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Gylfaginning 8:The Creation of the World Part 1

The chapter opens with Gylfi asking what happened after Ymir was slaughtered. Odin in his Trinity explain how Ymir's body was taken into Ginnungagap, and all his parts turned into parts of the worlds:


  • The sea and lakes were made from his blood

  • The earth was made from his flesh

  • The rocks were made from his bones

  • Stone and scree (the broken rocks at the base of sea cliffs) were made from his teeth, molars, and broken bones

  • The sky was made from his skull


Additional information is supplied as well. The sea was placed in a circle around the outside of the land, “and it will seem an impossibility to most to get across it” (Sturluson 1987: 12). The sky was held up by four dwarves, named Austri (‘east’), Vestri (‘west’), Norðri (‘north’) and Suðri (‘south’). About this concept, Simek says:


“The idea could just possibly be influenced by Greek concepts since Atlas, too, supports the vault of heaven in the west, but the four dwarfs suggest rather a link with the four Angels at the ends of the world in St John's Revelation 7.1. The concept of the dwarfs who carry the sky cannot, however, merely be traced back to Snorri, as a kenning níðbyrðra Norðra ‘burden of the relations of Norðris’ for ‘sky’ may already be found in the 10th century in Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld’s Olafsdrápa (26). It is not really particularly surprising that in ON the beams supporting the roof (also the sky of the domestic microcosmos) were called dvergar ‘dwarfs,’ but whether there is indeed a connection here is somewhat questionable. There is apparently a depiction of dwarfs supporting the sky to be found on a relief from a Viking Age grave in Haysham, England” (Simek 1984: 358).

Much of this creation is corroborated in Vafþruðnismál 21:


“From Ymir's flesh the Earth was shaped, and the mountains from his bones; the sky from the skull of the frost-cold giant, and the sea from his blood” (Larrington 2014: 40).

Grímnismál 40-41 also contain a few details:


“From Ymir's flesh the earth was made, and from his blood, the sea, mountains from his bones, trees from his hair, and from his skull, the sky. “And from his eyelashes the cheerful gods made Midgard for men's sons; and from his brain the hard-tempered clouds were all created” (Larrington 2014: 54).

Apparently the idea of dismemberment being a method of creation is an old one. For comparison, Ben Waggoner notes that the Indian Rig-Veda contains a similar being, Purusa, being dismembered to create the cosmos (Waggoner 2021: 598), which makes the concept one that probably goes all the way back to the Indo-Europeans.


“The historian of religion Bruce Lincoln once argued, on the strengths of an analysis of Indian, Iranian, Roman and Norse materials, that the Norse creation story is a reflection of a common Indo-European myth in which the first priest (who in Old Norse tradition would be represented by Óðinn and his brothers) sacrifices his twin brother, the first king (who would be Ymir)” (Wellendorf 2021: 282).

Other evidence exists as well that eliminates the possibility that this is a Christian borrowing:


“Attempts have been made to account for the Ymir legend by borrowings from the Talmud and other sources which trace the creation of the world from the body of Adam. But expressions such as ‘Ymir’s skull’ for heaven in the skaldic poets show that the idea of the slaughtered giant was widespread, and can hardly be due to a late borrowing from Christian or Jewish sources. Moreover, the wide distribution of the creation myth in this form provides us with plenty of parallels from non-Christian thought” (Ellis-Davidson 1969: 199).

Many scholars agree that the killing of Ymir was one of the murders that led to Ragnarok, but some don't see it that way. Some researchers agree with Wellendorf, who says that in contrast, “Rather, I see the creation of the world out of the disiecta membra of Ymir as a deed that is positively valorized in Gylfaginning, as well as in the other sources we have” (Wellendorf 2021: 288). The idea here is that since the creation of the world was considered a good thing, then the slaughter of Ymir must have been as well.


I see the creation of the worlds as something that appears good coming out of something bad, and that negativity leaks out slowly until it impacts all of creation, poisoning the good until the whole thing must be destroyed. Norse society was based on the concept of the exchange, and Ymir’s body was taken with no exchange made. The wergild is still outstanding, and must be paid. In Iceland a killing wasn't considered a murder until the killer went past other homes without announcing the killing, and taking responsibility. Given the duration of the world since creation, I think it's safe to say a few houses have been passed.


Next month we will address the ordering of the skies, and organization of the world.


Sources


Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969.


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.


Waggoner, Benjamin M. Our Troth. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Philadelphia, PA: The Troth, 2021.


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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