Ginnungagap is the bottomless abyss that was all there was prior to the creation of the cosmos, and into which the cosmos will collapse once again during Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods.” As the Eddic poem Völuspá, “The Insight of the Seeress,” describes the time before the cosmos existed:
That was the age when nothing was;
There was no sand, nor sea, nor cool waves,
No earth nor sky nor grass there,
The Old Norse word gap means the same thing as it does in modern English: a void, an empty space. The meaning of the ginnung element, however, is far less certain. The best guess anyone has come up with so far is Jan de Vries’s suggestion of “magically-charged,” a theory that has gained widespread acceptance. This surely refers to the capacity for something that can serve as the basis for creation to come out of its nothingness.
Chaos and Cosmos
This perfect, uninterrupted silence and darkness has close counterparts in other mythologies from around the world. To cite but one example, most of my readers will no doubt be familiar with the famous words of the first chapter of Genesis, which describe the state of the universe prior to the intervention of Elohim in Judeo-Christian mythology: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The opposition between the well-ordered, just, and beneficent cosmos on the one hand and the lawless chaos that surrounds it is perhaps one of the most common themes in religion and in human consciousness more generally.
In the pre-Christian religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, this chaos-cosmos split is expressed as an opposition between the innangard, that which is orderly, civilized, and law-abiding, and the utangard, that which is wild and anarchic. Plowed fields are innangard, but beyond the fences that surround them and mark them off reigns the wilderness, the utangard home of the giants. These anti-cosmic forces are constantly trying to drag the Aesir gods, their work, and their ideals back to chaos (and at Ragnarok they will succeed). While the wilderness is utangard enough, the “capital” of chaos, as it were, is Ginnungagap; the abyss is the ultimate destination to which the giants want to bring the world.