By Heather O'Donoghue
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Extra info for From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths
Thor need contain himself no longer: he snatches up the hammer, and kills Thrym and all his companions, including his unfortunate sister, who was about to accept a wedding gift from her new sister-in-law. The two chief male gods in the Old Norse pantheon are represented as having demeaned themselves by dressing as women, or playing a woman’s part: a hugely transgressive act in Old Norse society. But the contexts are completely different. Odin is engaged in the mastery of the sinister magic called sei r, in which stretching or overturning the boundaries of gender has a disturbing and perhaps liberating function; the usual rules can no longer be relied upon.
But 29 F R O M A S G A R D T O VA L H A L L A the myth shows us more about Odin than simply his links with poets and poetry. We can see the underlying structure of a contest with the giants to obtain an intellectual prize – in this case, the art of poetry – which is repeated in various forms throughout Old Norse myth as part of the continuing struggle between gods and giants. We might also note this instance of Odin’s sexual success with giantesses. It is perhaps surprising that Odin did not need to pay or bribe Gunnlöd for access to either her sexual favours or the poetic mead: he seems to have overcome both her resistances at once.
Ostensibly, the point is that not even Thor could have prevailed over those the giant offered as his opponents, and he actually performed terrifyingly well. Except, of course, that every reader or listener’s abiding impression of this story is the comedy of little Thor, mad with frustration, 38 GODS AND GIANTS failing the tasks, and subject to the sly patronage of the giant’s pretended surprise at his poor performance. Thor is tricked; he fails to see through the giant’s magical illusions; his strength is no proof against the giant’s cunning.