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Gylfaginning 7: The Slaying of Ymir

Gangleri’s next question, how did the descendents of Ymir and of Búri get along, drives right to the beginning of the central conflict of Norse mythology: the Æsir versus the Jötnar.


“Then High replied: ‘Bor’s sons killed the giant Ymir. And when he fell, so much blood flowed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of frost-giants, except that one escaped with his household. Giants call him Bergelmir. He went up on to his ark with his wife and was preserved there, and from them are descended the families of frost-giants” (Sturluson 1987, 11).

To be totally clear, in this case, the sons of Borr killed their mother’s ancestor. There is a lot of speculation on what the source of Ragnarok may have been, some suggesting it was because of Þórr killing the giant who made the walls of Asgard (more on this in a future article), others saying it's because Loki killed Baldr (again, more to come in the future). It is my opinion that it was the murder of Ymir that spawned all the rest. Wellendorf writes,


“This primordial act of carnage is a creative one, but from the perspective of Old Norse ideology it is also, and this point is of particular importance to Clunies Ross and Lindow, a transgressive one: a murder within the family. The miasma-like consequences of this atrocity affect the gods throughout mythological history until the main players are destroyed at Ragnarøk. Óðinn’s creation, as a consequence, is a flawed order.” (Wellendorf 2021: 273)

I find myself in agreement with Lindow and Connie's Ross. My personal interpretation is that the worlds must be destroyed by Surt at Ragnarok because they are the result of this killing, that their destruction in fire is simply the cremation of their ancestor.


All of this begs the question, why kill Ymir? Perhaps the plan was always to build a world, and Ymir would be the only being big enough to use for parts, but is that sufficient reason for kinslaying? Ryan Smith has a theory (Smith 2019: 20) that he bases on human history. The lore only records Ymir as having access to Auðumla, which Smith believes is deliberate. He suggests that what prompted the slaying was the collection of resources in one place, withheld from the rest of society. He bases this on the numerous times in history when the uneven distribution of wealth triggered a revolt. This he feels is clear justification for the kinslaying: because everyone else was on the edge of starvation, with only rime to eat, while Ymir enjoyed the only real and reliable source of sustaining food. He notes that the creation of the worlds, which will be covered in a future article, was done in such a way that everyone had something. Once again, he feels this contrast is significant, and the reason for the murder of the great ancestor of all.


Wellendorf takes a different view of the valorization of the killing of Ymir. The connection between Ymir and Aurgelmir is entirely on Snorri, and thus could be shaky. The Norse were patrilineal, and the connection between Bestla and Ymir is implied, not stated. This could mean, from a cultural perspective, the Old Norse didn't see it as a kinslaying. In addition, we only know that the brothers murdered Ymir from Snorri; this may be another connection that he fabricated. Furthermore, Ymir is described as unquestionably evil. Given all this, Wellendorf is not convinced that Ymir's death was at all considered negatively. He writes,


“Having summed up the internal testimonies, it seems clear that the evidence for seeing the killing of Ymir as a monumental, foundational crime and a murder within the family is not well supported by the Old Norse textual sources. On the contrary, they appear to describe the creative acts of the gods in positive terms; the gods being benign and kind and Ymir as evil and hard-minded. While some religious traditions, such as Manicheanism and some gnostic traditions, take a negative view of the world and sees it as an inherently flawed creation only made possible by evil, it does not seem that the Old Norse tradition, in the form in which it is now known to us, should be counted among them” (Wellendorf 2021: 281)

Another point of note is that in many cultures, there was a flood at some point in the mists of time. The most well-known is the great flood of the Bible, but a flood also features in the myths of Gilgamesh, the Hindu story of the first man, as well as in Zoroastrianism and Greek mythology. This begs the question whether the flood noted in this case was an invention of Snorri's, to further demonstrate his natural religion, or if it was an original portion of the mythology? As it appears to have been present in other Indo-European cultures, it likely was original to the mythology.


Bergelmir (“‘the mountain-bellower’?” (Simek 1984: 34)) is attested in Vafþruðnismál 29 and 35 (Larrington 2014: 41-2), where he is named as the son of Þrúðgelmir (“‘the powerfully shouting one’” (Simek 1984: 329)), who is in turn the son of Aurgelmir (“perhaps… ‘the roarer börn from sand’” (Simek 1984: 24)), which is commonly accepted to be another name for Ymir. He escapes the flood with his family on a ‘lúðr,’ the translation of which has sparked much speculation. Lindow states:


“Snorri clearly understood the lúðr as something that would float, and the word might in fact have meant ‘coffin’ or ‘chest’ or some wooden part of a mill; the expected meaning, of a cumbersome musical instrument something like an alphorn, makes no sense either in Snorri or his poetic source. If there is any consensus here, it is that what Vafþrúðnir remembered was the funeral of Bergelmir and what Snorri made of it was an analogue to the Judeo-Christian flood story” (Lindow 2001: 75).

The next article will discuss what the brothers then did with Ymir's body.


Sources


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.


Smith, Ryan. The Way of Fire and Ice. Woodbury MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2019.


Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Translated by Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.


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


Wellendorf, Jonas. “Ymir, Baldr, and the Grand Narrative Arc of Mythological History.” Myth and History in Celtic and Scandinavian Traditions, October 30, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/60458412/Ymir_Baldr_and_the_Grand_Narrative_Arc_of_Mythological_History.

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Fascinating. Thank you for putting this together. The killing of Ymir is something I still struggle to understand the "why" of, and the idea of a means of redistribution of resources is very interesting, indeed. "Eat the rich," writ large.

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