The Norse creation myth is an interesting topic to tackle, as the primary sources we have on it is separate from a lot of the other information we have on Norse mythology. I will be reviewing and writing about the creation myth from the Poetic Edda, or the older Edda, which is a collection comprised of poems written before the somewhat controversial Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prosaic Edda, which is widely referenced to when it comes to the Norse creation myth.
I will go through the three different poems which all have references to the creation myth, in order. The full version of these texts is very comprehensive, and one could write tens of pages from each of the poems, but I will attempt to keep the text short and compressed.
The poem Vaftrudnesmål gives us an interesting insight in the machinations of Odin’s cunning and wisdom and puts forward how the world was created. In the poem, Odin travels to the home of the jötunn by the name of Vaftrudne, the wisest of all the jötnar alive, to ask him how the world was created and how it is going to end. Odin knew he could not simply ask these questions of the wise jötunn, and instead challenged him in a competition of knowledge. Odin is widely known to constantly crave more wisdom and has made many sacrifices to get to where he is now. Games and competitions between the gods and their foes is also a recurring theme in mythology, which can be found in many sagas. Resorting to underhanded or cunning methods is also not an uncommon theme for the Norse gods, which is made apparent in many of the poems.
The jötnar are among the wisest and oldest beings in the world, hence Odin wanted to test his wisdom against the wisest of them all. Vaftrudne started by asking Odin a question, which he answered with ease. Then it was Odin’s turn to ask: “How did everything come to be?” This is then the story as told by the jötunn, Vaftrudne. During this story he references many different names which will be made into a compendium at a later date for easier reference.
The oldest of the jötnar is named Aurgelme (Ymir). Aurgelme was created from the poisonous drops which were spewed out from the raging torrents of the rivers in Ginnungagap called Elivågor. Vaftrudne elaborates that this is the reason why “we jötnar are so evil.” Aurgelme is also the being who created the world; his meat became earth, his skull became the sky, his bones became the mountains, and his blood created the sea.
Odin the proceeds to ask the jötunn where the day and night comes from. Vaftrudne answers: Mundilfare is the father to the Sun and the Moon; Delling is the father of Day, but Night was of Nörvi born. The Aesirs then made these celestial bodies rotate above the world so the humans could tell the time between day and night and the passing of the seasons. Important to note is that Day, Night, Sun and Moon are all divine personifications, not per se intangible concepts. They all had their own family tree and stories attached to them.
The winds come from Hräsvelg who is a jötunn in the form of a gigantic eagle. Powerful and wise beings then created Njord who resides in Vanheim and gave him to the gods as a hostage. When the end of the world (Ragnarök) is started, he shall return to these beings.
The dead shall all go to Nifelhem, but in Odin’s Hall shall the bravest of the warriors fight for all eternity and then feast in his bountiful hall and enjoy it as comrades. The final battle shall occur in the valley called Vigrid that spans 100 miles to every side. Only two shall survive this battle, Liv and Livtrase, who nourishes themselves on the day’s morrow.
This is the confusing and non-chronological creation myth as told in Vaftrudnesmål. In this story the creation is told from the perspective of a jötunn, said to be the wisest of them all. The different parts that were created out of Ymir’s body can be seen as horizontal planes of existence. The sky, which was created from Ymir’s skull, was the home of celestial bodies, for example Day and Night. These bodies are physical beings with a family, as told by Vaftrudne, all of which are the sons and daughters of jötnar. These celestial bodies help the humans (and most likely the gods) tell the time. On earth live the humans and the gods, and underneath the earth in the fiery and dark Hel reside all the dead souls which don’t end up in Valhalla. Vaftrudnesmål can be seen as the beginning of the creation myth, how everything came to be.
In Grimnesmål it is Odin that is the sole narrator, and the story behind it is quite the interesting one. The story begins with Odin and Frigg. The two are sitting on Hlidskjalf, the seat of the all-father, where they can see anywhere in the world. Odin starts bragging that Frigg’s foster son, Agnar, is having intercourse with a jötun woman, while his own foster son Geiröd is a mighty king. To this, Frigg takes offence, even if it is true. She goes on to slander Geiröd with false lies; “he is so greedy with his food for his guests that they end up starving of hunger.” A confused Odin decided to see this for himself and sets out to meet with Geiröd. As Frigg knew these accusations were falsified, she sent a handmaiden by the name of Fulla out in advance to warn Geiröd of an evil wizard who is about to enter his kingdom. (Quite the wife). He would then recognize this wizard because no beast would dare to raise its voice against him. Odin donned a disguise and set out for Geiröd’s kingdom. As he was about to walk through the castle gates, the fierce hounds guarding his castle did not raise their voice against him. Odin was then thrown into Geiröd’s dungeon and tortured for eight nights to get him to speak of his evil plans. The only one who would show him compassion was Geirud’s son, Agnar, who gave Odin something to drink. At this, Odin began speaking to Agnar about the life of the gods.
Grimnesmål has a very interesting story to it, which will be visited in detail in another post, but for now we are only interested in the two paragraphs that reference the creation myth. As in Vaftrudnesmål, Odin tells the story of Ymir and how his body parts created different planes but goes in more detail: the trees were created from Ymir’s hair, Midgård is Ymir’s eyelashes and the clouds in the sky is his brain. Odin goes on and tells of the world of the gods and of Valhall, where the bravest of warriors are assembled to help him in the battle against Vitnir, the Fenrir’s wolf.
At the end of the poem, Odin reveals who he truly is. Geiröd hears this and tries to apologize profusely. As he is about to step forward, he trips and falls on his own sword, killing him – Odin has come to collect him. Agnar now becomes the new king, for he showed kindness to Odin when non other would.
Völuspå, or the prophecy of the völva, is probably the most known poem from the Poetic Edda. This is the most comprehensive of the stories and covers a wide number of topics, but as stated earlier, this time we are only visiting the sections that tell of the creation of the world.
The völva, or the seeress, is so old that she remembers the time when Ymir was still living in Ginnungagap. The time when there was no heaven nor earth, no sand nor ocean, no trees nor mountains. Then, the sons of Bor (Odin, Vili and Ve) lifted the earth and created Midgard. The world was now created, but it was empty, it had nothing in it. Being able to reference to the earlier stories told, this is where the components of the world get created by Aurgelme. “The Powers” then gathered and conversed over what was to be done. “The Powers” doesn’t refer to some cosmological superior beings, but rather it is a collective word for all kinds of gods: the aesir, vaenir, jötnar and alfs. They then created the Dwarves, who were master craft smiths. They look much like humans, but they only reside underground smithing and protecting the precious metals below. How were the humans then created?
There were two trees: Ask and Embla, that were granted boons from the three Aesir’s: Odin, Höne and Lodur which manifested in the form of a spirit, a soul and skin. This was the Aesir’s last creation on earth, humankind.
The creation story is now complete, and the Seeress goes on to explain other things, such as how things are now. Her narrative moves on to the present, showing that the world is connected to the myth she is telling. But that is a story for another day.
Hopefully this takes sheds some light on how the creation myth was put forth in the Older Edda (Poetic Edda). I will do another version where I will review and analyse the Prosaic Edda written by Snorri Sturluson, which is usually the more popular version as it is more "complete". (Although it is written during a Christian regime.)
If you have any questions or notice anything faulty with the text, don't hesitate and send in a comment and I will do my best to revise the section!
The Poetic Edda, translated and re assembled by Jackson Crawford.
If you wish to read more about the narrative world of the poets, there is an interesting article "Narrative world, human environments, and poets" in the book "Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives" by John Lindow.