Tales of Creation
The stories of creation have always fascinated me. They can be so extremely insightful to the cultural beliefs of a people. There is an interesting theme that seems to run through many of the Indo-European cultures I have read. They seem to be connected in most cases with water to some degree.
Creation in Norse mythology has an interesting start, from of Ice and Fire. Niflheim, the fog country, was the first realm within the Norse creation. It was a place cold frozen place. There was a well named Hvergelmir from which ten Elivagar, venomous streams, flowed. Niflheim lay in the north while a place of fire and light called Muspell lay in the south. Waves of stream from the Elivagar began to freeze into ice causing the venom to form into a frost. When the frost came into contact with the heat from Muspell the giant Ymir was born. From the congealing venomous stream came the divine cow Authumla. As there was no grass for Authumla to feed on she licked the salt frost-covered stones. One day as she licked them a man's hair was formed, the next day his head, the third day his body. He was given the name Buri. He soon had a son named Bor. Bor married Bestla, the daughter of Ymir's son Bolthorn. Their sons in turn were Odin, Vili, and Ve. From the body of Ymir, Bor's sons created the heavens and the earth in the yawning gulf between Niflheim and Muspell. From his flesh the earth was formed, from his blood the seas, from his bones the mountains, from his hair the trees, and from his skull the dome of the sky. From his eyelashes they made Mithgarth which would be the home of man. One day the sons of Bor were walking along a beach where they took two trees in which to form humans, a man and a woman. Each son gave a gift to the humans: the first soul and life, the second understanding and power of motion, and the third visage, speech, hearing and sight. (Mortensen 19-24)
There are numerous creation tales with ancient Hellenic mythologies. Most of them present a rather incomplete picture of creation as a whole. However, if the three most common are taken together they form a rather beautiful and complete tale of how the cosmos was formed. I will present the three stories as a continuous tale. In the beginning there was only night, Nyx, and the Chaos. Nyx laid a great egg from which sprang Eros, the winged god of love. Within the shell was the two beings Okeanos and Tethys. Okeanos was the great first great river and he took his sister Tethys as his wife. They were the first being to act on love. It was through their mating that Gaia was created. Gaia bore the sky, Ouronas. Gaia also bore the mountains and the sea, Pontos all with the aid of Eros. To Ouronas she bore Titians, the Kyklopes, and the Hekatoncheires. (Kerenyi 15-17) As for the creation of humans there are tales that there were several races of man throughout creation. And there are just as many tales of how they were created. Once tell was that the first race was purely male and took Nymphs as wives. These were seen as long-lived. It was Gia who brought about the creation of the first humans. She wanted to be the mother of loving caring intelligent being so she formed them from her body.
Tales of Divine War
Many of the Indo-European cultures feature divine wars. Some even have several among their tales. They always seem to carry the theme of the gods fighting against the baser darker raw elements of nature.
Within the Norse culture the most well known war is that of Ragnarok. This seems to be the war to end all wars. This battle is the last among the Aesir and the Jotun. During this battle many of the Norse gods are killed along with their enemies. The Nine worlds burn. It is the destruction and end of the life, man and the gods as we know it. Odin fights Fenrir, Heimdall fight Loki, Frey and Surt fight killing one another. Thor fights and destroys the Mithgarth serpent. But though all this the world arises anew from the waters of the sea. It is a time of ever lasting peace and harmony. It is filled with the gods that survived and those that are reborn. And a new generation of man, descendants of Lif and Lifthrasir, inhabit the earth.
The Hellenic has one of the most well known divine wars as well. It is between the Titians and their children who become the Hellenic Gods. In the Hellenic mythologies it says “…for fully ten years the Titans and the children of Rhea and Kronos had been at bitter war.” (Kerenyi 24) It was through the guidance of Gaia that the gods were able to defeat the Titans. After the Titans were defeated and Kronos was thrown down by Zeus, the high ruler himself was warned that he too would have his children turn upon him to throw him down. There are many other tales in Hellenic mythology about divine wars between the new gods and the children of Gaia. The youngest and perhaps one of the most powerful being born from Gaia was Typhon, the great dragon. It was Zeus, who from afar, struck down the great and terrible creature with this thunder bolt (Kerenyi 26-28). Gaia gave birth to a race of giants which she unleashed to fight the new gods. It is believed that she did this “… because the new gods had now usurped the position of the Sons of Heaven, and Gaia was always an adversary of Heaven.”
Tales of the fate of the Dead
As with all religions, past and present, the Indo-European cultures all had their very own views of what the fate of the dead. Many of them carried the same themes of a possible blessed afterlife, punishment and rebirth.
The Norse can be said to have one of the most varied and complex tales which determine the fate of the Dead. Most of what determines what happens to the dead is based on how one died, though life style did play an important role as well. The Norse did believe in a form of reincarnation of a soul or transmigration. They were called "...endrbornir, 'born again'." (Mortensen 43) The belief was that the departed could take up residences in the body of a newborn baby of a descendent especially if the child was given the name of the dead individual. As for the rest of the Norse people, it depended on 'how' you died that determined the destination of an individual's soul. Within their mythology there were three possible destinations, each very different from the other. Though from the sources I have read so far these places could be seen simply as different names for the Underworld, much like in the Hellenic culture, where all the places of the Dead were still all located in the Underworld.
- Fólkvangr - is the place in which those who have been chosen by Freya go.
- Valhalla - is the place which Odin, 'Val-fathir', gives a place for all those who have fallen in battle. The Valkyrs are the ones who choose those fallen in battle. It is believed that each day the chosen, the Einherhar awake and battle against each other. Any that are felled rise before evening. The evening is spent rejoicing and drink in Odin's Hall (Mortensen 33)
- Helheim - those who have died from old age or disease are taken to Helheim ruled by Hel.
For the Hellenics death was a time of judgment. It seems at one point it Hellenic mythology humans knew the time of their deaths "…we must put a stop to their foreknowledge of their death; for this they at present foreknow. " (Atsma) All those who passed into the afterlife where brought before three sons of Zeus, who had once been living themselves; Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aiakos. The judges and the judged were stripped naked so as to leave the trappings of the living world behind them. The place of judgment was a divided road, One road lead to the Isles of the Blest and the other to Tartaros. As Tartaros is where Zeus threw the Titans which warred against him, I cannot imagine a much worse faith for a person following the Hellenic path. When the Eleusinian Mysteries were founded there was another possibility for those that died. The cult taught that as the seed from the death plant was laid in the earth and reborn each year so was Persephone. With this came the belief that we too could go through this cycle as well and could be given a blessed afterlife if initiated into the Mysteries. (Leadbetter)
Atsma, Aaron. "Haides." 2011. Theoi Greek Mythology. 1 3 2013 <http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/Haides.html>.
Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc, 1980.
Leadbetter, Ron. "Eleusinian Mysteries." June 2002. Encyclopedia Mythica. 2 March 2013 <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/e/eleusinian_mysteries.html>.
Mortensen, Karl. A Handbook to Norse Mythology. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1913 (Translation date).