Remember that old saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”? Well, the Norse people must have known about the benefits of apples, because they even created a story that apples were the fruit of immortality. It’s true! The Norse gods and goddesses ate magical apples to keep themselves from aging.
The person in charge of the fruit of immortality was the goddess, Idun. She kept these magical apples in a box made out of ash wood, and she carried the box with her. The ash tree was a special one in Norse mythology–the first human man, Askr (which means ash tree) was created out of the ash. The first woman, Embla, was created from the elm tree.
Idun was married to Bragi, the god of poetry. Bragi was very wise and had the gift of poetry and storytelling. Our English words “brag” and “braggart” may come from the Norse “bragr”, which refers to a person skilled with words. In the Norse world, though, being a bragr would have been a good thing and a tremendous compliment. In fact, in the Prose Edda, a bragr is considered “foremost of men and women.”* The Norse did not have a written language, so storytelling was a highly valued skill.
Loki Bargains with an Eagle
In one story, the Skaldskaparmal, the apples of immortality are stolen from Idun. The god behind this treachery? Loki, of course. The story begins with Odin, Loki, and Hoenir (HIGH-neer) traveling over the world and becoming hungry. They spied a herd of oxen, captured one, and tried to cook it in a pit fire. Nothing happened. The meat stayed raw. They tried again. Again, nothing. The gods grew frustrated.
A giant eagle spoke to them from a nearby tree. He said he could cook the meat for them. The hungry gods agreed.
When the eagle swooped down to help them, he helped himself to huge portions of the ox. Loki was not pleased. He picked up a stick and hit the eagle with it. Unfortunately for the god, the eagle took off flying while Loki still hung onto the stick. Flying low, the eagle dragged the hapless god over the rough terrain until Loki begged for mercy.
In exchange for his life, the eagle demanded that Loki swear an oath that he would lure Idun and her apples of immortality out of Asgard. Rather than be killed, Loki agreed.
This eagle was really a jotun named Thjazi. For one of the jotun, the Aesir god’s biggest enemy, to gain access to Idun’s apples would be catastrophic for all the Aesir.
Idun Tricked by Loki
Loki managed to lure Idun out of Asgard by telling her he’d found some amazing apples and wanted to show them to her. Oh, and he told her to bring her apples so they could compare them. Poor Idun, she trusted him!
Once outside the walls of Asgard, the jotun Thjazi appeared in his eagle form, snatched Idun and her box of apples, and carried her off to jotunheim.
The Aesir Gods Grow Old
Once deprived of their apples, the Aesir gods and goddesses grew old. If this kept up for too long, they would die or wither away or whatever it is that happens to gods when they die.
They threatened Loki with all kinds of bodily harm if he didn’t fix the problem. He was the one who caused it, after all. They’d realized that Idun had been last seen with Loki, and it followed that he was to blame…which he was, of course.
Loki Recovers the Apples
First, Loki needed to borrow Freya’s falcon cape so he could fly into Jotunheim. Luckily for him, he found Idun unguarded. He transformed her into a nut so he could carry her in his talons. In that way, he flew out of Jotunheim with Idun as a nut and with the apples.
Thjazi discovered Idun’s disappearance, and he transformed into his eagle form so he could chase after Loki in his falcon form. Lots of transformations in this story!
The other Aesir saw what was happening, so they built a fire at the base of the walls of Asgard. Once Loki was over the wall with Idun, the gods lit the fire. Thjazi could not avoid the flames and his feathers caught fire. He fell from the sky and the Aesir killed him.
With Idun back with her apples, the gods and goddesses stopped aging. All was well again.
We don’t ever learn what happened to Idun after that. I like to think that she became more savvy and never trusted Loki again.
*Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. 2005. Translated by Jesse Byock. Penguin Classics.