The Norse creation myth is a legend of the Earth’s origin, as told by the ancient tribal people of Scandinavia. The legend involves a primeval realm populated by a single giant called Ymir. The gods killed this giant and created the heavens and Earth from his body, later populating it with human beings. This myth shares characteristics with many other creation myths from around the world. The Norse creation myth and other Scandinavian mythology had a strong influence on later culture and literature, from medieval times to the present.
The Norse were the Germanic tribes of Scandinavia, the northern European region encompassing present-day Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. These people are perhaps better known in modern times as the Vikings. Unlike popular portrayals of Vikings as crude barbarians, the Norse were fairly sophisticated. They were able seafarers who traveled extensively throughout the ancient world, as far east as Turkey and as far west as North America. Their legends and histories are preserved in a large body of folklore and literature, such as the famed Icelandic sagas.
A book called the Poetic Edda, written in the 13th century, preserves many tales of Scandinavian folklore and mythology, including a detailed version of the Norse creation myth. According to this source, the universe began as a sort of cosmic netherworld occupied by the frost giant Ymir. Three brothers, the first gods, slew Ymir and dismembered his body, using it as material to create the major realms of the cosmos. These realms included Asgard, the home of the gods; Midgard, or Earth, the realm of humanity; and the underworld Niflheim. The realms were linked by a vast cosmic tree called Yggdrasill.
One of the three brothers was Odin, who later became chief of the gods, corresponding to the Greek deity Zeus. Surveying their new realms, Odin and his brothers found two trees, or logs, depending on the source, and breathed life into them. These became the first human beings, Ask and Embla, the parents of the human race. The Norse creation myth bears similarities to other creation myths, such as those of the Aztecs and ancient Babylon, in which a deity’s dismembered body provides material to build the world. Ask and Embla, of course, resemble Adam and Eve, as well as other proto-humans, such as Pandora from Greek mythology.
The Norse creation myth and other Scandinavian legends had strong influences on later works of literature and art. Composer Richard Wagner drew from it for his epic 19th-century opera The Ring of the Nibelung. J.R.R. Tolkien, a scholar of Germanic literature, borrowed elements of Norse mythology for his masterwork The Lord of the Rings, including the term “Middle-earth,” a translation of Midgard. Comics creator Stan Lee, intrigued by discussion of superheroes as modern mythology, used Odin and other Norse gods in his comic book The Mighty Thor. In the 1960s, Lee and artist Jack Kirby offered their own epic take on the Norse creation myth in a Thor backup feature called “Tales of Asgard.”