The myths and stories of our ancestors speak of powerful beings that once inhabited the Cosmos in the Time Before Time. These primordial beings may be found in the tales told for many hundreds of generations by people across Europe, Asia and the Americas. They also figure centrally in many creation stories. The following Norse version is an example that also preserves an earlier shamanic understanding of the Cosmos as made up of multilayered realms.
“In the beginning, there was an endless chasm of empty space called Ginnungagap. It was a space of great nothingness and also great potential. This enormous void of Chaos held at one of its far corners the elemental plane of numbing cold and darkness known as Niflheim. At another far corner of this void of Chaos was the elemental plane of blistering heat known as Muspelheim.
In the pulsing waves of Chaos, these two corners of the void grew closer to each other. The cold and heat met creating mists, water and ice. It was from this primordial water that the first living being -- the primeval giant Ymir – was born. Nothing physical existed before Ymir and all things that exist are either directly or indirectly born from his creation.
As Ymir slept and dreamed, a son and a daughter were born from his body. These were known as the first of the Frost Giants who were also progenitors of an entire race of giants or jötun.
It was also said that Ymir had a gigantic cow that had been born of the melting frost. Her milk fed Ymir and she licked at the ice for her own nourishment. It is said that as she licked the ice, a form was eventually revealed. This was the giant Buri. As Ymir accomplished before him, Buri had a magical child rise from his dreaming body that was his son Bor.
Bor married Bestia who was the daughter of a Frost Giant and therefore, also a descendant of Ymir. This primeval couple had three sons who were the first gods – Odin, Vili and Ve.
It is said that Odin, Vili and Ve—the sons of the iceman’s son and Frost Giant—grew very strong and also jealous of the one they knew would always be more powerful. Together the great-grandson giants of Ymir slew the First Being. The great gush of blood from Ymir’s wound flooded First Creation. Ymir’s blood drowned all but two of his frost children who were swept to the far eastern corner of creation. There they continued the race of Frost Giants in their realm Jötunheim.
Odin, Vili, and Ve then used Ymir’s carcass to create the Middle World or Midgard. They used Ymir’s flesh to create the Earth, they shaped his bones into hills and mountain, his teeth were used to make the rocks, and his hair was rooted to create the trees and greenery. From his blood they made the lakes and the sea, which encircled it all. The brothers were well pleased with their handiwork but grew concerned that their cousins the Frost Giants would seek revenge and destroy their handiwork. So they took the eyebrows and eyelashes of the great Ymir and fashioned a high fence around their new world.
Next, they polished Ymir’s skull and set it as an arching sky above the earth they tossed Ymir’s brains aloft to become the heavy clouds.
So the task was done and the new world completed, but still the giant brothers were not content. Some other life was needed in the world beside their own. Perhaps they were not secure in their power and so needed beings to obey them and to do their will. Perhaps they were simply lonely or bored. Whatever the reason, they noticed many worms were burrowing deep in the newly formed Earth. The gods summoned forth these earthly creatures from the darkness and of them the brothers made dwarfs and elves.
The elves were beautiful beings who were as light as air, and to them were given a place of their own called Ljossalheim. It was higher somewhat than Midgard, but lower than the place that the place the brothers planned to make their own home.
The dwarfs were dark and strong. To them they gave Svartalfheim, which was slightly below Midgard. The gods chose from among them the strongest four and gave them the work of bearing up Ymir’s skull so that it might not press too heavily upon the earth. It is for this reason, Nordi, Sudri, Austri and Vestri stand at the four corners of the earth and hold up the four corners of the sky. Into that great bowl of sky, the brothers tossed the sparks from the fire realm, Muspelheim, which became the sun, the moon and the stars.
Later, the brothers found some trees that had become driftwood on the shore of the sea. They took the weathered ash tree and created the first man, Ask. And from the elm tree they fashioned the first woman, Embla. Odin breathed life into them. Vili gave them intelligence and emotion, and Ve gave them the ability to see and hear and speak.”
So according to the Norse myths, all of the world, we human beings, the between worlds spirits from the Earth and the gods themselves – all owe our existence to that most ancient of ancestors, the giant, Ymir. While this example reveals the patriarchal overlay of the cultures that told and retold the story, it is still see possible to see the core of the tale. We collectively preserved these stories to help us remember something very important. In the Before Time, beings we perceive as more powerful than ourselves existed that had the awesome ability to dream places and beings into physicality from Nothing/Chaos.
Indeed, stories of primordial giants exist across the globe. They are tied to many cultures’ creation stories. While the Bible doesn’t credit creation to a giant, it still suggests that giants were present in the world before humans and were likely progenitors to the human race. The Nephilim described in Genesis, were the descendants of angels in physical form. They were a race of giants. Even the Anakim or Cainites – who are children of Cain, a son of Adam and Eve – are described as giants. These giants lived in an underworld kingdom as did the Tuatha de Danaan – a race of Celtic progenitor deities who dwelled in hollow mountains. These beings aren’t usually described as giants but their predecessors the Formorians are often described as such and the great Celtic mythic warrior heroes, Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cúchulainn are also described in this way.
In the stories told by the ancient Greeks, the primordial beings born out of Khaos were Gaia, the Earth Goddess, Tartarus, ruler of the Underworld, Eros the embodiment of Love, Erebus the being of Shadow, Nyx who ruled the Night and Eurynome the Wanderer. It is only Gaia that is a creator being. From her body, she brings forth Ouranus/Uranus the Sky God, Pontus the ruler of the Sea and Ourea the deity of the Mountains.
Mating with her son Ouranus, Gaia gives birth to the Cyclopes, the three Hecatonchires (terrible creatures with 50 heads and 100 arms) and The Twelve Titans who are the ancestors to the Olympian gods. These are, Oceanus & Tethys, Hyperion & Theia, Coeus & Phoebe, Cronus & Rhea, Mnemosyne, Themis, Crius, Iapetus.
Ouranus hated those of his children who were not beautiful like the Titans. He buried them in the Underworld--an action that tormented Gaia. So she enlisted her Titan son, Cronus to stop Ouranus’ suppression/imprisonment of the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires. Like Ymir, Ouranus is dismembered (in this case castrated) in his case by his son. From the blood, which spilled from Ouranus onto the Earth, came forth the Gigantes, the three avenging Furies, representing regeneration and the potency of creation, which both consumes and empowers and the Nymphs, Middle world nature spirits.
For many cultures, giants and giantesses are considered to be our most ancient spiritual ancestors. When humans spread across the Earth, the giants seemingly retreated to worlds below and beyond to wait and watch their human descendants. Wherever they have been, they seem to be making a strong reappearance in the human consciousness. In this time of Great Change, many more people are coming across giant spirits on and in the land, in their shamanic journeys and also in their dreams.
While preserving the idea it is possible to bring something into reality from Nothing/Chaos is an important key in the stories of giants, perhaps there is something even more crucial for our own time that has been kept safe for us in these stories. They were a way to remind us, that we descended from these larger-than-life creators.
It is a part of our awakening. We are not only remembering that we were woven of the same “stuff” that made the world, we are also uncovering what has been buried in our consciousness—the memory of our ancestral capacity for Creation. For generations this knowledge was held safe in our stories to be remembered at this time. Like sleeping giants, we are beginning to rouse ourselves from our slumber and remember that we are dreaming things and events into being. Like Ymir, we continually shape the form of reality with our dreaming and our feelings. And we are finally ready to not only claim our gigantic birthright, but to create in a more conscious and heart-centered way.
It is important to note that in both the Norse and the Greek stories, the world is both changed and diminished by the destruction/repression of the primordial predecessors. The deities who follow them are weaker and more human-like in their actions. So, we are also reminded in these stories that we must not try and cast away what we fear or find ugly about our ourselves or our efforts. Instead of imprisoning them or trying to metaphorically kill them off, we can use our creative capacity to transform their energies and reshape them into something new.
It is clear that we have heroic work to do to remedy the chaotic world we’ve created on the planet. As shamans, maybe it’s time for us to get reacquainted with these spirits from the Time Before Time who are masters of manifestation. They know how to transform disarray, create from nothing and can therefore help us to become better creators. By learning to work with our own feelings and stepping into partnership with the giants as well as those beings from the between worlds, we can make the needed changes inside of ourselves and on the Earth.
© 2010 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author, Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether though face-to-face contact with individual patients, groups and conference participants, or through the printed word in books, columns and articles—Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives.
She is the author of Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path (1999), columnist and writer of numerous articles and features. Her writing and artwork have appeared in regional, national and international publications—both in print and online—and she is the executive editor of Spirit Living, an eco-spiritual e-magazine.
In joint practice with C. Allie Knowlton as Spirit Passages since 1991, she offers workshops in advanced experiential shamanism across the USA and Canada. In addition, as founding members of True North, an integrated medical center in Falmouth, Maine, she and Allie collaborate with physicians, nurses, a psychiatrist, naturopath and other complementary health practitioners. Evelyn may be contacted through her website: www.spiritpassages.com.