The (Literal) Bones of the World

What better place to start Myths ‘n Monsters than at the very beginning?

And when I say ‘beginning,’ I really mean it.

When I say ‘beginning,’ I’m talking about creation; the creation of the earth, the creation of the heavens, everything.

Well, a few different versions of it anyway.

Mythology stems from the collective psyche of the culture that created it. Creation, or cosmogonic, myths are no different. So, whilst different cosmogonic myths have their various similarities and differences (just as different cultures have their various similarities and differences), each myth is shaped by its birthplace. Sometimes the link is obvious. To the ancient Egyptians, the river Nile was a vital part of daily life, both for individuals and the state as a whole, so it’s no surprise that their various creation stories all feature the world rising up from the infinite waters of Nun.[1] Likewise, the Mayan belief that man was made of maize is easy to understand, given their dependency on it as a primary food source and its sacred relevance.[2]

Sometimes, though, things get really strange!

One trait shared by some cosmogonic myths is the creation of the heavens and the earth from the body parts of a primordial being. This is sometimes referred to as the “World Parent” type[3]. It’s a form of creation myth, which can prove tough to really understand. And, to be honest, that’s fair enough. How do you even begin to explain where the general idea of a “World Parent” myth has come from? Well, let’s give it a try.

I’ll be looking at two myths in particular detail; The Völuspa of Norse mythology, and the Babylonian Enûma Eliš. Both begin with a period of chaos, and the creation of primordial divine beings. I will be focusing mostly on the parts dealing with the creation of the earth, after the creation of the initial, primordial worlds.

Norse

The prose and poetic Eddas tell us of the creation of the world right from the beginning, when there was nothing but a great void, called Ginnungagap, and two opposing worlds. One of these, Niflheim, was a world of toxic ice. The other, Muspellheim, was a world of fire, which nothing mortal could have survived in. The two worlds spread across the void, creating the basic foundation of the universe when they eventually met.

A number of divine beings were formed from this foundation of the universe. These included Ymir, an enormous, slumbering frost giant, and the three brothers, Odin (eventually the father of the Norse Gods, or Aesir), Vili and Vé. Now, Norse mythology features almost constant conflict between the gods and the frost giants. There are some great stories involving disagreements between the Aesir and the frost giants (if you want to read up on them but you’re not sure where to begin, one of my personal favourites is the tale of Thor’s meeting with Utgarda-Loki). This generations-long struggle took no time at all to get started. Odin and his brothers clash with Ymir and his sons. Ymir is killed, and his blood causes a great flood, drowning all but two of the other frost giants (Ymir’s son Bergelmir swimming to safety, whilst dragging his wife by her hair).

Odin, Vili and Vé didn’t let Ymir’s body go to waste. It was Ymir’s corpse that they used to construct the heavens and the earth. His blood formed the seas, rivers and streams. His eyebrows became the earth itself (Miðgarðr), and his skull was the sky. His hair formed the forests, and his brains became the clouds. His corpse even gave birth to other creatures.[4] [5]You don’t want to know where the dwarves came from…

Are you still with me?

(The death of Ymir, by Lorenz Frohlich)

Babylonian

So, we move onto the Enûma Eliš.

The Babylonian creation bears an immediate similarity to Norse mythology. From utter nothing, two primary figures emerge; Sweet waters, represented by the male Apsu, and salty waters, represented by the female Tiamat. The waters meet at the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (both vital parts of everyday Babylonian life), and from this meeting the foundation of the world is created.

The creation of the earth and heavens comes later on in the myth. Apsu and Tiamat have various children, reason including their son Ea, but this quickly turns sour. Apsu is enraged that Ea’s noise is preventing him from sleeping (incidentally, a noise disturbance was also one of the reasons that Odin and his brothers rose up against Ymir). Initially, Tiamat stays out of the conflict, but Apsu and his vizier, Mummu, plot to kill the younger gods. The plot doesn’t go well. Ea takes Apsu’s place as head of the gods, and kills his father. Mummu is enslaved.

(Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal, possibly depicting the death of Tiamat, from the 8th Century BC).

Ea and his wife have a son, Marduk. Having stayed out of the conflict so far, Tiamat decides to pursue revenge for the death of her husband. She summons an army of monsters and attacks the younger gods. Tiamat, taking the form of an enormous serpent, personally battles her grandson, Marduk. Marduk is victorious and slays his grandmother (thus providing raw materials for the world and making every future family reunion all the more awkward). Her corpse is used to construct the earth and heaven. Her ribs are used to create East and West. Her liver becomes the Pole Star. Her eyes become the sources for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Or, to put it another way:

He sliced her in half like a fish for drying:
Half of her he put up to roof the sky,
Drew a bolt across and made a guard to hold it.
Her waters he arranged so they could not escape.[6]

 

Interpretations

So, how do we begin to make sense of all this?

Well, remember what I said at the very beginning. Myths are shaped by the civilisations which created them. There are a plethora of theories to explain the “World Parent” type cosmogonic myth, all of which relate back to their respective civilisations, and to the human mindset in general. In no particular order, they are:

  • Life From Death

The idea of life coming from death is almost as old as civilisation itself. The cyclical process is engraved clearly into every culture on Earth, and is a popular idea in literature and mythology[7] [8]. Only when we accept that life comes from death, can we begin to come to terms with loss. Personally, I can think of dozens of examples, such as:

  • The Biblical great flood, where only Noah and the inhabitants of his ark survived to form the new world.
  • The Norse legend of Ragnarök (the end of the world), where all of the living and the dead, gods and mortals, battle to the death. Eventually the world, completely ravaged and destroyed, is repopulated from the few survivors (including the murdered god, Baldr).
  • Osiris, the god of ancient Egyptian myth. Like Baldr, he was murdered by one of his peers (his brother, Set). He briefly returned to life, so that his wife Isis could conceive their son, Horus, so is a symbol of new life coming from death.

Specifically to the Völuspa and the Enûma Eliš, we see the birth of a world from the death of a divine being. The Nordic world, an often cold and harsh place, is sculpted from the flesh and bones of a frost giant. As for the Babylonian take on creation as life from death, this brings me nicely to my next point.

  • The Taming of a Wild World

The Norse and Babylonian creation myths each give a very clear image of civilisation being formed from chaos, another popular idea in mythology.[9] In the Völuspa, the chaotic frost giants are tamed and defeated. The world in which mankind could flourish was then literally created from the remnants of primordial chaos. Likewise, Babylonian myth tells us of Tiamat creating hordes of monsters, which she led against the gods. It is from her remains that the civilised world was then formed. The younger gods represent agriculture and different aspects of a tamed land, whereas the old gods represent a wilder, less controlled world. It has been commented that “the Enuma elish may celebrate the taming of the waters that make agriculture and life possible in this dry region.”[10] In both myths, we see civilisations who are used to living in very tough natural conditions, taming the very things that make their respective worlds so difficult to live in. That is the very essence of civilisation.

  • Creation as an Ongoing Process

I mentioned that the Norse myth tells us of a world in which mankind could flourish. Could is the telling word here. Neither of these worlds were formed complete with towns, houses, marketplaces and all of the other hallmarks of human civilisation. That was left up to man. So, while most cultures like to think of themselves as the very height of civilisation (the ancient Greeks were famously condescending about other cultures, referring to them as ‘barbarian,” in reference to the foreign languages, which the Greeks could not understand), each of these myths tells us that there is always more to be done, that civilisation is always growing and building.[11] The Norse and Babylonian cultures may have taken control of their lands, but survival remained a struggle, and those who did not work hard would swiftly perish. The gods may have forged their worlds, but it was up to mankind to shape them.

  • Flesh and Matter

I admit that I struggled to wrap my head fully around this particular interpretation. It took some re-reading, but eventually I started to understand it a little better. We often like to think of the physical and spiritual worlds as very separate. These myths, however, make it clear that the divine, spiritual worlds, are literally a part of the physical world. Delve a little further into any book of assorted mythology, and you’ll find countless examples of gods and divine creatures existing amongst mortals, even interbreeding (Greek myth had Herakles, son of the god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, Celtic myth has examples of Morrigan mating with mortals, and Norse myth constantly shows Odin and Thor making trips down to the mortal world). The barrier between worlds, which in modern day often appears clear and solid, was much less so in the ancient worlds, and this comes across in their myths.[12]

It’s worth mentioning that plenty of other civilisations had cosmogonic myths in which the earth was made up of body parts of a divine being. What ties in quite nicely to the flesh and matter argument, is that the divine beings don’t necessarily need to have been killed. In the Greek creation myth, for example, the god Atlas holds up the earth, and forms certain parts of the world (e.g. his beard forms the woodlands).

  • Waste Not Want Not

Resources were at a premium for many ancient civilisations. The Norse and Babylonian peoples were no exception. So, when resources are limited, the best possible solution is to make use of absolutely everything you can! The old Norse civilisation, for example, hunted animals for food, but they didn’t just throw away the parts which they couldn’t eat. Plenty of artefacts have been discovered, such as combs and razors, which are made of animal bones and antlers.[13] So, when I first learned these myths, what really struck me was that the vanquished gods were not left to waste, but every piece was put to use. The fantastical myths give us a useful insight into the minds of practical civilisations, struggling to survive in their own harsh environments.

 

Myths, as I said earlier, stem from the collective psyches of the civilisations which created them. Even in cases where the roots of the myth are harder to spot, this remains true.

Myths and legends are the windows through which we see into the minds of those who came before us.

[1] Encyclopaedia Brittanica (2010), Nun: Egyptian God [Online]. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nun-Egyptian-god

[2] Living Maya Time (2017), Creation Story of the Maya [Online]. Available at: https://maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya

[3] Leeming, David (2005), The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 16.

[4] McCoy, Dan (2012). The Creation of the Cosmos. [Online]. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Available at: http://norse-mythology.org/tales/norse-creation-myth/

[5] Sturlusson, Snorri (1996). The Poetic Edda. (Trans. C. Larrington). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 40.

[6] Dalley, Stephanie, ed. and trans. Myths from Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP, 1991 Page 225.

[7] See the interview with Joseph Campbell in 1988, at the following address: http://billmoyers.com/content/ep-3-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-first-storytellers-audio/

[8] Aguilar I Matas, Enric (1991). Rgvedic Society. Leiden, Netherlands. Pg. 80

[9] Naddaf, Gerard (2005). Greek Concept of Nature: The Politics of Theory Building and Pedagogy. New York, State University of New York Press. Pgs. 38-41

[10]  http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/enuma_elish.html

[11] Naddaf, Gerard (2005). Greek Concept of Nature: The Politics of Theory Building and Pedagogy. New York, State University of New York Press. Pgs. 38-41

[12] McCoy, Dan (2012). The Creation of the Cosmos. [Online]. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Available at: http://norse-mythology.org/tales/norse-creation-myth/

[13] Cohen, Jennie (2013). History.com, 10 Things You May Not Know About the Vikings. [Online]. Available at: http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-vikings/print

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Author: Arthur M Harper

I am an author of supernatural, historical adventures / horrors. I grew up all over the place, starting off in Iceland, before moving to England, Wales, and finally back to England, where I now live in rural Oxfordshire with my wife. I grew up with my nose permanently in a book, be it one of HP Lovecraft's weird horrors, a rambling Robert E Howard tale of blades and barbarians, or some light-hearted science fiction satire (step right up, Douglas Adams). When I'm not reading or writing, I enjoy drumming, long walks and avoiding fitting in however I can.

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