Gertrude Bird: A Retold Folktale

Gertrude's Bird aka Black Woodpecker (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Gertrude’s Bird aka Black Woodpecker (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Odin and Loki tromped up the road, weary and hungry from a long day of travel. They happened on a house, and decided to beg hospitality there. Odin knocked on the door.

The housewife answered the door wearing a red scarf on her head and an apron covered in white flour.

Odin said, “Hello, housewife. We are hungry and would have some of whatever you are baking, if you would be so good. May we come in?”

“Alright, but behave yourselves,” the goody said, “or I’ll hit you with my rolling pin.”

“We shall be good guests, if you be a good host,” Odin promised. They followed the goodwife into her kitchen. She had an iron griddle going on the fire, and a board and rolling pin.

Odin said, “My name is Vegtam, and this is Lopt. And who might you be, goodwife?”

“Gertrude,” she said. She took a small piece of dough and rolled it out.

Odin elbowed Loki in the ribs just a little, to get his attention, and then cast a small magic on the dough. As the human rolled out the dough, it grew and grew until it covered the whole griddle.

“Nay, that one is too big,” Gertrude said. “You can’t have that.”

She took a tinier piece of dough and rolled it. Odin cast the small magic again, and the dough grew until it covered the whole griddle. Gertrude shook her head and clucked. “That bannock is too big, too. You can’t have that either.”

She took a piece of dough so tiny they could scarely see it. Odin nodded shallowly to Loki and Loki tried the magic he had observed. This time too, the dough grew to fill the whole griddle. Loki suppressed a smile at having learned a new magic, resulting in a twisted smirk.

“Well,” said Gertrude, “I can’t give you anything. You must just go without, for all these bannocks are too big.”

Odin growled, “Since you grudge me a morsel of food, I shall punish you.”

Gertrude picked up her rolling pin to defend herself, but Odin only gestured at her, using magic.

Odin decreed, “You shall become a bird, and seek your food in the bark of trees.”

Then Gertrude shrank and became a woodpecker. Her red scarf was still visible in her feathers. She flew right up her chimney and got soot all over her, and her body became all black. So the Gertrude Bird is a black woodpecker with a red head. She pecks at the boles of trees, and whistles when the rain is coming, for she is always hungry and thirsty.

So Odin ate the first griddle cake, and Loki ate the third, and Honir manifested between them and ate the second pancake. Then they settled in for the night in Gertrude’s bed and had a fine night on the straw, and left her dirty sheets to sit until the neighbors found the empty house. In the morning Loki fixed bacon and eggs for breakfast from Gertrude’s pantry, and they went on their way, all three of them singing a happy tune as they set out of the road, each with an apple for walking and snacking. A black and red woodpecker drilled a tree beside the house as they left.

[Author’s Note: “Gertrude Bird” is a retold Norwegian folktale. The standard version of this story is the adventures of Christ and Saint Peter. Because the figure of Christ in the story was an obvious Odinnic wanderer, I retold the tale as Odin and his sidekick. The Odinnic wanderer disguises himself as a beggar to test a person or household on how well they provide hospitality to strangers, which is an important heathen value. The law of hospitality known as guestright was an important social rule meant to prevent unnecessary deaths from cold and hunger in a time and place in which travelers could not expect to find a hotel at the end of every day’s journey. The tested person is either punished or rewarded, depending on whether they passed or failed the test. This story also falls into the category of folktales that edge over into mythology, as a story explaining why a part of nature is the way it is, in this case, why woodpeckers look the way they do. I updated the language of the tale, which was originally translated into an archaic version of English. The plot and the actions of Odin in the story are exactly the same ones ascribed to Christ in the traditional version.]

[Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She has an extensive list of published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc. In the print era she was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine and owned The Science Fiction Store, and she publishes the shared world Time Yarns.]

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