In Norse mythology, Ymir ("groaner" or "twin"), was the primordial being (predating all worldly phenomena), from whom all living things are said to be descended. In some sources, he is also referred to as Aurgelmir (Old Norse meaning: gravel-yeller) and he is additionally known as the founder of the race of frost giants and the maternal grandfather of Odin.
In the creation accounts preserved in Norse texts, Odin and his brothers slay Ymir, dismember him and utilize his body parts to fashion the cosmos. This mythic view of creation reflects an almost universal human fascination with cosmic origins revealing surprising underlying similarities in different cultural cosmologies. For example, the Norse tale about Ymir parallels Hinduism's own myth of cosmic origins found in Purusha, who was also sacrificed and dismembered to create the cosmos. Such convergences suggest an almost universal human fascination with understanding our origins.
As a Norse deity, Ymir belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition, of which the Scandinavian (and particularly Icelandic) sub-groups are best preserved, developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E. The tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of primary deities: the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the most significant divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir. Over and above these three, there also existed races of secondary supernatural spirits, including the alfár (elves) and the dwarves (craftsmen for the Aesir).
Ymir, much like Purusha in the Indian tradition and Tiamat in Mesopotamian mythology, was a being who represented the ultimate ground of the cosmos. More specifically, he was a primordial entity who was killed and dismembered to allow for the creation of the present world order. Thus, as perhaps is fitting for a mythological system that was so focused on battle and conquest, the only way for Odin to form the kingdom of Midgard (and various other elements in the natural world) was by physically prevailing over an adversary.
Given the insatiable nature of human curiosity, it is perhaps unsurprising that one universal genre of folklore is the cosmogony: the mythic attempt to explain the origin and fundamental principles of the universe. In the Norse context, these foundational myths center on the character of Ymir, who was universally recognized as the first living being. These tales are found in their earliest extant form in the Poetic Edda, with specific mention of Ymir in the exhaustive question and answer poem Vafþrúðnismál, the exhaustive mythic catalog of the Grímnismál, and the historically expansive Völuspá (which describes the cosmos from its creation to its destruction in the fires of Ragnarök). However, they reach their most synoptic form in the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, who unites the sources mentioned above with others that have not survived into the present into a coherent and systematic whole.
The most basic account of the earliest days in cosmic history can be found in the Völuspá, which seems to imply that Ymir was simply an element of the cosmos that predated the created order:
While this early cosmic vision does provide an origin point, it begs a rather important question: from whence came this primeval being? Fortunately, this same question is explicitly asked by Odin in his dialog with the preternaturally clever giant, Vafthruthnir (as recorded in the Vafþrúðnismál):
In this way, the text suggests that the elemental being somehow congealed from the frosty waters of Elivagar ("storm-waves"), which implies an image of the roiling, unordered waters. It should be noted that the "Aurgelmir" referred to in this passage can be positively identified with Ymir, as suggested by a genealogical account elsewhere in the text. While this provides a more detailed picture of the cosmic genesis, it still leaves many elements unexplored and many questions unanswered.
As implied above, these issues were systematically addressed by Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, which systematizes the accounts referenced above into a holistic, mythic unit. In this particular case, Snorri argued that creation occurred due to the interaction between the cool, wet, frigid air of Niflheim and the hot, dry air of Muspelheim, the union of which would produce the type of gradual accretion described in the Vafthruthnismol:
Ginnungagap, which faced toward the northern quarter, became filled with heaviness, and masses of ice and rime, and from within, drizzling rain and gusts; but the southern part of the Yawning Void was lighted by those sparks and glowing masses which flew out of Múspellheim. ... Just as cold arose out of Niflheim, and all terrible things, so also all that looked toward Múspellheim became hot and glowing; but Ginnungagap was as mild as windless air, and when the breath of heat met the rime, so that it melted and dripped, life was quickened from the yeast-drops, by the power of that which sent the heat, and became a man's form. And that man is named Ymir, but the Rime-Giants call him Aurgelimir and thence are come the races of the Rime-Giants.
Of course, the use of the term "man" as a descriptor is simply poetic license, a fact that follows naturally from the depiction of this being as the progenitor of the Jotun.
Faced with this explanation, we (as readers) are left with another question. How can an entire race of gods (or in this case giants) emerge from a single founding being? As above, this very issue was also raised by Odin in the Vafthruthnismol:
Thus, the race of giants were understood to have emerged through a process of asexual reproduction from (the sweat of (?)) Ymir. The only notable addition that Snorri's account makes to this depiction is that it provides an explicit moral evaluation of the proceedings, stating: "By no means do we acknowledge him God [for his role in the creation]; he was evil and all his kindred: we call them Rime-Giants."
Following the spontaneous generation of Ymir (and his offspring), these proto-beings found themselves without a source of sustenance. Fortunately, the primordial fluids also congealed into the form of an enormous bovine, Audhumla ("hornless and fecund"), whose copious udders produced four rivers of milk. This cow, in turn, fed off of the salty blocks of ice that made up much of the early world. As she licked away the rime ice, she eventually revealed the body of a god named Búri (the first of the Aesir). Eventually, Búri married a giantess (one of the children of Ymir) and fathered Borr. After a time, Borr and his wife Bestla (another female Jotun) had three sons, named Odin, Vili and Vé. Though it was not apparent to the unwitting giant Ymir, the birth of these divine beings was the first step towards his own undoing.
Without offering an explanation or rationale (save perhaps the implicit notion in the Prose Edda that the incontestable evil of the giant required response), the mythic sources next describe Odin and his siblings callously murdering the primordial giant.
Following this act of aggression, Odin and his brothers dismembered Ymir's body and used it to create the current cosmic order. Each portion of his massive physiology became a particular cosmic feature:
Snorri's account offers few elaborations upon the Poetic prototype, save an explicit depiction of the gods fashioning a separate realm for the mortals and the giants. Describing their earthly creation, it is stated that it is "ring-shaped without, and round about her without lieth the deep sea; and along the strand of that sea they gave lands to the races of giants for habitation. But on the inner earth they made a citadel round about the world against the hostility of the giants, and for their citadel they raised up the brows of Ymir the giant, and called that place Midgard." Also, he makes the intriguing suggestion that the four corners of the cosmic firmament are supported by four dwarves (Nordri, Sudri, Estri and Ouestri), which correspond to the four cardinal direction.
The striking imagery surrounding the creation of the cosmos inspired a number of standardized poetic kennings for various worldly phenomena. Some of these, presented in the dialogical format of the Skáldskaparmál, include: "How should the heaven be periphrased? Thus: call it Skull of Ymir, and hence, Giant's Skull ... How should one periphrase the earth? Thus: by calling her Flesh of Ymir ... How should one periphrase the sea? Thus: by calling it Ymir's Blood."
While this cosmogonic formulation is certainly viable as a unitary event, Lindow notes that it can be seen as one instance of a mythic pattern that encapsulates the cosmic time line: a pattern constructed around the ongoing theme of intra-familial bloodshed. More specifically, he argues that Odin and his brothers are matrilineal descendants of the murdered giant, Ymir (as both Búri and Bor married giantesses):
In a disputable etymology, W. Meid (1992) has linked the names Ymir (which can be reconstructed in Proto-Germanic as *umijaz or *jumijaz, in the latter case possibly deriving from Proto-Indo-European *ym̩yos) and the name of the Indic death deity Yama, reconstructed in PIE as *yemos, from the root yem "twin." Yama shares with Ymir the characteristics of being primeval and mortal, but in other respects is a very different character, the first of mortal men and kings who after death becomes ruler of the realm of the dead.
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