Every religion has its own creation story. They each have their understanding and belief system of how the universe came to exist. The Norse religion, otherwise known as Norse paganism, is no exception. Even the Norse people have a myth or tale of how their world came to be.
According to Norse mythology, the beginning of the universe started from Ginnungagap. This is not a place but more of a dark void. Ginnungagap is mentioned in the Poetic Edda, in the poem Völuspá. This post is a dedication to this mythical dark void. We will cover what it is, the etymology of its name, and the main facts you should know about it.
What is the Ginnungagap?
Ginnungagap is described as the unfathomably bottomless abyss of nothingness. The dark void was said to have existed before the creation of the cosmos. As per the poem Völuspá (Insight of the Seeress), in Poetic Edda, Ginnungagap was described as a place where there was no sky, no earth, no sand, no grass, nor cool waves. It was an age when nothing existed.
In the northern part of Ginnungagap was intense cold and darkness, where nothing but frost, ice, and snow existed. It was called Niflheim. In the southern part was an equally intense heat where extremely hot lava ignited itself and huge flames rose to nothingness filling the air there with soot. It was called Muspelheim. The creation of the cosmos is said to have started when the two ends began moving towards each other until they met at the center of Ginnungagap.
The fire from Muspelheim melted the ice from Niflheim and the droplets formed into the first giant, Ymir, whose name meant screamer. Some of the droplets also formed a giant cow named Audhumbla whose name means Abundance of Humming. Ymir being asexual, was able to reproduce on his own. One time in his sleep, three more giants grew from him, two from the sweat of his armpits and one from his leg. The giants were all nourished by the milk from Audhumbla, who was in turn nourished, from the salt she licked from the ice.
One day, as she was busy licking the ice, she discovered what looked like a human-like head. After three days of licking, a man named Buri emerged from the rocks, he became the first Aesir gods. Buri later had a son named Borr, who married one of the giants’ daughters, Bestla. The two of them had three sons, Odin, Ve, and Vili.
Like Ginnungagap, the impersonal void, Ymir was the personification of cosmic chaos. Both of them were a limitless potential that had not been actualized. Odin and his brothers realized this. With their desire to create a more orderly world, the three brothers set out to kill Ymir. By combining their powers, they managed to slay him and used the remains of his body to create the world.
Ymir’s flesh became land and his blood was turned into the oceans seas and rivers. His bones were made into mountains and his teeth were turned to stones. His hair formed the trees and grass and the eyelashes formed Midgard. The brothers then took Ymir’s head and threw it up in the air. His skull became the sky and his brain turned to clouds. The brothers then took sparks shooting from Muspelheim and threw them into the sky to form the stars. Finally, they build Asgard, home of the gods, on the plains of Idavoll, far from where the giants were, in Jotunheim. Based on the poem Völuspá, the Volva predicts that all of the worlds the brothers created, together with the cosmos, will one day collapse back into the dark void of Ginnungagap.
The term Ginnungagap consists of two words joined together, is Gunninga- and -gap. The term gap in the Old Norse means the same thing as in modern-day English, that is a void or empty space. The term ginnunga on the other hand does not have a certain meaning. Its meaning doe not seem to exist in the Old Norse.
Most usually see it as being derived from the verbs, yawn or gape, but that is not supported by the Old Norse. Ursla Dronke who did an edition of the poem Völuspá suggested that the term could have been borrowed from the Old High German term ginunga. An alternative suggestion is that the prefix ginn- links with those found in words with sacral meanings like ginn-regin, which refers to gods, and ginn-runa, which refers to runes. That brings us to the most popular suggestion by Jan De Vries, a Dutch scholar. He suggests that the meaning of Ginnungagap is a magically charged void, where the term ginnunga- stands for magically charged.
In summary, the following are some of the important facts to remember about Ginnungagap:
- It is a great gaping void of nothingness that was there before the formation of the cosmos.
- It is described in the poem Völuspá, in Poetic Edda as the time when nothing was, no grass, no earth, and no sky.
- Ginnungagap consisted of two extreme ends. The north end, Niflheim, was a cold and dark place with only snow and frost, and the south end, Muspelheim, which as a hot place filled with lava and flames.
- The Ginnungagap is where the cosmogenic process began when Niflheim and Muspelheim, that were on either side, met in the middle of Ginnungagap.
- It was the earliest time where Ymir was formed and lived together with Audhumbla and the three giants that grew from Ymir.
- The cosmos and all of creation have been predicted to fall back into the nothingness of Ginnungagap, during Ragnarok, the fall of the gods.
Like in Genesis where Christian believe that the world was created from nothingness, the Norse also believe that the cosmos came from Ginnungagap, the bottomless abyss. Today, Ginnungagap has been featured in many of the recent pop cultures, including in Marvel Universe and Netflix’s Ragnarok series. Some Scandinavian cartographers in the 15th century also believed that based on the Gripla, an Old Norse encyclopedic text, Ginnungagap is located between Vinland and Greenland.