They say that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and while that’s usually seen as a reminder that we should all eat more fruit and veg than we often manage, the gods of the Vikings would have taken it far more literally. They were able to stay at the peak of youth and fitness thanks to special apples tended by the goddess Idun which they all ate regularly – except when Idun was kidnapped.
It all started when Odin and Loki went into Midgard to see what was happening in the world of men. They spent a long day travelling through miserable weather and when they stopped for the night they were both tired, cold, wet and hungry. Odin butchered some meat while Loki got a fire started. It was a cold wet evening but Loki is the god of fire so he had no trouble getting it blazing and the two gods were soon sitting warming themselves by the fire with some lovely large steaks hanging from a spit.
It didn’t take long for the gods to start to feel warmer, their damp clothes were steaming as they dried, but for some reason the meat still seemed just as raw as when they had hung it to cook. They moved it closer to the fire onto hot stones yet still it would not cook. It didn’t matter what they tried the meat stayed completely raw. It didn’t make any sense, the fire was more than hot enough to cook on, something strange was happening and it could only be magic.
Looking around they saw an enormous eagle perched on a branch in a nearby tree, it seemed to be watching them and laughing. “That’s no normal eagle,” said Loki. The bird laughed again, “You’re not the only one that can change shape” it said “It’s true that I’m not an eagle and it’s also true that your dinner will not cook unless you agree to give me whatever I want.” Like most of us, the gods weren’t thinking as sharply as usual while tired, cold and hungry so they agreed without asking what it was the bird wanted.
No sooner had they spoken than the meat began to sizzle and spit. It smelled so good. They could hardly wait to sink their teeth into the juicy steaks. Just as the steaks were ready to come off the heat the eagle swooped down and grabbed the juiciest looking chunk and swallowed it down with a single gulp. Straight away it reached for another piece but Loki, grabbed a log and struck at the bird. The eagle grabbed the log as it swung towards him and Loki found he couldn’t let go. The eagle took off into the air and Loki went with him. Loki kicked and shouted but the eagle just laughed, he flew so low Loki was dragged through branches, bashed against rocks, and dipped into water, they flew round in great circles until Loki was covered in bruises and his fine clothes were ripped beyond repair.
At last the eagle let go of the log and Loki fell to the ground bumping off branches as he fell, the eagle swooped in behind him and laughed once more. “That was fun.” It said “have you had enough games or are you ready to give me what I ask? The price of your freedom is Idun’s golden apples.”
That was a bigger price than Loki had expected, Idun’s apples gave the Aesir their eternal youth and beauty. The gods wouldn’t be happy if he gave those away, but they had already agreed to give the eagle what he wanted so he couldn’t refuse now and he really didn’t want to be dragged through any more trees and rocks so he reluctantly agreed. “I am the jotun Thjasse” said the eagle, “Keep your word or I’ll make you pay!” and he flew off leaving Loki to return to Odin and eat what was left of their meal.
The two gods soon returned to Asgard and Loki started making plans to keep his promise. He started by sweet talking Idun, taking time to talk to her each day when she took round her apples, paying her compliments, telling her about his adventures and making her laugh with jokes and stories. He knew he had to get her outside the gates of Asgard to enact his plan so one day he said “Do you pick your apples in the forest? Only I saw a tree growing there that looked to have apples even better than these”
Idun didn’t believe him, her’s were the best apples there could be
Second best” said Loki “If you don’t believe me I’ll show you.”
“Alright,” said Idun.
“And bring your apples” said Loki. “So we can properly compare them.” Idun kept her apples in a beautiful gold casket decorated with rubies and garnets, she fetched it and headed to the gates of Asgard with Loki.
They didn’t even make it as far as the forest before a shadow plunged from the sky as the eagle, Thjasse, swooped down to claim his prize. Loki watched as Idun disappeared up into the sky then headed back to Asgard hoping no-one else had noticed.
At first no one in Asgard did notice. It took a few days before things started to change, Odin woke up one morning with backache and couldn’t stop himself from moaning as he sat in his high seat. Thor’s red beard started to fade as grey hairs appeared. Frigg noticed little lines appearing around her eyes, Heimdall needed an afternoon nap, Freyja had to squint to read the runes she was carving, all of the gods and goddess were starting to age. Gods aren’t supposed to age, part of being a god is being immortal and it would be a dreadful thing if they continued getting older and frailer for the rest of eternity. Soon everyone was searching for Idun and her apples.
When it became clear that Idun couldn’t be found Odin called an assembly. All of the gods knew at once that Loki had to be responsible, if ever there was mischief he was behind it. The gods and goddesses demanded that he explain. Eventually he did admit that he knew who had taken Idun and that he believed she was being held in the castle of Thjasse.
The gods were furious and the shouting grew louder. Thor yanked Loki off his feet and shook him ferociously while spitting angry words into Loki’s face. “Enough!” begged Loki “I was going to bring her back. If you kill me, you will never eat those apples again, and you will wither up like fruit laid out in the sun.”
Thor finally let go and Loki borrowed Freyja’s falcon cloak and took to the air. He flew to Jotunheim and kept on flying until he found Thjasse’s castle. He knew it was the right place as Idun was walking on the ramparts, looking down at the enormous gulf that stretched all around it in despair. Loki landed close to her and bade her grab her casket of apples. As soon as she had it, Loki transformed her into a nut, clutched the nut in his claws and soared high heading for home.
He was able to get a good headstart as Thjasse had been fishing, but as soon as he returned home Thjasse saw that Idun and her apples were gone. He knew what must have happened and changed himself into an eagle and gave chase. Loki was flying as fast as he could, but the eagle is the king of birds so little by little Thjasse gained on him.
As Asgard came into sight the eagle was hot on the falcon’s tail, his talons stretched forward almost close enough to grab. The gods rushed to set great fires along the walls of Asgard anxiously hoping that Loki could make it back in time. Loki pushed himself to the absolute limit and near fainting from exhaustion he scraped over the wall. With what felt like his last breath he set the fires ablaze so the flames leapt into the sky burning all the feathers from off the eagle’s wings so he fell to the ground and died.
Idun and her apples were safely back home. A feast was held which began with a single apple for each of the gods. By the time the feast had ended beauty and youth were restored and the gods were themselves again.