The Story of Ymir: the First Giant in Norse Mythology

The first giant, Ymir (or Aurgelmir, Brimir, Blaenn) existed before earth and sea were formed, and he was made from venom dropping from Elivagar (Stormy Waves) into Ginnunga-gap, the primordial void out of which all things were created.

The Frost Giant Ymir being formed in the Darkness of the Ginnunga-gap
The Frost Giant Ymir being formed in the Darkness of the Ginnunga-gap

This venom congealed into ice, and the ice melted in contact with warm air from Muspellheim. Life quickened in it and Ymir was the result.

Groping about in the gloom in search of something to eat, Ymir perceived a gigantic cow called Audhumla (the nourisher), which had been created the same way as himself, and out of the same materials, from the dripping rime of Elivagar.

Hastening towards her, Ymir noticed with pleasure that four great streams of milk flowed from her udder to supply him with nourishment.

All his wants were thus satisfied; but the cow, looking about her for food, began to lick the salt off a neighboring ice block with her rough tongue.

There she stood patiently licking that lump of salt until the hair of a god appeared. After she had licked some time longer the whole head emerged from its icyenvelope, and by and by Buri (the producer) stepped forth entirely free.

While the cow had been thus engaged, Ymir, the giant, had fallen asleep, and as he slept a son and daughter were born from the perspiration under his armpit, and his feet produced the sixheaded giant Thrudgelmir, who, shortly after his birth, brought forth in his turn the giant Bergelmir, from whom all the evil frost giants are descended.

The slaying of Ymir

When these giants became aware of the existence of the god Buri, and of his son Börr (born), whom he had immediately produced, they began waging war against them, for as the gods and giants represented the opposite forces of good and evil, there was no hope of their ever coming to an agreement and living together in peace.

This struggle continued evidently for ages, neither party gaining a decided advantage, until Börr married the giantess Bestla, daughter of Bolthorn (the thorn of evil), who bore him three powerful sons, Odin (spirit), Vili (will), and Ve (holy).

These three sons immediately joined their father in his struggle against the inimical frost giants, and finally succeeded in slaying their deadliest foe, the great Ymir.

As he sank down lifeless the blood gushed from his wounds in such floods that it produced a great deluge, in which all his race perished, with the exception of Bergelmir, who escaped in a boat he was fishing in with his wife as Ymir was slain.

Together they went to the confines of the world, and founded a new home called Jottunheim – the home of all giants. There they would stay until the doom of the gods, Ragnarock, was at hand.

As Ymir himself originated out of ice, so his descendants are the Frost-giants, who appear at the Doom of the gods in a body, led by Hrym.

Frost-giants or Hrimthursar, are personifications of frost, snow, and ice, or of the mountains covered with snow and ice.

The making of the world out of Ymir’s body

The three brothers bore Ymir’s body into Ginnunga-gap and made of it the earth.

Sea and waters came from his blood; gravel and stones from his teeth and such bones as were broken; rocks from his bones and his curly hair became the trees and all vegetation.. The sea was placed as a ring round the earth. His skull became the sky, set up over the earth and upheld by four dwarfs.

The earth is ring-shaped, and on its coasts the gods gave lands to the giants. Within the earth they erected a wall against the giants, made of Ymir’s eyebrows. This they called Midgard (middle garden).

Of Ymir’s brain, thrown into the air, they made the clouds. The glowing embers and sparks from Muspellheim were set in the Heaven, above and beneath, to illumine Heaven and earth. The gods assigned places to all, even to such as were wandering free.

In Norse mythology, Heaven is “skull of Ymir” or “burden of the dwarfs”; earth is “fesh of Ymir”, the sea is “blood of Ymir”, and the hills are “Ymir’s bones”.

This is all according to the Prose Edda, based partly on sources now lost, partly on stanzas of Voluspa, Grimnismal, and Vafthrudnismal (poems that describe Norse mythology).

Voluspa says:

In time's morning lived Ymir,
Then was no sand, sea, nor cool waves;
No earth was there, nor Heaven above,
Only a yawning chasm, nor grass anywhere.
Then Borr's sons upheaved the earth
And shaped the beautiful Midgard
From the south the sun shone on earth's stones,
And from the ground sprang green leeks.

The first verse seems to contain the myth of Ymir formed in Ginnunga-gap. The second gives a myth of earth raised out of an existing ocean, not made from Ymir’s flesh. The sunshone on it and growth began. The myth of earth raised out of ocean is found in other mythologies as well.

The next verses tell how sun, moon, and stars were allotted their places, and how the gods gave names to night, new and full moon, etc.

Fire, water and salt as primordial elements

The building blocks of the Norse mythological creation myth is that giants, gods, and all things may be traced back to the union of water (ice and mist) and fire. The ice contains salt, and this plays an important part in the myth of Audhumla.

An interesting comparison is found in Tacitus, who, speaking of the sacred salt springs near the Saale (a river in modern day Germany), says that the waters were made to evaporate on red-hot coals, and salt was thus obtained from two opposite elements, fire and water.

This may point to an old Germanic cosmogonic myth with fire, water, and salt as elements, Skaldic tales illustrate the Eddic myth of Ymir.

Dark elves and dwarfs are created from Ymir’s decaying body

While the gods were occupied in creating the earth and providing for its illumination, a whole host of maggot-like creatures had been breeding in Ymir’s flesh. Crawling in and out, they now attracted divine attention.

Summoning these uncouth beings into their presence, the gods, after giving them forms and endowing them with superhuman intelligence, divided them into two large classes.

Those which were dark, treacherous, and cunning by nature were banished to Svart-alfa-heim, the home of the black dwarfs, situated under ground, whence they were never allowed to come forth as long as it was day, under penalty of being turned into stone.

They were called Dwarfs, Trolls, Gnomes, or Kobolds, and spent all their time and energy in exploring the secret recesses of the earth. They collected gold, silver, and precious stones, which they stowed away in secret crevices, whence they could withdraw them at will.

As for the remainder of these small creatures, including all that were fair, good, and useful, the gods called them Fairies and Elves, and gave them a dwelling place in the airy realm of Alf-heim (home of the light-elves), situated between heaven and earth, whence they could flit downwards whenever they pleased, to attend to the plants and flowers, sport with the birds and butterflies, or dance in the silvery moonlight on the green.

Comparison of Ymir vs Chronus, Odin as Zeus

The Northern nations, like the Greeks, imagined that the world rose out of chaos; and while the latter described it as a vapory, formless mass, the former, influenced by their immediate surroundings, depicted it as a chaos of fire and ice, a combination which is only too comprehensible to any one who has visited Iceland and seen the wild, peculiar contrast between its volcanic soil, spouting geysers, and the great icebergs which hedge it all around during the long, dark winter season.

From these opposing elements, fire and ice, were born the first divinities, who, like the first gods of the Greeks, were gigantic in stature and uncouth in appearance. Ymir, the huge ice giant, and his descendants, are comparable to the Titans, who were also elemental torces of Nature, personifications of subterranean fire; and both, having held full sway for a time, were obliged to yield to greater perfection.

After a fierce struggle for supremacy, they all found themselves defeated and banished to the respective remote regions of Tartarus and Jötunheim.

The triad, Odin, Vili, and Ve, of the Northern myth is the exact counterpart of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades (or Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto in the Roman version), who, superior to the Titan forces, rule supreme over the world in their turn.

In the Greek mythology, the gods, who are also all related to one another,settle themselves on Mount Olympus, where they build golden palaces for their use; and in the Northern mythology the divine conquerors go to Asgard, and there construct similar dwellings.

Atlas Mythica

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