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. These three brothers should surely be understood to be different aspects of Odin himself rather than three absolutely distinct beings. Vili and Ve are never mentioned apart from Odin in Old Norse literature, and their names (“Will” and “Sanctity,” respectively) are common and powerful attributes of Odin. (Arrangements like this are very common in the pre-Christian worldview of the Norse and other Germanic peoples – see The Parts of the Self.)
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.
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” – 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.”
If you enjoyed this article, check out my book on the worldview at the heart of Norse mythology, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.
And if you’d like to keep up with my ongoing work here and elsewhere, the best way to do so is to follow me on Google+: Dan McCoy.
 The Poetic Edda. Völuspá.
 The Poetic Edda. Vafþrúðnismál.
 The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál.
 Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by John Wild, translated by Alphonso Lingis.
 Muir, John. 1938. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir. p. 72.