In the above image, the goddess Iðunn (“EE-done”) stands with her casket of apples while her husband Bragi plays the harp. Iðunn is known as the goddess of eternal youth, and the apples contained in that casket are given to the Aesir when they begin to age, restoring their youth. She is the wife of Bragi, the god of poetry.
Like all the other goddesses with the possible exception of Freyja, references in the surviving poems and literature to Iðunn are relatively few. However, her role among the Aesir is key: “she guards in her chest of ash those apples which the gods must taste whensoever they grow old; and then they all become young, and so it shall be even unto the Fate of the Gods [Ragnarõk].”
The key tale involving Iðunn, told by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson in its most popular form in the Prose Edda chapter Skáldskaparmál, involves Loki and a flying giant.
As adapted from Skáldskaparmál:
Odin, Loki, and Hoenir were traveling through the mountains far from Asgard. They came into a dale and a herd of oxen and took one for their supper. However, they found that their fire would not cook the ox. After some effort to improve the effectiveness of their fire, they found themselves at a loss for what the problem could be.
A voice in the oak above them boomed down, an extremely large eagle, and explained that it was he who had caused the fire’s impotence. He said that he would allow the fire to do its work if the three travelers would allow him to have his fill of meat of the ox. Rather hungry at this point, the three Aesir assented.
When the ox was cooked, the eagle took his share of the meat: two ham-cuts and both shoulders. Loki was furious, and so he snatched up a pole and tried to kill the giant eagle with all his strength. The great eagle, actually the giant Thjazi in the form of an eagle, took Loki’s pole with Loki still attached to the other end and flew up into the sky. He promised to never let Loki free unless Loki would bring him Iðunn and her life-granting apples. Loki agreed to Thjazi’s terms.
Some time after the travelers returned to Asgard, Loki fulfilled his agreement with Thjazi. He convinced Iðunn that he had found apples in a nearby forest with properties potent enough to rival her own, and she would be amazed if she would only compare the two. Thjazi in the forest, again an eagle, flew away with Iðunn.
The Aesir noticed that the source of their eternal youth was missing, of course, and so inquired as to Iðunn’s whereabouts. Their very existence was threatened if she could not be found. It was quickly determined that she had last been seen heading out to the forest with Loki, and he was put to the question.
After threats of death and torture and more, Loki explained what had happened. He offered to retrieve Iðunn and her apples if he could only borrow Freyja’s hawk’s plumage. She assented, and upon donning the feathers of the hawk, Loki gained the power to fly. He went immediately to the mountains of Jotünheim and found the home of Thjazi. He was in luck: Thjazi had rowed out to the sea and Iðunn was home alone. To aid in transportation, Loki changed her into a nut and flew her back to Asgard.
Thjazi arrived home just as Loki was leaving and realized what had happened. He grabbed his eagle’s plumage and gave chase immediately, and the race through the skies was tense and perilous for all involved. As the parties approached Asgard, the gods saw Loki returning and realized he needed their help. They built up the base of a massive fire at the entrance to Asgard, and just after Loki passed by, set it ablaze in a huge explosion. Thjazi, unable to turn away, was caught up in the flames and forced down inside the walls of Asgard. The gods killed him where he fell.
With these two attestations in the Prose Edda, it’s obvious first that like the other goddesses we’ve encountered so far, there’s at least some fertility function in Iðunn’s role among the gods. Apples being the fruit of trees and part of trees’ life cycle, there’s something of fertility in her restorative food; further, as a woman and as the one who literally grants eternal life to the gods, the generative forces of nature, Iðunn, while not as thoroughly documented as we might like, is unavoidably an important part of how we understand the life cycle of Thor and the Aesir.
And the speed with which the Aesir act upon her disappearance is notable as well. Without Iðunn, the Aesir may not live to see the battles foretold of Ragnarõk, for their lives will wither away from them just as they would for any living creature. Iðunn is the fruit and the food that keeps them able to continue in all their many roles, as gods and goddesses of wisdom, battle, storms, fertility, justice, and more.
We might also infer a deeper understanding of the Norse patriarchy here. Not just from Iðunn’s absence from most other stories (she and Bragi cameo briefly in Lokasenna, trading barbs with Loki before he moves on to insult other gods), either. As scholar of Scandinavian folklore John Lindow points out, there’s a dynamic in this story whereby a goddess taken has a different connotation altogether than anything that might happen to a god, and all the Aesir must unite to determine what has happened to this goddess. Once it’s clear that a giant has Iðunn in his clutches, the story takes on an even more serious tone, because giants aren’t supposed to mate with goddesses: the gods frequently take giantesses as consorts, but no stories admit of the possibility that a goddess might choose a brutish giant, even for a moment’s time. It’s certainly worth noting that very little of the story leaves open the possibility that Iðunn might have chosen to go away with Thjazi, or that she might have wanted to stay with him when Loki went to retrieve her. The story isn’t about Iðunn – it’s about what Iðunn means to someone else: the Aesir, Loki, Thjazi, even Snorri as he uses her as a means of explaining who Bragi the great poet is in Gylfaginning (what we call the Prose Edda was intended to be an instructional guide on how to make poetry in the old forms, so Bragi was important to Snorri).
A later source tells us that Idunn was a daughter of the elves, and that Thjazi was her half-brother. That source, and interpretations of it from modern days, appear to me to be attempts to weave together the stories of different poems and myths and make a cohesive whole of them. It seems unlikely that such a cohesive narrative of the gods ever existed. The tales were told across a broad geographic space, across vast years, and for various reasons.
But Iðunn is definitely important to whatever understanding the pre-Christian Germanic peoples had of their gods. As the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, was ever-present in their conception of reality and their religion, Iðunn was an important part especially of life: the fruits of life, the sustenance that kept the gods, and perhaps humankind as well, alive long enough to face their fates. That she is not well-remembered is not necessarily a sign of her importance to the followers of the Aesir.