writer, the story of the death of Baldur.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan. It originally appeared on the science fiction and fantasy lovers website

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri: Part V

Norse myths have been very popular with fantasy and science fiction writers. Why? I think it’s because of Snorri’s special touch—the wry and sarcastic humor that infuse his tales.

In 2005, for example, Shadow Writer interviewed Neil Gaiman while he was touring for The Anansi Boys (read it here: They asked Gaiman if he had a favorite myth. He answered, “I keep going back to the Norse ones because most myths are about people who are in some way cooler and more magical and more wonderful than us, and while the Norse gods probably sort of qualify, they’re all sort of small-minded evil, conniving bastards, except for Thor and he’s thick as two planks.”

Then Gaiman referred a tale Snorri wrote: “I still remember the sheer thrill of reading about Thor,” Gaiman said, “and going into this weird cave that they couldn’t make sense of with five branches—a short one and four longer ones—and coming out in the morning from this place on their way to fight the giants … and realizing they’d actually spent the night in this giant’s glove, and going, Okay, we’re off to fight these guys. Right.”

It’s the beginning of the story of the god Thor’s encounter with the giant Utgard-Loki. No other source tells this tale. I think Snorri made it up. I imagine him regaling his friends with it, as they sat around his feast hall at his grand estate of Reyholt in Iceland, sipping horns of mead or ale. Snorri was known for holding extravagant feasts, to which he invited other poets and storytellers. He might have read aloud from his work-in-progress, the Edda. Or he might have told the tale from memory, like an ancient skald.

Here’s how I relate the story in my biography of Snorri, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths:

One day Thor the Thunder-god and Loki the Trickster sailed east across the sea to Giantland. With them was Thor’s servant, a human boy named Thjalfi, who carried Thor’s food bag. They trudged through a dark forest. That night they found no lodgings except one large, empty house. It had a wide front door, a vast central hall, and five side chambers. Thor and his companions made themselves comfortable in the hall. At midnight came a great earthquake. The ground shuddered. The house shook. They heard scary grumblings and groans. Loki and the boy fled into one of the little side chambers, and Thor guarded the doorway, brandishing his hammer against whatever monster was making that noise.

Nothing more happened that night. At dawn Thor saw a man lying asleep at the edge of the forest. Thor clasped on his magic belt and his strength grew. He lifted his hammer—but then the man awoke and stood up. He was so huge that “Thor for once was afraid to strike him.” Instead, he politely asked the giant’s name.

The giant gave a fake one. “I do not need to ask your name,” he said in return. “You are the mighty Thor. But what were you doing in my glove?”

(Here I imagine Snorri pausing, while laughter fills the room. Maybe he gets up and refills his ale horn.)

The giant, Snorri continues, suggested they travel together and offered to carry their food bag in his giant knapsack. After a long day keeping up with giant strides they camped for the night under an oak tree. The giant settled in for a nap. “You take the knapsack and get on with your supper.”

Thor could not untie the knot. He struggled. He fumed. And—giantlike?—he flew into a rage. He grasped his hammer in both hands and smashed the giant on the head.

The giant awoke. “Did a leaf fall on me?”

(Another pause for laughter.)

He went back to sleep.

Thor hit him a second time.
“Did an acorn fall on me?”
(Pause for laughter.)

He went back to sleep.

Thor took a running start, swung the hammer with all his might—

The giant sat up. “Are you awake, Thor? There must be some birds sitting in the tree. All sorts of rubbish has been falling on my head.”

(Pause for laughter.)

The giant showed Thor the road to the castle of Utgard then went on his way.

Thor and Loki and little Thjalfi walked all morning. They reached a castle so huge they “had to bend their heads back to touch their spines” to see the top. Thor tried to open the gate, but couldn’t budge it. They squeezed in through the bars. The door to the great hall stood open. They walked in.

King Utgard-Loki (no relation to the god Loki) greeted them. “Am I wrong in thinking that this little fellow is Thor? You must be bigger than you look.”

It was the rule of the giant’s castle that no one could stay who was not better than everyone else at some art or skill. Hearing this, Loki piped up. He could eat faster than anyone.

The king called for a man named Logi. A trencher of meat was set before the two of them. Each started at one end and ate so fast they met in the middle. Loki had eaten all the meat off the bones, but his opponent, Logi, had eaten meat, bones, and wooden trencher too. Loki lost.

The boy Thjalfi was next. He could run faster than anyone. The king had a course laid out and called up a boy named Hugi. Thjalfi lost.

Thor could drink more than anyone, he claimed. The king got out his drinking horn. It was not terribly big, though it was rather long. Thor took great gulps, guzzling until he ran out of breath, but the level of liquid hardly changed. He tried twice more. The third time, he saw a little difference.

He called for more contests.

“Well,” said the king, “you could try to pick up my cat.”

Thor seized it around the belly and heaved—but only one paw came off the ground. “Just let someone come out and fight me!” he raged, “Now I am angry!”

The king’s warriors thought it demeaning to fight such a little guy, so he called out his old nurse, Elli.

“There is not a great deal to be told about it,” Snorri writes. “The harder Thor strained in the wrestling, the firmer she stood. Then the old woman started to try some tricks, and then Thor began to lose his footing, and there was some very hard pulling, and it was not long before Thor fell on one knee.”

Utgard-Loki stopped the contest, but allowed them to stay the night anyway.

The next day the king treated Thor and his companions to a feast. When they were ready to go home, he accompanied them out of the castle and said he would now reveal the truth. He himself had been the giant they met along their way; he had prepared these illusions for them.

When Thor swung his hammer—the leaf, the acorn, the rubbish—Utgard-Loki had placed a mountain in the way: It now had three deep valleys. At the castle, they had competed against fire (the name Logi literally means “fire”), thought (Hugi), and old age (Elli). The end of the drinking horn had been sunk in the sea—Thor’s three great drafts had created the tides. The cat? That was the Midgard Serpent which circles the entire earth.

Outraged at being tricked, Thor raised his mighty hammer once more. But he blinked and Utgard-loki and his castle disappeared.

“Thick as two planks,” indeed.

Why do I think Snorri made up this story of Thor’s visit to Utgard-Loki? A poet does refer to Thor hiding in a giant’s glove—but it’s a different giant. Another mentions his struggle with the knot of a giant’s food-sack. A kenning for old age refers to Thor wrestling with Elli—but it appears in Egil’s Saga, which Snorri probably wrote, so he may be quoting himself. Otherwise, the journey and the contests are unknown.

I think the brilliant character of the giant Utgard-Loki, with his wry attitude toward that little fellow Thor who “must be bigger than he looks,” is a stand-in for Snorri himself. They share the same humorous tolerance of the gods. There is very little sense throughout the Edda that these were gods to be feared or worshipped, especially not the childish, naïve, blustering, weak-witted, and fallible Thor who is so easily deluded by Utgard-Loki’s wizardry of words. What god in his right mind would wrestle with a crone named “Old Age”? Or expect his servant-boy to outrun “Thought”?

It also fits with why Snorri wrote the Edda: to teach the 14-year-old king of Norway about Viking poetry. This story has a moral: See how foolish you would look, Snorri is saying to young King Hakon, if you didn’t understand that words can have more than one meaning, or that names can be taken literally? The story of Utgard-loki is, at heart, a story about why poetry matters.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan. It originally appeared on the science fiction and fantasy lovers website

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Seven Norse Myths We Wouldn’t Have Without Snorri: Part IV

Imagine you are a 40-year-old poet who wants to impress a 14-year-old king. You want to get him excited about Viking poetry—which happens to be your specialty—and land yourself the job of King’s Skald, or court poet. A cross between chief counselor and court jester, King’s Skald was a well-paid and highly honored post in medieval Norway. For over 400 years, the king of Norway had had a King’s Skald. Usually the skald was an Icelander—everyone knew Icelanders made the best poets.

Except, it seems, 14-year-old King Hakon. He thought Viking poetry was old-fashioned and too hard to understand.

To change young Hakon’s mind, Snorri Sturluson began writing his Edda, the book that is our main, and sometimes our only, source for much of what we think of as Norse mythology.

Snorri started off, in about 1220, by writing an elaborate poem in praise of King Hakon and his regent, Earl Skuli. It was 102 stanzas long, in 100 different styles. No poet had ever written such a complicated skaldic poem. With it, Snorri was handing the young king his resume: There was no better candidate for King’s Skald.

It’s a really dull poem.

If you’re not in love with skaldic poems—if you don’t like riddles and trivia quizzes—it’s no fun to read.

 Snorri realized this. He did not send his poem to the young king. Instead, he began a new section of the Edda, explaining how skaldic poems worked.

One thing he had to explain were “kennings,” the riddles Viking poets loved. No poet writing in Old Norse before about 1300 would say “mead” when he or she could say “waves of honey,” or “ship” instead of “otter of the ocean,” or “sword” instead of “fire of the spear clash.”

And those are easy kennings to figure out. The harder ones refer to Norse myths.

For example, what did a Viking poet mean by saying “Aegir’s fire,” or “Freya’s tears,” or “Sif’s hair”?

The Norse gods Aegir and Freya and Sif hadn’t been worshipped for over 200 years in Norway or Iceland. Few people remembered the old stories of gods and dwarfs and giants, and so the old poems hardly made sense. For this reason, Snorri included in his Edda many stories about the gods: stories he had heard, stories he pieced together from old poems—and stories he simply made up.

Many of his stories feature Loki the Trickster. One of the most important for our understanding of the Norse gods is the time that Loki, out of mischief, cut off the goddess Sif’s long, golden hair.

Her husband, the mighty Thor, was not amused. “He caught Loki and was going to break every one of his bones until he swore that he would get black-elves to make Sif a head of hair out of gold that would grow like any other hair.”

Loki went to the land of the dwarfs. (Here, Snorri says dwarfs and black-elves are the same. Elsewhere he says they are different. It’s a problem in the Edda that bothered Tolkien greatly.)

Shortly, Loki and one of the dwarf smiths returned to Asgard with Sif’s new head of hair. They also brought five other treasures. Turns out, the dwarfs were happy to make Sif’s hair. They liked to show off their skills.

They made Freyr’s magic ship Skidbladnir, “which had a fair wind as soon as its sail was hoisted” and “could be folded up like a cloth and put in one’s pocket.”

And they made Odin’s spear, Gungnir, which “never stopped in its thrust.”

But greedy Loki wanted more treasures. So he wagered his head that the two dwarf smiths, Brokk and Eitri, could not make three more treasures as good as these three were.

The dwarfs took the bet.

Eitri put a pig skin in his forge. He told Brokk to work the bellows without stop. A fly landed on Brokk’s arm and bit him—but he ignored it. After a long while, Eitri took out of the forge a boar with bristles of gold. It could run across sea and sky faster than a horse, and its bristles blazed with light like the sun. This magic boar, Gullinbursti, became the god Freyr’s steed.

Next Eitri put a bar of gold in his forge. Again he told Brokk to work the bellows without stop. That pesky fly came back and bit Brokk on the neck—but Brokk ignored it. Out of the magic forge came Odin’s gold ring, Draupnir. Every ninth night it dripped eight rings just like itself.

Then Eitri put iron in the forge. He told Brokk to work the bellows, “and said it would turn out no good if there were any pause in the blowing.” The fly—which, of course, was Loki in fly form—landed this time on Brokk’s eyelid. It bit so hard the blood trickled into the dwarf’s eyes. Brokk swept a hand across his face— “You’ve almost ruined it!” his brother yelled. This treasure was Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir. It would strike any target and never miss. If thrown, it would return to Thor’s hand like a boomerang. It was so small, Thor could hide it in a pocket. But it had one fault: The handle was a little too short.

When Brokk brought all six dwarf-made treasures to Asgard, the gods agreed Loki had lost the bet. The boar, the gold ring, and the hammer were every bit as good as Sif’s hair, Freyr’s ship, and Odin’s spear.

Thor grabbed hold of Loki and held him still so the dwarf could cut off his head. But Loki was a bit of a lawyer. Presaging Shakespeare’s Shylock by several hundred years, he told Brokk “that the head was his but not the neck.”

Loki didn’t get away scatheless. Since “the head was his,” Brokk decided to make an improvement to it: He stitched Loki’s lips together.

And if that story didn’t hold 14-year-old King Hakon’s attention, Snorri could make up others just as good. No other source tells of the dwarf smiths Brokk and Eitri or how the gods’ treasures came to be. Nor did there need to be a story about why gold is called “Sif’s hair.” Sif was blonde, after all.

In my next post in this series, I’ll look at one of Snorri’s funniest creations, the tale of Thor and Loki’s visit to the giant Utgard-Loki.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan. It originally appeared on the science fiction and fantasy lovers website

The illustration of Sif’s hair is by the Czech artist Hellanim, who has a wonderful series of drawings on Norse myths at

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.