Order Versus Chaos

Chaos and Order are concepts which underpin religion. There is a deep-rooted belief in Chaos and Order that appears to be a commonality among Indo-European religions. Germanic paganism is no exception.

Cosmogical Chaos is different from any chaos you’re familiar with. There is almost a devaluation of what constitutes chaos in our society. However, Chaos in a cosmological sense has less to do with whether the bread gets delivered to the store as it does if there is an existence for there to be a store or bread in at all to begin with.

Chaos

Chaos is a concept that requires some background. Chaos is a Greek term that has come to us through the Romans. In Greek it was “χάος” and in Latin it was “kháos”. But these terms when used to describe the Universe truly means non-existence, a state of being before creation. In Chaos there was a formless void, a nothingness.

There is also this term, cosmogical, from cosmogony, that I keep using. Cosmogony is a word which is used for any system attempting to describe the origins of the universe. In this way cosmogical chaos is when the universe began from nothing, a great yawning nothing.

Germanic Chaos

Germanic religion has its own cosmogical Chaos, in the Norse texts there is mention Gunnungagap.

The Voluspa reads:

3. Ár var alda þar er Ýmir bygði,
vara sandr né sær né svalar unnir,
jörð fannsk æva né upphiminn, gap var ginnunga, en gras hvergi.[i]

3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above, But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.[ii]

And from the Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda:

Gangleri mælti: “Hversu skipaðist, áðr en ættirnar yrði eða aukaðist mannfólkit?”

Þá mælti Hárr: “Ár þær, er kallaðar eru Élivágar, þá er þær váru svá langt komnar frá uppsprettum, at eitrkvika sú, er þar fylgði, harðnaði svá sem sindr þat, er renn ór eldinum, þá varð þat íss. Ok þá er sá íss gaf staðar ok rann eigi, þá hélði yfir þannig, en úr þat, er af stóð eitrinu, fraus at hrími, ok jók hrímit hvert yfir annat allt í Ginnungagap.”

Þá mælti Jafnhárr: “Ginnungagap, þat er vissi til norðrættar, fylltist með þunga ok höfugleik íss ok hríms ok inn í frá úr ok gustr, en inn syðri hlutr Ginnungagaps léttist mót gneistum ok síum þeim, er flugu ór Múspellsheimi.” Þá mælti Þriði: “Svá sem kalt stóð af Niflheimi ok allir hlutir grimmir, svá var allt þat, er vissi námunda Múspelli, heitt ok ljóst, en Ginnungagap var svá hlætt sem loft vindlaust. Ok þá er mættist hrímin ok blær hitans, svá at bráðnaði ok draup, ok af þeim kvikudropum kviknaði með krafti þess, er til sendi hitann, ok varð manns líkandi, ok var sá nefndr Ymir, en hrímþursar kalla hann Aurgelmi, ok eru þaðan komnar ættir hrímþursa…[iii]

Gangleri asked: “How were things wrought, ere the races were and the tribes of men increased?” Then said Hárr: “The streams called Ice-waves, those which were so long come from the fountain-heads that the yeasty venom upon them had hardened like the slag that runs out of the fire,–these then became ice; and when the ice halted and ceased to run, then it froze over above. But the drizzling rain that rose from the venom congealed to rime, and the rime increased, frost over frost, each over the other, even into Ginnungagap, the Yawning Void.” Then spake Jafnhárr: “Ginnungagap, which faced toward the northern quarter, became filled with heaviness, and masses of ice and rime, and from within, drizzling rain and gusts; but the southern part of the Yawning Void was lighted by those sparks and glowing masses which flew out of Múspellheim.” And Thridi said: “Just as cold arose out of Niflheim, and all terrible things, so also all that looked toward Múspellheim became hot and glowing; but Ginnungagap was as mild as windless air, and when the breath of heat met the rime, so that it melted and dripped, life was quickened from the yeast-drops, by the power of that which sent the heat, and became a man’s form. And that man is named Ymir, but the Rime-Giants call him Aurgelimir; and thence are come the races of the Rime-Giants…[iv]

The etymology of Ginnungigap is contested but the most likely candidate for its meaning is from a term meaning to gape or yawn; in Proto-Germanic the word would be *ginōną or perhaps *gainōną. This has descendants that bear similarity in structure and phonetic quality to “ginnunga”. Through this etymology the word “ginnunga” also has very literal connections to “Chaos” in that the Greek “χάος” is descended from the same Proto-Indo-European roots: *ǵʰi-, *ǵʰeh₂-, and/or *ǵʰeyh₁- . So in a sense, if this etymology is remotely correct then there is both textual and etymological evidence to connect “Ginnungigap” to cosmogonic “Chaos”.

Ginnungagap is a great yawning gap, a great void. This nicely corresponds in different ways to several sources in the Greek tradition. Hesiod personifies Chaos in his Theogony but the understanding of the emptiness of the before is there:

“Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus.”[v]

Chaos comes first in an ex nihilo creation, a creation out of nothing. But Chaos is also nothing, so it is as though the nothing just comes into being. Then comes the earth and the gods later.

Ex nihilo

An ex nihilo creation is a creation from nothing. This is one of those things that logical minds immediately start to scoff at, but they and we shouldn’t scoff so fast. An ex nihilo creation is effectively the way that Science describes the beginning of the universe: in a single instant there appeared all the stuff that ever would be, all expanding outward from that point at which it began. Granted, the big bang theory stops short of explaining the before because they have no evidence of the before and so they claim to not be some ex nihilo event despite having all matter expanding from a central point and instant. If the matter didn’t pre-exist it’s an ex nihilo creation in my book even if there is no creator and it did itself.

Is it so scoff-worthy to laugh at a religious creation event then? I don’t think so. Especially one in which the universe begins to happen on its own even before the gods got involved. Ultimately, I believe this is a very honest telling of the creation of the universe because it’s admitting that there are some things that no being, not even a god, knows because no-one was there to see it.

For us and for many pagan religions our gods originated out of this great chaos, this generative nothingness, but they didn’t just leave it as chaos. They gave order to what there was available at the time.

Order

When we see creation myths, these myths from a literary perspective do not merely tell about the beginnings of things but instead seek to explain the order of the universe. We live in a very orderly universe. When I wake up in the morning I can reasonably expect that the laws of physics haven’t upended themselves over night as I slept. I can reasonably expect the sun to rise and for the moon to be there somewhere on its monthly cycle. I can expect winter to end and spring to arrive and then summer and then fall. I can expect people to grow old, age, and die and for the dead to remain dead. I can expect water to be wet and fire to be hot. There are a great many things I can expect because we live in an orderly universe.

Religion generally holds that the gods ordered the universe, that they set these things into motion. This is the order of the gods, that the universe remains functional.

4. Áðr Burs synir bjöðum um ypðu,
þeir er Miðgarð mœran skópu;
sól skein sunnan á salar steina,
þá var grund gróin grœnum lauki.

5. Sól varp sunnan, sinni mána,
hendi inni hœgri um himinjódyr;
sól þat ne vissi hvar hon sali átti,
máni þat ne vissi hvat hann megins átti,
stjörnur þat ne vissu hvar þær staði áttu.

6. Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla,
ginnheilug goð, ok um þat gættusk;
nátt ok niðjum nöfn um gáfu,
morgin hétu ok miðjan dag,
undorn ok aptan, árum at telja.

7. Hittusk æsir á Iðavelli,
þeir er hörg ok hof hátimbruðu,
afla lögðu, auð smíðuðu, tangir skópu ok tól görðu.[vi]

4. Then Bur’s sons lifted | the level land,
Mithgarth the mighty | there they made;
The sun from the south | warmed the stones of earth,
And green was the ground | with growing leeks.

5. The sun, the sister | of the moon, from the south
Her right hand cast | over heaven’s rim;
No knowledge she had | where her home should be,
The moon knew not | what might was his,
The stars knew not | where their stations were.

6. Then sought the gods | their assembly-seats,
The holy ones, | and council held;
Names then gave they | to noon and twilight,
Morning they named, | and the waning moon,
Night and evening, | the years to number.

7. At Ithavoll met | the mighty gods,
Shrines and temples | they timbered high;
Forges they set, and | they smithied ore, Tongs they wrought, | and tools they fashioned.[vii]

And from the Prose Edda:

Þá tóku þeir síur ok gneista þá, er lausir fóru ok kastat hafði ór Múspellsheimi, ok settu á mitt Ginnungap á himin bæði ofan ok neðan til at lýsa himin ok jörð. Þeir gáfu staðar öllum eldingum, sumum á himni, sumar fóru lausar undir himni, ok settu þó þeim stað ok skipuðu göngu þeim. [viii]

Then they took the glowing embers and sparks that burst forth and had been cast out of Múspellheim, and set them in the midst of the Yawning Void, in the heaven, both above and below, to illumine heaven and earth. They assigned places to all fires: to some in heaven, some wandered free under the heavens; nevertheless, to these also they gave a place, and shaped them courses.[ix]

While we describe this as a creation story, it should also be understood that there is much more of this having to do with order than it is with creation. The creation is not the same as the order, the order is what allows the universe to be livable, the maintenance of that order, because without it the inverse would be true. The order of the universe has much to do with time as it was in those verses established that the gods named and thereby regulated the order of time.

And while this is absolutely a creation story, the creation is different than what we might be accustomed to religiously. These verses show the belief that gods created the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars. But here we must use “created” very loosely because nowhere here are these things being made in the Christian sense of creation. The earth is lifted up, it isn’t made by them in some “poof” quality as much as it is utilized by them. They did not “poof” the stars into existence, they utilized pre-existing material, and that material was generated by the void not by some will of the gods. Nowhere do we find the gods making something from nothing as part of creation. Instead there is a very clear sense that the gods are utilizing what is available to them and making something from those things. Creation is less an act of making something from nothing as much as it is utilizing the resources available to make them different. This matches more of a sense of creation like a sculptor needs clay to make a pot or a painter needs canvas and paint. When they create art, their creation isn’t poof – it’s about altering what they have into something new.

Yet in this early state they had not yet given things order and they were disorderly. The gods named them and ordered them. In this way the gods were giving order to the universe around them rather than leaving it in a state of chaos or in a state of disorder (not exactly the same thing).

Chaos vs Order

So what does Chaos mean in this connotation? If you take the idea of order being what we currently have and Chaos as this state of non-existence before the gods, then we have a fundamentally different type of Chaos afterwards if the order of the gods were removed. The original chaos in the beginning wasn’t bad nor was it good, it simply was. It was a state in which the buildingblocks of the universe lay unused, a great nothingness. But to remove the order of the gods, the order of the universe, is on such a level of bad it really is hard to comprehend just how bad it would be. It is incomprehensible to me anyway. This manner of chaos is not so much a return to nothingness but to go to a state of disorder where the things which allow us to exist and live no longer are there to do those things.

As flawed as I see the Ragnarok myth, it does represent a lapse in this order of the gods.

Mikil tíðendi eru þaðan at segja ok mörg, þau in fyrstu, at vetr sá kemr, er kallaðr er fimbulvetr. Þá drífr snær ór öllum áttum. Frost eru þá mikil ok vindar hvassir. Ekki nýtr sólar. Þeir vetr fara þrír saman ok ekki sumar milli, en áðr ganga svá aðrir þrír vetr, at þá er um alla veröld orrostur miklar. Þá drepast bræðr fyrir ágirni sakar, ok engi þyrmir föður eða syni í manndrápum eða sifjasliti. Svá segir í Völuspá:

55. Bræðr munu berjask
ok at bönum verðask,
munu systrungar
sifjum spilla;
hart er með hölðum,
hórdómr mikill,
skeggjöld, skalmöld,
skildir klofnir,
vindöld, vargöld,

áðr veröld steypisk. Þá verðr þat, er mikil tíðendi þykkja, at úlfrinn gleypir sólna, ok þykkir mönnum þat mikit mein. Þá tekr annarr úlfrinn tunglit, ok gerir sá ok mikit ógagn. Stjörnurnar hverfa af himninum. Þá er ok þat til tíðenda, at svá skelfr jörð öll ok björg, at viðir losna ór jörðu upp, en björgin hrynja, en fjötrar allir ok bönd brotna ok slitna. Þá verðr Fenrisúlfr lauss. Þá geysist hafit á löndin, fyrir því at þá snýst Miðgarðsormr í jötunmóð ok sækir upp á landit. Þá verðr ok þat, at Naglfar losnar, skip þat, er svá heitir. Þat er gert af nöglum dauðra manna, ok er þat fyrir því varnanar vert, ef maðr deyr með óskornum nöglum, at sá maðr eykr mikit efni til skipsins Naglfars, er goðin ok menn vildi seint, at gert yrði. En í þessum sævargang flýtr Naglfar. Hrymr heitir jötunn, er stýrir Naglfari, en Fenrisúlfr ferr með gapandi munn, ok er inn neðri kjöftr við jörðu, en in efri við himin. Gapa myndi hann meira, ef rúm væri til. Eldar brenna ór augum hans ok nösum. Miðgarðsormr blæss svá eitrinu, at hann dreifir loft öll ok lög, ok er hann allógurligr, ok er hann á aðra hlið úlfinum. Í þessum gný klofnar himinninn, ok ríða þaðan Múspellssynir. Surtr ríðr fyrst ok fyrir honum ok eftir eldr brennandi. Sverð hans er gott mjök. Af því skínn bjartara en af sólu. En er þeir ríða Bifröst, þá brotnar hon, sem fyrr er sagt.[x]

Great tidings are to be told of it, and much. The first is this, that there shall come that winter which is called the Awful Winter: in that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty battles. In that time brothers shall slay each other for greed’s sake, and none shall spare father or son in manslaughter and in incest; so it says in Völuspá:

Brothers shall strive | and slaughter each other;
Own sisters’ children | shall sin together;
Ill days among men, | many a whoredom:
An axe-age, a sword-age, | shields shall be cloven;
A wind-age, a wolf-age, | ere the world totters.

Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent. Then shall Fenris-Wolf get loose; then the sea shall gush forth upon the land, because the Midgard Serpent stirs in giant wrath and advances up onto the land. Then that too shall happen, that Naglfar shall be loosened, the ship which is so named. (It is made of dead men’s nails; wherefore a warning is desirable, that if a man die with unshorn nails, that man adds much material to the ship Naglfar, which gods and men were fain to have finished late.) Yet in this sea-flood Naglfar shall float. Hrymr is the name of the giant who steers Naglfar. Fenris-Wolf shall advance with gaping mouth, and his lower jaw shall be against the earth, but the upper against heaven,–he would gape yet more if there were room for it; fires blaze from his eyes and nostrils. The Midgard Serpent shall blow venom so that he shall sprinkle all the air and water; and he is very terrible, and shall be on one side of the Wolf. In this din shall the heaven be cloven, and the Sons of Múspell ride thence: Surtr shall ride first, and both before him and after him burning fire; his sword is exceeding good: from it radiance shines brighter than from the sun; when they ride over Bifröst, then the bridge shall break, as has been told before.[xi]

Now, any of you who know me know that I don’t at all hold with Ragnarok, I’m an Anglo-Saxon pagan after all. I further am quite skeptical of the mortality of gods in general, I am not sold that they can die. But that isn’t at issue here, imagine this as if it were a what-if episode. What if the gods no longer upheld order and disorder were able to reign? That is what is essentially shown playing out in this material. The gods, for whatever reason, were no longer upholding the godly order and it devolved into some kind of chaos.

In a sense, all order breaks down. The sun, the moon, the seasons, time itself, they lose all meaning and cease to operate in the way they had. The dead no longer stay dead. Not even the bonds between men or even family last. This is the disorder without the gods, to make it worse in the rest of the telling the gods essentially die and order has to be put back together by other gods after them.

Dwolema

The Anglo-Saxons were an orderly people. They did however have a concept of Chaos. The word Dwolema, or even Gedwolma, is one of those words that lets us understand that they had a concept of Chaos and that is was linked to many negative things. Dwolema was darkness, chaos.[xii] Dweola was heresy.[xiii] Gedwola was error, madness, heresy.[xiv] Gedwolcræft was the art of deception.[xv] Gedwolgodas were false gods.[xvi] Dwolma is chaos, a chasm, a gulph.[xvii]

These words are linguistically linked to a central concept. They are all revolving around not only a concept of Chaos in a cosmogical sense of a dark chasm or gap of nothingness but also the sense of chaos as that which goes against order or normality; be that it goes against the gods (heresy) or that it merely represents grave error or falsehood. They had a well-developed sense that this chaos, this Dwolema, was bad.

A vexing part of this usage is the presence of Gedwolgodas. This indicates that there were gods that were false, that there were entities that would lead one astray. Granted, since our literary corpus comes after Christianization, there is little way to truly know what the ancient pagan sense of this would be. However, I tend to believe that this rather than being a Christian invention was a linguistic holdover because it preserved the “godas” rather than demoting them to fiends or devils as more commonly used Christian phrases tended to do. There are plenty of words in Old English of Christian, Roman origin for idols and idolatry; but this “Gedwolgodas” is the only word for false gods that actually preserves the sense that these beings were gods. I feel that is good evidence for it having a prior use. 

But whatever the case may be, Chaos is definitely a part of the beliefs of heathenry and indeed Order is also there, the order of the gods. Hopefully this has been easy enough to follow or has given you something to ponder on.



[i]The Poetic Edda(Voluspa), https://www.voluspa.org/voluspa1-5.htm

[ii]The Poetic Edda(Voluspa), translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936), https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm

[iii] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning), https://www.voluspa.org/gylfaginning1-10.htm

[iv] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning), translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1916), https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm

[v] Hesiod, The Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914), https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[vi]The Poetic Edda(Voluspa), http://www.voluspa.org/voluspa1-5.htm and http://www.voluspa.org/voluspa6-10.htm

[vii]The Poetic Edda(Voluspa), translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936), https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm

[viii] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning), http://www.voluspa.org/gylfaginning1-10.htm

[ix] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning), translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1916), https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm

[x] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning), http://www.voluspa.org/gylfaginning51-54.htm

[xi] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning), translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1916), https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm

[xii] Bosworth-Toller “Dwolema”: https://bosworthtoller.com/8167

[xiii] Bosworth-Toller “Dweola”: https://bosworthtoller.com/8155

[xiv] Bosworth-Toller “Gedwola”: https://bosworthtoller.com/14135

[xv] Bosworth-Toller “Gedwolcræft”: https://bosworthtoller.com/14136

[xvi] Bosworth-Toller “Gedwolgodas”: https://bosworthtoller.com/14138

[xvii] Bosworth-Toller “Dwolma”: https://bosworthtoller.com/8171

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