Norse Creation Myth
When I was very young, perhaps six or seven, I got my hands on a children’s book of mythology. Today, the contents of those pages are little more than a blur – a whirl of surreal color and dusty words. One particular thing has dominated my memory of this encounter, however, and has remained in my small cache of vivid, immutable pictures of the past. Looming over my childhood with a jaundiced, two-dimensional gaze is the single eye of Odin, the great Norse god. Once and for all, I resolve to exorcise the demon, to rid myself of the fleshy folds surrounding the bloodshot orb, to at last tell the story of the events surrounding the epically proportioned incandescent instrument of ogling.
It begins with a void, like many other primal myths of creation. This void was called Ginnungagap, or Yawning Gap, and was a bridge between two not-voids, Muspelheim and Niflheim. Muspelheim (also called Muspell in some reference guides) was in the far south. It was a fiery realm, tumultuous and torrid, that sent tongues of light into the distant corners of the then-world. In the northernmost regions was Niflheim. From its icy stronghold flowed 12 frigid rivers, merging in Ginnungagap. The heat and flame from Muspelheim and the waters of Niflheim wove an ethereal web of mist in the Yawning Gap, a cradle that was to bear the first life of the world. (Hamilton 326)
It was not gods but giants that were wrought from the dripping ice of Ginnugagap. Ymir arose from the haze, copiously evil. He stretched his form across Ginnugagap, and from the sweat of his armpits he bore a son and a daughter. Then one of Ymir’s legs bred with the other to create another son. All were part of the growing family of frost ogres. (Leeming 133)
The ice in the Yawning Gap continued to be warmed by Muspelheim’s proximity, and rivulets of water began to form the cow giant, Auohumla, the true ancestor of the Norse gods. Auohumla fed the frost giants with her milk, and found sustenance in the ever-present masses of ice. With her tongue, she molded the ice and formed Bor. His union with one of the daughters of the frost ogres yielded the Norse gods Odin, Ve, and Villi. In anger at Ymir’s evil ways, the three gods battled the giant and defeated him. A flood of blood destroyed almost all of the giants. The ones who survived became the constant enemies of the gods. The world was created from the pieces of the vanquished giant—the sky was molded from his skull, the seas from his blood, and the earth from his body. (Leeming 134)
In this world of the Norse gods, a great tree, Yggdrasil, sustained the earth. There was also a holy well upon whose rim sat the three Norns, or fates—Urda, who had dominion over the past, Verdandi, who ruled the present, and Skuld, the sovereign of the future. These three goddesses controlled the fate of men. Nordic legend hails them as disruptors of peace—the catalysts for Scandinavian religion and ritual. (Sproul 174; Hamilton 327)
After the establishment of the earth, Odin, with his wise and luminary eye, created the first man and woman out of the trunks of trees. Man was created from an ash tree and was named Ask. Woman was formed from an elm and was bestowed the name Embla. Both were given boons from Ve and Villi—the gift of sight, hearing, and intelligence. They dwelled in Midgard, the fortress of mankind, made secure from the evil giants by a wall crafted of Ymir’s great eyebrows. Thus was the beginning of the race of men according to Icelandic lore. (Sproul 174; Leeming 134)
Subsequent to their creation, men and the gods are markedly pitted against evil forces in Norse fable. Although they constantly strive to rid the world of corruption and cruelty, their efforts are never fully successful. This attitude of futile perseverance in the presence of wickedness has carried over in the practice of Norse religion. Heroism and valor characterized the Ancient Norse culture, and still underlie Icelandic manner today.
There are remarkable similarities between these gallant Norse folk legends and other primal creation myths around the world. In Nordic legend, there is an instance of creation from secretion, when beings are formed from the sweat of Ymir the frost god. This is an archetypal form of creation, most noticeably present in the Egyptian myths, where Atum, the crafter of the universe, masturbated to create his brothers and sisters. Another and perhaps even more common means of existence in the Icelandic Eddas is creation from dismemberment of a primordial being. As Odin shapes the Norse universe out of the broken body of Ymir, so do the gods of the Enuma Elish mold their version of the world from the carcass of Tiamat, the maternal figure of the myth.
Auohumla, the cow god, similarly is an example of an archetype common to world creation myths. She is the symbol of fertility present in many other tales, including the Babylonian and Sumerian legends. Her introduction into the story stresses the importance of organic growth and change in the primeval world. (Leeming 60, 104)
There are also connections to the Ancient Greek, Christian, and Indian myths. The fates, or goddesses of the destiny of man, directly echo the fates of Ancient Greek lore. Comparably, the flood in Icelandic legend that destroys the malevolent frost ogres parallels the flood in Genesis that obliterates iniquitous man.
The eye of Odin is an establishment in Ancient Norse history and mythology, and will forever cloak Icelandic culture with mysticism and power. Though the eye itself is singular to these Norse tales, there are many threads in the different creation stories that weave about each other to form a mesh of common human origin, unifying us as one great eye-fearer.