One of the most important figures from this body of myths was Ymir, said to be the first being. This giant was seen as a primordial ancestor of all Viking peoples and features heavily in Norse prose and poems.
Created from the eternal void of nothing
Norse mythology can trace its stories, myths, and legends all the way back to the very creation of the universe. At the beginning of time, there was a huge void, full of nothingness, Ginnugagap. However, like so many of the other creation myths throughout different cultures, peoples, and societies the world over, this void was the vessel for universal creation.
Into this dark abyss leaked fire and ice from two worlds (Muspelheim – the primordial world of fire and Niflheim – the primordial world of ice, respectively) that combined to create the first being, Ymir. This first being, whose name means "Screamer" in Old Norse, was a hermaphroditic giant and the ancestor not only of all giants but also the gods, who claimed partial descent.
Suckled by a cow
Being created in an eternal void is, perhaps, not the best place to grow and try to nourish oneself. Luckily for Ymir, however, he was able to find nourishment by suckling the mythical cow Audhumla. Following his daily feed, Ymir would sleep, and it was during this sleep that other giants were conceived, asexually. These giants would escape, often spontaneously, from his legs and the sweat from his body.
The Norse Gods were, of course, divided into two tribes: the Aesir and the Vanir. Audhumla played an interesting role in the origin of the Aesir tribe of Norse gods and goddesses.
Buried deep within the salt lick that provided nourishment for Audhumla was a being called Burri. Eventually, Burri would be freed from the salt lick, mate with one of Ymir's descendants, and their union would produce Odin, chief of Aesir.
As a figure in Norse mythology, Odin can be described as extremely versatile. From the earliest times, he was described as the god of war, but he also played a role of a protector of heroes. Photo: EyeShotYou / Pixabay
A key character in Norse literature
Ymir is a character that is well known throughout the wide range of Norse literature and sagas. One of the best descriptions of his creation comes from the third poem in the Poetic Edda, which takes a deep dive into the origins and cosmogony of the Norse gods and universe. In this poem, Odin asks a wise giant about the origin of the earth and sky. In response, the giant replies:
Out of Ymir's flesh was fashioned the earth,
And the mountains were made of his bones;
The sky from the frost-cold giant's skull,
And the ocean out of his blood.
The Prose Edda further details how Ymir was responsible for the origin of humans. During a discussion between the mythical king Gylfi and three wise men, the origin of humankind is told. One of the wise men explains that Ymir is not only the ancestor of all giants (Jötnar) but also, when he slept; man and woman were secreted through his sweaty armpits.
Similar characters in other cultures and religions
There appear to be some similarities between the story and character of Ymir and other cultures, religions, and societies. Modern scholars have delved into the account (Germania) of the German peoples written by the 1st century CE Roman historian Tacitus.
In his ethnographic description of German tribes, he states that they sing songs and celebrate a primeval hermaphroditic god who was the ancestor of all man called Tuisto. Linguists have noted that this may be the origin of the modern Swedish word tvistra – meaning separate or two-fold.
There are further similarities between Ymir and the Greek character of Atlas. A titan – similar to but not exactly a giant – he was condemned to hold up the earth on his shoulders. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, there is a description of how various parts of Atlas' body became different parts of the earth, similar to how Ymir's body was said to have fashioned earth with his flesh, the ocean with his blood, and his skull the heavens, etc.
Farther afield, in Asia, there are a few legendary figures similar to Ymir. There is an obvious echo of Ymir's story in parts of the ancient Sanskrit Rig Veda (the character of Purusha, a primeval man whose body was dissected for the creation of the earth) and a 9th-century Zoroastrian character in a theological book (Kūnī, whose body was again divided to create earth). Finally, the ancient Chinese primeval giant, Yangu, saw his body create the world in one of the Chinese creation myths.
What happened to Ymir?
Regardless of the echoes in other cultures, religions, and societies, Ymir takes an important place in the pantheon of Norse gods and legendary figures. Looking at the story of Ymir as told in the Prose Edda, he comes to a very bloody end.
Having created humankind, the gods, and the giants, he is eventually killed by the three brothers freed from the salt lick, Odin, Vili, and Vé. With a similar echo to the story of the flood in the Old Testament of the Bible, when Ymir is killed, his blood causes an immense and cleansing flood the world over.
In modern times, Ymir has lent his name to a mixed bag of items and places. One of the 83 moons of Saturn is named Ymir as is a popular Danish dairy product (soured milk) and a town in British Columbia, Canada. The town is nearby the scenic Valhalla Mountain range, giving this part of Canada a very Norse feel.
For a brief overview of Ymir and some other characters from creation myths around the world, visit the Literary Hub website here.
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