Ginnungagap – or – The Blank Page

Before there is something, there isn’t quite nothing, because there is always the possibility of something. This is the blank page, empty but waiting to be filled. In Norse mythology, the blank page that waited to be filled was known as Ginnungagap.

photo-1433086981895-12ca61d33d40Ginnungagap is the yawning chasm, the bottomless abyss, the primordial void. It wasn’t exactly empty. Strange mists flowed through the void. In the north, the mists gathered to become the intensely cold Niflheim. To the hot south, they became Muspelheim, land of fire and home to the demon, Surtr.

Deep within the mists lay the Well of Life, Hvergalmir, and ice was gathering over top. That grinding ice was filled with life and the first two beings came into existence. Ymir, father of all ice giants, great and terrible, was created alongside Audumla, the magic cow who licked the salt from the ice and in turn fed Ymir with her milk.

While Ymir drank from Audumla, the magic cow’s raspy tongue uncovered more beings from the ice. The first one to be released was Buri, first of the Norse gods and grandfather to Odin, who with his brothers would slay Ymir.

As time went on, the world tree was planted and the broken body of Ymir was used to craft the nine worlds of Norse cosmology, and the chaos of Ginnungagap found structure. Though in the final battle of Ragnarök, the fire demon, Surtr, will return the cosmos to a state of possibility, we can enjoy life today.

In writing, or any creative endeavor, we know this cycle well. In the beginning, we have little more than possibilities and a blank page. But as the mists swirl over our creative well, the ideas take shape and we give them life. To one end of our mind, we are tempted to burn what we have created and to the other extreme we want to lock it in a drawer and freeze it in time. But if we can find the balance to let the well do its job, we l’ll have a project worth crafting.

At first, our idea is a monster, a father of ice giants. But along with our Ymir, we have a magic cow slowing licking our good ideas to life. In time, those good ideas will triumph over the bad ones, allowing us to build a world from Ymir’s bones, skull-cap, and eyebrows (seriously, Odin and his brothers used every part to create our world), and a better story comes to life.

It all starts with a blank page, with Ginnungagap.

Next time, we’ll look at how to protect our creations during the final battle of Ragnarök, or as it is known to writers, the submissions process.

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Your Writing & Tyr’s Sacrifice

What are you willing to give up for your writing?

In Norse mythology, there’s this story about Tyr, the god of war. The story actually starts with Loki, a recognizable name due to Marvel’s Thor and Avengers films, but the historic Loki was far more devilish than Tom Hiddleston’s onscreen version.

In the myths, Loki was a distant cousin turned blood-brother of Odin, the head of the Norse pantheon, and in the early days of the world, they would travel and have adventures together. But one day, Loki’s true nature reveals itself and he elopes with a giantess named Angrboda (literally “She Who Bodes Anguish”), leading to the birth of three monster babies: Hel, a half-dead witch who is placed in charge of the underworld; Jormungand, a sea-serpent large enough to encircle the earth; and Fenrir, a wolf that frightens even the most powerful gods of Asgard.

Once Hel and Jormungand are dispatched, the gods of Asgard decide they need to do something about Fenrir, but only Tyr, the god of war, is brave enough to go near the beast. In an effort to contain Fenrir, the gods challenge the wolf to be bound by a series of chains in order to show off his strength. Fenrir easily breaks all chains but the last one, Gleipnir, which was forged with magic by the dwarfs of Svartalfheim with incredibly rare ingredients (the beard of a woman, the sound of a cat’s footsteps, the breath of a fish, and so on).

tyr_and_fenrir-john_bauerBut when Tyr approached Fenrir with Gleipnir, the wolf smelled a ruse. So before he agreed to be bound with the magic chain, Fenrir demanded that one of the gods place a hand in his mouth as a measure of goodwill. If the god in question breaks the wolf’s trust and truly binds him instead of merely testing his strength, then that god loses his hand. And in the time when these myths were told, it was equally dishonorable to be an oath-breaker as it was to be maimed.

For Tyr, the safety of all of Asgard was at stake, so he bravely volunteered, knowing that it would cost him his hand and he would be dishonored in the process. Thus it was that the Norse god of war lost his sword hand, but Asgard was kept safe until the final battle of Ragnarok.

As writers, we are gods of war against the blank page, fighting with our words to bind our story into a safe and marketable form. But if we want to make use of our magical chains, we need to be willing to make some sacrifices. Tyr risked shame and the loss of his hand to bind Fenrir. What are you going to give up in order to get your story into shape?

Unfortunately, sacrifices are never easy. We often have to give up good things in the pursuit of something better. Just like Tyr was the only Norse god who could handle Fenrir, you are the only one who can write your book. So stick your hand in the mouth of the beast and don’t look back until you’ve chained yourself a completed manuscript!
Bio: Josh Mosey is an avid fan of Norse mythology and a member of the Weaklings writer’s group which organizes the Jot writers conference. Come see Josh’s presentation “Write Like a Viking: Fiction Writing Tips from the Norse Gods” at the Breathe Conference on Saturday afternoon.

When Viking Gods & Christmas Mix: The Norse Mistletoe Origin

My family decorated our home for Christmas the other night, and my eldest daughter was puzzled when I handed her our Mistletoe holder.

“What is this?” she asked.

“That is mistletoe,” I responded. “And it’s a Christmas tradition to kiss people beneath it.”

“Why?” she asked.

And this is what I told her:

The vikings used to tell stories about their gods and heroes. The most popular god of all time was Baldur.

When Baldur began having troubling dreams about his mortality, his mother went to every living creature and asked them to never hurt her son. All of creation loved Baldur and agreed at once. But Baldur’s mom forgot to ask the mistletoe.

The Death of Baldur from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript.

The Death of Baldur from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript.

Being (nearly) invincible, it became a fun sport to lob axes, knives, and arrows at Baldur. He would laugh off each blow as none of it hurt him in the least.

In time, Baldur’s only real enemy, Loki, discovered his weakness. And so he crafted an arrow made of mistletoe and tricked Baldur’s blind brother Hodur into shooting at Baldur. The arrow killed the hero and mistletoe became a reminder to show love while we are alive, because no one lives forever.

There’s a lot more to the story about how the gods petitioned the keeper of Helheim (the world of the dead) to return Baldur to life and how Loki thwarted that plan too, but the part about the mistletoe ends there.

So what does this have to do with Christmas and kissing? I like to think that the mistletoe tradition was rolled into Christmas celebrations because of the similarity of their intent. Christmas, like the message of the Baldur’s mistletoe story, is a time to celebrate life. Christians are specifically celebrating the gift of Christ whose death brought life everlasting, but as this gift can only be accepted by the living, the same sense of urgency and awareness of mortality exists within both narratives.

I hope this new knowledge helps you appreciate the mistletoe a little more this year. Now get out there and greet each other with holy kisses!

Book Review | Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong & M. A. Marr

9780316204972Fresh off my reading high of Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green, I was eager to dive into Loki’s Wolves, a middle grade adventure in the vein of Percy Jackson, but informed by the Norse mythology of which I am so fond.

Norse eschatology (the study of the end times) consists of the final battle between the Aesir (Odin, Thor, and family) and the evil race of Giants (aided by Loki and his children) called Ragnarök. Unlike most other religions, the gods of the north are killed in the battle.

In Loki’s Wolves, the gods of north are already long dead, but their descendents still walk the earth and must assume their role at Ragnarök. When thirteen-year-old Matt Thorsen first discovers that he is the human embodiment of Thor, he is happy if a bit overwhelmed. But when he remembers that Thor must die in the final battle–and that his grandfather is supportive of his death–he embarks on a plan to change the legend.

Is it possible to stop the Fimbulwinter and the end of all life without making the ultimate sacrifice himself?

The problem is that in order to change his destiny, Matt must rally the other human heirs of the gods to his cause, and the children of Loki can be a bit wolfish at times.

Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong & M. A. Marr is a quick read that focuses on the tension between family expectations and the bonds of friendship. It was a refreshing twist on Norse mythology that teaches as well as it entertains. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to fans of the other “gods-re-imagined-as-teenagers” books that are out there.

Parents should know that by its nature, threads of violence run throughout this book. All the same, I don’t feel that violence was glorified as the solution to problems. Rather, even the representative of Thor–a god who never had qualms with using his hammer to start or end a fight–seeks alternatives to violence when they are available.

The story continues in the next installment of The Blackwell Pages, Odin’s Ravens, which is also available now (and is next on my reading list).