30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Carrie Roy, "Ginnungagap: The Gaping Maw"

The beginning of Völuspá notes "gap var ginnunga" and in the Prose Edda, ginnungagap has typically been interpreted as a gaping abyss. To modern readers, the idea of a gap, or empty space, feels familiar considering both the Judeo-Christian Genesis influence and even modern scientific big bang notions where we envision a vast nothingness. In Lars Lönnroth’s 2002 essay in The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology, he states, "As for Ginnungagap, it means literally something along the lines of 'tremendous abyss' or 'gaping maw,' and it was probably not associated with any definite, named locale until around 1230, when Snorra Edda systematized the mythological cosmology using Völuspá as its basis." In this paper, I agree that ginnungagap means quite literally "gaping maw" but I would like to present the idea that a gaping maw should be considered quite the opposite of an abyss. Rather, a mouth could be considered a portal for life, breath, words and even physical matter to issue forth and come into being. Based primarily on material culture research (drawing on my survey work of over four hundred Viking period artifacts with zoomorphic imagery from collections in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and England) and supported by laws, literature, and later beliefs–a mouth was considered an important region where spirit/life/wind/breath issued forth and brought about real, physical implications for the natural and supernatural world. The ninth and tenth century material culture evidence would appear to support the possibility of a gaping maw representing a meaningful and potent symbol and therefore evidence for a potentially earlier ginnungagap origin. The material culture-based methodology employed also features a new approach in helping us better understand a worldview quite different from our own.


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