Ancestors Part 2 – The Gods and the Giants

As the second part in this series, I wanted to explore the idea of Gods, and by extension giants, as the eldest among our ancestors. A fair place to begin is with a recap of the creation story. However, this is told in a little different way, and is actually an excerpt from my current project. Just bare with me for a moment. This may be considered a plug, but I think the point is valid too.
“Take your ‘creation story’ as an example. I’ve heard it a hundred different ways, and most of them miss the most important point. Ymir, that great bonehead, arises when some ice melts because there is some fire nearby. Then a cow shows up in that icey-firey spot, and Ymir loves her milky tits. This makes him tired, and three kids just pop out of his pits and his feet. The cow likes some salt because lactating makes it hungry, and poof! Buri shows up out of the salt lick.
I ask what the hell kind of story is that?
Ymir was not the first giant, nor even the first life form. No one has any clue whatsoever if there was even a first ‘life’ if you get my meaning. Let me tell you this story a different way.
Once there was Fire, and Fire was a lonely sort of fellow. He was the son of Fire, who was the grandson of Fire. One day he is out wandering, and he comes across Ice, the daughter of Ice, who was the granddaughter of Ice. She is beautiful to him, but kind of uptight and cold. He says to her;
‘Hey beautiful, how about a dance?’ So he takes her hand, and the two of them dance. It is a very sensual dance, and Ice starts to melt. Fire starts to steam, and she starts to sweat. Then, nine months later out comes Ymir. You see what I am getting at here? Of course you too. I saw the dreamy wide-eyed way you look at each other. Humans, I tell ya.
The point is Ymir had parents, and they had parents before him. Same for Audhumla, and the same for Buri. Born from a salt-block my oversized ass. That is the thing you humans miss. Ymir didn’t just spring out of the void, neither did Audhumla or Buri. Nor did any of their kids, or dwarves or man or any of them. Creation is procreation you thick headed idiots!
Every family of gods and giants has descended, provided of course the descendents of others didn’t kill off said family. I’ll use some names you are familiar with. Mimer got it on with some frisky maid, and they had kids. Somewhere along the line those kids had kids. And so on, until those runts became known as dwarves. Mimer is not the dwarves creator, he is their daddy!”

I hope you all had a good laugh. I know I did while writing it. Yet, I think it only helps to bring the point home. I am not a literalist, especially where creation myths are concerned. Origin stories are important, but as a storyteller I realize that they change with every telling. Each narrator will emphasis different parts, add in certain details, leave others out. The process of storytelling is a very fluid, dynamic and organic thing.
So with that in mind, I want to examine the story of ‘creation’ a little more closely. First a few definitions. I come from an animistic background, meaning that I believe nature and the universe is just crawling with life, seen and unseen. There is a vast assortment of spirits, great and small, that keep everything going. Forces, mountains, energy, lakes, winds, forests, spirits all in some form or another. Giants are those spirits that I would consider natural forces. The powers of air, fire, water, earth, mountains and seas. Giants are those spirits that cause earthquakes and floods, wild fires and tornadoes. Big spirits. Powerful spirits. Follow so far? Now gods are those giants whose skills, abilities and influence intersect with the human world. To put this another way, gods are giants that actually take an interest in human affairs. Most giants just don’t give a damn one way or the other. It’s kind of like stepping on an ant hill. A god will say “sorry ants, let me help you.” Whereas a giant will go; “what a pity, but you were in my way.” As a boy, I stepped on a lot of ants.
All gods and giants are spirits.
All gods are giants.
Some giants are gods.
Got it? Good. Now this sets up an interesting concept when we consider gods and giants as ancestors. Everyone likes origins stories, likes to have a sense of where we came from. This is a good thing, but they should not be taken literally. Much of what follows is my intepretation, so please keep that in mind. As such, Fire and Ice are our most distant known ancestors, because all things we know of started here. Non-human ancestors to be specific. I like to use the categories of non-human, near-human and human ancestors. Just makes thing easier. All gods and giants are non-human ancestors. They may live, die and breed, but they are not human. So from Fire and Ice comes Ymir, and by extension Audhumla and Buri. From these three come every being and creature known in the literature.
Ymir’s three kids with Audhumla (because he loved her tits) are Mimer, Bestla and Thrudgelmir. Of course, depending on interpretation. Some scholars theorize Mimer and Bestla are siblings. In the Poetic Edda Bestla is the daughter , or even granddaughter of a giant named Bolthorn, not Ymir. Either way, take it or leave it. God and giant genealogy is complicated enough. I’m going with the three of them as Ymir’s kids, for simplicity’s sake.
As was mentioned above, I think of Mimer as the God-Father of dwarven kind. At first came the family of dwarf-gods, which includes Ivuldi and Sindri. (known as Durin and Dwalin to the dwarves. Their language is difference than ours, so are their names for things.) From Thrudgelmir comes Bergelmir, and from him all giants after the death of Ymir, which floods the world and kills most everything.
From Bestla and Bor come Odin and his two brothers, Vile and Ve, or Honer and Loki. This is one of those cases I think the two are one and the same. Most gods I will treat as individuals, but I think Honer and Loki are Vili and Ve. Odin had 99 names, why can’t his brothers?
As the general course of the myth, from these three comes all the peoples of the Norse men. I would say that Ash and Embla are their children, their human children, in some way. The men worship their “divine ancestors” as gods, and rightly so. The older of the non-human spirits are the gods, and later their mortal descendants which are the humans. In this way, the gods can be considered as a another type of ancestor.
That is another reason why ancestor worship is so central to what I do. Genealogy and ancestor work, lead me step by step, back through time to my mortal ancestors, and then to their gods. The gods of the North.

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About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

3 responses to “Ancestors Part 2 – The Gods and the Giants

  • Sarenth

    I’m going to be honest, I didn’t care as much as I thought I might for the humor section.

    The first Being out of the Ginnungagap is Surt, Ymir forms or is revealed by the meeting of Ice and Fire. Ymir then makes the first frost-etins. I don’t see a real problem with the Creation story, as such. I don’t understand your logic in saying that Ymir had a parent, unless you are saying that Nifelheim and Muspelheim Themselves are parent to Ymir.

    “Creation is procreation you thick headed idiots!”

    This may be true, but the Gap is there in the beginning-before-beginning, and it is from the Gap that all things come forward. Surt is the beginning God of Fire, the First Being, and Ymir, near as I can tell from the source material, is the second. Given the narrative of how these two Beings rise out of the primal Elements in which They Themselves live/emerge from, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to change the narrative.

    While I appreciate that storytelling changes the narrative, there are constants to a narrative as well even if it changes over time. Emphasizing of certain events and reduction of others happens, but even so, the basic events are the same. Making Surt and Ymir ‘just a product of procreation’ actually, in my view, diminishes the very powerful roles the two hold in the Northern Tradition consciousness, particularly in that Surt helps to make the conditions possible for our world, and that our world is made out of Ymir’s corpse. To sum up, if you change the narrative and divert it away from its original messages completely you have utterly changed the story, for better or worse. If it is instructive or tells us details of our place in things altering the creation story far afield of where it sets will possibly alter how our place in things itself is put. Then again, perhaps this is a good thing. After all, these stories weren’t written down as religious instruction.

    It is interesting to note that there were a great many peoples in the Scandinavian and Germanic areas who considered themselves as descended and/or derived their name from the Gods, the Langobards (who said Odin bestowed His favor upon them in battle and changed their names from the the Winnili to the Langobards), Ingvaones (who believed themselves descended from Ingvi-Freyr) and the Gautlanders (Gaut is one of Odin’s heiti) spring immediately to mind.

    • Nicholas Haney

      I will agree with you on a few points, but not on all. I think this much of this arises from a difference in interpretation. In another way, you and I see the very same story in different ways. In a sense, you could say we see two different stories, though the source may be the same.

      First, I do agree that the sources say Muspelheim is the early of the two primordial “worlds.” The Prose Edda also says that Surt is the guardian of that land and its boundaries, and comes forth at the end of times to burn up the world. It does not say, one way or the other, if he was there before or after Ymir. Surt has no known parentage and no clear indication of when he appears in Muspelheim, only that he is resident and native there. The only clear source I found for Surt being the “first being” is his shrine via Northernpaganism.org. And the title to that shrines says; ” What we know from myth, history, and inspiration.” Inspiration being the operative word, in which case this is partially a changed narrative to, is it not? Are there other sources you are referring to? I’d be happy to read them. Though I do not believe either of us is right or wrong, just a matter of interpretation.

      Perhaps I can explain it in another way? The universe is old, older than our world and older than the northern world of our ancestors. To me at least, these are their stories of how THEIR world came into being, not the universe nor even the whole of the earth. These stories are very localized. Perhaps these stories are how they thought Scandinavia/The North came to be. The Celts told very different tales, as did the Greeks. Greek gods shaped the Greek world, and our gods dwelt in the north.

      To me at least, giants are the oldest beings in the universe, the very powers of nature. The powers that shape stars and planets and all the things of the cosmos. They have descended from the dawn of time (as we perceive it), generation upon generation, until our own time. Most humans do not know, may not know, perhaps because we are insignificant to them. Many and more are nameless, and fall outside the realms of our oldest stories. Many have been forgotten. At least in the Prose Edda, Muspel at least is a name given, along with Muspelheim. Muspel, and Muspel’s home? Could we say Muspel is a giant and Muspelheim is his home? A good example her is Hel and Helheim. The goddess and her homeland. Muspel could be Surt’s father. But he would also be Ymir’s. Could Surt and Ymir be brothers?

      At least my belief/interpretation is that Ymir, Surt and others are just the remembered generation. I would say that many nameless giants came before them, the ancestors of the known ancestors so to speak. Just as our star Sol came before the planet we know as Earth. Sometimes I wonder if some earlier names have been deliberately forgotten, leaving us with the Aesir-centric tales we have today? What if the Aesir assimilated and twisted the lore that preceded them? Just like the Christians did to the Aesir? Norse is not the oldest language in Scandinavia, nor is Germanic or Indo-European in the north. Yet, pretty much any trace of anything that was there before is gone. Forgotten.

      Narratives change all the time, they are not unlike spirits in and of themselves. They grow, change and mutate along the way. Now I will agree that there is a certain amount of respect that needs to be afforded the old sources. It is a balancing act for me. How to remain faithful to the spirit of the original source, but still breathe new life into it as well? A story that doesn’t change is a fossil, a dead tale, a forgotten tale. Our participation in these stories will change them, as we are part of these stories now.

      We just hear the tales differently, and that is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad.

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