The humorous talent contest in the land of giants.
Norse religion and mythology has some intriguing differences from Rome and Greece. The Norse gods (or Æsir) are arguably the most human of the old gods. They were described as not inherently immortal—they had to eat magical apples to live their long lives. Many of them were not born with their powers, but rather gained their abilities through the weapons they wielded and the attire they wore. Also, while most religions claim their gods reign supreme, and will continue to do so forever, many of the most powerful Norse gods were prophesied to die in Ragnorak.
Stories of Norse mythology often emphasize the mortality of the Æsir, or at least recount ways the divine can be thwarted, fooled or embarrassed. This is one such story where three of the Norse gods find themselves in an embarrassing situation in the land of giants.
Thor Meets His Match
The story begins with Thor leading an expedition to the land of giants. Two more of the Æsir, Thjalfi and Roskva, also joined the expedition. Loki, the ultimate troublemaker of Norse mythology, was invited, too, but for once, in this particular tale, he did not cause any problems.
After Thor and the Norse gods ventured into the land of the giants, they made their way to a forest. There, they found a powerful giant named Skrymir. With this chance meeting, the Norse gods began a long, unfortunate spree of embarrassments.
As the tale goes, Skrymir went to bed early, but before he took his leave, the giant gave Thor permission to open a bag in which the giant kept his food. After the giant went to sleep, Thor began pulling at the laces that held the bag closed so that he could prepare an evening meal. Immediately, there was a problem—Thor, the strongest of gods and men, could not untie the knot. Thor was so embarrassed and enraged by his inability to open the bag that he picked up his hammer and struck not once, not twice, but thrice at the sleeping giant’s head. Each time Thor’s hammer struck, the giant calmly and sleepily asked Thor if a leaf, acorn or twig had fallen on his head while he was sleeping. After the third blow from the hammer, the giant, Skrymir, calmly got up and left without any sign of injury, leaving mighty Thor dumbfounded and enraged.
Competition In A Castle
After Skrymir departed, Thor and his companions continued on their journey and found more giants living in a stronghold. The leader of the giants was named Utgarda-Loki. Instead of battling or fighting, the giants and the Æsir decided to have a massive tournament.
Loki began the competition with an eating contest. He was placed against a giant called Logi. A large trough of cooked meat was set in front of the two contestants and the competition was officially underway. Loki wolfed down the morsels, leaving only bones, but the giant Logi had eaten even more, not even leaving the bones behind. Loki was defeated in his food-eating contest.
Next, Thjalfi tried his luck at a footrace against the giants. Utgarda-Loki chose a giant named Hugi to race against the Norse god. Thjalfi was utterly defeated by his opponent in multiple races, each attempt worse for him than the last. Now, the burden fell on Thor to win back the honor and glory of the Æsir.
For his first bout, Thor chose one of the manliest of competitions—a drinking contest. He was given a drinking horn of mead and challenged to drain it in no more than three gulps. Thor took his three deep draughts of the mead, getting more and more distraught with each drink from the horn. When his last gulp was complete, the drinking horn still remained almost entirely full.
When Thor admitted defeat, Utgarda-Loki suggested a simpler display of skill. He called forth his cat and asked if Thor could lift the beast. The leader of the giants explained it was a feat even a child could achieve. Yet, as a pet of the giants, the cat, itself, was also huge. Thor positioned himself with his hands underneath the cat’s belly and heaved upward with all his might, but the cat barely budged. The stubborn creature merely arched its feline back. Thor could only manage to cause one of the cat’s paws to lift slightly off the ground. The paw was the only part of the cat Thor could lift, and, ashamed, he finally admitted defeat.
The consecutive losses sent Thor into a rage, and he challenged the giants to face him in a wrestling match, a sport in which he was extremely confident. Utgarda-Loki, remembering Thor’s struggle with the horn of mead and the cat, produced the only giant he thought the arrogant Æsir could possibly have a chance to defeat in wrestling—an elderly she-giant. Thor gave his all in his struggle against the old giant, but she emerged victorious. After being unable to drink a horn of mead, failing to lift a cat and losing a wrestling match to an elderly giant, Thor ended his day of competition. A good sport, Utgarda-Loki even gave the sulking Norse gods rooms to stay for the night.
Amends and Answers
When the dawn cycled into daylight, the giants served the Æsir a hearty breakfast. After the guests finished their meals, they packed their things and Utgarda-Loki guided them out of the stronghold. Once the party was away from the hold, the leader of the giants pulled Thor aside for a word. He told the god that he couldn’t, in good conscious, let the Æsir leave without confessing that Thor, Thjalfi and Loki had all been tricked.
First, the leader of the giants explained that he was not only Utgarda-Loki, but also Skrymir, the giant the Norse gods had encountered at the start of their journey. Skrymir explained that he was a shape-shifter and illusionist. The giant gave Thor a long and detailed account of how he used his illusions to confuse and embarrass the Æsir.
He began by recounting their first meeting in the forest. The knot that Thor had been unable to untie, he said, was reinforced by a subtle addition of iron wire. Next, he explained that when Thor thought he had been hitting the giant’s head with his mighty hammer, he had instead been confused by illusion into attacking a mountain range—which was turned into flatlands by Thor’s strikes.
Next to be revealed were the contests in the stronghold. Skrymir laid the charade bare. He confessed that Loki was not really competing in an eating contest with a giant named Logi, but was actually facing off against a wildfire hidden by an illusion. Similarly, Thjalfi had not raced against a giant named Hugi. Instead, he had raced against a manifestation of thought, itself. He went on to explain that all the obstacles Thor faced were also unbeatable tricks. The horn of mead, Skrymir noted, was the ocean disguised through shape shifting and illusion. The cat, too, was not as it seemed. The animal was no mere pet, but the colossal Midgard Serpent disguised through the giant’s magic. The old she-giant, Skrymir finally explained, had not been a giant at all. No, the old woman had been old age, itself, and though everyone wrestles with old age, no one, not even the mightiest of the Æsir, can win that struggle in a fair fight.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.