Creation Shapes Essence into Order
The Gods grasp essences. They are able to grok the essential nature of a thing, to see its potential locked in a static form that protects but imprisons the essence, and free it by reshaping the form to fit the essence. These are great acts of understanding. Edmund Carpenter has a classic essay about Eskimo sculptors and how they see the subject suggested in the material, and work to bring it out. "As the carver holds the unworked ivory lightly in his hand, turning it this way and that, he whispers, “Who are you? Who hides there?” And then, “Ah, seal!” He rarely sets out to carve, say, a seal, but picks up the ivory, examines it so to find its hidden form and, if that’s not immediately apparent, carves aimlessly until he sees it, humming or chanting as he works. Then he brings it out: Seal, hidden, emerges. It’s always there: He doesn’t create it: he releases it: he helps it step forth. In a deeper sense, of course, there is no “it”; he does more than discover: he reveals." (Edmund Carpenter, Man and Art in the Arctic, United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Browning, Montana, 1964.) "The carver never attempts to force the ivory into uncharacteristic forms, but responds to the material as it tries to be itself, and thus the carving is continually modified as the ivory has its say." (Ibid.) This releasing of potentiality is found in the Norse word órlausn, which has taken on the meaning, "to answer or respond", yet which literally means, "to loosen out of" or to "release". And thus, when we are asked a question, we release the answer out of the question itself. This is how the Gods create.
Carpenter's imagery allows us to imagine how the Gods handled the broken bones and flesh of Ymir as they pondered creation. "The carving lives in the hand as it is moved, spoken to and about." (Ibid.) Even experiences can be freed from the dull undifferentiation which would keep them locked up. "I’ve seen silent, gently, slow-moving Eskimo, suddenly caught up in the hunt, accomplish astonishing feats of skill and daring. Yet there was consistency here. They were the same. They simply allowed the world to act towards them with complete freedom. They weren’t passive: they freed this experience from its formless state and gave it expression and beauty. When you feel a song willing up within you, you sing it; when Eskimo feel themselves possessed by the hunt, they commit themselves fully to it." (Ibid.)
Carpenter suggests that the environment of the tundra -- a barren, difficult environment our ancestors identified with Jotunheim, or approaching thereof -- forces the artist to find the shape in the form in order to create order. To his description may be supplemented the knowledge that our Gods formed the world out of the screaming blizzard that was Ymir. "The environment encourages the Eskimo to think in this fashion. To Western minds the “monotony” of snow, ice, and darkness can often be depressing, even frightening. Nothing in particular stands out; there is no scenery in the sense in which we use the term. But the Eskimo do not see it this way. They’re not interested in scenery, but in action, existence ... for nothing in their world easily defines itself and is separable from the general background. What exists, the Eskimo themselves must struggle to bring into existence. Theirs is a world which has to be conquered with each act and statement, each carving and song – but which, with each act accomplished, is as quickly lost. ... But his role is not passive. He reveals form; he cancels nothingness. ... they free the idea, the thing, from the general formlessness of the outside. ... Carver, like poet, releases form from the bonds of formlessness; he brings it forth into consciousness. He must reveal form in order to protest against a universe that is formless, and the form he reveals should be beautiful. ... Here, then, is a world of chaos and chance, a meaningless whirl of cold and white; man alone can give meaning to this – its form does not come ready-made." (Ibid., emphasis mine.) This cancelling of nothingness, this conquest of the undifferentiated and howling monotony, to bring out its difference, is the shaping magic the Gods bring to existence to ground our world. The form is not "ready-made", and yet it does lie inherent within the material, if one has the eyes to see.
There is thus a study of the material to understand its essence, and then a bringing-out of this essence by shaving off that which is inessential, and bringing the essence into that form which allows it to come into its own. Because shaping implies working with the material, there is thus an intimacy that is cultivated with the nature of the material. One does not carve marble, ivory, and wood all in the same way. Similarly, the different parts of Ymir's body presented different possibilities. With each material, one must work with the grain in the wood, the structural pattern inherent in its substance. One explores the material to see what it can do. There is thus a playful sensuality inherent in creation, and indeed, the Gods are described as playful in the age when they were shaping the world.
The Gods therefore find the potential within matter and shape it by giving it form. That shaping is a creative act which bestows heill. The two words most frequently utilized to describe creation in the Eddas are sköpuð and gerðu. In English, they "geared and shaped". "Gearing" involves preparing, which implies careful planning for contingencies, and the ability to meet that which may come. It is thus a species of intelligence and order. They readied the world for the challenges which it would unfold. Gearing also means taking the time it takes to prepare something : letting it cook in its own time. Great things take time and slow preparation. In "shaping", the Gods gave proportion to life, that the matter within it might find its proper pathways. Because shaping works with the material at hand, it is not about imposition, but release, of form. Each essence is allowed to spring into its being, and finds its own within that shape native to it. It is thus not broken from what it is and twisted beyond its own inherency to suit the whims of the carver, but blends itself with the material, subtly bending and stretching it to find its point of greatest balance. (If our modern landscaping followed such divine principles, our houses and other structures would blend harmoniously into environment, for we would shape our environment, bringing out its higher power and creative potentiality, rather than impose upon it.) Balanced and made whole, it is heill.
To heill we may contrast illr. Illr is the opposite of heillr. It is a disordering force, which deranges the wholeness of all with which it comes into contact. It is not malicious per se, although if it has been driven mad enough by its derangement it may be, but more unbalancing. It is thus, as our more modern form of it ("ill") suggests, sick, unwhole. It can have a dementing effect on its surroundings ; it is misshapen (ósköpnir), unfortunate, even cursed. It partakes of the hríð, the storm, both disordering and tending to cover over differentiation.
Heillr shapes, gives structure, form, intelligence, balance, and most especially, ability to cope and adapt. Adaptability might be the very definition of our word "wit", which in its modern form connotes an ability to adapt to verbal badinage, yet which extends beyond this to the ability of intelligence to meet and match what is encountered in experience. When we are whole, we are able to hold together against dissipation and storm. If the Gods were to cease their blessings, the heill still in the world would continue for some time, but eventually, without periodic reinfusions (particularly as we ask for them and participate in them through offerings and sacrifice), would begin to run down, and the world would eventually return to storm. Shaping finds that proportion which fits the essence precisely so that it may run its own course, and is not drowned in the smother of storm.
In this way, the Gods outwit the storm by infusing within it an element of intelligence that outstrips it. If you impregnated chaos with self-replicating pattern, then despite the protean evanescence of the constant emergence and dissolution of forms, you would still be able to slowly build coherence on top of this arising and falling. The pattern would have to be so vastly organic and squirmingly intelligent that it would be able to outmatch and surpass the rate of dissolution. Thus through sheer replication of desired verdant form, the transformal march of dissolution could be mocked, and an enduring if liquid structure could be devised and propagated. Thus, any one wonder may disappear, but the bewonderment process is so fertile and rampant that bewonderment begets bewonderment in uncontrollable lushness. Thus, the striving process of coming into vibrancy (the evolutionary process of blossoming out one's wholeness), in which form is pursued by form, must have the capacity to outstrip the predatorial nature of the bedulling and dissolving forces. Heill allows this inherent intelligence to emerge.