smearing brains on the sky like jam on toast

In translation news, I’ve been wrasslin’ with the Norse world-creation myth for the last couple of weeks.

To bring you up to speed, prior to the creation of Middle-earth, there’s mostly just the Ginnungagap, that is to say, a primordial chaos where fire and ice swirl together.  It’s pretty unpleasant, but in the middle, where the frost starts to melt from the hot breeze and sparks coming off of Muspellheim, the first of the fearsome frost giants, Ymir, is animated.  He generates descendants through his armpit sweat, making the only time on record that a stick of deodorant would have made an effective contraceptive.  Everyone knows that giants are a lot of things, but they’re not lactose-intolerant, so Ymir stays fed thanks to the great cow Audhumla, who also just kind of emerges from the ice.  You know how cows are; they just wander in from whereever, milk a-streaming.

Audhumla doesn't get enough credit for inventing ice cream.

There’s not much to do if you’re Audhumla other than squirt milk at Ymir (gets boring, plus he’s so unbelievably moist all the time) and lick all that ice.  It’s unclear exactly how many licks it takes to get to the center of the iceberg immemorial, but it turns out there’s another fellow in there!  Try defrosting your freezer sometime; according to the Norse, you’ll probably find a whole colony back behind the baking soda.

That guy’s line ends up producing Odin and his two brothers, who kill Ymir (something about not wiping off the pads after bench pressing down at the Ginnungagym) and tear his body apart.  The resulting torrent of blood gets that mandatory Flood Myth out of the way while maintaining the Norse commitment to being hella rad at all times.  Then the real craziness starts, as it becomes clear that you wouldn’t want to be the first person moving into gruesome Middle-earth, at least not without a great decorator.

From his blood they made the sea and the lakes.  The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones.  They made stones and gravel from the teeth, the molars and those bones that were broken….They also took his skull and from it made the sky.  They raised it over the earth and under each of the four corners they put a dwarf.

Gross, but resourceful, considering literally the only other building substance is ice.  But then:

But further inland they built a fortress wall around the world to protect us against the hostility of the giants.  As material for this wall, they used the eyelashes of the giant Ymir and called this stronghold Midgard.  They took his brain, threw it up into the air, and from it they made the clouds.

If the place smelled bad back when Ymir was dripping all over the place, just imagine it now.

Anyhow, Völuspá alludes to this tale without recounting it directly, since its audience would have been extremely familiar.  Mine probably isn’t, so I’m trying to make the violent nature of creation a little more explicit without dwelling on it for too too long.  I’m specifically working on a way to talk about Ymir’s corpse.

After reading a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, I rather fell in love with the slightly archaic word mammock and, perhaps unwisely, have set myself to using it here:

‘Til you and your brothers  broke his body,

Middle-Earth molded  from the mammocked hulk

The repetition of an image restated slightly (the broken body, the mammocked hulk) is a ubiquitous feature of Germanic alliterative verse, so I leaned on it here to help out any reader who might not wish to run to the dictionary.

Ryan suggested that maybe hulk was not the precise word I was looking for to describe the immense, torn corpse, as to him it mostly connoted muscle mass, but not necessarily the bones, skull, etc., as well as perhaps being a bit too oblique a way of talking about a dead body.  He suggested husk, but to me that only connoted the skin, which as far as we could tell didn’t get used at all for building…maybe they made pants out of it?  I did like that it maintained the repetition of the k sound in mammocked, though.  A third option, which would add an extra weak beat to the line, but wouldn’t make it overly long, would be carcass, which maintains that k sound I like.  Plus, it appeared in an earlier draft before I decided that “carved carcass” was just being influenced by the ever-hastening Thanksgiving feast.

So, dear reader, I ask, what do you think?






  1. Max said,

    November 18, 2009 at 12:22 am

    “Mammocked corpse”?

    • November 18, 2009 at 11:04 am

      Hey, it’s Max! Thanks for commenting!

      I definitely thought about “corpse” for awhile, and it has the virtue of being readily comprehensible, which shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not at the top of my list mainly because it derives from Latin and I’d give preference to a Germanic word like “hulk” — although that originally referred to a big boat!

      Meggy has made another good suggestion, which is “bulk.” That keeps the concision and the “K” sound, while also maintaining the notion of huge size within the word. It seems to derive from Norse, which doesn’t hurt at all, and it’s been used to mean corpses, although that meaning is obsolete:

      1637 RUTHERFORD Lett. No. 141 (1862) I. 336 Christ shall..mow down His enemies & lay bulks..on the green.

  2. CJ said,

    November 22, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    What about charnel? It captures the idea of corpse-parts, in pieces and in quantity as well as implying a structure of the charnel house – though only rarely in real-life are charnel houses themselves made from gibs.

    • November 22, 2009 at 10:56 pm

      Oh, hey, CJ! Thanks; that is a really good word that totally had not occurred to me at all. I think there’s a place later in the poem that it’ll work even better though, when the dragon Nidhogg comes flying with his wings all loaded down with corpses!! A real highlight!

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