Who Wants to Live Forever? The Apples of Idunn

One of the interesting features of the Norse Gods (as well as their distant relatives, the Vedic Gods of Southeast Asia) is that they are mortal.

Yes, they can die.

For the Vedic Gods, the cure lay in the form of a plant based beverage called soma. However, for the Aesir of Asgard, the answer came from the Goddess (or Fairy Spirit) Idunn, and more specifically, from her youth bestowing apples.

It’s nice to see apples get a little appreciation. In many a world myth, they’ve proven to be nothing but trouble: consider the Golden Apple of Discord that Eris inadvertently used to start the Trojan War.

Let’s not forget Snow White and that insidious apple.

And of course, there’s that famous fruit from the Garden of Eden, which, while never Biblically attested as being an apple, came to be associated with the fruit in Western Europe, though it should be noted that other possibilities have been suggested, including:

  • pomegranates (Middle Eastern),
  • grapes (the Hebrew Zohar),
  • figs (Hebrew Midrashic traditions, as well as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel),
  • wheat (early Rabbinic traditions),
  • Amanita muscaria, a psychoactive mushroom (as seen in a fresco of the Garden of Eden from the 13th-century Plaincourault Abbey in France, an observation promoted by ethnobotanist Terrance McKenna).
fig_tree
Adam and Eve eating from a fig tree, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel
plaincouralt-adam-and-eve-1024x768
Adam and Eve with what appears to be Amanita muscaria, 13th c. C.E.

But back to apples, we have Idunn: wife of Bragi, the God of Poetry, and her fruit of  eternal youth.

Now, Hera’s Golden Apples were magical, no doubt, but the Apples of Idunn were something more: they were the source of immortality for the Aesir, the Norse Gods.

And apparently, only Idunn could grow and harvest them.

In other words, if you could capture Idunn…

The Gods would surely die.

*

The only thing that Loki was better at than starting trouble was getting into trouble.

While he bore all the hallmarks of a classical trickster God, his plans often backfired.

This time, he saw an eagle, mid-air, and started striking it with a pole. What Loki didn’t realize was that this was no ordinary bird; it was a Jötunn, often translated as a (frost) giant, named Þjazi. This kind of shape shifting was common among the various divinities and magical beings that inhabited the Norse world, but apparently, Loki had not anticipated this.

Loki found himself stuck to the bird, who drug him painfully through the forest before lifting him high into the air. Loki pleaded for his life, and Þjazi struck a deal.

“Bring me Idunn, and her magical apples. Swear this as a binding oath, and I’ll let you down.”

As one might expect from Loki, he swore to bring Idunn to the Jötunn.

*

Ydun_(1858)_by_H._W._Bissen
Ydun, Danish artist Herman Wilhelm Bissen, 1858.

Back in Asgard, Loki approached Idunn.

“I’ve found the most amazing apple tree, out in the forest. You should see it.”

Idunn was mildly intrigued, but countered:

“Dear Loki, I have my own orchard to tend to.”

“Idunn, I swear, I’ve never seen apples like these. If you don’t believe me, bring along your own apples to compare them to.”

Idunn knew better…but she loved apples.

Besides, Loki had given up most of his mischievous ways, or so she thought.

Idunn followed Loki out into the forest, only to be swept away by an eagle – the Jötunn Þjazi…

*

With each passing minute, the Aesir began to age.

Soon even the ever youthful Baldr was old and gray; his father, Odin, was almost skeletal in appearance.

Indeed, all of the Gods of Asgard were aging to the point of death.

They gathered, and realizing that Loki was the last individual to be seen with Idunn, summoned him for an inquiry.

Norse inquires were not exactly formal affairs: they ran more along the lines of “tell us what you did, or we’ll tear you limb from limb, after we’ve tortured you.”

Loki told them everything – but in typical Loki fashion, also offered to fix the problem he’d created.

He asked the Goddess Freyja (not to be confuse with Frigg, wife of Odin) for her magical ability to take the form of a falcon, which she granted him. Taking this shape, he went in search of Idunn.

*

Flying north to Jötunheimr, the land of the Jötunn, he came to Þjazi’s house. Þjazi was not to be found – he was out sailing on the ocean. Taking advantage of the moment, Loki magically transformed Idunn into a nut, picked her up, and fled as fast as he could back to Asgard.

However, Þjazi was quick to discover Loki’s “theft”, and transformed himself back into an eagle to pursue Loki and his precious cargo, Idunn. As he pursued Loki, he also created a fierce storm with howling winds to propel him faster.

The Aesir, seeing the falcon, the eagle in pursuit, and the oncoming storm, lit a massive fire behind the walls of Asgard. Loki crossed over walls, but immediately dropped straight down, avoiding the flames, Idunn safe in his talons.

Þjazi was not so lucky, He followed Loki straight over the walls, and straight into the Aesir’s inferno. His feathers went up in flames, and he fell within the gates of Asgard, where the Aesir quickly finished him off.

Idunn was reunited with her husband Bragi, the God of Poetry, and would not have to contend with Loki for a while, though when she did, it would mark the final salvo that precedes the end…

Because even with the Apples of Idunn, the Twilight of the Gods still looms.

And the Great Winter, the wasteland before Ragnarok, draws one day closer…

Odin_and_Fenris
Odin and Fenris by Dorothy Hardy, 1909
idunn_apples
Idun and the Apples, J. Doyle Penrose, 1890

 

 

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