“Synir Bors drápu Ymi jötun, en er hann féll, þá hljóp svá mikit blóð ór sárum hans, at með því drekkðu þeir allri ætt hrímþursa…” (Gylfaginning, 7) (1)
Yesterday in the Hudson valley we had such a great storm that it seemed as though the end of the world were here. Trees came crashing down, property was destroyed, live electrical wires lay crackling in the streets. There are tremendous power outages and coming home, it took me five hours to go less than eight miles. One news report said it was a tornado, but I’m not sure I believe that (I think the damage would be worse). That leaves us today being the only house in the neighborhood with power (thanks to my mother and her foresight in gifting me with a generator as a housewarming present) and since it really isn’t all that safe to go out and about, it also gives me plenty of time to catch up on some of my writing. Thanks to something my husband was watching when I came downstairs this morning, I was inspired, with almost a creative frenzy, to write about our creation story. I’ve written about this before, so now I’m just going to dive in.
Oðinn with his two brothers Vili and Vé slew the first being, the proto-giant Ymir and from his corpse fashioned not only the world of man, Midgard, but the scaffolding of the cosmos. From the very beginning, the Aesir defined the boundaries of their worlds by violence. It’s a compelling moment in our mythology. These three Gods (Oðinn, Vili (Hoenir), and Vé (Loður/Loki) (2) slaughtered, violently hacking to bits, their eldest ancestor. The narrative in the Gylfaginning tells us this in only one or two lines and then moves on to the structure of the cosmos, why we have seasons, the movements of the Sun and Moon, and other cosmological structures. I think, however, that this one moment defines our cosmology and repeats itself again and again throughout the corpus of our cosmological stories. It is the defining moment, the defining act within our cosmology, itself re-enacting the dynamic of Muspelheim and Niflheim coming together in the moment of creation. It’s a synergy that is repeated again and again and again throughout our mythology, one in which we too participate as we work to restore our traditions. Likewise, given that the entire scaffolding of our world and in fact all the worlds was created from Ymir, their very being-ness partakes of the primordial potentiality.
A bit of comparison might be useful here. In Genesis, Yahweh moves over the waters, creates and sees that it is ‘good.’ Our Gods, however, look out across the primordial landscape of meta-creation and see potentiality and then They bring that potentiality into concrete being by violently smashing the old paradigm. (3) It is Ragnarok in microcosm: destruction of old structures in order to bring about renewal and restoration, to restart, reorient, re-create. (4) In Genesis, creation stops once Yahweh pronounces everything to be ‘good.’ In our creation story, it is forever ongoing and we are constantly participating in it.
At that moment when the three Brothers destroy Ymir, we have a moment of chaotic potential (a world filled with Ymir and hrímþursar and not much else) reshaped, brought into order by means of tri-partite divine will, that will made manifest through violent action. Oðinn with His brothers becomes an ‘agent of choice confronting an infinite landscape of potential’ and by this act of conscious will, They elevate Themselves, separate Themselves from the other þursar and become Aesir.(5) They become divinity, lifting Themselves out of the primordial chaos of undifferentiated being. They make Themselves something more through the conscious enacting of their will yoked to mindful forethought, yoked to an awareness of the inherent potential in chaos (and a ruthlessness to bring it into being).(6) This means, by extension, that chaos is important. Order cannot exist save in relationship with something. It must, by its very nature, be defined by its purpose: transforming chaos into something else. Quite often in contemporary Heathenry, we find chaos being viewed as something inherently negative, and moreover, ranked in opposition to divine order. In reality, divine order is formed from chaos and cannot exist without it. That chaos is a necessary building block for all the work that the Gods then do. It is Their primary tool that allows itself to be transformed into anything that can be imagined and willed. It is the chaos that gives order meaning.(7)
Likewise, we see frenzy, will, and holiness (the etymological meanings of Oðinn, Vili, and Vé respectively) working together. The capacity to transform chaos into meaning is a sacred act, but will or frenzy unyoked to holiness (which for humans includes devotion, humility before the Gods, piety) is dangerous and damaging. The three must work together for something ‘Good’ to result. It’s a type of divine homeostasis and where that balance is lacking, ultimately destructive chaos ensues.(8)
Oðinn is the driving force behind this creation through destruction. Immediately before the slaughter of Ymir is discussed, the Gylfaginning notes that “ok þat er mín trúa, at sá Óðinn ok hans bræðr munu vera stýrandi himins ok jarðar.”(9) [And this is my belief, that he Oðinn and his brothers must be ruler/controller of heaven and earth]. Oðinn mentioned first and specifically is given sovereignty over everything that is created. His will to order holds the parsed bits of chaos together in a complex, functioning whole. This is why He cannot afford entropy and is constantly, throughout the mythic cycle, pursuing greater knowledge, greater power, greater ability to transform and transmute reality.
Our creation story contains within itself the underlying telos of our entire mythology. It is a complex and coherent system, re-enacted again and again by our Gods and heroes. I’ll be revisiting this again over the next few months, because not only does this provide insight into our creation story, but also into Oðinn’s nature as well. We can learn a lot about our Gods, Their natures, and the cohesive nature of our cosmology through ongoing examination of these stories.
1. “The sons of Bor slew Ymir the jotun; and where he fell there spurted forth so much blood from out of his wounds, that by means of it they drowned all the tribe of the Rim-thurs…”(translations mine unless otherwise noted).
2. While the identification of Loki as Loður is not universally accepted, there is skaldic evidence for this attribution both in Völuspá 18 and Þrymlur I-III 21. See this site and his article on “Loki’s Roads” for more information.
3. I’m quoting a phrase from Jordan Peterson’s interview (my husband was watching this interview when I came downstairs this morning and agree or disagree with him, Peterson is brilliant and I rather admire the way he can think through an idea or argument, even when I seriously disagree with some of his conclusions).
4. Perhaps this is one of the real cosmological meanings behind Ragnarok before Christians got their hands on it. This conception of Ragnarok also allows for the Gods to recreate and restore Themselves.
5. Again, I am taking a phrase from Peterson here, for my own purposes. His video actually annoyed me a bit. In it, Peterson talks about working toward the Good, and ascribes this to Christianity when in reality what he was saying was very basic Platonism. Let’s give credit where credit is due. This idea of the Gods as Good and reaching/returning to the Good was not something invented by Christians. Polytheistic philosophers developed it long before Jesus was a blip on the historical map.
6. Of course, the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jötnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jötnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás,’ unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order, and there is enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumézil certainly thought so, then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable, all Aesir having begun as Jötnar perhaps? We likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, whose cosmological focus is different. Perhaps it is such cosmological foci, however enduring or transitory, that ultimately determine membership in these divine clans.(quoted from my forthcoming paper “The Demonization of Loki in Modern Norse Paganism” which will be appearing in the Summer 2018 issue of Walking the Worlds).
7. This of course makes the Jötnar in general and Loki (whom scholar Dumézil, in his work Loki, describes as the ‘unquiet thought,’) in particular absolutely essential to the proper functioning of divine order. And if we accept, as the skalds did, that Loki and Loður are the same being, then it is Loki who forms the bridge between these two states of being: undifferentiated potentiality/chaos and divinely crafted order. Perhaps this is why it is Loður who gives good hue…which implies a healthy circulatory system, the pumping of the heart, the flow of blood, warmth, and what the Greeks would call βίος. It is from the God who is able to move between both states that we are invested with potentiality (i.e. chaos), carefully contained in ordered flesh. Unordered bodily chaos for us, brings death. Like Ymir, we bleed out, but contained within the order the Gods have decreed, it brings health and ongoing life and the potential to affect our world and to remake it at times according to our will.
8. Just as excluding Loki may lead to entropy and rigidity.
9. Gylfaginning, 6.
by Sarenth Odinsson
You Who gave us oðr
Mud King, Marsh King
You Who gave us Will
Hail to You!
Whose friend and aide is Mimir
Who is confidante and conspirator to Odin
Who brings action in Vé’s wake
Hail to You!
Whose mouth is full to bursting
Whose hands held Ymir down
Who helped Odin and Vé craft many Worlds
Hail to You!
Whose silence is full of wisdom
Whose countenance is fearsome
Whose counsel is prudent
Hail to You!
Who knows the many ways forward
Who even the Gods seek in counsel
Whose divination sees the Worlds set aright
Hail to You, Hoenir!
by C. Greene
Hoenir, King of the lands of plenty,
what wisdom have You found amongst the marsh birds and the eels?
God Who granted will to Ask and Embla,
terrible will born of a slayer of Ymir,
Haunter of the lands most filled with Ymir’s blood,
what do You seek there?
Are the bog lamps the lingering flicker of Ymir’s synapses,
does wyrd stretch out its threads before You in the fog,
or are the cleansing places of the world whispering their secrets?
With whom would You share Your heron-wit?
Will the descendants of the driftwood born be worthy of such a gift,
or will we burn brightly and fade like the will o wisps of Your holy places?
Silence in the bulrushes may greet the querent, but that may be an answer in itself. May we be worthy Hoenir, may we learn from Your primal acts, and in Your silence may you not be forgotten.
To Hoenir the Long-Lived
It was sense and wit You gave
when Óðinn and Loðurr made humans—
the High One and Vé, Whom men call Loki,
came together in You, Víli, to form minds.
It was sense and wit You showed
when in Vanaheim’s hostage-ship with Mimir
and You kept holy silence therein—
only the best advice fell on Your ears.
It was sense and wit You had
When Óðinn was in exile and with Vé
You stood in His stead over the Æsir—
it brought you to bed with Frigg.
And, it will be sense and wit that are needed
when You stand after Ragnarök
casting blood-wands for Viðarr and Vali,
Magni and Móði, and Baldr—wise Hoenir, hail!
by C. King
Brooding hostage, silent God
Muddy throne, Your hall of reeds-
Sway and twist like feathers falling
Mossy hued, those slender spears-
Chime and shudder from Your spirit.
Wordless, primal prayers sung
That ripple and tug the vault of heaven.
There amidst the marshy bank,
With Ymir’s blood smeared as mark-
The dappled Crane nests and watches
Before the countenance of Man becomes it.
You that roused urge and longing,
With rune-song sang up and awakened.
Wise He who saw the first and sees the last, what will be the after?
Gray Song, may the riverbanks ever be Your treasure.
Demure Council, may wisdom ever consider all avenues.
Knowing Maker-strengthen our people against those coarse to the Holy Powers.
Long Foot, ward us against the profane and arrogant. Where our clumsy feet trail Midgard-strengthen our resolve to be worthy of the Gods that shine brightly.
Clever God, of mist and wing-
That briny fog your cloak and down.
Whom appears at will to mortals few-
And whispers wisely second thoughts.
I thank You, Vanir Captive.
I praise You, Vili of Odr
May Your name ever live on the tongues of Ash and Embla’s progeny.
by Dr. E. Kelly
(the birds pictured are sandhill cranes)
In Praise of the Marsh King
By Victoria Morelli
Swift You come, Helper to All,
Gods and men alike.
Silent yet sharp,
Sharp as a knife’s keen edge,
from You we gained the gifts
of wit and wonder.
High and Holy, the Marsh King walks,
strong of will and wisdom.
Storks and swans, cranes and ducks,
Your sacred messengers all,
and they herald the numen of Your passing.
Where You step, there is enchantment.
Where you wander, there is power.
The eldritch things that live in the mist
whisper fairy tales to hapless mortals
of red gold and blue fire and the pale God
weaving magic in the misty fen.
The strength of Your mind,
helped carve worlds into being.
The implacability of Your will,
helped drive the spear deep
into old Ymir’s guts.
Liminal places, bogs and marshland,
foggy groves, and dank swamps
are Your favored doorways,
and what comes out of them is hallowed.
You I praise, and I seek Your blessing,
Who ended a war with His uncle’s head
because He knew:
some sacred places are hungry.
Hail to the Marsh King.