Idunn: Eris in the North

This is said in Lokasenna, a poem of the Poetic Edda, the heritage of the Vikings of Iceland:

In the dales dwells,
the prescient Dís,
from Yggdrasil's
ash sunk down,
of alfen race,
Idun by name,
the youngest of Ivaldi's
elder children.

The Dis are Nordic ghosts or deities of fate; not good ones; but not intrinsically malevolent ones either. Valkyries and Norns are some of them, the collectors of the valiant dead and the spinners and cutters of the skein of destiny; and this Idunn is one more of them, one of the crowd rarely referred to as containing any individuality.

Ivaldi, on the other hand, is a figure on the margins of an already musty legend; his sons were a doughty band of dark-elves (or dwarves) responsible for the making of Skidbladnir, and Gungnir, and the golden tupee of Sif the Fair Goddess. Skidbladnir was a boat of immense capacity, and yet of such cunning design it could be folded up and placed in one's back pocket; Gungnir was Odin's spear, a weapon that never missed its mark. The makers of these treasures were this Idunn's brothers; she was the youngest of the elder children of Ivaldi.

This Ivaldi has more sons than just these weaponsmiths: he had Thjazi, and Idi, and Gang-Egil; all giants. It is typical of the Norse that one brood should be svartalvar, and a different child a jotunn. What manner of a spirit or deity Idunn was, is not clear from such a simple inspection as the listing of her brothers.

The Third Edda adds that Idunn had two sisters: one was Mara, a gnome of the kind that squats on the chest of a sleeping mortal and whispers nightmares in his or her ears; she was much feared and hated. The other was Ljödunn, referred to as "a maid as fair as Idunn was, yet through and through fair, and without guile". This is a clue to Idunn's character, is it not?

The name "Idunn" can mean "ever young", or "new-maker", or "the one who makes things change"; in other words, "She of Change". The Norse, not being as uptight as their far southern neighbors the Greeks, were kinder in speech and did not call this concept kaos (chaos) or eris (strife). Likewise, while the Greeks associated Disorder with concepts (or children) such as Lawlessness, Murder, Battle, Manslaughter, Combat, Quarrel, Toil, Folly, Forgetfulness and Famine --- well, they forged those associations meaning to chain bad things to a worse one. Disorder comes, and Manslaughter and the rest follow. This would have greatly amused a Norse warrior, for his corresponding goddess was Idunn: youth, change, fertility, the loss and gaining of things, the turn of one thing to another, as is youth's wont; and yes, all the good and desirable fire that is in the tumult of battle, and the glory of blood-letting, and the high honor of killing and being killed on a smoking, screaming, churning, blood-raining field of battle. Youth, a bright sunny day between the drooling imbecilities of toddlerdom and dotage. A Norse warrior would have listed the same children, and then raised a skull-cup and a horned helmet in their honor.

The chief symbol of Idunn was a golden apple which gave youth and illumination. In Norse mythology apples were always a symbol of youth, of life, of the slow march and rapid rush of things gloriously, full of vitality, erupting and growing from one form to another. Idunn was a goddess of youth, which did not mean she was a leather-jacketed, switchblade-flicking girl child of rebellion (such manners would have hardly counted as such anyway, in the Norse world), but a goddess of the second most fundamental and terrifying transition of all existence. (The first being, of course, death.) Youth was something of a magical state: the mewling, witless child had become something more, a clear-eyed, clear-minded being of pure ideals and insights so naive they counted as genius. The youth was not quite an adult yet; not yet set in his or her ways; not scarred, bent and broken by life; not a done deal, not a has-been, not someone sung of, but someone who was living a song and likely to drag all round into some terrifying, exhilarating action larger than life, and stronger than death. In other words: youth as disorder, and both as the most sacred and fundamental force of all human existence.

[A girl dressed as Idunn. Possibly for a Scandinavian human sacrifice ritual. Painting by Carl Larsson (1853-1919).]

That there was an Outer Idunn, a goddess of the disorder and tempest in nature, a goddess of dragging seasons and untimely snows, of falling stars and wild tales from the mountains, is certain; but though she was understood to be a shadow of Idunn, a secret sister of the sacred goddess, she was not much talked about.

Now, a goddess of exuberant disorder, symbolized in a golden apple? And, on top of all this, there were wars of gods over the possession of Idunn's apples, as there was much strife over the apple of the Grecian Strife; the parallels are rather striking. The writer would call it a done deal that North's Idunn is the same as South's Eris Discordia.

And to end where we began: Lokasenna, the lay where we got our description for Idunn. The lay's name means "the quarrel of Loki", the Norse trickster god. The quarrel here was a flyting, a ritual exchange of insults between Loki and the whole all of the other gods of Asgard. Loki was better. The gods, being Norse and thus sore losers, then roughed Loki up, trussed him up and fixed a serpent up to drip its venom on him until the end of time.

What Loki, the master liar, had to say of Idunn was this: She was a woman full of love. Love enough to be in bed with her brother's murderer; there very spirit of love that conquers all and unites all.

last updated: (Mar 14 2011)