Originally published in Sagewoman, Summer, 2002
It is night, and the air is chill. . . A wind from the glacier swirls around you, sweeping the night sky clean of all but the stars. They glitter in the darkness like chips of ice; with each breath, frost hangs in the air, but the furs you are wearing keep you warm.
In the distance, you can hear the call of a wolf, most lonely of sounds. You stand on a white slope; above you lift the mountains of Jotunheim where the frost-giants dwell, icy crags wind-sculpted into fantastic forms, trees of ice, frozen waterfalls. Upon the height a fortress clings, white walls gleaming in the starlight. A dark forest laps the slopes below.
Suddenly, a bluish radiance ripples above you as if a ribbon of light had been shaken across the sky. It shivers again, glows purple, lemon yellow, pale green. The crystal walls of the castle glimmer with rainbow refractions. Then the color fades; the night is dark once more. The howling of the wolves sounds again, closer. You still, listening. Are they coming this way? Suddenly you are aware of how alone you are in this waste of rock and snow.
You hasten towards the nearest patch of forest, sliding into the shadow of the tall evergreens. Peering from its shadow, you see a dark shape loping across the snow. In a moment it is followed by another. More come after– grey wolves, white wolves, black wolves, running light-footed across the snow. You hold your breath, wanting to run with them, afraid to be seen.
As the last wolf passes another figure appears, tall beyond the height of mortals, clad in a white fur cloak with black boots and gloves and black hair flowing behind her. Swiftly she strides, her snowshoes bearing her across the surface of the snow. She carries a bow. Closer and closer she comes, running with the wolves. You shrink into the shadow of the tree. Her face is smooth, her gaze ice-chill. As she nears, she pauses, that icy gaze passes across the wood and your heart stills. Has she seen you? Then her lips draw back in silent laughter, she leaps forward and speeds away down the slope, and a desire you cannot resist draws you after her.
The chase leads down the slope; sometimes you stumble, but you manage to keep her in view. The snow thins, rocky outcrops stud the ground. Now you can hear running water. You slip in mud, the snow is melting, first to muddy slush, then to dark mud. The sound of ice melting, trickling, dripping, is everywhere. You must pick your way carefully through the puddles. The snowmelt has become a rushing stream; quickly it swells, and the air grows warmer.
You are growing warmer as well; you throw off your furs and see that the figure ahead of you has done the same. The garment she was wearing beneath them is as dark as the soil on which she stands. Ahead the sky is growing grey; the air is still cold, but now it is a damp chill, not the sharp cold of snow. The ground is firmer too, and when you pass through a thicket, you can see new buds on the branches; blades of grass are beginning to poke through the ground. A wind stirs the wood, as you emerge, you see that the trees before you bear a cloud of white blossoms; petals drift across the dark soil like spring snow.
The wolves have ceased their mad race; they roll on the ground, leap and growl in play. The Queen wolf snaps at one of the males but he comes back, nosing at her haunches until at last she stands still and accepts his embrace. The Lady has halted at the edge of a meadow, its muddy soil still furred with the silvery husks of last year’s grass. Trees grow in a circle around it; this is the Lady’s sanctuary.
The sky is growing steadily brighter. In the east the first arrows of gold pierce the sky. Pink follows, blazing in banners of cloud. The Lady’s face brightens. It is still beautiful, but it has grown softer, the eyes which were so icy are now lucid as the waters of the stream. The wolves play around her feet. She lifts her arms, and the sun curves up from behind the hills. As the first rays touch the earth, new green sprouts through the winter killed grass. As the sun rises, the figure of the Lady becomes so radiant you can scarcely see.
Dazzled, you close your eyes. The world whirls around you. When it stills, you find yourself in your own familiar surroundings once more. But the glory of the Goddess remains vivid to your inner sight, and when you think of her, the blood still sings in your veins and you remember what it was like to run free.
We call Skadhi a goddess, but in the old lore of the north, she comes neither of the clan of warrior deities called the Aesir nor from the agricultural Vanir, but of a kindred far older– the frost-giants of ancient days.
Like many other cultures, the early peoples of Scandinavia had myths of a first generation of deities who personify the untamed powers of nature. I believe that they were first given names by our earliest ancestors, living in an intimate relationship with the natural world as they hunted and gathered and took shelter in caves. Despite the conviction of 19th century folklorists that the stories of the gods were invented to explain natural phenomena, the deities we find in more developed mythologies are not in fact the gods of natural forces (even Apollo and Artemis took over their association with the sun and moon from the Titans Helios and Selene, respectively), but culture gods, the patrons of social roles and functions.
As human cultures developed the arts of growing food and building houses they became less immediately vulnerable to environmental variations, and thus, began to separate themselves from nature. New ways required new gods, and so, in most mythologies we find stories of how the primal deities were defeated by the deities of human culture whom we know as the gods. In the theogonies of the Greeks, for instance, the Titans were conquered by Zeus and his fellow Olympians and imprisoned in the Underworld.
It was not so in the north, or at least, not entirely. In their myths, it is said that the eldest of the true gods killed the primal Being, Ymir, and from the pieces of his body created the world. But the other elemental spirits still dwell in Utgarth– the wild world beyond human walls (the protected place within the walls is called Innangarth). Even the god Thor, whose hammer defends gods and men, destroys only enough of the giants to keep the balance, so that there will be room on earth for humankind.
The myths of the North are full of stories in which the gods interact with the giants, sometimes fighting them, sometimes tricking them, sometimes visiting their halls in search of wisdom. The history of the relationship between culture gods and primal powers is in fact much like the story of the relationship between humanity and nature. However, there are no stories in which the Jotnar interact directly with humankind. Like the hero Ottar, who could seek information from the giantess Hyndla only disguised as a boar and protected by his patroness Freyja, we must approach them through the intermediary of the gods.
But like us, the gods who fight the wild powers of nature also need them to survive. Despite occasional conflicts, for both Aesir and Vanir, the Jotnar are the only source of brides outside their own kin. In the North, it is not the males, violent though they may sometimes be, but the females who are the key to primal power. In Asgard, if you scratch a goddess you are likely to find a giant-maid. Thor himself is Odin’s son by Jordh, whose name means “Earth”. Frigga, Tyr, and many of the other Aesir are the children of Jotnar, and the Vanic god FreyR marries the giantess Gerd. Thus, it is no surprise that it is through both war and marriage that Skadhi comes to dwell with the gods of Asgard.
In the Younger Edda we are told that once, long ago, Odin, Hoenir and Loki were travelling in Utgard, the giants’ realm, and they forgot to make an offering to the powers of the place as they passed through. When they tried to roast their dinner, the giant Thjazi, who was watching them in the form of an eagle, would not allow it to cook unless they gave him some. When Loki tried to stop him from taking too much, he carried him off, and made him promise to steal Idunna, the goddess who kept the apples of youth, and bring her to Gianthome. When he did so, the gods began to lose their strength and beauty, and made such threats to Loki that he promised to get the goddess back again. Freyja even loaned him her falcon-shape so that he could make the journey.
When Loki arrived, Thjazi was away, so he changed Idunna into a nut and flew off with her. Thjazi, in his eagle form, gave chase, but the gods were ready for him. They built a great fire, and when Loki reached Asgard, he veered off, but Thjazi was going too fast to stop and went into the fire and was burned.
That should have been the end of it. But not too long thereafter another figure was seen approaching from the direction of Gianthome. It was tall, with a bright helm and mail, a wolfskin cloak on its shoulders, a stout shield and a sharp axe in its hand. But it was a woman’s voice that shouted challenge, it was Skadhi who had come to Asgard, claiming blood or compensation for the death of her father.
If the northmen had not sometimes been willing to accept weregild in place of vengeance there would not have been many of them left, and the compensation due a woman who had lost her male kinsman was to provide her with another. Skadhi, after due consideration, agreed that she would forgo her revenge if they would give her the fairest among them as a husband, and if they could make her laugh.
It is said that Loki accomplished the latter, by tying one end of a rope to a billy goat’s horns and the other to his testicles. His antics as the goat dashed about were, to say the least, distracting. Perhaps Skadhi hoped the goat would pull them off, though that might not have mattered to Loki, who had spent almost as much time in a female shape as a male (but that’s another story). As Skadhi laughed, the wintry frost began to leave her eyes, and the icy stiffness her spine.
As for the husband– the gods made a condition of their own, that she should choose her man on the basis of his feet alone. And she, quite certain that Baldur, who was called the Beautiful, would excel in that aspect of his anatomy as in all others, agreed. And so they lined up the gods of Asgard behind a length of linen, and Skadhi walked up and down, looking at their feet, until she saw a pair that were finely arched and strong, and white as the foam of the sea, and said– “I choose him.”
But when the curtain was dropped, it was not Baldur she had chosen, but Njordh, the Vanic god who guards all those who get their living from the sea. He is fond of walking barefoot along the seashore, and I suppose that his feet, being washed more often than those of any of the others, were for that reason more fair.
But like many marriages based on false assumptions, the union of Njordh and Skadhi was not very successful. Skadhi’s home was Thrymheim (the world of storm-din), in the snowy peaks. When Njordh had spent nine nights there he complained bitterly that he could not get to sleep because of the shriek of the wind and the howling of the wolves outside the hall, and called it an evil sound compared to the singing of his swans. But when Skadhi stayed nine nights at his hall on the harbor of Noatún, she complained that she was being awakened every day at the crack of dawn by the yammering of the gulls.
And so they agreed to dwell apart and go their own ways. It is said that after a time Skadhi became friendly with Odin and bore him several sons who sired families of mortal kings. Certain it is that she continued to live in her own hall, choose her own companions, and give help, at times, to humankind.
An old poem called “The Flyting of Loki”, tells of a feast at the Sea-god’s hall at which Loki insulted all the gods. When he reminded Skadhi that he helped to kill her father, she replied that he would get nothing but “cold counsel” if he sought help at her holy groves and shrines. Some scholars believe that in the Viking age the primal powers were no longer worshipped, and there are no surviving stories in which humans encounter them directly, but perhaps Skadhi, by marrying into Asgard, had become more accessible. There are a number of Scandinavian place-names which include her name coupled with the words for field or grove. These may be the shrines to which she is referring. Other references indicate that the female earth powers, the Maurnir, were invoked for fruitfulness. Skadhi may have been considered one of them.
In the winter, the beauty of Skadhi is the stark loveliness of the northern ice and rocky fells. Her name may mean “scathe”, or perhaps, “shadow.” She is called the snowshoe goddess, for on snowshoes or skis she ranges the wilderness, hunting the wild beasts with her bow. In the winter, she is the woman who runs with the wolves, vigorous, wild, and free.
Her association with wolves seems particularly significant to those of us who have read Estés’ Women Who Run with the Wolves. Although Estes does not specifically mention Skadhi, the elemental feminine nature she describes belongs the northern goddess as well. “A healthy woman is much like a wolf: robust, chock-full, strong life force, life-giving, territorially aware, inventive, loyal, roving.” (p. 12)
Skadhi is stronger than any civilized being, fully capable of challenging the gods. Even though she is persuaded to forgo her vengeance for the death of her father, she does not forget. When Loki makes the mistake of taunting her with his part in the killing, she renews her vow and after he finally exhausts the patience of all the gods and is captured and bound, she is the one who ties the serpent above him to drip venom onto his face.
But the alliance which joins her to the community of Asgard is voluntary, not compelled, and as much to their benefit as it is to hers. Even when she is married, she is self-sufficient, and when the marriage doesn’t work out, she doesn’t need to ask anyone’s help change her situation. Altogether, she is a fine role model for an independent woman, and is the special protector of single mothers and women who take on traditionally masculine roles.
She seems to thrive on challenges, both emotional and physical. She is certainly the goddess of winter sports, but it is hard to believe she is any less active in the summer. One imagines her running whitewater rivers, rock climbing, marathon running, excelling in any activity that stretches mind and muscle. She would fit right in at R.E.I. (a wilderness sports store in the Bay Area).
We know from the old tales that she maintained friendly relations with her husband’s family. In “Skirnismál”, a poem that tells how her stepson Freyr won his wife Gerd (also a giantess), it is Skadhi who notices that he is growing wan and pale and sends someone to find out what is wrong. Clearly she cares about others, and is not the type to sit about when she can be doing something to help. One pictures her responding to trouble in a rather brisk, no-nonsense way.
I think it is this juxtaposition of tough and tender that expresses the character of Skadhi most fully. If Skadhi covers the earth with a protective blanket of snow, then it is also she who at spring’s beginning withdraws it so that the frozen earth can thaw beneath the sun. She receives offerings at the beginning of February, when the orchards grow snowy with blossom and farmers prepare their fields for the plow. It is a season when a late storm can bring danger. Then, Skadhi’s strength is a protection that enables us to endure until the sun is strong enough to prevail.
Working with Skadhi
Skadhi is not delicate, but she can be invoked to protect those things which are, like the first tender buds that challenge the winter’s frost. The time at which this aspect of Skadhi can best be experienced is at the moment when winter is giving way to warmer weather. Obviously this is easiest to imagine if you live where it freezes and snows, but even in California, winter can be cold enough to make one long for spring.
Even before the temperature actually changes, there comes a day when there’s a difference in the air, a hint of warmth, moisture that is not chill. Look out for that moment, go outdoors, and take a deep breath of air. Examine the branches. Already the sap will be rising, flushing the tender bark of the smaller twigs purple or bright green. Buds are swelling; a few brave leaves may already be starting to unfold. As the sun strengthens, plunge your fingers into the earth, feeling its transformation from the dead chill of winter to the moist rich readiness of spring.
Call on Skadhi to guard the new life beneath the soil, and as you sense it stirring, draw up that strength into your own body, and feel yourself renewed.
As the spring turns to summer the out-of-doors will beckon. Take advantage of the sunshine and get some exercise. For many of us, stuck in sedentary jobs and out of shape for years, this may seem impossible. But this should not be a chore. There are some lucky souls who never lost the pleasure we all took in running around as children. For those of us who would happily have skipped Physical Education in school and since then haven’t gone much beyond a little dancing at rituals, this may be difficult. We’ve all read countless articles on why getting exercise is good for you. They never succeeded in motivating me, and I was quite taken aback when the first shamanic power animal I encountered wanted me to start running.
Since then, I have been told to eat more vegetables and get more exercise fairly regularly by spirit powers, but what finally did the trick was realizing, in my work with various deities, how very much they enjoy experiencing the physical world through human senses as they share our consciousness. And one of those pleasures is vigorous aerobic exercise, that kind that loosens the muscles and makes the blood sing through your veins. And if you are going to work with a goddess like Skadhi, who is herself extremely athletic, you will find yourself being drawn to all kinds of strenuous activities, and you will need to be in shape to survive!
Some find that joining a health club provides the necessary context and motivation, others have the self-discipline to work with exercise tapes or books. It is important, however, to start slowly and work up to the more strenuous exercises gradually. And though running has its fans, there is a lot of evidence that good, vigorous walking is more beneficial in the long run. If there is an archery range in your area, you might investigate learning to shoot a bow. If you work at it, you may even find that you are ready for some snowshoeing or skiing (especially cross country) yourself by the time snow falls once more.
If you find your relationship with Skadhi deepening, you may feel the need to explore your limits, to find out how it feels to push yourself to the edge of your resources. Skadhi is a goddess who challenges. You may find yourself experiencing her most fully in some activity with an element of danger, such as white-water rafting, or going to survival school.
Skadhi comes from Utgard– the wilderness– and though she can function in a civilized environment, her wildness is never entirely lost. She is a good guide when we ourselves are attempting to reclaim our own wild natures and to go outside our limits and boundaries, whether they are imposed by others or come from within.
One way to begin to understand this is to go camping– alone. I recognize that a solitary woman runs certain unique risks, not from the wilderness, but from other humans, and would not recommend doing this without taking precautions. But I would say the same about many things, such as waiting late at night at a lonely bus stop, that we do as a matter of course. The point is to get far enough away so that you see and hear nothing that belongs to humankind. Then you will be in Utgard.
If you are quiet, you will become aware of a world which carries on without reference to humanity. There is life and death here, violence and peace. This is Skadhi’s world. If you do visit it, be sure and put out an offering (bread and milk are traditional in Europe, and in this country, tobacco or corn meal), for the spirits who rule there. Then sit quietly and see what they have to say to you.
Utgard may be found in the wild places of the world, but it can also be explored within. In a sense, we are travelling through Utgard when we explore the depths of our own psyches, and whenever we leave ordinary consensus reality and travel between the worlds. Skadhi can be a powerful protector when we confront the monsters that lurk in the unconscious, and when we gather the courage to follow her example and live our own lives in our own way.
A Ritual for Skadhi
The ideal setting for working with Skadhi would be on a snowy mountaintop– the Rockies or the Sierras come to mind– or failing that, on a hilltop out of doors, or perhaps in a snowy orchard of blossoming apple trees. The chances are, however, that you will be working inside a building, and will have to journey to the Utgard that lies within.
Your altar, however, should evoke the natural world, especially those elements dear to Skadhi. You might cover it with burlap or a piece of leather, and on that pile a miniature peak of stones. Greenery, especially evergreens (in the winter), or early blossoms (in the spring), should be added, along with pictures or figures of wild creatures such as eagles and wolves. Stones which have been associated with Skadhi are the naturally terminated quartz crystal (which in old Germanic languages is called “mountain crystal” or “ice stone”), or black serpentine in which white crystals are found. Depending on the season, her colors are the black of glacial rocks or of newly turned earth, and the white of snow or apple blossom.
For her offerings, a crystal cup (called a “rime-cup” in the Eddas ) is appropriate, filled with iced vodka or with sparkling spring water. For food, try black bread (Russian rye), and the meat of a goat, or wild game.
To get into the mood, you might play a tape of the howling of wolves.
Preparing Sacred Space
When you are ready, purify your circle by going widdershins around it, first sprinkling with water and then fanning smudge smoke around the space. The following words can be used:
Mountain stream makes all things pure,
as melting ice,
as springtime snow.
Mark out the boundaries of your sacred space and invoke the primal powers to ward it by carrying an arrow or athame deosil around it, saying something like the following:
Sunwise I walk the way of wonder,
By arrow’s flight the worlds I sunder,
From Innangard the blade I bear,
This night to Utgard I will fare–
Nordhri and Sudhri, Austri and Vestri, (face N, S, E, and W)
Dwarves in all directions dwelling,
Honored Ones, the Earth upholding,
Balance me and bring me blessings!
To guard the circle, summon the giants who are Skadhi’s kin:
Hraesvelg, eagle-winged wind-maker,
Kári, we call you, carry wisdom, (COW-ree)
From Jotunheim’s cold cliffs come flying– (JO-tune-haym)
Loge, listen, lord of flame, (LOW-geh)
Laufey, flickering transformation, (LAU-fee)
From Muspelheim, master, and mother of changes– (MUS-pel-haym)
Ocean-lord, Ægir, open your cauldrons, (EYE-yeer)
Ran, whose realm receives the drowned ones, (RAN)
From all the oceans, answer our calling–
Ancient Ymir, Earthly essence, (EE-meer)
And Jordh Earthmistress, mighty mother, (Yordh)
From the midst of Midgard may you hear–
From Primal Powers I ask protection,
Watch and ward me in my working.
Calling the Goddess
Now light a white candle and call the goddess–
Skadhi, shining snowshoe goddess,
With winter’s white the earth you warded.
Wise bride of gods;
Now comes springtide, snows are melting,
Soil awaits the plow;
Free frozen hearts, make us fruitful,
Skadhi, I summon thee!
You may also honor her with this song:
When wolves howl upon the mountain heights,
Swift beneath the Northern Lights,
Skadhi comes skimming o’er the snow;
When it goes,
Her sweet buds will swell the bough,
Earth shall open to the plough.
Journey to Utgard
Sit for a few moments quietly, watching the glimmer of the candlelight on the crystal. Then read the meditation at the beginning of this essay. When you have done so, close your eyes, steady your breathing, and visualize yourself journeying to seek the goddess, either in her mountain hall or in the fields of spring. Ask her to make you more independent, or courageous, or physically fit– whatever you need– or ask her to advise you on what you should do. When she has spoken, return the way you came, and quicken your breathing as you make the transition back into your circle.
Afterwards, you may celebrate with food and drink, blessing it as follows:
Behold the golden grain that’s growing,
Sprung in fields of no man’s sowing,
The children of the Tree to nourish,
So that the clan of life may flourish.
From icy slopes the streams are flowing
As the hours of light are growing,
Sweetness from the snows distilling,
All of Life’s desire fulfilling.
Returning to the World
When you are done, thank Skadhi for her blessings and blow out the candle. Then thank and dismiss all the other powers.
Ymir and Jordh, Midgard’s matrix,
Ægir and Ran, openers of ocean,
Loge and Laufey, with fiery light,
Kári and Hraesvelg, winds of wisdom,
For warding my working now I thank you:
Nordhri and Sudhri, Austri and Vestri,
Dwarf-kin I dismiss you, with thanks for your kindness.
Unwind the barriers that separated your space from consensus reality,
and return to the human world.
Round about and back again,
Sacred circle be undone,
This place to all good use returned,
Leave me with the lore I’ve learned.
The Elder Edda, translated by Lee Hollander, University of Texas, 1986, and other translations
H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin, 1964, and later printings
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Ballantine Books, 1992
KveldulfR Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, Llewellyn, 1993
Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, 1992, or other translations of the Younger/Prose Edda
Our Troth, ed. KveldulfR Gundarsson, The Troth, 1994