Putting Chisel to Rock
When I started writing Black Wolf: The Binding of Loki back in February 2015, I had no idea what a crazy trip I was embarking on or how much of my sanity I’d have to pay out to get to my destination. There’s a lot to know and plenty to puzzle over when it comes to Norse mythology, as the myths, poems, and sagas were transmitted orally by the Vikings but not committed to paper until more than a century after their pagan religion and way of life had vanished. The literature we have today was largely recorded by Christian scholars, some of whom were direct descendants of the Vikings.
The contrast between the worldviews held by these curators of Viking culture and the long-gone people whose rich history and mythology they intended to preserve means that there are some peculiarities in the stories that we don’t quite understand. Evidence suggests the Vikings believed that time was cyclical and that the world existed in a perpetual creation-destruction cycle; if you try to place the mythology as a whole on a linear timeline, you find internal contradictions1. However, the Christian scholars who recorded the mythology would have considered the progression of time to be linear, so this likely influenced their understanding of the myths and, therefore, ours as well2. Additionally, given the passage of time, linear or otherwise, it’s possible that some stories have been altered in transmission or even lost altogether3 since the Viking Age.
Whatever the case, I found these stories absolutely fascinating. I had been raised on a steady diet of ancient Greek myths, but somehow they just don’t grab me like the Norse myths do. Some of the gods are clearly analogous to one another (Odin and Zeus) and some stories contain similar elements (the physical imperviousness to harm and peculiar, tragic deaths of Baldur and Achilles), but the Greek myths have more of a “heroic legend” feel. These myths focus on the ancient Greek ideal of the mighty and individualistic protagonist who is helped or hindered by gods who are also mighty and individualistic—in addition to being jealous and petty. The Norse myths focus on the gods themselves, the Aesir, who exist together in an organized and stratified society, and who have their own enemies to battle. The Aesir rarely interact with humans, but when they do, the interactions are often up close and personal, and the Aesir do not always have the upper hand4. The Greek gods often treat humans as toys and pets, whereas the Aesir in general have a somewhat distant and more balanced relationship with them. (Thor is the exception, as he is much more closely tied to the human race than the other gods.)
The more I learned about the Viking peoples, the better I understood the myths and the more real and complex the Aesir seemed to me. Then one day I looked at that big jumble of intriguing but disjointed stories and decided to make a single, unified narrative out of it. Which was a batshit-crazy thing to do.
(Okay, so I said I have been paying for this with my sanity, but I never said I had much sanity to start with. To be honest, I’m operating in kind of a deficit here.)
Know Thy Characters
With respect to the story itself, I identified some good places to start, a definite place to end, and a few desirable plot points for the middle. Beyond that, I had a squishy idea of how I wanted to navigate between my fleshed out (and occasionally modified) versions of the myths and the original content that I devised to create a coherent narrative. To do that, I had to get a clear idea of who the Aesir were and how the Vikings may have envisioned their lives and worlds.
To develop the characters fully, I looked to the myths as much as possible. Thor, Loki, and Odin are quite prominent throughout the literature and while Thor’s character is the most consistent of the three, they are none of them simple. I discuss Odin and Loki’s characters in my Master of Mischief blog series.
The women are less prominent overall, but Frigg’s character is relatively well-defined as she occupies a largely traditional feminine role of devoted wife and mother. There are, however, stories that suggest she was unfaithful to Odin and Loki calls her out on this at Aegir’s feast.
Little is known of Thor’s wife, Sif. Her power or “function” is a mystery and she makes only a few minor appearances in the myths. Scholars have previously suggested her golden hair may represent golden corn to indicate she was a fertility goddess, a position that would be enhanced by her marriage to the god of thunder, who had power over the weather5.
But for the purposes of my narrative, there is another who is even more important than either of these two.
As a general rule, the Viking women portrayed in the sagas were not shrinking violets or wallflowers or delicate flowers of any kind, really. Life was tough, and Viking women were up to the challenge. So, if I was going to write a ridiculously long novel about Loki (which is exactly what I did, by the way), then I could hardly ignore his wife and the role she might play in his unfolding tragedy. My challenge was to figure out what kind of woman would marry Loki and what influence she might have in his life.
Sigyn is perhaps even more mysterious than Sif. She doesn’t really seem to have any particular role beyond being Loki’s wife and the mother of his son Narfi (or Nari)6, and frankly it’s not clear why she even sticks around. Loki was a royal pain in the ass to begin with, but in the events leading up to Fimbulvetr (the “Mighty Winter”) and Ragnarök, Loki inexplicably degenerates into a scheming murderer who torments and humiliates the Aesir at Aegir’s feast, where he reveals that he is responsible for Baldur’s death. Odin punishes Loki for his gross misdeeds by turning Loki’s son Vali into a wolf to kill Narfi, then uses Narfi’s entrails to bind Loki beneath a snake that drips searing poison on his head. Sigyn—who must be absolutely wretched with grief—stays by Loki’s side and holds a bowl over his head to catch the poison.
So why does she stay? A Viking woman had the right to unilaterally divorce her husband and could reclaim her dowry and possibly other shared resources as part of the divorce7. Given Loki’s monstrous turn, it seems that Sigyn might have done better to have divorced him and left him to his misery. Instead, she remains by his side even though she receives “very little joy from her husband”8.
To figure out what kind of woman Sigyn might have been, I looked to a kenning used by the skald Thjóldólf of Hvin, who refers to Loki as “cargo in the arms of Sigyn”9. I have interpreted this to mean that Loki is Sigyn’s burden in the sense that she is responsible for his care. There is no evidence that she encouraged his wicked behaviour, although honour belonged to a family. If her reputation was stained by Loki’s malevolence, then perhaps she, too, was being punished for Loki’s crimes, just as Vali and Narfi were. Nonetheless, it seems odd to punish her for Loki’s foul deeds by making her protect Loki from an aspect of his own punishment, so I suspect she chose to stay and endure her own suffering to provide comfort to her (now) unworthy husband.
From this small but crucial detail blossomed one of my most tragic and complex characters. Sigyn embodies the Viking stoicism that simultaneously accepts and defies fate as she tries desperately to protect her star-crossed family. As a long-suffering wife, a bereaved mother, and a member of a disintegrating society, she endures unbearable grief for the sake of love and loyalty.
Excerpt: Sigyn’s Regret
Sigyn stood on one of the high terraces of the palace with Loki’s long, tattered cloak draped around her shoulders. She had found the heavy garment in his old chambers, the room they had shared here as husband and wife, where she now slept alone. She took it as she had brought no winter items with her, and Loki would almost certainly not have the chance to use it again.
Hugging Loki’s worn cloak tight to her body was a painfully nostalgic torment. The deep brown-black wool was bleached from the sun and rain; ancient stains from Loki’s battles and his many nights sleeping in forests and fields clung to the nappy wool. It even smelled like him, his salty, earthy musk layered over the tinge of pungent wood smoke that always lingered, even after the garment was aired. Sigyn once asked Loki why he even wore a cloak when the cold rarely seemed to bother him. He had smiled and kissed her, saying a cloak was like the love of a good woman—he could survive without it, but he felt all the warmer for having it.
Memories pounded through Sigyn’s mind, forced in by the clashing scents of her husband’s cloak. She remembered the nights she succumbed to his light caresses and his soft deep voice, felt his hot breath warming her flesh where he kissed her; she could feel his arms around her and their newborn babes each time she gave birth; she could see him teaching the boys how to hunt game and clean a fresh catch. She remembered, too, his fiery rages and dark, unrelenting appetites. But it was his increasing cruelty and violence that forced her to abandon Breithablik for what she had hoped would be the last time, leaving him and their grown sons behind.
Sigyn wept with shame, wishing she had never brought her sons to live in this gilded monument to deceit and treachery. Loki had been so certain their children would be safe with his family, even if he wasn’t. He thought they might find better lives here, have the chance to fight and win honour, find wives, have children. There was so little left in the northern villages, where the elders simply grew old and died, and the young moved away from the increasing desolation of the abandoned shores.
Loki had often provoked her with dreadful imagined futures. “What life will our sons have here?” he would ask. “Are they to spend the prime of their manhood wet and cold at sea each day and to seek their comfort among the sheep at night?” Sigyn had once lashed out with taunts that such appetites would only prove the boys were his, but Loki silenced her with the sharp rejoinder that boys sought wives who resembled their mothers. Now, she would gladly give each of her sons a dozen bleating wives if only she could have them both alive and safe, honour be damned. What good was honour? It was the ruin of this family.
For more on the role of women in the Viking Age, see also
- Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto , p. 41 ↩
- Ibid, p. 39. ↩
- For example, Thor’s son Módi plays no role in the mythology overall but is one of the survivors of Ragnarök. As Lindow says, “his name turns up frequently enough as the base word in man kennings that he must have been fairly well known” (ibid, p. 233), which, in my mind, raises the question of why there are no extant myths about him. ↩
- Loki, Odin, and Hoenir travel Midgard together and find an otter eating a salmon. Loki kills the otter with a stone, and the group takes the otter and salmon with them. When they find a place to rest, they show their human hosts the salmon and otter; the father recognizes the otter as his son and the family holds Odin and Hoenir captive until Loki returns with enough gold to compensate the family. ↩
- Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books, Toronto , p. 84. ↩
- Even Sturluson seems to be unclear on the name of Loki’s son. See Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. transl. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. Oxford University Press, New York , p. 42. ↩
- Holcomb, Kendall M., “Pulling the Strings: The Influential Power of Women in Viking Age Iceland” (2015). Student Theses, Papers and Projects (History). Paper 45. (http://digitalcommons.wou.edu/his/45, accessed January 29, 2016). ↩
- Larrington, Carolyne, transl. “The Seeress’s Prophesy” in The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York , p. 8. ↩
- Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto , p. 267. ↩