In the Beginning…
(also a post that previously appeared on polytheist.com. I’m slowly starting to cycle back into working on this theological piece so I wanted to put this here to have it all in one place for easier access).
So I was having lunch with a friend the day I wrote the first draft of this article and we were discussing cosmogony, the nascent wisdom given via theophany by the Gods to Their individual people. Each cosmological theophany holds within it the wisdom and knowledge to allow the world, its sciences, arts, philosophies, its beauty, and our understanding and engagement with it to unfold. I think it is quite profound the way that the Gods took into account the geography of where our various peoples evolved. You see it reflected in the ritual cycle, in the way the cosmic order, structure, and unfolding is translated into cultural comprehension. I’ve never written much about cosmogony, the order and structuring of the cosmos from the Norse perspective. I think about it, sit sometimes and lose my self in it, but i’ve never actually thought to articulate it in writing. That’s going to be changing because Heathen cosmogony is so richly textured, so beautifully profound, and has so much to offer those of us who practice within its structures that i think it deserves more time and attention.
Our cosmogony begins with a Big Bang. This is a very modern term, and perhaps a bit too prosaic to describe the type of collision conveyed through our mythos. (1) Well before the Gods became, there is violence, a grinding together, there is noise and sound, there is excitement, there is confusion, there is change and exchange. — a maelstrom, but a maelstrom with purpose. There is a coming together that resulted in a change of potentiality into matter, and matter into the seed of unnumbered possibilities. Does it happen slowly or all at once in a huge crash? We have no way of knowing for sure, though if we look at the Gylfaginning, and examine the fragments of cosmogonic lore left to us, it would seem to point to a slow interaction over an extensive period of “time.” (Even so, certainly there would be that one micro-second, that tipping point where interaction or collision gave birth to something new). What we do know is that something happens that forever changes the very fabric, the space, and materiality of Being. (It brings potentiality of being into temporality of being). Something happens and it is irreversible. The world of ice and the world of fire collide and from that explosion of oppositional forces the cosmos begins to unfold. This is our starting point. What existed before this? Where did Muspelheim and Niflheim originate? What prompted this collision?–it’s not important. It’s not relevant to the discussion. Our starting point is the engagement of oppositional forces. It’s that tension and what comes from it: its fruitfulness, not where it happened or what preceded it that we are meant to focus on. Our starting point instead is the blinding explosion of force: fire and ice, action and stillness, movement and stasis, heat and cold, expansion and contraction, light and shadow, projection and retraction…and everything in between.
It must be considered that before this big bang, there was the void Ginnungagap. The void is not and was not empty space. It was not unseeing. It was instead potentiality for all being. It contained the spark, the scintilla, the fuel, the awesome, raw, thundering potentiality of being that allowed for the worlds of ice and fire to begin their inevitable collision. The void contained the possibility of what was to occur. I always make it a point to check the etymology of my Norse words and Ginnungagap has a particularly fruitful etymology. The prefix “Ginn-” occurs in several places and refers to holy might. It’s elsewhere appended to ‘regin’ meaning Holy Powers, and “runa” meaning runes. It implies something filled with potentiality, creativity, and power, something sacred and ancient. We almost always translate ‘Ginnungagap’ as ‘Yawning Void,’ but that’s not quite correct. I think a better translation might be chasm or space full of holy wonder, creativity, and potentiality. Of course that’s a bit more of a mouthful. The important thing is to understand that it is not empty and it IS holy, sacred, and eminently creative. There is power in that moment before oppositional forces meet, power and possibility. The gap was the womb of the universe, the alchemist’s cauldron from which the cosmos sprang in its infancy. It is a place of power and of secrets. From the container of the holy, this thing happened that spewed forth being and matter into existence. It spewed forth the raw material from which everything else was formed. It spewed it forth in a way that it *could* be formed.
Another thing to consider with the Gap: in spewing forth into this act of creation, it gave of itself into the process. There was a transmutation occurring in this collision: an essence of one place (the Gap) being breathed, sparked, crashed into different manifestation in another (creation). That moment is a doorway, the initiation of Being and Materiality. Materiality simply wasn’t before this point in our narrative. Materiality had to become before creation could happen. With materiality came the laws of physics. This process is all about laying out the architecture of the cosmos, of existence. As an aside it also gives one pertinent information for the nature of any and all true initiations: it is the crossing of a threshold. It creates irreversible change. There is death, transmutation/dismemberment of being, and restoration into new being. Such a pattern is locked into the fabric of existence from the beginning. Later, throughout our cosmological narrative, when the Gods take form and function and begin moving and acting in Their worlds and ours, we will see this same pattern play out again and again and again (cross-culturally, I might add), but the paradigm is given to us right here, at that very moment the potentiality and cognition of the Gap is forced through primordial collision into transmutation into a new kind of Being: raw matter. Its very nature and substance has been changed. It’s the same with initiation and its effect on the substance of the soul and our awareness. Before this clash there was potentiality; afterwards there are the building blocks of being and materiality.
Now the Gap is a place full of activity but all in potentiality. There was nowhere for that contemplation of pre-creation to morph into result. Without materiality there was no progress. The Gap wasn’t necessarily a place of stasis, but it wasn’t a place of manifestation into actual being, fact, and material substance either. Something had to happen first before that could occur. The architecture had to be set in place for that transmutation. Potentiality had to be urged into transformative action. As an aside, in my work with Odin, in deep contemplation, in journey work, i’ve seen the Gap. It is neither still nor silent. there is awareness, many awarenesses there, and the snapping of synapses (at least that’s sort of how my mind analogized it), lightening cognition going on all around me in the Gap, from the Gap, that which was the Gap itself. There was a fierce delight in this process of cognition and a whirling dance of concepts and colors that I cannot hope to untangle and commit to the flatness of comprehension. It was too fast and dense for me to process. It had a rhythm, a rumbling percussion beat of shifting harmony. It was, as I would conceive of the term, alive. (Though I rather think terms such as “life” and “alive” are far less relevant or meaningful in a place where temporality and materiality do not exist. I don’t know if i’d previously thought of Ginnungagap as silent and still, but after seeing it, after being brought to it by Odin, never again will I have that misapprehension. There is a lot going on there! There was constant cognitive rumbling. In Platonic terms, I think we’d call it the intelligible-intellective plane of Divine activity.
Thinking about the Gap and its nature, questions inevitably arise. Was the Holy undifferentiated within the Gap? I would say no since within the Gap from the moment our narrative starts we already have two Worlds moving in tandem. We already have Muspelheim and Niflheim. Nor are those worlds singularities, something I’ll discuss a little further forward in this article. There was already differentiation, a plurality of the Holy. What is Holy? That is a question that philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with since the time of our most ancient ancestors, probably since before we had writing to record the question. I’m no philosopher but I think it’s important to note that within or perhaps encompassing this plurality of the Holy, we do then have holy as an undifferentiated category. I think for the purposes of this writing, I am going to be using that term as what I would like to call a ‘sense category.’ I don’t think that any static definition of “holy” can quite encompass what we’re dealing with here, especially at the Beginning, especially before our Gods took name, and shape, and form.
Basically we have a plurality of Holy Beings within the sense category ‘holy’. What do I mean by ‘sense category?’ Rather like one of the circles in a Venn diagram, a sense category is the space within which a thing functions. For instance, if we consider Muspelheim a sense category as well as being one of the cosmological “worlds,” we must first parse out all the things that Muspelheim contains and *means*. What role does it play in our narrative? Once that has been determined it becomes clear that when we refer to Muspelheim in this creation story, we’re not just referring to the “world of fire,” but to the fullness of meaning that can be found in this entire category. Here, we have the category of “holy” and that begs the question of what is holy? what does it mean to be holy? what are the essential elements of ‘holiness’ particularly when there is nothing of humanity nor even yet named Gods by which to determine such differentiation. We might also ask why is the Gap holy? Is it holy in and of itself or simply a container for that which is holy? What does it mean to be holy? Is it holy in itself or rendered holy by what it contains and by its function? Is there a difference? Is the holy with substance or without? Does it matter?
I don’t have answers to most of those questions. I do know that the word ‘holy’ comes from the Old English ‘halig’ which means hale, whole, and complete, entire unto itself. by that rubric alone, Ginnungagap may be consciously construed in a semantic sense as ‘holy.’ It is the ultimate entirety of everything, before differentiation into materiality, before the articulation of the universe, before…everything. I think, however, that is only one aspect of what it means to be ‘holy,’ perhaps a fundamental one, but still only part of the picture. We say a thing is holy when it is filled with or touched by the Gods. Are the Gods holy? Or do They rather render that which They touch, use, and with which They interact holy by contamination? Are things reserved for the Gods holy as opposed to sacred (reserved for divine use)? I will be discussing the difference between ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ in a later article, but for now, know that as we contemplate the Gap, this is one of the questions that logically might arise.
Part of what we must parse out in this narrative is the effective difference between substance and materiality. All things conceived of have substance but not all things have active materiality. I would posit that substance contains the potential for materiality but is unfettered by temporality whereas materiality is connected by its very nature to temporality. It is raw substance — the Idea—given form. The question then arises of whether a fundamental change in nature occurs in the transmutation of substance into materiality. If we accept the Gap as holy, as a fundamental and largely unchanging axiom, then the equation shifts ever so slightly: there’s potentiality and then there’s the creation of matter. The integral nature of the substance is changed through the act of creation and the holiness that was an unconditional and accepted theorem then translates into that which was created, i.e. matter as potentiality. The potentiality for holiness exists then in created matter.
Furthermore, what does it mean that life began as an explosion of oppositional forces? Complementary forces might be a better way of putting it (and you see it echoed throughout our theological narrative). It’s not just opposites that we see in Niflheim and Muspelheim, but complement. These two worlds balance each other out. Before I continue, I want to pause for a moment to note that while we are dealing with oppositional and complementary forces, we are not working within a binary system. I’m going to say that again because with the influence of almost two thousand years of mental colonization by monotheism, and working as we are within a diasporic religion made up primarily of converts from monotheisms, it bears repeating: we are NOT working within a binary system. Binary systems are simply not sustainable, not in a cosmically sound, well ordered, organic theology. (To give you a very prosaic analogy: try sitting on a stool with two legs). We have so much more here than just simple binaries. There is so much more nuance and richness of structure. While it may seem that we have only two players and the Gap itself at this point in our narrative, each of those places contains a multitude.
Firstly, there is all that is contained in Muspelheim — this sense category of “Muspelheim,” and all that is contained in the sense category of “Niflheim.” That right there gives you a plethora of beings and forces and concepts and powers to contemplate and we’re going to be doing that in just a moment. But over and above these two basic units (which are themselves divergent worlds full of life and being and potentiality), we have the space in which they dance, the place where they meet, that moment in the fabric of becoming. We have what happens at the microsecond they meet and what the two of them together produce. We have the rhythm and sound, movement and dance. We have the denizens and raw matter within each world. We have that which is creating, that with which they create, and the things, events, and spaces that are created. There is no stopping point to it. Perhaps the two worlds are still in conversation, still in union, still colliding and vying and fighting for dominance, push-pull of creation unfolding, even now as I write this. We always think of creation as something that happened a long time ago, because we ourselves are tied to temporality, to the here and now, we experience time as a limitation when the Gods themselves are beyond temporality, and rhythm of the cosmic unfolding even more so than that. But creation isn’t a one time event. It’s a process that began and continues to unfold therefore in some way, shape, or form, fire and ice are still engaging. So while the worlds each partake of place and order on the Tree, so too do they continually continue the work of that Big Bang. What this means, one of the many things that it means, is that we are part of that process too. That sizzling fermentation of the Big Bang, the moment of creation is still happening right now. It has never stopped happening. It propels and fuels creation again and again and again.
We have within Ginnungagap these two worlds or sense categories: Muspelheim and Niflheim. They are called worlds and that means they contain an interlocking network of ecology and environment, of culture, society, and nations. Niflheim seems to be the older of the two worlds and exists in the “north” of the Gap (though without temporality and materiality, spacial location is relative and open to conjecture). The etymology of “Niflheim” simply means (in Old Norse—all my etymology is old Norse unless otherwise specified) ‘the dark world.” The primary denizen of this world that we know of is the great dragon “Nidhogg” which means “the one striking full of hatred.” The Voluspa 39 (2) describes Nidhogg as one who drinks the blood of the dead and eats corpses. Later, when the Nine worlds are formed, Nidhogg takes on a slightly more active role in harassing the denizens of the World Tree but for now we should focus on its connotations of death and decay. Death is both ending and beginning. It is transformation. Decay, so necessary to our world (imagine if nothing ever decayed, including our bodies, including compost, including road kill) and its cousin fermentation are all types of transformative destruction. This is what Nidhogg personifies as a holy Being: transformative destruction, wasting nothing, maintaining the whole. In the poetic forms of the creation account that we have via the Edda, there is much talk about poison and venom within Niflheim and I interpret this as fermentation, decay, and transformation. It all breaks down the substance of what is and then transmutes it into something else.
In the South of the Gap (again, metaphorically speaking — spacial location would of necessity be relative), there is the world of fire, Muspelheim. The etymology here is more vexed. It most likely refers to the ‘end of the world,’ which it was, just as it was the beginning of the new. It ended the stasis that existed before the worlds met. It was the hot sparks of Muspelheim that ignited the fermentation that led to the clash, that led to the moment of creation. These two sense categories, which everything they each contain within themselves met and through that synergy something new, something different was brought into being. The primary Being associated with Muspelhiem is the Lord of Fire: Surtr. His name means “the Black One,” ostensibly a reference to the soot, and smoke, and ash that comes as a byproduct of fire. Some of the sources (3) associate Him with volcanic activity and this makes good sense: lava is the lifeblood of the earth. (It is unclear whether Surtr is synonymous with the Being Muspel, or whether this is yet another Holy Being existing in Muspelheim. I tend to think they are synonymous). Fjolsvinnsmal (4) also references a female Fire Being named Sinmara. The etymology of Her name is vexed. Right away, it’s interesting that we have a pair of Beings in Muspelheim but only a dragon (Nidhogg) mentioned in Niflheim. The gendered pairing of one makes good sense in thinking about the elements inherent in reproduction. I choose to look at Nidhogg as the balance to that binary pairing, as transformative, non-binary gender that also breaths its magic into creation. Dragons are serpents after all, serpents reptiles, and many reptiles can shift gender. I’m not going to belabor this here, but I look at these Beings as carrying the potential for creative expression by Their very nature and order in these worlds. There is also the fact that fire here represents the creative, active force driving this transformation and ice represents the cold, still, unmoving force resistant to change, but very focused on maintaining ordered space.
Fire symbolically represents synergy, pushing forward, evolution, expansion, adventure, heat, destruction, explosion, creativity, with Ice representing stability, integrity, solidity, ordered space, cold, lack of movement, stasis, structure, and silence. If you think about this pairing of worlds, one may continue this list of complements almost exhaustively. Creation is always, always a matter of the push and pull between these two forces. You see this mirrored in religious traditions too: there is almost always tension between those who want the tradition to be unchanging and those who want to radicalize and push and bring forth change. It’s from this grinding synergy that traditions organically evolve. This necessary synergy is worked right into our creation story. Fire is the one constantly changing constant in the cosmos. In some ways it echoes the theories of Heraclitus. To sum it up very, very simply, Heraclitus conceived of the world as everliving fire. He gave us the phrase “war is the father of all,” meaning that “opposites are necessary for life, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges. The world itself consists of a law-like interchange of elements, symbolized by fire.” (5) In order to maintain active, and productive order, there must be some measure of discord, something to strive against. This is the nature of growth and evolution.
In the sense category or world of Niflheim, there is the river Hvergelmir, which means “bubbling cauldron.” Here our story becomes a bit more complicated. It will continue to become so as we introduce more variables, more moving parts, more players in this primordial drama…and we’re going to be doing just that. This is the primordial spring, the source of all the ancient rivers of the worlds, a collection of waters called “Elivagar”. Simek notes that these rivers are he proto-sea surrounding the world. (6). That makes a certain sense to me. Water provides nourishment necessary to life materially and symbolically. Fire expands the boundaries of creation, water from Niflheim nourishes it. It nourishes it by means of eleven rivers: Svol (cool one), Gunnthro (thirst for blood/battle groove), Form (I couldn’t find any etymology for this), Finbulthul (mighty wind/speaker), Thul (murmur/roaring one), Slid (dangerously sharp), Hrid (stormy weather/tempest), Sylg (Devourer), Ylg (She-wolf), Vid (Broad one), Leipt (lightening), Gjoll (loud noise). Note that the names for the most part do nothing to conceal the potential danger inherent in such primordial powers. The raw forces of creation must be mediated, first by the transition from idea and substance into material and temporal being, and then by the Gods Themselves as they craft and transform the material building blocks into our cosmos. By themselves, they can be poison—too much, too fierce for mortality to hold. There must be mediation. (7).
I’m not going to delve into the eleven rivers right now. I’ll likely come back to this in a future article. I do want to note that in a way, the spatial orientation given for these two worlds within the Gap makes a certain kind of sense: fire leaps up, devouring and transforming, opening up all it touches, purifying it, consecrating it while rivers rush downward, not up (usually). I think the spatial divisions of Niflheim being located in the North and Muspelheim in the south reflect the inherent nature of what these worlds represent.
Now, we have the Gap. In it, Niflheim and Muspelheim are interacting. This is where things get really interesting. All of these rivers flowed far from their source (where they flowed is not clear, perhaps into the Gap itself). The venom in them hardened to ice. There was already transformation occurring, preliminary transmutation. Because the rivers didn’t stop their flow to accommodate the ice, there was a constant flood of drizzle carrying more venom. This venom froze into rime and more ice and rain and roaring winds, the latter perhaps created by the moving musculature of the rivers. The longer this process continued, the more of this brine was created. This brine is important. This primordial substance, this primordial ooze gives rise, gives birth, to the first Beings of creation. As Muspelheim and Niflheim moved closer (and perhaps this creeping ice was the cause of that spatial shift), sparks and heat from the world of fire, leapt out into the world of ice. The synergy of this contact melted the ice, transformed the rime, added something heretofore unseen. There was a moment of alchemy, a moment’s collision of complementary forces, and substance and idea, potentiality moved from the Gap, through the threshold of fire and ice interacting, into the material world. Materiality came into being in the form of the first Being, the hermaphroditic, proto-giant, Ymir. But that is a tale for another day.
For now, let it suffice to say that the universe is a symphony unfolding. I cannot help but think of music when I think of the Gap. There is rhythm there. The first time I was in Zermatt, and I heard the glaciers singing, (they do sing and groan and chant if you listen with your heart and gut), I was reminded of the crackling sounds, the roar of the Gap. That interplay of oppositional/complementary forces gives us a point and counterpoint in a grand cosmic fugue. The initial big bang may be likened to a symphony warming up, playing the first somewhat dissonant note as all the musicians tune and align their instruments and then the music begins. Creation is not a quiet thing, it is not a meek, well-ordered event. It is a rush of power loosed into being. And then power having taken form becomes subject to wyrd, power having taking form becomes potentially erratic and subject to chance. Wyrd becomes an active force with the birth of materiality and temporality. It too, begins its unfolding. Power having taken form takes on a life of its own. and soon comes temporality and spacial structure and matter begins to take shape. The next article in this series will discuss the first primordial being Ymir, the eldest being of whose essence all things in the created worlds partake, and the sacred cow Audhumla, both of whom evolved out of that primordial brine.
1. Right away we’re confronted with the issue of cosmogonic time. Essentially, at this point in our narrative, we’re dealing with timeless moments. Temporality as such is not yet a player in our tale. It doesn’t exist. It’s not a factor in these first initial unfoldings of creation. To quote Edward Butler (who had the dubious pleasure of reading my initial draft), “Platonists were of the opinion that the sequence of events in a mythic narrative should be understood as a kind of stacking of timeless moments upon one another, so that instead of a linear unfolding of events, we get a kind of layer cake effect in each moment, which is a cross section. Part of what a cosmogony is doing is founding and grounding time itself. The first moments have to be timeless because time isn’t yet. But things that happen when time isn’t can’t have happened “then,” “before,” or “now.” They have to be happening now. ” (Private mail with E. Butler on March 8, 2015). It’s crucial to understand, really understand that while we may be forced by the constraints of language to use qualifying adverbs, to position our narrative temporally, in reality temporality did not yet exist, was not yet a factor in the discussion.
3. Simek, p. 303
4. Stanzas 26, 30
6. Simek p. 73
7. This comes up again in the story of Odhroerhir as well. This powerful, incantational, creative force is lethal until it has been purified through the act of creation. Here we have a poisonous mead of inspiration that essentially carries a body count. It was created from the crushed body and soul of Kvasir, and brought death and misery to anyone it touched. Only through the alchemy of Odin and Gunnlod’s union could it be purified through the bodies of two shamans, and rendered safe for graced consumption.
* Poetic Edda
* Prose Edda
* Edward’s Butler, (2014), Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus. NY, NY: Lulu Press.
* Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus page: http://www.iep.utm.edu/heraclit/
* Rudolf Simek, 1993), Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge, MA: D.S. Brewer.