Laughing at the Gods: Humour in Norse Mythology

By Bjørn Larssen

The Lay of Thrymr is probably the best known of all the myths. Thor’s hammer goes missing. As it turns out, it just so happened to fall in the hands of a jötunn king, Thrymr, who demands Freya’s hand in marriage in return. Freya is about as likely to agree to that as to eat a carbohydrate, so a cunning plan is devised. Thor dons a wedding gown and, with his bridesmaid Loki, almost-but-not-quite marries the jötunn king.

This, unfortunately, was the most cunning plan the Gods managed to come up with, even though Odin drank from Mímir’s well of wisdom. It’s also the myth most people can think of (minus the title) – this, the word “Ragnarök,” and Chris Hemsworth’s pecs. But there is so much more fun to be had – or, rather, there can be.

*

Some of the best preserved myths are simply listicles. “Listen, Random Person Standing Here Possibly Being Odin, fact 24: Tolkien stole all the dwarf names in The Hobbit from our Eddas, and a thousand or so years from now we will be really pissed off about it. Listen, Random Person Standing Here Possibly Being Odin or whoever is standing here, fact 24…*” Most of the others can be adapted into comedy (this is positive thinking, since I have accidentally made it my life’s goal to re-tell the entire Norse mythology channeling Sir Terry Pratchett).

The myths were/are stories that seem plot-based, but are character-based. There are many translations of the Prose and Poetic Eddas; when writing for Sue’s Musings about The Lay of Harbard I went through three translations and it felt like reading three different stories that were somewhat similarly structured. The Lay of Thrymr turns much less funny when you gloss over Thor’s wedding gown and focus on the massacre of hundreds of innocent people that followed. This doesn’t change one thing: the Gods are fallible. They cheat, steal, make mistakes, lose their hammers, and sometimes they’re kinda stupid.

*

It’s not Loki who makes the myths funny, because his sense of humour redefines “abstract.” Yes, his testicles and a goat play tug-o-war in The Marriage of Njörðr and Skaði – the goal of the, ah, exercise is to make Skaði laugh. (She does.) Most of the time, though, he is amused by things such as cutting Thor’s – his best friend’s – wife’s golden hair because… because Loki, I guess? Tom Hiddleston, so much to answer for. Giving Loki the main stage is going to make the story weirder. And not even I can think of a way to make an apocalypse (Ragnarök) hilarious. He’s better in small quantities.

Thor’s Journey to Utgard introduces us to Skrymir, a giant so, uh, giant that Thor, his servants, and Loki accidentally sleep inside his glove, believing it to be a weirdly decorated hall larger than Valhalla itself. (Later on, in The Lay of Harbard, Odin laughs at Thor because of this and Thor can’t even answer “your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!” due to Monty Python not being a thing yet. Also, Odin has his fun from safe distance and uses a pen name, which is a dick move, especially during a rap battle. I mean, a flyting.)

(Sorry about the digression.)

The giant put Thor & Co.’s provisions inside his own bag and tied it well – so well, in fact, that Thor can’t untie it. Due to being a Manly Man Doing Manly Things, he’d rather kill Skrymir than admit he’s not strong enough, and – guess what! – he tries. Three times. (How this is supposed to help them get some dinner is beyond me, but this is Thor thinking with his big, hard, smooth and shiny hammer.) In a shocking development, he fails. 

In the morning, Skrymir warns them – don’t piss off Utgard’s ruler, non-confusingly named Utgard-Loki. “Utgard-Loki’s men won’t stand for bragging for small fry like you,” he informs. Thor slept inside someone’s sweaty glove, is hungry AF, his hard and shiny hammer failed three times, and now he is also apparently known as The Small Fry. There better be a good massacre coming, or he’ll have to kill everyone around.

Long story short, Thor, Loki, and Thjalfi – one of Thor’s servants – are all challenged to duels and all lose them. In the end it turns out that Utgard-Loki used magical spells and the duels couldn’t have been won – but before the pissed off Gods manage to get any revenge, all of Utgard disappears. They lose. And Thor doesn’t get to kill anyone at all. This is, like, the worst trip to Utgard ever.

*

Norsemen had no holy book – they had drunken bards. The Norse Gods and their stories are basically a reality show about really rich immortals with superpowers. The myths are weird, scary, funny, but – apart from the listicles, which, I suspect, didn’t go down a storm in the pubs – never quite serious. In The Lay of Rígr, the titular Rígr (mostly identified by scholars as Heimdall) wanders around having random awkward threesomes with people, which somehow leads to creating class divisions between thralls, free men, and billionaires. Nobody give this guy a smartphone, because once he discovers Tinder, we’ll end up with a revolution… actually, someone give this guy a smartphone.

This might not be the canonical version of the myth. There is no canonical version of the myth. Even if you were to learn Old Norse and find Snorri’s original manuscripts for the Eddas, you’d have to remember Snorri was a Christian writing all this stuff down hundreds of years after people who told those stories last have died. Maybe The Lay of Rígr was the equivalent of Zuckerberg’s PR spokespersons’ announcements that Facebook is all about unity and not at all about profit. Maybe it’s about coming over unannounced to people’s homes for bisexual threesomes. (Good luck convincing me that while Rígr was doing the squelchy with the wives, their husbands – who were in the same bed, which was not extremely large – SIMPLY SLEPT VERY SOUNDLY. Although maybe they were into cuckoldry. Anyway, the incel division of “heathens” tends not to think about this myth too hard.)

*

“They grow so fast,” aunties and grannies coo over tweens. Well, aunt Edna, meet Magni. In Thor’s Duel with Hrungnir, which I appropriated for my book Children, Thor fights a giant (named, surprisingly, Hrungnir) who throws a whetstone at him. Thor’s hammer smashes both the whetstone and Hrungnir’s forehead. The giant falls and The Thunder One finds himself under his leg. All of the Gods run around shrieking in panic and trying to free Thor. Even Odin and his wisdom fail, though. Finally someone with both brains and brawns – the three-year-old son of Thor, one Magni, comes over. He shakes his head and tsk-tsks, frees his father without breaking a sweat, then gives a short speech, as three-year-olds are prone to do.

He then proceeds to never appear in the lore again until the very end, which you will admit is a colossal waste of potential of a three-year-old who disses his own dad using skaldic verse.

*

Okay. I lied about Loki. Lokasenna – Loki’s Flyting – is the most epic rap battle recorded before the 9th century. Loki disses everyone around by sharing inconvenient truths about them.

As you can see on the photograph above (Lorenz Frølich), few are actually amused by this. Heimdall is shooketh. You can almost hear his gasp “how very dare you, I am not a bottom! Total 100% top here!***.” Sif, strategically positioned behind Skaði, is accused of sleeping with Loki himself, to which she mutters “I’d rather bite my gold-haired head off and eat it.” Bragi, accused of not standing up and fighting, proceeds to not stand up and fight. Instead, he miserably contemplates Freyr’s backside as Idunn, Bragi’s wife discreetly reaches for his pierced nipple to distract him from Loki’s revelations about all the men she slept with. 

(Loki slut-shaming literally anyone is like a Kardashian condemning Photoshop filters.)

“The everloving duck is wrong with you?” Skaði asks, and the response she gets is “even if the gods bind me to a boulder with gut ripped out of my ice-cold son, I led the way when we killed and captured your father**.” (Which is 1) rude, 2) stupid of Loki to say, because this is exactly what happens later, only much worse, and then he doesn’t find it funny.)

On the right, Martin Gore Týr enjoys the suffers in silence. Freya’s “listen carefully, petals, for I shall say this only once,” is ignored by absolutely everyone. Freyr, unable to stop chuckling in his handkerchief, accidentally rubs himself against Heimdall’s shoulder, because Freyr gonna Freyr. Silent Frigg only bothered to come to the party because she predicted that one day in the future she’d find herself there. Odin isn’t even listening, completely surrounded by no wine. “FML!” he thinks. “No wonder I drink!”

* The Lay of Vafthrudnir, unauthorised translation by me

** Loki’s Flyting, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths, Kevin Crossley-Holland

*** Hermann Pálsson as quoted in Irish Perspectives on Heimdallr, William Sayers, Alvíssmál 2


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