In this poem, Adam Oehlenschlager retells one of the more notable stories of Norse mythology, when Loki shears Sif’s beautiful hair, and is forced by Thor to replace the hair or die. Along the way, Loki convinces the dwarf smiths who make Sif’s new hair to make other gifts for Odin and Freyr, and, of course, Thor’s hammer Mjolnir.
The original tale from Snorri Sturluson tells us a great deal about Loki’s character, how he both causes problems and then solves them, but also how he is always pursuing his own agenda even when helping the Aesir.
I’ve included the original story from the Prose Edda below the poem, in case you want to see which details are Oehlenschlager’s imagination and which are part of the original. Fun fact: to smooth over some inconsistencies between stories, where Thor seems to have always had his hammer despite the existence of this story, Oehlenschlager mentions Thor already having a sacred hammer called Mjolnir near the beginning of the poem, and has the dwarves make Thor “a better hammer”.
by Adam Oehlenschlager, translated by Grenville Pigott.
Loke sat and thought till his dark eyes gleam
With joy at the deed he’d done;
When Sif look’d into the crystal stream
Her courage was well nigh gone.
For never again her soft amber hair
Shall she braid with her hands of snow;
From the hateful image she turn’d in despair,
And hot tears began to flow.
In a cavern’s mouth, like a crafty fox,
Loke sate, ’neath the tall pine’s shade,
When sudden a thundering was heard in the rocks,
And fearfully trembled the glade.
Then he knew that the noise good boded him nought,
He knew that ’twas Thor who was coming,
He changed himself straight to a salmon trout,
And leap’d in a fright in the Glommen.
But Thor changed too to a huge sea-gull,
And the salmon-trout seized in his beak:
He cried, “Thou traitor, I know thee well,
And dear shalt thou pay thy freak.
“Thy caitiff bones to a meal I’ll pound,
As a mill-stone crusheth the grain.”
When Loke that nought booted his magic found,
He took straight his own form again.
“And what if thou scatter’st my limbs in air!”
He spake: “will it mend thy case?
Will it gain back for Sif a single hair?
Thou’lt still a bald spouse embrace.
“But if now thou’lt pardon my heedless joke,
For malice sure meant I none,
I swear to thee here by root, billow, and rock,
By the moss on the Bauta-stone.
“By Mimer’s well, and by Odin’s eye,
And by Miölner, greatest of all;
That straight to the secret caves I’ll hie,
To the Dwarfs, my kinsmen small:
“And thence for Sif new tresses I’ll bring
Of gold, ere the day-light’s gone,
So that she shall liken a field in spring,
With its yellow-flower’d garment on.”
Him answer’d Thor: “Why, thou brazen knave,
To my face to mock me dost dare,
Thou know’st well that Miölner is now ’neath the wave
With Ran, and wilt still by it swear?”
“O! a better hammer for thee I’ll obtain,”
And he shook like an aspen-tree,
“’Fore whose stroke, shield, buckler, and greave shall be
And the Giants with terror shall flee.”
“Not so,” cried Thor: and his eyes flash’d fire,
“Thy base treason calls loud for blood;
And hither I’m come, with my sworn brother Freyr,
To make thee of ravens the food.
“I’ll take hold of thine arms and thy coal-black hair,
And Freyr of thy heels behind,
And thy lustful body to atoms well tear,
And scatter thy limbs to the wind.”
“O spare me, Freyr, thou great-souled king!”
And, weeping, he kissed his feet.
“O mercy, and thee I’ll a courser bring,
No match in the wide world shall meet.
“Without whip or spur round the earth you shall ride;
He’ll ne’er weary by day nor by night;
He shall carry you safe o’er the raging tide,
And his golden hair furnish you light.”
Loke promised so well with his glozing tongue,
That the Aser at length let him go,
And he sank in the earth, the dark rocks among,
Near the cold fountain, far below.
He crept on his belly, as supple as eel,
The cracks in the hard granite through,
Till he came where the Dwarfs stood hammering steel,
By the light of a furnace blue.
I trow ’twas a goodly sight to see,
The Dwarfs with their aprons on,
A hammering and smelting so busily,
Pure gold from the rough brown stone.
Rock crystals from sand and hard flint they made,
Which, tinged with the rose-bud’s dye,
They cast into rubies and carbuncles red,
And hid them in cracks hard by.
They took them fresh violets all dripping with dew,
Dwarf women had pluck’d them, the morn,
And stain’d with their juice the clear sapphires blue
King Dan in his crown since hath worn.
Then for emeralds, they searched out the brightest green,
Which the young spring meadow wears,
And dropp’d round pearls, without flaw or stain,
From widows’ and maidens’ tears.
And all round the cavern might plainly be shewn
Where Giants had once been at play;
For the ground was with heaps of huge muscle-shells strewn,
And strange fish were mark’d in the clay.
Here an Icthyosaurus stood out from the wall,
There monsters ne’er told of in story,
Whilst hard by.the Nix in the waterfall,
Sang wildly the days of their glory.
Here bones of the Mammoth and Mastodon,
And serpents with wings and with claws;
The elephant’s tusks from the burning zone
Are small to the teeth in their jaws.
When Loke to the Dwarfs had his errand made known,
In a trice for the work they were ready;
Quoth Dvalin: “O, Loptur, it now shall be shown
That Dwarfs in their friendship are steady.
“We both trace our line from the self-same stock;
What you ask shall be furnish’d with speed,
For it ne’er shall be said, that the sons of the rock
Turn’d their backs on a kinsman in need.”
Then they took them the skin of a large wild-boar,
The largest that they could find,
And the bellows they blew till the furnace ’gan roar,
And the fire flamed on high for the wind.
And they struck with their sledge-hammers stroke on stroke,
That the sparks from the skin flew on high;
But never a word good nor bad spake Loke,
Though foul malice lurk’d in his eye.
The thunderer far distant, with sorrow he thought
On all he’d engaged to obtain,
And, as summer-breeze fickle, now anxiously sought
To render the Dwarf’s labour vain.
Whilst the bellows plied Brokur, and Sindrig the hammer
And Thror, that the sparks flew on high,
And the sides of the vaulted cave rang with the clamour,
Loke changed to a huge forest fly.
And he sate him, all swelling with venom and spite,
On Brokur, the wrist just below;
But the Dwarfs skin was thick, and he reck’d not the bite,
Nor once ceased the bellows to blow.
And now, strange to tell, from the roaring fire
Came the golden-haired Gullinbörst,
To serve as a charger the sun-god Freyr,
Sure of all wild boars this the first.
They took them pure gold from their secret store,
The piece ’twas but small in size,
But ere’t had been long in the furnace roar,
’Twas a jewel beyond all prize.
A broad red ring all of wroughten gold;
As a snake with its tail in its head;
And a garland of gems did the rim enfold,
Together with rare art laid.
’Twas solid and heavy, and wrought with care,
Thrice it pass’d through the white flames’ glow;
A ring to produce, fit for Odin to wear,
No labour they spared I trow.
They work’d it and turn’d it with wondrous skill,
Till they gave it the virtue rare,
That each thrice third night from its rim there fell
Eight rings, as their parent fair.
’Twas the same with which Odin sanctified
God Baldur’s and Nanna’s faith,
On his gentle bosom was Draupne laid
When their eyes were closed in death.
Next they laid on the anvil a steel-bar cold,
They needed nor fire nor file,
But their sledge hammers following, like thunder roll
And Sindrig sang Runes the while.
When Loke now mark’d how the steel gat power,
And how warily out ’twas beat,
(’Twas to make a new hammer for Auka-Thor)
He’d recourse once again to deceit.
In a trice, of a Hornet the semblance he took,
Whilst in cadence fell blow on blow,
In the leading Dwarf’s forehead his barbed sting he stuck,
That the blood in a stream down did flow.
Then the Dwarf raised his hand to his brow, for the smart,
Ere the iron well out was beat,
And they found that the haft by an inch was too short,
But to alter it then ’twas too late.
Now a small elf came running with gold on his head,
Which he gave a dwarf-woman to spin,
Who the metal like flax on her spinning-wheel laid,
Nor tarried her task to begin.
So she span and span, and the gold thread ran
Into hair, though Loke thought it a pity:
She span and sang to the sledge-hammer’s clang,
This strange, wild spinning-wheel ditty.
“Henceforward her hair shall the tall Sif wear,
Hanging loose down her white neck behind;
By no envious braid shall it captive be made,
But in native grace float in the wind.
“No swain shall it view in the clear heaven’s blue,
But his heart in its toils shall be lost;
No goddess, not e’en beauty’s faultless queen,
Such long, glossy ringlets shall boast;
“Tho’ they now seem dead, let them touch but her head,
Each hair shall the life-moisture fill,
Nor shall malice nor spell henceforward prevail
Sif’s tresses to work aught of ill.”
His object attained, Loke no longer remain’d
’Neath the earth, but straight hied him to Thor,
Who own’d than the hair, ne’er, sure, aught more fair
His eyes had e’er look’d on before.
The Boar Freyr bestrode, and away proudly rode,
And Thor took the ringlets and hammer,
To Valhalla they hied, where the Aser reside,
Mid of tilting and wassail the clamour.
At a full, solemn Thing—Thor gave Odin the ring,
And Loke his foul treachery pardon’d:
But the pardon was vain—for his crimes soon again
Must do penance, the arch-sinner harden’d.
XXXV. “Why is gold called Sif’s Hair? Loki Laufeyarson, for mischief’s sake, cut off all Sif’s hair. But when Thor learned of this, he seized Loki, and would have broken every bone in him, had he not sworn to get the Black Elves to make Sif hair of gold, such that it would grow like other hair. After that, Loki went to those dwarves who are called Ívaldi’s Sons; and they made the hair, and Skídbladnir also, and the spear which became Odin’s possession, and was called Gungnir. Then Loki wagered his head with the dwarf called Brokkr that Brokkr’s brother Sindri could not make three other precious things equal in virtue to these. Now when they came to the smithy, Sindri laid a pigskin in the hearth and bade Brokkr blow, and did not cease work until he took out of the hearth that which he had laid therein. But when he went out of the smithy, while the other dwarf was blowing, straightway a fly settled upon his hand and stung: yet he blew on as before, until the smith took the work out of the hearth; and it was a boar, with mane and bristles of gold. Next, he laid gold in the hearth and bade Brokkr blow and cease not from his blast until he should return. He went out; but again the fly came and settled on Brokkr’s neck, and bit now half again as hard as before; yet he blew even until the smith took from the hearth that gold ring which is called Draupnir. Then Sindri laid iron in the hearth and bade him blow, saying that it would be spoiled if the blast failed. Straightway the fly settled between Brokkr’s eyes and stung his eyelid, but when the blood fell into his eyes so that he could not see, then he clutched at it with his hand as swiftly as he could,–while the bellows grew flat,–and he swept the fly from him. Then the smith came thither and said that it had come near to spoiling all that was in the hearth. Then he took from the forge a hammer, put all the precious works into the hands of Brokkr his brother, and bade him go with them to Ásgard and claim the wager.
“Now when he and Loki brought forward the precious gifts, the Æsir sat down in the seats of judgment; and that verdict was to prevail which Odin, Thor, and Freyr should render. Then Loki gave Odin the spear Gungnir, and to Thor the hair which Sif was to have, and Skídbladnir to Freyr, and told the virtues of all these things: that the spear would never stop in its thrust; the hair would grow to the flesh as soon as it came upon Sif’s head; and Skídbladnir would have a favoring breeze as soon as the sail was raised, in whatsoever direction it might go, but could be folded together like a napkin and be kept in Freyr’s pouch if he so desired. Then Brokkr brought forward his gifts: he gave to Odin the ring, saying that eight rings of the same weight would drop from it every ninth night; to Freyr he gave the boar, saying that it could run through air and water better than any horse, and it could never become so dark with night or gloom of the Murky Regions that there should not be sufficient light where be went, such was the glow from its mane and bristles. Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short.
“This was their decision: that the hammer was best of all the precious works, and in it there was the greatest defence against the Rime-Giants; and they gave sentence, that the dwarf should have his wager. Then Loki offered to redeem his head, but the dwarf said that there was no chance of this. ‘Take me, then,’ quoth Loki; but when Brokkr would have laid hands on him, he was a long way off. Loki had with him those shoes with which he ran through air and over water. Then the dwarf prayed Thor to catch him, and Thor did so. Then the dwarf would have hewn off his head; but Loki said that he might have the head, but not the neck. So the dwarf took a thong and a knife, and would have bored a hole in Loki’s lips and stitched his mouth together, but the knife did not cut. Then Brokkr said that it would be better if his brother’s awl were there: and even as he named it, the awl was there, and pierced the lips. He stitched the Ups together, and Loki ripped the thong out of the edges. That thong, with which Loki’s mouth was sewn together, is called Vartari.