Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Norse Myths for Thursdays Course

The Norse creation myth or cosmogony (a view on the origins of the cosmos) is perhaps one of the richest of such accounts in all of world literature. Not only is it an exceptionally colorful and entertaining story – it’s also bursting with subtle meanings. Some of these meanings will be discussed below. First, here’s the tale itself:

The Origin of the Cosmos

Before there was soil, or sky, or any green thing, there was only the gaping abyss of Ginnungagap. This chaos of perfect silence and darkness lay between the homeland of elemental fire, Muspelheim, and the homeland of elemental ice, Niflheim.

Frost from Niflheim and billowing flames from Muspelheim crept toward each other until they met in Ginnungagap. Amid the hissing and sputtering, the fire melted the ice, and the drops formed themselves into Ymir, the first of the godlike giants. Ymir was a hermaphrodite and could reproduce asexually; when he sweated, more giants were born.

As the frost continued to melt, a cow, Audhumbla, emerged from it. She nourished Ymir with her milk, and she, in turn, was nourished by salt-licks in the ice. Her licks slowly uncovered Buri, the first of the Aesir tribe of gods. Buri had a son named Bor, who married Bestla, the daughter of the giant Bolthorn. The half-god, half-giant children of Bor and Bestla were Odin, who became the chief of the Aesir gods, and his two brothers, Vili and Ve.

Odin and his brothers slew Ymir and set about constructing the world from his corpse. They fashioned the oceans from his blood, the soil from his skin and muscles, vegetation from his hair, clouds from his brains, and the sky from his skull. Four dwarves, corresponding to the four cardinal points, held Ymir’s skull aloft above the earth.

The gods eventually formed the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks, and built a fence around their dwelling-place, Midgard, to protect them from the giants.[1][2][3][4]

Life Comes from Death

The first of the three conceptual meanings embedded in this myth that we’ll be considering in this article is that creation never occurs in a vacuum. It necessitates the destruction of that which came before it. New life feeds on death, a principle which is recapitulated every time we eat, to cite but one example. This constant give-and-take, one of the most basic principles of life, features prominently in the Norse creation myth. The world was not created ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), as it is in the Judeo-Christian creation myth, for example. Rather, in order to create the world, the gods first had to slay Ymir, the representative of primal chaos, whose undifferentiated state is shown by his being a hermaphrodite. As such, he is essentially an extension of Ginnungagap itself. After all, Ymir’s kin, the giants, are constantly attempting to drag the cosmos back toward the chaotic nothingness of Ginnungagap (and, during Ragnarok, they succeed).

Whenever they ate, cleared land for settlements, or engaged in combat, the Norse could look back to this tale of the gods killing Ymir as the archetype upon which their own efforts were patterned.

Flesh and Matter

In the modern world, we view the physical universe as consisting of inert, essentially mechanical matter, a view which can be traced back to two sources. The first, of course, is the Christian creation myth, where the monotheistic god fashions the world as a mere artifact, into which his divine substance never enters. The second source is the theological speculations of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who hypothesized that the world was created by the coming together of two wholly different principles: matter (inert physical substance) and form (God, whom Aristotle referred to as the “Unmoved Mover,” one who forms matter but was himself never formed). For Aristotle, the Unmoved Mover provided him with a grand “First Cause” that enabled him to describe much of the physical world in terms of linear, deterministic cause and effect – a precursor to our own modern concept of “natural laws.”

This view of the physical world as inert and non-spiritual is quite a young innovation, having been around for only about 2500 years out of the 150,000 or so that our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, has existed. Before this view came to prominence – and long after in areas where this view had not yet become established, such as the Norse of the Viking Age – humankind held a very different view of the nature of the physical world. The overwhelming majority of all humans who have ever lived have seen the visible world as the organic manifestation of spirit, with consciousness and will being intrinsic properties of the world as a whole rather than the exclusive possession of one organ (the brain) of one species (humanity). This perspective is called animism. (The very word “matter” comes from the Latin word for “mother,” and references the archaic – and, in my opinion, extremely beautiful – view that the soil into which we go when we die is the womb of a goddess, “Mother Earth.”)

The Norse creation myth contains nothing like a monotheistic god or an “unmoved mover.” Even Niflheim and Muspelheim are largely the product of their interactions with the other seven of the Nine Worlds due to the fact that the trajectory of Norse mythology is cyclical rather than linear, meaning that the creation of the cosmos occurs after the cosmos is destroyed during Ragnarok. The cycle repeats itself eternally, without beginning or end. Accordingly, the indigenous worldview of the Norse and other Germanic peoples has no place for the concept of inert, insensate matter. Their creation narrative confirms this; the world is fashioned from the hot, bleeding flesh of Ymir, and is formed into the flesh of new living beings (just like our own bodies, when they return to the soil, give life to the other creatures who feed upon them).

This is why the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose philosophy as a whole forms an excellent conceptual compliment to animistic worldviews in general and Norse mythology in particular, speaks of all living creatures as intertwining limbs and sinews of a single but extremely amorphous “flesh”[5] – in the Norse perspective, the flesh of Ymir.

Creation as Ongoing and Participatory

In the view of Aristotle and the authors of Genesis, creation was an event that happened only once at a specific time in the past and is now over forever. It was accomplished by a single being – Elohim, Yahweh, God, the “Unmoved Mover” – who by virtue of this act is the sole being in the universe who possesses any cosmogonic powers worth mentioning.

In the heathen Norse perspective, however, creation is ongoing and participatory. The Norse creation myth tells only of the initial shaping of the world. As I describe in detail in the article on Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd, however, the character of the cosmos is always being reshaped. All of the inhabitants of the Nine Worlds have some role, some agency, in this process, however great or small. Even in the above tale, we see that the “initial” shaping of the cosmos was an act that occurred gradually and in numerous stages, and was accomplished by a very wide variety of beings building from the accomplishments of those who came before them. As the famous Scottish-American naturalist and preservationist John Muir wrote, “I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in creation’s dawn.”[6]

Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.

The Viking Spirit Daniel McCoy


[1] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá.

[2] The Poetic Edda. Vafþrúðnismál.

[3] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál.

[4] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by John Wild, translated by Alphonso Lingis.

[6] Muir, John. 1938. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir. p. 72.


The Aesir Against The Vanir” by Carl Ehrenberg (1882)
In Norse mythology, gods and goddesses usually belong to one of two tribes: the Aesir and theVanir. Throughout most of the Norse tales, deities from the two tribes get along fairly easily, and it’s hard to pin down firm distinctions between the two groups. But there was a time when that wasn’t the case.
The War of the Gods
The Vanir goddess Freya was always the foremost practitioner of the art of seidr, a form of magicprincipally concerned with discerning and altering the course of destiny. Like historical seidr practitioners, she wandered from town to town plying her craft for hire.
Under the name Heiðr (“Bright”), she eventually came toAsgard, the home of the Aesir. The Aesir were quite taken by her powers and zealously sought her services. But soon they realized that their values of honor, kin loyalty, and obedience to the law were being pushed aside by the selfish desires they sought to fulfill with the witch’s magic. Blaming Freya for their own shortcomings, the Aesir called her “Gullveig” (“Gold-greed”) and attempted to murder her. Three times they tried to burn her, and three times she was reborn from the ashes.
Because of this, the Aesir and Vanir came to hate and fear one another, and these hostilities erupted into war. The Aesir fought by the rules of plain combat, with weapons and brute force, while the Vanir used the subtler means of magic. The war went on for some time, with both sides gaining the upper hand by turns.
Eventually the two tribes of divinities became weary of fighting and decided to call a truce. As was customary among the ancient Norse and other Germanic peoples, the two sides agreed to pay tribute to each other by sending hostages to live among the other tribe. Freya,Freyr, and Njord of the Vanir went to the Aesir, andHoenir (pronounced roughly “HIGH-neer”) and Mimirwent to the Vanir.
Njord and his children seem to have lived more or less in peace in Asgard. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Hoenir and Mimir in Vanaheim. The Vanir immediately saw that Hoenir was seemingly able to deliver incomparably wise advice on any problem, but they failed to notice that this was only when he had Mimir in his company. Hoenir was actually a rather slow-witted simpleton who was at a loss for words when Mimir wasn’t available to counsel him. After Hoenir responded to the Vanir’s entreaties with the unhelpful “Let others decide” one too many times, the Vanir thought they had been cheated in the hostage exchange. They beheaded Mimir and sent the severed head back to Asgard, where the distraught Odin chanted magic poems over the head and embalmed it in herbs. Thus preserved, Mimir’s head continued to give indispensable advice to Odin in times of need.
The two tribes were still weary of fighting a war that was so evenly-matched, however. Rather than renewing their hostilities over this tragic misunderstanding, each of the Aesir and Vanir came together and spat into a cauldron. From their saliva they created Kvasir, the wisest of all beings, as a way of pledging sustained harmony.[1][2][3][4]
This storyline continues in the tale of the Mead of Poetry.
Polytheism and Pluralism
This tale bears out many of the points that I make inPolytheistic Theology and Ethics. Unlike the One God of monotheistic religions, polytheistic gods are often at variance with one another and are tied to contradictory systems of values and ways of being in the world. Polytheism accepts this pluralism as inevitable and healthy. Monotheistic religions, however, try to crush this pluralism and subject everyone to the same set of values and standard of conduct.
We can catch a whiff of the monotheistic attitude in the Aesir’s initial attempt to destroy Freya for encouraging them to follow pursuits that were antithetical to their own values. Thankfully, however, the Aesir eventually realized that their attempt to kill her was futile, and that the two tribes of deities should instead learn to live side by side in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect. This is a message that the defenders of a universal standard of morality have yet to learn.

[1] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 21-24.
[2] Snorri Sturluson. Ynglinga Saga 4. In Heimskringla: eða Sögur Noregs Konunga.
[3] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 1.
[4] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 158-159.
[5] Ibid. p. 161-162.


Odin in eagle form obtaining the mead of poetry from Gunnlod, with Suttung in the background (detail of the Stora Hammars III runestone, c. 700 CE)
This article is divided into three parts. The first section recounts the tale of Odin’s theft of the mead of poetry (Old Norse Óðrœrir, “Stirrer ofInspiration“). The second and third sections explore what this tale shows us about the pre-Christian worldview of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, and compares these aspects of their worldview with the dominant worldview of modern society.
The Mead of Poetry
At the conclusion of the Aesir-Vanir War, the Aesir andVanir gods and goddesses sealed their truce by spitting into a great vat. From their spittle they formed a being whom they named Kvasir (“Fermented Berry Juice”[1]). Kvasir was the wisest human that had ever lived; none were able to present him with a question for which he didn’t have a satisfying answer. He became famous and traveled throughout the world giving counsel.
Kvasir was invited to the home of two dwarves, Fjalar (“Deceiver”[2]) and Galar (“Screamer”[3]). Upon his arrival, the dwarves slew Kvasir and brewed mead with his blood. This mead contained Kvasir’s ability to dispense wisdom, and was appropriately named Óðrœrir (“Stirrer of Inspiration”). Any who drank of it would become a poet or a scholar.
When the gods questioned them about Kvasir’s disappearance, Fjalar and Galar told them that Kvasir had choked on his wisdom.
The two dwarves apparently delighted in murder. Soon after this incident, they took the giant Gilling out to sea and drowned him for sport. The sounds of Gilling’s weeping wife irritated them, so they killed her as well, this time by dropping a millstone on her head as she passed under the doorway of their house.
But this last mischief got the dwarves into trouble. When Gilling’s son, Suttung (“Heavy with Drink”[4]), learned of his father’s murder, he seized the dwarves and, at low tide, carried them out to a reef that would soon be covered by the waves. The dwarves pleaded for their lives, and Suttung granted their request only when they agreed to give him the mead they had brewed with Kvasir’s blood. Suttung hid the vats of mead in a chamber beneath the mountain Hnitbjorg (“Pulsing Rock”[5]), where he appointed his daughter Gunnlod (“Invitation to Battle”[6]) to watch over them.
Now Odin, the chief of the gods, who is restless and unstoppable in his pursuit of wisdom, was displeased with the precious mead’s being hoarded away beneath a mountain. He bent his will toward acquiring it for himself and those he deemed worthy of its powers.
Disguised as a wandering farmhand, Odin went to the farm of Suttung’s brother, Baugi. There he found nine servants mowing hay. He approached them, took out a whetstone from under his cloak, and offered to sharpen their scythes. They eagerly agreed, and afterwards marveled at how well their scythes cut the hay. They all declared this to be the finest whetstone they had ever seen, and each asked to purchase it. Odin consented to sell it, “but,” he warned them, “you must pay a high price.” He then threw the stone into the air, and, in their scramble to catch it, the nine killed each other with their scythes.
Odin then went to Baugi’s door and introducted himself as “Bölverkr” (“Worker of Misfortune”). He offered to do the work of the nine servants who had, as he told it, so basely killed each other in a dispute in the field earlier that day. As his reward, he demanded a sip of Suttung’s mead.
Baugi responded that he had no control of the mead and that Suttung guarded it jealously, but that if Bölverkr could truly perform the work of nine men, he would help the apparent farmhand to obtain his desire.
At the end of the growing season, Odin had fulfilled his promise to the giant, who agreed to accompany him to Suttung to inquire about the mead. Suttung, however, angrily refused. The disguised god, reminding Baugi of their bargain, convinced the giant to aid him in gaining access to Gunnlod’s dwelling. The two went to a part of the mountain that Baugi knew to be nearest to the underground chamber. Odin took an auger out from his cloak and handed it to Baugi for hill to drill through the rock. The giant did so, and after much work announced that the hole was finished. Odin blew into the hole to verify Baugi’s claim, and when the rock-dust blew back into his face, he knew that his companion had lied to him. The suspicious god then bade the giant to finish what he had started. When Baugi proclaimed the hole to be complete for a second time, Odin once again blew into the hole. This time the debris were blown through the hole.
Odin thanked Baugi for his help, shifted his shape into that of a snake, and crawled into the hole. Baugi stabbed after him with the auger, but Odin made it through just in time.
Once inside, he assumed the form of a charming young man and made his way to where Gunnlod guarded the mead. He won her favor and secured a promise from her that, if he would sleep with her for three nights, she would grant him three sips of the mead. After the third night, Odin went to the mead, which was in three vats, and consumed the contents of each vat in a single draught.
Odin then changed his shape yet again, this time into that of an eagle, and flew off toward Asgard, the gods’ celestial stronghold, with his prize in his throat. Suttung soon discovered this trickery, took on the form of another eagle, and flew off in pursuit of Odin.
When the gods spied their leader approaching with Suttung close behind him, they set out several vessels at the rim of their fortress. Odin reached the abode of his fellow gods before Suttung could catch him, and the giant retreated in anguish. As Odin came to the containers, he regurgitated the mead into them. As he did so, however, a few drops fell from his beak to Midgard, the world of humankind, below. These drops are the source of the abilities of all bad and mediocre poets and scholars. But the true poets and scholars are those to whom Odin dispenses his mead personally and with care.[7][8]
The Origin of Truth and Knowledge
As entertaining as this tale is, it’s also extraordinarily rich in themes that reveal some of the most important differences between the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples on the one hand and the worldview of modern society on the other. The first of these differences we’ll consider has to do with where thoughts come from.
In the modern world, we take it for granted that we arrive at our beliefs through an active process over which we have total control. We call this process “reason.” But any logical proof has to start with an assumption – that is, a statement for which one can’t offer any proof, but rather simply accepts on its own merits. This is so because of the “problem” of “infinite regress:” for every statement one attempts to validate rationally, an additional statement must be added to the chain to support that first statement, a process which can only continue infinitely if the process isn’t stopped somewhere. When and why do we stop this process, then? When can we know when we’ve hit upon an idea that’s so sound that it would be superfluous to question it?
René Descartes, the seventeenth-century French philosopher who was one of the foremost prophets of the modern, rationalistic worldview, held that some truths are simply self-evident and cannot be called into question. Tellingly, the principal notion that Descartes pointed to as a self-evident truth from which other truths could be deduced was, “I think, therefore I am.”
But no truth is self-evident. If there were such a thing as a self-evident truth, everyone, everywhere, would already believe in it, and argumentation would be unnecessary.
I think, therefore I am” rests on especially shifty ground in this regard. “I think” – how many assumptions are embedded within these two little words! For one thing, “I think” presupposes “I am,” not the other way around; in order for me to have agency in the thinking process, I must first, of course, exist. Even more importantly for our purposes here, “I think” presupposes that my thoughts come from myself and not from anyone or anywhere else. History is brimming with people who have held diametrically opposed views on the ultimate origins of thought. Take, for example, the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote, “We never come to thoughts. They come to us.”[9]
Evidently, Descartes’s “self-evident truth” is anything but.
In my opinion, Heidegger overstates his case. Some parts of the thought process we can rightly ascribe to ourselves. But his larger point, that there are parts of the thought process over which we don’t have control, mirrors the indigenous Germanic perspective on thought very nicely.
As the tale of Odin’s theft of the Mead of Poetry shows, the pre-Christian Germanic peoples held that the kinds of visionary insights that can make a person into a true poet or scholar – the kinds of insights that can form the basis of a logical proof – come from Odin.
The fact that this gift is symbolized by mead is far from random. One of the central rituals of the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples was the sumbl (Old Norse) or symbel (Old English), which was centered around the drinking of alcohol to induce a state of ecstasy. It was held that one can more readily perceive truth in this inspired state, when one finds it hard to not be utterly honest with oneself and others. In this ritual context, the drinker is closer to the gods and to the sacred realities that undergird the profane reality of everyday life than when one’s inner faculties are bound to the kind of cold, dispassionate mindsets that we in the modern world prize.[10]
Our modern preference for detached analysis is no accident, and has a traceable history of its own. Prior to roughly the fourth century BCE, the view that truth came in rare flashes of ecstatic insight (what we today might call “aha! moments”) was the norm, at least amongst the European peoples of the period, and likely across much of the rest of the world as well. This esteem for the rare and special came under heavy criticism among the Greeks, however, who linked these preferences to a hierarchical social structure that many wanted to replace with something more egalitarian and democratic. Because of this preference for the common and mundane over the elite, the Greeks – including extremely influential philosophers such as Aristotle – began to turn away from inspired thought, seeking to replace it entirely (or at least largely) with the kind of detached analysis that most people today hold to be the sole legitimate means of uncovering truth. The Greeks’ reasons for doing so weren’t really rational, but ratherhuman.[11]
To be sure, the ancient Germanic peoples no doubt held that a more sober, analytical mode of thought had its place as well. But the thoughts that they arrived at through such means were secondary and profane, and derived from the thoughts that were given to them during fleeting moments of ecstatic insight, in much the same way as the contents of any logical proof are derived from an initial assumption that cannot itself be logically supported.
In light of the failure of the rationalistic worldview to account for the origins of the life-determining assumptions that form the basis of any and all thought, might it not be wise to concede that the heathen Germanic people were on to something?
All Knowledge is Personal Knowledge
So, in the perspective of the people who told the tale of the Mead of Poetry around their hearth-fires on long winter nights, ultimate knowledge comes from the gods and arrives in flashes of overpowering inspiration.
In the modern world, we insist on dividing thought into two black and white categories: “objective” and “subjective.” But where in this dichotomy should we place the Germanic method of acquiring insight? Nowhere, of course.
The text of the tale as it’s recorded in Snorri Sturluson’sProse Edda could hardly have been worded in a way that more directly dissolves the object-subject dichotomy if this had been a conscious aim of Snorri’s (which we can safely assume it wasn’t). Snorri writes that “anyone who drinks of the mead will become a poet or a scholar.” In the terms of the subject-object dichotomy, poetry is a “subjective” activity because of the creativity and imagination it involves, whereas the work of the scholar is “objective” because of the dispassionate observation and analysis that he or she brings to his or her topic. But if, as in the above tale, poetry and scholarship have the same source – namely, the inspired thought of Odin – what then?
Then the subject-object dichotomy is useless. Observation and analysis can never be truly dispassionate, and creativity and imagination have some bearing on truth (they don’t belong solely to the realm of aesthetics or fantasy).
How, in this perspective, should we characterize knowledge? Rather than being “objective” or “subjective,” knowledge is personal – that is, all knowledge is held bysomeone with a particular perspective on reality, whose knowledge comes from someone in particular, and this knowledge is inevitably a knowledge of something to which the giver and the receiver of the knowledge stand in a particular relation. In other words, knowledge and truth are attributes of our relationships rather than things that just “are.” As our relationships with those around us – our fellow humans, gods, animals, trees, grasses, rivers, mountains, stars, clouds, winds (all of which are perceived to have personalities in the animistic Germanic worldview) – change, truth and knowledge change as well.
Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that different people hold such different views on what constitutes reality, since their relationships with those around them are different. Whether an idea is right or wrong can be judged only with reference to a particular matrix of interpersonal relationships, not by any absolute, impersonal, static – “objective” – standard.

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 184.
[2] Ibid. p. 84.
[3] Ibid. p. 97.
[4] Ibid. p. 304.
[5] Ibid. p. 154.
[6] Ibid. p. 124-125.
[7] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 104-110.
[8] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skálskaparmál.
[9] Heidegger, Martin. 1971. Poetry, Language, Thought. Edited and translated by Albert Hofstadter. p. 6.
[10] Bauschatz, Paul C. 1978. The Germanic Ritual Feast. InThe Nordic Languages and Modern Linguistics 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, University of Texas at Austin, April 5-9, 1976. Edited by John Weinstock.
[11] Hatab, Lawrence J. 1990. Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths.

[12] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 5. The original Old Norse text reads, “hverr, er af drekkr, verðr skáld eða fræðamaðr.”

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