ASH AND ELM: NORSE MYTH/CULTURE/NATURE
Updated: Jun 22, 2018
Viking mythology supposes that in the beginning there existed only natural elements - water, mist and ice in the cold land of Niflheim, and fire, magma and light in Muspell. In between these obverse poles, the mingling of fire and ice melted the form of a giant, called Ymir, and a cow, called Audhumla. From these beings and the continued process of freezing, melting and birthing, the earliest denizens of the universe are said to have originated.
Like most creation stories, it is quite difficult to visualise such a scene in the mind’s eye, which demands a horizon line, a sense of scale and the establishment of the setting boundaries. But cosmic cow aside, this is in many ways one of the most grounded creation stories in mythology because it focuses on physical elements and natural processes; they are the main characters in this story - not divinity, heroes, dragons or swords. The natural world is put in the spotlight and given deep, characterful traits. The ice is cold, elegant and stoic. The fire is volatile, passionate and aggressive. Both fire and ice were important in Nordic society. The winters were long, dark and harsh, meaning an understanding of ice, wilderness, wind, campfire, torchlight and coldness were important for survival. The songs and stories of myth taught survival skills through allegory and metaphor. It was a time of poetry or perish. Never again has culture been considered so vital.
Niflheim, where ice resided, was said to be populated by Ice Giants who invaded the Viking tribes. The Ice Giants were a personification of winter, making a change to a colder climate more memorable, relatable and important in daily Nordic routine and ritual. Personification is seen regularly throughout different mythologies. All civilisations have to find a working mechanism that helps to perceive natural processes that are on a non-human scale governed by unknown forces. A simple and relatable solution is to imagine the phenomena in question as a large version of a human, hence why giants, trolls, talking trees, chariots riding across the sky and gods of the earth exist in mythology and folklore. They are all an early interpretation of the world – a means of understanding.
The concepts of Time and Geography are important to the way the weather and seasons are understood. These definitions have changed throughout history meaning the perception of the world has been in constant flux. Viking calendars were split into winter and summer (Ice and Fire?); they described the relationships of how high the sun was and when resources could be used on the land. Mapping was in its infancy in the early part of the Middle Ages and despite the Vikings travelling to the Northern Atlantic and Asia, their sense of place will have been influenced by immediate, emotional impressions and a subjective, survivalist idea of foreignness, rather than a need to document impartially the ‘truth’ of the landscape. Time and Space were more fluid and on an anthropomorphic scale. They were based on the distance from important events, such as battles. This meant history and the oral tradition of telling tales, no matter the truthfulness of the stories, were important for understanding the context and nodal reference points within a culture. When the Vikings invaded foreign lands, there would not only have been language barriers but also temporal barriers - perhaps they could be considered time travellers?
Without our own preconceptions and vocabulary for weather, climate and outer space, what would we think and how would we describe the earth if we looked at the sky, the sun, the clouds and the stars? In many ways, to the human eye, natural processes are still difficult to fully comprehend. We rely on instruments to collect and model data in order to define our own ways of perceiving space and time. To the Vikings, clocks, pressure fronts, cumulonimbus clouds, and quarter past three would be meaningless. Our understanding of weather systems is complex and relatively accurate, but does an arrow vector of fifty knots with a symbolic flag on the Beaufort scale really embody what it is like to be in a storm at sea and walk out of it alive? The Vikings may have been less accurate in describing weather and topography by using mythical stories of giants, water serpents and thunder battles, but it meant they had a closer connection to the powers of nature, how natural resources behaved, and how resources could be used. Today, cold statistics, graphical representations, surveying and charting make the natural world more obscure, sterile, and distanced from humanity, despite being used to describe nature. Norse ships bore the signs of the materials they were made from and the craftwork that went into them. In the 21st century, man made materials tend not even to bare a fingerprint, meaning we lose the connection that mythic personification provided.
When Giotto painted a fly on Cimabue’s portrait, Cimabue tried to swat it because he thought it was real. Objects like a computer, a phone or a car, have a similar illusionistic craftsmanship that is accurate and mechanical enough that, to the eye, it no longer is craft. I think this sort of design can undermine itself and lose a sense of connection between product and user.
Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve, were some of the earliest beings to form after the giant Ymir. They formed in the dark void known as Ginnungagap, the home of Ymir and Audhumla, which lay between the realms of fire and ice. The three brothers could not stand to live in the bottomless valley, endlessly falling through empty space, but they could not go to Niflheim where it was too cold and they could not go to Muspell where it was too hot. They had only one possible means of survival. They killed Ymir and the giant’s body became the earth, his blood became the seas and his bones became the mountains.
Above is an illustration of this episode in the creation story. It is a tragic and brutal passage of destruction as a means to create the world. It embodies some of the harshness of nature and the questionable morals of survival. It is quite a striking beginning to the Norse myths as Odin’s first act is murder – he is clearly not a benevolent chieftain of the Gods though he is considered the wisest. To use natural resources, there is a price to be paid. There is a sort of equilibrium presented in the way Odin creates the Earth. Even in the realms of quantum physics, matter balances antimatter, positive balances negative. Nature is about balancing the equation and so the world is destroyed in order to be created. In the illustration, both Odin and Ymir are personified in the style of the Old Masters. An act of violence against a human-like creature is harder to accept morally than an act of violence against a depersonified, ethereal idea of nature, but the image can act as an allegory. Odin could be exchanged for pollution and Ymir for the Earth, although it is not quite that straightforward. Odin acts out of a need to survive and so the image poses the moral questions - how can we preserve nature and still survive? Is every human act of survival an act against nature?
Odin’s brothers, Vili and Ve, are represented as a raven and a snake attacking the giant. This is a reference to the eagle and the dragon which respectively perch on the top of and devour the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree, which holds the entire universe in its branches. Yggdrasil is a wonderfully poetic example of how the Norse used nature to think about astronomy and turn the infinite size of the universe into a powerful, ecological image. Branches are growing out of Ymir’s arms and despite his death, there is a hint of hope that he is being metamorphosed and reincarnated as Yggdrasil – his arms becoming the branches of the cosmos.
Mythology gives some insight into the mindset of a different time – a sense of the understanding, entertainment, craft, technology, morality and purpose. It ties sciences and arts together into one coherent culture that teaches and engages its tribesmen. It also teaches us to question our own preconceptions and rethink the way in which we interpret the world. How else would James Lovelock have come up with the Gaia hypothesis? The Norse myths specifically ask us to reassess our connection to nature and how it links to our rituals and resources. The Ash tree is strong and can be carved without splitting. Elm is elegant and sturdy. It can be made into grand halls and houses. Ash and Elm were, according to the Norse, the first humans, similar to Adam and Eve in the Bible. The organic interlocking of fact and fiction, human and nature, shows how art and culture could be ambitiously used in the 21st century to understand and connect with the natural world on a new plane of perception.
Like the conclusion to the Norse Myths, I finish with Ragnarok – the end of the world, which is unlike other Dooms Days or Days of Judgment in myth or religion, as it is certain and unstoppable. The world will go dark, an endless winter will cover the land, floods will rise, poison will spread across the seas killing the fish and the seabirds that eat them, cliffs will crumble, earthquakes will shatter the mountains, fire will light the forests, volcanoes will erupt with gas and lava, and all the animals will be wiped from existence. The great wolf Fenrir will devour the sun and the moon. The Gods left alive will battle and all shall be slain in the final war. But the mighty ash tree, which holds the universe together, will protect two remaining humans who hide under its thick bark. After all the dust has settled, a green land will begin to grow and the last of an entire species will play in the grass.
I would like to acknowledge Neil Gaiman, for his inspiring and elegant oratory in Norse Mythology (2017) – an engaging retelling, as if, in his own words, it was “a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of Northern Lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did,”.
The Norse Creation Myth illustration by Hamish Muir is currently in the Artists at Work exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery running until the 2nd of September 2018.
© illustration and article: Hamish Muir 13th June 2018