Norse Mythology: When Thor Met Utgard-Loki

From the Lecture Series: Norse Mythology

By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

In one of his adventures, Thor, his child slaves, and Loki reach the homes of the anti-gods. They reach a valley where there is a town within a locked gate. But the gate is made for creatures so much larger than themselves that they are able to squeeze through the bars of the gate. What do they encounter next?

Hand holding up a drinking horn
The drinking horn that Thor is given isn’t like any other. (Image: Jaffascze/Shutterstock)

Finding Utgard-Loki

Upon entering, they see a grand hall. They go inside and find an assembly of truly massive men within. A king sits on his throne, and Thor and his companions approach him. This is king Utgard-Loki, or ‘Loki from Outside the Enclosure’. But he does not appear to be Loki himself, given that Loki is traveling with Thor in this story.

Utgard-Loki turns and grimaces at his minuscule visitors. “Could it be possible that this small boy is none other than Thor?” he asks. Thor is boiling at this point. “And what sports can you boys play? Nobody can stay here if they cannot compete in some sport.”

Illustration of Thor meeting Utgard-Loki
In this one of Thor’s adventures, they meet creatures much larger than themselves. (Image: Louis Huard/Public domain)

Thor: A Drinking Man

“I am the most accomplished drinking man,” says Thor, using a characteristic Norse compliment for a man with great alcohol tolerance. “And, I will face anyone in your company who cares to have a drinking contest against me.”

So, Utgard-Loki summons one of his table servants to bring a drinking horn. “This horn,” says Utgard-Loki, “is considered well drunk if a man drains its contents in one gulp, although some men might require two. Surely there is no man who is so little of a drinking man that he would require three.”

Thor Fails

So, Thor tips the horn bottoms up and drinks and drinks until he is sure he must be close to the bottom of it, and he needs to come up for breath. Yet when Thor looks into the horn, he can not tell if he’s made even a drop’s worth of difference in the level of the mead in it. Thor tips the horn up for another gulp. And when he must finally come up for air the second time, it looks like he’s made even less of a difference than he did in his first gulp.

Utgard-Loki mocks him and says Thor’s great reputation won’t last if he needs three gulps where other men just need one. Thor gets really angry this time and drinks as hard as he can until he cannot keep on going, and he comes up for breath a third time. And while he’s made a little difference—now the horn can be carried confidently without spilling—he does not want to drink anymore, and we can imagine his humiliated silence.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse MythologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Thor’s Humiliation Continues

“It’s obvious now,” says Utgard-Loki, “That you’re not as great as the gods say. But do you want to try any other sports? You must know that you did not grow in our eyes from your performance in that one.” THor replies: “I’ll try more sports. But, what are you offering?”

“Well, there’s a little cat here that our no-account boys try to lift. I never would have thought to challenge the mighty Thor to such a puny contest if I had not seen how you performed with that little drinking horn.”

Next thing, a gray cat leaps out on the floor before Thor. Thor leans down and puts his hands under its middle and starts to lift and heave. Thor strains as hard as he can for as long as he can, and when finally he has to give up, he has managed to do no more than to lift one of the cat’s paws off the floor. “This went as I expected,” said Utgard-Loki, “The cat is fairly large, and Thor is little and short.” 

In the morning, right at sunrise, Thor and his companions get dressed and are soon ready to head out. As they are about to part, Utgard-Loki asks Thor how he thinks his visit has gone or whether he has ever met a richer man than Utgard-Loki. No doubt grumbling in his beard, the humiliated Thor merely replies that he knows that Utgard-Loki and all his company will be calling him just a little man from here on out, and he holds a grudge against them for that.

Thor riding his chariot while fighting his enemies
Utgard-Loki reveals that all of the challenges he has put Thor through were just illusions. (Image: Mårten Eskil Winge/Public domain)

Thor’s Adventure Was Actually a Success

The truth is quite different, Utgard-Loki tells him. In fact, he says he would never have been willing to host Thor at all if he had known just how powerful Thor truly was. “I fooled you with illusions,” says Utgard-Loki.

When you all arrived at my hall, I defeated you in your sporting contests only by magic and illusions. When you drank from the horn, Thor, well, the other end of it, unseen by you, was in the ocean. And you drank such a huge amount that now men will call it the tides. And when you thought you were only lifting up my cat, you were, in fact, lifting the Midgard-serpent, which is so large that it encircles the entire earth in the outer ocean and bites its tail at the end.

“And now we must part,” continues Utgard-Loki, “And it would be best for me if I never had you as a guest again. If you do come back, I’ll defend my fortress with similar illusions, or worse.” When Thor hears the end of this, he gets a good grip on his hammer and readies to swing it, but Utgard-Loki, and his fortress, have disappeared.

Common Questions about When Thor Met Utgard-Loki

Q: Why do seas have tides according to Norse mythology?

Thor drank from a cup whose other end was connected to the seas. He took such big gulps that the tides would exist because of his effort.

Q: Why couldn’t Thor lift the cat that Utgard-Loki challenges him to?

Utgard-Loki revealed to Thor that the cat was actually the Midgard-serpent which encircles the entire earth.

Q: Why did Utgard-Loki tell Thor that he would never have agreed to have him as a guest if he knew how strong he was?

Though it appeared that Thor’s adventure was full of humiliation and failure, Utgard-Loki revealed that he had tricked Loki with illusions and that, in fact, Thor was mighty and much more capable than Utgard-Loki had expected.

Keep Reading
The Influence of Vikings on Irish Politics
The Viking Presence and Influence in Scotland
The Impact of Vikings on Celtic-Speaking Regions