By Reva Sherrard
After the gods slew the mighty giant Thjazi, his daughter Skađi stormed the gates of Asgard to take revenge. She was the deity of ski travel and hunting, and she descended on the fortress of the gods with all the awful power and majesty of the snowy mountain reaches where she made her home. Anxious to placate her, the gods offered to give what compensation she demanded.
“Very well,” she said, “since you took my father from me, I’ll take one of you for my husband.” The gods consulted, and agreed that the unwed men among them would offer themselves to be chosen — but only by the sight of their feet. Skađi had her eye on Baldr, the handsomest of the gods. So when they lined up behind a curtain with only their bare white feet peeping out below, she strode immediately to the smoothest, best-groomed, and freshest-looking pair and announced her choice. Imagine her shock when the curtain dropped to reveal that she had chosen Njorđ, the weatherbeaten sea god, whose seaweed-hung beard and driftwood skin were a far cry from Baldr’s golden comeliness. But Skađi was a goddess of her word, and accepted Njorđ as her husband.
“One thing more,” she said, casting a regretful glance at Baldr’s ill-clipped toenails. “I can see I’ll get little mirth from the man you’ve given me. Before I go, you must make me laugh.” With this she sat down at the feasting-table, called for a bowl of ale, and stared about her with a brow like black clouds curdling on a mountain peak.
Again the gods consulted. Freyja told her best dirty jokes. Thor juggled his hammer. Bragi, god of poetry, composed humorous verses about the rest of the Æsir. Skađi sat unmoved, as dour as late-winter famine in spite of all the gods’ antics, consuming an alarming quantity of the best ale with her elbows planted on the table.
While this was going on Loki sat in a corner with an ale of his own, enjoying the spectacle. Thor and Bragi, worn out, dropped onto the bench on either side of him. “Your turn, Loki,” said Thor. “You got us into this mess-“
“And now I’ll get you out again,” the god of tricks sighed. “I suffered to get old Thjazi what he wanted; I suffered to get our Iđunn back; and now it’s time to suffer again. Well, if Njorđ can’t make his bride smile on her wedding night, let’s see what Loki can do.” With a wink he bounded into the center of the hall and bowed deep to the scowling hunter goddess.
“Dazzling Skađi, pure as snow and dark as the midwinter sky, forgive and forget these crude jests, this vulgar juggling, and let the nimblest and most sophisticated wit in Ásgard entertain you!” In an instant, Loki had whipped one end of a cord to the beard of a billy-goat and the other end round his own balls. The offended goat bleated and bucked and bolted, and Loki yelped and scrambled after it from side to side of the hall before freeing himself and flopping half-naked and gasping straight into Skađi’s lap.
The goddess gaped. At first like the tinkle of icicles breaking, then with an avalanche roar, she laughed and laughed till no one in the hall could resist joining her and her sides ached with merriment. So Skađi smiled on her wedding night after all — it was later rumored that Loki, having won her favor, did more than make her laugh that evening — and the next morning she departed in good spirits for her mountain home with Njorđ at her side.
We hear little else of Skađi in the surviving texts of Norse myth until Loki is bound with his own son’s guts to sharp rocks in a cave — not for his role in Baldr’s death, as is popularly assumed, but for his sauciness — when it is she who fastens a great snake over his head so that its venom will drip down onto his face and burn him until he breaks free at Ragnarok. Compelling linguistic evidence also indicates that she either gave her name to Scandinavia — originally Scadi-navia — or vice versa. So who is this goddess of skis, hunting, and the mountain wilderness who shares a name with an entire region yet receives relatively scant notice in the mythic stories available to us today?
By the early 13th century when Snorri Sturluson wrote his interpretations in story form of what he saw as key elements of his ancestors’ traditional paradigm (which today serves as a main source for Norse mythology), the Viking Age was long over and the northern lands had been more or less Christianized. So we must look to linguistics and folklore for clues to the even more distant era before Northern Germanic worship shifted its focus to Odin and Thor from a group of goddesses of whom little obvious trace remains today. There are several theories about the etymology and meaning of Skađi’s name; her role in the myths as hunter-goddess, sometime antagonist, and causer of pain tells us that the correct one links her to the modern English word “scathe” and the Scandinavian “skadedyr”/”skadedjur”, which nowadays means any vermin, predator or pest but was originally applied to those animals that caused harm to- scathed- humans by preying on their flocks and crops. (The word literally means “harm-animal.”) Indeed, “Skađi” is the personal name form of the Old Norse verb “skađa,” to hurt, harm, injure, or damage.
Another interesting fact about Skađi is that her marriage to Njorđ quickly fell apart because neither could live happily even half of the time in the other’s domain: Njorđ was miserable in the high mountains, and Skađi couldn’t bear the seashore. Before long, she returned to her previous life as a solitary huntress. Those familiar with Greek myths may notice the similarity to Artemis, the ruthless goddess of the hunt who had known love but was devoted to her life of unmarried independence. She, like Skađi, was apparently far more important in prehistoric times than when classical Greek myth immortalized her to modern readers as the virgin daughter of Zeus. As historian Carlo Ginzburg and archaeologist Marija Gimbutas have attested, Artemis, together with her chiefest sacred animal, the bear (“Artemis,” “árktos,” Greek for bear), received widespread and fervent worship throughout Europe and Asia Minor into historical times as protectress of women and keeper of beasts and wild places. In this context, I am compelled to note the old Norwegian folk belief that if a woman met a bear in the woods she could protect herself by lifting her skirt to prove her sex, for a bear would not harm a woman. It is tempting to extrapolate a deep-seated faith in the protecting power of a goddess of the wilds and wild animals, for is not a bear the ultimate “skadedyr”?
Protection’s other half is harm. It is possible that Skađi represents the fearsome, avenging aspect of the female godhead, responsible for defending sacred mysteries (see maenads and Artemis’ treatment of Acteon for Greek examples of this aspect). “Mystery” in this sense denotes the transferable spirito-religious experience that for the ancients imbued their symbols with meaning: the reason that myths exist.
Returning to Loki’s hideous punishment under the earth, we see that here Skađi plays a curiously instrumental role in the ordeal, by fixing the venomous serpent over his head. I will explore, at a later date, why this famous episode is not the morality tale its interpreters have taken it for. Suffice it to say now that it is not in fact a case of the wicked trickster getting his comeuppance (when crimes by other gods go unpunished), but something much deeper and more symbolic, with a clear shamanic underpinning. Odin gained his transcendent wisdom and godhood after piercing himself with a spear and hanging himself from the world tree in a mirror of an ancient sacrificial practice. After nine days and nights he received the runic mysteries and was transformed via shamanic initiation. Loki’s ordeal, though quite different, also has as its basic elements ritual suffering and endurance over a long period of time. Its specifics are the cave and the snake, which, fascinatingly, are emblems of mother goddess worship as old as humanity itself. That Skađi brings and places the snake makes her Loki’s initiator into its (excruciatingly painful) mystery, and therefore an important and powerful figure.
And the cave? That is the domain of a deity whose widespread traces throughout Germanic Europe identify her as the mother goddess herself, the Teutonic version of the first deity ever worshipped. Her name is Holde, Holle or Hulda; the first syllable is a cognate with our word “hole,” as in a hollow in the ground, and the Scandinavian “hule,” meaning “cave.” In continental, Europe she is best known as Mother Holle from the Grimms’ fairy tale of the same name. Sometimes she is old, gnarled, and hideous, and sometimes she is lovely, of a shining whiteness. She presides over a great many things — in some regions, she leads the Wild Hunt — but particularly spinning, an activity fraught with mythic significance.
The spinning of thread and weaving of cloth were to the ancient Germanic peoples, A) a strictly female activity, and B) a metaphor for and means of influencing fate. Patterns of threads laid down in the past made a partial fabric in the present from which the whole of the future cloth could be deduced. Changes made in the warp and weft changed the fabric of fate. The Norns, very like the Greek Fates, were three sisters named Was, Becoming, and Shall (Urđr, Verđandi, and Skuld) who spun, wove, and cut all the threads of all the lives and happenings there were, and who therefore knew all that ever had been, was in the process of being, or would come to pass. They were intimately linked with the feminine sorcery called “seiđr,” which allowed its practitioners to perceive and manipulate the threads of fate, of being. Men could and did practice this art — Odin chief among them — although a gender taboo labeled those who did so as unmanly, at least in latter days.
The distaff, the tool for spinning, was the tool of witchcraft and divination; the profoundly revered “völva,” Norse seeress, was she who wielded it. Linguistically, the term “völva” is related not only to the Old Norse word for “wand/magic staff”, but to the Latin “volvare”, as in “revolve”, and yes, “vulva”, from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to turn inwards, roll, or spin. Völvas were highly sought-after experts in their magic craft, but noble women practiced it too in order to influence the outcomes of their husbands’ battles.
So Mother Holle, as the tutelary deity of spinning, is the mother of everything that makes up life and death. In Scandinavia a vague memory of her exists in the “huldra” (singular: “hulder”), a race of enchanting women who dwell inside the hills (in “holes”) and may be encountered in the wild lands outside of civilization’s reach. Possessed of cows’ or foxes’ tails, they lure men with their beauty, bed them, reward them for courtesy, and punish them terribly for sexual insufficiency or lack of respect. They were irresistibly attractive — until the breaking of the spell revealed them to be wrinkled and grey. Then, too, they would reward or punish a man for the way he reacted to this shock.
The Norse concept of Hel, keeper of the dead, may be a refraction of Mother Holle as well. “Hel”, where the dead go, is generally in the most literal sense a hole in the earth, after all. (It must be noted that the Christian concept of Hell, though it took its name from the Norse, could not be more different. Hel welcomed and cared for all the dead who were not divided between Odin and Freyja after falling in battle. (Oh, yes — Freyja got half.)) Like Holle, Hel was half graceful and attractive, half terrifying and repulsive. Which half you saw depended on how afraid you were of death. She, too, had her domain under the ground. And like Holle and Skađi, she is associated with Loki, though much more closely: he is her father or brother, by varying accounts, and at the coming of Ragnarok- — when he has emerged from his transformative ordeal under the earth — he will appear on the final battlefield with all Hel’s people, the numberless dead from their subterranean realm, behind him.
But that’s a story for another day. Whatever your ancestry and wherever you go, the ground you walk on belongs to female powers as old as your species. Life and death are frightening by their very nature. To those willing to embrace that frightfulness, they offer all the wisdom, sustenance and support the earth’s surface and womb can give — as they did in times beyond memory, as they will always do.
While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.
Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.