The Viking creation story, often referred to as the Norse or Viking creation myth, traces back to the ancient Nordic societies of Scandinavia, characterized by their seafaring exploits, rich mythology, and intricate social hierarchy. This mythology was primarily an oral tradition, transmitted from generation to generation through sagas and poems until finally documented in texts like the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda during the 13th century.
This article seeks to unfold the Viking creation story’s rich tapestry, highlighting the unique features that distinguish it from other world creation myths.
The Origin: Ginnungagap, Muspelheim, and Niflheim
In the Viking creation myth, everything began with Ginnungagap, a vast, void-like chasm representing the primordial universe. On one side of Ginnungagap was Muspelheim, the realm of fire, and on the other was Niflheim, the land of ice. These opposites set the stage for the Vikings’ dualistic understanding of the universe and its origins.
Muspelheim, the land of fire and heat, was the domain of the fire giant Surtr, who wields a flaming sword. On the other hand, Niflheim was a frigid, foggy realm, with the chilling river Élivágar flowing through it. From these rivers sprang the first living creature, Ymir, a hermaphroditic giant.
The Birth of Ymir and Audhumla
Ymir, the primordial giant, was born from the poison that dripped from the icy rivers of Élivágar. While Ymir slept, he began to sweat. From the sweat under his left arm, a man and a woman were born, and one of his legs fathered a son with the other. Thus, the frost giants, or Jotnar, came into being.
At the same time, the ice in Ginnungagap started melting, forming another being – Audhumla, the cosmic cow. Audhumla nourished Ymir with her milk, and she found sustenance by licking the salty ice blocks around her. As she licked the blocks, a man’s form began to emerge, who was named Buri.
The Emergence of the Æsir and the End of Ymir
Buri had a son named Bor, who married a female Jotun named Bestla. They bore three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve – the first of the Æsir, the primary group of gods in Norse mythology.
Odin and his brothers were ambitious and sought to create their cosmos. To do this, they killed Ymir. The floods from Ymir’s blood drowned all the frost giants except for one, Bergelmir, who managed to escape with his wife and ensure the continuation of the Jotnar lineage.
The brothers used Ymir’s body to construct the world – his flesh formed the earth, his blood the seas, his bones the mountains, his teeth the pebbles, and his skull the sky. From his brain, they made the clouds, and his eyebrows formed Midgard, the home of human beings.
Who Is the Norse Creator God?
In Norse or Viking cosmology, the concept of a singular, omnipotent creator god doesn’t fit neatly as it does in monotheistic religions. Instead, the Norse pantheon comprises several gods and goddesses with unique attributes and domains. But if we seek a figure instrumental in the creation of the universe and humans, Odin emerges as a central character.
Odin, one of the primary gods in the Norse pantheon, is considered a key figure in the universe’s creation. He is one of the sons of Bor and Bestla, and along with his brothers, Vili and Ve, Odin is said to have slain the primordial giant Ymir. From Ymir’s body, they shaped the cosmos: his flesh became the earth, his blood the seas, his bones the mountains, and his skull the sky. They used Ymir’s eyebrows to create Midgard, the realm of humans.
In the creation of humanity, Odin played a significant role as well. He, Vili, and Ve found two tree trunks on a beach, which they transformed into the first man and woman, Ask and Embla. Odin breathed life and spirit into them, marking the birth of humanity.
Despite his roles in creation, Odin is not solely a god of creation. Known as the Allfather, he is associated with wisdom, war, death, sorcery, poetry, and the runic alphabet, underscoring the complexity of the Viking gods and the interconnected nature of their mythology.
The Creation of Humanity
After shaping the cosmos, Odin, Vili, and Ve began the creation of humans. While walking along the beach, they found two tree trunks. Odin gave them breath and life, Vili granted them wit and feeling, and Ve bestowed upon them the senses of sight and hearing. These two beings were the first man and woman, named Ask and Embla. They were given Midgard as their dwelling place.
The Cosmic Tree and the Nine Worlds
Central to Viking cosmology is Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree connecting the nine worlds in Norse mythology. The Æsir gods reside in Asgard, the highest of these realms. Below Asgard is Alfheim, home to the Light Elves, and Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir gods.
Midgard, connected to Asgard by the rainbow bridge Bifrost, is the realm of humans. Jotunheim, the land of the giants, lies on the outskirts of Midgard. Below it is Nidavellir/Svartalfheim, the domain of the Dwarves and Dark Elves.
Finally, the lowermost realms are Helheim, the land of the dishonorable dead, and Niflheim, the primordial realm of ice. These realms are held together by Yggdrasil, the evergreen ash tree, which stands at the center of the cosmos.
The Sun, Moon, and Stars
In the Viking creation stories, the celestial bodies also have a place. The sun, Sol, and the moon, Mani, are said to be siblings chased across the sky by the wolves Skoll and Hati. On the other hand, the stars were sparks from Muspelheim, which the gods arranged in specific patterns to measure time.
When Was the Norse Creation Story Written?
Like most of Norse mythology, the Norse creation story was traditionally part of an oral storytelling tradition that predates written records. These tales were passed down from generation to generation among the Vikings and other Old Norse-speaking peoples. Thus, the original date of the creation of these stories remains unknown, lost in the mists of prehistory.
It wasn’t until the 13th century that these myths were committed to writing, largely thanks to Icelandic historian, poet, and politician Snorri Sturluson. Sturluson penned the Prose Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, which provides a comprehensive and systematic account of Norse mythology, including the creation story. Written in Old Norse, the Prose Edda is a valuable resource that preserved the Norse myths when Scandinavia became increasingly Christianized.
Another important source of Norse mythology is the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems. Its date of composition is uncertain, but it was probably created around the same time or slightly earlier than the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda is more episodic and less systematic than the Prose Edda, but it still contains a wealth of information about Norse cosmology.
Therefore, while the Norse creation story’s oral roots likely extend back many centuries, perhaps even into the Bronze Age, it was not written down until around the 13th century during the Christian era in Scandinavia.
How Old Is the Norse Creation Myth?
Determining the exact age of the Norse creation myth is challenging due to its origins in oral tradition. The stories were passed down through generations before being written down, and much of the timeline remains speculation based on archeological finds and historical context.
However, the Norse myths, including the creation story, were likely shaped during the Viking Age, from the late 8th to the early 11th century. This era was marked by extensive Norse exploration and settlement across Europe, which likely influenced and enriched their mythological tradition.
The myths may have older roots extending back into the Germanic Iron Age or even the Bronze Age, meaning they could be more than 2000 years old. This is supported by the fact that certain elements in Norse mythology, such as the cosmological tree Yggdrasil, are also found in other Indo-European mythologies, suggesting a common ancestral origin.
Yet, the first written accounts of these myths appeared in the 13th century. The primary sources are the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson, and the Poetic Edda, an anonymous compilation of older poetry. They were written during a time when the Norse had largely converted to Christianity, and their ancient myths were no longer part of an active religious belief system.
The Norse creation myth is at least as old as the Viking Age, making it over a thousand years old, but its origins may date back even further, possibly over two millennia. But the written versions we have today were created in the 13th century, about 800 years ago. Regardless of its exact age, the Norse creation myth continues to captivate audiences with its evocative imagery and profound reflection of the Norse worldview.
Final Thoughts: Norse Mythology Timeline
Creating a precise timeline for Norse mythology is challenging due to its oral tradition and the lack of written records until the 13th century. Nevertheless, the various myths and legends allow us to create a broad chronology of significant events in the cosmos’ creation and eventual end, known as Ragnarok.
- The Beginning: Everything begins with Ginnungagap, a vast chasm, with Muspelheim (the land of fire) and Niflheim (the land of ice) on either side. The interaction of these two realms gives rise to the first living being, Ymir, and the cosmic cow, Audhumla.
- Creation of the Æsir: As Audhumla licks the ice blocks, Buri emerges, who later fathers Bor. Bor and Bestla have three sons: Odin, Vili, and Ve, known as the Æsir gods.
- Shaping of the Universe: The Æsir gods kill Ymir, using his body to create the cosmos. They make the nine realms and link them via the cosmic tree, Yggdrasil.
- Creation of Humanity: Odin, Vili, and Ve find two tree trunks and transform them into the first man and woman, Ask and Embla.
- The Age of the Gods and Heroes: This period comprises various myths, including the Æsir-Vanir war, the creation of Thor’s hammer, and the adventures of the gods.
- Ragnarok: This marks the end of the gods, where major deities like Odin, Thor, and Loki die in a great battle. Afterward, a new world rises from the sea, and life begins anew, marking a cyclical understanding of time and existence in Norse mythology.
Conclusion: A Living Mythology
The Viking creation myth showcases a deeply interconnected universe characterized by dualities and cycles of creation and destruction. The Vikings didn’t see these stories as mere folklore but as living mythology – reflections of their world and the forces they saw at work around them.
Though the age of the Vikings has passed, their creation stories continue to captivate and inspire, revealing fascinating insights into the human desire to comprehend our origins and place in the cosmos. These myths remind us of storytelling’s profound role in shaping our understanding of the world.