When Thor and Loki reached Utgard, they found it to be so massive in size that they could enter by squeezing through the bars of the front gate. They found the king – Utgard-Loki – so huge that he barely noticed his diminutive guests. When he did, he asked them if they had any special skills, that could be pitted against the members of his court. What followed was a defeat that not only humiliated Thor and Loki, but spoke to the nature of the Norse gods, and of the limits that we all live with.
The first test was an eating contest, where though Loki devoured the meat that their host provided, his opponent gobbled up the bones, as well, and adding insult to injury, the trough! Thor’s servant Thialfi proved no match for his opponent in a footrace (in his defense, if these giants were so huge, how could a boy that Thor picked up at a farm along the way stand much of a chance?), and Thor failed not only to drain the horn put before him (after three tries!), but he couldn’t even pick up Utgard-Loki’s cat from the floor, and the giant king’s ancient foster mother brought the thunder god to his knees when they wrestled!
Ultimately (once they were outside of his gate), Utgard-Loki revealed himself to be a sorcerer, who had deceived the Asgardians with illusions. Loki’s opponent in the eating contest had been Logi – fire – which consumes all, while young Thialfi had run his race against Hugi – thought. The horn Thor had drunk from had its end in the ocean, the cat had been the Midgard Serpent (if Thor had lifted the serpent it would have been bad news, indeed – it would have brought on Ragnarok), and the old woman was Elli – old age – at whose approach all tremble, even the gods. When he learned he had been made a fool of, Thor (as usual) tried to strike down Utgard-Loki and destroy his castle, but before he could bring his hammer down both the giant and his fortress vanished, leaving Thor, Loki, and their companions to reflect on the experience (or more likely, stew about it).
Though ultimately the challenges set out before Thor and his companions were illusions, the misdirection Utgard-Loki employed was such that the gods failed to understand the fundamental nature of the tasks; in each case, though, there was an actual test, and in each case, the test was failed. Though I’m sure that Thor was angry about being tricked (the guy had a temper), it’s hard not to wonder if what really would have frustrated him might have been the deeper lesson: that even gods have limits – a lesson that applies not just to the citizens of Asgard, but to human beings, as well. Thor and Loki found themselves in a situation where they were forced to take on tasks that they could not complete, and it’s easy to see the illusions of Utgard-Loki as a proxy for our own tendency to fool ourselves about what we can do, only to end up reminded that some things are beyond us: we have limits, and it’s important for us to see through our own, self-created illusions and understand what they are.
The ultimate limit is old age: though the Norse gods have access to the apples of immortality (through Idun), they are not immortal: without the apples they would grow old and die. Though each of us lives with our own challenges – our own limits to overcome (or not) – we all labor under the constraint of age, and ultimately, death, as did the Scandinavian gods.
At the mythological/cultural level, the idea of gods having limits – and being mortal – speaks to the way the Scandinavian people saw themselves in relation to the world around them – a world whose challenges at times must have seemed unassailable, framed by a life that would ultimately end. This worldview (one aspect of a Pagan worldview?) seems sharply different than one where God (the Judeo-Christian God, the one God) is all-powerful and far away. The Christian God is limitless, with motives that are impossible for humans to fully understand, and the universe of Judeo-Christianity is one where our world is a shadow of something infinite, with (in the case of Christianity, at least) Jesus as the bridge that brings an unknowable God a little bit closer. Perhaps this is why I’m more drawn to the pagan gods: I identify with them, more: their stories mirror the human experience in this world, a world where power is balanced against limits and where the gods and goddesses serve very clear roles, as opposed to being the emissaries of a far away creator, whose will is subject to constant, ongoing interpretation.
Finally – returning to Thor, Loki, and their servants, left wide-eyed in the sun after the disappearance of Utgard-Loki and his realm, it’s comforting to think that though Thor and his companions failed at the tests they were given, they were operating under a misconception; when they truly understood the challenges they had faced, they might have recognized that their limits were greater than they had been led to believe. When all was said and done, they still accomplished amazing feats. If this is true of the gods and their striving, perhaps it’s true of us, as well; perhaps our missteps can be used not just to teach us our limits, but also to remind us that our failures are at least partially illusions, and that – as in the contest of the Asgardians against Utgard-Loki – they may also reveal our strengths.