Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Making Middle Earth

When I wrote earlier about the Norse creation story, as told by Snorri Sturluson in his Edda, I described how the god Odin and his brothers fashioned the world out of the body of the frost giant Ymir:

His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair were trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, clouds. From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with men, crafting the first man and woman from driftwood they found on the seashore.

From his eyebrows? Notice how quickly I skipped over that. Middle Earth is clearly the place where men and women live. Elsewhere Snorri says the earth (or the world, depending on the translator) is round. Now whether you think of it as “round” as a disc (as some scholars still do, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that medieval people knew the world was a sphere [link to Flat Earth blog]) or “round” as an apple (as the Norse did in Snorri’s day, according to the 13th-century encyclopedia called The King’s Mirror), it’s still hard to imagine the world we live in as being made from eyebrows.

So what is Snorri’s “Middle Earth”?

Kevin Wanner of the University of Western Michigan has a brilliant answer. Wanner was one of the scholars who most influenced my understanding of Snorri Sturluson as a writer. Somehow I missed his 2009 article, “Off-Center: Considering Directional Valances in Norse Cosmography,” when I was working on my biography of Snorri, Song of the Vikings.

Admittedly, the part that’s snagged my interest now is not Wanner’s main argument. It’s the definition of the Old Norse word Miðgarðr, which I’ve always seen translated into the Tolkienish Middle Earth.

As Wanner notes, forms of this word appear in many northern languages. In Old English, for example, middangeard is clearly the Latin mundus, the world as a whole. But Old Norse writers (Snorri included) usually use the word heimr to refer to the world as a whole. So what really is Miðgarðr?

The first part, mið, isn’t contested. It means “middle.”

But garðr, Wanner points out, has two meanings. One is the cognate “yard,” in the sense of an enclosure. The second is “fence” or “fortification.”

Writes Wanner, “As incredible as it may seem in light of the typical understanding and use of the term among scholars, there is not one occurrence of ‘Miðgarðr’ in Snorri’s Edda or eddic poetry in which the second element of the name unambiguously carries the sense of yard or enclosure.” There are many cases, on the other hand, of garðr meaning a fortification.

Instead of “Middle Earth,” Wanner concludes, Miðgarðr might just mean “fence down the middle.”

Go back to those giant eyebrows—which Wanner explains could instead be eyelashes. In either case, think of two arcs of hair. Bushy eyebrows. Spiky eyelashes. A fence of giant hair.

It makes perfect sense if you add another part that I skipped over when retelling Snorri’s creation story: the reason why Odin and his brothers made Miðgarðr. The gods had already given lands on the shore of the sea to the giants, Snorri writes. Then, because of the “hostility of the giants,” they made Miðgarðr—the fence down the middle—to protect the people they were about to fashion from driftwood.

Now whether this fence was an arc, a circle, or a wiggly line I’ll leave it to Wanner to convince you. His paper was published in Speculum (2009): 36-72.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. The fence down the middle is an interesting idea. Still, I can't help but think of Andy Rooney's eyebrows.

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