Before the earth or sky came into being, there existed a vast abyss in the cosmos. Within this abyss were two opposing regions: Niflheim, a northern realm of cold and ice, and Muspellheim, a southern region of fire. Where the two regions met, the ice melted and the giant Ymir was born, the first being of creation.
Ymir received sustenance from another creature formed from the melting ice, the cow Audumla. In the course of time, from Ymir"s left armpit grew the first man and woman, who were, however, giants like him. The cow Audumla received nourishment herself by licking the salty ice of Niflheim; as a result of her licking, the ice melted and formed another being named Buri. Buri became the father of Bor, who was the father of the three gods, Odin, Vili, and Ve.
These three gods waged war upon Ymir, and the race of giants sprung from his body. They killed Ymir and from his body created the world. From Ymir’s flesh they fashioned earth; from his bones, mountains; from his hair, trees; and from his blood, the sea. His skull was given to dwarfs, who placed it upon four pillars, and it became the vault of the sky. The brain in Ymir’s skull formed the clouds. The sun, moon, and stars were the fires of Muspellheim, flickering through the skull of Ymir. In time the gods ordered the movements of these lights. The world thus created was called Midgard or “Middle Abode,” because it existed between Niflheim and Muspellheim.
Then Odin, in concert with other gods, constructed the divine abode, Asgard. A rainbow, known as the bridge Bifröst, separated the abode of men from the abode of the gods.
After the work of creation, the gods took provision to people the world. From the maggots that had infested the decaying body of Ymir the gods fashioned the race of dwarfs, who, because of their origins, delight to live under the earth. Then three gods set about the creation of the first human man and woman. In one tradition it was the three gods who bested the giant Ymir: Odin, Vili, and Ve. In a variant tradition it was Odin, Hoenir, and Loki. From two dead trees these gods fashioned Ask, the first man, and Embla, the first woman. From them descend the entire race of human beings.
There were other stories regarding the disposition of the world, which it is worthwhile to consider here. According to one tradition, the earth was a flat disc surrounded by the stream of the ocean, much the same as in the Hesiodic tradition among the Greeks. In this circle of water there lived the Serpent of Midgard, in whose coils the earth was enveloped. In this tradition the world is conceived as three layers of regions: the sky, the earth, and the underworld. Below the earth was the region of Niflheim or Niflhel. In this tradition Niflheim was a cold place inhabited by the frost-giants. An immense dog named Garm prevented any living creature from gaining access to Niflheim. There are suspicious similarities between this tradition and the conception of the world conveyed in Greek and Roman myth, such that some scholars believe that the similarities are due to the direct influence of the classical tradition.
Yet another important variant tradition conceives the world as a sacred ash or yew tree. This World Tree was called Yggdrasil. Its name may be derived from its relationship to Odin, one of whose names was Yggr. Scholars have interpreted Yggdrasil as meaning “the horse of Ygg.” This may be related to the story of Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself to gain vital, mystic, shamanistic knowledge and power. In this tale Odin suffered the torment that he himself had inflicted upon his enemies. He hanged himself from the tree for nine days, his body pierced with a spear and suffering the pangs of hunger. This manner of death was poetically described as “riding” the tree and may be the meaning behind the name of Yggdrasil.
From the roots of the World Tree to its topmost branches, all of creation was bound together. The three great roots of the tree lay beside three great springs: the Hvergelmir, source of the primordial rivers; the Mimir, source of all knowledge; and the Fountain of Urd, named after the wisest of the Norns. Odin himself was said to have desired to drink from the Mimir and acquire its wisdom, and it was in the attempt that he lost one of his eyes. The Norns, sometimes conceived as three sisters, and whose powers were akin to those of the Fates, watered the World Tree from the Fountain of Urd and generally protected the tree from those who sought to destroy it. From the branches of the tree an eagle alerted the gods to the approach of their enemies, the giants. The trumpet of the god Heimdall was buried under the World Tree, and its blast would precede the final battle of the world.
In the myths of the Greeks and Romans, once the world is disposed and ordered, it is conceived of as essentially eternal. In this there is a sharp distinction with Teutonic myth. It is a fundamental idea of Teutonic myth that the world, created and administered by the gods, will come to an end. The gods themselves will be overthrown in a final cataclysmic battle known as Ragnarök (“doom of the gods”) or Götterdämmerung (“twilight of the gods”), which Richard Wagner used as the title of the final opera in his Ring cycle.
The Rig Veda (“verses of knowledge”) is a collection of 1, 017 Sanskrit hymns, the oldest of which goes back to 1500-1000 B. C.
Many of these hymns were composed to accompany rituals of sacrifice, in particular the libation of the soma. Soma is thought to have been a drink derived from a plant native to the Himalayas, and it was celebrated as having a profound effect on the one who imbibed it. Many of the gods invoked in these hymns are personifications of the natural world (i.e, the sun, the earth, the sky, the dawn, etc).
In the mythology of the Vedas, the oldest of the gods is Dyaus, a name that is cognate with the Latin deus (related to the name Jupiter [dyaus-pita or "god-father"] and the Greek Zeus. As in Greek mythology, Dyaus is a personifcation of the sky and mates with the earth goddess, Prthivi, in a sacred marriage. He is associated with the rain, lightning, and thunder.
One of the most important of the Vedic gods is the sun-god Surya, whose name is cognate with the Greek helios (“sun”). He is often referred to as the “eye” of heaven and as “all-seeing.” He drives a seven-horse chariot.
One of the most frequently invoked deities is the goddess of the dawn, Ushas (“shining one”). Her name is cognate with those of the Latin goddess Aurora and the Greek goddess Eos. She is a child of Dyaus, sister of Night, and consort of Surya.
The following translation from of the Vedic Hymn (i.113) was made by Arthur A. MacDonell and appears in A History of Sanskrit Literature. It vividly evokes the splendor and majesty of the approaching day, interweaving portraits of both the celestial dawn and the anthropomorphic, heavenly deity. It is worthwhile to compare the hymn’s conception of the goddess of the dawn with that of the Greek Eos.
This light has come, of all the lights the fairest,
The brilliant brightness has been born, far shining.
Urged onward for god Savitri’s uprising,
Night now has yielded up her place to Morning.
The sisters’ pathway is the same, unending:
Taught by the gods, alternately they tread it.
Fair-shaped, of different forms and yet one-minded,
Night and Morning clash not, nor do they linger.
Bright leader of glad sounds, she shines effulgent:
Widely she has unclosed for us her portals.
Arousing all the world, she shows us riches:
Dawn has awakened every living creature.
There Heaven’s Daughter has appeared before us,
The maiden flushing in her brilliant garments.
Thou sovran lady of all earthly treasure,
Auspicious Dawn, flush here to-day upon us.
In the sky’s framework she has shone with splendour;
The goddess has cast off the robe of darkness.
Wakening up the world with ruddy horses,
Upon her well-yoked chariot Dawn is coming.
Bringing upon it many bounteous blessings,
Brightly shining, she spreads her brilliant lustre.
Last of the countless mornings that have gone by,
First of bright morns to come has Dawn arisen.
Arise! the breath, the life, again has reached us:
Darkness has gone away and light is coming.
She leaves a pathway for the sun to travel:
We have arrived where men prolong existence.