O NCE upon a time Odin, Loke and Hener started on a journey. They had often traveled together on all sorts of errands, for they had a great many things to look after. More than once they had fallen into trouble through the meddlesome Loke, who was never so happy as when he was doing wrong.
When the gods went on a journey they traveled fast and hard, for they were strong, active spirits. They loved nothing so much as hard work, hard blows, storm, peril, and struggle. There were no roads through the country over which they made their way; only high mountains to be climbed by rocky paths, deep valleys to be crossed and swift-rushing streams, as cold as ice. Not a bird flew through the air, not an animal sprang through the trees. It was as still as a desert.
The gods walked on and on, getting more tired and hungry at every step. The sun was sinking low over the pine-crested mountains, and the travelers had not yet eaten. Even Odin was beginning to feel the pangs of hunger, when suddenly, entering a little valley, the hungry gods came upon a herd of cattle. It was the work of a minute to kill a great ox and to have the carcass swinging in a huge pot over a roaring fire.
But never were gods so unlucky before! In spite of their hunger the pot would not boil. They piled on the wood until the great flames crackled and licked the pot with their fiery tongues. But every time the cover was lifted, there was the meat just as raw as when it was put in. The travelers were not in very good humor. They talked about it, and wondered how it could be. Suddenly a voice called out from the oak overhead, "If you will give me my fill, I'll make the pot boil."
The gods looked at each other and then into the tree, and there they discovered a great eagle. They were glad enough to get their supper on any terms, so they told the eagle he might have what he wanted if he would only get the meat cooked.
The bird was as good as his word, and in less time than it takes to tell it supper was ready. Then the eagle flew down and picked out both shoulders and both legs. This was a pretty large share, and Loke, who was always angry when anybody got more than he, seized a great pole and began to beat the bird. Whereupon a very strange thing happened: the pole stuck fast in the huge talons of the eagle at one end, and Loke stuck fast at the other end. Struggle as he might, he could not get loose; and as the great bird sailed away, Loke went pounding along on the ground, striking against rocks and branches until he was bruised half to death.
The eagle was no ordinary bird, as Loke soon found when he begged for mercy. The giant Thjasse happened to be flying abroad in his eagle plumage, when the hungry travelers came under the oak and tried to cook the ox. It was into his hands that Loke had fallen, and he was not to get away until he had promised to pay roundly for his freedom.
If there was one thing which the gods prized above all their other treasures in Asgard, it was the beautiful fruit of Idun. This was kept by the goddess in a golden casket and given to the gods to keep them forever young and fair. Without these Apples, all their power could not have kept them from getting old like the meanest of mortals. Without these Apples of Idun, Asgard itself would have lost its charm. For what would heaven be without youth and beauty forever shining through it?
Thjasse told Loke that he could not go unless he would promise to bring him the Apples of Idun. Loke hesitated. The eagle dashed hither and thither, flinging him against the sides of the mountains and dragging him through the great boughs of the oaks. At last his courage gave out entirely, and he promised to steal the Apples out of Asgard and give them to the giant.
Loke was bruised and sore enough to be willing to keep his promise. But how were the Apples to be gotten? Idun guarded the golden fruit day and night. No one ever touched it but herself. A beautiful sight it was to see her fair hands spread it forth for the morning feasts in Asgard.
The other gods had no thought of Loke's doing wrong, because they never did wrong themselves.
Not long after this Loke came carelessly up to Idun as she was gathering her Apples into the beautiful carven box which she carried.
"Good morning, goddess," said he. "How fair and golden your Apples are!"
"Yes," answered Idun, "the bloom of youth keeps them always beautiful."
"I never saw anything like them," continued Loke slowly, as if he were talking about a matter of no importance, "until the other day."
Idun looked up at once with the greatest interest and curiosity in her face. She was very proud of her Apples, and she knew that no earthly trees could bear such immortal fruit.
"Where have you seen any Apples like them?" she asked.
"Oh, just outside the gates," said Loke, carelessly. "If you care to see them I'll take you there. It will keep you but a moment. The tree is only a little way off."
Idun was anxious to go at once.
"Better take your Apples with you to compare them with the others," said the wily god. Idun gathered up the golden Apples and went out of Asgard, carrying with her all that made it heaven. No sooner was she beyond the gates than a mighty rushing sound was heard, like the coming of a tempest. Before she could think or act, the giant Thjasse, in his eagle plumage, was bearing her swiftly away to his icy home. He wanted to eat the Apples and be forever young like the gods. She refused to give them up, so he kept her a lonely prisoner.
Loke, after keeping his promise and giving Idun into the hands of the giant, strayed back into Asgard as if nothing had happened. The next morning, when the gods assembled for their feast, there was no Idun.
Day after day went by, and still the beautiful goddess did not come. Little by little the light of youth and beauty faded from the home of the gods. They became old and haggard. Their strong, young faces were lined with care and furrowed by age. Their raven locks passed from gray to white. Their flashing eyes became dim and hollow. Brage, the god of poetry, could make no music, for his beautiful wife, Idun, was gone he knew not whither.
Finally, the gods could bear the loss of power and joy no longer. They made inquiry. They tracked Loke on that fair morning when he led Idun beyond the gates. They seized him and brought him into the council. He read in their haggard faces the hate in their hearts and his courage failed. He promised to bring Idun back to Asgard, if the goddess Freyja would lend him her falcon-guise. No sooner said than done; and with eager gaze the gods watched him as he flew away, becoming at last only a dark speck against the sky.
After a long and weary flight, Loke was glad enough to find Thjasse gone to sea and Idun alone in his dreary house. He changed her instantly into a nut, and taking her in his talons, flew away as fast as his wings could carry him.
Loke had need of all his speed, for Thjasse came suddenly home and found Idun and her precious fruit gone. He guessed what had happened. He put on his eagle plumage and flew forth in a mighty rage. Like the rushing wings of a tempest, his mighty wings beat the air and bore him swiftly onward. From mountain peak to mountain peak he flew. Now he almost touched the murmuring pine forests. Now he swept high in mid-air with nothing above but the arching sky, and nothing beneath but the tossing sea.
At last Thjasse sees the falcon far ahead. His flight becomes like the flash of the lightning for swiftness, and like the rushing of clouds for uproar. The haggard faces of the gods line the walls of Asgard and watch the race with eagerness.
Youth and endless life are staked upon the winning of Loke. He is weary enough and frightened enough, too, as the eagle sweeps not far behind him. But he makes a great effort to widen the distance between them. Little by little the eagle gains on the falcon. The gods grow white with fear. They rush off and prepare great fires upon the walls. With fainting, drooping wings, the falcon passes over and drops exhausted by the wall.
In an instant the fires have been lighted, and the great flames roar to heaven. The eagle sweeps across the fiery line a second later, and falls, maimed and burned, to the ground. A dozen fierce hands smite out his life. Thus the great giant Thjasse perishes among his foes.
Idun resumes her natural form, as Brage rushes to meet her. The gods crowd round her. She spreads the feast. The golden Apples gleam in the eyes of the gods. They eat; and once more their faces glow with the beauty of undying youth, and their eyes flash with divine power. Idun stands like a star of beauty among the throng. The song of Brage is heard once more. Poetry and everlasting life are wedded again.
|—Adapted from Hamilton Wright Mabie|