Ymir, the first being in Norse myth, is the first creator, who gives life to a number of beings, and a giant who is more serviceable dead than alive. (Odin and his brothers make the world out his body.) There is a real tension in the Ymir story between these two views of him, reflecting the ambiguous attitude of Norse myth towards giants in general.
In the Beginning
Norse creation myth is unusual, to say the least. In the beginning was ice and fire. There were two realms, Muspell and Nifhelheim, one icy cold and the other full of fire. Eventually the area midway between them, the Ginnungagap or Yawning Void, warmed up enough for the ice to melt and life to come out of the thawing water:
Vsp. 3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.
Ymir was the first being to emerge from the ice, followed by a cow named Audhumla who fed him with her milk. The cow licked the salty ice and another being emerged, Buri, who found a wife and had a son Borr. In time Borr too had children, the god Odin and his two brothers. (See below for more on Buri’s wife.)
Another Eddic poem, Vafthrudnismal, doesn’t refer to the first being as Ymir, but Aurgelmir. While the name Ymir goes back to an Indo-European root meaning “twin” and connects him to the Indian god Yama, Aurgelmir means “mud-roarer”, a less cosmic-sounding name altogether. (Although it may make you think of the prison escape in Raising Arizona.)
Aurgelmir has a lineage: he has a son, Thrudgelmir (strong-roarer) and a grandson, Bergelmir (mountian-roarer). The verse doesn’t mention any female giants, which leads to another question.
How Do Giants Reproduce?
According to the Eddic poem Vafthrudnismal:
33. They say that under that frost-giant’s arm,
at the same time a boy and girl grew;
one leg with the another of that wise giant
got a six-headed son.
(All translations from Andy Orchard’s Edda.)
Unlike Odin’s ancestor Buri, who is described as fair of face, we can see that the giants were meant to be grotesque – this may be one reason why they reproduce in odd ways.
John Lindow suggests that the giants’ ability to reproduce asexually as well as in the usual way was a threat to gods and humans. (Many giant females have children with various gods and heroes, so we know that they can have children that way as well.) The god Thor clearly sees this as part of his reason for smashing giants, saying:
23. great would be the giant-race, if they all lived,
mankind would be nothing, under middle-earth.
Other scholars see Ymir as a hermaphrodite, however, in which case his power to reproduce would be limited to him. This Ymir fits better into a pattern of bisexual cosmic beings who create the first things and beings. Where he differs from others like the Egyptian Atum is that he is also seen as the monster who is killed and broken up to actually make the world, like the Babylonian Tiamat.
Depending on how you translate some parts of Ymir’s story, you can understand him and his descendants as poisonous, evil beings or else as beings generated from cold. (Kristensen: 150) Or perhaps both Vafthrudnismal intended that the eitrdropr (ice/venom drops) could be read either way, leaving it open whether giants were poisonous or merely cold:
31. From Elivagar dripped venom-drops,
which grew till a giant formed,
[from there came all our lines together:
so all is ever too awesome.]
In Snorri’s prose version:
The streams called Ice-waves, those which were so long come from the fountain-heads that the yeasty venom upon them had hardened like the slag that runs out of the fire,–these then became ice; and when the ice halted and ceased to run, then it froze over above. But the drizzling rain that rose from the venom congealed to rime, and the rime increased, frost over frost, each over the other, even into Ginnungagap, the Yawning Void.
While the Eddic stanza doesn’t make any judgements about Ymir’s nature, when Snorri quotes it he follows it by saying that Ymir and all his descendants were evil. (Faulkes: 11) In a way, the dialogue sums up the ambiguity around Ymir. King Gylfi asks, not unreasonably, if Ymir, as the first being, is considered a god, only to be told very firmly that Ymir was an evil being. This may be a rationalization of the next part of Ymir’s story.
First Person to Die
According to Snorri Sturluson, it was Odin and his two brothers who made the world as we see it today. As part of that ordering, they killed the giant Ymir and made the world out of his body. Grimnismal, which gives us the names of everything, says:
21. From Ymir’s flesh the earth was formed,
And the rocks from out of his bones;
the sky from the skulll of the ice-cold giant
and the sea from his blood.
In other mythologies, this would make him king of the dead, but the goddess Hel fills that role in Norse myth. To the poets and Snorri, Ymir is the ancestor of the giants, or the raw material for the world. (And the skaldic poets – Ymir’s blood is a kenning for the sea, and Ymir’s flesh for the earth.)
One theory about Ymir’s death is that in killing him, Odin and his brothers were killing their grandfather. Unlike the giants, who came out Ymir’s body, the myths tell us that Buri “gat”, got, his son Borr and in turn Borr got Odin. So who did they “get” them with? The only available female that we know about came from under Ymir’s armpit, so she must be a giant, so that must have been Buri’s partner, and presumably Borr also had a giant partner.
This interpretation fits with a reading of Norse myth as a feud between gods and giants, with strike and counterstrike until one final battle settles the score for good. And we all know that family feuds are the most poisonous of all.
Near-Extinction of Giants
By the time Ymir died, there must have been a fair few giants in the world, since another myth tells how they were nearly wiped out altogether. Vafthrudnismal gives us the first reference to this story:
29.Countless years before the earth was created:
Then was Bergelmir born;
Thrudgelmir was that ones’ father,
and Aurgelmir grandfather.
(The word used is luðr, a word that has puzzled scholars. While Bellows translated it as “boat”, it might mean “coffin” or “chest” or a wooden part from a mill; the other meaning, of a musical instrument like an alphorn, seems unlikely.)
To get the details, we have to turn to Snorri, who explains the story:
Bor’s sons killed the giant Ymir. And when he fell, so much blood flowed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of frost-giants, except that one who escaped with his household. Giants call him Bergelmir. He went up on to his ark with his wife and was preserved there, and from them are descended the families of frost-giants.
To channel this blood, the gods made the sea, and then began making and filling up their world, leading eventually to the creation of the first humans, after the stronghold called Midgard (our world) had been made for them out of Ymir’s bones, and fortified with Ymir’s eyelashes. This fortification kept out the remaining giants.
It’s perhaps ironic then that one of the places giants cluster is on the sea-shore, near to their ancestor’s blood.
Perhaps it was Ymir’s death and dismemberment that led to him being considered evil – after all, to take the first being that lived, and kill him and cut him up would seem an outrage otherwise. The myths don’t really give any reason why Odin and his brothers would do this, so the most likely explanation would have been that he was a giant, and therefore dangerous. If all the other giants went with him, all the better.
But the ambiguous nature of Ymir – like that of the giants generally – means that we can’t just dismiss him as a primitive and evil being. Ymir holds in tension two myths: primal being and creator, and monster born of chaos out which the world is made, and that tension reflects the ambiguous status of his kindred, both powerful and chaotic.
The giants were similarly ambivalent: they could be the ancestors of a powerful family (and the Earls of Orkney told a story of their giant ancestor that conciously echoed Ymir’s myth), wise, ancient beings, or monstrous, multi-headed beings out to harm and destroy. This was the legacy that Ymir left his children.
References and Links
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Kristensen, Rasmus Tranem, 2007: “Why was Ođinn Killed By Fenrir? A Structural Analysis of Kinship Structures in Old Norse Myths of Creation and Eschatology”, in Reflections on Old Norse myths, Studies in Viking and medieval Scandinavia, v. 1, eds. Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen, Brepols, Turnhout: 149-69.
Larrington, Carolyne 2017: The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, Thames and Hudson.
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Orchard, Andy 2002: Cassell’s Dictonary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell Reference.
Ymir – Norse Mythology for Smart People
Encylopedia Britannica entry on Ymir
Schmoop on Ymir
The Creation – The Norse Gods site
Pinterest Board of Ymir images
Ymir appears in several video-games, including Smite and Thor: God of Thunder and in Marvel Comics
Ymir, B.C. a former gold mine named for the giant
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