Ancient Norse Mythology – From “Cosmotheologies” by Robert Shaw – 1889
The following which is a brief account of the cosmogony of the Scandinavians (Nordic people), as found in the Eddas, may be taken as a more or less near representation of the whole of the cosmogonies and cosmologies. “In the beginning there existed nothing except one vast abyss, called Ginnungagap, which was wholly void. One side of this abyss, called Muspel-heim, faced towards the south and was warm ; the other, Nifl-heim, faced towards the north and was cold. Out of Nifl-heim there rose a spring, Hvergelmer, which existed before anything else was created. It was full of poisons and its waters flowed by means of several great rivers into the abyss. The largest of these rivers was called Elivagar (the cold, stormy waters) which penetrated farther than the others, but in proportion as it flowed from its source, it flowed with a weaker current, until, on reaching the center, its waters became so sluggish that they could no longer resist the cold, and thus became ice. Still, as the rivers flowed on, the ice accumulated so that at length the whole abyss was filled up with ice and rime. But in process of time the heat from Muspel began to act on the portion of the ice the nearest to it until the whole was gradually thawed, and from the thaw was produced the giant Ymer, whose vast bulk filled up a portion of the void. Ymer fell into a deep sleep, during which a man and a woman were generated under his left arm, and one foot begat a son upon the other.
From these are descended the race of the Hrymthussar or giants of the frost. At the same time that Ymer or the evil principle (for, ace. to the Edda, he and all his race were evil), was produced from the contending elements, Alfadur, the father of all things, created a cow, Audumbla, from whose udders flowed four streams of milk by which Ymer was nourished. She herself procured sustenance by licking some stones on which frost still lay and which were salt. By this process in three days they were moulded into a man who was called Bure. He had a son, Bur or Borr, who married a maid of giant race called Beyzla or Belsta, by whom he had three sons, Odin, Vile, and Ve. These three, shortly after their birth, slew the giant Ymer, the blood from whose wound drowned the whole of the frost-giants excepting Bergelmer (the old man of the mountain), who escaped with his wife in a boat and continued the race. After this Borr’s sons took Ymer’s body and set it in the midst of the abyss. Of his flesh they formed the earth, of his blood the waters and seas, of his bones the mountains, of his teeth the rocks and stones, and of his hair all manner of plants. They made the heavens out of his skull, and set four dwarfs, whose names were East, West, North and South, at the four corners to support it. They took also fires from Muspel and fixed them in heaven, above and below, to light up the heaven and the earth. And they determined the course of all meteors and celestial bodies, some in the heavens, some under the heavens. Moreover, they threw up Ymer’s brains into the air, where they became clouds, and of his eyebrows they formed Midgaard.”
Such is the account of the creation of the world given in the prose or later Edda, the author of which has put in a continuous narrative details collected from several of the mythological poems, which compose what is called the elder or poetic Edda, and in this it is seen the origin of the abyss or chaos is not attempted to be accounted for. Finn Magnussen views the Scandinavian cosmology as an allegory which he thus interprets :
‘The giant Ymer represents the chaotic state of the earth, produced by the combined effects of heat and cold upon water, which, according to the mythical creed of most nations, was the first existing matter.” The cow, Audumbla, he thinks not an inapt symbol of the atmosphere which surrounds the chaotic earth and might be said to nourish it. The production of a nobler being, Bnre, from the Salt Stones, might denote the emersion of the earth from the ocean. His son, Borr, the heavenly mountain, Caucasus, called, by the Persians, Borz, and which plays so important a part in the mythologies of the Aryan nations. From his union with Bestla or Belsta, were produced three powerful beings, Odin, Vile, and Ve, Air, Light, and Fire, which put an end to the chaos, or, in the words of the allegory, slew the giant, Ymer.”
Now, while, as I have said, it is not my present intention to enter very minutely into the details of the accounts of the cosmogonies generally, I may here remark that the notions entertained in most of them concerning the origin of the universe were scarcely more intelligible than we find this of the Scandinavians to be, and some of them seemingly still more extravagant. But we have seen how that Odin and his two brothers, Vile and Ve, formed the world out of the body of the giant Ymer, the description of which event will be found in an interesting way in the poetry of Oehlenschlager. As to the creation of man: Gangler asked, “Whence came men who dwell on the earth?” To which answered Har:
‘As Borr’s sons went out to the seashore they found two trees, out of which they created man, Odin gave spirit and life; Vile, understanding and vigor; Ve, form, speech, hearing and sight.’
In the Voluspa we are told that it was Odin who gave the spirit (soul); Hoener, understanding ; and Loder, blood and fair complexion. The ancient Greeks had a similar myth. Hesiod says that Zeus created men from ash trees and the nymphs of the ash tree (Melise) were said to be sprung from the blood of Saturn, and to have been the mothers of the human race. The Scandinavians, as seen here, had different mythical theories, for the origin of the human race and so had the Greeks and most other nations.
The Scandinavian gods took for their own habitation the celestial city, Asgaard. Utgaard, or the uttermost abode, was allotted to the giants. The Aser (Aesir), the giants and the human race were, however, not the only inhabitants of the universe. There existed various other beings, and nine distinct worlds for their abodes. Magnussen classes the nine worlds as follows :
1. Gimle, the residence of the Supreme Being, with its world from whence the light Elves first had their origin. Gimle is to be the abode of the good after the destruction of the universe.
2. Muspelheim, the region of the genii of fire.
3. Godheim, or Asgaard, the residence of the gods, or Aser, the starry firmament.
4. Vanaheim, the home of the Vaner or spirits of air, also called Vindheim, or the home of the winds, the atmosphere.
5. Manheim, or Midgaard, the residence of man, the middle residence, being equally removed from Gimle and from Nifl-heim.
6. Jotunheim, the home of the Jotuns, or giants, also called Utgaard, or the outer residence, as being placed outside the great sea, which surrounded the earth, in which lay Jormungandur, the Serpent.
7. The world of the black Elves, or evil demons, spirits of darkness, and of the Dwarfs.
8. Helheim, the home of Hela, the goddess of death, the abode of those who die ingloriously or of sickness.
9. Nifl-heim, the lowest of all the worlds, in which is the river Elivaga and the poisonous well Hvergelmer, which, after the destruction of the world, is to serve as a place of punishment for the evil. Nastroud, which was to serve the same purpose, was also here.
Of the worlds above enumerated and their whereabouts, seven were transitory and to be destroyed at the great catastrophe of Kagnarokur, the twilight of the gods ; two only, Gimle and Niflheim, were to endure forever, the former as a place of happiness for the virtuous ; the latter of punishment for evil doers. The word As, or Asa (pi. Aser), was, amongst the Scandinavians, synonymous with Lord, and was, as the Gaelic Tigherna, applied to persons of high rank, whether deities or mortals.
According to Bryant, in his “Analysis of Ancient Mythologies,” : As, Ees, or Is, was a title of the sun. Thus, in the name Israel or Yisrael, we have a compound of three different names of the Sun God, namely: Aes or Is — Ka — El. In like manner in Phoenician Ad signified Lord, and often occurs compounded. Ham, the son of Noah, was sometimes styled Ad-Ham, an appellation which has given rise to much speculation. According to Snorro Sturleson, the celebrated Icelandic historian and reputed author of the prose Edda, the Aser were a tribe settled on the Tanais, whose capital was called As-gaard or As-hof (Azof), meaning, in either case, residence of the Aser. A number of these Aser, under their prince and chief priest, Odin, migrated from their country through Russia into Scandinavia, which they conquered, dispossessing the ancient inhabitants and introducing their own language, manners, and religion. In the Edda, however, the title of Aser is given only to the principal deities, of whom, besides Odin, there were twelve, most of whom were sons or descendants of Odin. The Aser were benevolent spirits, the friends of man, emanating from the good principle, but not immortal. Their sovereignty over the world was to cease at Ragnarokur (Ragnarok), or the great battle, the twilight of the gods, when they and their eternal enemies, the giants, were eventually to destroy each other and the whole earth was to be consumed.
They dwelt in the celestial Asgaard, each in his own quarter, Odin having three splendid residences for his portion, and that of Thor, the thunderer, being called Thrundheim. But, it has been shown by Magnussen that the so-called residences of the Aser were invented for astronomical purposes, and that they hold the place of the Zodiac in the astronomy of the ancient Scandinavians, a people who, evidently, were not so rude and unlettered as they have been by some supposed. Besides the gods, the Scandinavians had in their hierarchy, also, several goddesses, the principal one of which was called Freya or Frigga, the first wife of Odin. The principal titles of Odin were nine in number, but in the prose Edda these are augmented to forty-nine, and, taken altogether, the number of his titles is said to be no less than two hundred. This will not appear strange when it is considered that there must be some means of identifying him with the supreme god of the other mythical nations who, in each nation, was called by a different title or different titles, corresponding not only to the ideas entertained of him, but to the dialects of each nation respectively. But great as was Odin’s power, he was not thought of as omnipotent. On one occasion he had a narrow escape from the giant Suttung, and on another occasion could only obtain a draft from Mimer’s well on the condition of leaving one of his eyes in pawn. On this account he was often represented as an old man with only one eye, and was called the One-eyed. As illustrated by the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the idea entertained of Odin among the Scandinavians would be rather that of the Son (if we may so speak), as distinguished from the eternal, invisible, and omnipresent Father. Perhaps they thought him to be and not to be and yet to be omnipotent. Who knows? Next to Odin Thor is to be considered the greatest and most popular deity of the ancient Scandinavians.
*Note from Phil*- Featured image is of the Nordic World Tree Yggdrasil, and the Nine Worlds of Asgard. The graphic explains the different worlds as dimensional planes.