Ægir’s Feast, By Constantin Hansen (c. 1804 – 1880)

This painting, by the Danish artist Constantin Hansen (c. 1804 – 1880), was inspired by a character named Ægir or Hler from a text known as the Prose Edda, written by the prolific Icelandic poet, author, mythographer, historian and chieftain, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241). In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson effectively delivered massive amounts of concise information about Norse mythology through the use of a question-and-answer format, in which the Norse gods, themselves, responded to thoughtful inquiries that were asked by wise travelers who wandered into the realms of the gods. Ægir, featured in this painting, was Snorri’s vehicle for the question-and-answer framework in the second half (known as the Skaldskaparmal) of the Prose Edda, whereas a different character named King Gylfi was the one asking questions in the text’s first half (known as the Gylfaginning).

In the opening of the Skaldskaparmal section of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson gave a description of Ægir, saying, “A man was named Ægir or Hler. He lived on the island now called Hlesey, and was greatly skilled in magic. He set off on a trip to Asgard” (Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, chapter 1). The Norse gods, collectively called the Æsir, welcomed the magician and hosted a feast for his benefit. Most of the greatest names of the Norse mythological universe were there at the feast, including the gods Odin, Thor, Njord, Frey, Tyr, Heimdall, Bragi, Vidar, Vali, Ull, Hoenir, Forseti and Loki, as well as the goddesses, Frigg, Freyja, Gerfjun, Idunn, Gerd, Sigyn, Fulla and Nanna. Snorri Sturluson wrote, “The Æsir then went to their feast…To Ægir it seemed that everything he saw around him was noble. Magnificent shields hung on all the wallboards. Strong mead was served and the drinking was heavy” (Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, chapter 1). As Ægir and the gods partied into the night, he began asking questions and requesting to hear stories of the gods’ exploits and adventures. Bragi, the skald of the gods, was more than happy to answer these questions. Nevertheless, Bragi could not sate Ægir’s curiosity in the time limit of a single banquet, so the gods decided to schedule another feast where they could continue the storytelling. This time, they suggested that Ægir’s family (including a wife, Ran, and nine children) be the hosts. Snorri Sturluson described the second feast:

“Ægir, as mentioned previously, came as a guest to Asgard, and when he was ready to return home he invited Odin and all the gods to visit him in three months. Odin, Njord, Frey, Tyr, Bragi, Vidar and Loki went on this journey, and with them were the goddesses Frigg, Freyja, Gerfun, Skadi, Idunn and Sif. Thor was not among them. He had gone to the east to kill trolls. When the gods had taken their seats, Ægir commanded that gleaming gold be brought in and placed on the floor of the hall. It lit up the hall, shining like fire, and was used for light at his feast…Ran was the name of Ægir’s wife and they had nine daughters. At the feast everything, the food, the ale and necessary tableware, served itself” (Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, chapter 6).

It is this magical feast thrown by the family of the impressive magician, Ægir, that inspired Constantin Hansen’s painting. When the party got into full swing, Ægir and Bragi continued their conversation, resuming the question-and-answer storytelling of the Prose Edda. Outside of their chat, however, the party was becoming quite raucous. Loki, particularly, was characteristically acting out, shouting insults at all of his fellow Norse deities and he even ended up killing a slave named Fimafeng. Yet, this behavior from the mischievous god did not stop Bragi from telling his stories to Ægir.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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