HymirWhen Hymir saw the tall, broad-shouldered young man coming over the hill, he thought for a moment that he recognized him, but the boy looked far from strong enough to spend the day with one of the Jötun – the father of Týr, no less. The youth approached him fearlessly, and asked if Hymir wanted to go fishing. Perhaps a test was in order: The giant told the young man to go fetch them something to use as bait, and went about his business, only to look up a little while later to see the lad coming over the hill, again – with the head of Hymir’s strongest, fattest ox cradled on his shoulder! As curious as he was angry, Hymir decided to grant the young man’s request and take him fishing, if only to keep an eye on him, as there was clearly more to this young man than he had at first thought.

Perhaps because I myself am an analytical, methodical guy, as opposed to one who rushes in, calling for others to follow, I’ve thought a lot about the traits that we look for in a leader – the traits that we celebrate. As a culture, we look for them in and associate them primarily with men; though women can have the same brashness, cockiness, toughness and aggression, our culture as a whole discourages it (as someone who thinks these traits are more negative than positive, I’d be more likely to address this imbalance/sexism by stressing them less with young men as opposed to stressing them more with young women). On one hand, we have a brash youth, who damages his host’s property and seems to expect to be rewarded for demonstrating his strength. On the other we have a thoughtful giant. Who is the hero?

Hymir rowed the boat out into open water, thinking to spend a relaxing afternoon, but when he gave the oars to the young man, a maniacal grin spread across his face, and he began to row with incredible speed, driving them farther and farther out into uncharted waters. Hymir tried to tell the lad to slow down, that rowing too far out risked disturbing the Midgard Serpent, but the boy only laughed, and rowed harder, not stopping until the land had long since disappeared into the distance, and waves stretched as far as the eye could see to all sides. Using the ox’s head as bait, the young man cast his line, ignoring the nervous giant beside him. Soon enough, the bait was taken, and as the struggle began, Hymir knew in the pit of his stomach that his worst fears had been realized: his companion had hooked Jörmungandr, and the end of the world was at hand.

There was a time in our history when the ability to rush forward without thought – to take bold risks – was necessary, and in some cases it still is: sometimes fast action is required to save a life, or to provide aid or rescue before a situation spirals out of control. In most instances, though, our world has become complex enough that rushing to judgement – letting emotions carry us forward, buoyed by the sound of trumpets, slogans, or loud voices – leaves us dealing with unintended consequences. Sometimes the best thing to do isn’t to heed the surest voice, but rather to take a step back and determine which voice is the right one to listen to – which choice is right – balancing abstracts like justice and fairness against realism and caution, all the while recognizing that even a choice made for the right reasons might yield mixed or unexpected results. Sometimes confidence, daring, and immediate, emotional judgement – attractive as they may be – aren’t as valuable as analysis, skepticism, and pragmatism, if the goal is long-term success, rather than immediate gratification.

The young man wrestled with the line, heaving with what was clearly supernatural – perhaps divine – strength, all the time Hymir telling him to stop, reminding him that if it was, indeed, the Midgard Serpent at the end of his line, that pulling up the great beast might bring on Ragnarök – doomsday. The boy ignored him, pulling with all his might and all at once the serpent’s head rose out of the water: monstrous, slavering, with eyes like glowing red coals. In that moment, Hymir realized that his companion was indeed Thor, the lord of thunder and lightning. As the god and monster stared each other down, all Hymir could think of was that if he didn’t act, this might be the end of the world – for the Aesir and the Jötun, both. He slipped a knife out of his pocket and cut the line, sighing with relief as the serpent disappeared once again beneath the waves.

What do you think makes someone heroic? Acting quickly and confidently? Not being afraid to seek out and stare down enemies? Being thoughtful and analytical? Is it possible to have all of these qualities, together?

Thor glared at Hymir, furious that the giant had denied him the battle that he had craved, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the fight might have meant the end of the world. In his rage, he struck the giant, knocking him overboard, leaving him to drown in the endless sea as the son of Odin rowed sullenly back to the shore.

Hymir’s reward was death, and even now, the story is largely thought of as one that demonstrates yet again Thor’s strength and daring. For myself, though, I’m grateful that there are voices of reason that warn us against making emotional, costly mistakes, and that when necessary have the courage – sometimes at great personal cost – to cut the line.