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The Norse Legend of the World Tree - Yggdrasil

The Norse Legend of the World Tree - Yggdrasil


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In 1643 a Bishop called Brynjolf Sveinsson was given 45 pieces of vellum containing poetry and prose from the heart of ancient Northern European indigenous culture. This collection is called The King’s Book (Codex Regius in Latin). It is thought to have been written around 1270. Between 1270 and 1643 the manuscript was hidden from public view, presumably to protect it from being destroyed by the new religion which arose from Rome.

A Precious Ancient Manuscript

Who the family was that protected this manuscript for over 300 years we don’t know, nor do we know their tradition, but we can be sure that it would have been a treacherous secret to bear safely through the medieval centuries. The Bishop did not himself keep the manuscript; instead, he offered the collection as a gift to the King of Denmark . There it remained in Copenhagen until 1971, when it was returned to Iceland.

Codex Regius (The King's book) of Eddaic Poems and Flateyjarbok. ( Public Domain )

Warships had to transport the manuscript across the sea, as a plane journey was seen as too risky – such was the preciousness of the papers. It is not surprising: these vellum papers represent the few written remains of our indigenous past of Northern Europe.

When we open these old scripts we find at the heart of the Norse mythology contained within a symbol as archaic as campfire: the World Tree, Yggdrasil.

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I know that an ash-tree stands called Yggdrasil,
a high tree, soaked with shining loam;
from there comes the dews which fall in the valley, ever green, it stands over the well of fate.
(Seeress’s Prophecy)

Yggdrasil and Odin

The most satisfactory translation of the name Yggdrasil is ‘Odin’s Horse’. Ygg is another name for Odin, and drasill means ‘horse’. However, drasill also means ‘walker’, or ‘pioneer’. Some scholars would argue that the name means ‘Odinwalker’. In some parts of the manuscript, Yggdrasil and Odin seem to be one and the same.

When Odin hung, speared, for nine days on the World Tree , he uttered the words that he had ‘sacrificed himself onto himself’. This stanza gives us a description of the unity existing between the Godhead and the Tree in the myths. To emphasize this connection, we find in old English the word treow, which means both tree and truth. Etymologically, then, truth and tree grow out of the same root.

Ask and Embla: The First Man and Woman

Subsequently, in the Norse creation myth , man and woman originated from trees. We are all the sons and daughters of the Ash and Elm tree: the first man was called Ask, born from the Ash, and the first woman Embla, born from the Elm.

Their oxygen offers us the primordial conditions for life. Ask and Embla sprouted from Yggdrasil’s acorns, and so it is that every human being springs from the fruit of Yggdrasil, then to be collected by two storks ,who bring them to their longing mothers-to-be. In Scandinavian folklore, they say that children are born through the knot holes in the trunks of pine trees, which is another version of the same myth.

Odin creates Ask and Embla. Published in Gjellerup, Karl (1895). ‘Den ældre Eddas Gudesange’. ( Public Domain )

Artur Lundkvist is one of Swedish literature’s greatest tree worshippers. Following a reflection on trees and forests, he writes:

‘… in every human there is a tree, and in every tree there is a human, I feel this, the tree wonders inside a human being, and the human being is caught in the tree … I serenade the forests, the forest sea is the second sea on earth, the sea in which man wanders. The forests work in silence, fulfilling nature’s mighty work; working with the winds, cleaning the air, mitigating the climate, forming soil, preserving all our essentials without wearing them out.’

Bringing a Mini Version of Yggdrasil into Your Home

The people represented Yggdrasil by planting what was called a ‘care-tree’, or ‘guardian tree’, in the center of the homestead . It was a miniature version of Yggdrasil, and a stately landmark in the courtyard. The care-tree was a figurative expression of the interdependence of the world around us. It had a soul which followed the lives of those who grew up under its shadow and boughs.

If the care-tree had witnessed many families growing up, the relationship between the tree and the family would have strengthened; this relationship was known to be private and confidential within the family line. Many such care-trees can still be seen in Scandinavia. I would argue that this is the origin of the Christmas tree . We unknowingly bring the World Tree into our home every winter solstice .

The Yggdrasil from Prose Edda, 1847. Painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge. ( Public Domain )

The Fragility of the World Tree

We also gain an understanding from the old vellum scripts that the World Tree is not a transcendental entity beyond time and space; rather, it is alive, organic, fragile, and strong, and bound by the three dimensions of time : past, present, and future.

The fragility of Yggdrasil is always a concern to the gods. There is a dragon called ‘the Bane Biter’ who bites into its deepest roots. There are also other animals that assail the Tree: four deer feed from the branches, and their names are Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr, and Duratro. Dain and Dvalin are described seeming ‘as if they are dead’ or ‘living with indifference, living in a mist’.

Two animals stand on the roof of Valhalla (the abode of the Gods): the goat Heidrun and the deer Eiktyrner, and they feed from the branches too – but they give back gifts to the Tree. The goat offers mead and the deer pours waters from its antlers into the roots. They are both said to live in balance with the Tree.

The four stags of Yggdrasill. From 17th century Icelandic manuscript . ( Public Domain )

The Norns Protect Yggdrasil

Three old wise women known as the Norns are the protectors and guardians of Yggdrasil. The three Norns weave on a loom which represents time itself. They are portrayed as Urd (past), Verdandi (present), and Skuld (future).

Every morning, from the leaves of Yggdrasil, there is a sweet glimmering dew which fills the valley; this dew is our memory of yesterday. Before the sun evaporates the dew, Urd collects this memory-water and pours it into her well: the Well of Memory. The dew water is named Aurr. In the center of Urd’s well there are two sacred swans, which form a heart shape with their long necks when facing each other, creating the fertility symbol of the god Frey (the god of love and fertility). Love arises from this holy well.If the past is discarded, memories forgotten, the roots will dry up.

Verdandi, who symbolizes the present, presides over the flowers during the flowering time, where life is said to manifest. Skuld assists the flowers to reach out to the future. Curiously, the name Skuld implies debt, as if the future owes something to the work of the past.

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The Nornic trio of Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld beneath the world tree. From Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. ‘Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden’. ( Public Domain )

The World Tree is connected with our own creation, preservation, and destruction. It teaches us that trees are bound to the fate of the world. It is up to us to care for our past, to remember that which we have lost, and also to celebrate the flowering world, the present moment, whilst reaching forward to a possible future.


Yggdrasil and the 9 Norse Worlds

In ancient Norse mythology and cosmology, Yggdrasil is an immense tree that sprang forth in the primordial void of Ginnungagap, unifying the 9 worlds of Asgard, Álfheimr/Ljósálfheimr, Niðavellir/Svartálfaheimr, Midgard (Earth), Jötunheimr/Útgarðr, Vanaheim, Niflheim, Muspelheim & Hel.

The branches of Yggdrasil reach far into the heavens, supported by three roots that extend to the well of Urðarbrunnr, the spring of Hvergelmir and the well of Mímisbrunnr. The Norns, female entities who spin the threads of fate draw the waters from Urðarbrunnr which they pour over Yggdrasil.

The stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór continually feed on the tree, but its vitality persists evergreen as it heals and nourishes the vibrant aggression of life.

On the topmost branch sits an eagle, the beating of its wings causes the winds in the world of men. At the foot of the tree dwells the great serpent Niðhǫggr, gnawing at the roots whilst the squirrel Ratatoskr journeys back and forth with insults and messages.

The existence of nine worlds around Yggdrasil is often mentioned in Old Norse sources, but the identity of the worlds is often exaggerated in interpretation by 13 th century writers (Snorri Sturluson) and varies in description from one poet to another.

Asgard is the home of the Æsir, a ruling class of deities that includes Odin, Frigg and Thor. Snorri Sturluson writes that “Asgard is a land more fertile than any other, blessed also with a great abundance of gold and jewels.”

The world is surrounded by an incomplete wall, attributed to a stone mason that Thor struck down when the gods learned he was a Hrimthurs in disguise.

Asgard is also the location of Valhalla “hall of the slain”, an enormous feasting hall ruled over by Odin. In Valhalla, the dead join the masses of those who have died in combat known as “Einherjar” as they prepare to aid Odin during the events of Ragnarök.

2 Álfheim/Ljósálfheimr

Álfheim is loosely translated as “Land of the Elves” or “Elfland” and as the name suggests, is home of the Jósálfar light elves ruled by the Goddess Freya. Text describing Álfheim is scarce, but the elves themselves have been mentioned in poem as more “beautiful than the sun”.

3 Niðavellir/Svartálfaheimr

Niðavellir translates as “new moon” or “the wane of the moon” and is the realm of the Dwarfs, a race of master smiths and craftsmen who reside underground working the mines and forges. (Text also associates the realm to that of the black/dark elves).

4 Midgard (Earth)

Midgard is a realm inhabited by a race known as humans, surrounded by an impassable ocean encircled by the great sea serpent Jörmungandr. The god’s of Asgard journey to Midgard via the Bifröst, a burning rainbow bridge that ends in heaven at Himinbjörg, the residence of the god Heimdallr.

According to the Eddas (Icelandic literary works), Midgard will be destroyed at Ragnarök, the battle at the end of the world. Jörmungandr will arise from the ocean, poisoning the land and sea with his venom and causing the sea to rear up and lash against the land. The final battle will take place on the plane of Vígríðr, where Midgard and almost all life on it will be destroyed and sink beneath the waves. In the aftermath, Midgard will rise again, fertile and green in a new creation cycle.

5 Jötunheimr/Útgarðr

Jötunheimr is the homeland of the Jötnar, the giants in Norse mythology. In the Eddas the realm is described as having dark forests and mountain peaks where winter never eases its frosty grip. It was here in Jötunheimr that Odin sacrificed an eye in exchange for wisdom at the well of Mímisbrunnr.

Little is known about Vanaheim, other than it is the home of the Vanir, a group of gods associated with fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see the future. After the Æsir–Vanir War, the Vanir became a subgroup of the Æsir. Subsequently, members of the Vanir are sometimes also referred to as members of the Æsir.

Niflheim, translated as “Abode of Mist” or “Mist World” is a realm of primordial ice and one of the first to emanate out of Ginnungagap in the creation story of the Yggdrasil tree. The word “Niflheim” is only found in the works of Snorri and in the Hrafnagaldr Óðins.

8 Muspelheim

Muspelheim is a realm of fire and was the first elemental world to emanate from the primordial void of Ginnungagap. The world is ruled by Surtr, a jötunn giant who plays a major role during the events of Ragnarök where the flames that he brings will engulf Midgard.

Hel, also referred to as “Helheim” or “The Realm of Hel” is an underworld for many of the dead, ruled by the deity “Hel”. Unlike the Christian form of hell, this Norse underworld is more a continuation of life elsewhere, neither a place of eternal bliss nor one of endless torment.


The Primordial Worlds

According to the Norse creation myth, the Nine Worlds were created around Yggdrasil, the great World Tree. Before they were created, however, there was a vast empty space called Ginnungagap.

The higher regions of Ginnungagap were bitterly cold while the lower area grew increasingly hot. Eventually, these areas became the first primordial worlds.

Niflheim, the land of mists, was a realm of ice and fog. The ground froze solid and no living thing could survive the extreme temperatures.

Muspelheim on the opposite extreme was a realm of fire.

According to some accounts, both of these worlds were eventually inhabited by a race of giants well-suited to the extreme temperatures.

The heat of Muspelheim and the frozen ice of Niflheim eventually began to interact. The rising warmth made the ice beneath Niflheim slowly melt, and the dripping water evaporated into mist when it fell toward Muspelheim’s fires.

In Ginnungagap, this mist slowly began to coalesce into two distinct shapes. First, the giant Ymir emerged from the mist. Then came an enormous cow that was known as Auðumla.

Ymir drank the cow’s milk. Auðumla subsisted by licking the salty ice that accumulated on Niflheim.

The ice slowly began to take shape as Auðumla licked it. This became the first god, Búri, who went on to have a son named Borr.

Ymir, too, gave rise to new life. The first jötnar, or giants, were born from his sweat.

Borr’s wife Bestla was likely one of these early giants. Together, they had three sons named Odin, Vili, and Vé.

The three young gods had no home of their own and were outnumbered by Ymir’s often cruel offspring. The ancestral giant was also unkind and demanding.

In dealing with Ymir, the three gods ended up creating the first world in the center of Ginnungagap.

The Creation of Midgard

The three brothers decided to kill Ymir so they no longer had to suffer his abuse. Although he was large and powerful, they easily defeated him.

The blood that spilled from Ymir’s body washed away most of the cruel frost giants. Only a few remained, and they became the ancestors of the jötnar.

Ymir’s body took up a large area in the center of Ginnungagap. Odin and his brothers decided to use it to make a new world, the first to be made after the primordial worlds.

Ymir’s body became the surface of the land. His blood was collected and contained to make seas and rivers.

The gods used his bones and teeth to make mountains and fjords. Great mountain ranges and tall cliffs were sculpted in this way.

The giant’s skull was placed over the new world to make the dome of the sky. The brains that remained in it floated through the space as clouds that floated through it.

The brothers captured sparks that flew up from Muspelheim and placed them in the new sky. These became the sun, moon, and stars that gave light to the world.

In other accounts, the sun and moon were made from Ymir’s eyes. They would be carried in chariots by later gods.

Ymir’s hair and beard were used to form plants. Short grass and tall trees were all made from the giant’s hairs.

The brothers knew that their new world needed to be made safe from the jötnar, many of whom were still malicious. They used Ymir’s eyebrows to make a protective wall that encircled the new world and keep it safe from attack.

They called this world Midgard, the “Middle Yard,” because it was in the center of Yggdrasil and because the middle was enclosed like a safe yard. This is sometimes written in modern English as Middle Earth.

The brothers were pleased with their world and decided to create new people to inhabit this world. They carved Ask and Embla, the first man and woman, from the branches of trees and gave them life.

According to the Prose Edda, however, these first humans were unintelligent and incapable of surviving. Some of the newer Aesir gods helped Odin to give humans the capacity for knowledge.

The Worlds of the Gods

The Norse creation myth details the world of men and the primordial realms of ice and fire, but it does not say how the other six worlds were created. In fact, it does not even specify what these worlds were.


Nidhogg

Nidhogg (Old Norse Níðhöggr, literally “Curse-striker” or “He Who Strikes with Malice”) is the foremost of several serpents or dragons who dwell beneath the world-tree Yggdrasil and eat its roots. This is highly injurious to the tree, which holds the Nine Worlds of the cosmos. [1] Nidhogg’s actions have the intention of pulling the cosmos back to chaos, and he, along with his reptilian cohort, can therefore surely be classified among the giants (or, as they were called in pre-Christian times, “devourers”).

From this it would make sense for Nidhogg to have a prominent role in Ragnarok, the downfall of the cosmos. This does indeed seem to be the case. In one especially important Old Norse poem (the Völuspá or “Insight of the Seeress”), Nidhogg is described as flying out from beneath Yggdrasil during Ragnarok, presumably to aid the giants’ cause. [2]

Later in the same poem, Nidhogg is also said to preside over a part of the underworld called Náströnd (“The Shore of Corpses”) where perjurers, murderers, and adulterers are punished. [3] However, this conception of the afterlife as marked by moral retribution is totally foreign to the indigenous worldview of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, and must be an instance (one of many) of Christian influence upon the poem.

Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.


Odin’s Discovery of the Runes

The Norse god Odin is a relentless seeker after knowledge and wisdom, and is willing to sacrifice almost anything for this pursuit. The most outstanding feature of his appearance, his one eye, attests to this he sacrificed his other eye for more wisdom. The tale of how he discovered the runes is another example of his unquenchable thirst for understanding the mysteries of life, not to mention his unstoppable will.

The runes are the written letters that were used by the Norse and other Germanic peoples before the adoption of the Latin alphabet in the later Middle Ages. Unlike the Latin alphabet, which is an essentially utilitarian script, the runes are symbols of some of the most powerful forces in the cosmos. In fact, the word “rune” and its cognates across past and present Germanic languages mean both “letter” and “secret/mystery.” The letters called “runes” allow one to access, interact with, and influence the world-shaping forces they symbolize. Thus, when Odin sought the runes, he wasn’t merely attempting to acquire a set of arbitrary representations of human vocal sounds. Rather, he was uncovering an extraordinarily potent system of magic.

Odin’s Discovery of the Runes

At the center of the Norse cosmos stands the great tree Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil’s upper branches cradle Asgard, the home and fortress of the Aesir gods and goddesses, of whom Odin is the chief.

Yggdrasil grows out of the Well of Urd, a pool whose fathomless depths hold many of the most powerful forces and beings in the cosmos. Among these beings are the Norns, three sagacious maidens who create the fates of all beings. One of the foremost techniques they use to shape fate is carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. The symbols then carry these intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.

Odin watched the Norns from his seat in Asgard and envied their powers and their wisdom. And he bent his will toward the task of coming to know the runes.

Since the runes’ native home is in the Well of Urd with the Norns, and since the runes do not reveal themselves to any but those who prove themselves worthy of such fearful insights and abilities, Odin hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil, pierced himself with his spear, and peered downward into the shadowy waters below. He forbade any of the other gods to grant him the slightest aid, not even a sip of water. And he stared downward, and stared downward, and called to the runes.

He survived in this state, teetering on the precipice that separates the living from the dead, for no less than nine days and nights. At the end of the ninth night, he at last perceived shapes in the depths: the runes! They had accepted his sacrifice and shown themselves to him, revealing to him not only their forms, but also the secrets that lie within them. Having fixed this knowledge in his formidable memory, Odin ended his ordeal with a scream of exultation.

Having been initiated into the mysteries of the runes, Odin recounted:

Then I was fertilized and became wise
I truly grew and thrived.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.

Equipped with the knowledge of how to wield the runes, he became one of the mightiest and most accomplished beings in the cosmos. He learned chants that enabled him to heal emotional and bodily wounds, to bind his enemies and render their weapons worthless, to free himself from constraints, to put out fires, to expose and banish practitioners of malevolent magic, to protect his friends in battle, to wake the dead, to win and keep a lover, and to perform many other feats like these. [1]

“Sacrificing Myself to Myself”

Our source for the above tale is the Hávamál, an Old Norse poem that comprises part of the Poetic Edda. In the first of the two verses that describe Odin’s shamanic initiatory ordeal itself (written from Odin’s perspective), the god says that he was “given to Odin, myself to myself.” The Old Norse phrase that translates to English as “given to Odin” is gefinn Óðni, a phrase that occurs many times throughout the Eddas and sagas in the context of human sacrifices to Odin. And, in fact, the form these sacrifices take mirrors Odin’s ordeal in the Hávamál the victim, invariably of noble birth, was stabbed, hung, or, more commonly, both at the same time. [2]

Odin’s ordeal is therefore a sacrifice of himself to himself, and is the ultimate Odinnic sacrifice – for who could be a nobler offering to the god than the god himself?

So, it seems that a statement above is in need of qualification. Part of Odin survived the sacrifice in order to be the recipient of the sacrifice – in addition to the runes themselves – and another part of him did indeed die. This is suggested, not just by the imagery of death in these verses, but also by the imagery of rebirth and fecundity in the following verses that speak of his being “fertilized,” and, like a seedling, “growing,” and “thriving.”

Even a casual browsing of the Eddas and sagas alerts the reader to how accomplished, self-possessed, and inwardly strong many of their central figures are, especially the most Odinnic of them (such as Egill Skallagrimsson, Starkad, Sigurd, and Grettir Asmundarson). Perhaps their strength of character was largely due to the example set by their divine patron, with the songs sung in his honor telling of how he wasn’t afraid to sacrifice what we might call his “lower self” to his “higher self,” to live according to his highest will unconditionally, accepting whatever hardships arise from that pursuit, and allowing nothing, not even death, to stand between him and the attainment of his goals.

Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.


The Major Norse Gods & Goddesses

There are two different tribes of Norse Gods.

The Æesir represent war, government, and chaos. From this line comes Odin and his offspring, which include the gods Thor, Baldr, Víðarr and Váli.

The Vanir, on the other hand, associate with nature and fertility. From this line come gods such as Freyr and Freyja.

ODIN

Odin is the Norse God of Wisdom, Poetry, and War, and is considered the all-father of the gods.

Modern works and pop culture may portray him as honorable, but in the original Norse mythology he loves the chaos of battle more than wisdom or poetry.

He was also the great magician among the gods, and was often associated with runes. Ancient rune stones can still be found all over Scandinavia today!

There are two prominent Norse legends about Odin. Firstly, in exchange for wisdom, he sacrificed one of his eyes at a magical well.

The other legend is of his magical horse, Sleipnir, which had eight legs and the ability to gallop over the air and sea. Supposedly Odin and his magical horse were the original inspiration for Santa Claus and his eight magical reindeer!

Also, the day Wednesday comes from Odin, who was also called Woden (Woden’s Day)!

THOR

Odin’s most powerful son, known as the Norse God of Thunder, Thor is physically the strongest of all the Æesir gods.

He is probably the most popular Norse god today, due to the Marvel comic books and Avengers movies. However, unlike in the movies, Thor is usually depicted with red hair and a full beard.

This beloved Viking god protects both Asgard, the realm of the gods, and Midgard, the realm of the humans, from the giants and other threats.

His famous weapon is Mjölnir, a dwarf-forged hammer that is capable of flattening mountains .

While Odin’s name gave rise to Wednesday, Thor’s gave rise to Thursday.

FRIGG

Frigg is the Norse Goddess of Marriage, Family, and Motherhood. She is Odin’s wife, and the only other god to sit on the throne and look out across the nine realms.

These facts make her very similar to Hera of Greek mythology.

Frigg practices a Norse form of magic that allows her to see the fates of the world. She is also the mother to Baldr and Hodr, who play a significant role in Viking mythology.

One legend says that when Odin went away on long journeys, Freya could be found weeping tears of red gold due to his absence.

Due to the lack of concrete sources, it’s very difficult to distinguish her from the goddess Freyja, and they are sometimes used interchangeably.

Like Odin and Thor, Frigg’s name gave rise to Friday.

TYR

Týr is the original Norse God of War, and considered the bravest of all the Viking gods.

Ironically, he is also the God of Peace, and has an interest in justice and treaties. Due to this, he usually decides who wins battles.

Since the ancient Norse believed that there was more to war than fighting, Týr’s role as an upholder of the law was just as important as his combat ability.

Although Sturluson’s Eddas did not mention him much, he is known for losing his hand (sometimes recorded as his arm) to the monstrous wolf , Fenrir, the son of Loki.

The story goes that Fenrir would only agree to be chained if one of the gods would put his arm in its mouth. Týr was the only one willing to do so, showing his bravery and commitment to justice and peacemaking.

Following the trend of other Norse Gods, Týr’s name gave rise to the use of Tuesday.

HEIMDALLR

Heimdallr (or Heimdall) is one of the Æsir gods, the guardian of the Bifrost bridge between Asgard and Midgard.

Other names for Heimdall are “the shining god” and “the watchmen of the gods.” He is a son of Odin, but according to legend he was born from nine different mothers.

He has extraordinary senses, and can see all the way to the ends of the earth. There is a Norse legend that he could hear grass growing in meadows and wool growing on sheep.

He has a horn, known as the Gjallarhorn, that was used to warn of impending trouble. It was believed that he would blow his horn as the giants neared Asgard to call the Norse Gods back for the Ragnarök.

His mortal enemy was Loki and, in their final battle during the Ragnarök, they each slayed the other.

LOKI

Loki is well known in the Marvel Comics as both the adopted brother of Thor and his archnemesis.

However, in Norse mythology, he is the son of a giant and a mysterious woman. He’s also the father of the Goddess Hel, who reigns over the Realm of the Dead.

Loki is the Norse God of Trickery and Mischief. He can change his shape and sex at will.

Most notably, his trickery caused the death of the god Baldr, and his punishment to be tied to a rock and tortured resembles Prometheus in Greek mythology .

Loki is also known as the Father of Monsters. He is the one that sired Fenrir and Jörungandr (the Midgard Serpent), who played roles in the Ragnarök. Loki also sired Odin’s horse, Sleipnir.

Although he sometimes helped the gods trick others, the Æsir did not trust him due to his trickery.

FREYR AND FREYJA

Freyr and Freyja are twins of the Vanir clan of Norse Gods. After the war between the two tribes, the Vanir sent the twins to the Æsir gods.

Freyr rules over the rain and sun, and therefore the fruit of the earth, making him the governor of the prosperity of men. He is also known as the Lord of Elves.

Freyja is the Viking Goddess of Love. She rides a chariot pulled by two cats, and she keeps a wild boar beside her.

She rules over the heavenly afterlife of Folkvangr, where half the warriors go when they die. The other half go to Odin’s Valhalla. As stated earlier, it is likely that Freyja and Frigg are the same goddess.

BALDR

Baldr is the son of Odin and Frigg, and the brother of Hoδr.

As the God of Light and Radiance, he is the epitome of radiance, beauty, kindness, and fairness. He lived between heaven and earth.

Everyone believed him to be immortal, because all things swore to Frigg not to harm him. But the mistletoe did not swear.

Loki, the God of Trickery, discovered this and convinced Balder’s brother, Hodr, to throw a spear of mistletoe at him.

After the Ragnarök, the Realm of Death opens and Baldr and Hoor both escape to take Odin’s place as rulers.

VIDAR

Vidar is a son of Odin and the giantess Grid.

Although he is the second strongest of the Æsir gods after Thor, he is a peaceful god who likes to sit in silence.

He crafts a special shoe that helps him to kill the wolf Fenrir in the Ragnarök, which he does to avenge his father’s death.

He is one of the original Norse Gods who survives the Ragnarök and helps create the world after.


Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil (pronounced ig-druh-sil,) sometimes referred to as the Tree of Life, is an enormous Ash tree which is at the center of the Norse spiritual cosmos. This tree, which is always green, connects the nine worlds, or realms, of Norse cosmology. It’s origins are unknown and the exact size of either the tree or the nine realms cannot be measured. It transcends both space and time, serving as the central point of the world, but also encompasses all the realms the beginning, middle and end. It ties earth, the underworld, and Valhalla together. The Tree of Life brings human beings, Gods, Goddesses, elves, dwarves, giants, and all sorts of creatures from the animal kingdom, together under one single encompassing system.

The most accepted translation of the word Yggdrasil is “Odin’s Horse” – Ygg is another term for Odin and drasil is a horse. In the grand scheme of things, Odin and the great tree can be considered one in the same. Everything we know about Yggdrasil comes from a series of anonymous Old Norse poems called the Poetic Edda. Several versions exist, all consisting primarily of text from the Icelandic medieval manuscript known as the Codex Regius (royal book) which is arguably the most important source of Old Norse history/mythology known. In the Poetic Edda, Yggdrasil is mentioned in three poems Völuspá, Hávamál and Grímnismál.

The Nine Realms

Asgard is the first level of the Norse cosmology and it is located at the top of the great tree. It is the home of the Gods, the Aesir, and is surrounded by a partially constructed wall. Odin and Frigg, husband and wife, rule Asgard. Vanaheim is another world inhabited by Gods the Vanir are Gods associated with fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see into the future. No one is exactly certain where Vanaheim is located. The third realm is called Alfheim and it is inhabited by the light elves and located adjacent to Asgard. The elves are described as something akin to the sun or sunlight itself. The Vanir are considered “guardian angels who can help or hinder humans with their minor God-like powers. Of all the worlds, this one presents some confusion among scholars since it is ruled supposedly by Freyr a Vanir.

Jotunheim also known as Utgard, is another of the realms and also the land of the frost giants, also referred to as the devourers. Under the rule of King Laufey, Jotunheim is one of the most dangerous and terrifying places in the cosmos, and was the birthplace of Loki, the shape-shifting trickster. The giants are sworn enemies of the Aesir and do battle with the Gods almost constantly. Jotunheim is located right across the river Iving from Asgard. The land called Svartalfheim, also known as Nidavellir is a rocky place where the dwarves reside. These dwarves are master craftsmen and metal workers and were the source of many of the magical weapons and items known throughout Norse history, including Gugnir, the Spear of Odin.

Helheim, also known as Hel, is the underworld. It is thought to be somewhere underground in the cold reaches of the north. A fierce Goddess named Hel rules the Underworld. She is a giantess and the daughter of Loki and is known for being cruel, greedy, and harsh to the demands of the dead or the living. The Norse underworld is nothing like the Christian version aside from being ruled by a tyrant. While the latter is said to be a place of fire and brimstone, pain and suffering, the Norse version is closer to neutral ground. An in-depth look at the differences can be found here. It’s said that when the time of Ragnarok comes, all the dead will rise up to attack the Gods and Goddesses in an end-of-the-world event.

Midgard is the realm of the humans also called Middle Earth, it is located in the middle of the great tree. It is surrounded by a great and impassable ocean, but connected to Asgard by a rainbow bridge. A huge sea serpent lives in the great Ocean so huge is the Midgard serpent that it encircles the world entirely. Of the nine worlds, Midgard is the only visible world and positioned near the base of the trunk of Yggdrasil, below Asgard but above Helheim.

The other two realms are Niflheim, the land of mist and fog, and Muspelheim, the land of fire. Niflheim is the darkest and coldest realm it’s also the first of the nine worlds and it is protected by the huge dragon called Nidhug (Níðhöggr). As Yggdrasil started to grow, it stretched one of its three large roots far into Niflheim and drew water from the spring Hvergelmir, which the oldest of the three holy wells. Muspelheim lies to the far south and resembles the inside of an active volcano complete with boiling lava, fire, smoke, and heat. It’s the home of the great fire giants and ruled by the greatest fire giant, Surtr.

The Three Roots

Yggdrasil is supported by three great roots each extends to a different realm and each draws water from one of three sacred wells. The first root draws water from the Well of Urd, the well of knowledge, which is found in Asgard. The second root leads to the Well of Wisdom, also known as the Well of Mimisbrunner . It is located in Jotunheim and guarded by Mimir the giant. Mimar is the wisest creature in the universe and he drinks each day from the Well of Wisdom. The third root leads to Niflheim and the Well of Hvergelmir the oldest of the three wells and the source of the eleven rivers, which are the ancient water sources for the entire world. A great stag called Eikthyrnir gnaws on the branches of the great tree, and from his horns flows the water that runs into Hvergelmir. Snakes inhabit the water in the well of Hvergelmir plus it’s guarded by a great serpent.

The Inhabitants of Yggdrasil

The great tree is inhabited by many creatures, which each serve a specific function in maintaining balance and order. A great Eagle sits atop the uppermost branch of the tree the branch was called Lerad. This unnamed eagle is omniscient, knowing everything. The giant bird continuously flaps its great wings to provide wind to each individual realm. There is also a hawk, Veðrfölnir, which sits right between the eyes of the eagle. There are many speculative theories about the role the hawk plays, but none can be validated. A dragon or serpent called Niðhǫggr is also found among the creatures inhabiting Yggdrasil usually gnawing at the roots of the great world tree from beneath along with a horde of smaller unnamed dragons, demons, and other serpents. Níð is a Viking word describing someone who is villainous or has done something to cause a loss to their honor.

A giant squirrel named Ratatoskr runs up and down the tree continuously its only job is to deliver messages and insults between the great eagle and the dragon. Ratatoskr does everything in his power to keep the hatred between the two fueled. Also, four great red deer (stags), Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, live among the branches of the great tree, continuously eating its leaves. The four stags aren’t completely understood, but their names have given rise to theories over the years. Dáinn translated means “The Dead One,” Dvalinn “The Unconscious One,” Duneyrr, “Thundering in the Ear,” and Duraþrór “Thriving Slumber.” One theory was that each represented a differing degree of wind something important to Viking sailors. Other theories have attempted to tie them to the four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West), the four seasons (Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall), and even the four Elementals (earth, air, water, and fire.) These stags, like the hawk, are not defined as to their function as part of the Yggdrasil environment.

As the great tree is under constant assault by many of its inhabitant, three Norns attend to it each day. The Norns are female divine beings which have more influence over destiny than any other creatures in the cosmos. The dwell within the Well of Urd and shape destiny by carving Runes in the trunk of the tree. Their names are Urd (Old Norse Urðr, “What Once Was”), Verdandi (Old Norse Verðandi, “What Is Coming into Being”) and Skuld (Old Norse Skuld, “What Shall Be”). The three draw water from the Well of Urd and combine it with sand to replenish the tree.

Author’s Note

This is only a brief introduction to Yggdrasil. There are many sources of information on-line and many of them have conflicting information, especially concerning the roots and inhabitants. I’ve tried to include what is generally accepted as agreed-upon facts in this piece, so if you see something you don’t agree with, please let me know.


Contents

The historical religion of the Norse people is commonly referred to as Norse mythology. In certain literature the terms Scandinavian mythology, [1] [2] [3] North Germanic mythology [4] or Nordic mythology have been used. [5]

Norse mythology is primarily attested in dialects of Old Norse, a North Germanic language spoken by the Scandinavian people during the European Middle Ages and the ancestor of modern Scandinavian languages. The majority of these Old Norse texts were created in Iceland, where the oral tradition stemming from the pre-Christian inhabitants of the island was collected and recorded in manuscripts. This occurred primarily in the 13th century. These texts include the Prose Edda, composed in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, and the Poetic Edda, a collection of poems from earlier traditional material anonymously compiled in the 13th century. [6]

The Prose Edda was composed as a prose manual for producing skaldic poetry—traditional Old Norse poetry composed by skalds. Originally composed and transmitted orally, skaldic poetry utilizes alliterative verse, kennings, and several metrical forms. The Prose Edda presents numerous examples of works by various skalds from before and after the Christianization process and also frequently refers back to the poems found in the Poetic Edda. The Poetic Edda consists almost entirely of poems, with some prose narrative added, and this poetry—Eddic poetry—utilizes fewer kennings. In comparison to skaldic poetry, Eddic poetry is relatively unadorned. [6]

The Prose Edda features layers of euhemerization, a process in which deities and supernatural beings are presented as having been either actual, magic-wielding human beings who have been deified in time or beings demonized by way of Christian mythology. [7] Texts such as Heimskringla, composed in the 13th century by Snorri and Gesta Danorum, composed in Latin by Saxo Grammaticus in Denmark in the 12th century, are the results of heavy amounts of euhemerization. [8]

Numerous further texts, such as the sagas, provide further information. The saga corpus consists of thousands of tales recorded in Old Norse ranging from Icelandic family histories (Sagas of Icelanders) to Migration period tales mentioning historic figures such as Attila the Hun (legendary sagas). Objects and monuments such as the Rök runestone and the Kvinneby amulet feature runic inscriptions—texts written in the runic alphabet, the indigenous alphabet of the Germanic peoples—that mention figures and events from Norse mythology. [9]

Objects from the archaeological record may also be interpreted as depictions of subjects from Norse mythology, such as amulets of the god Thor's hammer Mjölnir found among pagan burials and small silver female figures interpreted as valkyries or dísir, beings associated with war, fate or ancestor cults. [10] By way of historical linguistics and comparative mythology, comparisons to other attested branches of Germanic mythology (such as the Old High German Merseburg Incantations) may also lend insight. [11] Wider comparisons to the mythology of other Indo-European peoples by scholars has resulted in the potential reconstruction of far earlier myths. [12]

Only a tiny amount of poems and tales survive of the mythical tales and poems that are presumed to have existed during the Middle Ages, Viking Age, Migration Period, and before. [13] Later sources reaching into the modern period, such as a medieval charm recorded as used by the Norwegian woman Ragnhild Tregagås—convicted of witchcraft in Norway in the 14th century—and spells found in the 17th century Icelandic Galdrabók grimoire also sometimes make references to Norse mythology. [14] Other traces, such as place names bearing the names of gods may provide further information about deities, such as a potential association between deities based on the placement of locations bearing their names, their local popularity, and associations with geological features. [15]

Gods and other beings Edit

Central to accounts of Norse mythology are the plights of the gods and their interaction with various other beings, such as with the jötnar, who may be friends, lovers, foes, or family members of the gods. Numerous gods are mentioned in the source texts. As evidenced by records of personal names and place names, the most popular god among the Scandinavians during the Viking Age was Thor, who is portrayed as unrelentingly pursuing his foes, his mountain-crushing, thunderous hammer Mjölnir in hand. In the mythology, Thor lays waste to numerous jötnar who are foes to the gods or humanity, and is wed to the beautiful, golden-haired goddess Sif. [16]

The god Odin is also frequently mentioned in surviving texts. One-eyed, wolf- and raven-flanked, with spear in hand, Odin pursues knowledge throughout the worlds. In an act of self-sacrifice, Odin is described as having hanged himself upside-down for nine days and nights on the cosmological tree Yggdrasil to gain knowledge of the runic alphabet, which he passed on to humanity, and is associated closely with death, wisdom, and poetry. Odin is portrayed as the ruler of Asgard, and leader of the Aesir. Odin's wife is the powerful goddess Frigg who can see the future but tells no one, and together they have a beloved son, Baldr. After a series of dreams had by Baldr of his impending death, his death is engineered by Loki, and Baldr thereafter resides in Hel, a realm ruled over by an entity of the same name. [17]

Odin must share half of his share of the dead with a powerful goddess, Freyja. She is beautiful, sensual, wears a feathered cloak, and practices seiðr. She rides to battle to choose among the slain and brings her chosen to her afterlife field Fólkvangr. Freyja weeps for her missing husband Óðr, and seeks after him in faraway lands. [18] Freyja's brother, the god Freyr, is also frequently mentioned in surviving texts, and in his association with the weather, royalty, human sexuality, and agriculture brings peace and pleasure to humanity. Deeply lovesick after catching sight of the beautiful jötunn Gerðr, Freyr seeks and wins her love, yet at the price of his future doom. [19] Their father is the powerful god Njörðr. Njörðr is strongly associated with ships and seafaring, and so also wealth and prosperity. Freyja and Freyr's mother is Njörðr's sister (her name is unprovided in the source material). However, there is more information about his pairing with the skiing and hunting goddess Skaði. Their relationship is ill-fated, as Skaði cannot stand to be away from her beloved mountains, nor Njörðr from the seashore. [20] Together, Freyja, Freyr, and Njörðr form a portion of gods known as the Vanir. While the Aesir and the Vanir retain distinct identification, they came together as the result of the Aesir–Vanir War. [21]

While they receive less mention, numerous other gods and goddesses appear in the source material. (For a list of these deities, see List of Germanic deities.) Some of the gods heard less of include the apple-bearing goddess Iðunn and her husband, the skaldic god Bragi the gold-toothed god Heimdallr, born of nine mothers the ancient god Týr, who lost his right hand while binding the great wolf Fenrir and the goddess Gefjon, who formed modern-day Zealand, Denmark. [22]

Various beings outside of the gods are mentioned. Elves and dwarfs are commonly mentioned and appear to be connected, but their attributes are vague and the relation between the two is ambiguous. Elves are described as radiant and beautiful, whereas dwarfs often act as earthen smiths. [23] A group of beings variously described as jötnar, thursar, and trolls (in English these are all often glossed as "giants") frequently appear. These beings may either aid, deter, or take their place among the gods. [24] The norns, dísir, and aforementioned valkyries also receive frequent mention. While their functions and roles may overlap and differ, all are collective female beings associated with fate. [25]

Cosmology Edit

In Norse cosmology, all beings live in Nine Worlds that center around the cosmological tree Yggdrasil. The gods inhabit the heavenly realm of Asgard whereas humanity inhabits Midgard, a region in the center of the cosmos. Outside of the gods, humanity, and the jötnar, these Nine Worlds are inhabited by beings, such as elves and dwarfs. Travel between the worlds is frequently recounted in the myths, where the gods and other beings may interact directly with humanity. Numerous creatures live on Yggdrasil, such as the insulting messenger squirrel Ratatoskr and the perching hawk Veðrfölnir. The tree itself has three major roots, and at the base of one of these roots live a trio of norns, female entities associated with fate. [26] Elements of the cosmos are personified, such as the Sun (Sól, a goddess), the Moon (Máni, a god), and Earth (Jörð, a goddess), as well as units of time, such as day (Dagr, a god) and night (Nótt, a jötunn). [27]

The afterlife is a complex matter in Norse mythology. The dead may go to the murky realm of Hel—a realm ruled over by a female being of the same name, may be ferried away by valkyries to Odin's martial hall Valhalla, or may be chosen by the goddess Freyja to dwell in her field Fólkvangr. [28] The goddess Rán may claim those that die at sea, and the goddess Gefjon is said to be attended by virgins upon their death. [29] Texts also make reference to reincarnation. [30] Time itself is presented between cyclic and linear, and some scholars have argued that cyclic time was the original format for the mythology. [31] Various forms of a cosmological creation story are provided in Icelandic sources, and references to a future destruction and rebirth of the world—Ragnarok—are frequently mentioned in some texts. [32]

Humanity Edit

According to the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda poem, Völuspá, the first human couple consisted of Ask and Embla driftwood found by a trio of gods and imbued with life in the form of three gifts. After the cataclysm of Ragnarok, this process is mirrored in the survival of two humans from a wood Líf and Lífþrasir. From this two humankind are foretold to repopulate the new and green earth. [33]

Influence on popular culture Edit

With the widespread publication of translations of Old Norse texts that recount the mythology of the North Germanic peoples, references to the Norse gods and heroes spread into European literary culture, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain. During the later 20th century, references to Norse mythology became common in science fiction and fantasy literature, role-playing games, and eventually other cultural products such as comic books and Japanese animation. Traces of the religion can also be found in music and has its own genre, viking metal. Bands such as Amon Amarth, Bathory, Burzum and Månegarm have written songs about Norse mythology.


Ragnarok

Destruction of the World

The end of the current Norse cosmic cycle that some people mistake as the end of all time is called Ragnarok. The cosmos will end, only to be reborn again. However, during Ragnarok, there will be total and utter chaos. Everyone will be at war, and none will show mercy. Giants, gods, men, and creatures will all be at battle, and it will be a time of deep darkness and despair. Yggdrasil will “shake and groan,” and everything and everyone will be frightened. Nearly all beings and worlds will perish when the Giants succeed in destroying the cosmos.

The New Cosmos

Only two humans, Lif and Lifthrasir will survive by hiding themselves deep within Yggdrasil tree in Hodmimir’s Wood (this may be synonymous with the tree itself). Then, once the fire and chaos have died down, they will bear offspring to begin the new cycle of existence. A few gods will survive. Worlds will be reborn and even the Sun will give birth to a new star. A new cosmos of peace and tranquility without a hint of evil or despair will reign.

Though no source explicitly reveals what happens to the sacred tree after Ragnarok, if two humans survive by hiding within it, one can infer that it too survives. After all, the sources say that it is forever green, and through its tree trunk and branches, it conveys the destiny of the cosmos. It must endure. With interpretive liberty, one may view the Norse tree of life as the vast container and observer of all of creation. Yet it is the indestructible creator and is one with the cosmos, as it is one with the supreme and omnipresent Odin. The world tree Yggdrasil will perpetuate the cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth for all of eternity.


Helheim: Home of the dishonorable dead

Hel is where all the dishonorable dead, thieves, murderers, and those the gods and goddesses feel is not brave enough to go to Valhalla or Folkvangr. Helheim is ruled over by Hel (the daughter of Loki), Helheim is a very grim and cold place, and any person who arrives here will never feel joy or happiness again. Hel will use all the dead in her realm at Ragnarök to attack the gods and goddesses at the plains of Vigrid, this will be the end of the world.

“Hermod bowing before Hel” by John Charles Dollman

The sources that I have used can be difficult to read, therefore, I have made a list of what I consider the best Norse mythology books in English, they are easy to read, and they have been written by some of the most respected scholars within this field.


Watch the video: Norse Mythology Stories: The Essential - From Creation to Ragnarok - See U in History (May 2022).


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