Ymir

Ymir and the cow Auðhumla by Nicolai Abildgaard (1790)

Ymir (pronounced “EE-meer;” Old Norse Ymir, “Scream”[1]) is a hermaphroditic giant and the first creature to come into being in the Norse creation narrative.

According to the medieval Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, Ymir was born when fire from Muspelheim and ice from Niflheim met in the abyss of Ginnungagap. Ymir was suckled by the cow Auðhumla for his nourishment, and several other giants spontaneously sprang from his sweat. Auðhumla, in turn, was nourished by a salt lick, and as she licked a being named Búri, the first of the Aesir gods, was freed from the salt. He produced a son, Borr, who mated with Bestla, one of Ymir’s descendents. From their union came Odin, the chief of the Aesir, and his two brothers, Vili and Vé, who are generally considered to be hypostases (extensions or alternate versions) of Odin. The brothers then slew Ymir and fashioned the cosmos from his corpse. As one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, Grímnismál or “Song of the Hooded One,” words it:

From Ymir’s flesh the earth was created,
And from his sweat [or, in some versions, blood] the sea,
Mountains from bone,
Trees from hair,
And from his skull the sky.

And from his eyebrows the blithe gods made
Midgard, home of the sons of men
And from his brains
They sculpted the grim clouds.[2]

A discussion of the significance of this tale can be found in the main article on the Norse creation narrative. For now, however, let’s simply note that this view of the world as Ymir’s body is a close match for the concept of “flesh” articulated by the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In Merleau-Ponty’s vision, the physical world is better thought of as living, intertwining flesh than as inert matter,[3] a conceptualization that accords exceedingly well with the animistic worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples.

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References:

[1] Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.

[2] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanzas 40-41. My translation. The original Old Norse verses are:

Ór Ymis holdi
var jörð of sköpuð,
en ór sveita sær,
björg ór beinum,
baðmr ór hári,
en ór hausi himinn.

En ór hans brám
gerðu blíð regin
Miðgarð manna sonum,
en ór hans heila
váru þau in harðmóðgu
ský öll of sköpuð.

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