Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives

  Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt, eds., with Amber J. Rose. 2017. Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HermannP_etal_eds.Old_Norse_Mythology.2017.

Ymir in India, China—and Beyond

Michael Witzel, Harvard University

Abstract: In examining the Old Norse mythological creation story about Ymir, that is, the creation of the world from the body of a primordial giant, from a broadly comparative perspective, this essay refers to a variety of creation myths, some from Indo-European and some from Chinese and Polynesian mythologies, and argues that a “Laurasian myth” entailed the origin of the world from a pre-existing giant, a myth, the author contends, with roots in Stone Age hunting cultures.


In this paper, I partially employ the new theory of historical and comparative mythology that leads to increasingly earlier reconstructions of mythological systems, as laid out in my recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (2012). My premise is that earlier forms of myths, especially those of Eurasia and the Americas, can be compared and successfully reconstructed, resulting in a unique story line from the beginning of the world to its end. Here I will use as an example of this theory the myths of Ymir, Puruṣa and Pangu.

The myth about a primordial giant forms part of the creation myths, or as we should rather say, in non-Judaeo-Christian terms: emergence myths. That of the giant is found from Iceland to Southern China and beyond. It stands somewhat apart among the more common myths of a primordial Nothing, Chaos, Darkness or Water. As such, it can perhaps lay claim to what Dumézil called a bizarrerie, a feature that does not make much sense in the narrative in which it is found, but as it turns out, goes back to a much older layer of myths.

In this myth, the primordial giant was in existence before the world emerged: he was somehow killed and carved up, and his various body parts became the origin of heaven and earth and even of humans.

The well-known prototype is the Germanic Ymir, who is slain, and from his skull heaven is made; from his bones, the mountains; and so on. In the parallel version of Old India, it is puruṣa (man) from whose body the various parts of heaven and earth are created, including humans (Ṛgveda 10.90). In Old China, there is the quite similar myth of Pangu (P’an ku), which seems to derive, not from the Han people of Northern China but from the Austric populations in what is now Southern China. [1]

Prima facie, the three major myths referred to, those of Pangu, Puruṣa and Ymir, have no connection with each other, as they are located in very distant regions and at various equally distant time periods: the Chinese case is attested in the last few centuries BCE, the Indian one is found in a text composed a few hundred years earlier (around 1000 BCE), and the Icelandic one more than 2000 years later, while many thousand miles separate their respective places of origin.



The Prose Edda offers an extensive version, highlights of which include:

Svá sem segir í Vǫluspá: Ár var alda […] gap var ginnunga, en gras ekki […] Svá sem kalt stóð af Niflheimi ok allir hlutir grimmir, svá var allt þat, er vissi námunda Múspelli heitt ok ljóst, en Ginnungagap var svá hlætt sem lopt vindlaust. Ok þá er mœttisk hrímin ok blær hitans svá at bráðnaði ok draup, ok af þeim kvikudropum kviknaði með krapti þess er til sendi hitann, ok varð manns líkandi, ok var sá nefndr Ymir […] Hann er illr ok allir hans ættmenn. Þá kǫllum vér hrímþursa.

(As it says in Voluspa: It was at the beginning of time […] The mighty gap was, but no growth […] Just as from Niflheim there arose coldness and all things grim, so what was facing Muspell was hot and bright, but Ginnungagap was as mild as a windless sky. And where the rime and the blowing of the warmth met so that it thawed and dripped, there was a quickening from these flowing drops and due to the power of the source of the heat it became the form of a man, and he was given the name of Ymir […] He was evil and all his descendants. We call them frost-giants.)

Næst var þat, þá er hrímit draup, at þar varð af kýr sú er Auðhumla hét, en fjórar mjólkár runnu ór spenum hennar, ok fœddi hon Ymi […] Hon sleikði hrímsteinana […] þriðja dag var þar allr maðr. Sá er nefndr Búri […] Synir Bors drápu Ymi jǫtun.

(The next thing when rime dripped was that that there came into being from it a cow called Audhumla, and four rivers of milk flowed from its teats, and it fed Ymir […] It licked the rime-stones […] the third day a complete man was there. His name was Buri. He begot a son called Bor […] Bor’s sons killed the giant Ymir.)

En er hann fell, þá hljóp svá mikit blóð ór sárum hans at með því drektu þeir allri ætt hrímþursa, nema einn komst undan með sínu hýski. Þann kalla jǫtnar Bergelmi.

(And when he fell, so much blood flowed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of the frost-giants, except that one escaped with his household. Giants call him Bergelmir.)

Þeir tóku Ymi ok fluttu í mitt Ginnungagap ok gerðu af honum jǫrðina, af blóði hans sæinn ok vǫtnin. Jǫrðin var ger af holdinu, en bjǫrgin af beinunum. Grjót ok urðir gerðu þeir af tǫnnum ok jǫxlum ok af þeim beinum, er brotin váru.

(They [Bor’s sons] took Ymir and transported him to the middle of Ginnungagap, and out of him made the earth, out of his blood the sea and the lakes. The earth was made of the flesh and the rocks of the bones, stone and scree they made out of the teeth and molars and of the bones that had been broken.)

Tóku þeir ok haus hans ok gerðu þar af himin ok settu hann upp yfir jǫrðina með fjórum skautum.

(They also took his skull and made out of it the sky and set it up over the earth with four points.)

Þá tóku þeir síur ok gneista þá er lausir fóru ok kastat hafði ór Múspellsheimi, ok settu á miðjan Ginnungahimin bæði ofan ok neðan til at lýsa himin ok jǫrð.

(Then they took the molten particles and sparks that were flying uncontrolled and had shot out of the world of Muspell and set them in the middle of the firmament of the sky both above and below to illuminate heaven and earth.)

Þeir tóku ok heila hans ok kǫstuðu í lopt ok gerðu af skýin.

Vǫluspá 3–4, 19 in the Poetic Edda has this shorter version:

Descent of Ymir/Yama

A short excursus should be added here: in Norse myth, Ymir is one of the primordial beings, and the father of the giants (Prose Edda) and contemporaneous with Óðinn and his brothers, thus deities of the current era.

The ancestry of Ymir’s linguistic counterpart in India and Iran, Yama/Yima, however differs. Indo-Iranian *Yama means “twin” and indeed he has a twin sister, Yamī. In the Ṛgveda, Yamī tries to seduce Yima to produce children, but he refuses. In Iran, however, brother-sister incest (Avestan, xvaētuuadaϑa) was sanctioned and common down to the Arab conquest in 650 CE. In India, thus, early humans had to be created in another fashion.

Another brother of Yama, Manu, became the ancestor of humans (just as Tacitus’ Mannus is for the western Germanic tribes). As no other female but his sister Yamī was around then, Manu had to fashion his wife out of clarified butter (ghee). As the myth says, when she walks you still can see butter in her footsteps. Subsequently, Yama becomes the king of the netherworld and departed humans, while his Iranian counterpart, Yima, is killed (sawn into two!) by his brother Spitiiura.

Nuristani and Mediterranean reminiscences

In the Hebrew Bible, the myth of Cain and Abel may be compared, though occurring in a different context, that of offerings to Jehovah. Abel was a shepherd, Cain a farmer; Jehovah preferred the animal sacrifice, hence Cain killed his rival brother Abel (Genesis 4).

A similar contest is seen between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25). Esau was a skillful hunter, while Jacob “dwelt in tents”, apparently as a herder. Once, coming home rather hungry, Esau asked Jacob to feed him but the latter agreed only if Esau handed him his birthright as firstborn, which was what occurred.


Austronesian Polynesia

Another version, involving the primordial deity, Io, [33] has the following account:

In still another version, the Tahiti creator god is Ta’aroa (Maori Tangaroa, Takaroa; Hawai’ian Kanaloa). [

Ta’aroa […] was his own parent, having no father or mother […] Ta’aroa sat in his shell (pa’a) in darkness (te po) for […] ages […] The shell was like an egg revolving in endless space, with no sky, no land, no sea, no moons, no sun, no stars. All was darkness […]

But at last Ta’aroa […] caused a crack […] Then he slipped out and stood upon his shell […] he took his new shell for the great foundation of the world, […] And the shell […] that he opened first, became his house, the dome of the god’s sky, […] enclosing the world (ao) then forming […]

Related are the (Austric) Borneo and Filipino myths of the origin of animals from different parts of the body of a slain giant. [

Differing, however, from the other Eurasian myths, the various parts of Izanami’s or Izanagi’s body do not become parts of the universe. In fact, most of the constituent parts of the universe, in particular, all the islands of Japan, as well as many deities of the sea, the waters and rivers, the wind, the mountains, the plains, the land, and so on, had already been born by Izanami.

Connections between India and South China?

It is interesting to note that such similarities, except for Puruṣa/Pangu, are not found in the oldest Indian texts but first come up only in a late layer of the Vedas, and subsequently in Epic and Puranic texts: they “bubble” up from the local substrate and get officially accepted only after many centuries.

While this is an interesting line of speculation that would have to be substantiated by future research, I must leave it at that here.

Hittite and East Asian tales of rocks


Hypothetical connections between Southwest China and North India apart, we have widely scattered evidence of the myth of a primordial giant, whether it was locally conceived as made of stone (Anatolia/Caucasus) or emerging from chaos (Ymir, Puruṣa) or from a primordial egg (Polynesia/China).

Works cited

Primary sources

Grímnismál: see Poetic Edda

Poetic Edda

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The Poetic Edda. Transl. Carolyne Larrington. 2nd ed. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: 2014.

Snorra Edda

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Prologue and Gylfaginning. 2nd ed. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: 2005.


Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Transl. Anthony Faulkes. London: 1995.

Vǫluspá: see Poetic Edda

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[ back ] 1. Austric refers to a large language family that includes Austroasiatic in India, S.W. China and S.E. Asia as well as Austronesian that spread out of Taiwan to the Philippines, Indonesia, Madagascar and to all of Polynesia. For the Chinese myth, see Aston [1896] 1972: 33n2; Mathieu 1989. Recently, a Chinese version of a continuous creation myth has been published: Hu Chongjun, (2002; cf. China Daily, Wednesday, April 3, 2002, p. 9). This looks like an artificial compilation, intended to provide China with a “creation myth”, which it is lacking; we only have fragments, adapted to the rationalistic, Euhemeristic Confucian tradition. On the oldest Chinese myths, cf. David Hawkes, quoted in Barrett 1995: 72 f.: “to arrive at some archetypal Ur-myth is a waste of time. The Eocene Age of myth is unknowable […] as we work backwards […] we find an even greater number of groups and […] diversity”. However, for methods to address this welcome diversity, see Witzel 2012: §2.3, and cf. Birrell 1993: 18, 22, for reconstructing older forms of Chinese myths. For major sources of Chinese myth, see Yang and An 2005: 4 ff.

[ back ] 2. Cf. the discussion by Baumann 1986: 144 ff.

[ back ] 3. A rather vague, little mentioned group of deities, apparently the ancestors of the current gods; see Kuiper 1978, appendix.

[ back ] 4. Derived from viś “the people”. The tripartite division reflects the Indo-European social set-up, see Benveniste 1969: 65–79; and many works by G. Dumézil, beginning in 1934, such as 1939, 1959.

[ back ] 5. Two of the most prominent Vedic deities.

[ back ] 6. For a discussion of Germanic myths about creation, see Puhvel 1987: 219.

[ back ] 7. Who was to be dismembered like the Indian puruṣa.

[ back ] 8. Faulkes 1995: 9–11; Snorra edda pp. 9–11.

[ back ] 9. Burs synir (literally, “Burr’s sons”) refers to the gods, Óðinn, Vili, and Vé.

[ back ] 10. The earth of human beings, other than Ásgarðr (Asgard), of the gods, and the world of the giants.

[ back ] 11. Literally, “Óðinn’s (Odin’s) horse”; Óðinn hung himself in its branches for nine days to receive universal wisdom; cf. below.

[ back ] 12. Transl. Larrington 2014; cf. Orchard 2011. Urðar brunnr (Urd’s well) is said by Snorri to lie under one of the three roots of Yggdrasill, but as Old Norse urðr means “fate”, Urðar brunnr can also be translated as “the well of fate”. Urðr, one of the three norns, is almost always mentioned in association with the well.

[ back ] 13. Larrington 2014: 4 ff.; Orchard 2011: 57.; cf. Witzel 2012: 109n28. Linguistically, Ymir = Old Indian (Vedic) Yama, the brother of Manu, ancestor of all humans; see Witzel 2012: 119, n. 115; cf. Thompson 1993: Motifs A961.4. Mountains spring from scattered parts of slain giant serpent’s body, India; A961.5. Mountains (cliffs) from bones of killed giant, Iceland.

[ back ] 14. For the description of the “canonical creature” visible in this myth, in sorcery (Merseburg sorcery stanzas, Atharvaveda, etc.) and also elsewhere, see Watkins 1995. For the Indo-European narrative structure of the sorcery stanzas, see Thieme 1971: 202–12: a mythological narration or poem is followed by the actual spell; details in Witzel 1987.

[ back ] 15. Nine is the typical number of North Asian shamanism, although some have compared Óðinn’s self-sacrifice with that of Christ, which was well known in Iceland by then.

[ back ] 16. For other Indo-European parallels (Russian, Greek, etc.), see Lincoln 1986: 1 ff.

[ back ] 17. Tree origin would be another one of Dumézil’s “bizarreries”. The origin of humans from trees is otherwise very rare and mostly restricted to the “southerm” (Gondwana) mythologies of sub-Saharan Africa (Baumann 1936) and Sahul Land (New Guinea-Australia); see Witzel 2012: 335 f.

[ back ] 18. Thompson 1993: Motifs A642.1. Primeval woman cut in pieces: houses, etc., made from her body, India; A1724.1; A1724.1. Animals from body of slain person, India; however, note A969.1. Mountain from buried giant, India; A1716.1. cf. also the initial section of the Finnish Kalevala (Witzel 2004).

[ back ] 19. See Stein, Rājataraṅgiṇī 3.336–58, cf. 1.159, for Yakṣa dikes.

[ back ] 20. See Witzel 2004, based on accounts of G. Buddruss (field work 1955–1956, 2002) and Jettmar (1986).

[ back ] 21. See Dumézil 1995: 289 ff.; Puhvel 1987: 287–89.

[ back ] 22. Apparently Yama and Yima had committed some evil action. Yama became the Lord of the Netherworld and the dead and Yima that of a similar underworld palace (Vara).

[ back ] 23. Philippi 1968: 148 compares the tale to others in Indonesia, the Marshall Islands, and the American Pacific Northwest.

[ back ] 24. Jacobsen 1976: 181.

[ back ] 25. Austro-Tai is a hypothetical S.E. Asian language family that, other than Austric (see above n. 2), includes Austronesian and the Tai-Kadai languages (such as Thai, Shan, etc.). Benedict 1990 even wants to include (what at best can be called a substrate of) Japanese. For the myth see Mathieu 1989.

[ back ] 26. See Münke 1976: 254 f.; Yang and An 2005: 75, 176 ff.

[ back ] 27. Note another translation of a similar text dating from the third century CE, taken from San Wu li chi (“Three kings and five emperors”) by Hsü Chen, in Mair 1998: 14; cf. Yang and An 2005: 65.

[ back ] 28. Note the concept of four real oceans, situated in the four cardinal directions; all four could, of course, not have been known at the time of the composition of this myth. Cf. the “eastern, western, and northern(!) sea” in landlocked Vedic India (Atharvaveda 11.5.6).

[ back ] 29. Note that Pangu’s left eye became the sun, and his right eye, the moon. (One would expect the opposite as the right side / hand is usually preferred). In Japan, too, the sun deity originated from the left eye of Izanagi; cf. Naumann 1988: 65.

[ back ] 30. Sproul 1991: 201–2 (retold from Mackenzie 1925: 260 f., 247 f.); for a similar text by Hsü Cheng, Wu yün li-nien chi (“A chronicle of five cycles of time”), see Mair 1998: 15. Cf. also Mathieu 1989 for similar versions from the Yiwen leiju and Yishi, both referring back to the Sanwu liji of the third century BCE.

[ back ] 31. For connections between Indian myths and those of Austric and some East Asian populations, see Sergent 1997: 369–96; for a brief linguistic overview of these areas, including putative homelands, see van Driem 2006.

[ back ] 32. See Tregear 1969: 391. Note that the Pueblo-area myth of the Zuni Amerindians is quite similar, also as regards the separation of Father Heaven and Mother Earth; see Eliade 1992: 130 ff.

[ back ] 33. Io as primordial deity has been controversially discussed, see J. Z. Smith 1982 who believes that Io has been invented at the end of the nineteenth century under missionary influence; however, it is typical that esoteric deities are known only to small groups of priests. (Note early Japan for the primordial pair Kamurogi/Kamuromi that appears not even in the official, imperial Kojiki myths but only in some archaic Shintō prayers). Cf. the discussion in Witzel 2012: 126–27; 131n213.

[ back ] 34. Cf. the Biblical and Maya myths, but note the old poetical style of this passage which excludes missionary influences. Stress on various types of darkness is also found in Maori myths; see Witzel 2012: 109 ff.

[ back ] 35. Translation from Sproul 1991: 345, quoting Hare Hongi’s A Maori Cosmology. Hare Hongi was a prominent Maori priest at the turn of the 20th century (accused by Z. J. Smith of myth forgery; see above n. 33).

[ back ] 36. This version was reliably recorded twice between 1848 and 1922; Eliade 1992: 88; cf. Sproul 1991: 249 ff.

[ back ] 37. Thompson 1993: Motif A1716.1. Animals from different parts of body of slain giant. Giant person, cow, ox, etc., Borneo, Philippines: Dixon 177.

[ back ] 38. In the Veda, Mātariśvan “swelling inside the mother”, is a secret name of the fire deity, Agni. Note that Agni is born three times: in heaven, on earth (in ritual), and in the waters, Ṛgveda 3.20.11, 10.45.1; (sometimes he also is found garbho rodasyoḥ, “in the earth”). There are several fire gods in Japan: the one mentioned above and then others born from the decaying body of Izanami. The first fire god is killed by Izanagi in revenge for burning her (cf. Agni’s repeated death, explained in Vedic texts as burning up in ritual). Izanami’s burn injuries and subsequent death could then reflect the ritual production of fire by drilling it (as is still done at important Shintō and Vedic rituals).

[ back ] 39. This is somewhat reminiscent, as Japanese mythologists have pointed out, of the myth of Hainuwele, “Coconut branch”, (in Ceram, New Guinea); cf. Eliade 1992: 18. This myth has been studied in detail by Jensen 1979, no. 11 sqq, 1948: 113 f.: Hainuwele had grown from a coconut tree, furthered by the blood from the wound of a man, and quickly grew into a woman; she was killed by local people during the great maro festival (cf. Campbell 1989: II.1: 70 ff.) and buried in pieces; from her several graves grew various plants, especially tubers. Her arms were made into a gate: all men who could pass through it remained human; those who could not, became various animals or spirits.

[ back ] 40. Cf. also above on Rome (Remus).

[ back ] 41. See Sergent 1997.

[ back ] 42. Cf. also Sergent 1997. For more on the gourd origins of Mahābhārata heroes see Berger 1959.

[ back ] 43. Cf. Sergent 1997, Witzel 2012: 230.

[ back ] 44. The Hatti were a pre-existing local population in the Hittite realm, from which the Hittites took over many myths and rituals: some of them are transmitted in Hatti language in Hittite documents. The Hurrites originally stemmed from the Caucasus area, and are related to the Urartu people; they became the southern neighbors of the Hittites in Northern Syria/Iraq and influenced them as well.

[ back ] 45. Colarusso 2006: 32; Gurney 1976: 192; Haas 1982; Puhvel 1987: 25 f.

[ back ] 46. Personal observation in Austronesian T’aitung, Taiwan 2005. See Thompson 1993, Motif A644. Universe from pre-existing rocks. Originally rocks are assumed, and everything is made from them. Samoa: Dixon 17.

[ back ] 47. Personal observation, February 1990. On the other side of the valley there is another rock, with a vulva-like cavity; it represents Izanagi’s wife, Izanami.

[ back ] 48. Chang 1983: 10, and Bodde 1961: 399.

[ back ] 49. Chang 1983: 10. Note the role of the bear as ultimate ancestor in Korean myth, at the mythical time of c. 2500 BCE, described in Samguk Yusa.

[ back ] 50. See now D. Anthony and D. Ringe 2015.

[ back ] 51. Heine-Geldern 1951.

[ back ] 52. For the terms, see above and Witzel 2012: 4–5, and passim.

[ back ] 53. There even is a slight chance that the myth may already have been a Neanderthal one (if they had speech, as it seems possible now): bear offerings, head separated, are widely found (though some have been explained as accidental, due to flooding in caves); for illustrations, see Campbell 1988: I.1: 54 ff. Also, a Stone Age bear figure, with head still attached, has been found at Montespan (Campbell 1988: I.1: 62), as well as a bear skull, clearly in an early Homo Sapiens context, on an “altar” in the undisturbed Chauvet Cave (Southwest France) that is to be dated at 32,000 years ago.

[ back ] 54. See the pictorial evidence in Campbell 1988: I.2: 152 ff.; cf. Ōbayashi and Klaproth 1966 for Sakhalin Island.

[ back ] 55. For the Vedic customs, see Witzel 1987; cf. the tale of Þórr’s ram whose body is reconstituted from his bones, and similarly the role of astuuant (bone having [life]) in Zoroastrian texts (Avesta). Note also the Achaemenid-period rebirth of humans from their graves referred to in the Hebrew Bible (Daniel 12.2). See further Thompson 1993, Motifs A1724.1. Animals from body of slain person, India; A2001. Insects from body of slain monster; A2611.3. Coconut tree from head of slain monster; E610. Reincarnation as animal; E613.0.5. Severed heads of monster become birds. In general, for animal killing in hunting and later societies, see Burkert 1983 [1972], 2001.

[ back ] 56. Thompson 1993: Motifs A642. Universe from body of slain giant. Ymir; see A621.1. Iceland; A831.2. Earth from giant’s body (Ymir [cf. A614.1]), Iceland, India.

[ back ] 57. Being older than food producing societies, however, they do not represent archaic horticultural/agricultural mythology (going back some 8–10,000 years), such as seen in the Melanesian Hainuwele myth; see Hatt 1951; Jensen 1968; cf. Lincoln 1986: 173n1.