One of my favorite stories in mythology is that of Njord and Skadi, the Norse newlyweds whose meeting and marriage could rival the best of today’s dating and romance reality shows. I first took notice of their story when I was in the process of divorce in 2021, and the strange circumstances of their ill-fated relationship intrigued me: From the beginning, Njord and Skadi were doomed to fail. After all, Skadi had wanted to marry one of the other gods instead of Njord, plus they could not agree on perhaps the most important decision of their marriage, where they would live. Readers and scholars today differ on whether the couple simply stayed married and lived apart or if theirs became a story of divine divorce. But ultimately, the two parted ways. And that’s where my imagination took effect as a writer, founded on a question: What if Skadi had stayed?
Off on the wrong foot
Before we go any further, it’s worth understanding the backdrop of the marriage. Skadi was a jötunn, or giantess, whose father was killed by the gods. Entering the land of the gods to seek vengeance, she received several consolations, including a husband from among the gods. They gave her the ability to choose from among them—with a catch. She’d have to make her pick by seeing only their feet. Now, Skadi had had her eyes on Balder, the most handsome of the gods. It’d be easy to recognize him by his feet, Skadi thought. But she was mistaken, and found herself the bride of Njord.
The newlyweds didn’t get off on the best start, and to make matters worse, they couldn’t agree where to live. But in a sort of trial or truce, the two agreed to spend nine nights in Njord’s seaside home and nine nights in Skadi’s mountain hall. After all, Njord was the god of wind and waters and “patron saint” of sailors and fishermen. And Skadi, now assuming an identity as a goddess by marriage, was considered “goddess” of winter and skiing. But by the time the 18 days were up, the two were convinced that they simply could not abide the other’s abode.
When I read Skadi’s story, I find myself asking many questions and wondering about context that doesn’t exist. Much was likely lost when the myths were written down around the arrival of Christianity to the region. However, I pulled the following from my reading:
- Skadi appears to have a good relationship with her father, Thiazzi. Her mother isn’t present, and likely hasn’t ever been, given the lack of her mention.
- When Thiazzi is killed by the Aesir, Skadi rages. She puts on her armor and seeks out the gods to start a war. So, we know she’s fiery and strong (and probably tends to act impulsively).
- Despite her anger and grief, she agrees to a truce with the gods. Her moods may be a powerful force, but she can also be reasoned with.
- One consolation: The gods send Thiazzi’s eyes into the sky to become part of the Gemini constellation. Skadi has something to remember her father by.Another: She is so sad and lonesome that she believes she will never laugh again. But the gods must make her! The trickster Loki manages to make her laugh (in one very strange scene).
- Finally: The gods will grant Skadi one of their own as a husband. She has her eyes on the dreamy Balder, the most handsome of the single gods. But in an arrangement that sounds like a Viking predecessor to today’s dating and marriage reality TV shows, she chooses the wrong feet and weds Njord instead.
- Skadi gets the title “pure bride of the gods” and a rank as a goddess, despite being a jötunn. She allows herself to marry Njord and to become part of his community among the gods.
- After the failed marriage, Skadi returns to the mountains where we can assume she has inherited her father’s great hall.
There are some disagreements about the mother of Njord’s children, Freyr and Freya. Some say that they were born of Njord’s sister, and that Skadi is the stepmother. But what if they were actually Skadi’s children? Here we’re getting into conjecture and hypothesis, as some believe Skadi went on to bear children for Odin. (Of note: Odin is the father of Balder, the handsome god she wanted to marry. Talk about family drama!) Still, what if Njord’s children were actually Skadi’s? That would certainly complicate things in their relationship!
Back to the question, what if Skadi stayed?
As I developed the concept for my novel and collection of short stories this past year, I kept coming back to the character of Skadi and the choices she made. While I’m not writing a retelling of Skadi’s story, the question did spark a lot of ideas and inspiration for the stories I am writing.
What if a character such as Skadi were to give in and choose to live in her new husband’s domain, leaving her world behind? That itself doesn’t make for much of a story. But considering Skadi’s fiery and stubborn characteristics, what would it take for her to make this decision to give in? It’s out of character, so what might have happened for her to get to that point? And how would that continue to play out in the relationship, potentially leading to dysfunction and collapse?
I’ll leave these as questions for now. Answers could certainly go in many directions! But this is one of the fun things about writing–inspiration can come from countless places, and in fiction, the possibilities are endless.