In the beginning, there was chaos, as characterized by the yawning void known as Ginnungagap. Flanking the void were the first two worlds: Niflheim in the north the ancient world of ice, and Muspelheim in the south the primordial world of fire. The two worlds brushed across one another, and the resulting clash of fire and ice (the very big bang of creation within the Norse cosmology) formed eitr, the waters of life and poison. Drops of these waters slowly coalesced together and formed the frost-cold Jotun (or giant) Ymir, the father of the Jotuns.
Meanwhile, the great divine cow Auðumbla, gave suckle to the Jotuns that had come from Ymir, even as she happily licked at a salty patch of ice she had found. As she licked the ice, thawing it with the heat of her tongue and body, a shape began to take form until Buri–ancestor of the Æsir (Norse Gods)–emerged. From his descendants would spring three brothers: Odin, Ville, and Ve who then set forth to kill Ymir as he slept.
Ymir’s death caused a vast flood as his blood rushed out that drowned most of his Jotun descendants, and became the waters of the oceans and seas of the world. From his carcass sprang up the Dwarves, like maggots appearing from his corpse. The three Æsic Gods who had killed him, then used his body to create the universe in Ginnungagap. His flesh became the land, his bones the mountains; his teeth were the rocks and pebbles. His hair became the grasses and plants that sprung forth from the land. His eyebrows became the very foundation for Midgard. His skull and brains became the skies and heavens. The gods then borrowed some of the sparks from the primordial world of fire Muspelheim, and used it to create the sun, moon and stars in those Heavens.
The yawning void, was no longer empty, but rather had been ordered into the foundation for the other worlds of Northern cosmology: worlds of dwarfs, Jotuns, Gods (The Æsir as well as the Vanir), Elfs, Humans, and the Dead. These worlds (Svartalfheim, Jotunheim, Asgard, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Midgard, and Helheim) joined with the ancient worlds of Muspelheim and Niflheim to form the nine worlds spoken of in Norse cosmology.
From Ymir’s hair emerged two trees, one ash and one elm. The Gods took these trees and created two people, Ask and Embla. Odin breathed life into them, Vili granted them intelligence, and Ve gave them their senses so they could see and hear. While man is here depicted as being created by the Gods, we also see that without Ymir mankind would not have existed either. Just as it took fire and ice to start the chain reaction that brought life into existence, we see in its progeny of Jotuns and the Æsir that both forces are needed again to create the ordered life that we now know.
Unlike the Bible where there is a clear chronological sense of creation and origin found in the story of Genesis, to figure out the Norse creation story it is necessary to extrapolate from multiple pieces of literature that sometimes contradict one another on some points. To read all the accounts of creation and cosmology to see what is different you would need to read the Völuspá, Grímnismál, Vafþrúðnismál, Gylfaginning, and Alvissmal. While these literary accounts can prove insightful, they are also flawed because Christian scholars penned most of them years after the conversion. While literary texts such as the eddas, sagas, and skaldic poetry help to comprise the lore in Norse tradition and become one of the touchstone sources for historical exploration of this ancient culture, these texts also generate far more questions than they do answers.
Why did the Æsir feel it was necessary to kill the Jotun Ymir in the first place? Does this mean that the Jotuns are considered to be forces of chaos, and therefore should be avoided at all costs because they are construed as the enemy? Yet, if that is true then why is it that even the slayers of Ymir—Odin, Vili and Ve, were in fact half Jotun through their mother Bestla. Even Odin’s son, the famed Jotun-slayer Thor was birthed from a Jotun mother, and He had a child with the female Jotun Járnsaxa. We see time and time again in these literary texts that the Gods and Goddesses are in many cases part Jotun, have no problem choosing a Jotun as a spouse or lover (as we see in the tale of the Vanic God Freyr and the Jotun Gerðr). Even in the listing of the Æsir, we find Loki, a well known Jotun counted. There is even surviving folk tradition in Norway, where food is given to the kitchen fire in offer to Loki, which may possibly originate from pre-Christian Jotun-worshipping practices related to Loki. The Völsa þáttr also has a possible account of Jotun-worship preserved within its text. Cumulatively, we have a rather large, over-whelming body of evidence pointing to the fact that the Jotuns are not in and of themselves a great enemy by default, or solely forces of chaos against the order the Gods supposedly represent. But exactly what is the nature of that divide between Gods and Jotuns? Can we determine where the boundaries of chaos and order may exist?
We might be able to if we broaden our approach from the mythical seeming texts about the gods and the Jotuns, and begin to dive more into the laws and cultural customs of the various peoples that worshipped the Æsic Gods, especially as we examine an ancient and complex concept known as frith.
Frith in a sense can be understood as the proper relationship that exists between three focuses of ancient life: a familial kinship (kin-frith), the connection between a lord or chieftain and those men under him (oath-frith), and also the connection between man and the numinous Holy Powers (as comprised by the Gods, ancestors, and other land spirits, etc.). Within the social structure of these three levels, certain expectations existed in terms of how people were to behave. These behaviors were understood and codified, in some cases by formal laws, in other cases through years and generations of acculturated-tradition. By behaving properly, you behaved frithfully, in a manner that both caused peace and tranquility to exist within your community, but also in a manner that insured you were protected and given sanctuary by the community and those who enforced the frith.
If your brother stole your favorite horse, you could take it to the elders of your kin to settle the matter. If a neighbor killed your brother, you could take it to the elders of your community. The sentences for breaking the frith included some form of financial penalty, outright execution, or outlawry. An outlaw was not only exiled, but his lands became forfeit and his possessions could be claimed or stolen without penalty as well. If members of the community found an outlaw after his (or her) sentence, anyone could then kill him/her without penalty or fear of reprisal. An outlaw wasn’t someone who acted in blatant disregard for the law, but rather an outlaw was an individual whom was no longer protected by the law. If an outlaw was exiled for a short sentence, after that passage of time they could return to the community who sentenced him, and re-enter the community once again having the rights of frith bestowed upon them. If however the sentence of exile was for the longer 20-year period, this was usually viewed as an exiled death sentence, due to the short life expectancy in antiquity. One of the most famous Vikings, Erik the Red was actually an outlaw sent into exile because he had committed murder. Since Erik could not stay in his community, he pulled up his roots and left to settle on Greenland. While he was NOT the first Viking to discover Greenland, he was the first to establish a permanent settlement there.
While frith may seem a bit of an antiquated concept, aspects of it have survived into the modern day in mainstream society. If you’ve ever heard a police officer referred to as a peacekeeper, that is because their duty is to protect and serve the community by maintaining the peaceful sanctuary that frithfully-behaving, law-abiding members of that community expect. We expect our police officers, like the frithguilds of yesteryear, to keep the peace and thus maintain the expected law and order of society.
Frith was so critically important because it became a vehicle of how order was established that supported the community’s continued existence. Frith was the means that the seeming chaos of life could be kept at bay. Just as frith was a concept we see among all the Æsic-worshipping peoples, large gatherings such as Things were common too.
One of our earliest written sources for a Thing appears in Tacitus’ Germania, but other related cultures also had Things. Some of the better-known sites are Norway’s Frosta and Gula, Sweden’s Uppsala and Skara, Denmark’s Viborg and Oresund, and Iceland’s Thingvellir. I think it’s important to step back and understand what a Thing was, and one of the most detailed accounts of a Thing gathering comes to us from Iceland’s annual gathering known as the Althing. The Althing was part judicial court (as it listened to and passed judgment on legal cases), part parliament (as it passed and made law), part economic summit or trade show (as trade agreements could be worked out), part religious ritual (as it began with a sacred ritual known as a blot where there was a blood sacrifice to the Gods), and it also acted as a debutante ball as families sought out advantageous marriage matches across all of Iceland.
The Icelandic sagas are full of stories concerning blood feuds, so any gathering, especially of such a vast complex of people, held the potential for great danger and violence to break out. Legal cases were being listened to and judged, and when lives hung in the balance it was quite understandable that passions were high. Additionally, the marriage market also represented the most dangerous thing that a young male could engage in (even apparently more dangerous than going to war). Anything that infringed on the reputation of a woman he might attempt to court could result in the wrath of her family clan going after him, OR the family could also go after him if they felt he was dragging out the courtship for too long. So not only do you have the heated passions from legal cases, and politics, but also the ingredients for disaster in the guise of the pheromones of the men and the women. So picture if you will this crazy tumult. It makes complete and utter sense that there would be strict customs in place about the use and bearing of weapons within the official designated site of the Althing, as well as an understanding of what was frithful behavior at the site, and where the boundaries of frith were set.
Boundaries were marked to designate the areas of frithful order, and outside of the boundaries there existed the potential of chaos. Sometimes this demarcation of boundaries (both physical territories, and relating to cultural boundaries as well) is described as the innangard (inner yard) and utangard (outer yard). To understand this concept, lets suppose that you are a homeowner, and have a fence around your property. Everything within that fence would be understood as your innangard. As the owner of the house, everything on your property you have control over, things like the color of your house, your choice of landscaping, how you decorate your house, and even personal customs like not eating outside of the kitchen. But outside of your fence… your level of control decreases. But rarely do people truly live as hermits, usually they live as members of a community, and they are also subject to the laws of their community. If water rationing was in effect in your community that dictated you could only water your lawn once a week, and you water yours daily, then you’d be breaking frith with your community because you would be jeopardizing the water supply for everyone. As you move away from your community and travel further away the control you have over things decreases.
As a rule humans like to have control, as it gives us a sense of both stability and security, and things being outside of our control can be somewhat scary. But the utangard, the outer yard that lies beyond the boundaries we have control over, can manifest in different ways. Sometimes we can find ways of navigating the utangard where we can interact peacefully with others, and sometimes it can be very dangerous. These boundaries are both physical territories, or can represent cultural identities. As a female pagan American, there are places in the world where I could be killed for not honoring the local religion and behaving, as my American self is accustomed too.
The Jotuns of the land of the giants, Jotunheim, can be understood as an example of what can be found in the utangard that exists beyond the innangard of Midgard (where humans dwell), and Asgard (where the Æsic and Vanic deities dwell). They are not beings solely of chaos, but rather they dwell in areas not easily controlled. In fact we see them described as living in areas that are the least hospitable to men, such as the mountain-Jotun Skadhi. Sometimes they are allies, and sometimes they may be enemies.
The very question about the role these Jotuns should, or should not have within our religion is found at the heart of one of the greatest ideological divides found within the Asatru community. For some, Jotuns should be regarded with a cautious and wary respect but not actively worshipped. For others they should be avoided at all costs. For another section of the community, the Jotuns simply represent natural forces, and by establishing a frithful relationship with them we establish a means for balance to exist between us and Them. There are yet others who make the distinction that those Jotuns who in Ragnarok do not take up arms against the Æsic deities are therefore allies of our Gods and thus are eligible for worship. But even in this case, the question arises just how accurate is the story of Ragnarok to the pre-Christian beliefs in the first place?
No matter how much attention may be paid to the ancient literature, or ancient customs of frith, and cultural concepts like the innangard and utangard, none of these items can tell us with any absolute guarantee how the ancient pre-Christian Æsic-worshipping people believed. At some point, it becomes a matter of personal interpretation which may be informed not only by one’s understanding of these sources, but also tempered with an openness to the experiential and the animistic forces around us. While these alternate interactions, or personal gnosises are a valid avenue of exploration, their acceptance within the modern community is just as controversial as the role of the Jotuns themselves. Even in this, humans seek control and order, and the potential wildness of direct interaction with these powers may just be too chaotic for some to handle.