Time's morning, and even before time. It was in the predawn of manifestation, in the darkness that swells before the sigh of retreating Night can fling its echo off the gathering mists of Day. It was in the void that defies all imagining, that cannot mirror the limits of the finite mind, that the divine potencies had assembled. Like polar loci, they stirred and showed their power whilst the abyss remained quiescent in their midst, the y awning maw of Ginnungagap remained unfilled. There the Alfader (All-Father) had dwelt uncreated and unseen, and now the spring of Hvergelmir had thrust up its surging waters in Niflheim to the north, and the twelve icy streams of Elivagar carried forth their venom through its nebular mists. As they flowed, they left behind a wake of frozen blocks, of rime and slag, piled up in solid masses. From the south a fiery heat expanded, fed by divine sparks and guarded by Surtur's mighty sword. The heat pulsated forth through the gate of Muspelheim, reaching out towards the frozen masses. Like a scorching wind blown by the Invisible, it dissolved them into fertile drops which fell downward, coalescing to form the monstrous shape of the giant Ymir.
Life was quickened thus "by the power of that which sent the heat", the unseen source of motion, whose veil of substance yielded in obedience to an unpronounced plan and threw up yet another creation in the form of Audhumla, the rich in milk (audr) and polled (humla) heavenly cow. From her willing teats Ymir took the nourishment he needed while she herself licked the salty rime. The strength arising in Ymir caused him to sweat as he lay asleep, and from the rolling drops gathered beneath his arms, a male and female of his race arose, and from his foot they released their son. This was the beginning of the Frost Giants, who multiplied even as Audhumla licked away and sculpted out the beautiful form of Bori, who, emerging from the salty block, took as his wife a giantess and begot Borr, the father of Odin, Vili and Vé, the first of the gods.
For a while the giants and the gods coexisted and all was quiescent. Ginnungagap remained, time was not, nor ordered increments of evolving life. All was still, a blurred efflorescence not yet defined, until the need to conquer the wilds of Chaos became uppermost in the minds of the gods. Quarrelling with the primordial giants, they rose up and slew Ymir. When he fell, hacked to pieces, they threw his great body into Ginnungagap, filling it to the brim. His blood gushed forth in such streams that it overflowed, washing the Frost Giants away in the flood – all but one, who, with his wife, grasped onto a great millstone and rode above the waves. The race of giants would have been entirely obliterated if Bergelmir and his spouse had not thus ensured its perpetuation, but the killing of Ymir marked the end of the First (Elemental) Creation and the beginning of the Second Creation, over which the gods would reign.
The First Creation, which had involved primordial matter differentiating out of Chaos, was now followed by the reign of the gods, headed by Odin, Vili and Vé, whose names marked a new phase of involution expressing Spirit, Will and Holiness. Giants such as Ymir or other ancient forbears who were 'murdered' in various mythic traditions represent immense primordial beings whose sacrifice made creation possible. One can assume that it was this cosmogonic archetype which inspired the imitative human sacrifices that followed, leading to so many concretized distortions of the original idea. The giant himself is neither good nor bad. Often a defender, sometimes an aggressor, he is usually both marvellous and terrifying, and can be seen as either ontologically inferior or cosmically superior to that which manifests through him. The former point of view would cast Ymir as typifying rude matter and the blind cosmic forces operating in Chaos prior to receiving the intelligent impulse of divine Law. The latter perspective would consider him as the androgynous 'male' principle, the prototypic cosmic man.
Even with the killing of Ymir, darkness still reigned. The Ases (the Cosmocratores or Dhyan Chohans, who are the Builders and Pillars of the world) had not yet evolved, nor did Yggdrasill, the World Tree of Time, exist. During the First Creation the Alfader had dwelt as the Cause in darkness. Only with the ascendancy of Odin as father of the gods and of the Ases (Asuras) did Time commence, marking the construction of the world out of the parts of Ymir. As his blood formed the oceans and his bones the mountains, so his teeth became the rocks and cliffs, his hair the trees, his skull the heavenly vault and his brains the clouds therein. From his brow the future home of man was built, rising like a barrier, keeping out the giant offspring of Bergelmir who clustered at the world's edge. Around the whole, a huge serpent coiled in a sea of aether, the snake of Time's cycle, who brings together for a while the objectified manifestation of spirit and matter. Only a few fiery sparks from Muspelheim had previously wandered about in space. Neither the sun nor the moon had found its place, nor had the stars known where to stand. Now the gods collected the sparks and fastened them in the firmament. The raven-haired Nott (Night) wed three times and bore the offspring Aud (Space), Jörd (Earth) and Dag (Day), who were set in their proper courses with Nott proceeding on her dark horse Hrimfaxi (Frost-mane), followed by Dag astride his bright Skinfaxi (Shining-mane).
In this way, order was made out of chaos. The World Tree grew so that its tallest point overlooked Valhalla, its branches stretched out through heaven, and its three roots reached into Midgard, Jötunheim and Hel. It was and is a tricentric order, linking together the Asgard home of the gods, the Midgard home of man and the underworld. Between heaven and earth stretched the Bifrost bridge which the gods had painstakingly fabricated. Luminous and fashioned of rainbow hues, it permits them to ride daily to their tribunal at Urd's well, lying at the foot of the World Tree. It is guarded by Heimdal until that day when the sons of Muspelheim will cross it and break it down, bringing on the twilight of the world.
Edda means 'great-grandmother', and the Eddie tradition was carried forth in song and tales told by ancestors without number. The myths were related by the skalds, bards who sang to warriors resting from the fight and drinking mead around their long tables. The poems were eulogies and elegies intricately woven with complex syllabics and alliterations, internal rhyme and consonance. The skalds were trained for many long years, during which they learnt the countless kennings (or condensed metaphors) that comprised a large part of the songs and were readily appreciated by audiences intimately familiar with mythical anecdotes about the gods and their own heroic history. Through them something like gold might be alluded to as "Freya's tears", "Sif's hair", "Aegir's fire" or "Ottar's ransom". Handed down in song for centuries, the Eddas brim with reflections of the wild and harsh land in which these Norsemen had settled. Their continual struggle with the elements, with savage seas, cold, dark winters and forests haunted with the fierce and unexpected, inspired in them a bold defiance rather than fatalistic acceptance. The violence of the emerging world in their cosmology, as well as the great battle fought at its end, are quite different from the cosmic struggles so archetypically outlined in the ancient Hindu Puranas. The Norse themes seem somehow more anthropomorphic and immediate, more personally desperate and tragically heroic, by comparison. They do not convey the sublime detachment of the Indian perspective, but revel instead in powerful descriptions of individual courage and bravely fought lost causes. The melancholy of the Far North seeps through the imagery and thrills the heart even as it alarms the mind, which senses a danger in its proud defiance and world-weariness.
Though distinctively expressive of the Nordic character, the story of Ymir clearly portrays a typically Aryan interpretation of the concept of divine Law asserting itself over Chaos in a cosmic order. Examining the Indo-European traditions, one finds many parallels between the Eddas and the Vedas, where Brahma is portrayed as producing the Daityas (giants who dwelt in Patala), the first man from his mouth, the warrior and his wife from his arms, and their son from his right foot. In the Nordic myth Borr marries Bestia, the daughter of the Frost Giants, while the first Brahmin marries a Daitya daughter and establishes a lineage. There is, too, a striking echo of the metaphysically inspired notion of Brahma Vach in the symbiotic relationship between Ymir and Audhumla, the 'female creator'. Interesting comparisons can be made with Greek cosmology as well. The fire and ice of the Norse tradition is unique, but the idea of the world arising out of chaos is common, and there are parallels between giants and Titans, the war between them and the gods, Asgard and Olympus, and spherical worlds surrounded by an oceanic stream. That many of these traits can also be found in Indian and Iranian myths testifies to the continuity of language and thought-forms within the widely dispersed Indo-European family. One can trace the name of the primordial sky god from Sanskrit (Dyaus) to Greek (Zeus), to the German (Ziu), Old English (Tiu) and Norse (Tyr), just as one can see in the Norse Tivar ('the Shining One' or God) the Sanskrit word deva.
In the poem Völuspá (Song of the Prophetess), it is said that at the beginning of time there was nothing but Ginnungagap, which was charged with "mighty magical force". Does this refer to the activity upsurging in Niflheim and Muspelheim? Did this activity arise in the abyss or is it in some subtle sense removed from it? Occultism asserts that the Mundane Egg was 'discovered' in the germ of the universe, lying in the 'cup of illusion' or Ginnungagap. In that boundless abyss Maya reigned and nurtured the germ. A perfect analogue can be found in the veiled homogeneity of the nucleus of an ovum. Once fertilized, the process of polarization, unification by crossing over, and separation immediately begins. From their polarized positions the current of water and sparks of fire commingle to produce a being created by duality but unified in essence. The questions then arise: Whence came this duality and what is the source of fertilization that gave rise to it? To ask this is to pursue the elusive nature of a single cause or the divine source of the abyss and all associated with it before time and prior to the birth of Ymir. One wonders if this source is the Alfader spoken of, and whether such a being was one and the same as Tyr, whose name is so readily traceable to Dyaus, the Sanskrit name of the 'heavenly father'. The Alfader was said to have dwelt in Ginnungagap 'uncreated' and 'unseen', but is he the mighty magical force that charged it? In the poetry of the Elder Edda, a sequence of manifesting Deity is suggested:
One must take the last verse to refer to a being more causal and abstract in nature than the mighty god whose birth is noted. Is this more causal deity the manifesting Logoic germ or is it to be identified as that eternally unmanifest Source man cannot readily name? Unlike the richly delineated metaphysics presented in Hindu legends and teachings, the old Norse cosmology must stand upon mythical fragments passed down through generations of converts to a foreign religion which did its best to obliterate the living tradition of the skalds and the esoteric metaphysics contained in their kennings. But in the Gylfaginning the pagan king Gylfi received instructions concerning the beginning of the world from three manifestations of Odin seated one above the other, an image suggesting the evolving of the lesser gods from those three levels of Odin. It seems fair to presume that the Logoi preceding him also represented levels of emanation going back beyond the germ to its cause, including levels in coadunition with the maya of Ginnungagap and the monstrous body of the slain Ymir which filled it.
All things in manifestation subsequent to Ymir can be traced to the union of fire and water. With this closure of the upward-pointing and downward-pointing triangles, the ice melts and yields salt, that compound of basic and acid radicals which the ancients considered the chief formative principle in organic creation. With the presence of Niflheim at the north of the abyss, the twelve streams of Hvergelmir (called collectively Elivagar) rushed forth laden with a "yeasty venom" which congealed and thickened like slag turning to ice. This venom also spat out a drizzle that turned into the salt-bearing rime from which Bori was released by Audhumla's patient licking. The connection between frozen water and poison is mysterious and obviously has a great deal to do with concretization, whereas Muspelheim is associated with emptiness (muspel meaning 'desolation'). Its fire, however, belies such a description of barrenness. Blown forth "by the power of that which sent the heat", it can be likened to the motion of the Breath swirling, as in a whirlwind, the rudiments to be joined in the abyss. The water too swirls up, but by itself it cannot beget life. It congeals and freezes, locked up in itself, waiting to be fertilized by the fiery seed. Its substance represents a dawning solidification of the mayavic matrix of Chaos and its fertilization ensures its growth and ultimate 'filling' of the cup of Ginnungagap.
The salt produced through the union of fire and water symbolizes life, incorruptibility, wisdom and the human soul. Alchemists associated it with clarification and rectification, identifying it as that which is fixed, like the cube, and expressive of earthly nature, the body uniting spirit and soul. They believed that "wherever there is metal, there are sulphur, quicksilver and salt; the three being spirit, soul and body, the nature of metal and man". The static nature of salt represents not merely the physical but the astral body as well. Whereas sulphur produces combustion and quicksilver produces evaporation, salt, they say, 'fixes' the volatile spirit. The presence of metal is symbolized in the myth by the slag in the rivers, a slag associated with earlier phases of welling up, earlier accumulations carried over in the mist waiting to be released in a new theatre of manifestation. Just as physical salt is produced when a hydrogen atom of an acid is replaced by a metal radical, so the salt of the myth resulted when the hydrogen of fiery compounds came into contact with the icy slag. In the material world, covalent compounds of non-metal atoms involve the sharing of electrons with no loss or gain. But when metal atoms enter into association with non-metal atoms, the former loses one or more electrons while the latter gains. This positive and negative ionization produces an ionic compound capable of precipitation in solution. That the old Norse seemed to have been intuitively aware of this process is borne out in the writings of Tacitus, who described the sacred spring near Saale where, in ritual ceremony, waters were made to evaporate on red-hot coals to produce sacred salt.
Ymir was the giant hermaphrodite whose name is linked etymologically to the Iranian Yima and the Indian Yama, both of which mean 'twin', an appellation used to describe the androgyne. The Vedas call Yama the god of the dead, with whom the shades dwell. He was also the "first of men that died" to embody the first conscious (Third Root) race of men, "without which there is neither heaven nor Hades". In the Germanic version of the myth he is Tuisto or Tiwaz, who begot giants without a female companion and whose name is closely related to the ancient Nordic Tyr and the Old English Tiu, both of whose names signify 'twin'. In The Secret Doctrine the asexual Second Race is identified as the parent of the Sweat-born, who in turn become the Egg-born androgynes of the Third Race. Thus the Duad, representing the polar forces come together to produce the first unit being, dies like the polar cells of the fertilized ovum after 'giving birth' to the multiplying cells of the developing foetus. The embryo then develops from the growth and segmentation of the remaining nucleus, which is nourished by the substance of the cell. Thus Audhumla extrudes from the 'sub-astral' of the abyss as a more concretized astral substance, feeding first the twin (Duad) father, then the androgynous and (midway through the Third Race) sexual offspring. At this point, one can place Ymir at the head of the Second Race which, collectively in his being, then produced the early Third Races. But other elements in the myth suggest cosmogenesis rather than anthropogenesis. That one is analogous to the other may permit a synthesis of the macrocosmic and microcosmic themes. The birth of cosmos and the birth of man follow, after all, the same pattern, and one should be able to trace the role of fire, water and salt, the venom, the developing modes of generation, and the conflict between the giants and gods in both.
In Hindu mythology the nebular formation supporting a cycle of manifestation is characterized as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. There the serpent (Vasuki or Shesha) assists in the process by becoming the rope with which the churning is accomplished. At the end of each kalpa Vasuki lies dormant in the abyss of nonbeing. With the renewed stirring of the ocean, the venom accumulated from the previous cycle rises up in his twisting body until he vomits it forth into the waters of life. In the myth, Shiva saved the situation by swallowing the poison even as it coursed throughout the three developing worlds. In the Eddie poem, the venom pours forth into the Elivagar without its ultimate source being known, and the serpent simply circles the whole cosmos as it emerges. The similarity between the mythic patterns is far more striking than the disparities, however, and one is left pondering the nature of the venom and its origin in both cases. One is also moved to question if this is the source of evil said to be personified by the giants in the Eddie myths, which assert that, while Audhumla gives birth to a race of superior beings (the gods), Ymir gives birth to the evil giants. Further, Ymir is described as "evil from the first", and surely the gods did everything in their power not only to kill him but all of his kind. One must remember, however, that Bori begot Borr androgynously but Borr married a giantess in order to generate the first gods. Thus, the gods themselves participate in this evil attributed to Ymir, whether one identifies the evil in the venom or in some other inherent quality.
All this begs the question of the origin of evil, a subject meticulously addressed by H.P. Blavatsky in response to the philosophical (materialistic) pessimism of her time. Looking at the question from the standpoint of the opposition existing between the giants and the gods in the Eddas, one may well ask if evil is simply that which threatens order. One could turn this around to the other side of the problem by asking if order is good. In the comparative cosmologies available to us, it is almost invariably the case that order is equated with the good. Without order there is chaos – ultimately the chaos of destruction and non-being. From the standpoint of the living, that which brings destruction and death is evil. If this is pushed further, one could say that life is good not in and of itself but because it affords an opportunity to garner self-consciously held wisdom. Therefore, destruction and death are evil. But death is a deliverer from suffering and the creation of more suffering. In this light, death can be seen as good and life full of evil. If one asks how Ymir is evil, it is tantamount to asking what evil is and whether it is evil from all points of view. Does Ymir have to be destroyed by the gods simply because he represents a pre-cosmic and titanic force of Nature which must be ordered and harmonized? Does this sort of explanation throw any light on the question of the nature and origin of evil?
Theosophically, what men call evil is originally an impersonal force which comes into existence with the manifestation of life itself. Thus, it must exist along with the forces of destruction before the creation of life. Indeed, if one follows the Hindu myth, the poison was in the serpent of time's circle since before the churning, a residue carried over into the new cycle. The evil is there and merely dormant. With the slightest stirring of life, it is actively there. One of the great paradoxes in life is the fact that forces and substances hostile to life are necessary to it. An illustration of this is the many life-saving medicines that originate in venomous plants and animals. The birth of cosmos and the evolution of life involve the fragmentation of a primordial manifested Unity. Out of the contrasting heterogeneity of this process sprang what we call evil. This is not to say that the one Source of all was broken up into parts. That cannot be, because the One permeates the manifest but remains untouched by even its subtlest fluctuations. It is to say that a reflection of that Unity, a potentially creative being, split asunder into countless particles which became the basis for all the heterogeneous forces of attraction and repulsion operating in the world. In the Duad there is already this separation and contrast, and therefore there is evil treading close upon the footsteps of good. But as H.P. Blavatsky forcefully pointed out, this does not justify an attitude of mind which rationalizes that the only way to put an end to suffering and evil is to put an end to life. The pessimist is all too ready to commit suicide, mentally or physically, to bring down the world in flames, being ignorant of "the numberless heads of the hydra of existence" he is adversely affecting. The occultist does not shun the evils in himself or in life, but he does not make the mistake of attributing to those evils the ultimate Reality. He sees that the world of maya is evil, but it is the only means by which the individual soul can pass from limitation to enlightenment. Similarly, Buddha taught that the world is an illusion and that suffering is indeed unavoidable. But he did not teach that one should become fixated on it or attempt to run away from it. Instead, as H.P. Blavatsky stated in her article "Origin of Evil", "His doctrine shows evil immanent, not in matter which is eternal, but in the illusions created by it: through the changes and transformations of matter generating life – because these changes are conditioned and such life is ephemeral."
Though the gods see evil in Ymir, thus revealing their own evil (being, as it is, in the eyes of the beholder), there is no special evil in the killing of the giant whose death can be seen as a necessity. They are, however, apprehensive because Bergelmir and his giantess spouse managed to escape the flood of Ymir's blood. They are then forced to accept the fact that the forces of destruction would henceforth be a part of the universe, embodied in giants whose powers rivalled their own, powers inimical to order. With Ymir's death, the giants were deprived of their preeminence and anxious to regain it. The gods had shaped a bright hall in the midst of a wild and dark country (Chaos) where giant monsters ranged, ceaselessly seeking to destroy their order. One is strangely moved and at the same time filled with dread imagining the torment of the monster Grendel when he came prowling about the newly built hall and heard the sweet music within. Much of the effort of the giants was focussed upon destroying just such harmony. They could not forget that the creation of the world had threatened their own existence. The relentlessness of their opposition caused them to appear to be a force acting as evil, encouraging one to equate destruction with evil. But the gods themselves recognized that the giants could not be defeated and that they could only be contained until the Ragnarok, the end of creation. They refer openly to the fact that creation is temporal and finite, and they recognize that in creating the world they have created instruments of destruction. They admit to a universe that, from its inception, is flawed. The inevitability of the end of Ragnarok is felt by them as an ever-present force operating in the whole of their creation.
The notion of inevitability seems to override the question of good and evil. For the world to exist there must be contrasts, and the perception of good and evil in those contrasts involves an insistence upon the illusion of their reality in the consciousness of beings caught up in the maya of their own personal sense of separation from all around them. As long as this "sin of separateness" persists, evil will be both the perceiver and the perceived. The serpent of time will absorb this poison polluting the astral matrix of existence and carry it over to be belched up in the next manvantara. As long as this state of affairs continues, Bergelmir must, of necessity, save himself and lay down a new lineal complement to that of the gods. The process of creation is protracted but creation is finite, subject, like all that is in it, to the cycles of life and death. The dawn of the gods is as inevitable as the death of Ymir, but their twilight is sure to follow, brought on by the forces of disintegration embodied by the giants. Given the inevitability of this ebbing and flowing, one may wonder why the combatants struggle and continually assert that the temporality of their achievement does not diminish its glory. One of the giants seemed to acknowledge the role of will and effort in the contest when he expressed amazement that the gods would build a rainbow bridge too flimsy to withstand the assault of the giants of Ragnarok. But he is rebutted by the words of the skald who says, "The gods do not deserve censure because of this structure. Bifrost is a good bridge, but in this world there is nothing which will hold once Muspelheim's sons begin their attack."
This is the theme of the clash between the sky gods and the monsters cast down into darkness. The Stanzas of Dzyan say that when the Race became old and the drops became turbid, they disappeared in the new stream of life, the outer of the First becoming the inner of the Second, the old wing becoming the new shadow and the shadow of the wing. Thus were the mighty of the earlier Race sacrificed to the rise of the new, the serpents of wisdom made to fall into Patala, into the underworld, to become the demons and monsters of a fresh cycle. The Daityas of Hindu cosmology are the intellectual gods or giants, the Titans of other traditions. They are the opponents of the ritualistic gods and ever on the lockout for a chance to destroy their ordered and ritualized intentions. In this they are as terrifying as a great shark suddenly looming in the sea, threatening to devour the known world whole. But they represent a truth even greater than that of the gods, a truth which rests on the threshold of the abyss and points simultaneously in both directions: back into the ordered world of maya and forward into the immeasurable depths of non-being. Beyond that, all is unknowable, never to be approached by the finite or conditioned.
The first glimmering of Being the human mind can begin to contemplate is the periodic impulsion of the heavenly Manu Svayambhuva, the Adam Kadmon or Purusha, from whom issues Brahmā, the creative Logos, accompanied by his daughter Vach, the generatrix of the world to come. Ymir's position in this scheme of things seems to be that of father of the Sweat-born in anthropogenesis, and in cosmogenesis what H.P. Blavatsky called "the semblance of man", or Purusha. The wisdom poems of the Elder Edda, such as the Vafthrudnismal, further this notion by depicting archetypal contests where Odin and the giant Vafthrudnir competed with each other in exhibiting their knowledge of the mythic world and the cosmological process that describes it. This was surely not a contest involving mere mindless and chaotic forces, nor was it entered into lightly (the winner's prize was usually the loser's head). It illustrates, rather, the intellectual powers of Ymir's kind and points to a pre-manasic expression of pure intelligence which one would expect to associate with incipient man.
It is not that the gods are less important, but that they have a particular role to play in preparing the ground for the lighting up of manas in man. Their order is a necessary part of this development, for the mind must evolve through levels of categorical thought before it can reach those plateaus which open out to the timeless and limitless vistas of the soul. Perimeters of ordered thought create worlds of order, combining the elements of good and evil as shadow follows light. As long as human beings require bodies through which to experience mental contrasts, the gods will reign over worlds fabricated out of Ymir's being. Splintered into countless pieces, his omnipresence echoes the reality of a Unity unperceived in diversity except by the Seer. If Ymir is evil, he is also beyond evil. He is good, yet opposes goodness. His is the wisdom of Ginnungagap and the serpent's tail. He is the world but he is dead to it, living in a spiralling mist of endless beginnings. His is the greater truth, for in reality there is neither life nor death – both are illusions. Life is death and death is life. The world is both the heaven of Asgard and icy flame of Hel. Though the gods reign in glory, especially in the eyes of men, their reign cannot last, for they are transitory. Only he who dies in giving life and lives in death, ever awake, can pass beyond the gaping danger of the abyss, beyond the primordial substance of Ymir, to glimpse the luminous presence of that which lies beyond the poles of Muspelheim and Niflheim. Perhaps such a journey may be made by the gods. Perhaps they will build a bridge to that place. But skalds have long sung the old, old tale that it shall be man who wins the transcendent grace.