Norse Religions – Myths

Major Norse Myths: Cosmology, Creation, and Destruction (Ragnarok)

By Mary Sine


Norse mythology is very extensive, and quite a bit of their artifacts and stories that have been preserved, can tell researchers and historians a lot about the different myths and gods that were especially important.  According to Lévi-Strauss, “Myth reflects the structure of human thought….”  this means that the myths of the Nordic people can show how the Old Norse thought, and especially what they thought about their surrounding environment (Lévi-Strauss, 1955, pg. 111).


In Norse mythology, creation is considered ongoing.  Meaning that the world is constantly being reshaped into something new and different from before.  With this in mind, the cosmology of Norse mythology, told along with the Norse creation myth and destruction myth, called Ragnarök, make more sense together.  Since the Norse believed that creation is ongoing, having both a major creation myth and a major destruction myth embodies these beliefs (McCoy, 2012).

The cosmology of Norse Mythology centers on the world-tree, Yggdrasil, which rises out of the Well of Urd in the center of the cosmos.  This ash tree holds all of the Nine Worlds: Midgard (the world of humanity), Asgard (the world of the Æsir, or one tribe of the gods), Vanaheim (world of the Vanir, another tribe of the gods),  Jotunheim (the world of giants), Niflheim (the primordial world of ice), Muspelheim (the primordial world of fire), Alfheim (the world of elves), Svartalheim (the world of dwarves), and Hel (the world of the dead). All of these worlds, except for Midgard, are invisible (McCoy, 2012)

Yggdrasil by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, 1847, via Wikimedia Commons, PD - 1923

Yggdrasil by Oluf Olufsen Bagge (1847)

There are a few other places of importance in the cosmology of the Norse, specifically the Bifrost, which is the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard and Midgard, and Valhalla, which is where some warriors, which are chosen by Odin, go to after death.  Along with these places, there is also the gaping abyss called Ginnungagap, which plays an important part in the Norse creation myth (McCoy, 2012).

The Norse creation myth begins with the only things existing being Ginnungagap, the huge gaping abyss, which was between Niflheim (the primordial world of ice), and Muspelheim (the primordial world of fire). Frost from Niflheim and flames from Muspelheim mixed in Ginnungagap, and formed Ymir, the first of the godlike giants. Ymir was able to create more giants from his own sweat.  Along with Ymir, a cow, called Audhumbla, was also created from the melting frost.  Audhumbla nourished Ymir with her milk, and also uncovered the first of the Æsir tribe of gods, Buri, through her salt licks.  Buri had a son, Bor, who married Bestla, the daughter of the giant Bolthorn.  Bor and Bestla were the parents of Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve.  Odin, Vili, and Ve killed the giant Ymir and made the world from his body, which also caused the anger and hatred that the giants held toward the gods that eventually contributed to Ragnarök (McCoy, 2012).

Eventually, the gods created the first man and woman, Ask and Embla, from two tree trunks.  The gods also built a fence around Midgard, where the humans lived, to protect them from the giants (McCoy, 2012).


Destruction and Ragnarök

After the creation of the world, there are many myths that describe the exploits of major gods in the Norse pantheon. Beyond these myths, which range from the famous “Death of Baldr” to other more lesser known myths, one stands out in importance, the myth of the “Twilight of the Gods” or Ragnarök (Sturluson, trans. Young, 1966).  What is known of the myth of Ragnarök is mainly derived from the Prose Edda, which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1178 or 1179 to 1241), an Icelandic historian, poet, and politician, who interpreted the skaldic poetry of the Old Norse (Ciklamini, 1978).  He wrote the Prose Edda, as “…a poetical handbook and repository of myths and heroic tales.” (Ciklamini, 1978).


Líf and Lífthrasir by Lorenz Frølich - Published in Gjellerup, Karl (1895). Den ældre Eddas Gudesange, page 45., via Wikimedia Commons, PD - 1923

Líf and Lífthrasir by Lorenz Frølich – Published in Gjellerup, Karl (1895). Den ældre Eddas Gudesange, page 45. PD – 1923

The myth of Ragnarök is essentially a myth of the destruction of the Norse pantheon and the world as it was known.  It starts, drawing from previous exploits with the gods and giants, that led up to the circumstances of their destruction, especially the enmity from the giants. First, the monster, Jormungand, or the Midgard Serpent, blows poison over the world as it tries to come ashore.  Other monsters break free from where they were previously bound, like the wolf Fenrir and the hound Garm.  Loki, who was bound under Yggdrasil with a snake dripping poison into his eyes also breaks free and fights the god Heimdall, resulting in both of their deaths.  Thor fights the Midgard Serpent, with both of them also dieing.  Odin fights the wolf Fenrir, and Fenrir eats Odin, only to be killed by another god, Vidar.  Frey is killed by Surt (Surtr in Old Norse), a fire giant.

The Giant [Surt] with the Flaming Sword by John Charles Dollman, 1909, via Wikimedia Commons, PD - 1923

The Giant [Surt] with the Flaming Sword by John Charles Dollman, 1909, PD – 1923

 The hound Garm fights the god Tyr, resulting in both of their deaths.  After all of these fights, Surt burns the whole world.  However, two humans, Líf and Lífthrasir, who were concealed in Hoddmímir’s Wood, survive and repopulate the world. (Sturluson, trans. Young, 1966).


Essentially, Ragnarök is the end of the world of the Norse Gods, but with the survival of humans, it is a rebirth of the world.  A continuation of the Norse idea that creation is ongoing.  Actually, Ragnarök supposedly already happened in 2014 (NPR, 2014).



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