The Origin of the Norse World

At the beginning of time, when there was as yet no earth, nor sea, nor air there was a powerful being. He existed in the depths of space and time formless and unseen. Before even heaven and earth were created he dwelt in the darkness with the frost giants. Whatever he willed came to pass. He has many names but in our language he most commonly goes by the name of Allfather.

At the dawn of time, in the centre of space, there existed a great abyss called Ginnunga-gap, a yawning gulf in space, whose depths no eye could fathom as they were enveloped in perpetual twilight.

Many ages before the earth was created the world of Niflheim was formed, north of the Ginung-gap. This was a world of ice and mist and darkness, in the centre of which bubbled the exhaustless spring Hvergelmir (the seething kettle), a seething cauldron, whose waters supplied twelve great streams known as the Elivagar. As the water of these streams flowed swiftly away from their source and encountered the cold blasts from the yawning gulf, it soon hardened into huge blocks of ice, which rolled downward into the immeasurable depths of the great abyss with a continual roar like thunder.

South of this dark chasm, and directly opposite Niflheim, was another world called Muspellsheim, the home of elemental fire, where all was warmth and brightness and whose frontiers were continually guarded by Surtr (the black one), the flame giant. This giant fiercely brandished his flashing sword, and continually sent forth great showers of sparks, which fell with a hissing sound upon the ice blocks in the bottom of the abyss.

As the steam rose in the clouds it encountered the prevailing cold, and was changed into hoarfrost, which, layer by layer, filled up the great chasm. Through the continual action of cold and heat an ice giant called Ymir (seething clay), came to life amid the ice-blocks in the abyss.

Groping about in the gloom in search of something to eat, Ymir saw a gigantic cow called Audhumla (the nourisher), which had been created in the same way as himself. Hastening towards her, Ymir noticed with pleasure that four great streams of milk flowed from her udder, which could nourish him.

The cow, looking about her for food in her turn, began to lick the salt off a neighbouring ice-block with her rough tongue. This she continued to do until the head of a god appeared from its icy envelope, out of which eventually Buri (the producer) stepped.

While the cow had been thus engaged, Ymir, the giant, had fallen asleep and as he slept a son and daughter were born from the perspiration under his armpit, and he produced the six-headed giant Thrudgelmir, who, shortly after his birth, brought forth in his turn the giant Bergelmir, from whom all the evil frost giants were descended.

When these giants became aware of the existence of the god Buri and his son Borr (born), they began waging war against them, for as the gods and giants represented the forces of good and evil, there was no hope of their living together in peace.

odinThe struggle continued for ages, neither gaining an advantage, until Borr married the giantess Bestla, daughter of Bolthorn (the thorn of evil), who bore him three powerful sons Odin (spirit), Vili (will) and Ve (holy). These three sons immediately joined their father in his struggle against the hostile frost-giants, and finally succeeded in slaying their deadliest foe, the great Ymir. As he sank down lifeless the blood gushed from his wounds in such floods that it produced a great deluge, in which all his race perished with the exception of Bergelmir, who escaped in a boat and went with his wife to the confines of the world.

Here he took up his abode, calling the place Jotunheim (home of the giants), and here he begot a new race of frost-giants, who continued the feud and were always ready to sally forth from their desolate country and raid the territory of the gods.

The gods were called the Aesir (pillars and supporters of the world). Having triumphed over their foes, and being no longer engaged in perpetual warfare, they now began to look about them with intent to improve the desolate aspect of things and fashion a habitable world. Borr’s sons rolled Ymir’s great corpse into the yawning abyss, and began to create the world out of its various parts.

Out of Ymir’s flesh they fashioned Midgard (the middle garden) as the earth was called. This was placed in the exact centre of the vast space, and hedged all round with Ymir’s eyebrows. The solid portion of Midgard was surrounded by the giant’s sweat, which formed the ocean, while his bones made the hills, his flat teeth the cliffs, and his curly hair the trees and all vegetation.

Pleased with the result of their first efforts at creation, the gods now took the giant’s unwieldy skull and poised it skilfully as the vaulted heavens above earth and sea; then scattering his brains throughout the expanse beneath they fashioned from them the fleecy clouds.

To support the heavenly vault, the gods stationed the strong dwarfs, Nordir, Sudri, Austri, Westri at its four corners, bidding them sustain it upon their shoulders, and from them the four points of the compass received their present names of North, South, East and West.

To give light to the world, the gods studded the heavenly vault with sparks secured from Muspellheim, points of light which shone steadily through the gloom like brilliant stars. The most vivid of these sparks were reserved to create the Sol, the sun, and Mani, the moon, which were placed in beautiful golden chariots and carried into the sky by the steeds Arvakr (the early waker) and Alsvin (the rapid goer).

But as evil always treads close upon the footsteps of good, hoping to destroy it, both Sun and Moon were incessantly pursued by the fierce wolves Skoll (repulsion) and Hati (hatred), whose aim was to overtake and swallow the brilliant objects before them so that the world might again be taken back to its primeval darkness.

At times the wolves overtook and tried to swallow their prey, thus producing an eclipse of the radiant orbs. Then the terrified people raised such a deafening clamour that the wolves, frightened by the noise, hastily dropped them. So, thus rescued, the Sun and Moon resumed their course.

The cold winds continually swept down from the north, chilling all the earth. The great giant Hraesvelgr, who, clad in eagle plumes, sat at the extreme northern verge of the heavens blighting all things with his icy breath.

While the gods were occupied in creating the earth and providing for its illumination, a whole host of maggot-like creatures had been breeding in Ymir’s flesh. These beings now attracted divine attention. Summoning them into their presence, the gods first gave them forms and endowed them with intelligence, and then divided them into two races.

Those which were dark, treacherous and cunning by nature were banished to Svart-alfa-heim, the home of the black dwarfs, situated underground, whence they were never allowed to come forth during the day, under penalty of being turned into stone. They were called Dwarfs, Trolls and Gnomes. They spent all their time and energy in exploring the secret recesses of the earth. They collected gold, silver, and precious stones, which they stowed away in secret crevices.

The remainder of these small creatures, including all that were fair, good and useful, were called Fairies and Elves, and they sent them to dwell in the fairy realm of Alf-heim (home of the light elves), situated between heaven and earth, where they could flit downward whenever they pleased, to attend to the plants and flowers, sport with the birds and butterflies, or dance in the silvery moonlight on the green.

Odin, who had been the leading spirit in all these undertakings, now bade the gods follow him to the broad plain called Idawod, far above the earth, on the other side of the great stream Ifing, whose waters never froze.

This became the sacred space the gods reserved for their own abode and was called Asgard or home of the gods. The twelve Aesir or gods and twenty-four Asynur or goddesses all assembled there at the bidding of Odin.

Then was held a great council, at which it was decreed that no blood should be shed within the limits of their realm but that harmony should reign there for ever. As a further result of the conference the gods set up a forge where they fashioned all their weapons and the tools required to build the magnificent palaces of precious metals, in which they lived for many years in a state of such perfect happiness in a period known as the Golden Age.

Although the gods had from the beginning designed Midgard as the abode of man, there were at first no human beings to inhabit it. One day Odin, Vili, and Ve, started out together and walked along the seashore, where they found two trees, the ash and elm hewn into rude semblances of the human form. The gods gazed at first upon the inanimate wood in silent wonder; then saw how they could be put to use. Odin gave these logs souls, Vili motion and senses and Ve blood and blooming complexions.

Endowed with speech and thought, and with power to love and to hope and to work and with life and death, the newly created man and woman were left to rule Midgard at will. They gradually peopled it with their descendants, while the gods, remembering they had called them into life, took a special interest in all they did, watched over them, and often came to their aid and protection.

Allfather next created a huge ash called Yggdrasil, the tree of the universe, of time, and of life, which filled all the world, taking root not only in the remotest depths of Nifl-heim, but also in Midgard and in Asgard.

From its three great roots the tree attained such a marvellous height that its topmost bough overshadowed Odin’s hall, while the other wide-spreading branches towered over the other worlds.

As the tree Yggdrasil was evergreen, its leaves never withering, it served as a pasture-ground not only for Odin’s goat, Heidrun, which supplied the heavenly mead, the drink of the gods, but also for the stags Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr and Durathor, from whose horns honey-dew dropped down upon the earth and furnished the water for all the rivers in the world.

It was, of course, essential that the tree Yggdrasil should be maintained in a perfectly healthy condition, and this duty was performed by the Norns, or Fates, who daily sprinkled it with the holy waters from the Urdar fountain. This water, as it trickled down to earth through the branches and leaves, supplied the bees with honey.

From either edge of Nifl-heim, arching high above Midgard, rose the sacred bridge, Bifrost (the rainbow), built of fire, water and air, whose quivering and changing hues made it appear like a rainbow. The gods travelled to and fro to the earth across this bridge. Of all the gods only Thor, the god of thunder, never passed over the bridge for fear lest his heavy tread or the heat of his lightening would destroy it.

Now although the original inhabitants of heaven were the Aesir, they were not the sole divinities of the Northern races, who also recognised the power of the sea and wind gods, the Vanas, dwelling in Vana-heim and ruling their realms as they pleased. In early times, before the golden palaces in Asgard were built a dispute arose between the Aesir and Vanas, and they resorted to arms, using rocks, mountains and icebergs as missiles in the fray. But discovering that in unity alone lay strength, they resolved their differences and made peace, and to ratify the treaty they exchanged hostages.

freyjaSo it was thus that Niord, one of the Vanas came to dwell in Asgard. He lived in a place called Noatun or enclosure for ships because he ruled over the winds and can calm or enrage the sea. He had a wife called Skadi, the daughter of a giant. Her home was in the mountains at Thrymheim (the thunder home). They came to an agreement to alternate their abode between the sea and the mountains. Niord had two children, a son Frey and a daughter Freyja. They were both beautiful and powerful gods who took their place amongst the Aesir.