By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
The Norse myth of creation is narrated together with the myth of how the gods die at Ragnarok. The narrator is an unnamed fortune-teller, what we might call a seeress or a clairvoyant witch. Her narration appears in the first poem of the Poetic Edda collection. The poem told by the volva is known as ‘Voluspa’—’the prophecy of the volva’.
The Mysterious Outsider
The figure of the volva, often unnamed, is portrayed in our written sources as a social outsider, though not exactly a social outcast. In the sagas, a human volva is usually a professional, itinerant fortune-teller. She is a seeress who will travel the countryside, seeking the hospitality of powerful families. There the seeress will often be treated to a banquet, where visitors from the neighborhood will come to hear cryptic hints of their fortune told.
But, just as the volva might circulate in human society, she might also circulate in the company of the gods as well. In the poem ‘Voluspa’, the seeress mentions the rings and precious objects that Odin has given her in exchange for telling the beginning and end of the cosmos. So the gods are also expected to pay her.
The scene in ‘Voluspa’ is not described, as the seeress begins by addressing Odin—and humankind—and explaining that Odin asked her to tell the earliest events and beings she remembers.
Arrow-Odd’s Unfortunate Fate
In the mythical The Saga of Arrow-Odd, the hero Arrow-Odd attends a feast given by his foster father for a visiting volva. The seeress is in good spirits, cheered by excellent gifts and food. But Arrow-Odd is reluctant to hear his fortune. He hides in a corner while other men go up to the volva to learn some clue to their fate.
Finally, after everyone else has been to the seeress, she calls out to Arrow-Odd and offers to tell him his fate. He tells her that he will break her nose if she does, but she persists anyway. What she has to tell him is putatively good news: Arrow-Odd will live for 300 years, but at last will be killed by the horse Faxi who stands in the stable at his own foster-father’s farm that very day.
Arrow-Odd does as he promised and strikes the seeress in the nose with a stick. But Arrow-Odd has heard her warning nonetheless and takes precautions. He leads the horse in question out of the stable and kills him, then buries him in a deep pit. Now Arrow-Odd goes on to the longest career of any of the mythical Norse heroes, living three hundred years just as the volva foretold.
But at the end of his centuries of wandering, he returns to the farm that had been his foster-father’s. There, while wandering his old stomping grounds, he finds that some erosion has occurred, and the skeleton of the horse that he buried so long ago had risen to the surface. He poked it with his spear shaft, and a poisonous snake emerged from the skull and bit him in the leg—killing him.
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The Secrets of Creation
So the volva is able to see and share some knowledge of the future, but it’s not necessarily helpful knowledge. And at the same time, the future she foresees is not changeable—the horse Faxi will somehow kill the man Arrow-Odd, no matter what.
Now, for the Norse, the past and the future are intimately bound. Both lie beyond our present realm of the living, accessible only by the magic of the volva. So now, let us picture a probable scene. The one-eyed god Odin sits on his throne, Hlidskjalf. Perhaps his two ravens—Thought and Memory—are perched on his shoulders.
He leans forward, in the company of thousands of dead human warriors who dwell in Valhalla with him, to hear the volva tell of the creation of Ymir, the first living being—who precedes our earth, as it will be created from him.
The volva says:
It was at the very beginning,
it was Ymir’s time,
there was no sand, no sea,
no cooling waves,
just the yawning gap.
The Myth of Creation Has Gaps
Now, the volva’s allusive words here presume an audience who already know the story. This can be a difficulty with the archaic poems collected in the Poetic Edda. They were composed in a time and place where the broad outlines of these stories were well-known and probably constantly told, so the poet could focus on evoking individual scenes in striking words.
But Snorri Sturluson knew that his later medieval audience didn’t get all the allusions in the Poetic Edda. So he built on the volva’s account to give a fuller story in his Prose Edda. Here is Snorri’s expanded version of the story.
Ymir: The Original Being
At the beginning, “many ages before the earth was shaped”, there are two realms, watery Niflheim to the north and fiery Muspell to the south. From a spring in the watery realm, poison water flows out into the emptiness between them. This emptiness is the cold primordial void called “the yawning gap” or “mighty gap”, in Old Norse called Ginnungagap. There the poison waters freeze.
But as more and more of this poisonous outflow fills the gap with ice, some of the ice approaches the warm region closer to fiery Muspell and melts once again. And from the drops of this melting poison water are formed the first living being, Ymir, said by Snorri to be “in a man’s likeness”, but not a man.
Common Questions about the Norse Myth of Creation and the Original Being
In Norse mythology, a volva is a human who is able to see the future. She is a fortune-teller who appears both in human banquets and gods.
The ‘yawning gap’, ‘mighty gap’, as well as Ginnungagap all refer to an empty void between two realms that exist at the beginning of the Norse myth of creation.
According to the Norse myth of creation, the first being, called Ymir, was created as a direct consequence of water flowing into a dark emptiness called ‘the yawning gap’. This water freezes and becomes ice, but after a while, it starts melting and from the drops of melting water, Ymir is created.