Gateway to the Classics: The Heroes of Asgard by A. & E. Keary
The Heroes of Asgard by  A. & E. Keary

The Serpent and the Kettle

Thor turned away from Giant-land, and on the road homeward he passed through the Sea-King's dominions. There he found that Ægir the Old was giving a banquet to all the Æsir in his wide coral-caves. At a little distance Thor stood still to listen and to look. It was a fair sight: cave within cave stretched out before him decked with choicest shells, whilst far inward lay the banqueting-hall, lighted with shining gold; white and red coral-pillars stood at uneven distances; the bright-browed Æsir reclined at the board on soft water couches; Ægir's daughters—the fair-haired waves—murmured sweet music as they waited on their guests; and little baby-ripples ran about laughing in all the corners. Thor walked through the caves and entered the hall. As he did so Odin looked up from his place at Ægir's right hand, and said,—

"Good evening, son Thor; how has it fared with you in Jötunheim?"

Thor's face grew a little cloudy at this question, and he only answered,—

"Not as it ought to have done, father." Then he placed himself amongst Ægir's guests.

"In my dominions," said King Ægir, looking all round, "an extraordinary thing has happened."

"And what may that be, brother?" asked Niörd.

"From the shores of Jötunheim," answered Ægir, "the sea has run back a quarter of a mile, drawing itself away as if a giant were drinking it in."

"Is that all you have got to say, father?" said a tall Wave, as she swept her hair over the Sea-King's shoulder, and peeped up from behind him; "is that all you know of the wonders which are going on in your deep home? Listen."

Then Ægir bent forward on his seat; the Æsir all ceased speaking, and drew in their breath; the waves raised their arched necks, and were still, listening. From a great way off came the sound of a sullen swell.

"Who is that speaking?" asked Odin.

"That is Jörmungand speaking," said Thor.

"And what does he say, Thor?"

"He says that I could not conquer him."

"Pass round the foaming mead," cried Ægir, who saw that it was time to turn the conversation.

But alas! Ægir's mead-kettle was so small, that before it had gone half down the table it stood empty before Tyr.

"There is a giant called Hymir," remarked Tyr, "who lives far over the stormy waves to eastward at the end of heaven."

The Æsir all looked up.

"He has a kettle," Tyr went on to say, "which is a mile deep, and which would certainly hold mead enough for all this company."

"If Hymir would lend it to us," said Ægir, "we could finish our supper; but who would go to the end of heaven to borrow a kettle?"

Then Thor rose from the table, and began to tighten round him his belt of power; he put on his iron gloves, and took Miölnir in his hand.

"What! off again to Giant-land, Ving-Thor?" cried Ægir.

"Didn't you say you wanted Mile-deep?" said Thor. "I am going to borrow it of Hymir for you. Will you come with me, Tyr?"

Tyr sprang up joyfully, and the two brothers started on their journey. When they arrived at Hymir's dwelling, which was a roughly-hewn cavern on the shore of a frozen sea, the first person they met was a wonderful giantess with nine hundred heads, in which glittered fiery eyes, and which grew out from all parts of her body, so that it was impossible to tell whether she was walking upon her head or her heels. As Thor and Tyr were looking at her trying to discover this, a woman came out of the giant's home quite as lovely as the giantess was hideous. She greeted them on the threshold. Her golden hair fell thick upon her shoulders; her mild eyes shone upon them; and with words of welcome she held out her hands and led them into the cavern. There she offered them meat and drink, and bade them rest until her husband, Hymir, should come home. As the darkness came on, however, and the time of his expected return drew near, she became silent and anxious; and at last she said, "I am very much afraid that my husband will be angry if he sees strangers in here when he comes in. Take my advice, now, Asa Thor and Asa Tyr, and hide behind one of these pillars in the rock. My lord, I assure you, is surly sometimes, and not nearly so hospitable as I could wish."

"We are not accustomed to hide ourselves," remarked Thor.

"But you shall come forth when I call you," answered the woman.

So the Æsir did as she desired. By-and-bye they heard heavy footsteps far off, over the frozen sea, coming nearer and nearer every moment. The distant icebergs resounded, and at last Hymir burst open the door of his cavern, and stalked angrily in. He had been unsuccessful that day in the chase, his hands were frost-bitten, and a "hard-frozen wood stood upon his cheek."

As soon as the fair-browed woman saw what mood he was in she went gently towards him, placed her hand in his, and told him of the arrival of the guests; then, with a sweet smile and voice, she entreated him to receive the strangers kindly, and entertain them hospitably.

Hymir made no answer; but, at one glance of his eye towards the place where the Æsir were hidden, the pillar burst asunder, and the cross-beam which it supported fell with a crash to the ground. Eight ponderous kettles had been hanging on the beam, and all but one were shivered to atoms.

Thor and Tyr then stepped forth into the middle of the hall, and Hymir received them civilly, after which he turned his attention to supper; and, having cooked three whole oxen, he invited the Æsir to eat with him. Thor fell to work with great relish, and when he had eaten the whole of one ox, prepared to cut a slice out of another.

"You eat a great deal," said Hymir, sulkily, but Thor was still very hungry, and went on with his supper until he had eaten two entire oxen. Then said Hymir, "Another night, Ving-Thor, you must provide your own supper; for I can't undertake to keep so expensive a guest."

Accordingly, early the next morning, Hymir prepared to go out fishing, and offered Thor a place in his boat. On their way to the shore they passed a herd of oxen feeding.

"Have you provided a bait for me?" said Thor to the giant.

"You must get one for yourself," answered Hymir, surlily.

So Thor was obliged to cut off the head of one of the oxen for a bait.

"You'll never be able to carry that  head," said Hymir; for, in truth, the ox to which it had belonged was an enormous animal, called "Heaven Breaking."

But Thor made nothing of the head, slung it over his shoulder, and carried it down to the boat. As they got under weigh, Thor and Hymir each took an oar; but Thor pulled so fast, and with such mighty strokes, that the giant was obliged to stop for breath, and beg that they might go no further.

"We have already reached the spot," he said, "where I always catch the finest whales."

"But I want to go further out to sea," said Thor.

"That will be dangerous, Ving-Thor," said Hymir; "for if we row any further we shall come to the waters under which Jörmungand lies."

Thor laughed, and rowed on. At last he stopped, baited his hook with the ox's head, and cast the line out into the sea, whilst Hymir leant over the other side of the boat, and caught two whales.

Now, when the great Jörmungand smelt Thor's bait he opened wide his monstrous jaws, and eagerly sucked in both head, and hook, and line; but no sooner did he feel the pain than he struggled so fiercely, and plunged so wildly, that Thor's hands were in an instant dashed against the sides of the boat. Still Thor did not lose his hold, but went on pulling with such wondrous force that his feet burst through the boat, and rested on the slippery rocks beneath. At last the venomous monster's mountain-high head was hauled above the waves, and then, indeed, it was a dreadful sight to see Thor, in all the power of his god-like strength, casting his fiery looks on the serpent, and the serpent glaring upon him, and spitting forth poisoned venom. Even Hymir's sun-burnt cheek changed colour as he beheld beneath his feet the sinking boat, and at his side the deadliest monster of the deep. At last, in the wildness of his fear, he rushed before Thor, and cut his line in sunder. Immediately the serpent's head began to sink; but Thor hurled Miölnir with fearful force after it into the waters.

Then did the rocks burst; it thundered through the caverns; old mother earth all shrank; even the fishes sought the bottom of the ocean; but the serpent sank back, with a long, dull sound, beneath the waves, a deep wound in his head, and smothered vengeance in his heart.

Ill at ease and silent, Hymir then turned to go home, and Thor followed him, carrying boat and oars, and everything else, on his shoulders. Now, every fresh sight of Thor increased the giant's envy and rage; for he could not bear to think that he had shown so little courage before his brave guest, and, besides, losing his boat and getting so desperately wet in his feet by wading home through the sea, did not by any means improve his temper. When they got home, therefore, and were supping together, he began jeering and taunting Thor.

"No doubt, Asa Thor," he said, "you think yourself a good rower and a fine fisher, though you did not catch anything to-day; but can you break that drinking-cup before you, do you think?"

Thor seized the cup, and dashed it against an upright stone. But, lo! the stone was shattered in pieces, and the cup unbroken. Again, with greater strength, he hurled the cup against the pillars in the rock: it was still without a crack.

Now, it happened that the beautiful woman was sitting spinning at her wheel just behind where Thor was standing. From time to time she chanted snatches of old runes and sagas in soft tones; and now, when Thor stood astonished that the cup was not broken, the woman's voice fell on his ear, singing low the following words:—

"Hard the pillar, hard the stone,

Harder yet the giant's bone.

Stones shall break and pillars fall;

Hymir's forehead breaks them all."

Then Thor once more took the cup, and hurled it against the giant's forehead. The cup was this time shivered to pieces; but Hymir himself was unhurt, and cried out, "Well done at last, Ving-Thor; but can you carry that mile-deep kettle out of my hall, think you?"

Tyr tried to lift it, and could not even raise the handle.

Then Thor grasped it by the rim, and, as he did so, his feet pressed through the floor. With a mighty effort he lifted it; he placed it on his head, while the rings rang at his feet; and so in triumph he bore off the kettle, and set out again for Ægir's Hall.

After journeying a little way he chanced to look round, and then he saw that a host of many-headed giants, with Hymir for their leader, were thronging after him. From every cavern, and iceberg, and jagged peak some hideous monster grinned and leered as a great wild beast waiting for his prey.

"Treachery!" cried Thor, as he raised Miölnir above his head, and hurled it three times among the giants.

In an instant they stood stiff, and cold, and dead, in rugged groups along the shore; one with his arm raised; another with his head stretched out; some upright, some crouching; each in the position he had last assumed. And there still they stand, petrified by ages into giant rocks; and, still pointing their stony fingers at each other, they tell the mighty tale of Thor's achievements, and the wondrous story of their fate.

"Pass round the foaming mead," cried King Ægir, as Thor placed "Mile-deep" on the table; and this time it happened that there was enough for every one.

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