In between their epic battles and their prodigious journeys, the Norse gods were fond of feasting. Once they invited themselves to the hall of a giant named Aegir who kept a good table. Aegir didn’t dare refuse them, either for fear of their anger or for fear of the curse which always struck the inhospitable (as Geirröth learned to his great cost
), but he did say he couldn’t serve them properly unless they brought him the largest kettle in the world, which belonged to the giant Hymir, renowned both for his strength and for his bad temper.
Thor, Odin’s mighty and hotheaded son, immediately volunteered. The god Tyr, who was Hymir’s son—or grandson, depending which tale you believe—went along to ensure their welcome at Hymir’s hall.
Thor harnessed his goats to his chariot, and they made great speed to Hymir’s abode in the frozen wastes. There Tyr’s mother and grandmother welcomed him gladly enough, but they warned that Hymir was not likely to look favorably on his guests, and they suggested that the newly-arrived gods should hide themselves behind the beam from which Hymir’s cookware hung. This they did. When Hymir arrived and his womenfolk informed him of his guests, he glared so hard that he shattered the beam and all his kettles except the mile-deep wonder which Thor had come to fetch. The guests, undaunted by this welcome, stepped forward and introduced themselves.
Hymir, as in duty bound, offered them supper. He was displeased when Thor alone ate up two of his oxen, and he said that he’d have to go fishing on the next day for the next night’s supper. The gods, he added, were too puny to be of any help with this.
Thor, naturally, insisted on joining the fishing expedition. Told to get his own bait, he killed another of Hymir’s oxen and hauled it along.
Hymir rowed first, and then set anchor, cast his own bait, and caught two whales. When Thor suggested rowing out further, Hymir said that this would be foolishly dangerous, for the Midgard Serpent
, Loki's monster-child who encircled the globe,
lay under the far seas.
Thor, who had had one humiliating encounter with the Midgard Serpent in Utgard-Loki’s hall, was eager for a rematch. He rowed the boat far out to sea. Baiting his hook with the head of Hymir’s ox, he cast his line deep. The Serpent took the bait, and strained at the line so hard that Thor was dashed against the gunwale of the boat. Thor held on.
He braced his feet against the boat, and they broke through the hull and anchored on the ocean floor. He pulled, and the Serpent’s head broke the surface of the water and struck against the boat’s side. Thor glared and the lightning flashed, and he struck the Serpent with his thunder-hammer.
The Serpent glared back and spat venom. Hymir, sick with fear, leaned forward suddenly and slashed Thor’s fishing line so that the Serpent plunged back into the deeps.
Thor in his fury struck Hymir so hard that the giant flew over the rim of the boat and plunged headfirst into the sea. Thor left his host behind and waded back to land, drawing the whales behind him.
When Hymir finally got home he said that Thor might give himself airs and claim to have caught the Midgard Serpent, but he hadn’t earned either the great kettle or the right to call himself strong until he could break Hymir’s drinking cup. Then Hymir throw that cup at one of the stone pillars of his hall. The pillar shattered; the cup rang and fell to the floor, intact.
Tyr’s mother either sympathized with Thor or wanted him out of the house before anything more got broken. She whispered to him that the only thing harder than Hymir’s cup was Hymir’s head. Thor promptly struck Hymir a hard blow with the cup, which fell in pieces, leaving Hymir unhurt but very disappointed.
So the kettle was Thor’s; but it proved too heavy even for his great strength to lift. At last he had to roll it home. On his way he heard a noise behind him and saw Hymir and a crowd of many-headed giants in pursuit. He flung the thunder-hammer at them and rolled the kettle back at them for good measure. After that many giants lay dead in the frozen fields, and none pursued Thor back to Aegir’s hall and the feast of the gods.