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The Significance of Fire in Norse Mythology

FIRES OF NORSELANDS – THROUGH DESTRUCTION COMES CREATION

Powerful imagery, deep creation meanings, and mundane uses but no less important to survival: the primordial element of fire is inextricably interwoven into the context of Norse mythology. Untangling the masses of Norse tales and mythology is never the easiest task. Few bodies of mythological lore have remained intact, either by neglect due to an oral folk culture or directed intent by encroaching cultures and religions. Much of what we do know today is contained in the Poetic (Elder) Eddas and the Prose (Younger) Eddas based heavily out of the Icelandic context.

Yet despite these challenged, the cultural mindset seen throughout Norse mythology bonds the primal element of fire with both the creation and destruction myths. In the destructive acts of fire come forth the greatest acts of creation. In the more epic of these, fire is the unforgiving but necessary key for ushering in new and better ages in mythological history. In the more mundane, perhaps easier to identify contexts, fire is tied to everyday life and the life cycle.

GINNUNGAGAP – THE CREATIVE

In the Norse creation myth, the cosmic event known as Ginnungagap existed before any worlds or even celestial life, before Odin and the rest of the better-known Norse pantheon comprising the Aesir and the Vanir. In general terms, Ginnungagap, a ‘well of possibilities’ was dominated by Rind Ice, ultimately cold and unforgiving even as Adhumla, the cow, nourished Ymir, the proto-being that would later lead to the lineage of Odin, Vili and Ve. From the North came the primordial cold, but from the South came embers and primordial heat, the combination of which and the actions of the three brothers – Odin, Vili and Ve – lead to the creation of the mythological world the Norse believed they inhabited.

Specific references can be found in the Poetic Edda (Voluspa) and the Prose Edda (Gylfaginning).

MUSPELL – THE CREATIVE, THE DESTRUCTIVE

Muspell was the first of the nine worlds to exist on the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil. In its creation, alongside the world of Ice, later to become an extension of Hel’s domain, Niflheim, their interactions in the Ginnungagap lead to the greater creation of the mythological cosmos.

“Just as cold and all bad things came from Niflheim, all that which came from Muspell was hot and bright, but Ginnungagap was as calm as a windless sky, and when the warm breeze met the frost, it melted and dripped. And from those drop of poison life emerged…” (Gylfaginning, Prose Edda)

However, at the end of the Norse mythological cycle, the Fire Giant (Jotun) named Surt would lead his warriors out and burn all the world of Midgard and others to cinders in Ragnarok. Therefore, the Norse World of Fire leads not only to the cosmic beginning, but also the cosmic apocalypse.

RAGNAROK – THE DESTRUCTIVE, THE CREATIVE

The reference to Ragnarok is generally known to be the Norse equivalent to ‘apocalypse’ or ‘Judgement Day’. Although that serves as an easy layman’s reference, the act of Ragnarok is not about penance or atonement for sins, but simply another cosmic cycle that emerges out of the tensions of a tired and overburdened age.

When Heimdall blows his battle horn, Gjallarhorn (Screaming Horn), Ragnarok is signaled as it begins. In Voluspa stanza 52 (Poetic Edda), “Surt travels from the south with the enemy of twigs.”

This poetic kenning refers, of course, to fire. This holds especially true for the world-tree Yggdrasil, who will be burnt to its destruction during the ensuing chaos. The demise of the Gods is followed by the desmise of their Creation. But like a forest growing out of the ashes of a grand forest fire, so will the world re-emerge, reborn again in true epic fashion. The dead god Baldr is resurrected and reconciles with his killer and brother, Hod, among other reunions. Two mortals, protected by the remnants of the world tree, will also emerge and rejuvenate the human species.

HEARTH FIRE AND HOSPITALITY

In the Poetic Edda, the “Havamal” is thought to be the collected sayings of Odin. In several, the warmth of the hearth fire in every home is thought to be a key not only to the life of one’s family, but as a bonding tool with one’s friends. For more on this, refer to Havamal, stanzas 2, 3, 4 and others as it may be implied.

In this sense, the central hearth of any home, providing essential heat for life, was the original center of family and social life in Norse traditions.

FUNERAL PYRES

Likewise, as the hearth fire provided during life, the funeral pyre was a common death ritual in many of the Nordic, Germanic, and proto-Germanic tribes. It should be noted, however, that many other cultures connected by elements of the Norse mythological traditions, preferred burial mounds. Mythological references to both can be found in the funeral pyre for the dead god Baldr and the grave mounds near where Odin sacrificed himself to gain the knowledge of the Runes.

RUNIC DUALITY – KENAZ AND ISA

Following that, the subject of the Runes is one open to more interpretation than most. As such, a brief overview of the subject is needed, but without much discussion of the metaphysical or – in some traditions – magical references to the various families of Norse runes. Two runes are common in the three dominant rune families (the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark, and the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc). The Elder Futhark refers to the rune representing fire as “Kenaz,” often associated with the image of a torch. It does, however, have its opposite in the ice rune “Isa”, located several places after Kenaz. Depending on how much stock one puts in the common ordering of the Runes, Hagalaz (destructive hail, made from life-giving water) is located almost exactly between the two, again reinforcing the dual natures of both Fire and Ice, and their equal capacities for Creation and Destruction when combined.

IN CONCLUSION

This complete cycle in the Norse mythological tradition shows fire to be the critical element in both the primal creative and destructive forces of its cosmos. Further, the element of Fire plays heavily to the mundane and supernatural aspects of Norse life and cultural tradition. What can be gleaned from the lore all points back at the vast significance of Fire in Norse Mythology.