“Of old was the age when Ymir lived; neither sea nor cool waves nor sand there were; earth had not been, nor heaven above, only a mysterious abyss, and grass nowhere.”
— Voluspa, Poetic Edda
Ginnungagap, the oxymoronic “pregnant void” of Eddic Creation…
It is only called, as a proper name, Ginnungagap in the Prose Edda, while in the Voluspa the void is simply described as a gap that is ginnunga.
Most linguists trace it to a root (ginn-) meaning “vast, wide” and so can be seen to share a common root (P.I.E. *ghieh) with the Greek word chaos; as can the term gap itself. Thus rendering the seemingly redundant “gaping gap”, or “yawning gap” as it is more usually rendered.
In this we see a likeness to the seemingly and similarly redundant Sanskrit phrase “gahanaṃ gabhīram”, where gahan carries a range of meaning that includes “abyss, depths, impenetrable, inscrutable” and gabriha carries a range of meaning that includes “deep, depth, impervious, profound, mysterious”, and like Ginnungagap can yield something as equally literal and uninspired as “the deep depths”.
Of course, with the Sanskrit the connotations of “profound, mysterious” are immediately at our disposal, and made evident via the greater body of the Vedic hymn in which it appears, ie. the context in which the phrase appears. In the Old Icelandic ginn- such connotations seem to come only indirectly, in a much broader mytho-linguistic context, via compounds with the words holy (ginn-heilog; very holy) or regin (ginn-regin; great divine judges) or wih (Ginnunga-ve; sacred space of the ginnungar = ginnregin).
We do however find something of this sense of “inscrutable mystery” in the Old Icelandic word ginna meaning “to fool, to dupe, to intoxicate”, as we see in Gylfaginning. In this context we see it take on connotations of “surreal, dreamlike, mystical play on the senses”; which certainly speaks toward the primal nature of preExistence, which, in it’s vast and all-encompassing formlessness, is like an ink-blot in which any man who bothers to look can perceive whatever he might. Meaning, anything and everything. And different things at different times … reminding us of something that we might hear about regarding quantum physics and the effects of the observer on quantum reality, or the nature of light (ie. particles or waves).
Hence, to fool.
In Ovid’s work, Chaos is imbued with similar connotations,
“Before the ocean and the earth appeared — before the skies had overspread them all — the face of nature in a vast expanse was naught but Chaos uniformly waste. It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap.“
And so, whatever the literal meaning of Ginnungagap, more inspired renderings such as “Gap of All-potential” or “Gap of Mystical Bewilderment” or “Gap of Mystery” are seemingly obvious inferences that can be made not only comparatively or within the broad mytho-linguistic context of the North Germanics, but also within the context of the Voluspa itself; where everything arises out of the nothingness of the gap.
Ginnungagap … the point in retrospection at which the senses fail and become confused.
“Then was neither non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no heaven beyond it. What was sheltered within? And where? Under whose protection? Was it the primal waters, an ineffable abyss of mystery?”
— RigVeda, Hymn of Creation