One of the truly classic tales from Norse mythology is Thor’s fishing trip with the giant Hymir. The story is found both in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda with slight variations between the two.
It is an entertaining story of a great adventure where Thor even comes close to killing the Midgard serpent. They are destined to kill each other in the battles of Ragnarok when the world comes to an end.
The story is also a great example of the difficult but conflicting relationship between the Aesir gods and the giants. Thor and Tyr travel to the land of the giants planning to steal a large cauldron from the giant Hymir.
With the different variations of the story, it is unclear if Hymir might actually be Tyr’s real father. Another interesting possibility is that Tyr might be the illegitimate son of his giant mother, Hymir’s wife, and Odin. If that is in fact true it might explain the animosity that is clearly felt between Tyr and Hymir.
Although the giants and the Aesir are sworn enemies and have been so for millennia they are also quite civil. There are several stories where they are visiting each other or even marrying across the races. On the other hand, bloody murder never seems to be far away when the giants and the Aesir meet.
This is all too true in this story too.
Once upon a time, the Aesir went to have dinner with Aegir, the giant ruler of the ocean. Down under the green waves, they went to the great hall where Aegir lived with his wife, the sea goddess Ran, and his nine daughters, the Waves.
But Aegir was not expecting such a large party for dinner, and he did not have enough mead for all of them to drink. “I must brew some more mead,” he said to himself. But when he came to look for a kettle in which to make the brew, there was none in all the sea large enough for the purpose.
At first, Aegir did not know what to do; but in the end, he decided to ask the gods themselves. He knew his guests were wise and powerful, and he hoped that they might help him to a kettle.
When he told the Aesir about his trouble they were quickly interested. They were usually both hungry and thirsty, and Aegir was known to brew the best mead anywhere. “Where can we find a kettle?” they said to one another. “Who has a kettle huge enough to hold mead for all the Aesir?”
Then Tŷr turned to Thor with a grand idea. “My father, the giant Hymir, has such a kettle,” he said. “I saw it often in his great palace near Elivâgar, the river of ice. This famous kettle is a mile deep, and surely that is large enough to brew all the mead we may need.”
“Surely, surely it is large enough,” laughed Aegir. “But how are we going to get the kettle, my distinguished guests? Who will go to the land of the giants to fetch the kettle that is a mile deep?”
“I will get it,” said Thor. “I will go to Hymir’s dwelling and bring the little kettle if Tŷr will go with me to show me the way.” So Thor and Tŷr set out together for the land of snow and ice, where the giant Hymir lived. They traveled long and they traveled fast, and finally, they came to the huge house which had once been Tŷr’s home, before he went to live with the Aesir in Asgard.
Tŷr knew his way around the great palace, and it was not long before they found themselves in the hall of Hymir’s. Looking around for some sign of the kettle they had come so far to find, they discovered a row of eight huge kettles hanging from one of the beams in the roof.
Trying to decide which was the largest of the kettles they were suddenly surprised by Tŷr’s old grandmother. And what a sight she was. She had nine hundred heads, one uglier than the other and her temper was as bad as her looks.
She began to roar and bellow, and no one knows what this evil old giant would have done to her grandson and his friend if she had not been interrupted. Because at that very moment another woman, fair and sweet, and glittering with golden ornaments came into the hall. This was Tŷr’s good mother, who loved him dearly, and who had mourned his absence for years.
With a cry of joy, she threw her arms around her son’s neck, welcoming him again and again. She welcomed Thor also when Tŷr told her who he was. She sent away the wicked old grandmother though so she would not hear the name of their guest. Thor’s name was not held dear to the race of giants since he had brought a swift end to the lives of many of them.
“Why have you come, dear son, after so many years?” she cried. “I know it must be something important that brings you and your friend to your father’s hall. Danger and maybe even death waits here for the likes of you”
Then they told her why they had come looking for the giant kettle, and Tŷr’s mother promised that she would help them. But she warned them that it would be dangerous indeed, for Hymir had been in a terrible temper for many days, and that the very sight of a stranger made him wild with rage. Hastily she gave them meat and drink, for they were nearly famished after their long journey. Then she looked around to see where she should hide them for Hymir’s return, who was away hunting.
“Aha!” she cried. ” You can hide in the great kettle itself; and if you escape Hymir’s terrible eye, it may happen you find a way to make off with your hiding-place, which is what you want.” So she helped them to climb into the great kettle where it hung from one of the rafters in a row with seven others. They were all big but this one was the biggest and the strongest of them all.
Just as had they snuggled down out of sight Tŷr’s mother began to tremble. Then she shouted to them “I hear him coming. Keep as still as you can Tŷr and Thor!” The floor began to tremble, and the eight kettles started clattering against one another, as Hymir’s giant footsteps approached the house. Outside they could hear the icebergs shaking with a sound like thunder; indeed, the whole earth quivered as if with fear when the terrible giant Hymir strode home from the hunt. He came into the hall puffing and blowing, and immediately the air of the room grew chilly; for his beard was hung with icicles and his face was frosted hard, while his breath was a freezing blast like a winter wind.
“Hello wife,” he growled, “what is new? I see by the footprints in the snow outside that you have had visitors today.”
Then Tŷr’s poor mother started to tremble; as she answered, “Yes, we have a guest Hymir! Your son Tŷr has returned to visit his father’s hall.”
“Humph!” growled Hymir, with a terrible frown. “And whom has he brought with him, the rascal? There are prints of two persons’ feet in the snow. Come tell me now for I will soon find out the truth.”
“He has brought a good friend of his dear Hymir!” faltered the mother. “Surely, our son’s friends are welcome when he brings them to our home, after so long an absence.”
But Hymir howled with rage at the word “friend.” “Where are they hidden?” he cried. “Friend, indeed! It is one of those bloody Aesir from Asgard. One of those giant killers whom my good mother taught me to hate with all my might. Tell me instantly where he is hidden, or I will pull down the hall about your ears!”
Now when the wicked old giant spoke like this, his wife knew she would have to tell him. Still, she tried to put off the fateful moment of the discovery. “They are standing over there behind that pillar,” she said. Instantly Hymir glared at the pillar towards which she pointed. Then just from the force of his icey glance, the pillar cracked in two, and the great roof beam which held the eight kettles came crashing down. There they lay broken into little pieces at Hymir’s feet, all except one, the largest of them all. That was the kettle in which Thor and Tŷr lay hidden, scarcely daring to breathe lest the giant should guess where they were. Tŷr’s mother screamed when she saw the big kettle fall with the others. But when she saw that it lay on its side unbroken, because it was so tough and strong, she held her breath to see what would happen next.
Next Thor and Tŷr came out of the kettle and each made a bow to Hymir. There they stood side by side, smiling and looking as unconcerned as if they really enjoyed the commotion. And being Tŷr the brave and Thor the god of thunder, who is to say they didn’t find it amusing.
Hymir scarcely glanced at his son, but he eyed Thor with a frown of hatred and suspicion. He knew that this was one of Odin’s brave family, though he could not tell which one. However, he thought it best to be civil, now that Thor was actually before him. So with gruff politeness, he invited the two guests to supper.
Now Thor was almost as happy sitting by the table as he was in battle, and at the sight of all the great food on the table, his eyes sparkled. Three whole roasted oxen were laid out upon the giant’s table, and Thor dug in with great enthusiasm and finished two of them himself! You should have seen the giant stare.
“Truly, friend, you have an appetite not matched by anyone I have met,” he said. “You have finished all the meat that I have in my stores. If you are going to dine with us tomorrow, I must insist that you catch your own dinner of fish. I cannot be responsible for providing food for such an appetite!”
This was maybe not very hospitable of Hymir, but Thor did not mind. “I like to fish, good Hymir,” he laughed; “I will go with you when you go out in your boat in the morning and see what I can find for my dinner at the bottom of the sea.”
When the morning came, the giant prepared for the fishing, and Thor rose early to go with him. “Hey, Hymir,” said Thor, “have you brought enough bait for us both?”
Hymir answered gruffly, “You must dig your own bait when you go fishing with me. I have no time to waste.” Thor looked around to see what he could use for bait, and his eyes fell on a herd of Hymir’s oxen feeding in the meadow. “Aha! just the thing!” he cried and seized the biggest of all the oxen. He trotted down to the shore with it under his arm, as easily as you would carry a handful of clams for bait.
When Hymir saw this, he was very angry. He pushed the boat off from shore and began to row away as fast as he could so that Thor might not have a chance to come aboard. But Thor made one long step and planted himself snugly in the stern of the boat.
“No, no Hymir,” he said, laughing. “You invited me to go fishing, and we will fish. I have my bait, and I am feeling lucky this fine morning.” So he took an oar and started rowing mightily, while Hymir the giant rowed as hard as he could to keep up with Thor’s pace. No one ever saw a boat skip over the water so fast as this one did on that day when they went fishing together.
Far and fast they rowed until they came to a spot where Hymir cried, “Hold! Let us anchor here and fish; this is the place where I have the best fortune.”
“And what sort of little fish do you catch here, O Hymir?” asked Thor.
“Whales!” answered the giant proudly. “I fish for nothing smaller than whales.”
“Pooh!” cried Thor. “Who would fish for such small fry! Whales, indeed; let us row out further, where we can find something really worth catching,” and he began to pull even faster than before.
“Stop! Stop!” roared the giant. “You do not know what you are doing. These are the haunts of the dreadful Midgard serpent, and it is not safe to fish in these waters.”
“Oho! The Midgard serpent!” said Thor, delighted. “That is the very fish I am after. Let us drop in our lines here.”
Thor baited his great hook with the whole head of the ox which he had brought and cast his line, which was as thick as a man’s arm, over the side of the boat. Hymir also cast his line, for he did not want Thor to think him a coward. Hymir could not keep his hand from trembling as he waited for a bite. Glancing down into the blue depths Hymir’s eyes were as big as dinner plates through fear of the horrible creature who lived down below those waves.
“Look! You have a bite!” cried Thor, so suddenly that Hymir started and nearly tumbled out of the boat. Hand over hand he pulled in his line, and lo and behold he had caught two whales. Two great flopping whales on his one hook! That was a catch indeed.
Hymir smiled proudly, forgetting his fear as he said, “How is that, my friend? Let us see you beat this catch in your morning’s fishing.”
Just at that moment Thor also had a bite and what a bite! The boat rocked back and forth and seemed ready to capsize any minute. Then the waves began to roll high and be lashed into foam all around the boat as if some huge creature were struggling hard below the water.
“I have him!” shouted Thor; “I have the old serpent, the brother of the Fenris wolf! Pull, pull, monster! But you shall not escape me now!”
Sure enough, the Midgard serpent had Thor’s hook fixed in his jaw and struggled as he might, there was no freeing himself from the line. In fact the harder he pulled the stronger Thor grew. In his Aesir, might Thor grew so huge and powerful that his legs went straight through the bottom of the boat and his feet stood on the bottom of the sea.
With a firm bottom as a brace for his strength, Thor pulled and pulled, and at last, up came the head of the Midgard serpent. With the great head by the side of the boat, his monstrous red eyes were rolling fiercely, his nostrils spouted fire, and from his terrible sharp teeth dripped poison that sizzled as it fell into the sea. Angrily they glared at each other, Thor and the serpent, while the water streamed into the boat, and the giant turned pale with fear at the danger threatening him on all sides.
Thor seized his hammer, preparing to cave in the creature’s head. But as he swung Mjölnir high for the fatal blow, Hymir cut the fish line with his knife, and down into the depths of the ocean sank the Midgard serpent amid a whirlpool of eddies. But the hammer had already left Thor’s iron fingers. It crashed into the serpent’s head as he sank down to his lair on the sandy bottom. It was a mighty blow but did not kill him, thanks to the giant’s treachery.
Having been wounded so the Midgard serpent writhed around terribly making giant shock waves under the sea. It burst the rocks and made the caverns of the ocean shiver into bits and tore loose the draperies of sea-weed. The fishes scurried about in every direction, and the sea monsters sought new places to hide when they found their homes destroyed.
The sea itself was stirred to its lowest depths, and the waves ran trembling into one another’s arms. The earth, too, shook and shivered. Hymir, cowering low in the boat, was glad of one thing, which was that the terrible Midgard serpent had vanished out of sight. And that was the last that was ever seen of him, though he still lived, wounded and sore from the shock of Thor’s hammer.
Now it was time to return home. Silently and sulkily the giant swam back to land while Thor carried the boat on his shoulders. Filled with water and the great whales which Hymir had caught, he waded ashore and brought the boat with whales and all to the giant’s hall. Here Hymir met him in a foul mood, for he was ashamed as Thor had appeared so much braver than he. Indeed, he was tired of even pretending hospitality towards this unwelcome guest, and was resolved to be rid of him; but first, he would put Thor to shame.
“You are a strong fellow,” he said, “good at the oar and fishing. You are also very good with a hammer and I know now that you are Thor. But there is one thing which you cannot do. You cannot break this little cup of mine, no matter how hard you may try.”
“That I shall see for myself,” answered Thor; and he took the cup in his hand. Now, this was a magic cup, and there was only one way of breaking it, only one thing hard enough to shatter its mightiness. Thor threw it with all his force against a stone of the flooring; but instead of breaking the cup, the stone itself was cracked into splinters. Then Thor grew angry, for the giant and all his servants were laughing as if this was the funniest thing they had ever seen.
“Ho, ho! Try again, Thor!” cried Hymir, nearly bursting with delight. Thinking that now he should prove how much mightier he was than the visitor from Asgard. Thor clutched the cup more firmly and hurled it against one of the iron pillars of the hall. Instead of breaking, the magic cup merely bounded back straight into Hymir’s hand. At this second failure, the giants were laughing hard and dancing around. This really enraged Thor as you might expect! His brow grew black, and the glance of his eye was terrible. He knew there was some magic at work, but he knew not how to break it. Just then he felt the soft touch of a woman’s hand upon his arm, and the voice of Tŷr’s mother whispered in his ear.
“Cast the cup against Hymir’s own forehead, which is the hardest substance in the world.” No one except Thor heard the woman say these words, for all the giant folks were doubled up with laughter over their great prank. But Thor dropped upon one knee, and seizing the cup fiercely, whirled it about his head, then dashed it with all his might straight at Hymir’s forehead. Thor looked eagerly to see what had happened. There stood the giant, looking surprised and a little dazed; but his forehead showed not even a scratch, while the strong cup shivered into little pieces.
“Well done!” exclaimed Hymir hastily, when he had recovered a little from his surprise. But he was mortified at Thor’s success and set about to think up a new task to try his strength. “That was very well,” he remarked patronizingly; “now you must perform a harder task. Let us see you carry the mead kettle out of the hall. Do that, my fine fellow, and I shall say you are strong indeed.”
The mead kettle! The very thing Thor had come to get! He glanced at Tŷr; he shot a look at Tŷr’s mother; and both of them caught the sparkle, which was very like a wink. To himself, Thor muttered, “I must not fail in this! I must not, will not fail!”
“First let me try,” cried Tŷr; for he wanted to give Thor time to rest up. Twice Tŷr the mighty strained at the great kettle, but he could not so much as stir one leg of it from the floor where it rested. He tugged and heaved in vain, growing red in the face, till his mother begged him to give up as it was quite useless.
Then Thor stepped forward on the floor. He grasped the rim of the kettle and stamped his feet through the stone of the flooring as he braced himself to lift. One, two, three! Thor straightened himself, and up swung the giant kettle to his head, while the iron handle clattered about his feet. It was a mighty burden, and Thor staggered as he started for the door with Tŷr close beside him. Having left the giants quite astonished they had covered a great distance before the giants had recovered sufficiently to follow them. When Thor and Tŷr looked back, however, they saw a vast crowd of horrible giants, some of them with a hundred heads, swarming out of the caverns in Hymir’s land, howling in pursuit.
“You must stop them, Thor, or they will never let us get away with their precious kettle. They are closing fast!” cried Tŷr. So Thor set down the kettle, and from his pocket drew out Mjölnir, his wondrous hammer. Terribly it flashed in the air as he swung it over his head. He threw it with all his might towards Jotunheim, and before it returned to Thor’s hand it had crushed all the heads of those many-headed giants. Hymir’s ugly mother and Hymir himself were among the slain giants.
The only one who escaped was the good and beautiful mother of Tŷr. And you may be sure she lived happily ever after in the palace which Hymir and his wicked old mother had made such a horrible home for her.
Now Tŷr and Thor had the giant kettle which they had gone so far and had met so many dangers to obtain. They took it straight to Aegir’s hall, where the banquet was still going on as time does not go so fast below the quiet waves as on shore. Now that Aegir had the great kettle, he could brew all the mead they needed. So everyone thanked Tŷr and congratulated Thor upon the success of their adventure.
“I was sure that Thor would bring the kettle,” said fair Sif, smiling upon her brave husband.
“What Thor sets out to do, that he always accomplishes,” said Odin The Allfather gravely. And that was praise enough for anyone.