The Creation of the Cosmos
The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda both describe the creation of the cosmos. According to these sources, the universe began with a realm of ice and a realm of fire floating side by side in a void. As these realms crept slowly toward each other, the ice began to melt, and the droplets gathered into the shape of a jötunn. His name was Ymir, and, when he slept, more jötnar were born from the sweat of his armpits.
As the ice continued to melt, Auðumbla the primordial cow took form. While nourishing Ymir with her milk, she began to lick away at a salt stone, until she revealed Búri, the first ever god. All other gods were descended from him, after some breeding with jötnar along the way, and these gods included 3 powerful brothers: Odin, Vili and Ve.
One day, Odin and his brothers decided to kill Ymir. His corpse was transformed into a new cosmos, with his flesh forming the earth, his bones forming the rocks, his blood forming the ocean, and his skull forming the sky. Midgard, the home of humans, was made from Ymir’s eyebrows.
The First Humans
This first ever humans, according to the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, were created from fallen trees. After manufacturing the cosmos from Ymir’s corpse, Odin and his brothers began to explore the new realms, and in one place they found a beach, with 2 tree trunks lying side by side. The trunks resembled a man and a woman, but they were completely lifeless and inert.
Odin and his brothers decided to imbue the trunks with life. Odin blew the breath of life into them, while one of his brothers provided movement and intelligence, and the other provided speech, hearing and sight. By the time they were finished, the first humans had been created, and Odin named them Ask and Embla.
Ask and Embla were given the realm of Midgard and encouraged to build a home. They were the mother and father of all future humans, like the Christian concept of Adam and Eve.
The Æsir-Vanir War
The Poetic Edda never goes into much detail about interactions between the Æsir and the Vanir, but the Prose Edda does, with an account of a battle between the 2 tribes. According to this story, the 2 sets of gods used to live peacefully in their respective realms, until Freya, of the Vanir, paid a visit to Asgard. When she arrived there, she showed the Æsir some powerful magic, which impressed and frightened them in equal parts.
The Æsir began to fear the Vanir, and eventually these feelings erupted into war. The Æsir marched on Vanaheim, attacking the realm using weapons and brute force, while the Vanir fought back using subtle forms of magic. In the end, the 2 sides were evenly matched, and they were forced to sign a truce.
As part of this truce, some of the Vanir moved to Asgard, while some of the Æsir moved to Vanaheim. The gods from both tribes also spat into a cauldron, and this saliva was turned into a man named Kvasir, the wisest human who ever lived.
Odin’s Lost Eye
The Prose Edda tells the story of Odin’s lost eye, an event which took place beneath the roots of Yggdrasil. At the end of one of these roots was Mímisbrunnr, a well which granted wisdom to anyone who drank there. Mímir was a divine being who guarded the well, and after drinking from it regularly, he was full of knowledge and wisdom.
When Odin heard about Mímisbrunnr, he decided to pay the place a visit, and asked Mímir whether he could drink from the water. However, Mímir told him that he could only drink from the water if he sacrificed one of his eyes. Odin considered this for a moment, then he gouged out one of his eyes and dropped it into the well. Mímir was satisfied, and finally allowed Odin to drink.
At the end of the Æsir-Vanir War, Mímir was one of the Æsir who traveled to live with the Vanir. After a disagreement, the Vanir chopped off his head, but Odin managed to rescue it. He embalmed the head with preservative herbs, then cast a spell so that Mímir would still be able to speak, offering counsel and wisdom whenever Odin needed it.
Sif’s Golden Hair
Thor, god of thunder, was married to Sif, a goddess with beautiful, golden hair. Most of our knowledge about Sif comes from a story in the Prose Edda, which describes how Loki decided to cut off her locks as a practical joke. When Thor found out what had happened, he grabbed hold of Loki and threatened to break his bones, until Loki promised to replace Sif’s hair with a golden headpiece.
Loki traveled to Nidavellir, where he spoke to the Sons of Ivaldi, a talented group of dwarves. After receiving a golden headpiece from them, Loki went to a second group of dwarves, and challenged them to produce an object of equal quality. They created several magical items, including Gullinbursti the gold-bristled boar, a golden ring which self-replicated every 9 days, and Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir.
When Loki returned to Asgard, the gods judged that Mjöllnir was the most impressive of the objects that he had brought with him, but they were also pleased with the golden headpiece. It was soft and shining and beautiful, and, when placed upon Sif’s head, it attached to her scalp like a real head of hair.
The Fortification of Asgard
The Prose Edda describes how a jötunn once visited Asgard, and offered to build a formidable wall around the entire realm in return for Freya’s hand in marriage. The gods were reluctant, but Loki suggested agreeing to the deal on the condition that the jötunn could complete the wall in a single season, a feat which seemed impossible.
To the surprise of the gods, the jötunn began to build the wall with astonishing speed, largely thanks to the help of his horse, who had the strength to carry enormous pieces of stone. The gods turned on Loki, ordering him to slow the jötunn down. Loki transformed himself into a female horse, then seduced the jötunn’s steed, leading the animal away into the woods.
Without the horse’s support, the jötunn failed to finish the wall in time, and, as punishment for this, Thor came out and smashed the jötunn’s skull. Meanwhile, Loki emerged from the woods and gave birth to Sleipnir, the 8-legged stallion who went on to become Odin’s horse. This unusual birth was a chaotic event, as it disrupted the established laws of nature, while Odin’s mastery of the steed was symbolic of a return to order.
The Binding of Fenrir
The binding of Fenrir, the giant wolf, is a story told in the Prose Edda. The Norse believed that Fenrir was the child of Loki and a jötunn, a pair who also parented 2 other beings: Hel the goddess and Jörmungandr the serpent. The gods feared these monstrous siblings, and sent Hel away to live in the underworld, while banishing Jörmungandr to the bottom of the sea. As for Fenrir, the most monstrous of all, the gods decided to keep him bound in Asgard where they would be able to keep a watchful eye on him.
The gods knew that Fenrir would refuse to be bound, so they decided to deceive him, telling him that they wanted to wrap him in chains as a test of his monstrous strength. To make sure the binding would succeed, Odin turned to the dwarves for help, asking them to craft the strongest chain ever made.
When the chain arrived, Fenrir was suspicious, and said that he would only perform the test of strength if one of the gods agreed to put their hand into his mouth as a show of faith. Týr, the god of justice, offered up his hand, while the other gods bound Fenrir with the dwarven chain. When Fenrir realized that he could not escape, he bit off Týr’s hand. This sacrifice was symbolically important to the Norse, who also made sacrifices during feasts and ceremonies, in an effort to maintain order against chaotic beings like Fenrir.
Thor Goes Fishing
Thor’s fishing trip appears in both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. One day, the god of thunder paid a visit to the jötunn Hymir. As part of this visit, they rowed out to Hymir’s favorite fishing grounds, but Thor demanded to move into deeper waters. Hymir was nervous about this, because he knew Jörmungandr lurked in the deepest waters of the ocean, but Thor was insistent.
When they reached the deepest part of the ocean, Thor dropped his line into the water, using the head of an ox as bait. Something huge and powerful took hold of the line, and it took all of Thor’s strength to yank the creature free from the water. Sure enough, there was Jörmungandr, vast and ferocious and spitting poison.
Thor grabbed his hammer, meaning to kill Jörmungandr, but before he had the chance, Hymir panicked and cut the line. Jörmungandr sank back down to the bottom of the ocean, completely unharmed, and Thor was furious. He shoved Hymir overboard, then returned to shore without him. This story was extremely popular with the Norse, who admired Thor for his strength and willpower. Archaeologists have discovered a number of stones throughout Scandinavia with depictions of this fishing trip carefully carved upon the surface.
The Death of Baldur
The Prose Edda describes the death of Baldur, a god so perfect and pure that he was supposedly invulnerable to physical damage. The other gods used to amuse themselves by shooting arrows at him, feeling confident that the projectiles would cause no harm. However, this changed when Loki discovered that Baldur had a single weakness: mistletoe. Loki had a special arrow constructed, then tricked one of the other gods into firing it at Baldur, killing him instantly.
Odin and Frigg, Baldur’s parents, were horrified. Frigg spoke to Hel, pleading for her to bring Baldur back to life, but Hel said she would only do so if every being in the universe shed tears over Baldur’s death. Every being did so, apart from Thökk the jötunn, who was probably Loki in disguise. Because of Thökk, Hel refused to bring Baldur back from the dead.
Loki was punished for his role in all this. Odin tied him to a rock and cast him into a cave, where a venomous snake dripped poison on his face for the rest of eternity. Each drop of poison made Loki shiver, causing earthquakes throughout the realm of Midgard.
Ragnarök: Doom of the Gods
The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda both speak about Ragnarök, not a story of something that happened in the past, but a prophecy for events in the future. According to this prophecy, the cosmos would end with a terrible, biting winter. All the trees would fall down, the mountains would collapse, and the stars would turn utterly dark.
Then an army of jötnar would march on Asgard, led by the fire jötunn Surtr. Loki would be with them, shaken free from his chains, and so would his sons, Fenrir and Jörmungandr. The gods would ride out to fight them, with Odin leading the charge along with the fallen warriors of Valhalla. Thor and Jörmungandr would slay each other during the battle, as would Heimdall and Loki, and Freyr and Surtr. As for Odin, he would be devoured by Fenrir the wolf.
When the battle was over, a new world would rise from the darkness. In this new world, Baldur would return from the dead to lead a new age of gods, while 2 humans would survive, Líf and Lífþrasir, whose descendants would repopulate Midgard.