The most frequently forgotten rule of the Norse religion is there are
no rules. Our ancestors’ faith varied from village to village, and a
lord and a cowherd working on the same farm might have utterly incompatible
beliefs. The myths we know today would have been known in many forms, with
subtle changes of emphasis to cater for the different cults.
When Snorri recorded the Norse lore it must have been a terrible mess, two
centuries after the conversion, merged with Christian beliefs and half forgotten
by a community mostly satisfied with the new God and his multitude of saints.
Invaluable as Snorri’s Edda is, it is the product of a very tidy mind and the
myths it contains have been desperately organised. To produce the gentle run of
interlocking stories building up to the climax of Ragnarok, Snorri had to
choose one religious cult to dominate the others. He choose a faith steeped in
poetic tradition but almost alien to the shores of his native Iceland, the cult
The effects of Snorri’s housekeeping are unfortunate, we are now accustomed
to seeing the Norse religion from one consistent angle: a fixed hierarchy with Óðinn
the undisputed all-father enthroned at the top. It is now very difficult to
envisage our gods in any other scenario. Of all the Norse gods Freyr has
probably suffered the worst. In the Edda he is a hostage taken from the Vanir
race, a minor god of little influence, powerless after the loss of his magic
This image of Freyr is far removed from his status in the Vanir cult, where
he would have been the supreme lord of all creation with Freyja at his side.
Snorri writing in Iceland (where the cult of Freyr was well established) must
have omitted many myths of the Vanir to allow Óðinn’s myths to
dominate his work. One obvious example is the reference to Freyr’s battle with
the giant Beli, which Snorri clearly knew but declined to relate in his
The tale of Gestumblindi is of great importance as it shows a world
very different from the ordered mythology of Snorri’s Edda. The story is
told of the court of king Heithrek who is dedicated to Freyr and clearly
sees his patron as supreme above all the other gods …..
There was once a very wise king called Heithrek. Heithrek worshipped Freyr
and every Yule he would choose the finest boar from his herds to be an offering
to his god. On Yule eve the boar was brought into the hall and it was the
custom for members of his court to swear oaths on its bristles. Heithrek
himself had sworn that if any captive could ask a riddle the king could not
answer, the man would be freed without charge. Heithrek was so wise that such
mercy would be hard to win, for no man had yet asked a riddle the king could not
One of the king’s subjects, a fellow called Gestumblindi, had broken the
kings laws and was called to appear before the royal council for sentence.
Gestumblindi knew his only chance of freedom was to challenge Heithrek to a
contest of riddles, but Gestumblindi was well aware that his wits could not
match the king’s. Gestumblindi made a sacrifice to Óðinn and
promised many offerings if the god would aid him.
Shortly before Gestumblindi needed to leave for the king’s court, a man
appeared who shared his likeness. The stranger introduced himself as
‘Gestumblindi’ and explained that he would represent him. The two men changed
clothes and they were so alike that one could not be told from the other.
The new Gestumblindi travelled to the king’s court and presented himself
to king Heithrek. Gestumblindi said he had come to make his peace. Heithrek
asked if he was ready to be tried by the king’s seven judges. Gestumblindi
asked if there was any other path open to him and Heithrek replied that he could
try asking riddles. If he could ask a riddle the king could not answer he could
go free, but if the king answered them correctly and he ran out of riddles to
ask, he would be handed over to the judges. Gestumblindi gave the matter
some thought and reluctantly agreed to try the riddles, as he felt he had little
hope before the judges.
A chair was brought up for Gestumblindi and the contest began. Each riddle
Gestumblindi asked was answered quickly and accurately by wise king Heithrek.
But Gestumblindi’s store of riddles showed no sign of abating. Heithrek showed
more and more respect for his humble opponent.
Eventually Gestumblindi asked the king his final riddle ‘What did Óðinn
whisper in Balder’s ear before he was placed on his funeral pyre ?’. At these
words the king realised the true identity of his opponent, as only Óðinn
would know what he had told his dead son. Heithrek stood up and drew his sword
crying ‘I am sure that it was something scandalous and cowardly ! But only you
know the answer, you evil creature !’ Óðinn turned himself into a
falcon to escape the king’s wrath but his tail feathers were cut short when the
king swung his sword. And this is why the falcon’s tail has been short to this
Óðinn was enraged by this attempt on his life and arranged for
the king’s death that very night.
The most striking element of this story is king Heithrek’s undisguised
disgust when he realises that he is facing Óðinn. There is no sign
of respect here for a benign all-father figure, Heithrek simply goes in for the
kill, fully aware of what he is doing. Why he should do so is somewhat puzzling
but Óðinn has beguiled the king with trickery, both by appearing as
Gestumblindi and by asking his final and unanswerable riddle. There is also an
element of hatred between this devotee of Freyr and Óðinn, as if the
two faiths had a tradition of hostility in this region, which is seen elsewhere
in myths concerning Óðinn and Þórr.
Heithrek’s opinion of both Óðinn and his son Balder is very
similar in style to the writings of Saxo Grammaticus (13th century Danish
historian). Saxo was mercilessly damning of the Norse gods in general but he
recorded a Danish version of the Balder myth in which Balder is clearly the
villain and Hoder is the hero. The varying myths associated with the highly
diverse Norse cults may be a clue as to how Saxo’s tale arose.
A less obvious lesson in this tale is the connection between the wise king
and his patron. Heithrek appears to be the wisest man in the land and he would
expect Freyr to live up to the same standard. Thus for followers of the Vanir
cult Freyr is the god of wisdom. It is interesting to note that Óðinn
is unable to win the contest without resorting to trickery, despite the fact
that his riddles are new to the king, and many of them could have several
The tale of Gestumblindi is very reminiscent of the story of Ottar and
Freyja. Again in this myth the devotee requires knowledge to present an
appeal. Freyja aids Ottar by giving him magic to extend his memory. As Ottar’s
case is based on him knowing his ancestry no trickery is required because his
reward is deserved. On the other hand Gestumblindi is a far more shady
character, one can only assume that Heithrek was well justified in calling
him before the royal judges.
In the two sources named below Gestumblindi’s riddles are quoted in full,
both the riddles and the answers, and they make very interesting reading on
their own. Riddles would have been an important part of the Norse oral
tradition, and many of the riddles in this story draw on mythological material.
Norse Poems, WH Auden & Paul B. Taylor (tr), Faber and Faber 1983
Northern Lights, legends, and sagas folk tales, Kevin Crossley-Holland
(ed.), Faber and Faber 1987
Stories and Ballads of the Far Past, N. Kershaw, Cambridge University Press
Edda, Snorri Sturluson. JM Dent & Sons 1987 (translated by Anthony
Poetic Edda translated by Lee M. Hollander University of Texas Press 1962
The History of the Danes Saxo Grammaticus (translated by P. Fisher)
D.S. Brewer 1980