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THE CREATION OF THE COSMOS

By Daniel McCoy

Ymir being slain by Odin and his brothers (Lorenz Frølich)

The Norse creation myth or  cosmogony (an account of the origins of the cosmos) is perhaps one of the richest in all of world literature. First, let’s look at this exceptionally colorful story itself, then consider how the Vikings may have interpreted it and found meaning in it.

The Origin of the Cosmos

Before there was soil, or sky, or any green thing, there was only the gaping abyss of Ginnungagap. This chaos of perfect silence and darkness lay between the homeland of elemental fire, Muspelheim, and the homeland of elemental ice, Niflheim.

Frost from Niflheim and billowing flames from Muspelheim crept toward each other until they met in Ginnungagap. Amid the hissing and sputtering, the fire melted the ice, and the drops formed themselves into Ymir (“Screamer”[1]), the first of the godlike but destructive giants. Ymir was a hermaphrodite and could reproduce asexually; when he slept, more giants leapt forth from his legs and from the sweat of his armpits.

As the frost continued to melt, a cow, Audhumla (“Abundance of Humming”[2]), emerged from it. She nourished Ymir with her milk, and she, in turn, was nourished by salt-licks in the ice. Her licks slowly uncovered Buri (“Progenitor”[3]), the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri had a son named Bor (“Son”[4]), who married Bestla (perhaps “Wife”[5]), the daughter of the giant Bolthorn (“Baleful Thorn”[6]). The half-god, half-giant children of Bor and Bestla were Odin, who became the chief of the Aesir gods, and his two brothers, Vili and Ve.

Odin and his brothers slew Ymir and set about constructing the world from his corpse. They fashioned the oceans from his blood, the soil from his skin and muscles, vegetation from his hair, clouds from his brains, and the sky from his skull. Four dwarves, corresponding to the four cardinal points, held Ymir’s skull aloft above the earth.

The gods eventually formed the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks, and built a fence around their dwelling-place, Midgard, to protect them from the giants.[7][8][9][10]

Order from Chaos

Thematically, Ymir is the personification of the chaos before creation, which is also depicted as the impersonal void of Ginnungagap. Both Ymir and Ginnungagap are ways of talking about limitless potential that isn’t actualized, that hasn’t yet become the particular  things that we find in the world around us. This is why the Vikings described it as a void (as have countless other peoples; consider the “darkness upon the face of the deep” of the first chapter of Genesis, for example). It is no-thing-ness. But it nevertheless contains the basic stuff out of which the gods can make true things – in this case, the primal matter is Ymir’s body, which the gods tear apart to craft the elements.

It’s extremely fitting for Ymir to be the progenitor of the giants, for this is the general role the giants occupy in Norse myth. They are the forces of formless chaos, who are always threatening to corrupt and ultimately overturn the gods’ created order (and at Ragnarok, they succeed). But the giants are more than  just forces of destruction. In the words of medievalist Margaret Clunies Ross:

Characteristically […] the gods covet important natural resources which the giants own, then steal them and turn them to their own advantage by utilising them to create culture, that is, they put the giants’ raw materials to work for themselves. These raw materials are of diverse kinds and include intellectual capital such as the ability to brew ale as well as the cauldron in which it is made, and abstractions made concrete like the mead of poetry and the runes of wisdom.[11]

Not only does Ymir fit this pattern; mythologically speaking, his death and dismemberment is the paradigmatic model for this pattern.

This also explains why Ymir is depicted as a hermaphrodite who can reproduce on his own asexually. Differentiation, including sexual differentiation, didn’t exist yet. The gods had to create that as part of their task of giving differentiated forms to what had previously been formless and undifferentiated. Various other creation myths from other peoples have used a hermaphroditic being to illustrate this same concept,[12] so we can be confident that this is also what the Norse meant here – despite the superficial counterexample of Audhumla and her udder. (After all, Norse mythology was never an airtight system.)

Ymir’s name provides an additional – and rather poetic – instantiation of this role as the personification of primordial chaos. Recall that Ymir’s name means “Screamer” (from the Old Norse verb  ymja, “to scream”[13]). The scream, the wordless voice, is the raw material from which words are made. By taking formless matter – represented by Ymir’s body – and giving it form, the gods were, metaphorically speaking, making words out of a scream.

The metaphor is completed by the description of the act of creation in the Old Norse poem  Völuspá. There, the verb used for the action by which the gods create the world is  yppa, which has a range of meanings: “lift, raise, bring up, come into being, proclaim, reveal.”[14] The primary sense in which  yppa should be understood here is “to come into being,” but note the additional shade of “to proclaim.” Given the poetic symmetry with Ymir’s name, this is surely not coincidental. The gods  proclaim the world into being as they sculpt it out of the Screamer’s corpse.[15]

The Centrality of Conflict

The Vikings, like the other ancient Germanic peoples, were and are notorious for their eagerness for battle. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that conflict is such a central theme in their creation myth – and that conflict is itself a generative force.

Ymir is born from the strife between fire and ice – and we can surmise that that particular opposition would have had a special poignancy for people living what was more or less a subsistence lifestyle in the cold lands of Scandinavia and the North Atlantic.

In order for the gods to fashion the world, they must first slay Ymir. This is the first intentional taking of a life in the universe, and it’s performed by the gods themselves. It isn’t presented as a crime or a sin, as in the Biblical myth of Cain and Abel. Rather, it’s a good and even sacred task. This isn’t to say that the Norse valorized killing as such; clearly, they distinguished between lawful and appropriate killing and unlawful and inappropriate killing. But they embraced what they saw as the necessity of having a warlike approach to life, for the sake of accomplishing great deeds that brought honor and renown to one’s name.

Of course, gods forming the world from the corpse of a being of chaos is a fairly common element in myth. But the precise set of  meaningscontained in such an act varies from culture to culture. Surely this glorification of  honorable aggression, and its status as the defining act that makes the world what it is, were central components of the meaning the Vikings found in their particular myth.

Both Giants and Gods Define the World

The Norse saw their gods as the “pillars” and “vital forces” that held the cosmos together. When the gods created the world, they imparted both order and sanctity to it. And since the Norse gods are frequently portrayed intervening in the world’s affairs, their gifts to the world weren’t thought to end with creation. Their defining role in the cosmos was thought to continue as long as the cosmos itself continued – that is, until Ragnarok.

And yet, since the world was formed from the corpse of a giant, it would seem that the world is what it is largely due to the influence of the giants as well. Aspects of Ymir – his might, his uncouthness, his tendency toward entropy, the ambivalence of his character – remained present in the world, even after the gods had shaped it in accordance with a different set of traits and aims. The giants, too, were thought to intervene in the world; the slaying of their ancestor by no means vanquished them.

In the Norse view, the world is a battleground between the gods and the giants, whose power is more or less evenly matched. Mankind is in the middle, torn between the opposing claims of holiness, order, and goodness on the one hand, and profaneness, chaos, and wickedness on the other. This tension is ceaseless because it’s been a feature of the world itself since its very beginning. The strife will only be alleviated by Ragnarok, when the world will be destroyed altogether, and nothing will remain but the stillness and darkness of a new Ginnungagap.

References:

[1] Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation.  In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 47.

[4] Ibid. p. 50.

[5] Ibid. p. 35-36.

[6] Ibid. p. 40.

[7] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá.

[8] The Poetic Edda. Vafþrúðnismál.

[9] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál.

[10] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning.

[11] Quoted in:

Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation.  In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.

[12] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 277-278.

[13] Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation.  In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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