We all know the Norse creation myth. In the beginning was ice and fire, then the fire thawed the ice enough to form a place where beings could emerge and life begins to form. Eventually some of the younger generation, led by the god Odin, killed the very first being, the giant Ymir, and made the world from his body.
Some scholars think that this is a particularly Icelandic myth, shaped by the thermal springs and volcanoes that make the landscape so dramatic. It’s pretty canonical, given that Snorri Sturluson (an Icelander!) uses it in the Prose Edda to explain how the world came to be.
Ymir, Odin and Creation
I covered the standard creation myth in my last post (on Ymir) but I’ll summarize it here as well:
In the beginning there were only two realms, Muspellheim, which was a realm of fire, and Nifehelheim, a realm of ice and mist. Where the flames met the ice, another area opened up, an open place called Ginnugagap, or Yawning Gap. In this space, life could form. A cow named Audhumla and a giant named Ymir appeared, and the cow fed Ymir on its milk.
The cow treated the ice coming out of Nifhelheim as a salt lick, eventually uncovering another being, Bur, the grandfather of Odin. Eventually Odin and his two brothers would kill Ymir and make the world out of his body. Ymir was so huge that his skull became the sky, and the blood that flowed from his body nearly drowned all the giants. (Two survived, however, to repopulate.)
In this version the feud between gods and giants is embedded in the very creation of the world. Odin and his brothers kill Ymir, nearly drown all the giants in the process, and then proceed to make a fortress around Midgard to keep the giants out of the new world they’ve built.
And it may even be a family feud – nowhere does the myth say where Buri’s mate came from, but it seems likely she was a giant, making Ymir Odin’s blood relative. You could read this as the grand arc of Norse myth, from Ymir’s death and the near-extinction of the giants, through the raids and battles of the myths, to the final battle that kills gods and giants alike.
A Kinder, Gentler Creation
But there does seem to be another creation myth, where the earth is fished up out of the waters, and the sun warms the new land into life. You can find it in the first stanzas of the cosmological poem Völuspá.
3. It was early in ages when Ymir made his home,
there was neither sand nor sea, nor cooling waves;
no earth to be found, nor heaven above:
a gulf beguiling, nor grass anywhere.
4. Before Bur’s sons brought up the lands,
they who moulded famed middle-earth;
Sun shone from the south on the stones of the hall:
then the ground grew with the leek’s green growth.
5. Sun, Moon’s escort, flung from the south
her right arm round heaven’s rim.
Sun did not know where she had a hall;
the stars did not know where they had stations,
Moon did not know what might he had.
The story then tells how Odin and two companions (here called Lodurr and Hoenir) created the first humans out of two pieces of driftwood. This version has elements in common with the earth-diver creation myth, where the supreme being sends down another being, often an animal, into the primal waters to find bits of earth to make the land.
It’s a common story among the Finno-Ugric peoples, and the First Nations of North America. (There’s a good, if rude, version of this told as a Wolverine tale.) The gods make Midgard, the home of humans, on the new land, and then the sun appears from the south, to warm it into life. The poet emphasizes this, first stating that the yawning gap had no grass, but after the sun shines on the new land, leeks appear.
Leeks were magical plants in Norse myth and folklore, but they’re also edible – once the gods and the sun swing into action, the void becomes a place where humans can thrive.
The Völuspá poet goes back to the image of the world rising out of the waters at the end of the poem. After the Aesir and the giants have their final battle and die, the earth sinks into the sea, only to rise anew, cleansed and green again. Stanza 59 is almost like an establishing shot before we close up on Baldr and the other young gods:
59. She [the seeress] sees, coming up a second time,
Earth from the ocean, eternally green;
the waterfall plunges, and eagle soars over it,
hunting fish on the mountain.
This time, however, the earth rises by itself, part of the new reign of peace and prosperity.
A few questions remain..
There are a few things left unexplained. One is why the sun doesn’t know where her station is, when she is already up in the sky and shining on the earth. Perhaps Odin and his companions established their actual orbits, or maybe we’re seeing two different traditions being reconciled here.
Then there’s the question of what happened to Ymir in this version of events. He’s mentioned, briefly, as the most ancient being, but we learn no more. One way of reconciling these two creation myths is to assume that Odin and the others were fishing around in Ymir’s blood for the pieces of Ymir’s body. (As if it wasn’t grisly enough already…) But the mention of Ymir may just be a way of establishing how long ago all this happened, since the giants were the most ancient beings.
There’s also no explanation of who Bur is, or where he came from. The poet may have called Odin “Bur’s son” to make a bridge between Ymir’s time and the time of Odin, a very economical way of flashing-forward. It still leaves open the question of how Bur, and later Odin, came to be, but Völuspá raises as many questions as it answers, and even Snorri Sturluson’s efforts don’t clarify everything.
References and Links
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Larrington, Carolyne 2017: The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes, Thames and Hudson.
For the picture at the top, click here.