The origins of Life, The Universe, and Everything, according to Norse Mythology – the people who brought you Vikings, long boats, and white people with dread locks.
In the beginning of Norse Mythology, before there was anything at all, there was… well… nothing.
Then, suddenly, two realms popped into existence.
These two worlds, the very first in the universe of Norse mythology, were in stark contrast to each other. One was a world of ice and fog, the other one of fire and heat. Between these two worlds was an immense abyss, called Ginnungagap (translation – “gaping abyss” or “yawning void” or “magical gap”)
The Ice world was called Niflheim (translation from Norse – “Home of Mist”) . It was an arctic purgatory of white ice and fog. In it was a great fountain, Hvergelmir (boiling spring), from which all streams of the world flowed. At the time of creation, there were 11 streams, and they were called the Elivagar (Norse for “Ice Waves”).
There was poison in these waters. The poison seems to come from a wide variety of serpents that lived in the fountain, Hvergelmir. As in many origin stories, we see here another serpent that alter a state of purity in the beginning of time.
The streams flowed out of Niflheim and into the dark abyss of Ginnungagap. In this dark void, the Elivagar streams froze, and the poison within them rose to the top to create a salty rime.
The other world which popped into existence was Muspelheim, or Muspell. (The translation may be “home of the destroyers of the world” or “home of the fiery end”). Muspelheim is a fiery world nothing could survive except for a Fire Giant named Surtr.
There is no clear origin story for Surtr. If there ever was one, it has been long lost to the passage of time and the destruction of cultures by medieval Catholic missionaries. During early Catholic expansionism, these zealots wiped most of Europe’s original cultures off the face of the Earth during particularly violent conversion campaigns.
The Norse mythology and culture is one of the few that survived the catholic invasions. The story of how it escaped a gruesome demise is an interesting one that is noted at the bottom of this article and will be covered in detail in a later article.
Anyway, what is known is that Surtr was a Flame Giant who wielded a fiery sword or spear that shot sparks out of its blade, and that he would one day bring the end of the world through Ragnorak.
Surtr often swung this blade around, whipping flames everywhere like a kid on Fourth of July shooting Roman Candles at the neighbors. Except, rather than setting fire to the lawn and angering parents, Surtr’s sparks produced celestial bodies of the Norse sky, like the Sun, Moon, and constellations.
Some of the heat of Muspelheim and the sparks from Surtr’s blade traveled into Ginnungagap. There, the sparks met with the frozen Elivagar of Niflheim. Through that powerful combination of elemental Fire and Ice, energy was created. That energy produced the progenitor of all in Norse mythology, Ymir (translation – “Screamer”).
Nobody knows for sure why Ymir was called the screamer. Perhaps he was the first being to recognize the agony of existence in a world with no clear purpose, and all he could do was scream, much like myself.
The more scholarly take on the name of Ymir/Screamer is that he was the embodiment of pure chaos.
While it may seem dismal, from that chaos would come the rest of the inhabitants and realms of Norse mythology. Some of the first beings to come from Ymir were a male and a female giant that were spawned by the sweat under his armpit (gross) and a six-headed monster of a giant that grew out of his toe like a bad case of athlete’s foot. From these beings, many other frost giants were born.
The fire and ice that birthed Ymir also created a second being. This one was a cow named Audhumla (translations – “abundance of humming”, “Destroyer of deserts” “humble cow” “Hornless cow”).
While Ymir represents the sonic sensation of screaming chaos, Audhumla represents the soothing hum of order. Here, much like in the analogy of Fire and Ice creating energy, we see a dichotomy that constantly occurs throughout the Norse mythology. This idea is similar to Taoism, that opposites must exist together, and in harmony with each other.
Audhumla stretched across the Ginnungagap, and large streams of milk flowed from her utters. Ymir drank the milk to sustain himself. Meanwhile, Audhumla licked the rime and ice to sustain herself.
One day, to the great cow’s astonishment, a man’s head appeared in the ice she was licking. After three days of licking, Audhumla revealed the full body of the first Aesir god – who are the main gods in Norse mythology – Buri. Buri bore a son, named Bor.
Buri had a revelation one day that all giants were evil. Maybe the stench of the beings that had been created by sweat and feet of Ymir were so offensive to the young god that he felt they needed to be killed.
So, Buri and his son Bor went to war with the giants. Unfortunately, they could not win. Each day they went to war, and each evening ended in a stalemate.
ODIN, VILI, AND VE
Then Bor married a giant, Bestla (daughter of Bolthorn) and produced three sons – Odin, Vili, and Ve. These three brothers killed Ymir The Screamer, their Great-Grandfather, and finally won the first of many battles in Norse mythology.
The blood which gushed out of Ymir’s wounds flooded everything and massacred every being in the race of Frost Giants except for one, Bergelmir. Bergelmir would become the ancestor for all future giants in Norse Mythology. These giants represent chaos, and are the enemies of gods and men.
DAWN OF CREATION
The three brothers used Ymir’s corpse to create the world. Metaphorically speaking, the gods took the formless chaos of The Screamer Ymir and turned it into order. They took screams and made language. The gods “proclaim the world into being as they sculpt it out of the Screamer’s corpse”. The concept of the world being spoken into existence is prevalent in many religions and mythologies.
The murder of Ymir is the first kill, and from this conflict came the great deeds of the creation of the universe.
From this violence and the greatness that followed it came the Norse belief that conflict was needed to accomplish greatness. The themes of performing violence to achieve a peaceful end, and the dichotomy of all things like Chaos and Order or Fire and Ice, will be ongoing themes.
A Note on the Survival of these Myths
Most mythologies of the old European world were destroyed by empires and religious zealots during aggressive expansion by the Catholic Empire. These stories survived because of a poet by the name of Snorri Sturluson. Snorri disguised many of the core Norse mythologies and beliefs within the epic poem, the Prose Edda. By hiding these myths and histories within an fictional work, it was able to survive the aggressive book burning and history erasing by Catholic missionaries of the time.
We will get more in depth with Norse Mythology and the creation of the world from Ymir’s corpse, the first people, and more in the next installment.