Ymir

Ymir being slain by the gods (Franz Stassen, 1920)

Ymir (pronounced “EE-meer;” Old Norse Ymir, “Screamer”[1]) is a hermaphroditic giant and the first creature to come into being in the Norse creation myth. As the first giant, he’s the ancestor of all of the other giants – and, since almost all of the gods are partially descended from giants, he’s their ancestor as well. Another name for Ymir in some Old Norse poems is Aurgelmir (“Sand/Gravel Screamer”).[2]

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 Audhumla for his nourishment. When he slept, several other giants were conceived asexually in Ymir’s hermaphroditic body, and spontaneously sprang from his legs and the sweat from his armpits.

Audhumla received her nourishment from a salt lick, and as she licked, a being named Buri, the first of the Aesir gods, was freed from within the salt. He produced a son, Borr, who mated with Bestla, one of Ymir’s descendants. From their union came Odin, the chief of the Aesir, and his two brothers, Vili and Ve.

The divine 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.[3]

The Giant Par Excellence

Thematically, Ymir is the personification of the chaos before creation, which is also depicted as the impersonal void of Ginnungagap. Both Ymir and Ginnungagap are ways of talking about limitless potential that isn’t actualized, that hasn’t yet become the particular things that we find in the world around us. This is why the Vikings described it as a void (as have countless other peoples; consider the “darkness upon the face of the deep” of the first chapter of Genesis, for example). It is no-thing-ness. But it nevertheless contains the basic stuff out of which the gods can make true things – in this case, the primal matter is Ymir’s body, which the gods tear apart to craft the elements.

It’s extremely fitting for Ymir to be the progenitor of the giants, for this is the general role the giants occupy in Norse myth. They are the forces of formless chaos, who are always threatening to corrupt and ultimately overturn the gods’ created order (and at Ragnarok, they succeed). But the giants are more than just forces of destruction. In the words of medievalist Margaret Clunies Ross:

Characteristically […] the gods covet important natural resources which the giants own, then steal them and turn them to their own advantage by utilising them to create culture, that is, they put the giants’ raw materials to work for themselves. These raw materials are of diverse kinds and include intellectual capital such as the ability to brew ale as well as the cauldron in which it is made, and abstractions made concrete like the mead of poetry and the runes of wisdom.[4]

Not only does Ymir fit this pattern; mythologically speaking, his death and dismemberment is the paradigmatic model for this pattern.

This also explains why Ymir is depicted as a hermaphrodite who can reproduce on his own asexually. Differentiation, including sexual differentiation, didn’t exist yet. The gods had to create that as part of their task of giving differentiated forms to what had previously been formless and undifferentiated. Various other creation myths from other peoples have used a hermaphroditic being to illustrate this same concept,[5] so we can be confident that this is also what the Norse meant here – despite the superficial counterexample of Audhumla and her udder. (After all, Norse mythology was never an airtight system.)

Ymir’s name provides an additional – and rather poetic – instantiation of this role as the personification of primordial chaos. Recall that Ymir’s name means “Screamer” (from the Old Norse verb ymja, “to scream”[6]). The scream, the wordless voice, is the raw material from which words are made. By taking formless matter – represented by Ymir’s body – and giving it form, the gods were, metaphorically speaking, making words out of a scream.

The metaphor is completed by the description of the act of creation in the Old Norse poem Völuspá. There, the verb used for the action by which the gods create the world is yppa, which has a range of meanings: “lift, raise, bring up, come into being, proclaim, reveal.”[7] The primary sense in which yppa should be understood here is “to come into being,” but note the additional shade of “to proclaim.” Given the poetic symmetry with Ymir’s name, this is surely not coincidental. The gods proclaim the world into being as they sculpt it out of the Screamer’s corpse.[8]

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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] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 377.

[3] 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.

[4] Quoted in:

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.

[5] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 277-278.

[6] 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.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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