Ginnungagap and Audhumla

Part of the reason for writing the blog below regarding the big bang is the comparison with the Old Norse version of the creation and their subsequent view of existence. At the beginning of the Prose Edda, one of the first things we read the following account of the universe’s beginnings.
(By the way, I’ve cut and pasted most of this from here: For those parts of the text which come from older poetic sources (The Sibyl’s Prophecy) I’ve added the newer Penguin version as an alternative. This is because the newer text is more readable and the meaning feels slightly different. The older one has a poetic power, though. This distinction in use of language is significant in itself, with regard to my project, I think. The bits from the Penguin edition are in italics.
The older translation is from 1916 and is by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur
The newer one is from 2005 and is by Jesse L. Byock)


Gangleri said: “What was the beginning, or how began it, or what was before it?” Hárr answered: “As is told in Völuspá:

Erst was the age | when nothing was:
Nor sand nor sea, | nor chilling stream-waves;
Earth was not found, | nor Ether-Heaven,–
A Yawning Gap, | but grass was none.”

Early of Ages
when nothing was.
There was neither sand nor sea
nor cold waves.
The earth was not found
nor the sky above.
Ginnungagap was there,
but grass, nowhere.

Then said Jafnhárr: “It was many ages before the earth was shaped that the Mist-World was made; and midmost within it lies the well that is called Hvergelmir, from which spring the rivers called Svöl, Gunnthrá, Fjörm, Fimbulthul, Slídr and Hríd, Sylgr and Ylgr, Víd, Leiptr; Gjöll is hard by Hel-gates.” And Thridi said: “Yet first was the world in the southern region, which was named Múspell; it is light and hot; that region is glowing and burning, and impassable to such as are outlanders and have not their holdings there. He who sits there at the land’s-end, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming

sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire; thus is said in Völuspá:

Surtr fares from the south | with switch-eating flame,–
On his sword shimmers | the sun of the War-Gods;
The rock-crags crash; | the fiends are reeling;
Heroes tread Hel-way; | Heaven is cloven.”

Surt comes from the south
with the fiery destruction of the branches.
The sun shines from the sword
of the gods of the slain.
Stone cliffs tumble
and troll witches stumble.
Men tread the road to Hel
as the sky splits apart.


Gangleri asked: “How were things wrought, ere the races were and the tribes of men increased?” Then said Hárr: “The streams called Ice-waves, those which were so long come from the fountain-heads that the yeasty venom upon them had hardened like the slag that runs out of the fire,–these then became ice; and when the ice halted and ceased to run, then it froze over above. But the drizzling rain that rose from the venom congealed to rime, and the rime increased, frost over frost, each over the other, even into Ginnungagap, the Yawning Void.” Then spake Jafnhárr: “Ginnungagap, which faced toward the northern quarter, became filled with heaviness, and masses of ice and rime, and from within, drizzling rain and gusts; but the southern part of the Yawning Void was lighted by those sparks and glowing masses which flew out of Múspellheim.” And Thridi said: “Just as cold arose out of Niflheim, and all terrible things, so also all that looked toward Múspellheim became hot and glowing; but Ginnungagap was as mild as windless air, and when the breath of heat met the rime, so that it melted and dripped, life was quickened from the yeast-drops, by the power of that which sent the heat, and became a man’s form. And that man is named Ymir, but the Rime-Giants call him Aurgelimir;

and thence are come the races of the Rime-Giants, as it says in Völuspá the Less:

All the witches | spring from Witolf,
All the warlocks | are of Willharm,
And the spell-singers | spring from Swarthead;
All the ogres | of Ymir come.

But concerning this says Vafthrúdnir the giant:

Out of the Ice-waves | issued venom-drops,
Waxing until | a giant was;
Thence are our kindred | come all together,–
So it is | they are savage forever.”

Then said Gangleri: “How did the races grow thence, or after what fashion was it brought to pass that more men came into being? Or do ye hold him God, of whom ye but now spake?” And Jafnhárr answered: “By no means do we acknowledge him God; he was evil and all his kindred: we call them Rime-Giants. Now it is said that when he slept, a sweat came upon him, and there grew under his left hand a man and a woman, and one of his feet begat a son with the other; and thus the races are come; these are the Rime-Giants. The old Rime-Giant, him we call Ymir.”

Ymir suckling from Audumhla as Audumhla licks the ice

Then said Gangleri: “Where dwelt Ymir, or wherein did he find sustenance?” Hárr answered: “Straightway after the rime dripped, there sprang from it the cow called Audumla; four streams of milk ran from her udders, and she nourished Ymir.” Then asked Gangleri: “Wherewithal was the cow nourished?” And Hárr made answer:

Ymir suckling from Audumhla as Audumhla licks the ice

“She licked the ice-blocks, which were salty; and the first day that she licked the blocks, there came forth from the blocks in the evening a man’s hair; the second day, a man’s head; the third day the whole man was there. He is named Búri: he was fair of feature, great and mighty. He begat a son called Borr, who wedded the woman named Bestla, daughter of Bölthorn the giant; and they had three sons: one was Odin, the second Vili, the third Vé. And this is my belief, that he, Odin, with his brothers, must be ruler of heaven and earth; we hold that he must be so called; so is that man called whom we know to be mightiest and most worthy of honor, and ye do well to let him be so called.”

Odin and his brothers then killed Ymir, whose blood drowned the race of frost giants with the exception of one giant and his household. They made the Yggdrasil from Ymir’s body and bones.

There are a couple of things here that I want to poke.

First off, Audhumla the Primeval cow licking a block of ice. What? Where did that come from? Though in a way it makes perfect sense that a cow would form a significant part of Old Norse mythology. I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s likely that it’s to do with the symbolism a cow would hold in Norse culture. They must have been important animals. There’s also something about a cow that suggests they’ve been around for a while. It’s largely to do with the fact that there so big, yet unassuming. There’s no charging about like a horse or butting things like a goat with a cow. Also, this may sound weird but a cow’s udders – cows generally, are a symbol of motherhood, I reckon. So there we go, Audhumla the Mother of all creation.

Secondly, Ginnungagap is an interesting parallel to the zero point I was talking about before the big bang. It literally means ‘the wide open gap’. The glossary at the back of the Penguin Prose Edda describes Ginnungagap as ‘a void filled with magic power’ and ‘the void before creation’ It separates Niflheim and Muspellheim, parts of which merge to create the environment in which the gods could exist. This merging looks a lot like the quantum fluctuations and helium/hydrogen explosions shortly after the big bang. It sounds like the forming of our galaxies.

So the Old Norse had a similar idea of the void, it was something that stoked their imagination, though they seem to have projected different things on to it and, rather contradictorily had places at the edges of it. The penguin edition goes on to say that the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree, reach what used to be Ginnungagap. It’s almost as if this is dealing with a similar thing to what I was talking about in the science post. The universe is spreading out into nothingness, and that nothingness is at the heart of its root, its beginnings. In Norse mythology, then, it might even be part of what sustains the World Tree, which is the basis of man’s, and also the gods’ existence. The form and the void are forever intertwined. Crumbs. Big thoughts. I might almost suggest that there’s a need to think of a void in the core of us. It seems to come up a lot. Part of the reason for that is the idea of the ‘void filled with magic power’. To me, ‘magic power’ and ‘infinite curvature’ do a similar job, in terms of our reading of them, though they may be quite different things. The beauty of both of them is the potential they carry, the gorgeous image of the chaos and life this magic power has spawned. And somehow I’ve ended up sitting here writing this with a pile of dvds, a mug of tea, some smints, ear drops, three pennies and a sharp knife in front of me. Happy day, to be alive in such strangeness.

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