Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Scathing One

This week we received a request to talk about Skadi, no doubt one of the most badass of Norse ladies. And since we aim to please, here we are to talk about Our Lady of the Sharpened Ski.

Along with Uller, with whom later scholars and popular imagination often try to match her up, Skadi is the goddess of skiing, which is not as goofy as it sounds. In addition to being a popular sport in ancient Scandinavia and now, it was also one of the fastest ways to get around in the inhospitable snowy climes of the far north, and Skadi is a huntress famous for her skill with the bow, using the skis to zip around the slopes and forests chasing game much faster than she could on foot. She's referred to as Ondergud or Onderdis ("god of skiing" or "lady of skiing") in the Edda and is seldom depicted without being armed to the teeth and extremely unamused by the antics of the gods around her.

Skadi is the daughter of the giant Thjazi, who is most famous for being the guy who kidnapped the goddess Idun and put all of the gods in danger of growing old and infirm until Loki managed to steal Idun back and trick the giant into following him back to Asgard, where he was killed by the combined efforts of the gods. Skadi enters the orbit of the Norse gods in Skáldskaparmál, which tells the tale of how, once her father had been killed by them, she put on armor and took all her weapons of war and marched on Asgard alone.

The gods were not sure exactly how to respond when an angry giantess covered in weapons turned up on their doorstep and demanded that they answer for killing her father, possibly because most of the time they tend to kill giants in these myths sort of without consequences, but they attempted to appease her by offering her weregild, a very old convention of basically paying the injured party or family member of an injured party some lavish sum or reward in order to compensate them for a misdeed committed against them.

Being the Norse gods, who are not lacking in healthy egos, they offered her the opportunity to pick any one of them to marry, figuring that marrying a god was probably the most any woman could want anyway (and also they might have been responding to the fact that, having lost her father, Skadi might now be at a disadvantage to find a husband on her own). Also, she was pointing weapons at them and they may not have felt like they had a lot of time to come up with something.

But, being that the Norse gods are also very committed to being jerks even when they're trying to pay off a debt and have a lot of difficulty passing up the opportunity to prank a giant, they stipulate that she has to choose which of them to marry by looking only at their feet. Skadi, who wants to marry Baldr because he's the most beautiful among the gods and she's determined to be paid appropriately for the loss of her father, chooses the most perfect and beautiful set of feet, but much to her dismay, these turn out to belong to the god Njord, not Baldr, making her "reward" an unhappy arranged marriage she didn't particularly want. Njord may or may not be very happy about this himself (although the text really doesn't bother to waste much time on his feelings), but he's a prisoner of war among the Aesir, so he doesn't have much choice but to do as they say and marry her.

Skadi is still not okay with the killing of her father, however, and refuses to be satisfied with only the acquisition of a husband, so she demands that they also pay off their debt by making her laugh. She assumes this will not be possible, since she's in no laughing mood with them right now, and that by failing to succeed they will be in default of their weregild, which entitles her to legally either take their valuables or start killing people until she's satisfied.

However, Loki rides to the rescue of the rest of the pantheon again, this time by figuring that the only sure-fire way to make someone laugh is to inflict pain on yourself, and he performs some extreme improv by tying his junk to the beard of a goat and then letting nature take its agonizing, running-around-screaming course. By the time he has collapsed, exhausted, at Skadi's feet, she can't help but laugh at his antics, and therefore the weregild is satisfied and she must be content with gaining Njord as a husband and the opportunity to move in with the gods. Perhaps sensing that this is not entirely fair to her, however, Odin also charitably places her father's eyes in the sky as stars, as a gesture of good faith (which, like many Norse gestures of good faith, is actually kind of creepy, but he's trying).

For those keeping track, that's twice now that Loki has ruined things for Skadi, first by being the catalyst that led to her father's death and second by forcing her to laugh and lose out on any more restitution the gods might need to pay to her. Because Loki is a god whose major defining attribute is an inability to know when to stop, he goes on to also insult her, along with everyone else, at the feast in Lokasenna; when Skadi says that he's going to get in trouble if he doesn't stop being such a dick to everyone, he reminds her that it was his fault that her father was killed, and when she tells him that he's going to suffer the consequences of her wrath as a result, he says that she was a lot nicer to him when she was having sex with him, which may or may not have ever happened but was definitely said as an insult to intentionally piss her off.

Which does not end up working out great for him, because when he is captured and bound underground by the other gods for his crimes at the end of the story, it is Skadi who brings a great poisonous serpent and sets it above his face, so that it will drip burning venom into his eyes for the rest of eternity until the final battle of Ragnarök while his wife Sigyn tries and fails to catch all of it and save him from torment. Skadi doesn't play around.

The other major story about Skadi is in the Prose Edda, in which her disappointing marriage to Njord is examined. Skadi wants them both to return to Thrymheim, her home and the home of her father, to live, which is located up in the mountains where her skiing and hunting are commonplace activities, but Njord, who was a god of the sea, wanted to live on the shore near his domain.

In all technicality, Njord was in the right here; Norse marriage law normally presumed that a woman would move into the home of her new husband, not the other way around, and that she would manage his household for him, which was a major function of wives at the time. Skadi was having none of it, however, most likely because she didn't go through all that weregild mess with the gods just to lose her birthright from her father, so they compromise by promising to rotate their residence, spending nine nights in the mountains followed by nine nights by the sea.

Unfortunately, nobody is happy with this arrangement. After spending the first nine nights in Skadi's home, Njord complains that he hated it up there, and was particularly bothered by the incessant howling of the mountain wolves. Skadi, who senses that he's not going to come around to her position, then refuses to spend the second set of nights by the sea, saying that she can't sleep there because the sea birds are so noisy and wake her up every morning.

And then she peaces out to go live in Thrymheim by herself, and no more is ever said of it. Neither she nor Njord ever officially divorce the other in front of witnesses, but most readers of Norse myth consider this the point at which their marriage ended; they don't spend any time together again at any point in the stories of the Norse gods, and although Skadi is referred to by titles such as "bride of the gods", she doesn't appear to be matched up with any of them in the Edda after these events, instead going to events solo.

The only exception to this is Heimskringla, in which Snorri Sturluson, seeking to make the stories of Norse mythology into more history than myth, recounts their tales in euhemerized form, setting the gods as mortal kings and queens of past times and putting down their magical achievements to luck, exaggeration or sorcery. In this account, Skade is said to be a mortal woman who married Njord, the king of Sweden, but she refused to live with him (or, in some interpretations, just refused to sleep with him), so the marriage dissolved. It goes on to say that she married Odin (described in the work as an Asian chieftain skilled in magic) afterward and had several children with him, and thereafter she disappears from the story.

It might be worth noting here that while many modern writers like to pair Skadi with Uller as her new husband after Njord, since both gods are all about hunting and skiing and generally would probably get along pretty well, there isn't actually any evidence of this in any myths or artwork from Germany or the Norse lands. However, for those who are looking for a convenient loophole, Heimskringla does say that she married Odin, and another euhemerized account of the Norse gods' exploits, Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, says that Uller at one point took over the rule of the gods and ruled under the name of Odin for ten years while the real Odin was in exile... so you could always connect a few dots and run with it if you really want to!