Animals and Order in Scandinavian Mythology by Andrew Hart
May 7, 2008, 4:58 am
Filed under: mythology

A KЛИHOM original

From ravenous wolves sitting by Odin’s side to golden-bristled boars carrying Frey into battle, animals are ubiquitous to Scandinavian mythology. But there is a major dichotomy in the types of animals found in the Eddas. On one hand, terrifying beasts like Hati, Skol, and Nidhogg wreak havoc on the very fabric of the world. On the other, animals like Huginn, Muninn, and Sleipnir perform useful tasks that are impossible for the gods themselves to accomplish. In Scandinavian myth, savage animals work against the gods and the universal order, while tamed beasts are an integral part of maintaining that order.

Untamed and unpredictable, the savage animals in Scandinavian myth have no qualms about haphazardly destroying the cosmos that the gods struggle daily to maintain. No wild animals exemplify this better than the sons of Angrboda and Loki, Jormungandr and Fenrir. While many animals in Scandinavian myth oppose the gods, none are so central to destroying what the gods create than the giant serpent and wolf. The chaotic power that the two beings possess cannot be harnessed. Though Thor casts Jormungandr into the sea, and though Tyr gives up his hand so that Fenrir can be bound by the fetter Gleipnir, the unstoppable power of disorder overcomes the gods’ attempts to maintain order.

At Ragnarok, the climactic battle of order versus chaos, Fenrir and Jormungandr strike the heaviest blows against the gods. Fenrir, whose jaws open so wide as to scrape the top of the sky, swallows Odin whole before Vidar can kill him. Jormungandr finally gets to engage in a deadly tussle with Thor, who strikes him down with Mjollnir before succumbing to the venomous serpent’s poison. That both deadly brutes ultimately die illustrates the primitive nature of animals in Scandinavian myth. Unlike the personified gods, the animals have no emotion or motivation. Like a primal force of nature, the untamed animals simply refuse to yield.

The relentless chase of Hati and Skoll illustrates the cheerless tenacity with which savage animals attempt to break down order in Scandinavian mythology. Since his birth, Skoll had chased Arvakr and Alsvidr, two horses who carry the chariot that draws the sun across the sky. Skoll’s brother Hati doggedly pursued the moon across the night sky. The two wolves had no motivation to destroy the two objects which light the world and make it hospitable, but like primal destructive forces, they ceaselessly attempt to break down the cosmic order. Their success marks the beginning of Ragnarok and foreshadows the deaths of most of the important gods.

Wild beasts that constantly molest Yggdrasil make up a third major category of destructive savage animals in Scandinavian myth. This category is perhaps the most telling because Yggdrasil is the world, and the relationship of all wild animals to the world is a wantonly destructive one. The Prose Edda deals extensively with the constant mutilation of the tree, naming four harts, Dainn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr, and Durathror among the culprits. It also claims that an eagle eats the tree from the top, though it does not give the eagle a name. The Elder Edda’s Fjosvinnsmal gives the eagle’s name as Vidopnir. Though the Grimnismal of the Elder Edda calls the world tree Laeradr, it still deals with its destruction, claiming that the wild stag Eikthrynir and the untamed goat Heidrun devour the tree’s bark and foliage from a perch atop the roof of Valhalla.

But the most culpable creature in the defacement of Yggdrasil is the giant serpent gnawing its roots, Nidhoggr. The Prose Edda does mention that there are more serpents under Yggdrasil than “every unwise ape can think,” naming Goinn, Moinn, Grabakr, Grafvolludr, Ofnir, and Svafnir as ones who “Tear the trunk’s twigs.” But the gigantic Nidhoggr is the so destructive that every day, the Norns have to take water from the Well of Urdr and sprinkle it on the tree so that it will survive.

Even the most benign creature on Yggdrasil, squirrel Ratatoskr, is a tacit contributor to the tree’s (and thereby the world’s) destruction. Ratatoskr conveys insults from the eagle to Nidhoggr, spurring the two fearsome savage beasts to continue destroying the giant ash tree upon which the realms rest.

Tamed animals in Scandinavian myth serve a diametrically opposite function to their savage brethren. While untamed animals universally conspire against the cosmic order, animals domesticated by the Scandinavian gods work tirelessly to maintain the order. A particularly striking example is that of the unflagging horses that draw the sun’s chariot across the daytime sky. Just like their lupine pursuers, Arvakr and Alsvidr never tire or cease. In fact, the only difference is that the horse is a domesticated animal used for a useful purpose, to draw a chariot, whereas the wolves are untamed and seeking to engage in destruction.

Other domesticated animals serve as aids to the gods. Frey’s golden-bridled boar, Odin’s mount Sleipnir, Hel’s guard dog Garmr, and Odin’s omniscient ravens Huginn and Muninn serve in this capacity. The reason that these roles are filled by animals and not other gods is that they require a single, unceasing action. Gods are personifications, and thus their actions vary. But in order to be all-seeing like Huginn and Muninn, one must constantly fly around and scour the ground from the air. Similarly, in order to serve as a mount for a god, an animal must be on call at all hours. And Garmr must always be on the lookout for intruders and escapees. These functions simply cannot be filled by personified beings who do a variety of things, so the roles are filled by animals.

Another salient example of tamed animals in Scandinavian myth is the tale of Freki and Geri, the two wolves that sit at Odin’s side and devour the food that he never eats. Like all animals in Scandinavian myth, their action is ceaseless and unchanging. But this example proves that, in order to ascertain whether an animal will maintain or destroy the cosmic order, it is unimportant what kind of animal is in question, or even what kind of action the animal is performing; the true distinction between animals in Scandinavian mythology lies in whether the gods have domesticated the animal in question.

Most of the examples of domesticated animals in Scandinavian mythology are animals that are typically domesticated; horses, dogs, birds of prey. Similarly, many of the animal agents of chaos are merely looking to satiate their hunger. Perhaps, then, the main distinction between whether an animal is an agent of order or chaos is whether the animal is looking for food, or is typically a predator? The example of Freki and Geri clearly rules this out. As wolves, the tamed Freki and Geri stand in stark contrast to the destructive and savage Skoll, Hati, and Fenrir. And their only function is to eat Odin’s food, proving that the quest for nourishment is not a determining criterion of order or chaos.

The role of tamed animals in Scandinavian myth stands in seemingly stark contrast to the role of the savage beasts that attack the fabric of the universe. One ceaselessly upholds the cosmic order while the other relentlessly destroys it. But to better understand why this dichotomy is a result of the same traits that all animals in Scandinavian mythology share, it is important to discuss the only Scandinavian story that actually involves the act of domesticating an animal. The primordial cow, Audumla, is the only animal whose conversion from savage to domesticated is chronicled in the Eddas. According to the Gilfaginning, Audumla came into existence a split-second after the creation of the first living being, Ymir. It is crucial to note that Audumla’s existence depends solely upon that of Ymir. The cow did not exist before Ymir was created, but the instant that Ymir came into existence, so did Audumla. And once Audumla’s purpose of sustaining Ymir was done, she disappeared.

Audumla was nourished herself only by licking salty ice, and her very existence depended on the existence of a personified being. It is only logical to suppose that Audumla is merely an animalized form of the primordial hot and cold reservoirs. In this case, the act of domestication is merely the springing into existence of the primordial cow. It becomes apparent how this ties together the diametrically opposed functions of animals in Scandinavian mythology. Whether as primordial hot and cold or as a cow, Audumla ceaselessly carried out one function. Animals in Scandinavian myth are simply unchanging forces. It is only when they are used in conjunction with a personified being—when they are tamed—that they maintain or promote the cosmic order, and when they act alone, they seek to destroy that order.

To the Scandinavians, Nidhogg chowing down on the roots of Yggdrasil or Arvakr pulling the sun’s chariot was as much a fact of life as the wind blowing or the seasons changing. Like a primal force of nature, animals in Scandinavian myth can simply continue an action unquestioningly forever, which allows them to be both the archetypal agent of chaos and of order. The reason for this dualistic role is simple: Animals can do one task forever with no motivation. Unlike the gods whose deeds are varied and who are often distracted by their petty jealousies and arbitrary likes and dislikes, the animals of Scandinavian myth are capable of constantly repeating the same task. Whether this relentless animal drive is used to maintain or destroy the cosmic order depends on whether the animal in question is savage. Once tamed, the emotionless nature of the animals means that they are the ultimate advocates of order in the cosmos. But left savage, animals work just as doggedly to destroy that cosmic order.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thy will be done, Vinokurov.

Comment by Andrew Hart

muy bien

Comment by Jerry Vinokurov

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: