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A hermaphroditic giant and the very matter of the universe, Ymir is rarely talked about yet he’s at the very center of the Norse creation myth. His death at the hands of three Norse gods gave birth to the creation of the Earth.
Who is Ymir?
In Norse mythology, Ymir is the first giant that was born in the universe. His name means Screamer . He’s also sometimes called Aurgelmir which means Sand/Gravel Screamer.
According to the Icelandic author of the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, Snorri Sturluson, Ymir was born when the ice of Nilfheim and the fire of Muspelheim met in the abyss of Ginnungagap. This caused the ice to melt and the drops to create Ymir.
As a result, Ymir had no parents. He also had no one to interact or procreate with. All he had was the cow Audhumla, who nursed him and nourished him with her milk. The cow was also created by drops of melted ice that came together. Her teats produced four rivers of milk that he drank.
The Father and Mother of Gods and Giants/Jötnar
Ymir wasn’t impacted by the lack of other giants to interact with. When he grew into adulthood he started spawning other giants (or jötnar) from his legs and from the sweat of his armpits asexually.
Meanwhile, the cow Audhumla got her nourishment from a salt lick, which had apparently also spawned mysteriously from the cosmic void. As she licked, another being was self-conceived within the salt lick – the first Æsir (Aesir or Asgardian) god – Buri. Later, Buri produced a son, Borr, who mated with Bestla – one of Ymir’s giants.
From the union of Borr and Bestla came the three Æsir brothers – Odin, Vili, and Vé. From them and from some of Ymir’s other giants, the rest of the Æsir pantheon came to be.
In other words, Ymir is the father of all the giants and jötnar as well as a grandfather to all the gods.
Creator of the World
Ymir may be born from the clash of Niflheim and Muspelheim but at the same time, he’s also indirectly responsible for the creation of the Nine Realms. This occurred when Odin, Vili, and Vé killed Ymir and created the world from his flesh. The whole event is described in the poem in the Poetic Edda known as Grímnismál (Song of the Hooded One) like this:
From Ymir’s flesh the earth was created,
And from his sweat [or, in some versions, blood] the sea,
Mountains from bone,
Trees from hair,
And from his skull the sky.
And from his eyebrows the blithe gods made
Midgard, home of the sons of men
And from his brains
They sculpted the grim clouds.
So, technically speaking, Ymir didn’t create the world but the world was created from him. As such, Ymir’s importance cannot be overstated.
Importance of Ymir
Ymir’s symbolism is clear – he is the first proto being and a personification of the void in the universe. In this respect, Ymir can be compared to Chaos of Greek mythology.
The great void of Ginnungagap is also a symbol of chaos – it spawned Ymir just as Ymir continued to spawn more and more giants and jötnar. The only way to bring order to the chaos was by slaying Ymir. This was done by the gods who killed the original creator of the universe and thus, created the world.
During Ragnarok, the apocalyptic event of Norse mythology wherein the world as the Norse knew it would end, the process will be reversed. The giants, Ymir’s children, will attack Asgard, destroy the gods, and toss the universe back into chaos, bringing an end to the cycle so that a new cycle can begin.
Depictions of Ymir
Ymir’s main symbol is the cow that nourished him. He’s often depicted together with the cow, which was his companion and nourisher.
Ymir is often depicted being attacked by the three brothers – Odin, Vili and Vé, who would ultimately overcome him and create the earth out of his body.
What Does Ymir Symbolize?
Ymir is the personficiation of chao and a symbol of the void that existed before creation. He signifies unrealized potential. It’s only by shaping this void and forming it anew that the gods are able to create the world, bringing order into chaos.
Even the name Ymir is symbolic, as it signifies the role of Ymir as chaos. Ymir means Screamer. A scream is a noise without meaning or words and is unintelligible, much like chaos itself. By killing Ymir, the gods were creating something out of nothing, forming meaning out of a scream.
Ymir in Modern Culture
Even though Ymir is quite literally at the center of all of Norse mythology, he’s not well-known in modern pop-culture. However, he’s name appears in several video games and anime.
In Marven comics, a frost giant named Ymir is a frequent foe of Thor. In the Japanese manga and anime Attack on Titan, a Titan named Ymir is the first to come into existence.
In the God of War video game franchise, Ymir is mentioned by name several times and is featured in a mural. In the PC MOBA game Smite, he is even a playable character.
Ymir is one of the most unique and intriguing characters of Norse mythology. Personifying chaos and the universe before creation, the death of Ymir was a necessary step in the creation of the world. By shaping his corpse, the gods were able to bring order into the world and create a new system that would last until Ragnarok.