Ginnungagap is the bottomless abyss that was all there was prior to the beginning of the cosmos, and into which the cosmos will collapse once again during Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods,” only to be reborn as the cycle completes itself. As the Eddic poem Völuspá, “The Insight of the Seeress,” describes the time before the cosmos existed:
That was the age when nothing was;
There was no sand, nor sea, nor cool waves,
No earth nor sky nor grass there,
The Old Norse word gap means the same thing as it does in modern English: a void, an empty space. The meaning of the ginnung element, however, is far less certain. The best guess anyone has come up with so far is Jan de Vries’s suggestion of “magically-charged,” a theory that has gained widespread acceptance. This would certainly be in keeping with the interpretations propounded below.
Chaos and Cosmos
This perfect, uninterrupted silence and darkness has close counterparts in other mythologies from around the world. To cite but one example, most of my readers will no doubt be familiar with the famous words of the first chapter of Genesis, which describe the state of the universe prior to the intervention of Elohim in Judeo-Christian mythology: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The opposition between the well-ordered, just, and beneficent cosmos on the one hand and the lawless chaos that surrounds it is perhaps one of the most common themes in religion and in human consciousness more generally.
In the pre-Christian religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, this chaos-cosmos split is expressed as an opposition between the innangard, that which is orderly, civilized, and law-abiding, and the utangard, that which is wild and anarchic. Plowed fields are innangard, but beyond the fences that surround them and mark them off reigns the wilderness, the utangard home of the giants. These anti-cosmic forces are constantly trying to drag the Aesir gods, their work, and their ideals back to chaos (and at Ragnarok they succeed, at least for a time). While the wilderness is utangard enough, the “capital” of chaos, as it were, is Ginnungagap; the abyss is the ultimate destination to which the giants want to bring the world.
Nothingness in Existential Philosophy
Several modern philosophers associated with existentialism, the preoccupation with basic human desires and fears, have spoken of a similar schema using the more prosaic and impersonal language of philosophy and psychology. While the writings of luminaries such as Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre differ considerably on these points, a fascination with negation and anxiety is a central focus of their work. In existentialist parlance, “nothingness” is that which negates oneself, one’s values, and/or one’s worldview – one’s “personal cosmos.”
The ultimate nothingness is death, because it negates one absolutely (at least in the modern worldview – see Death and the Afterlife for the indigenous Germanic perspective on death), but any condition over which one cannot triumph is a hostile absence into which one’s yearnings, strivings, and beliefs vanish. This negation is the root of anxiety (or “angst” or “Being-toward-death”), the fear of what we might not be able to overcome, that which stands every chance of “getting us” in the end. This is one of the fundamental facts of life with which everyone who strives to live deliberately and authentically must grapple. In Heidegger’s words, “To be a particular being means to be immersed in nothingness.” While these philosophers don’t necessarily identify nothingness with a physical void as the ancient Germanic peoples did, the principle remains the same.
This primordial, annihilating chaos is ever-present; wherever there is darkness, wherever there is silence, wherever any wish or belief is negated, there is Ginnungagap.
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 Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 3. My translation. The original Old Norse text is as follows:
Ár var alda,
þar er ekki var,
var-a sandr né sær
né svalar unnir;
jörð fannsk æva
gap var ginnunga
en gras hvergi.
 de Vries, Jan. 2000. Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. p. 167-168.
 See, for example:
Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 109.
Lindow, John. 2001. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. p. 121.
 Eliade, Mircea. 1957. The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. p. 29-32.
 “Da-sein heisst: Hineingehaltenheit in das Nichts.” In: Heidegger, Martin. 1929. Was Ist Metaphysik?. p. 35.