Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Body of Ymir

The worship of elemental gods and songs of heroes did not die out with the rise of Christendom. In the Norse lands, the pagan gods endured. Even as late as the thirteenth century AD, the adventures of Thor and the stories of giants, terrible monsters, gods, Dwarfs and Elves flourished. Indeed many words in the English language are more Norse than Roman. The day of the week, Thursday, takes its name from the thunder god Thor and means Thor’s Day. The time of year, Easter, takes its name from the Northern goddess Ēostre, and it is indeed from the worship of this goddess that the tradition of the Easter egg has been drawn. Thriving long after the mythologies of Greece, Rome and Egypt, Norse mythology is as diverse and enthralling as it is influential. So let us begin at the beginning itself, and discover how the world came into being.
At the birth of time, there was a great void of nothingness, and it was called Ginnungagap. To the north of Ginnungagap were the dark and frozen wastes of that place called Niflheim, in which all evil things would dwell. In the south lay Múspell, a fiery domain which burned with heat so intense that only the Fire Giants could live there. One day the fires of Múspell met the ice of Niflheim:

         “ And when the breath of heat met the rime, so that it melted and dripped,
           life was quickened from the yeast-drops, by the power of that which sent the heat,
           and became a man’s form. And that man is named Ymir. ”
                                                                             - THE BIRTH OF YMIR

Audumla suckles Ymir
Painting by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard.
So was born the Frost Giant Ymir, first of the jötunn, or race of giants with whom the gods are at everlasting war. Ymir slept, and a sweat came upon him. From the sweat in his left armpit was born a male and female giant, from the union of his two feet another giant was born and it was from these three that all the jötunn were descended. But also from the shards of Niflheim and sparks of Múspell was born the cow Audumla. Four streams ran from her udders, and it was from this milk that Ymir found sustenance.

Odin, King of the Gods
Engraver unknown.
The primordial cow then begun to lick the salty ice blocks which had formed.  At the end of the first day, a man’s hair emerged from the ice. At the end of the second day, a whole head had emerged. Then after the third day a whole man was there. His name was Búri, the first god born into existence, and it was from him that all the Aesir (war gods) and the Vanir (fertility gods) were descended. Búri produced a son, Borr, who in turn begot three sons; Vili, Vé and Odin. Mightiest of the three brothers, it was Odin who would be the most powerful and rule one day as King of the Gods. But the jötunn were a cruel race, and Ymir was evil. Odin lead his brothers and warred upon the giants, killing Ymir and bathing the cosmos in his blood. Indeed so intense was the flow of blood from the dead giant, all the jötunn were drowned in it, except for Bergelmir, the grandson of Ymir. So ever after the jötunn and the gods were at war, and will be until the judgement. Now here we have a major difference between Norse mythology and that of the Classical civilisations. In the stories of Greece, everything happened in the past. In Norse legend however, the mythology is past, present and future. The stories lay out clearly how the world was created and how it will end, in a cataclysmic war known as Ragnarök (The Twilight of the Gods). Many feuds and enemies are made among the gods, giants and monsters, which will all be unleashed at Ragnarök. But that is for a future post, so I return to the creation.
From the body of Ymir, Odin and his brothers created the cosmos. From his blood was made the lakes and oceans which surround the world, from his flesh the Earth, from his bones the mountains and crags, from his brains the clouds and from his teeth the rocks. From the maggots which crawled in his rotten form were born the dwarfs. Odin and his brothers then took the skull of Ymir and of it crafted the Heavens, and in each corner they set a dwarf. The names of these dwarfs were North, South, East and West. The brothers then took the sparks and embers which burst forth from Múspell, and from these created the Sun, the Moon and the stars which illuminated the Heavens and the Earth. The Earth was divided into nine Worlds, each home to a different race, yet all bound in the mighty World Tree, Yggdrasill. But populated by only the gods, the jötunn, and the dwarfs, the world had not yet given birth to men.

“ When the sons of Borr were walking along the sea-strand,
   they found two trees and shaped men of them:
   the first gave them spirit and life;
   the second, wit and feeling;
   the third, form, speech, hearing and sight.
  They gave them clothing and names: the male was called Askr,
  and the female Embla, and of them mankind was begotten. ”
                                          - ODIN AND HIS BROTHERS GIVE SHAPE TO MAN

Sköll and Hati chase the Sun and Moon
Drawing by John Charles Dollman.
There was born one man called Mundilfari, who was so proud of his son and daughter that he named them Sun and Moon. The gods were angered by this insolence, and condemned Sun to drive a chariot across the Heavens which pulled the true Sun, and Moon to drive the chariot which pulled the true Moon at the end of the day. Sun is chased across the sky by Sköll, a fell wolf, and Moon by Hati, the brother of Sköll. It is written that at Ragnarök, they will finally catch their prey, and the Sun and Moon will be devoured. Now that the passage of time had been decreed, the gods created Midgard, one of the nine worlds, which was the realm of men. It was protected from Jötunheim (or ‘home of the jötunn’) by the eyebrows of Ymir, which the gods set around it. For themselves, the gods built a mighty citadel, Asgard, which is connected to Midgard by the rainbow bridge known as Bifrost. The world had now been created, and gods and men began to be born.

The stories which lay out the course of Norse mythology are all contained rather nicely in a twelfth century work, known as the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson. The whole work is very readable, and also not excessive in length. The work is therefore easily contained in one book, which is available from Amazon (There is no Oxford World's Classics version):

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

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