Idunn, Keeper of the Apples of the Fountain of Youth
Idunn is precisely akin to these disir, except instead of administering her drinks to the dead, she brews her cider for the Gods, but the effect is exactly the same. By sakar deyfði (Guðrúnarkviða in Forna 23) "deafening, soothing, and allying injuries" and né ... sakar munðak (Guðrúnarkviða in Forna 21) "negating the memory of sorrow, blame, guilt, and quarrels", it is in-itself rejuvenating. Why? It is these things that make us old. The dyrar veigar releases the emotional chains to the past, which age us.
Gylfaginning 26 tells us Iðunn...varðveitir í eski sínu epli þau, er goðin skulu á bíta þá er þau eldast, ok verða þá allir ungir, ok svá mun vera allt til ragnarökrs, “She keeps in her ashen box those apples that the gods shall bite when they grow old, and will all then become young, and so it will be until Ragnarok.” The apples are clearly rejuvenating. Skaldskaparmal 22 specifically calls them ellilyf asana, literally the “old-age herbs of the Aesir”, with lyf or lyb meaning a medicine, drug, or herb, and thus the remedy for old-age. This implies that she is a lybbestre, a sorceress or witch-brewer. This old-age remedy is so important that Gylfaginning 26 says, Allmikit þykkir mér goðin eiga undir gæzlu eða trúnaði Iðunnar, “I think the Gods owe a great deal to the watchful-gaze and good-faith of Idunn.” The time she was abducted from the Gods was called ófæru, a “disastrous situation”, the “horrible departure”.
Idunn was associated with mead since she was a child, and is called Byrgis ár-Gefn, the “Harvest-Giver of Byrgir”, Byrgir being the fountain of mead which Bil and Hjuki were fetching with their pail as they went up the hill, the mead that subsequently ended up in Mani’s moonship. Her name, the Fruitfulness-Giver of the Mead-Spring speaks well her function of brewing the cider from the meadsap that collects and concentrates in the World-Tree’s fruits. “Gefn” is also a byname of Freya, so she may be called “Fruitful-Freya of the Mead-Fountain”. Perhaps this Mead-Fountain ought to be called a Jungbrunnen, a “Fountain of Youth”, yielding, “The Fruitful Freya of the Fountain of Youth”.
In the story of Huon de Bordeaux, we find a fountain that “resuscitates” from toil and weariness, and which “recovers…pristine vigor”, near to which “grew a tree, of which the apples partook of the resuscitating properties of the water by which its roots were nourished.” (Cited in E.W. Hopkins, "The Fountain of Youth", in E. Washburns Hopkins, Charles C. Torrey, eds., Journal of the American Oriental Society, Twenty-Sixth Volume, First Half, The American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, 1905, p.8.) The fluid, mead, or sap concentrated in these apples or the cider brewed therefrom is so rejuvenating that they are said in the French romance, Le Livre du preux et vaillant Jason et de la belle Medee, to make the imbiber “enclin a chanter, danser, et faire toutes choses joyeuses”, “inclined to sing, dance, and make all things merry” (Ibid, p. 7.) It heals weariness and restores the connection to vigor and joy.
This same rejuvenating power is alluded to in the legendary letter of Prester John where it is said (Ibid, p. 12), de quo fonte si quis ... gustaverit, ante CCC annos tres menses tres hebdomadas tres dies et tres horas non morietur et erit semper in aetate extremae juventutis, “of this fountain whomever tastes for three hundred years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours shall not die and will always be in a period of extreme youth”. An Old Norse story (Ibid, pp. 13 – 14) mentions a spring and apple-tree such that "whoever drinks of the water and eats of those apples will become young again,” and which is found thousands of miles across the ocean in a high castle. Gervasius of Tilbury mentions a spring (Ibid, p. 17) in his Otia Imperialia of which quae tantam habet in resumendis corporum viribus efficaciam, “whoever partakes of its greatness recovers their bodily strength effectively".
An excellent description of the effects of Idunn’s apple-cider brewed from the Jungbrunnen’s fruits is in the 20th Rune or Song from John Martin Crawford’s translation of the Kalevala, which speaks of the effects of a magical beer, “Said to make the feeble hardy, Famed to dry the tears of women, Famed to cheer the broken-hearted, Make the aged young and supple, Make the timid brave and mighty, Make the brave men ever braver, Fill the heart with joy and gladness,Fill the mind with wisdom-sayings, Fill the tongue with ancient legends…”
A potent brew indeed.
Idunn’s ófaeru, her disastrous departure and abduction, took place during a great winter that had threatened to take over all time, a Fimbulwinter that promised no spring, and in which the Gods grew old and wearied. Her return marked the end of that winter, and the beginning of a new Spring. She had been abducted into the Eastern lands of Jotunheim, and came from the East when she returned. Thus, her spring festival of renewal was known as “Eostre”, “She Who Came From the East”, and indeed, like the Dawn, she shines with her native elf-sheen. A daughter of Ivaldi and Sunna Swanfeather, daughter of Sol, the sun-goddess, she is both a shining dis of Eastern Dawn and a potent brewstress, as her father Ivaldi was, and as her sister Sif is renowned. In the cognate Greek mythos, the Hesperides or Ladies of Sunset guard the golden apples, and Idunn is the daughter of Sunna-Rind, who lives in the Varns, the Guarded Woodlands of Sunset.
As sister to the Sons of Ivaldi, she has a direct connection to the power spoken of by the Rig-Veda about the Ribhus, who are the cognates of the Sons of Ivaldi: “with surpassing skill ye made your aged Parents youthful as before.” (Rig Veda I.CX.8, Ralph Griffith translation), and again, “made life young again” (Ibid, CXI.1). This power is mentioned multiple times, and is obviously a skill that Idunn especially shares.
Idunn is therefore a Goddess of Youth and Rejuvenation. Volundarkvida calls her Alvitr unga, “All-White the Young”.
In Volundarkvida, she is also called Hervör-Alvit, “The All-White Refuge of the [Gods’] Host”, and is explicitly called a swan-maiden who spins flax with her swan-maiden sisters. They have been sent in this poem to the Wolfdales to örlög drýgja, to carry out the commands of the Fate-Goddess, even though they yearn to be back home. Here they stay with the Sons of Ivaldi, attempting to be peace-weavers. Forspjallsljod 8 says that syrgja Naumu viggjar að véum, “Nauma (Idunn) sorrowed in the wolf’s home” and that vargsbelg seldu, she was forced into a wolfskin which changed her temper, and kunni…haldan, felt angry being held there. Eventually she and her sisters left in frustration, having consorted with their brothers but having failed to turn them from ill back to good. Volund awaited her return and sorely missed her, later coercing Loki to abduct her and bring her to him. This was the ófaeru when she was missing from the Gods.
That she is so fiercely coveted by the jotnar is no accident ; the barren and monstrous often exhibit an inordinate and unnatural paedophilia (“fondness for the young”) due to their own inability to draw upon reserves of youth within themselves, and thus behave like vampires robbing it from others. Idunn obviously has such reserves of youth, with her epithet of Unga, “The Young”, and is able to teach others how to draw upon these reserves. This energy vampires seek to suck from children, because they have nothing within themselves. This same energy, pure and awesomely powerful, Idunn has within her. She draws upon her little girl energy to rejuvenate the apple-cider brew, and must, given her epithet, indeed maintain an extremely youthful appearance and shape which helps her bring out the youthful juice and sap in the apples. Perhaps one of the reasons she was so angry and was said to wear a wolf’s coat was because of her abduction by wolfish and cold folk living in barren wastelands. Youth is to remain shining, on the mountaintops, and not abducted into cold underworlds. Idunn no doubt demonstrates a fierce wolfishness towards any who would try to rob youth from the young, which is an abomination stemming from religiouslessness, for she shares with her worshippers the secrets of tapping that openness, newness, and freshness we all admire in the young. It is not for nothing that she is the Goddess of Easter!
Bede in his eight-century De Temporum Ratione said, Veteres Anglicani populi vocant Estormonath paschalem mensem, idque a dea quadem cui Teutonici populi in paganismo sacrificia fecerunt tempore mensis Aprilis, quae Eostra est appellate, "The ancient English people called the month of Passover Easter-Month, and she was the goddess to whom the Teutonic people in the pagan world made offerings and sacrifice in the season of the month of April, which Easter is called." It is traditional in European countries, especially Teutonic and Scandinavian ones, to construct an “Egg-Tree” on Easter, in which eggs are hung from branches. These are clearly the fruits of the World-Tree, and medieval clergymen, in an attempt to co-opt these into the faith, compared Easter eggs to the Eucharist, the bread and wine with which one shared in the immortality of Christ. Idunn’s “eggs” or fruit similarly brought eternal youth. As far as eggs go, the fruit of the world-tree contained a life- or soul- essence which became the embryos of babies, and thus could easily be called “eggs”, and we must not forget that Idunn was specifically called a “Swan-Maiden”. “Eggs of the Swan-Maiden” would be an excellent poetic reference to Idunn’s apples. Eggs are on their face symbols of youth. The Easter associations of rabbits, birds, and their eggs are all symbols of Spring and the rejuvenation it brings to the land after the old-age barrenness of Winter.
Idunn urges us to pay attention to youth, not in their childishness, but in the idealism that they especially are capable of, so that we might be awakened out of our cynicism. We need idealism to keep our souls young, and those who carry it, despite their chronological age, remain young at heart. The cynical and disheartened, on the other hand, when they have not become outright wolfish (with schadenfreude and resentment) are often unnaturally old. Youthfulness here is a quality of soul which imbues the whole being with vitality.
Idunn is the archetype of youthfulness within a strong, mature being. Rather than remaining a child, she is the image of a strong adult who has kept the child within her alive, nourished, and powerful, a prophetic voice that is capable of calling out the resignation, despair, and hopelessness that creeps into those worn down by the battle with evil, when evil so often seems to win the day. She is able to keep her eye on the future possibilities and keep her inner direction clear. She knows how to keep the direction clear, because she was once misled herself, and so teaches how to avoid such gullibility and pitfalls, and also how to recover when one has walked down a fraudulent path and fallen into trouble. Again, she keeps her youth within a powerful and shining, sinewy matrix of maturity.
In short, Idunn, elf, swan-maiden, Goddess, is indispensable to the Gods and to all who wish to learn the secrets of rejuvenation, secrets which are not only external elements of herbs and so forth, but re-youthing that comes through undoing the pain of toil, weariness, disappointment, and sorrow. Idunn is truly a Goddess to pray to for boons and blessings! Hail Idunn!
all translations copyright 2008 by Siegfried Goodfellow