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.
The first humans, in Norse myth, were made from two pieces of wood. Trees, humans and gods are closely connected, and the guardian god Heimdall and the world-tree Yggdrasil have a particularly strong bond. Humans, too, are a special care of his, as he intervened at time’s beginning to make them his kin.
My last post looked at the Norse goddess of death, Hel, who shared her name with her abode, the home of the dead. Norse poetry from the Viking and high medieval eras frequently describes death as “going to Hel”.
But many of the dead weren’t about to go anywhere. In Norse myths and sagas, anyone who wished to communicate with the dead went out and sat on their barrow, or in some cases actually entered it. Clearly, people thought the dead were still powerful in the world, just waiting in their graves to help their families or those who left offerings.
Heimdall is the guardian of the gods, and of their home, Asgard. Why is it then, that the Eddic poem Rígsþula describes him wandering the earth and interacting with humans as if he had nothing else to concern him?
Norse mythology has many puzzles, and one of them is the imbalance in numbers between Aesir and Vanir. The Aesir, who incude Odin and Thor among their number, seem to have many associated gods and goddesses, while the Vanir seem to have only three: Njord, Freyr and Freyja.
Fate is an important part of Norse myth and culture, from the all-encompassing poem Völuspá with its vision of creation, end times, and rebirth, to the heroic sagas whose heroes and heroines are pushed by their fates into destructive acts and violence.
Fate was not just an impersonal force, but was often imagined as the norns, women who laid down fate for mortals and immortals alike. These women were present at the beginning of the world, and at births, but people’s view of them was not sentimental.
Human rulers die, and the next generation takes over. Sometimes the older generation gets “helped” off the throne, either by assassination or war. So it’s not surprising that mythology has many versions of this succession story, which rarely involve peaceful inheritance.
Gefjun will be forever be famous as the goddess who gave Zealand to Denmark. The Danes immortalized her feat with a fountain in Copenhagen harbour, showing her and her oxen ploughing out the land.
She has many similiarities to Odin, as a goddess who travels between worlds, tricks mortals, and straddles moral and sexual boundaries. Far from being an earth and ploughing goddess, Gefjun is a magical and complex figure.
We’re all familiar with nose-to-tail eating, the idea that you should use all of an animal once it’s been slaughtered. Thanks to the taboo on cannibalism and various laws about indignity to dead bodies, we tend not to put human bodies to post-death use. Gods, however, are not so squeamish. The Norse gods in particular show thrift and ingenuity, as well as a strong stomach, in their use of their dead compatriots.
I should point out that the Norse gods could, on occasion, lay on a proper funeral: Baldr was buried with full honours. But the dead bodies of one giant and two gods were clearly too valuable to be left lying around.
While it’s part of Norse myth that the gods and giants are enemies, it seems that the giantesses were a different story. Odin clearly never met one he didn’t like, and he was far from being the only one to have a fling with one. Even Thor the giant-smasher had an affair with Jarnsaxa. These romances usually resulted in the second-generation gods, such as Thor’s son Magni.
Sometimes, however, the sons of these unions were mortals, or demi-mortals anyway. The Swedish ruling dynasty called the Ynglings and the Norwegian earls of Hladir traced themselves back to the giantesses/goddesses Gerdr and Skadi, respectively.