With the early Norse mythological world set up, it's time to return to the narrative. When Gylfi asks how things began, the trinity explain how in the beginning there was Niflheim in the North, and Muspelheim in the south, with Surt standing guard over the entrance to the latter. Once again he quotes Völuspá to support his assertions. Gylfi then asks what it was like back then, before humanity. The trinity explain that between Niflheim and Muspelheim was Ginnungagap. In Völuspá 3,
"it is clear that the poet of Völuspá understood in the Ginnungagap to be the void before creation … A later gloss on Adamm of Bremen's church history (IV, 39) shows that the concept of Ginnungagap was not only limited to the Eddas, but was widespread in Scandinavia … Ginnungagap is difficult to interpret etymologically. De Vries has shown in a detailed study that Ginnungagap is more likely to mean 'the void filled with magical (and creative) powers' than 'the yawning void.' Cassidy's thoughts regarding the concepts of the Medieval Icelanders about the geographical situation of Ginnungagap have led him to the conclusion that the abyss at the end of the world (if indeed this was in fact a Medieval concept and not simply a product of later scholarship) was called Ginnungagap. However, later on, Ginnungagap could have been thought to be the chasm through which the ocean surrounding the world was believed to be connected to the Atlantic. In fact the north-west passage is called Ginnungagap in Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson Icelandic map of America from 1066. These conclusions cannot however be drawn from the older ON literature" (Simek 1984, 109-110).
Another perspective on the meaning of Ginnungagap comes from John Lindow, who writes:
"Formally, Ginnunga Gap must be parsed as 'Gap of ginnungs.' What ginnungs are is not wholly clear, but the first syllable ginn- in mythological contexts was used to intensify what followed, as in ginn-holy, 'extremely holy,' gods or ginnregin, great powers,' 'that is, the gods. At the same time, as a noun (in poetry) ginn meant 'falsehood, deception,' and there was a common verb ginna, 'deceive.' A gap of ginnungs, then, was probably a proto-space filled with magic powers" (Lindow 2001, 141).
The story continues, with the "poisonous flow" (Sturluson 1987, 10) of Élivágar eventually solidifying into a rime that grew northward across the gap. The heat of Muspelheim prevented the ice from growing to that side of the gap, as it melted in the heat and sparks. From that intersection, the poisonous rime revealed a man-shape in the ice, and Ymir was born. Known to the frost-giants as Aurgelmir, this giant was the progenitor of them all. Third then backs his claim with quotes from Völuspá in skamma and Vafþruðnismál.
The next question from Gylfi asks how the generations came from a singular figure, and whether the giant was a god? High squashes the idea that so "evil" a being could be a god, and claims that all his descendants as well were evil. Bear in mind, this is a clear example of Snorri beginning to build his argument for natural religion. That requires a clear separation of good and evil, and so Snorri makes a very simple assertion: all giants are evil. This principle becomes problematic when you consider that many of the Æsir are actually jötnar-born, which Snorri will try to deal with by saying all the gods are descended from Odin, despite the Poetic Edda having clear evidence otherwise. This of course can't apply to certain ones, such as Skaði and Gerð, but Snorri assigns lesser significance to the females anyway. He will also use this connection to paint Loki as the devil figure for his "natural religion."
High continues with the birth of the jötnar, "... It is said that when he slept, he sweated. Then there grew under his left arm a male and a female, and one of his legs begot a son with the other, and descendants came from them. These are frost-giants" (Sturluson 1987, 11). "This form of conceiving and bearing offspring is distant from anything that observation of humans or animals could suggest, and although it is not at all uncommon in cosmogenies for hermaphroditic conception and birth to occur, in the context of this mythology it demonstrates once and for all the alien nature of the giants, Ymir's descendants'' (Lindow 2001, 324). Once again, Snorri is making an effort to make the jötnar as foreign as possible.
When asked how Ymir survived, the Trinity responds that the next being to come from the rime was a great cow called Auðumla. From each of her four teats flowed a river of milk, which fed Ymir. "The four streams of milk from Auðumla's udders suggest a comparison with the four rivers of paradise, but it is more likely that Auðumla's four streams of milk are the result of Snorri's clerical education rather than giving proof of common origins with Near-Eastern concepts of the magna-mater" (Simek 1984, 22). Note that Auðumla is only attested as a name for 'cow' in the Þulur (Lindow 2001, 63); otherwise she is unknown.
Ymir is a fascinating figure in Norse lore. He is the first being, hermaphroditic, and ultimately the source of all life. Granted the Æsir are counted as descended from Bur (as we will learn in a future article), but the distaff side of that bloodline comes from the jötnar, who are all descended from Ymir. So what is known about this colossal figure? He is attested in Völuspá (3), Vafþruðnismál (21 and 28), Grímnismál (40), and Hyndluljóð (3), as well as in the skaldic poetry of Ormr Barreyjarskáld (10th century) and Arnórr Jarlaskáld (11th century) (Simek 1984, 377)); clearly he was not an artifact of Snorri's imagination. Most of these references however are simple uses of his name to imply truly ancient times, or descriptions of how his body was used to make the world (which will be covered in future articles). "Ymir's name originally meant something like doubled, and scholars associate this etymology with the hermaphroditic procreation in which he indulges and with Tuisto, the primeval being in Tacitus, Germania, chapter 2" (Lindow 2001, 325). The name is also linked to Sanskrít Yama and Avedic Yima, who were also ancestors in their mythologies (Simek 1984, 377). If Bláinn and Brimir in Völuspá 9 are meant to be kennings for Ymir, as some scholars propose, then he is also the ancestor of the dwarves (Simek 1984, 377). Snorri clearly considers Aurgelmir to be another kenning for Ymir, though some contest this:
"Obviously, the mixing of the concepts of two different giants occurred before the composition of Vafþruðnismál, and is not merely Snorri's fault; the doubling of the offspring which was certainly not original speaks in favor of this. In Snorri they come from Ymir and in the Vafþruðnismál from Aurgelmir: on the one hand the brother and sister who come from the armpit of the giant and on the other hand the six-headed son produced by the legs of the proto-giant. Which descendants should be deemed to have come from which giant must remain an open question, but Snorri certainly equated Ymir with Aurgelmir with good reason, and his sources would seem to have been no richer in this particular case than ours" (Simek 1984, 377).
Still, the majority of Ymir's lore comes from his dismemberment, which will be covered in a future article, along with the birth of the Æsir.
Faulkes, Anthony. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. London: Víking Society for Northern Research, 2005.
Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1984.
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Translated by Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.