How the Earth Was Created According to Norse Mythology


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

The first living being in Norse mythology, Ymir, is one of the beings whom one can refer to as the anti-god. In Old Norse, a single anti-god is called a jotunn, and in the plural, they are called the ap. In English, these beings have been known for a long time under the misleading translation ‘giants’. Alone at the beginning, Ymir’s own body produces his children spontaneously.

Concept of Earth creation
Ymir’s flesh, skull, and other body parts were used to create the world. (Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock)

Spontaneous Birth

An illustration of Ymir and Authumbla
Ymir’s body gave birth to his children by itself while the cow, Authumbla, licked the ice. (Image: Unkown/Public domain)

Ymir himself was produced out of poison water that had turned to ice and subsequently slowly melted. The sweat under Ymir’s left armpit grows an anti-god man and a woman, and another anti-god man is born from Ymir’s two legs mating with each other.

In addition to Ymir’s first offspring, another living being is produced from the dripping poison soon after Ymir, and this is a cow, ‘the rich heifer’, or Authumbla. The exact sequence of the cow’s appearance relative to Ymir’s children is not clear.

Now, the cow licks the remaining blocks of ice around her, and as she does so, she licks a man’s hair free one day. Then the next day she licks his head out, and the third day she licks the rest of him out. This male being appearing from the ice is Bor (as Snorri calls him), or Bur (as we see his name given in the Poetic Edda).

The Corpse of One’s Great-grandfather 

This former ice-man Bor then marries Bestla, an anti-goddess granddaughter of Ymir. Together, Bor and Bestla have three sons, who are Odin, Vili, and Ve. Odin and his brothers will grow up to kill their anti-god great-grandfather Ymir for unspecified reasons. And so is set in motion the never-ending strife between the competing gods and anti-gods above, which will roil the cosmos until their final battle long ages hence.

Illustration of Ymir getting killed by Odin and his brothers
Odin and his brothers killed Ymir, their great-grandfather. (Image: Lorenz Frølich/Public domain)

After Odin and his brothers kill the first being, Ymir, the three brothers take their great-grandfather’s corpse to the middle of the void, ‘the yawning gap’ called Ginnungagap, and they make the Earth from his dead flesh.

The Only World Norse Mythology Mentions

It is worth noting that the word translated as ‘earth’ is jorth, the Old Norse cognate of that English word earth. Like the English cognate, it can refer both to our ‘world’ and to the ground on that world. And this world, our Earth, is the only ‘world’ ever really mentioned in our medieval sources.

Recent interpretations of Norse myth have popularized a translation of the nine ‘homes’, heimar as they are called in the original texts, as nine ‘worlds’, and modern thinking often pictures these as planets. However, the medieval Norse had no conception of planets as habitable bodies, nor of outer space as a place that can be visited. 

So, while the exact geographical relationships between the different ‘homes’ or realms are not always clear, it is anachronistic to picture the nine heimar of Norse mythology as located on more than one planet.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse MythologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Where We Get ‘North’ From

Having used Ymir’s body to make the Earth, Odin and his brothers make the sky from his skull and fill it with the clouds made from his shredded brain. A dwarf is assigned to hold up each end of the sky, and these dwarves are named Northri, Suthri, Austri, and Vestri—closely related to our modern English words north, south, east, and west.

The gods plant some of the sparks from fiery Muspell in fixed positions in the sky as stars and leave some to wander loose underneath as comets, falling stars. The two largest of the sparks from fiery Muspell then become the sun and the moon.

Odin and his brothers break up Ymir’s bones to pile up the mountains, and they build up high ranges all along the outer rim of the Earth. They use Ymir’s eyelashes to make a great fence around the Earth on top of the high mountain ranges.

Then, Odin and his brothers drain Ymir’s body to make the oceans and rivers from his blood. In addition to an interior ocean (corresponding to the Atlantic plus Mediterranean), they surround the Earth with an impassable outer ocean beyond the encircling mountain chain.

Conflict Continues Until Ragnarok

On the shores of the other end of this impassable encircling ocean, Odin and his brothers give homes to the anti-gods. These homes for the anti-gods are called the Jotunheimar, or ‘homes of the jotnar’. 

These homes for the anti-gods are usually named in the plural, no doubt because of the wide and decentralized zone denoted by this name. The realm within the encircling ocean is called the ‘middle enclosure’ or Midgard, and this is the home of humans. This was an inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s notion of ‘Middle Earth’.

Now, the dreadful last battle of Ragnarok, in which the gods will be killed by Surt, by the anti-gods, and by other enemies, is a long way off from the mythic present, and the distance in time from the creation of these beings is even more enormous.

But the seeds of the conflict are already planted in that first killing of Ymir by Odin and his brothers. From that point forward, the gods, and later especially Thor, are constantly occupied with fighting the anti-gods.

Common Questions about How the Earth Was Created According to Norse Mythology

Q: What is a Jotunn in Norse mythology?

In Norse mythology, the first being, Ymir, is a Jotunn which is a kind of being who is defined in contrast to the Norse gods. Jotunn is usually mistranslated into ‘giant’ in the English language but it’s better to translate the word as ‘anti-god’.

Q: How was the Earth created according to Norse mythology?

In Norse mythology, the Earth is created after Odin and his brothers kill their great-grandfather and subsequently take his corpse to ‘the yawning gap’. There they make the Earth from Ymir’s dead flesh.

Q: How is the existence of the sky explained in Norse myths?

In Norse mythology, the sky is made from the skull of Ymir and is filled with clouds, after he’s killed by Odin and his brothers. Since then, four dwarves named Northri, Suthri, Austri, and Vestri hold up the four corners of the sky.

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