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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
November 2012

Ginnungagap, Niflheim, Ymir 

Each cultural group has its own creation myths, and the Germanic-speaking peoples of Northwest Europe are no exception. And it is to those myths we now turn for an explanation of how the Nine Worlds and their inhabitants came into being. The following version is adapted from the one I used in my book The Northern Path.

In the beginning there was nothing—neither earth nor sea—only the great yawning void that the gods later called Ginnungagap.

Time passed, if time even existed then, and the first of the Nine Worlds came into being. South of Ginnungagap there appeared a land called Muspellheim, a place of fire— of volcanoes and molten lava—guarded by a soot-covered, swarthy-skinned Fire Giant named Surt. He it is who shall come forth at the end of time to destroy all the worlds with his flaming sword.

North of Ginnungagap there formed the second world, a misty realm of frost and ice called Niflheim. At the very center of Niflheim there is a huge, bubbling spring called Hvergelmir from which eleven icy rivers flow. It was Hvergelmir that was to serve as the Well of Creation.

The northern part of Ginnungagap slowly filled with ice from the rivers of Niflheim, while the southern part of the void became lighted up with sparks and embers from Muspellheim. Where the ice and fire met, the ice melted and began to drip into the very center of Ginnungagap. The meltwater took on the sleeping form of a great manlike creature. Thus was created Ymir, the first of the Frost Giants.

While Ymir slept, he began to sweat beneath his armpits, and—strange to say—from this sweat there grew a male and a female. . . the second generation of Frost Giants. Stranger still, Ymir’s legs mated one with the other, and one of them gave birth to a six-headed son—perhaps the first of the trolls.

You might ask what sustained Ymir during his long sleep. The same meltwater that formed Ymir also produced a great cow, Audhumla, whose milk nourished the giant. The cow, in turn, licked the salty blocks of ice that filled the northern part of Ginnungagap. By the end of the first day of licking, a man’s hair appeared, on the second day his head, and on the third day, he stepped forth from the ice fully formed. This was Buri, who would become grandfather of the first Aesir gods.

Buri fathered a son called Bor, who married the giantess Bestla. The couple had three sons—Odin, Vili, and Ve—the first gods to be known as the Aesir. These young gods soon came to despise Ymir, whom they perceived as being evil, so they fell upon him as he slept and slew him. So much blood flowed from his wounds that all of the Frost Giants were drowned-save for one couple that found something to keep them afloat. From them all Frost Giants are descended.

Odin and his brothers took Ymir’ s corpse and made from it the rest of our world— from his blood the sea, from his flesh the earth, from his bones the mountains, from his teeth the rocks and pebbles, and from his hair the grass and trees. From Ymir’s skull, the gods made the domed vault of the sky, then they placed a Dwarf under each of the four corners to hold it up. Where did the Dwarves come from? The Eddas tell us that they were created from the maggots crawling in Ymir’s corpse, although—should you ask them—the Dwarves will vehemently deny it!

The three young Aesir gods threw Ymir’s brains skyward to form the clouds, which you can see to this day. Then they took the sparks and embers blown out of Muspellheim and placed them in the sky to form the sun, moon, and stars. To establish the daily cycles of dark and light, the gods assigned the responsibility of driving the chariots of night and day across the sky to a woman (Nott) and her son (Dag); likewise, a goddess (Sol) drives the chariot of the sun, and her brother (Mani) the chariot of the moon.

To the surviving giants, the gods gave the lands along the coast (Utgard, the outer holding—later to be known as Jotunheim, or Giant Home), but to keep the giants from causing mischief in the interior, Odin and his brothers used Ymir’s eyebrows to build a high barrier around the green and verdant place they called Midgard, or Middle Earth.

Walking along the sea shore one day, Odin, Viii, and Ve came upon two trees, an ash and an elm. From these trees, the gods created a man (Ask) and a woman (Embla). Odin breathed life into them, Viii gave them intelligence and movement, and Ve granted them speech, sight, and hearing. The brothers were so pleased with their creation that they gave Ask and Embla all of Midgard for themselves and their descendants, the human race.

Then, for themselves, the Aesir created the world of Asgard, which lies high above the world of men and women but is connected to it by a fiery rainbow bridge called Bifrost that allows the gods to visit Midgard whenever they wish. It is worth noting that in the Norse myths, the creator gods are not the oldest beings in their universe.

 

 And here is where the written record leaves us. The persistent inquirer, of course, will still have many questions. Who created the Fire Giants, the Light Elves, the dragons, and—most especially—the World Tree, mighty Yggdrasil? The existing literature is stubbornly silent on these matters, so it remains to future generations of mythologists and Nordic storytellers to reveal the answers. I have suggested some possibilities in several of the short stories in my books Theft of the Sun and The Dragonseeker Saga. These are the speculations of a Nordic imagination of course, but so were the original myths!

    
© 2012  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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