Page 29 of Norse Mythology

Utgardaloki considered this. “Of course,” he said. “Where is my cup-bearer?” The cup-bearer stepped forward. “Bring me my special drinking horn.”

The cup-bearer nodded and walked away, returning in moments with a long horn. It was longer than any drinking horn that Thor had ever seen, but he was not concerned. He was Thor, after all, and there was no drinking horn he could not drain. Runes and patterns were engraved on the side of the horn, and there was silver about the mouthpiece.

“It is the drinking horn of this castle,” said Utgardaloki. “We have all emptied it here, in our time. The strongest and mightiest of us drain it all in one go; some of us, I admit it, take two attempts to drain it. I am proud to tell you that there is nobody here so weak, so disappointing, that it has taken them three drafts to finish it.”

It was a long horn, but Thor was Thor, and he raised the brimming horn to his lips and began to drink. The mead of the giants was cold and salty, but he drank it down, draining the horn, drinking until his breath gave out and he could drink no longer.

He expected to see the horn emptied, but it was as full as when he had begun to drink, or nearly as full.

“I had been led to believe that you were a better drinker than that,” said Utgardaloki drily. “Still, I know you can finish it at a second draft, as we all do.”

Thor took a deep breath, and he put his lips to the horn, and he drank deeply and drank well. He knew that he had to have emptied the horn this time, and yet when he lowered the horn from his lips, it had gone down by only the length of his thumb.

The giants looked at Thor and they began to jeer, but he glared at them, and they were silent.

“Ah,” said Utgardaloki. “So the tales of the mighty Thor are only tales. Well, even so, we will allow you to drink the horn dry on your third attempt. There cannot be much left in there, after all.”

Thor raised the horn to his lips and he drank, and he drank like a god drinks, drank so long and so deeply that Loki and Thialfi simply stared at him in astonishment.

But when he lowered the horn, the mead had gone down by only another knuckle’s worth. “I am done with this,” said Thor. “And I am not convinced that it is only a little mead.”

Utgardaloki had his cup-bearer take away the horn. “It is time for a test of strength. Can you lift up a cat?” he asked Thor.

“What kind of a question is that? Of course I can pick up a cat.”

“Well,” said Utgardaloki, “we have all seen that you are not as strong as we thought you were. Youngsters here in Utgard practice their strength by picking up my housecat. Now, I should warn you, you are smaller than any of us here, and my cat is a giant’s cat, so I will understand if you cannot pick her up.”

“I will pick up your cat,” said Thor.

“She is probably sleeping by the fire,” said Utgardaloki. “Let us go to her.”

The cat was sleeping, but she roused when they entered and sprang into the middle of the room. She was gray, and she was as big as a man, but Thor was mightier than any man, and he reached around the cat’s belly and lifted her with both hands, intending to raise her high over his head. The cat seemed unimpressed: she arched her back, raising herself, forcing Thor to stretch up as far as he could.

Thor was not going to be defeated in a simple game of lifting a cat. He pushed and he strove, and eventually one of the cat’s feet was lifted above the ground.

From far away, Thor and Thialfi and Loki heard a noise, as if of huge rocks grinding together: the rumbling noise of mountains in pain.

“Enough,” said Utgardaloki. “It’s not your fault that you cannot pick up my housecat, Thor. It is a large cat, and you are a scrawny little fellow at best, compared to any of our giants.” He grinned.

“Scrawny little fellow?” said Thor. “Why, I’ll wrestle any one of you—”

“After what we’ve seen so far,” said Utgardaloki, “I would be a terrible host if I let you wrestle a real giant. You might get hurt. And I am afraid that none of my men would wrestle someone who could not drain my drinking horn, who could not even lift up the family cat. But I will tell you what we could do. If you wish to wrestle, I will let you wrestle my old foster mother.”

“Your foster mother?” Thor was incredulous.

“She is old, yes. But she taught me how to wrestle, long ago, and I doubt she has forgotten. She is shrunken with age, so she will be closer to your height. She is used to playing with children.” And then, seeing the expression on Thor’s face, he said, “Her name is Elli, and I have seen her defeat men who seemed stronger than you when she wrestled them. Do not be overconfident, Thor.”

“I would prefer to wrestle your men,” said Thor. “But I will wrestle your old nurse.”

They sent for the old woman, and she came: so frail, so gray, so wizened and wrinkled that it seemed like a breeze would blow her away. She was a giant, yes, but only a little taller than Thor. Her hair was wispy and thin on her ancient head. Thor wondered how old this woman was. She seemed older than anyone he had ever encountered. He did not want to hurt her.

They stood together, facing each other. The first to get the other one down onto the ground would win. Thor pushed the old woman and he pulled her, he tried to move her, to trip her, to force her down, but she might as well have been made of rock for all the good it did. She looked at him the whole time with her colorless old eyes and said nothing.

And then the old woman reached out and gently touched Thor on the leg. He felt his leg become less firm where she had touched him, and he pushed back against her, but she threw her arms around him and bore him toward the ground. He pushed as hard as he could, but to no avail, and soon enough he found himself forced onto one knee . . .