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. Continue reading
Athena is famous for many things, but her birth, springing fully formed from her father’s head, is a well-known part of her myth, depicted on blackfigure vases from early Greece and mentioned by Homer and Hesiod. Her mother, Metis, is less well-known, although it was she who actually gave birth to Athena, inside Zeus’ belly.
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.
Kvasir was the Norse god whose blood became the first mead, a drink that made a poet out of those who imbibed it. This drink, blood fermented with honey, was the motive for several murders, and wound up in the hands of the god of poets and inspired ecstasy, Odin.
The story of Kvasir is one level another John Barleycorn story – he dies to make mead, just as Barleycorn did to make beer. But there’s clearly more to the story, given that mead bestowed wisdom, just as Kvasir had while alive. He shared freely with all he met, and died for it.
The fourth branch of the Mabinogion is shaped by exchanges between Arianrhod and Gwydion. From the moment he brings her into the story by suggesting her as Math’s footholder (which seems such an innoncent idea: let’s get my sister, your niece, to do it!) the two are at odds. For the two men subject Arianrhod to a chastity test, since Math’s footholder must be a virgin, a magical condition laid down for his kingship.
Arianrhod fails the test in grand style, giving birth to not one but two boys. Math has one of them baptized and names him Dylan, but this son opts out of the family quarrels and goes to live in the sea. The rest of the story follows the career of the other son, Lleu, as Gwydion tries to get around the curse that Arianrhod has laid on her son.