Anthony Aveni, Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of astronomy and anthropology and Native American studies emeritus, tells the Norse story of creation.
Excerpted from Creation Stories (2021), by Anthony Aveni. Copyright Yale University Press. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.
People who live in the land of the midnight sun experience two climates. Summer is green, warm, and nurturing, while winter is cold and stormy, with skies torn apart by lightning and thunder and the surrounding craggy mountains blanketed in snow. The Norse creation myth tells of a multitude of giant deities who personify the natural forces that threaten the lives of Scandinavian and northern Germanic people. The first of these is Ymir, who emerges from a melting mass of ice and represents the chaos that existed prior to creation. His story culminates in the rise of Odin, a later-generation hero deity who dismembers Ymir’s body and uses the parts to create culture. Forming the world out of the body parts of a defeated enemy is a theme we have encountered before, for example in the Babylonian, Chinese, Mande, and Haudenosaunee myths. The Norse story ends in Ragnarok, a series of apocalyptic battles accompanied by natural disasters and the submersion of the landscape. But will a rebirth happen?
Those who live there say that once there were two lands that bordered on one another: Muspelheim, the world of ice to the north, and Niflheim, the world of fire to the south. Between the two lay Ginnungagap — a dark, violent abyss where the frost from one side collided with flames from the other. At the point of contact, like droplets of water coming in contact with a hot stove, they hissed, sizzled, and let off huge clouds of steam-fire and ice engaging in an eternal battle, each bent on destroying the other. The droplets eventually condensed and magically came alive in the form of a god-like giant. He called himself Ymir, the Screamer, and he possessed destructive powers. While he slept, an entire race of evil giants — the Vanir — had exited from his armpits and leg joints. As the frost continued to melt, a cow emerged. She nurtured Ymir with her milk. One day, as she was licking the frost to acquire its nurturing salts, Ymir noticed the shape of a head beginning to emerge from the icy rocks. On the second day its hair was visible, and by the third day the full figure of a tall, powerful, and handsome man came out of the dissolved mass. His heart was warm, and he was good. This giant called himself Buri, the Progenitor, the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. His grandson, named Odin, would become the greatest chief of all the Aesir god clans. He and his two brothers were destined to be the sworn enemies of Ymir and his race of giants.
After many years of good and evil living together precariously in the world, Odin and his brothers decided that they must — once and for all — destroy Ymir and his kind. They attacked Ymir, and after a hard-fought battle they killed him. When huge Ymir toppled over, a vast river of blood flowed from his wounds. It flooded his domain and drowned all of his kin, except for a grandchild, Bergelmir, who survived with his wife by hiding in a chest, thus becoming the progenitor of the Vanir clan of deities.
At this time things were not as we know them in the real world. It was left to the victors to create the world out of the remains of their slain enemy. So Odin and his brothers dragged Ymir’s corpse down to the bottom of the icy realm. From it they created the earth, the sea on top of it, and the heavens at the very top. Ymir’s blood became the ocean, rivers and lakes, and springs; his long bones the mountains; his teeth and broken bones the sand pebbles. They made day and night too. Day was fair and bright — more like the warm-hearted Aesir race — but night was dark and gloomy, bearing more traits that resembled those of the Vanir clan. To light the world the Aesir gods caught sparks and cinders blown in from the southern world of fire. Thus they created the sun, moon, and stars, setting each in motion in its own time cycle. They called the sun Sol and the moon Mani. Odin gave each of them a chariot and a pair of swift horses to propel them across the sky. From Ymir’s round skull Odin made the dome of the sky. Ymir’s brains became the billowy clouds, his hair the trees, plants, grass, and flowers. His skin and muscles were turned into the soil. They wasted no part of Ymir’s body. The Aesir gods even used his eyebrows to build a high fence around the world to protect the race of people they planned to create to inhabit their beautiful new world.
But first the gods needed to create their own city, Asgard, a place beyond the ocean, in a country much colder than the green country (Midgard) they had prepared for their real people. The city would be in heaven where the Aesir could look down on their people and protect them from any surviving evil giants from Ymir’s clan. The two worlds would be connected by a bridge of many colors — the rainbow we recognize today.
Now that Odin and his brothers had set the stage, they were ready to commence their most important creation — people. To make the first living beings, Odin and his brothers took the maggots from the decaying body of Ymir and created a race of dwarfs. These first people were wise and skilled, but they behaved more like Ymir than Odin. Four of the dwarfs were assigned the task of holding up Ymir’s sky skull — each stationed in one of the cardinal directions: north, east, south, and west. They also created a race of taller people who lived on the surface and behaved more like the Aesir. Preferring the cold darkness, the dwarfs migrated to caves deep in the ground, where they spent their days digging precious jewels and metals embedded in the rocks. They took them to their foundry where they heated and hammered them, crafting beautiful ornaments out of the earth’s abundant valuable resources. Unfortunately, the subterranean dwarfs and the surface dwellers became mutual enemies. The dwarfs say it was because the tall people continually lusted after their gold and jewels.
The gods were dissatisfied with their handiwork. They truly wished to make manifest their love and protection. So they crossed the rainbow bridge and came down to earth. As they walked along the seashore they selected a pair of trees: an ash and an elm. Odin breathed on them and they turned into a living man and woman. One brother touched their heads and they became wise. The other brother touched their faces, enabling them to speak, hear, and see. Ask, the Ash, and Embla, the Elm, became the father and mother of a new race destined to dwell in Midgard under the watchful eyes of their Aesir creators.
The Norse say that someday Ragnarok, the Apocalypse, the fate of men and gods, will come. It will begin with a great winter such as no one has ever seen. The winds will blow unceasingly and snow will descend from all directions. The sun, moon, and stars will disappear from the sky, leaving the earth in darkness. People will starve and lose all sense of their goodness. Even among their own family they will fight for survival. Loki, a traitor to the Aesir gods, will sail his ship carrying an army of giants over the flooded earth, destroying everything in its path. Wolves will come out of the hills and eat the weakest of their human prey.
Then Fenrir, the monster-wolf who resides in the swamps, will race over the land eating everything in its path. His lower jaw will touch the ground and his upper jaw the top of the sky — he won’t miss anything. Jormungand, the ocean serpent, will spit his venom over land and water, poisoning everything in his wake. Then the sky will split open and fire serpents brighter than the sun will emerge through its cracks. They will cross the rainbow bridge, destroying every fragment of it as they pass. Odin will be forced to summon his good gods, who have been kept safely in Asgard, to battle. But they already will know the outcome of Ragnarok and, though they will fight valiantly, they will be destined to lose the war against the forces of destruction. Fenrir will swallow Odin and his men.
In the end Vidar, son of Odin, will avenge his father’s death. He will charge Fenrir and, holding its mouth open, plunge his sword down the giant wolf’s throat, slaying him. Even Thor, god of thunder and lightning, the mightiest of all the Norse gods and defender of the Aesir from the encroachment of giants, will meet his fate. Though Thor will slay the serpent Jormungand with his hammer, he will end up so full of the venom that he will be able to recede only a few steps from the battleground before toppling over dead. In this series of one-on-one Ragnarok contests all the gods will do themselves in, as the world sinks slowly into the dark sea. The creation undone, all will become as it was in the beginning — a void looking as if nothing had ever happened. But others say a rebirth will occur. Creation will happen all over again, when a new green and beautiful earth rises out of the ocean.