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CREATION

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The sacrifice brought about a rebirth of life; the worshippers renewed their hamingja or luck, and this renewal implied that the world was created afresh, that the “usefulness' – benevolence, fertility of nature – was called into new life. Through the blot this fair earth with its leaping and flying and growing beings and the heavens with sun and moon, light and heat were saved from falling into the hands of the demons and turning unheore; in the language of myth: the world is won from the giants, rising fresh and strong out of their death. It is an obvious conclusion that the Nordic drama included a creative act, giving birth to the world and to the clan, or the people, as is the case in other religions of similar type; this conjecture is justified by legends that evince a vigorous sense of drama and, what is more, bear marks of their having been ritually staged. For our knowledge of the ancient cosmology we are mainly indebted to the account of Snorri in his Edda; Snorri evidently worked scattered traditions up into a comprehensive history of the world, and his version bears the character of a harmonised text, but upon the whole the original features of the legends are forcibly brought out in his reproduction.

In the beginning of time there was no earth and no heaven, no sea washing a shore, but in the middle a vast abyss, Ginnungagap. To the north loomed the icy Niflheim where grim storms raged in the misty darkness; in the middle of Niflheim the well of Hvergelmir surged and sent out a multitude of rivers; to the south Muspellheim shone out, so glowing hot that none but the natives were able to dwell in it scorching fire. Surt is the guardian of this land, and his sword is the fierce flame.

Before the gods were born the ice swelled in Ginnungagap; for raging rivers gushed forth, and in the brooding and drifting mist over Niflheim the streams congealed like slag running out of a fire, the ice gathered into heavy glaciers advancing wave upon wave, and settled into Ginnungagap. The mists and rain that sagged over the ice hardened into a cover of rime. But from Muspelheim a hot wind struck against the ice of Ginnungagap and stood quivering as the air on a sultry summer day. When the rime met the heat it melted and dripped living drops, and the drops took the shape of a man. Thus arose an immense giant, Ymir, who is called Aurgelmir by the frost giants. While he was still asleep a perspiration started all over his body; in his left armpit a man and a woman grew out, and his right foot begot a son on the left. From these children of the primeval monster a brood of giants descended which very soon filled the world.

The crust of rime still melted and dripped, from the drops a cow sprang, Audumla, and by her milk Ymir was fed. While the giant sucked her udders, she licked the salt stones sticking out of the glacier; in the evening a man's hair came out of the stone, next day it had grown into a head, and on the third day the man leapt up and stood free on the ground. He was handsome, of great statue and strength, and his name was called Buri. Buri's son Bor wedded a woman from among the giants and became the ancestor of the gods: Odin, Vili and Ve.

When the gods grew and gathered strength they slew Ymir, and his blood flowed in torrents and drowned the world, so that the whole of his kin perished in the flood. One only, Bergelmir, climbed for safely upon a lúðr and was saved along with his wife; the couple gave rise to a fresh brood of giants, and these compose the race that sill plays mischief in this world. The gods carried Ymir into the middle of Ginnungagap and made the earth of his body; his blood flowed out into rivers and the sea, his flesh became land, his bones mountains, his teeth and broken bones were scattered as boulders and pebbles. The gods led the waters forth until they flowed all round the earth in a ring, and thus they fortified the abode of gods and men with the great ocean. They raised Ymir's skull above the earth and made from it the roof of heaven, and they placed a dwarf to guard each of the corners, east and west and north and south; under heaven the brain of Ymir is drifting, and that is the reason why the clouds are cold and grim like giants' thoughts.

The sparks which originated in Muspelheim and whirled in the air were placed in the sky to give light to the earth. The gods ordained a fixed course to all the heavenly bodies and made them advance in regular order as day succeeds day and year follows year.

Thus it came about that the earth rests in the midst of the deep sea. On the rim of the ocean the gods settled the giants, but in the middle of the earth they hallowed a land and surrounded it with the eyebrows of Ymir for a wall, and this enclosure was called Middle-garth, the abode of men.

This account is supplemented by a verse in Vaf. (29) adding the names of the successive generations of giants: Aurgelmir, Thrudgelmir and Bergelmir.

This graphic description of primeval history, when the inhabitable earth grew into shape through the contending forces of heat and cold, represents the Northern view of nature; the men who formed these legends had the roar of the ocean in their ears, they had felt, too, the forlorn bleakness of the fells and the cold gusts sweeping down from the glaciers. Their conception of the forces at work in the world does not, however, originate in abstract speculation, neither does it issue from vague floating theories of a hypothetical state of things; whether the cosmological view of the world includes an element of speculation or not, it settles and clarifies into images drawn from the drama and from the sacrificial place. The illustration in S E of the glaciers advancing like the slag flowing from the fire is certainly not due to the stylistic ingenuity of Snorri; the trait goes back to the legends on which he moulded his literary exposition. In fact, it is more than probable that the observation that gave rise to Snorri's elucidating simile lies at the very root of Norwegian cosmological speculation. In the placing of Hvergelmir as the centre of Niflheim there is a precision of statement that not only suggests a dramatic picture, but directly reveals an interplay between ritual experience and cosmological speculation as to the forces at play in the elements of the world. In fact, the legend is created by a man who had seen the consolidating forces of fire and water at work in shaping the world.

The centre of the creative episode of the drama is found in the fire and the sacrificial kettles. Ymir's death is an ancient sacrificial myth that reads like the programme of a creation play; the wording of the legend still bears the impress of its dramatic setting: the gods carried Ymir to Ginnungagap and placed him in the middle of the vast abyss. If we were not left in ignorance regarding the meaning of the names borne by the primeval giants: Bergelmir, Thrudgelmir and Aurgelmir, the features of the ritual act would stand out in higher relief; as it is, we must rest content with a general statement of a symbolical creation ceremony implicit in the cutting up of the victim and its preparation for being cooked.

One single scene appertaining to this drama is still left standing among the débris of mythology, viz, the myth of Bergelmir, which alludes to an incident in the birth of the waters; but unfortunately it is worded in too concise and obscure a form for us to be able to complete the picture. In Vaf. 35 the giant is introduced saying: “the first thing I remember is Bergelmir being born and placed on a lúðr”; this verse evidently reproduces a ritual act of dramatic import, but unfortunately the explanation hinges upon a word of unknown significance. In the Grottasong lúðr means a quern box; like the Darrad Song (cf. here II 220-1) this poem is a free composition inspired by a ceremonial scene: the ritual drama that “ground” wealth and luck for the king. In a scaldic poem a kenning combining lúðr with the word of malt designates the brewing vat (see Lex. Poet. s. v. lúðr). Further lúðr occurs in a formula used to ensure fair weather on sea (Gróg. 11): "gögn — luck, probably sacrificial luck (cf. Thorsdr. 21) — and sacrificial fluid may enter into an advantageous combination for your benefit and procure a peaceful journey”. The upshot of a comparative examination is that several sacrificial vessels were designated by the term lúðr, and we are left in ignorance of its character in the story of Bergelmir.

These stray reminiscences throw a fresh light on the description in the Vsp. of the earliest times. The opening verses lead straight into the hall at the moment when the creative drama is produced: “At the distant time when Ymir lived, there was neither sea nor sandy coast breaking cool waves, no earth, no heaven above, only Ginnungagap where no blade of grass sprouted until the sons of Bur lifted the land and made the fair Middle-garth; the sun shone from the south on the stones of the hall, and the earth was clothed in green herbs”. This raising of the land, the growth of the soil, was probably represented by ritual handling of the cult implements and the body of the victim, by minute gestures and movements of the hand and other symbolic operations, some of which are still discernible; we know from the Grimnismál 42 that the lifting of the kettles off the fire entered into the drama as a creative act: “then the worlds open before the gods, as a new-won possession” (v. infra p. 294). Though the Vsp. cannot add to our knowledge regarding the sequence and character of the ceremonies, its verses introduce us to the scene and setting of the drama; the hall is the world, as the roof of the house is the sky in the scene of the Thorsdrapa; the first rays of the sun strike the flagstones of the sacrificial place. In the description of the earth or land Vsp. makes use of a poetical term, bjöð, probably of ritual origin, which to the worshippers conveyed the vividness of the scene when earth appeared and settled into its place.

According to the Vsp. the creation of the world is succeeded by a scene in which an erratic chaos of heavenly bodies was reduced to fixed order and rhythmic motion. At first sun and moon had no luck and megin (cf. I 249) and wandered vaguely about the heavens, until the gods shaped their courses and ordained them to regulate years and days; v. 6 exposes the ritual in plain words: “The gods went to their seats of council and gave names to night and moon-less dark, to morning and noon, afternoon and evening, for the numbering of years”.

Creation is brought to conclusion by the birth of man, the rise of the clan. Three gods found Ask and Embla on the land, beings that had as yet no luck and no destiny or purpose. Odin gave breath, Hoenir mind, Lodur warm blood and hue: litr, luck and strength (cf. II 235); thus the men grew from fate-less beings into men of honour whose life had a purpose and an aim. This description is throughout reminiscent of the drama; in his introduction of the three gods the poet makes use of a suggestive expression: “three came from that assembly, powerful and gracious” (v. 17); we need no great effort of imagination to see three officiating sacrificers proceeding from the body of worshippers to perform their sacred task.

Another rite suggestive of a hieros gamos is repeatedly hinted at, but never worked out in clear outlines, cf. Lokas. 26 and infra p. 337.

   

   

   

 
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