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Gylfaginning 6: Oðinn's Family


   With Auðumla established as the food source for Ymir, the next logical question is asked: what did the great cow eat?  High responds that she licked the rime from the ice, and as she did so, a third figure took shape over three days.  This was Búri (‘producer, father’ (Simek 1984, 47)), who was powerfully built, and beautiful (in contrast to the jötnar, who were not).  Búri sired a son named Borr (‘son’ (Simek 1984, 50)), though the mother is not known.  Borr married Bestla (‘wife’ or ‘bark, bast’ (Simek 1984, 36)) daughter of Bölþorn (‘thorn of misfortune’ (Simek 1984, 40)), who bore him three sons, Oðinn (related to Oðr, ‘fury’ (Simek 1984, 244)), Vili (‘will’ (Simek 1984, 362)), and Vé (‘shrine’ (Simek 1984, 355)), who were the first of the Æsir.  These three are named the rulers of heaven and earth, but Oðinn is considered the greatest and most glorious.  There's a lot to unpack here, so let's get to it.


     The first name on the list, Búri, is not present in the Poetic Edda.  In fact, it turns up nowhere else but in Skáldskaparmál 2, where it appears in a verse by Þórvaldr Blönduskáld, a 12th century Icelandic skáld serving king Sigurð I of Norway, in which Oðinn is named as “Búri’s heir Borr's son” (Sturluson 1987, 69).  


     While the mother of Borr is unknown, Lindow opines that “although the text does not make it explicit, we may, I think, assume that he did so through an ordinary human sexual act, in contrast to the monstrous hermaphroditic procreation of Ymir” (Lindow 2001, 90).  It's also worth noting that in the Poetic Edda (Völuspá 4 (Larrington 2014, 4), Hyndluljóð 30 (Larrington 2014, 249)) he is called Burr.


    The introduction of Bestla to Oðinn's bloodline makes one thing very clear: the Æsir are descended from the jötnar.  


“It is of course significant that Odin is descended from the giants on his mother's side, since the slaying of Ymir by him and his brothers must therefore be understood as a killing within a family, a slaying or denial of a maternal relation” (Lindow 2001, 77)

On the translation, Simek comments, 


“As the name Bestla is obscure, it appears to be very old. ‘Wife’ or ‘bark, bast’ offer themselves as interpretations, of which the latter is not unlikely, as the primordial couple of Germanic cosmology, Ask and Embla, bear the names of trees” (Simek 1984, 36).  

A theory put forth in 1952 suggests that the translation of ‘Bestla’ as ‘bark’ refers to the world tree Yggdrasil itself. 


“Another theory, however, advanced by Waltrude Hunke, sees Bestla as the bark of the world tree, on which Odin was perhaps born (or reborn in an initiation?) according to Hávamál stanza 141 (“then I started to grow fruitful”). Hunke would then understand Bestla etymologically as the bark of the maternal tree” (Lindow 2001, 77)

Simek however is skeptical of this theory, calling it “unnecessary” (Simek 1984, 36).


     Bölþorn is mentioned in Hávamál 140, which is likely where Snorri took it from (Simek 1984, 40), although there the final n is dropped, giving Bölþor.  This verse indicates that the jötun had a son as well, “Nine mighty spells I learnt from the famous son / of Bolthor, Bestla’s father” (Larrington 2014, 32). The name of this son is unknown, though many have speculated that it is Mímir, who keeps the well of wisdom, Mímisbrunnr.  More will come on this figure and his well in a future article.  The relationship of the maternal uncle was an important one in Germanic society. It was from the uncle that the son learned how to fight, and how to be an adult in society:


“A special relationship with the maternal uncle is mentioned by Tacitus and is found in Norse texts and a proverb from medieval Iceland: ‘men turn out most like their maternal uncles.’ Certainly Odin, of all the gods, turned out most like a giant” (Lindow 2001, 82).

    A summary of who Oðinn is, is far beyond the scope of this paper; entire books have been written about his cult, deeds and character.  He is presented as the most important of the deities, the father of them all, but this stance has been criticized. The information that we have remaining comes from poetry, and that poetry was commissioned by the nobility, both of which are domains of Oðinn's.  Therefore it is likely that he is overrepresented in the literary sources.  According to the sagas and to place names, the most important deity was likely either Þórr or Freyr, depending on location.


     Vili and Vé are never referenced independently, but only together or in triad with Oðinn.  Some consider Vili and Ve to be "aspects of Odin’s properties" (Raudvere 2012, 6). Faulkes notes of the trio, “Óðinn (Alföðr), Vili (i.e. will), and Vé or Véi (the holy) form a striking parallel to the Christian trinity of Father, Son (often identified with the Father’s will) and Holy Ghost” (Faulkes 2005, 178), which is yet another example of Snorri's attempt to present a natural religion.  It's a common myth that they are not mentioned by these names in the Poetic Edda, but in fact, Lokasenna 26 names them directly.  They have a very short chapter dedicated to them in the Yngling Saga of Heimskringla, chapter 3, which names the brothers and states that they governed when Oðinn was away on his wanderings.  Once he was gone so long, the Æsir believed he would never return. Vili and Vé divided his possessions among themselves, but his wife Frigg was shared between them.  This was of course reversed when Oðinn returned (Sturluson 1992, 7), although the episode brings to mind the concept that sovereignty was embodied in the queen. Whoever possessed the queen, possessed the throne. This is a very ancient concept however, possibly a remnant of the bronze age culture.  Otherwise, many conflate Vili and Vé with Hœnir and Loðurr, as both pairs are described as aiding Oðinn in turning Ask and Embla into humans.  We will discuss this more when we get to that transformation. 


     Vili and Vé are not mentioned outside of the early days of creation, which Snorri explains in the Yngling Saga is because they were left behind to rule over Asgarð, which Snorri describes euhemeristically as the place in Asia from which the Æsir came.  According to this saga, which gives a different origin than the prologue of the Prose Edda, the Æsir originated in Asia, in a place called Asgard, from which they migrated North, taking possession of lands along the way, and leaving them with Oðinn's many sons (Sturluson 1992, 9).  


In the next article, we will address the slaying of Ymir.


Sources

colaboradores de Wikipedia. “Þórvaldr blönduskáld.” Wikipedia, La Enciclopedia Libre, October 15, 2023. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9E%C3%B3rvaldr_bl%C3%B6ndusk%C3%A1ld?wprov=sfla1.


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.


Raudvere, Catharina "Vision, ritual and message. The universe of Old Norse mythology as reflected in the poem Völuspá"  Cosmos 28, 2012


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.


Sturluson, Snorri.  Heimskringla.  Translated by Lee M. Hollander.  Austin: University of Texas Press 1992.


Art: Lorenz Frølich

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