THOR AND FATE IN GAUTREK'S SAGA


The Norse beliefs concerning fate are somewhat contradictory. Most retellings of the myths state that the Norns control the destiny of men and gods, their word is law and cannot be changed. However this does not explain the importance of Odin and the Valkyries in deciding the fate of warriors or the ability of men and women to lay curses to change one another's destinies (4).

Other than the highly Christianised prophecy of Ragnarok (6) there is no suggestion that the gods are subject to the decrees of the Norns. Snorri says that the gods meet for council beside the hall of the Norns (2) and as in Gautreks's Saga the gods clearly meet to decide destiny, the Norns could be seen as conveying the gods' wishes to the world of men. This relationship has parallels in Lithuanian mythology where the high god supplies the wool from which the fates spin the destiny of mortals (5).

Snorri tells us that the more beneficial Norns are the daughters of the gods (2). Thor himself is named as the father of nine of the Norns in Barlaams Saga and his daughter Thrud is listed among the Valkyries and probably shares their powers. Even Sif is credited with the gift of prophecy in Snorri's prologue to the Edda (though as she is described as a queen of Troy this reference should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt!)

Gautrek's Saga clearly shows the influence of the gods over fate, not just by Odin but all of the gods from the highest to the lowest. It is of special interest to us because of Thor's involvement. As this saga is not well know and is often quoted in meaningless detail I have summarised the aspects relating to Thor in context.

Thor's role in the story starts with the abduction of the Elf King's daughter by the giant Starkard. King Alf was greatly distressed by this loss and asked Thor to go and rescue her. Thor was happy to oblige and slew the giant. Unfortunately Alfhild had fallen in love with Starkard and was none too pleased to be dragged back to her father.

Alfhild gave birth to the giant's child and named him Storvirk. Skorvirk grew to manhood and named his son Starkard after his father. Skorvirk died while Starkard was very young and from the age of three the boy lived with the warrior Grani Horsehair. As the grandson of a giant Starkard excelled at the battle arts and became a favoured champion of King Vikar.

On one of King Vikar's expeditions the fleet met unfavourable winds and the army decided to use divination to find out when they could sail on. They realised that Odin wanted a human sacrifice and lots were drawn from the entire army to choose a victim and King Vikar's name came up. The army were horrified and tried again but King Vikar's name appeared every time. Eventually the army retired for the evening, miserable and undecided.

That night Grani Horsehair led Starkard away from the camp and they took a boat to the next island. In a woodland clearing the council of the gods was assembled and Grani Horsehair took his place among them for he was no other than Odin. Odin said that they had met to decide on Starkard's fate. Thor was still angry that Alfhild held a giant in greater esteem than himself. Starkard was the living proof of Alfhild's union and even bore the name of Thor's former rival. Thor was determined that Starkard's fate should be a poor one and decreed that Starkard would have no children and would be the last of his family. Odin countered the curse by saying that Starkard would live for three life spans and Thor responded by saying that Starkard would commit a foul deed in each one. Odin bestowed many blessing on his foster son but Thor matched each blessing with a curse. Starkard would have the best of weapons but would never own land. He would be wealthy but never satisfied. He would be successful in battle but would always suffer injury. He would be a gifted poet but would never remember his work. He would be loved by kings but hated by the common people.

Odin then gave Starkard a magical spear which had the appearance of a reed. Starkard returned to the army camp and showed the reed spear to King Vikar and suggested a mock sacrifice to appease Odin. King Vikar agreed but was killed by the magical weapon. The subjects of King Vikar were furious and chased Starkard out of Norway and he spent the rest of his life in exile blaming Thor for his misfortune.

It is difficult to say how much of this story is based on pagan belief and how much on the saga teller's imagination. Both Odin and Thor are needlessly cruel and Starkard is placed in an impossible situation. The hero appears at first to be Odin's favourite, but Odin demands the death of King Vikar and it is this act which sets Thor's curse in motion. It seems rather unusual for Thor to be holding a grudge over three generations and the humiliating episode with Alfhild suggests a post conversion comedy (similar to the Lay of Thrym) rather than a pagan myth.

It should be noted that the decree of the gods or Norns is just a guide to the future and it is up to the individual to decide how to live his life. Even Starkard is given a choice. Odin expects him to kill King Vikar but he is not forced to do so, he has to make a choice between his loyalty to his foster father and his loyalty to his King.

The gods have clearly replaced the Norns in this instance. The disagreement between deities over the fate of an individual is very common in North European mythology. Similar scenes also occur in the story of Nornagest in Flateyjarbok, the description of the fates by Saxo Grammaticus and Sleeping Beauty. This pattern of disagreement over fate is ingrained in our folklore because no one is perfect and we have positive and negative attributes in balance.

This episode gives many points of relevance for the cult of Thor. Odin promises the friendship of kings, his major worshippers while Thor calls on his own followers, the common people, farmers and warriors to drive Starkard out of Norway. Thor's injured pride over being rejected by Alfhild makes excellent sense when compared to the tale of Queen Eagle Beak in Egil and Asmund's Saga (1) where giantesses murder one another to sleep with him. Romantic stories of affairs with gods were not uncommon! The unliftable power of the curse suffered by Starkard is suffered by Thor's favourite in this story, but in this case it was imposed by a mortal woman. Please note, those of you who still consider Thor a simpleton, he is quite capable of standing up to Odin and matching him comment for comment with no hesitation.

It is clear that Thor was perceived to have the same influence over fate that Odin has in his control over the battlefield. It is possible that Thor's nine daughters were believed to pass his protection on to his worshippers, and that their names were known and invoked. Thor's only named daughter Thrud appears to have this function as her name appears in the list of Valkyries given by Snorri (2). The Valkyries and Norns are very similar in their influence and the youngest Norn Skuld also shares both roles.

The writer of Gautrek's Saga seems to have been rather damning of the pagan religion and has combined several negative aspects here. Thor's role in the slaying of the giant is very much the 'thump first and think afterwards' character typical of the more Odinic and Christian sources. On the other hand his contribution to Starkard's fate displays a crafty and intelligent side to his personality which would be more expected from Odin and Loki. This aspect of Thor's character is also evident in the Lay of Alvis (3) and the story of Queen Eagle Beak (1).

1). Seven Viking Romances. Trans. by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards. Penguin Classics 1985.

2). Edda. Snorri Sturluson. Trans. by A. Faulkes. Everyman 1987.

3). The Poetic Edda. Trans. by L.M. Hollander. Univ. of Texas Press 1987.

4). Wyrd, Fate and Destiny in North European Paganism. Alby Stone. Privately Pub. 1989.

5). Teutonic Mythology. J. Grimm. Trans. by J. Stallybrass. London 1883.

6). The One That Got Away? Thor and the Midgard Serpent. Thorskegga Thorn. Talking Stick issue 21 1996

Source