From the first Odin had a desire for knowledge and wisdom, and he consulted all living things to obtain them. He gained most from his uncle Mimir, who guarded the Well of Knowledge, but he had to sacrifice an eye to drink from the Well. Odin also went to great lengths to acquire the art off poetry, which was contained in a magic potion that was kept in a Giant's underground caldron. Having determined to obtain the potion, Odin put himself in bondage to a Giant, whom he persuaded to blast a hole to the underground dwelling where the substance was kept. Odin then entered the dwelling as a snake, changed back into human shape, made friends with Suttung the Giant, who owned the potion, seduced the Giant's daughter, and obtained the mixture from her. Then he flew back to Asgard as an eagle, destroying Suttung in the process, and dispensed the potion to human poets.
The gods were subject to aging, and they rejuvenated themselves by eating magic apples kept by the goddess Idun. However, Odin chose a different, harder way. He freely wounded himself with his own spear and hung himself for nine days from the cosmic tree Yggdrasil, which was shaken by winds. In this manner he renewed his youth, but he also became the master of the magic runes, inscriptions that could accomplish any mortal purpose, whether beneficial or baneful.
Through his powers of wisdom, poetry, and magic Odin was of much use to men. In warfare his mere presence could strike the enemy blind, deaf, and impotent. He valued courage above all other human traits, a quality which he himself possessed in abundance. Fully aware that he himself, his followers and comrades, and the universe itself were doomed, bravery was what mattered most to him in the face of certain defeat. Thus he collected a band of only the most courageous warriors to sit with him in Valhalla. These men would go down fighting with him at the crack of destruction. And Odin would be devoured by the wolf Fenrir.
The god of storm and thunder, Thor was a mighty fighter. He had iron gloves, a girdle that doubled his power, and an invincible flying hammer. Thor traveled in a chariot drawn by male goats. When he was hungry he killed and ate them, but he simply laid his hammer on their hides to revive them. One day Thor discovered that his hammer was missing, and Loki found that the Giant Thrym had stolen it. Thrym wanted to marry Freya in return for the hammer, but the goddess Freya loathed the idea. So it was decided that Thor would go to Thrym's hall disguised as Freya. Thor took Loki with him. Thrym was astonished at how much the bride ate and drank, but Loki told him "she" had not eaten or drunk for nine days in her anxiousness to join the Giants. Thrym then went to kiss his bride and was amazed that she had a red complexion and eyes that flashed fire. Again Loki explained she was feverish from lack of sleep in her joy at joining Thrym. In a hurry to get the marriage over with, Thrym ordered that the hammer be placed on the bride's knees according to custom. Thor laughted in his heart, and having regained his hammer he struck all the Giants in the hall dead.
Resolved to kill the Midgard Serpent that surrounded the earth, ate its own tail, and lived in the ocean, Thor accepted shelter from the Giant Hymir. When Thor said he wished to go fishing, Hymir treated him contemptuously. But Thor slew one of Hymir's bulls to use the head for bait, and he and Hymir sailed out into the ocean. Thor took the boat far past the point that Hymir felt was safe. Then he baited the hook and threw it in the sea. Before long the Midgard Serpent snatched the bait and was caught. Its thrashing banged up Thor's hands and wrists against the gunwale, and in the struggle the bottom of the boat fell through, so that Thor found himself standing on the ocean floor. With that added stability he drew the serpent up with an enormous heave. As he was about to slay the monster with his hammer the terrified Hymir cut the line, allowing the serpent to escape. Thor then felled and drowned the cowardly Hymir as he tried to escape. But he would not kill the Midgard Serpent till doomsday, or Ragnarok, when he would perish as well.
Thor could be tricked by magic. After a long day's travel with Loki and two peasants in the land of the Giants, Thor came to an odd house in which the front door was as wide as the dwelling itself. During the night earthquakes and rumblings forced them from the house into an adjacent shed. When morning came Thor found a sleeping Giant nearby whose snorings and heavings shook the ground. The Giant awoke, told Thor his name was Skrymir, revealed their shelter had been his glove, and offered to accompany the group. Skrymir carried the sack of provisions, and that night when the group sat down to eat the sack could not be opened. Skrymir lay asleep, and in a fury Thor hurled his hammer at the Giant, who awoke and said he felt a leaf had fallen on him. Thor flung his hammer even harder, and this time Skrymir thought he had been hit by an acorn. Utterly enraged, Thor flung the hammer with all his might, only to find that Skrymir thought he had been awakened by bird droppings. Skrymir took his leave of Thor and his comrades the next morning after pointing out their destination, Utgard, and telling them there were tougher fellows than he at Utgard.
Thor, Loki, and the two peasants came to a fortress and had to squeeze through the grilled doorway to enter. There they encountered King Utgardaloki surrounded by Giants. Utgardaloki addressed them scornfully and challenged them to prove their skill in a contest with the Giants present. Loki boasted that he could eat great quantities of food quickly, but in an eating competition with Logi, Loki only devoured a platterful of meat while Logi ate the meat, bones, and plate. Thor's companion, a peasant, said he was swift as lightning and proved it in a race, but his competitor Hugi still outdistanced him. Thor claimed he could drink more than any being alive, but after taking enormous quaffs from a drinking horn the level of liquid was only a small degree lower. Then Utgardaloki tested Thor's strength by having him lift a cat from the floor, but Thor could do no more than lift a paw or two. Finally Thor agreed to wrestle an old woman, and the old woman brought him to one knee. Utgardaloki then gave an account of every humiliating thing that had happened to Thor and his friends, saying that their strength was truly frightening. He himself had been Skrymir, and if he had not protected his head with mountains Thor's hammer would have killed him. Instead, those mountains now had deep ridges. Loki had eaten in a contest with Logi — fire — which devours everything. The peasant had raced with Hugi — thought — the swiftest medium. Thor had drunk from the sea and lowered it a few inches, had tried to lift the Midgard Serpent, and had wrestled with old age. Infuriated at having played the fool, Thor lifted his hammer to slay the enchanter, but Utgardaloki and his castle vanished, leaving Thor and his comrades alone on the plain.
Balder was the most glorious god alive, handsome and pure in spirit, the son of Odin and Frigga. Every living creature loved him. Yet Odin knew his son was doomed to an early death. To protect him Frigga traveled far and wide, exacting promises from all objects and beings not to harm him. Believing she had done everything possible, Frigga neglected the lowly mistletoe. The gods rejoiced to know that Balder was invulnerable and invented a game in which everyone threw things at him.
Loki was intensely jealous of Balder and resolved to destroy him. While all the gods hurled things at Balder, Balder's blind brother Hoder sat by himself, unable to join the fun. Loki, having learned the secret of the mistletoe and having obtained a sprig, offered to guide the blind Hoder's hand. The mistletoe was thrown and it pierced Balder's heart, killing him. The gods grieved, but Odin and Frigga sent another son as an envoy to the underworld, Niflheim, to see if Balder could be ransomed. In the meantime Balder's funeral ship was prepared, set fire to, and sent out to sea.
The goddess Hel agreed to release Balder from her kingdom of death only if the whole creation and everything in it wept for the slain god. Messengers were sent everywhere, and all things cried over Balder's death until one messenger came upon a Giantess who refused to weep. This of course was Loki in disguise. So Balder was condemned to remain in the netherworld. But the gods revenged themselves on Loki by binding him in a deep cave and causing a poisonous serpent to drip venom in his face, causing the wicked being intolerable pain. Loki's wife caught much of this venom in a cup, but whenever she emptied the cup Loki writhed in agony, creating earthquakes.
This was the beginning of the end, for Loki then allied himself with the Giants and demons, who would bring ruin on the Aesir.
A god of fertility, vegetation, and sailing, Frey was one of the beneficial Vanir admitted into Asgard. Once Frey sat on Odin's high throne watching the earth. He became enamored of a Giant's beautiful daughter, Gerda, and determined to have her as his wife. His friend and servant Skirnir agreed to woo Gerda for him. Taking Frey's wondrous sword and fearless horse, Skirnir braved the dangers of reaching the Giant's dwelling, even riding through a wall of flame. Gerda was not in the least impressed with Skirnir, though he offered her rich gifts. Then he threatened her and her father with the sword to no avail. However, when Skirnir vowed to turn her into a withered, desolate old maid, Gerda capitulated and said she would marry Frey in nine days. Frey, impatient for the nine days to elapse, won his bride in this manner.
Also one of the Vanir, Freya had stunning beauty, and she loved to adorn herself with jewelry. In the workshop of four dwarves Freya discovered a lovely golden necklace that she desired. She offered the dwarves much wealth for it, but they wanted her to sleep with each of them for a night instead. Freya consented. But Odin disapproved of her actions and ordered Loki to steal the necklace. That evening Loki found it impossible to enter Freya's dwelling, so he changed himself into a fly and entered through a chink in the roof. Since she was wearing the necklace and it was impossible to remove without disturbing her, Loki became a flea and bit her, causing Freya to shift. Loki then resumed his human form, took the necklace and left. When she awoke she knew Odin had the necklace, so she went to him. But Odin agreed to return it only if she created a war between two great kings with twenty kings apiece under their command, and if each night she would restore the slain warriors to life. The war took place and Freya recovered her precious necklace.
The god of wiles and wickedness, Loki was very handsome and had enjoyed the favors of many goddesses. One of his last dramatic exploits concerned the feast of Aegir, a Giant and lord of the sea. Aegir had invited all the gods and goddesses to attend. Thor was not present, but the other deities were having a grand time when Loki forced his way into the hall. Knowing his malicious trickery, the gods did not welcome him. But Loki appealed to the rules of hospitality and his pledge with Odin, and very reluctantly the gods made a place for him and gave him drink. Then Loki began attacking the gods and goddesses, one by one, telling of their infidelities, their cowardices, the times they had been made to look foolish, all the tricks with which he had humiliated them. Any attempts at reconciliation were met with scurrilous abuse. And when others offered him insult for insult Loki outdid them in contempt. Odin himself was nonplussed. When the feast was in a thorough uproar Thor returned, fierce and commanding. And Loki reminded Thor of his adventure with Utgardaloki. Thor brandished his hammer, which made Loki cower. But before he left the banquet he warned that that would be the last feast they would attend, for soon Aegir's hall and the entire world would be burning.
Several days of our week are named after the Teutonic gods: Tuesday after Tyr, Wednesday after Odin (Woden), Thursday after Thor, and Friday after Frey. The mythological stories of the Norse gods show a culture that centered on warfare, and these gods are glorified human warriors who get their way by force, by magic, and by cunning. Balder and, in part, Odin show a certain amount of spirituality; yet on the whole the Norse gods are not very elevating, as Loki points out at Aegir's feast. These are gods who are doomed and know it, and like many men they are determined to get all the pleasure they can from life before they die. Courage, strength, and cleverness are what count to them.
Despite their moral laxity, however; the Aesir were regarded as the noblest beings in existence. They supported human civilization, such as it was, against the titanic destructive forces in nature such as the Giants and demons. In the frozen world of Scandinavia such beings were necessary to the primitive culture; and survival depended on fighting for the little land there was. Yet war seemed to become an end in itself, the main justification for living. Heroism in such a world becomes self-destructive and meaningless. To fight for the sheer joy of fighting is a terrible waste, like suicide. Despite the excesses to which the Teutonic religion tended, the Norse gods have a certain gloomy grandeur.