The story of the creation of life in Norse mythology is a story of fire, ice, and darkness. That story took place before any human had taken his first breath. Before the worlds were created. Even before the Norse gods came into being.
A world of ice and fire
At the center of the universe was Ginnungagap, a dark abyss of nothingness. It was just a black hole that was filled with emptiness. And yet, it was in this place that life would start.
South of Ginnungagap was Muspelheim, the realm of fire. This was a place filled with fire and lava, burning and melting away at anything that came to be. It was inhabited by a tribe of fire giants, who were called the “Sons of Muspelheim”. Their leader was the fire giant Surtr, who would stand still amongst the fields of fire, as a mortal would stand in a field filled with daisies. The sons of Muspelheim would wait for the future to unfold. Their destiny was to destroy the world that was soon going to be created. Sounds like a cozy place right?
Potentially even worse than Muspelheim was Niflheim, which was to the north of Ginnungagap. It was the realm of mist and ice (the name means “home to the mist”). Where Muspelheim had fire giants, Niflheim was completely void of any life. It was home to eleven poisonous rivers, all coming from a single source: a giant maelstrom called Hvergelmir. Close to the maelstrom, the rivers would flow strongly. Yet, the biting cold was so extreme that even the rivers themselves would turn to ice further down the stream. The huge blocks of ice that were transported by the stream would result in an ever-growing expansion of Niflheim.
Filling the void
So an ever-expanding realm of ice and mist to the north and an ever-raging realm of fire to the south. A dark abyss in the middle of it suddenly does not sound so bad anymore. As both Niflheim and Muspelheim were steadily growing larger at an extremely slow pace, the fire of Muspelheim would slowly start melting the blocks of ice at the edge of Niflheim. The melting water that resulted from this would flow into Ginnungagap.
We often see that water is seen as a natural basis of life. Norse mythology is no exception to this rule, as from this melting water the first two living creatures of Ginnungagap would emerge: Ymir and Audhumbla. Ymir was a magnificent creature, the first giant to roam the abyss. He really was a giant, filling almost all of Ginnungagap. The second creature was almost as magnificent: Audhumbla was a primordial cow. She would lick the blocks of ice to feed herself, and in turn, Ymir was nourished by the milk that she produced. All was well.
Go forth and multiply
Ymir was not just any giant. He possessed the ability to produce children without a wife. The sweat droplets that formed in his armpits and knee cavities during his sleep would form his Jotun children. This seems plausible, as Ymir himself came into existence from droplets as well. In case you find this hard to believe, do note that the child that was formed from his knee cavity was a six-headed son. Imagine waking to the sound of his wails, in sixfold.
The children of Ymir started to produce more baby giants. Meanwhile, Audhumbla kept on licking the blocks of ice. And by doing so, she uncovered another primordial giant who was buried deep within the ice. This was Búri.
This is where things started moving fast. The realm started to become a little bit crowded, but this did not stop Búri to take on another giantess as his lover. They had a son together, which they called Bor. And in turn, Bor took on a giantess lover, Bestla. Finally, Bor and Bestla had three sons together: Odin, Vili, and Vé.
Do not wake a sleeping giant
Odin, Vili, and Vé looked at the world around them and observed how little space there was left. The three brothers had ambitions to rule, and so they decided that they would have to get rid of Ymir. That would give them the space to create the worlds as they imagined them. So they waited for Ymir to fall asleep. They figured that even primordial giants do not stand a chance of survival when you stab them in their sleep. They were right.
We will come to learn at a later stage that Odin was a crafty trickster, so what follows might have been part of his plan all along. When the brothers killed Ymir, blood gushed out of his wound with such ferocity that it flooded the realm. All giants drowned in the process. So by killing Ymir, the brothers had committed mass genocide amongst the jötnar race. Quite pleased with themselves, the three brothers appointed themselves to be gods.
Never waste a dead giant
After all the killing, the brothers decided that it was indeed time to start creating the realms. And so they did what Scandinavians do best: they recycled everything. They cut up Ymir’s body in bits and pieces and used his parts to create the different aspects of the world. His flesh was used to create the earth and his bones were used to create the mountains. They used his blood to create the oceans, lakes, streams, and rivers. His teeth and bone splinters were used to create rocks and pebbles. All trees and plants were created from his hair. His skull was used to create the heavens. The clouds that float around in it are Ymir’s brains, while the stars are fire sparks from Muspelheim.
Turns out two giants survived the flood, Bergelmir and his giantess wife. The gods decided to fashion a world for them to live in and called it Jötunheim. These two giants would live out their days in that realm in a special place called Útgard. This place would feature in more stories, later to come. They would populate that world, becoming the forefathers of all giants. After they had created created human beings, the gods wanted to protect their newest creation from any jötnar attacks. For us, they created a world called Midgard, which is held together by Ymir’s eyelashes. They surrounded it with water to make it harder for any giant to cross into our realm.
The origins of dwarfs
Creating the universe from a dead guy’s body might seem challenging enough already. Yet when Odin and his brothers were finished, they noticed that the body started rotting. As the decomposition process kicked in, several maggots started wriggling out of Ymir’s body. The gods gave these maggots intelligence, hereby turning them into the first dwarfs: Norðri, Austri, Suðri, and Vestri. The gods tasked them with holding up the rotting body of Ymir so that the universe would not collapse. Each of the dwarves was given a wind direction (north, east, south, and west). Funny how these beings, coming from maggots, would turn out to be the most skilled craftsmen in the universe.
And so it was that the universe came to be. This is the story of how the Norse gods created through destruction. The story of how they created life through murder and mass genocide. And frankly, this was only the start.