The wait is nearly over! The Gospel of Loki is in bookshop tomorrow! But until then, we have today’s daily dose of Loki wisdom as well as an exclusive look at the second chapter.
LE S S O N 2
Aesir and Vanir
Never trust a wise man.
THE WORLDS ARE ALWAYS CHANGING. It’s their nature to ebb and ﬂow. That’s why, in the old days, the Middle Worlds were smaller than they are today – later, they expanded in the years of the Winter War, then receded again like pack-ice, only to expand again when Order came to claim them. That was always the way of things; that shift between Order and Chaos. And between the two, there was Yggdrasil, the pole that keeps the Worlds apart; known to some as the World Ash, and to some as Odin’s Steed. Trust the Old Man to get his name in there somewhere, as always, although that tree (if it was a tree) was planted long before Ymir was even a glint in Audhumla’s eye.
Some claim it wasn’t a tree at all, but some kind of cosmic metaphor. Its roots, they said, were in Netherworld, plunged in the Cauldron of Rivers, where the waters boil with ephemera born from the primary source of Dream. Its topmost branch was the branch of stars that crosses the sky on clear nights. There was no World through which it did not grow; it had a hold even in Chaos, where serpents and demons worked tirelessly to undermine its living roots. Ratatosk, the squirrel, carried news all over the Worlds by way of the great Tree’s branches – as did Odin One-Eye, of course; the ultimate collector of news, hoarding and distributing.
Some might suspect that the Old Man and Ratatosk might actually have been one and the same; certainly his business was all about gathering and disseminating information. It’s how his legend was born, as you know, and how it survived for so long. It’s also why he was the ﬁrst to see the turn of the seasons; the waning of our inﬂuence and the beginning of our end.
Because it all has to end, of course. Everything dies – even Worlds; even gods; even Your Humble Narrator. From the moment the Worlds came to life, Ragnarók, the End of All Things, was written into every living cell in runes more com- plex than any we know. Life and Death in one package – with Order and Chaos acting not as two forces in opposition but as a single cosmic force too vast for us to comprehend.
I’m telling you this so you’ll understand how this story’s going to end; that is, not well for any of us. It all begins so hope- fully, but these Worlds we build for ourselves are all just castles in the sand, waiting for the evening tide. Ours was no diﬀerent. Odin knew that. And still, he kept on building. Some folk never learn.
So . . .
Having hacked out the Worlds from Ymir’s remains (liter- ally or otherwise), Odin and the sons of Bór set out to allocate its territories. The Ice Folk claimed the Outlands, in the frozen North of the Worlds. The Rock Folk claimed the mountains that ran like a spine through Inland. Mankind – what we now call the Folk – made the valleys and plains their home, in the heart of the Middle Worlds. The Tunnel Folk (‘Maggots’, we called them) lived in the darkness of World Below, mining for precious metals. Darker creatures – werewolves, hags and nameless things released through the river Dream – found their way into Ironwood, the sprawling forest that cut across much of the south of Inland, before it tailed oﬀ into marshland, salt ﬂats, and ﬁnally, the One Sea.
The sky, too, had its territories. Sun and Moon – which, Odin said, were fragments of ﬁre released from the forges of Chaos – rode in the sky in their chariots, each trying to outrun the other. The night sky was ablaze with stars; silent, ordered and serene. And as for the gods – because by then Odin had awarded himself divine status – there was Asgard, a citadel with its head in the clouds, overlooking the Southlands; linked to the Middle Worlds by Bif-rost – a long and narrow bridge of stone that gleamed in the sky like a rainbow.
Of course, they weren’t quite gods. Not yet. Another tribe, the Vanir, had pretensions to godhood. The Vanir were bastard Firefolk, born from the dregs of Chaos and the promiscuity of Mankind, but they had powers that Odin’s people – the Aesir – could neither grasp nor duplicate. What’s more, the Vanir had runes with which to write down their own version of history; runes that, cunningly used, could ensure that their tribe lived forever in memory.
From the beginning Odin, whose ambitions lay that way himself, coveted these mysterious runes – letters from a secret script – and the powers that came with them. But the Vanir, predictably, weren’t interested in sharing.
There followed a series of skirmishes. The Aesir, though weaker in numbers, were by far the better tacticians but the Vanir had glamours and runes on their side, and managed to resist them. The Old Man tried to negotiate, promising gold in exchange for the runes, and for a while it almost seemed as if they would come to a peaceful arrangement.
The Vanir sent an envoy to Asgard to begin discussing terms. She was Gullveig-Heid, the Sorceress, and she was ready to take on the gods for every piece of gold they had. She was a mistress of the Fire; a witch, like all the Vanir; a shapeshifter; a worker in runes; an oracle; a wielder of glam. She frightened them a little, I think, except perhaps for Odin, who watched her show oﬀ her powers with increasing amazement and jealousy.
She came to them as a beautiful woman, clothed from head to foot in gold. Gold was in her unbound hair, and gold were the rings on her ﬁngers and toes. She was the very glow and in- carnation of Desire – and when she walked into the room, even Odin wanted her. She showed him the runes of the Elder Script tattooed on the palms of her hands and how she could use them to write his name on a sliver of stone, and then she showed him what else they could do, and promised to teach him – for a price.
Well, with Gullveig, nothing came free. Greed was in her nature. The price of peace with the Vanir was gold; every scrap the Aesir possessed. Otherwise, said the Sorceress, the Vanir would use their glam – their runes – to raze Asgard to the ground. And then Gullveig changed her Aspect from that of a beautiful woman to that of a grinning, gap-toothed crone, and laughed in their faces, and said to them:
‘So which one will it be, boys? The golden girl or the viper- snake? I’m warning you, they both have teeth, and not where you’re expecting them.’
The Aesir – never subtle – were outraged by this arro- gance. That the Vanir should have chosen a woman to deliver their challenge was already insult enough, but her insolence and pride (both qualities I respect and admire) were enough to make Odin and his men lose control of what wits they had. They grabbed hold of Gullveig and threw her into the massive ﬁreplace that burned in Odin’s banquet hall, forgetting that she was a child of the Fire, and couldn’t come to any harm.
Shifting to Fire Aspect, she laughed and mocked them from the ﬂames and spat and promised retribution. Three times they tried to burn her up before the idiots realized the truth, by which time it was pretty clear that their chance at peace was over.
And yet the transition from dog to god is only a revolution away, and Odin was just getting started. The more he heard about the runes, the more he wanted them for himself, and the more frustrated he became. Because, as Gullveig had shown them, the runes were so much more than just a means of writ- ing history. They were fragments from Chaos itself, charged with its ﬁre and energy. The very language of Chaos was in those sixteen symbols; and with it, an awesome power.
Power to change the Worlds; to shape; to build; to rule; to conquer. With runes and the right kind of leadership, the Vanir should have made short work of Odin and his little band of revolutionaries. But they were Chaotic by nature, and had no proper leadership, while the Aesir had Odin as General, whose ruthlessness was almost as great as his cunning.
For decades the two sides were at war without either one gaining the upper hand; between them they scorched the Middle Worlds and reduced Asgard’s walls to rubble. Gullveig saw the futility of waging war with the Aesir and left, with a handful of renegades, to establish herself in the mountains. She had no intention of ever sharing the runes with Odin and his people and so she went to the Ice Folk, who lived in the far North of Inland, and threw in her lot with them instead.
The Ice Folk were a savage race, directly descended from Ymir. They hated all the Aesir, who had driven them into the Northlands and stolen their birthright – the new World, built from Ymir’s legacy. They hated the Vanir almost as much, but they respected Chaos, the ﬁre of which ran through their veins, and when they heard Gullveig’s proposal, they accepted it eagerly. Unlike the Aesir they were a matriarchal people and they had no problem accepting a woman’s authority. Gullveig gave them a share in her glam and in exchange they taught her everything they knew about hunting, ﬁshing, weapons, boats and survival in the cheerless North.
Under Gullveig’s inﬂuence, the Ice Folk grew in power and strength. They were many in number, while the Aesir and Vanir were few. They created strongholds in the mountains, with fortresses built into the rock. They carved valleys through the glacier ice and made roads through the mountains.
Some of them moved from the Northlands into the forest of Ironwood, only a stone’s throw from Ida, the plain above which Asgard stood. They used Gullveig’s runes to shift Aspect, taking the forms of animals – snow wolves, hunting birds – to hunt and spy on their enemies. They preyed on Aesir and Vanir alike, growing in malice every day, until at last the General realized that unless they worked together, both Aesir and Vanir would fall to this new, unexpected threat.
But, after years of conﬂict, neither side trusted the other. How could they hope to keep the peace without assurances of faith? Odin’s solution seemed simple.
‘We’ll make an exchange,’ he told them. ‘Your people, your expertise for ours. We can learn a great deal from each other if only we cooperate. And if either side betrays the other, they’ll have a handful of hostages to deal with as they see ﬁt.’
It seemed like a reasonable idea. The Vanir agreed to the ex- change. They would give Odin the runes while he would share with them the art of war and provide them with leaders who would teach them the value of order and discipline.
And so after long discussion, the Vanir accepted to hand over Njörd, the Man of the Sea, with his children, Frey and Freyja. In exchange they got Mimir the Wise, Odin’s uncle, good friend and conﬁdant, and a handsome young man called Honir (nicknamed ‘The Silent’ in the hope that one day he might take the hint), whom Odin had chosen, not for his skills, but pre- cisely because he was the least likely of the Aesir to be missed when the inevitable happened.
For a while, the arrangement worked. The three guests taught the General the runes – the sixteen letters of the Elder Script. First, they taught him to read and write, ensuring his place in history. Then came the occult side of the runes – their names, their verses, their ﬁngerings. Each of the Vanir had one special rune that governed his or her Aspect; this gave the Vanir their power, and allowed them to direct the runes, each in his own, individual way. And so Odin passed on his new-found skills to the rest of the Aesir, allocating to each of them a rune according to their nature. Thus Odin’s son Thor got Thúris, the Thorny One, rune of strength and protection; Thor’s wife Sif got Ár, rune of plenty and fruitfulness; Týr, Odin’s war chief, was given Týr, the Warrior; Balder the Fair, Odin’s youngest son, had Fé, the golden rune of success; and Odin himself kept two runes: Kaen, Wildﬁre – more of that later – and Raedo, the Journeyman, a humble rune at ﬁrst glance, but which gave him access to places where the others never ventured, even to the Lands of the Dead and the borders of Pandaemonium.
Meanwhile, back in the Vanir camp, Mimir and Honir stalled for time, spying, ﬁnding out secrets, whilst giving out false information about Odin, the Aesir and their tactics. Mimir was clever enough in his way, but not enough to win the game. And Honir looked the part all right, but every time he opened his mouth (which he did rather a lot) he conﬁrmed what the Vanir suspected; that there was a lot less to him than met the eye.
Of course, the idiots bungled it. They should have seen it coming. In those days Odin was far from being the subtle schemer he was to become. But he was ruthless even then; will- ing to sacriﬁce his friends to get whatever he wanted. He must have known that by sending them into the enemy camp to spy, he’d practically signed their death warrants. Remember that when you ﬁnd yourself starting to think the Old Man’s on the side of the angels. Remember how he got where he is. And never turn your back on him unless you’re wearing a metal shirt.
In the end, the Vanir lost patience. They started to suspect their new friends. And Honir, never the most discreet, kept let- ting information slip. Finally, they understood that Odin had had the best of the deal; he’d learnt the secret of the runes with- out giving anything in return, and left them with a spy and a stooge and a lot of unanswered questions.
Of course, by then it was too late to review terms. And so the Vanir, in revenge, grabbed Mimir and cut oﬀ his head, and sent Honir back with it to Asgard. But the Old Man took the Head and, using his newly acquired skills, preserved it with runes, and made it speak, so that Mimir’s well of knowledge was passed onto the General, and Odin the Ruthless became Odin the Wise, unchallenged and beloved by all – except per- haps by Mimir’s Head, which he kept in a cold spring that led straight down to the River Dream.
But in the end Odin paid for sacriﬁcing Mimir. The ﬁrst down-payment was his eye, as part of the spell that kept Mimir alive. The rest, well. More of that later. Suﬃce it to say at this point: never trust an oracle. And never trust a wise man to do the work of a felon.
If I’d been in Asgard then, I’d have stolen the runes and kept my head and saved us all a lot of unpleasantness. Wisdom isn’t everything. Survival requires an element of trickery; Chaos; subterfuge. All qualities I possess (if I may say so) in abun- dance. I would have been in my element spying for the Aesir. I would have taught them a trick or two that even the Vanir didn’t possess. Mimir the Wise wasn’t wise enough. Honir ‘The Silent’ should have kept shtum. And Odin should have known from the ﬁrst that perfect Order does not bend; it simply stands until it breaks, which is why it rarely survives for any meaning- ful length of time. The General didn’t know it then, but what he needed was a friend; a friend whose morals were ﬂexible enough to handle the moral low ground while Odin lorded it on high, keeping Order, untouchable . . .
Basically, he needed me.