Far from here, and away to the wild north mountains, beyond the ice floes and the scree slopes lies a hall named Thrymheim; Storm Home. It is the place where winter lives, where the frost and snow retreat, biding their time whilst the land below bathes in the gentle warmth of green summer, the corn sways in the fields until the cycle turns and winter creeps its quiet way down from the mountains to swathe the earth once again in white and grey. The king of this mountain realm was Thiasi and he lived there with his daughter, Skadi of the shadows. Skadi was a huntress, and she liked to be alone. She spent her days skiing in the mountains with her bow and arrow or fishing on the ice. Skadi loved no man but her father, whom she adored, for she was a solitary creature and her heart was made of the stuff of winter.
When news came to Skadi, one day, that her father had been killed in a dispute with the gods of Asgard she was distraught, her ice heart shattered. For many days and nights she walked the passages of Storm Home crying her grief and rage into the wind, her tears sparkling in the ice of the walls and floor. Skadi felt that she would never laugh or find happiness again and she found herself lonely in the empty draughty hall. Finally as the storms of her grief abated, and her heart froze over again, she resolved that she would have her revenge on the Aesir for Thiasi’s death. She dressed in her warmest furs and a mail coat, took her bow and arrow and her skis and began the journey down from the frozen mountains to the plains of Asgard.
As she headed south, the wind grew warmer and summer settled on the land. Skadi found herself unsettled, longing for the darkness and ice of the mountains. But her resolve was strong and was strengthened further when she arrived in Asgard to find the Gods relaxed, making merry and enjoying the warmth. They looked up in alarm as Skadi swept through the gates, bringing with her a blizzard that withered the grass and blighted the crops with hail, a shadow steeling across the landscape behind her; they knew immediately why she had come and were keen to keep the peace. Odin greeted her at the steps of his hall, Valaskjalf and the other gods gathered around. One-Eye inclined his head, ‘your father was a powerful man, I regretted his death. Will you take gold as your payment?’ Skadi laughed, a sound like the creaking of glaciers, ‘Gold?’ she sneered, ‘do you know nothing of my father? He was so rich that when he died his brothers divided his fortune by measuring it in mouthfuls, and I have my share. I will not take your gold.’ The gods were confused, ‘what will you take from us then?’ they asked. Skadi looked at Baldur, the most beautiful of all the gods, fair and young with hair like the sun, and she felt how alone she was and how Baldur might melt her heart. ‘I will take a husband,’ she said, ‘and one of you must make me laugh.’
The gods took a while to consider this for it was not the settlement they were expecting and they were uneasy that one of them might have to marry this ice queen. Odin said, ‘you may choose your husband from among us, but you must do so only by looking at his feet.’ At this Skadi smiled, for she knew that being so beautiful, Baldur would have the most exquisite feet and her task would be easy. The gods removed their shoes and stood in a circle around her. Carefully, she searched among them for the feet she thought would be Baldur’s, finally she came to the one she was sure must be him. They were strong and slim, brown and well-shaped. Skadi had never seen such beautiful feet in all her life. ‘I chose you,’ she said looking up into the face of her husband. But instead of Baldur, she met eyes that were grey, blue and green, their colours shifting and changing like the ocean. He had brown and weathered skin from working a lifetime as a sailor and an expression that was gentle, strong and kind. Njord, Lord of the Seas smiled at her. Skadi was angry ‘you have tricked me’ she snarled, yet there was something in Njord’s face that stopped her, and she found herself fascinated by him, drawn to the smell of salt on his skin and the bitter tang of his hair, the way that he looked at her… and she felt her heart soften. Odin nodded in satisfied agreement, ‘a good match,’ he said. Skadi then smiled a bitter smile, ‘you have forgotten the second part of our bargain, one of you must make me laugh. For since you took my father from me, I have only felt sadness.’ Odin turned to Loki, ‘Trickster, can you make this woman laugh?’ Loki stepped forward a little sheepishly, wondering how much Skadi knew about his own hand in her father’s death. Loki said, ‘I have the perfect remedy, for only this morning at market I bought this goat, after all, what is funnier than a goat?’ Loki capered in front of Skadi and she looked at him suspiciously. Loki continued ‘only, I had my arms so full of other wares, I had to lead her home like this!’ Loki took one end of the rope and tied it to the beard of the nanny goat and the other end he tied around his testicles. The goat bleated in rage at being tethered and set off around the courtyard yanking Loki along behind her who squealed and bleated louder than the goat. The other gods were helpless with laughter. Finally the two came to a halt in front of Skadi, Loki fell into her lap and looked up at her with a ridiculous expression on his face. In spite of herself, Skadi laughed; a laugh that rose from her belly and melted her heart and for the first time in months she was glad and so forgave the Aesir. Then, Odin feeling that he still wished to make further amends for the death of the great giant Thiasi, took from a pouch two milky white globes. Skadi gasped, recognising them instantly as her fathers eyes. Odin said, ‘I know how much you miss him,’ and he flung the eyes far up into the heavens where they settled as two bright stars. ‘Now you will always be able to see him and he will always watch over you’. Skadi was satisfied, her father avenged and remembered. She turned to Njord, ‘I will gladly take you as my husband but I cannot live in Noatun, your Sea Home, we must live together at my home in the mountains, for I fear that my heart would break all over again for the missing of it.’ Njord knew this would be hard for he had spent his life at sea, but he loved Skadi and wished to make her happy, so he agreed.
Skadi and Njord returned to Storm Home and for a while they were happy, they found that they loved each other completely and delighted in being together. But slowly, Njord became restless, he missed the salt of the sea, the movement of the waves and the bustling shipyard. Skadi noticed this and not bearing for him to be miserable asked Njord what was wrong, he replied ‘I hate the mountains, we have not been here long but it is dark and I am so cold. I cannot bear the howling of the wolves, they sound so ugly to me compared with the song of the swans and all I see is grey and white.’
At this Skadi too despaired and wondered what to do, she knew that she could not leave her home forever but knew that she could not keep the man she loved from the sea. Eventually they agreed that they should spend nine nights in Storm Home and nine nights in Njord’s Sea Home. So the two made the journey back to Asgard and Sea Home. This was how they lived for a few years, traveling back and forth between the two, always moving, never settled. Each of them at times happy and at times sad, but rarely were they happy together despite their desperate love for one another, for one of them was always homesick. Eventually, Skadi became more and more miserable, and Njord, noticing this and not bearing for her to be unhappy either asked what was wrong. ‘I cannot sleep here,’ she cried, ‘the sea is always restless, the gulls are always mewling and the ships creak in and out of the ship yard, day and night. There is no peace in this place and I can stand it no longer. I must go home.’ Njord held her close and they both cried, knowing that they could not live together, knowing they could not bear to be apart, understanding how hopeless it was. So they agreed to stay married, but to live apart, Skadi in Storm Home and Njord in Sea Home and so it must always be; for though summer and winter will always make their sacred dance, bringing the cycles of growth and stillness to the earth, they cannot exist in one place together, just as sea and mountain cannot.
Occasionally, the lovers meet and spend a few short days together when the ice and snow creep down from the mountains bringing the shadow of winter with them and summer retreats. But it only serves to remind them how impossible their love is and that it is easier to be apart where distance and forgetfulness salve the wound, yet they cannot let go. Skadi is once again alone. Her heart, melted for a short time by the wild abundance of the sea, is made again of the stuff of winter, ice and hail, the grief of passing and she has frozen it over once more. She has returned to hunting the wild, silent places on her skis with bow and arrow, or she fishes out on the wide ice floes where the wolves call and her tears fall. Njord often sits on the shore, soothed by the call of the gulls and the constant ebb of the tide, but he stares out to the grey mountains and the place where his heart has gone.
I wrote my version of this story, inspired by a snowy walk across my local landscape which, after making the first few tender movements towards spring was swathed once again in the cold of deep winter. It felt as if a shadow of peace and a cloak of stillness had been laid over the land and there was a grief too for the things which had come up too soon and may not survive. Skadi’s name could be traced back to the Old English ‘Scaedu’ or Old Saxon ‘scadu’ meaning shadow, which for me expresses her nature perfectly as a goddess of winter, grieving, and broken hearts. She is an enigmatic figure, a frost giantess who appears at various points in the Prose Edda, but her story is not complete, it is fragmented and must be pieced together as with many of the female figures in the old stories. I have here remained faithful to the tale, changing nothing, only adding my own flesh to the bones and a woman’s understanding for why Skadi does as she does. The story of her marriage to Njord expresses the interplay of summer and winter but also, as all good myths do, it carries a lesson within its essential tragedy, a warning against a frozen heart, and our tendency to isolate ourselves through hurt or fear. It is an ancestral story of the heart rending relationships that just do not work however much we might want them to and the of the absolute necessity of letting go.
Sturluson S (Translated by Faulkes A, 2000) Edda, Everyman, London.
Pictures by WG Collingwood (1908)