One of my favourite tales of the Norse gods is told by Henry Myers in his 1951 novel The Utmost Island. It is set at the court of Olaf Tryggvason. Olaf ruled Norway from 995-1000, and he is known for bringing Christianity to Norway. His methods of “persuasion” involved imposing torture and executing those who refused to forsake the worship of the Aesir and Vanir.
The tale is told thusly:
On Yule-tide, which Olaf and his followers were misusing to celebrate Christmas, and making the sign of the Cross instead of the sign of the Hammer, an old man entered the hall and seated himself on the bench that was kept for unexpected guests. He wore a broad-brimmed hat which he kept pulled down over his face, but his white beard bespoke years and wisdom. After he had eaten, Olaf asked him what he could tell them that would add to their store of knowledge. The warriors, expecting sport, leaned forward to hear his answer.
“I can tell you three things,” said the old man. “The first is, why wolves have not come into this hall and eaten you. The second is why serpents have not crawled into this hall and stung you. The third is, why death has not burst into this hall and seized you.”
“I can answer that myself!” cried Olaf. “God and my sword hold all three at a distance.”
The old stranger smiled indulgently. “You walked twenty-nine years upon this earth,” he said, “not always with a sword, and with other Gods. Who protected you then?”
Olaf was abashed by this, and silent, and the white-beard went on.
“There was a time, before the first sword was made, when wolves ruled Norway and feasted upon men as they willed. Their King, who ruled over them as you rule over Norway’s men, was named Fenris. He was a Giant wolf with a Giant’s strength and jaws big enough to swallow all the men on earth. The Gods planned to prevent that. So they taunted Fenris, saying he was not strong enough to break a chain. He accepted the wager, and burst the chain with which they bound him Chain after chain he burst in this manner, until they had made him vain. Then they had a magic chain made by the Dwarfs. It was made out of six things: a woman’s beard, the noise of a cat’s footsteps, a mountain’s anchor, the shadow of the sun, a fish’s breath and a bird’s spittle. This time Fenris suspected a trap and would not be bound with the chain until the God Tyr put his right hand in the wolf’s mouth as a pledge to release him. Fenris could not break the chain and the Gods would not release him. In a rage, he bit off Tyr’s right hand, But Fenris will never break that chain until the day of the last great battle, and his followers were all banished to the forests. Tyr’s sword, which he could never wield again, was given to a mortal man to protect himself, and all other swords were copied from it.
“The wolf no longer dares appear. All honor to the great God Tyr!”
At mention of a God he had deserted, Olaf tried to leap to his feet and slay the stranger, but he was in a spell and could not move, nor could his warriors. The white-beard went on:
“Before Fenris was born, the world was ruled by serpents, who bit and poisoned men as they wished. Their King was a Giant snake named Jormungunder and he was Fenris’ older brother. His jaws were so huge that he could swallow all men, living, dead, and yet unborn, and the Gods planned how to prevent it. Now Jormungunder could not be slain, because he lay wrapped around the whole world, holding it together with his tail in his mouth, and if he ever let go, it would all fly apart. So the strongest God, Thor, held the world together by wrapping one of his arms around it, while with his other hand he tore Jormungunder loose and flung him into the deepest part of the Ocean. He lies there now, with his tail in his mouth, holding the world together, through fear of Thor. He will stay there until he comes forth for the last great battle, and his followers were all banished to pits and caves.
“The snakes shall rule you nevermore. All honor to the great God Thor!”
Again Olaf tried to rise and draw his sword, but the old man’s first word froze him where he was.
“Death,” he said, “ruled the world before the wolf or snake, and was their elder sister. She had no followers. Because where she walked, no one could live. Nothing bloomed, nothing bore, nothing breathed. Ice and darkness covered the earth, and the Gods feared that life would never begin. Only Odin could deal with her. He made a bargain with her, by which she agreed to make her home in a dark place under the earth, and which she named Hel. She reigns there over the dead, who do not go to Valhall, but they come to her only after they have had a share of life on earth. There she will remain until the last great battle. Odin’s part of the bargain, by which he made her agree to this, was that he gave her his only son.
“By living men the Earth is trod. All honor to the One-Eyed God!”
Thereupon the stranger arose and they saw that he had only one eye. They knew then that this was Odin. “The Gods of Asgard, “ he said sternly, “made it possible for you to enjoy this beautiful world. Now the day of the last great battle is at hand, when Wolf, Snake and Death and all their hosts come forth seeking to destroy the Gods for what they did for you. Is it not fitting, nor manly, that you should desert them now.”
With that, he strode from the hall in silent dignity.
When they came to their senses and could move again, he was gone, although the gates were still locked from within, and the watch-dogs had not barked.
I hope you, too, enjoyed this tale.
Galina Krasskova is looking for sponsors for a prayer card of Tyr. Part of the funding had been contributed, but $200 more is needed. If 8 people donate $25…or 10 people donate $20….or 20 people donate $10…we can get this thing done. I have contributed to the effort myself and I encourage those of you devoted to Tyr to consider helping to bring this prayer card into being. You can donate to her account at email@example.com and indicate it’s for the Tyr card. More information about her non-profit prayer card project here. You can find out more about the perks for various levels of donations by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org. I think this is a worthy undertaking, and I lift my drinking horn to all who are able to help achieve this goal!