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The Llewellyn Encyclopedia

The Northern Tradition

This article was written by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke on November 30, -0001
posted under Northern Tradition

The climate of the Northern world is mostly cold and wintery, and the land is rugged and more demanding than comfortably beneficent. Survival requires knowledge and planning, and strategy for survival. It necessitates protection against the harsh winters, against predatory animals like wolves and bears, and likewise protection against marauders both from nearby tribes and invaders coming from more distant cultures.

The Northern landscape is one of “Fire and Ice” – some of it frozen much of the year; some of it with active volcanoes and hot springs; much of it has mountains and long, rugged coasts with many rivers and deep valleys. While there were hunters and farmers, it was fishermen who characterized the culture. The people became seafarers of necessity, building large seaworthy vessels which they learned to navigate across great distances beyond visible land. In addition to fishing, they became marauders and then pirates. And they became explorers pushing the boundaries of their known world to establish colonies in Iceland, Greenland, and then “Vineland,” the outpost in North America that did not survive into modern times. 

Families were mostly clustered into small communities, often isolated from one another during the long winters. The long winters required careful preservation of food and fuel, and defense against attacks from those in need.

It is against this backdrop that the Northern Creation myth developed and from which the Runes come alive in a reading and deliver meaningful interpretations today.

It is said in that in the beginning was nothing, only a great void of chaotic forces known as Ginnungagap. Then a land of darkness, cold, mist and ice appeared in the north called Niflheim, and in the south a land of fire, Muspellsheim. Twelve frigid rivers flowing from the north merged in Ginnungagap with rivers of fire and light from the south, creating Eiter - the fundamental substance that is the source of all life. From Eiter there arose the first being, the Frost Giant Ymir, a hermaphrodite giant in human shape, and Audhumla, the great cow, whose milk fed Ymir. From the sweat of Ymir's armpits came a son and daughter and from his legs came another son. Thus was born the race of evil frost giants.

Audhumla licked ice for sustenance and one day some hair emerged, the next day a head, and on the third day Buri emerged, fully formed. Buri, the primal precursor of man with neither father nor mother, self-begot a son, Borr, who married Bestla, daughter of the frost giant Boltha and produced the first of the Norse race of gods, Odin and his sons, Ve, and Villi.

These three gods together slew the terrible Ymir from whose body emerged a great sea of blood in which most of the giants drowned. The two survivors perpetuated the race of giants who became the constant enemies of the gods.

From Ymir's dead body the gods made the Midgard, the earth. His bones became mountains, his hair trees, and his brains were strewn into the sky to become clouds. His flesh became dirt, and the maggots feasting on his decaying flesh became the race of dwarves living beneath the earth. Four great dwarves - Norori in the north, Suori in the south, Austri to the east and Vestri to the west - hold up Ymir’s skull to create the heavens. From the region of fire the gods took sparks to create the sun and moon, and the stars and planets. Then the gods created the first true man and woman, Ask and Embla, from an ash tree and a vine.

From the earth grew Yggdrasil, the great World Tree (an ash) that reaches through all time and space and whose branches support the universe, dividing heaven and earth. Yggdrasil has three roots which support Asgard, home of the gods; Jotunheim, land of the giants; and Niflheim, world of the dead.

In Niflheim there is the fountain called Hvergelmir from which flow twelve northern rivers. Hvergelmir nourished the poisonous snake, Nidhogge, who gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil.  In Jotunheim is the fountain called Mimir, in whose sacred waters all the wisdom of the universe flows. In Asgard there is the fountain called Urda, a holy well where sit the three Norns, or fates —Urda, ruling the past; Verdandi, ruling the present; and Skuld, ruling the future. These three goddesses control the fate of men and of the gods, and are the source of strife from which arise the needs for divination and magic, and religion.


The gods established the days and the nights, and the seasons. The sun, Sol, daughter of Mundilfari and wife of Glen, daily rides through the sky in her chariot pulled by the two horses, Arvakr and Alxvior. Sol is forever chased by Skoll, the wolf who will eventually catch her and bring the world to its end.  The moon, Mani, Sol’s brother is also chased by a wolf, Hati Hroovitnisson. When these wolves finally catch and destroy the sun and moon, the world will end in Ragnarok, only to be born anew.

The first man and woman received the gifts of sight, hearing, and intelligence from Ve and Villi. This was the beginning of the race of men who dwelled in Midgard, their fortress made secure from the evil giants by a great wall built from Ymir’s great eyebrows. Around Midgard is an ocean where the serpent named Jormungand formed a ring around Midgard by putting his tail in his mouth.

Subsequent to their creation, men and gods struggle against evil forces, constantly striving to rid the world of corruption and cruelty. While never fully successful, they continue to persevere, demonstrating the heroism and valor characteristic of Norse and Germanic culture, and of all mankind that continues to this day. 

Odin – first of the gods - is the ruler of nature’s forces through his magical skills and his knowledge of all secret things. It was Odin who sacrificed one eye at the fountain of Mimir to gain wisdom and thus became the wise lawgiver and eloquent speaker. He carries the dwarf-forged magic spear, Gungnir, which always finds its mark. Odin’s heavenly palace is called Valhalla where he presides over the heroes who fall in earthly battles. He walked the earth guised as road-stained traveler wearing a cloak and a broad brimmed hat pulled low, hiding his empty eye socket. Two guardian wolves run at his. Two crows fly before him to spy ahead.

In this creation myth we first see two opposing forces coming from opposite directions, and then their synthesis in the center. It was this that established the two basic principles of Duality and Trinity that we will see permeate every aspect of the Northern Tradition. Later, in the three families of the Runes will see this same conflict between inner and outer forces, and then their synthesis in third family. Such is the nature of the cosmos and the psyche – opposition and then synthesis – repeated again and again in higher levels of growth and development, of evolution and progress.

All the world’s early traditions, subsequent to the original creative myth, became polytheistic with the gods representing the creative – and hence magical – forces within nature and man. And even when the Church suppressed the pagan traditions, many of the gods survived as angels and saints.

Source: Slate, J. & Weschcke, C.: The Llewellyn Complete Book of Psychic Empowerment – Tools & Techniques, 2011, Llewellyn.


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