Idunn is a goddess associated with apples and youth in Norse mythology. She appears in only a few myths, the most important of which are retold in the Younger Edda and Elder Edda. These two collections of texts were collected and written down in 13th century Iceland by Snorri Sturluson, and in both of them she is described as the wife of the god of poetry Bragi, while it is in the Younger Edda that she is mentioned as the guardian of the life-giving and rejuvenating apples, without which the gods will age and die.
Idunn is not the most prominent goddess in mythology, but a number of theories have been put forward as to her significance and origins, including that she is a possible fertility goddess and that she may be traced back to proto-Indo-European religion.
The name Idunn can mean either "ever young", "rejuvenator", or "the one who rejuvenates". In the 19th century, the German philologist Jacob Grimm suggested that there was potentially an etymological link between Idunn and the female deity Diser. Grimm believed that the older form of their name, idisi, could be evidence of this connection. Grimm also believes that Idunn may have been known by another name, but he offers no suggestions.
Apples and fertility
Idunn's most important attribute is her apples, and a number of theories have been put forward to explain their meaning and origin.
It is disputed whether these apples are a genuine pre-Christian symbol, as in the Viking Age only wild apples were known in the North; modern sweet apples were not introduced until the Middle Ages.
However, the discovery of a bucket in the Oseberg ship containing wild apples in Oseberg supports the possibility that the idea of Idunn's apples dates from pre-Christian times.
English historian Hilda Ellis Davidson has attempted to link the mythological notion of apples to a supposed ritual practice in Germanic religion, pointing out that fruits and nuts have been found in early Anglo-Saxon graves in England as well as in the West and South Germanic areas.
Ellis Davidson therefore believes that fruits and nuts had a symbolic meaning which she suggests was related to fertility. She believes that the notion of nuts as a symbol of fertility is preserved in south-west England.
Davidson has also pointed out a possible connection between apples and the Vanir, the godhead usually associated with fertility in Norse mythology; for example, Skirner offers eleven "golden apples" to the beautiful giantess Gerd when he acts as suitor on behalf of the god Freyr (stanzas 19 and 20 of Skírnismál).
In the same poem, Gerd mentions her brother's bannerman in stanza 16. Davidson suggests that this may have a connection to Idunn, since in the poem Lokasenna it is told that her brother was also killed and that she willingly allowed herself to be embraced by him.
Davidson has highlighted another connection between apples and fertility. In chapter 2 of The Wave Song, the goddess Frigg is said to send an apple to King Rerir after he has asked Odin for a child.
Frigg's messenger, in the form of a crow, drops an apple into a piece of cloth while sitting on a mound. Rerir's queen ate the apple and, after six years of pregnancy, gave birth to the hero Volsung by Caesarean section.
Davidson also points to the strange term "Hels apples", used in a skaldic poem by Thorbjorn Brunason in the 11th century. Davidson believes that it plays on the notion of the apple as a fertility symbol, and that it was therefore used by the bard in the sense of "the food of the dead".
Davidson believes that the apple as a symbol of fertility is the result of a Middle Eastern influence. Her interpretation is based, among other things, on the fact that in pre-Christian times apples in northern Europe were small and bitter wild apples and that the Germanic peoples first became familiar with the apple and its symbolic meaning through contacts with the Roman Empire.
The first Germanic goddess to be associated with the apple she suggests is Nehalennia. She is depicted in several cases with apples. However, it is uncertain whether this deity was Germanic.
There are also Celtic parallels to the goddess with the apples. On this basis, Davidson believes that Idunn is an indistinct reflection of an ancient notion of a goddess who guards the life-giving fruits of the other world.
Folke Ström agrees that Idunn may be a hypostasis of the fertility goddess. The most well known one is Freya, but he points out that several of the other goddesses have features that suggest they evolved from an earlier goddess.
Gro Steinsland does not believe that apples are a late addition to the Norse imagination. She does not think so because apples appear in so many mythological contexts that they must be an old and incorporated symbol in Norse culture, just as the occurrence of wild apples in the Oseberggraben shows that the religious use of apples was not only linked to the cultivated eating apples. Instead, she suggests that the apple symbol parallels Greek and Celtic ideas, such as the fruit of the Hesperides, rather than cultural borrowings.
David Knipe has hypothesised that the myth of Thjazi's abduction of Idunn in the form of an eagle is an example of a proto-Indo-European mythological motif in which an eagle steals the divine means of immortality.
Knipe believes that there is a parallel story in Celtic mythology in which the heroes Brian, Iuchar, and Icharba, sons of Tuirenn, in the guise of hawks, stole the sacred apples in the garden of Hisberna. There is also a persecution here, as the guardians of the garden hunt them down in the form of female griffins.
Idunn and Thjazi
The Younger Edda tells us that Loki was once forced by the giant Thjazi to lure Idunn out of Asgard by telling her that he knew some apples that were as good as her own.
In the forest, Thjazi in the shape of an eagle seized her and took her home. Idunn's absence from Asgard meant that the gods grew old, and they soon found out that Loki was responsible for Idunn's disappearance.
Under threat, Loki had to promise to bring her back, and he flies to Thjazi's farm in the form of a falcon. He turns Idunn into a nut and flies home with her.
Thjazi soon discovers that Idunn is gone and flies in a rage after Loki. He is chased all the way to Asgard's wall, where he is almost captured by the eagle, but the gods light a huge fire that ignites its feathers and Thjazi dies.