Basic Science

The myth of Thors journey to the land of giants

Thor—son of Odin, god of thunder, and protector of mankind— struggled mightily against his greatest challenge yet: opening a bag of food. It’d all started when Thor, along with his fleet-footed human servant Thjalfi and Loki, the trickster god, set out on a journey to Jotunheim, land of the giants.

Along the way, they’d met a giant named Skrymir, who offered to accompany them and even carry their provisions in his bag. But when they made camp, Skrymir dozed off and Thor couldn’t untie the sack. Frustrated and hungry, Thor tried to wake the giant three times by striking his head with his hammer Mjolnir as hard as he could. But each time, Skrymir thought it was only a falling acorn and went back to sleep.

The next morning, Skrymir departed and eventually, the travelers reached a massive fortress called Utgard. Inside the long hall, they met the king of giants, Utgard-Loki, who greeted his guests with a challenge: each of them was to prove they were the best at some particular skill.

Loki went first, declaring himself the world’s fastest eater. To test him, the king summoned his servant Logi and the two were placed at either end of a long trough stuffed with food. Loki ate his way inward with blinding speed. But when the contestants met in the center, Loki saw that his adversary had not only eaten just as much food, but also the bones and even the trough itself.

Next was Thjalfi, who could outrun anything in the wild. The king summoned an ethereal-looking giant named Hugi, who outraced Thjalfi easily. But the boy would not give up and demanded a rematch. This time, Thjalfi finished close behind and the king admitted he’d never seen a human run so fast. Thjalfi tried a third time, running like his life depended on it, but Hugi was even faster than before.

Finally, it was Thor’s turn. The king offered him a drinking horn, saying all his men could drain it in two gulps. Thor raised it to his lips and drank the surprisingly cold and salty mead in the longest gulp he could muster. Then a second. Then a third. But the level of the mead in the horn was only slightly lowered.

To test Thor’s renowned strength, the king offered a seemingly easy challenge: lift his pet cat off the ground. But this cat was as tall as Thor. Every time he tried to lift it, it arched its back, and straining with all his godly might, he only managed to lift one paw. Enraged, Thor demanded to wrestle any of the giants.

The king summoned the giants’ old nursemaid, Elli. Though the woman looked frail, Thor couldn’t overpower her and grew weaker the longer he struggled, until he was brought to one knee. The three companions prepared to leave, disappointed and humbled. But as the king escorted them out, he revealed that nothing in the castle had been what it seemed. Loki lost the eating contest because his opponent Logi was wildfire itself, devouring everything in its path.

Thjalfi couldn’t outrun Hugi because Hugi was the embodiment of thought, always faster than action. And even Thor couldn’t defeat Elli, or old age, which weakens everyone eventually. As for the other challenges, they had also been illusions. The drinking horn was filled with the ocean, and Thor had drained enough to cause the tides. The cat was the serpent that encircles the world, and Thor’s efforts shifted the earth.

And Skrymir had been Utgard-Loki in disguise, deflecting Thor’s hammer-blows to form valleys in the surrounding mountains. The giant congratulated them on their prowess, which so frightened him he would never allow them in his land again. Thor and his companions failed the challenges presented to them. But in trying to achieve the impossible, they’d pushed themselves harder than ever before and changed the world in ways no one had expected.

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