Monday, 5 January 2015

Creation Mythology: Norse

Today we are going to begin looking at Creation mythology from around the world, starting with that from Scandinavia.  The mythology of Scandinavia is reflective of their harsh landscape - the ice covered earth and snow-capped mountains which thawed for only a few months a year.  At the same time, there was the immense heat and fire from the numerous volcanoes.  Here the people were faced with dark days and bitterly cold nights, with frosts occurring even during the summer months.  This harsh landscape gave birth to many stories and served as a way for the people to explain the natural phenomena around them.  Many of these stories came from Iceland, including the Norse myth of their creation.

The Norse creation myth as we know it is contained within the Icelandic Younger Edda, or the Prose Edda, which was put together by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic historian, in around 1220.  Sturluson's work was based on much older stories from oral tradition and the Elder Edda, or Poetic Edda, sometimes called the Edda of Saemund as it was wrongly attributed with Saemund Sigfusson, a writer of the 12th century, which was first written down between the 9th and 12th centuries. 

The Norse Myth of Creation

The Fall Through Ginnungagap by Skrubhjert
In the beginning there was nothingness.  No land, no ocean, no sky.  There was only a vast emptiness, which they call Ginnungagap.  One day, far in the north of Ginnungagp, cloud and shadow and a freezing mist started to form, swirling in the emptiness like ghosts long forgotten.  In the frigid north the moisture froze, turning into far reaching sheets of snow and ice.  Right in the centre of this endless frozen landscape a spring burst forth, which they call Niflheim or the Land of Ice, and from here flowed twelve rivers.

At the same time, in the great heat of the south, small sparks of fire were kindled into life.  The specks of light danced and flitted through the darkness.  Here the sparks came together to form a vast, smoldering, churning ocean of fire.  This they call Muspell, the Land of Fire.

But still there remained an emptiness between the two lands.  The twelve rivers from Hvergelmir, bitter with poison, flowed into this great void and here they thickened into immense layers of ice.  The rising vapours of these rivers settled and froze into a heavy frost, making northern Ginnungagap a desolate, empty landscape covered in nothing but an icy wasteland, while in southern Ginnungagap blazed and flared with the light and heat of Muspell.

But of course, fire melts ice while ice quells fire so, at the centre of Ginnungagap there was neither the bitter cold of the north, nor the scalding heat of the south.  Instead it was like a gentle summer's day, where the warm breeze blowing in from the south melted the ice of the north.  It was here that the first seeds of life came into being.

Ymir, the first Jotunn by GregStevens
Droplets of water from the melting ice and snow began to collect into a puddle on the ground, which soon swelled and grew into a giant of a man.  The giant surged up, stretching his great arms as if he had awoken from a long, deep slumber.  Placing a great foot on the icy ground, the giant turned his head and surveyed the land around him.  The name of this giant was Ymir.

One day, whilst this great giant lay sleeping, he began to sweat and from the sweat of Ymir's left armpit a man and woman, both giants, were born.  Ymir had become the father of the frost giants. 

As the warm winds of the south continued to thaw the snow and ice of the north, the melt waters took on another form - that of the cow, Audumla.  Audumla fed on the salt found within the ice, while Ymir drank from the four rivers of milk provided by Audumla.

Audumbla and Ymir by Orm-Z-Gor
As Audumla licked at the ice, searching out the salt, the hair of a man began to emerge.  Audumla continued to lick at the ice and soon his whole head appeared, soon followed by his body.  This man was Buri who had a son named Bor.  Bor married Bestla, a daughter of the frost giants, and they had three sons of their own - Odin, later to become the father of the gods, Vili, and Ve.  These were the first gods, half-giant and half-man.

The sons of Bor and Bestla soon developed a hatred for the frost giants, who were rough and unruly.  A war broke out between them and soon Ymir was slaughtered.  So much blood flowed from his body that it flooded Ginnungagap, drowning the frost giants but sparing Bergelmir and his wife, who managed to escape the tidal wave of blood in a small boat.  From this couple a new generation of giants would be born.

Odin, Vili, and Ve carried the great body of Ymir to the centre of Ginnungagap and from it they moulded the world.  From his flesh they made the soil; from his unbroken bones they made the mountains; from his shattered bones they made the rocks and stones; from his skull they made the sky; his brains were fashioned into clouds; and his blood became the ocean which made a huge ring around the world.

Next Odin, Vili, and Ve took the dancing sparks and the hot, burning embers from Muspell and sent them to the sky where they became the sun, moon, and stars.  Odin gifted the dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed giant, Night, and her son, the fair-skinned, fair-haired giant, Day, with chariots in which they could ride across the sky.  And there were the two wolves, Hati and Skoll, who chased them: Hati runs after the Moon, while Skoll chases the Sun, both in the hope that they will catch and swallow their prize, and one day they will succeed in their wish.

Beneath the four corners of the earth, Odin placed a dwarf which the three gods had fashioned from the maggots which had fed upon the body of Ymir.  They now live beneath the hills and within the hollows of the earth.  Their names were North, South, East, and West.

In the great ocean, which was too wide for any man to cross, floated the mighty world serpent Jormungand, who was so huge he could wrap himself around the world and still put his tail in his mouth.

Ask and Embla by Hrefngast
Then, one day, Odin, Vili, and Ve, as they walked along the shore, stumbled upon two fallen trees: an ash tree and an elm tree.  Odin breathed life into them, Vili gave them hearts, souls, and the ability to think for themselves, and Ve gave them eyes and ears so they could see and hear.  And so the first mortal man and woman came into being, and their names were Ask and Embla.

In order to keep Ask and Embla safe and happy, Odin, Vili, and Ve took the eyebrows of Ymir and fashioned a vast enclosure at the centre of the world.  This they called Midgard or Middle Earth.  Here Ask and Embla made there home and it is here that mankind has stayed ever since. 

The gods also fashioned their own home, high above Midgard, which they called Asgard.  To link the two worlds they made the Bifrost, a bridge of fire which man calls the rainbow, from three colours - gold, red, and blue - which were considered to symbolize the three social divisions of nobles, freemen, and slaves.

When the gods were done with their work, creation had been ordered into nine worlds: three above, three below, and three beneath.

Map of Yggdrasil (Nine Worlds) by solaroid

 Above was Asgard, the home of Odin and the warrior gods, the Aesir; Vanaheim, which was the home of the fertility gods, also known as Vanir; and Alfheim, the 'elf-home' of the light elves.

Below was Midgard, home to mankind; Jotunheim, the home of the giants; Nidavellir, the 'dark home' of the dwarves; and Svartalfheim, the 'black elf home' of the dark elves.

Yggdrasil by sandpaperdaisy.
Beneath was the frozen land of Niflheim and Hel, home to the dead.  There was also Muspellheim, the land of fire, which is sometimes included and sometimes not.

Surrounding, supporting, and passing through these worlds was Yggdrasil, the world tree, which is regarded as the 'axis mundi, meaning the axis or pivot of the world.    Yggdrasil was a great ash tree which stands with one root in Niflheim, beside the spring of Hvergelmir, another root in Jotunheim beside Mimir, the Spring of Wisdom, and one root in Asgard, beside the Well of Fate which is watched over by the Norns - the three ancient sisters of weird.

This is how the world was made according to the Norse men and women from long, long ago.

That's all for today.  Next time we will learn about the Babylonian myth of creation.  Do remember to check out some of the artists featured here.  Just follow the links.

Useful Resources

Hamlyn History Myths Retold by Diana Ferguson
Myths and Legends: Fact and Fiction by Vic Parker
Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism by John Gage
Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia by David A. Leeming

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