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Nine Realms of Norse Cosmology

Nine Realms of Norse Cosmology


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Norse cosmology divided the universe into nine realms. The center of the universe was the great world-tree Yggdrasil and the nine realms either spread out from the tree or existed in levels stretching from the roots down and, marginally, side-to-side. Earlier Norse works (known as Eddic and Skaldic poetry) assume a knowledge of the cosmology and do not bother much with descriptions of locations or, in some cases, even specifics of what the realms were like and, because of this – and the fact that Norse religion had no written scripture – some of the realms are less clear than others.

Norse religious belief was characterized by the concept of síður (meaning “custom” or “habit”) in that it was fully integrated into the lives of the people. One would not attend service in anything like a church but would observe worship of the gods in one's own home, in a clearing in the woods, or in some sacred place of chthonic power. Even though there is evidence that temples to the gods existed, there is no record of what services or rituals performed there were like.

In the time before time, when nothing existed, there was only the tree Yggdrasil & the void.

The Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241 CE) finally wrote down the great Norse sagas but was a Christian writing for a Christian audience and so altered the original material. Even the Saga of the Volsungs, regularly cited by scholars as embodying “authentic” Norse beliefs, was finally set down in writing only around 1250 CE by an anonymous Christian scribe (Crawford, ix). These later works certainly point to much older and authentic Norse tales but are colored by the Christian context in which they were written. The concept of the afterlife realm of Hel, for example, is thought by scholars to be a wholly Christian concept added to Norse cosmology after Scandinavia was introduced to the new religion even though some realm known as Niflhel exists in earlier literature.

The original nine realms of the Norse universe were probably:

  • Asgard – Realm of the Aesir
  • Alfheim – Realm of the Bright Elves
  • Jotunheim – Realm of the Giants
  • Midgard – Realm of the Humans
  • Muspelheim/Muspell – A fire-giant or the forces of chaos or their realm
  • Nidavellir – Realm of the Dwarves
  • Niflheim – Realm of Ice and Mist possibly with lower realm of Niflhel
  • Svartalfheim – Realm of the Black Elves
  • Vanaheim – Realm of the Vanir

After Snorri's work, the nine realms changed as he seems to have confused the black elves with the dwarves and merged Nidavellir with Svartalfheim as a single realm while adding the concept of Hel as the most populous realm of the afterlife and making other changes. The nine realms according to Snorri Sturluson and those who wrote after him are:

  • Asgard – Realm of the Aesir, joined to Midgard by the rainbow bridge Bifrost
  • Alfheim – Realm of the Elves
  • Hel – Realm of those who died of illness or old age and then of most people
  • Jotunheim – Realm of the Giants and Frost Giants
  • Midgard – Realm of the Humans between Asgard and Jotunheim
  • Muspelheim – Realm of Fire, the fire-giant Surtr, and Surtr's forces of chaos
  • Nidavellir/Svartalfheim – Realm of the Dwarves beneath the earth
  • Niflheim – Realm of Ice, Snow, and Mist near Muspelheim
  • Vanaheim – Realm of the Vanir

These nine most likely would not all be recognized by a pre-Christian Scandinavian but they are the clearest depiction of the Nine Realms available in the present day. The same is true of the story of the creation of the world and human beings which may have been quite different when the Norse religion was a living, dynamic faith.

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The World Tree & Creation

In the time before time, when nothing existed, there was only the tree Yggdrasil and the void. No mention is made anywhere of who or what created the great tree of the world but all nine realms existed in and around its roots. It seems to have grown from the misty void of Ginnungagap which was bordered on one side by fiery Muspelheim and on the other by icy Niflheim. At some point, the fires of Muspelheim began to melt the ice of Niflheim and two entities emerged from the realm of mist: Ymir the giant and Audhumla the cow.

Audhumla drew sustenance from licking the ice and soon uncovered Buri, the ancestor of the gods. Buri had a son (no mention is made of how) named Borr who mated with the giantess Bestla (who also appears from nowhere). Bestla gave birth to the first of the gods: Odin, Vili, and Ve. While this was going on, Ymir gave birth to the giants through the process of autogamy (self-fertilization). While he sleeps, a male and female are born from his left armpit and a son comes from his legs; these will be the ancestors of the giants.

The best-known gods of the Norse pantheon are Aesir or live in Asgard: Odin, Thor, Loki, & Baldr.

Odin and his brothers kill Ymir and the giants are all drowned in his gushing blood except for Bergelmir and his wife who escape on a raft and will produce all the later giants who will be the sworn enemies of the gods. After Ymir is dead, Odin, Vili, and Ve drag his body to the void of Ginnungagap where they create the world from his corpse and, later, the first man (Ask) and first woman (Embla) from two trees. At this same time, it seems, the nine realms were also created.

Asgard

Originally, it is thought, Asgard was a part of the world of humans but Snorri places it in the heavens, connected to Midgard by Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. Asgard is the home of the Aesir, the majority of the Norse pantheon who warred with other gods known as the Vanir, made peace, and exchanged hostages to maintain that peace. Therefore, even though Asgard is primarily the home of the Aesir, there are Vanir who live there just as there are Aesir in Vanaheim.

The best-known gods of the Norse pantheon are Aesir or live in Asgard: Odin, Thor, Loki, and Baldr. Asgard is depicted as a celestial city of high towers surrounded by a great wall. Odin's famous hall of Valhalla, where his throne may have been located, is in Asgard. However, a place-name or object, Hildskjalf, is mentioned from which Odin can gaze out over the entire world and it is unclear whether this is his royal hall (separate from Valhalla) or his throne.

Alfheim

Alfheim also exists in the heavens, not far from Asgard, and was the home of the light (or bright) elves and, after Snorri, all the elves. It was presided over by the Vanir god Freyr who was one of the hostages sent from Vanaheim to Asgard at the conclusion of the war. The elves are magical beings, bright and beautiful, who inspired the arts, music, and creativity in general.

Scholar John Lindow (and others) has noted that Alfheimar was the geographic locale between the mouths of the rivers Gota and Glom at the border between Sweden and Norway and that people from this region were considered “fairer” than those in other places. The mythological Alfheim is therefore thought to be inspired by this region but this claim has been challenged. The realm is not described clearly in Norse literature but, owing to the nature of the elves, is thought to be quite lovely.

Hel

Hel (sometimes known as Helheim) is a dark, gloomy realm presided over by Hel, daughter of Loki, and sister of the Midgard serpent and Fenrir the wolf. When Loki's children were born, Odin knew they would cause trouble and so sought to place each one where it would do the least harm. He placed the Midgard serpent in the seas which surround the world, had Fenrir chained up, and threw Hel into a dark realm beneath the roots of Yggdrasil. This realm was then surrounded by a wall with only one gate and could only be reached by traveling downhill on a long, long path (known as Helveg – the way or road to Hel) and crossing a dangerous river of weapons.

Hel herself is depicted as a giantess, glum and brooding, and not at all like the character of Hela in the Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok (2017) played by Cate Blanchett. For reasons which are unclear, her realm became associated with the souls of the dead which did not die in battle and, initially at least, those who died from disease or old age. In time, it became the most populous realm of the dead and most people who died were thought to travel to Hel's dark realm where they wandered in a kind of twilight but, otherwise, did more or less what they had done while alive. Determining who went to Hel's realm or why is not easy as the great hero-god Baldr, among others, is said to have gone to Hel when, considering his status, he should have gone to Valhalla.

Jotunheim

Jotunheim (sometimes referred to as Utgard) is the realm of the giants and Frost Giants and is located near both Asgard and Midgard. Jotunheim/Utgard was considered beyond the realm of order, a primordial place of chaos, magic, and untamed wilderness. Loki, the trickster god of mischief, came from Jotunheim but lived in Asgard. Jotunheim was considered best avoided but there are a number of tales involving gods of Asgard purposefully traveling there.

It was separated from Asgard by the river Iving, which never froze and was difficult to cross, but Odin traveled to Jotunheim to Mimir's well of wisdom and Thor also went there to the stronghold of the giant Utgarda-Loki. Anything could happen to a person in Jotunheim as the tale of Thor and Utgarda-Loki makes clear: nothing Thor experiences on his journey is what it appears to be and, at the end of the story, the stronghold and everyone in it disappears.

Midgard

The realm of human beings was first populated by Ask and Embla, from whom all other people are descended. After Odin, Veli, and Ve kill Ymir and create the world, they are walking along by the sea and find two trees, an Ash and an Elm. They create the first man from the Ash tree and the woman from the Elm. They understand, however, that these creatures are helpless and easy prey for the giants and so create Midgard to protect them. In the Gylfafinning section of the Prose Edda, the story-teller High describes Midgard:

It is [the earth] circular around the edge and surrounding it lies the deep sea. On these ocean coasts, the sons of Bor [Odin, Vili, and Ve] gave land to the clans of the giants to live on. But further inland they built a fortress wall around the world to protect against the hostility of the giants. As material for the wall, they used the eyelashes of the giant Ymir and called this stronghold Midgard. (17)

After humans are created, the gods create Asgard with its high walls for protection and are then assumed to have made the animals in Midgard and the rainbow bridge.

Muspelheim

Muspelheim is the primordial realm of fire, according to Snorri, which was instrumental in the creation of the world. The Fire-Giant Surtr lives in this realm and will emerge at Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, to destroy Asgard and everything else. Scholars in the modern day, however, disagree with Snorri's interpretation and believe that Muspell was originally a giant from a fiery world whose only function in original Norse mythology was the part he would play at Ragnarok.

John Lindow, for example, notes how, “in eddic poetry, Muspell is associated with groups, Muspell's peoples and Muspell's sons. Both refer to the hordes of evil beings that will invade the world at Ragnarok” (234). Simek agrees with this, citing Muspell as most likely the name for a giant and meaning roughly “the end of the world” (223). As with many of the original Norse concepts, however, Snorri's interpretation changed however Muspell or Muspelheim was originally viewed and for the past few hundred years it has been understood as a place of fire, not an entity.

Nidavellir/Svartalfheim

The realm of Nidavellier/Svartalfheim was below Midgard, deep in the earth, and the home of the dwarves who toiled there at their forges. It is a dark, smoky, place lit only by the fires from the forge and the torches on the walls. The gods seem to have decreed the realm of the dwarves based on their origin as given by Snorri in the Gylfafinning:

Next, the gods took their places on their thrones. They issued their judgments and remembered where the dwarves had come to life in the soil under the earth, like maggots in flesh. The dwarves emerged first, finding life in Ymir's flesh. They were maggots at that time, but by a decision of the gods they acquired human understanding and assumed the likeness of men, living in the earth and the rocks. (22)

The dwarves were associated with craftsmanship and magic. They created Thor's hammer Mjolnir and Odin's spear and well as the god Frey's magic ship which can be folded up and carried in his pocket. They are also responsible for the Mead of Poetry which Odin steals from the giants and gives to the gods who then inspire poets, through drink, to create their verse.

Niflheim

Niflheim, along with Muspelheim, is the oldest of the nine realms, the primordial land of ice, mist, and snow, from whence all life began. Snorri equates Niflheim with Niflhel which gave rise to his understanding of Niflheim as the location of Hel's realm. If Niflhel did exist in Norse cosmology prior to Christianity – as it seems to have - there is no mention of it in Niflheim and it was probably an abode of the dead comparable to Tartarus in Greek mythology or the later depictions of Hel: a dark, dreary place where the souls of the dead are confined. It may have been located beneath Niflheim.

All these nine realms coexisted, operating together, & would do so until the day of Ragnarok.

Niflheim, however, has nothing to do with the realm of the dead per se. It is a cold and misty realm where no one lives, not even the Frost Giants. Odin is said to have thrown Hel into Niflheim and to have then given her power over the dead and the lives of those in the Nine Realms but it is thought that she would have passed through Niflheim and into Niflhel (which just means “dark realm of Hel”) where she then ruled.

Vanaheim

Vanaheim is the home of the Vanir, the other family of Norse gods, who were associated with fertility and magic. The Aesir went to war with the Vanir but precisely why is unclear. It may be the war was fought over various practices of the Vanir which the Aesir considered unacceptable such as allowing incest and practicing a kind of magic the Aesir thought dishonorable. Whatever the war was about, it was concluded by a peace treaty in which hostages were exchanged and the Vanir sea god Njord and his two children Freyr and Frejya went to live in Asgard.

No descriptions are given for Vanaheim but it is assumed to be a fertile and pleasant realm of magic and light. Simek writes, “The Vanir are in particular fertility gods who were called upon for good harvests, sun, rain, and good winds especially by the agrarian population, and for favorable weather conditions by the seafarers and fishermen” (350). Freyja – one of the most popular Norse deities - presided over her own realm of the dead somewhere in Asgard called Folkvangr (“Field of the People”) which was quite probably as pleasant as Vanaheim, her home realm.

Conclusion

All these nine realms coexisted, operating together, and would do so until the day of Ragnarok. Independent of the Nine Realms, and living together in the roots of Yggdrasil, were the Norns – the fates – who weave the destinies of human beings and the gods. Like the Three Fates of ancient Greek belief or the Seven Hathors or god of fate Shay (Shai) in the religion of ancient Egypt, the decisions of the Norns were final and no one could appeal them. The world and all nine realms would be destroyed and there was nothing anyone could do about that.

Ragnarok would begin with a hard winter of ice and snow and then the arrival of Surtr the Fire Giant who would consume the world in flame at the same time that the Midgard serpent breaks free, churning the waters around Midgard and sinking the earth while, simultaneously, the great wolf Fenrir snaps his chains and devours the sun. The rainbow bridge Bifrost cracks and falls as Yggdrasil shakes and the gods arrange themselves for the final battle to save the ordered world they have built from the forces of chaos. The gods will lose, and they know that going into battle, but a handful will survive the final conflict and a new world and new order of realms would eventually rise from the ashes of the old.

This was the vision of the Norse religion: one could be certain of death and the loss of all one loved but, afterwards, there was something else. This vision was true for the individual soul as well as the earth itself and everything in it. What that something else might be was a mystery – there are no references to what the new world might be like after Ragnarok – but there was always the hope of a new beginning and the continuance of life in other realms after loss and death.


Travel between planes

The bridge Bifrost connects Asgard with Midgard. It is a grand construction of every color of light, and the people of Midgard say that the rainbow in the sky is the bridge Bifrost.

The Plane of Shadow connects Midgard with the underworld Niflheim.

The Astral Plane and Ethereal Plane both connect Midgard to the Plane of Shadow. Unlike the Great Wheel cosmology, there are no Outer Planes.

The valkyries, shieldmaidens of the Norse pantheon, carry the heroic dead of Midgard to Asgard abord grand winged seeds. All female heroes, and half of male heroes, are taken to Freya's hall Sessrumnir the other half of male heroes are taken to Odin's hall Valhalla.


The Significance of Odin’s 9 Realms

When Odin created the great cosmic ash tree Yggdrasil, he formed the nine realms in the branches and roots.

This great tree bound all of the cosmos into one.

The importance of this tree in Norse myths and its cultural significance is linked to numbers in the mythology.

Odin likely stopped at nine to link the tree and the realms to the germanic lunar calendar cycles. The number 9 and 3 and 27, play a significant role in the calendar and other Norse stories.

The number bears significance because it represents the Norse people and powerful magic often associated with the gods.

Odin is the god of runes in Norse Mythology

Why Nine is Important in Norse Mythology

The number nine plays a significant role in Norse mythology. While there are a few numbers that bear significance in the lore, the number nine is seen by most to be the most important.

The number eight, for example, is important for being unlucky. It pops up over many myths to represent instability and misfortune. Loki, the god of mischief, uses the number eight in numerous stories.

The Vikings were religious people. See Why Did the Vikings Worship Odin? to learn more.

Three plays a sacred role and can be linked to the three brothers when they created the realms.

The great tree Yggdrasil has three roots that plunge to bind the three realms: Asgard, Urd, and Niflheim. They give the tree life and connect it to Hel.

Some know nine as the greatest of all the numbers in Norse mythology. Nine represents magic and often is seen as a turning point number. Eight often turns into nine, as bad luck turns into opportunity.

Nine is the most mentioned number and has considerable significance attached to it over many myths and stories.

The Norse people lived their lives by the lunar calendar. It provided them with timekeeping for the months and seasons and offered a connection to the cosmos and gods through the many festivals and holidays that dotted the calendar.

They likely used the lunar calendar to help them plant and harvest, mark the hunt’s start, and help guide their religious practices. The numbers that bound the calendar, in turn, bound their lives and the stories they told about their gods.

Odin was known as more than just Odin. See Why Does Odin Have So Many Names? to learn more.

What are the 9 Realms?

The nine realms were created in two events. The first began before the dawn of time in the dark lifeless void called Ginnungagap.

This is where the first two realms were formed, Niflheim and Muspelheim. They represented darkness and light.

This land was occupied by giants the greatest of them was Ymir. Odin and his brothers, fearing the giants and their numbers, decided to assault Ymir to end the giants’ reign.

In a bloody and intense battle, they could defeat the great Ymir, and his body was then turned into the cosmos. His blood became the rivers, his flesh the land. His bones and teeth became the mountains and the rocks.

His hair was made into the trees and plants, and his eyelashes became one of the new realms: Midgard.

In addition to Midgard, six other realms were created. Combined with the original two, this makes for nine realms.

An artist’s depiction of Odin

Interested in Norse Mythology? See 14 Great Books on Norse Mythology that explain the gods, heroes, and villains of these ancient stories of Scandinavia.

Each realm has played a unique role in Norse stories:

  • Niflheim – A land of fog and mist, this realm is the darkest and coldest of them all.
  • Muspelheim – This land is filled with fire and is home to the fire demons and giants.
  • Asgard – The home of the gods.
  • Midgard – Also known as middle earth, this land is home to humans.
  • Jotunheim – Known as the home of the giants.
  • Vanaheim – This land is home to the old gods, known as the Vanir.
  • Alfheim – The light elves call this realm their own. They are known as guardian angels.
  • Svartalfheim – This realm is home to the dwarves who live underground.
  • Helheim – Hel is where the dead who died in dishonor go when they pass. It is home to thieves, murderers, and those not brave enough for Valhalla.

These nine realms cover all of the cosmos and creation. Much like other religions’ origin stories, these tales were told to connect people to their community and cultural heritage.

They are more than just stories, and certainly more than just myths. For the people that used them to explain the world, their mythos connected them to the divine: to the gods.

Other Norse Stories that Support the Importance of Nine

While the most important story that revolves around the number nine is the creation myth, the number is referenced many times in the gods’ stories.

Odin is associated with the number a few times. His ring Draupnir drips gold drops down every ninth night.

These create eight rings of equal size and weight. He also hangs upon the great tree Yggdrasil to secure the sacred runes of knowledge. He sacrificed himself and hung upon the tree for nine days.

Other famous gods have ties to the number nine. Thor, in the great battle Ragnarok, slays the serpent Jormungand and stubbles back nine steps before falling to the serpent’s poison. He then resurrects himself.

The god Hermod rode Odin’s horse Sleipnir for nine days through the dark roots of Yggdrasil towards Hel. Heimdall, the bridge Bifrost keeper that connects Asgard and Midgard, was born of nine mothers.

Nine also has cultural and historical significance in Nordic countries. For example, Sweden used to host a great feast at the Temple of Uppsala, where they would gather and celebrate for nine days. This feast would happen every nine years.

Nine pops up in numerous areas across the lore here are a few more significant instances of the number:

  • There are nine great Lindworms.
  • Baugi, the Giant, had nine Thralls who all killed themselves searching for Odin’s sharpening stone.
  • In the poem Grimnismal, Odin is held by King Geirrod for eight days until he reveals his identity and defeats the King on the ninth.
  • Aegir has nine daughters.
  • Thrivaldi, the Giant, has nine heads.

The 9 realms in Norse Mythology

Throughout the poems and stories of Norse mythology, the number nine plays a significant role in binding the tales to the cosmos’ greater workings.

There is no hiding the heavy-handed influence that numbers, including nine, had on the Norse people and their mythos.

When it comes to the creation myth, the origin of the cosmos, and the nine realms, Odin brought from the chaos of Ginnungagap a peaceful place for man, gods, dwarves, elves, and giants to live harmoniously.

They were all linked together by nine, the magic number that represents their pagan faith.

There is no explicit mention of why the number nine was chosen to bind the realms, but understanding how numbers play into the greater Norse lore can give us insight into why this number was chosen.


Niflheim literally means “The Home of Mists”. In the norse mythology and cosmology this realm is depicted as being very cold, covered by snow, frost and ice. Niflheim is one of the two worlds that collided in the beginning of time, thus creating all the other worlds and life itself. Niflheim collided with Muspelheim – frost and fire.

As I have mentioned before, we speak of worlds not as actually seperate worlds but realms, nine realms of the norse cosmology, so vast that led people to believe (spirit-workers and shamans of old) that the nine realms were actually worlds because of the vastness of the landscape and the different types of weather, flora and fauna that exist in each of the nine realms.

Niflheim is a very ancient world/realm, and its glaciers and mountains were solidified long ago, duo to its famous river, the River Elivagar (Icy Waves). This great river crystallized all things into frost, this everything turned into ice and remained as such. When muspelheim collided with Niflheim, the ice of Niflheim began to melt away in the southernmost areas. It was when the first being was created/came to life, the great frost giant Ymir, born of ice and fire unified.

Unlike the other realms of the norse cosmology, its very hard to be aware of the seasonal changes in Niflheim, it seems to be always winter, similar to the artic regions of out own world. The days are long and the nights longer still at Winter, it seems that night never ends.

More than half of Niflheim is covered by snow and ice, and it will never melt. The weather is often cloudy and shrouded in mist on the low land. The sky is covered most of the time, so it is easy to get lost in here, the stars or the position of the sun and moon are of no avail, and everything in the landscape looks exactly the same thousands of miles in every direction. Closer to Svartalfheim the landscape turns more mountainous and the ice starts to melt by the shore, creating a sea of icebergs and snow-covered islands till it reaches the southern shores of Svartalfheim.

The most important geographical feature in Niflheim, is probably the sacred well named Hvergelmir. Hvergelmir is the largest well sacred well, and hot-spring of turbulent waters from which many rivers flow.

About the fauna and flore of Niflheim, those only exist in the northernmost parts near Svartalfheim. A few plants dotted the soils of the islands and the tundras. In the water there are seals and other cold-water mammals. There are also a few mammoths roaming in the tundras and a dire wolves to the north-east.


7 Helheim

Helheim was not originally considered to be one of the nine realms, but has been treated as one since the twelfth century. It's a dark and gloomy place where flames are unable to survive and is presided over by the Aesir Goddess of Death, Hel. The souls of those who die from illness or old-age are sent there, but those who die in battle are instead sent to Valhalla.

Kratos visits Helheim several times during the events of God of War. Due to Odin imprisoning the Valkyries, the realm is flooded with souls, many of whom should have been taken to the halls of Valhalla. Hel has yet to make an appearance in the series, although she may well turn up if Kratos returns to the realm in the future.


Midgard – Realm of the Humans

Midgard is the ream of men, created by Odin and his two brothers Veli and Ve. They made the first man, Ask, and the first woman, Emlba, from the ash and an elm tree, and these two went on to give birth to all mankind.

However, seeing how helpless their creations were, Odin and his brothers created Midgard to protect them from the giants. Asgard is directly connected with Midgard by a rainbow Bifrost bridge, allowing the gods easy access to this realm of which they are cartakers.

Located somewhere around the middle of Yggdrasil in Norse cosmology, Midgard is described as circular, and surrounded by a deep sea that is impassable. This is where Odin placed Loki’s son Jormungandr, who is so large that he circles Midgard entirely and grasps his own tail.

Like all the nine worlds, Midgard will be destroyed as part of Ragnarok. Jormangandr will rise from the sea, causing the water from the sea to cover the land, and he will cover land and sea with his deadly venom.


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.


Christian tree of life and tree of knowledge of good and evil

Biblical interpretations of the tree of life and tree of the knowledge of good and evil closely follow that of Hebrew scripture at first, but later diverges due to the additional New Testament. The metaphorical relevance of the tree of life is also more heavily emphasized in Christianity, with various religious authorities arguing it to symbolize Jesus, the cross, or even the love of God.

The Book of Revelation and the Book of Enoch share key parallels regarding the tree of life. In the Book of Revelation, the tree of life reappears in a new garden of paradise after the apocalypse. Those who "wash their robes" are then permitted to "have the right to the tree of life." Two trees of life are revealed, one "on either side of the river" which "bear twelve manner of fruits" "and the leaves of the tree were used for the healing of nations."


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.


Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology

Norse Cosmology contains ‘nine homeworlds’ (Níu Heimar in Old Norse) in which all beings inhabit. These worlds are centered on the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which lies at the centre of the cosmos. Each of these Nine Worlds is the homeland of various classes of beings that are part of Norse and Germanic mythology. Travel between the worlds are described in myths, where gods and other beings sometimes interact directly with humans.

Although the Nine Worlds are mentioned in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, descriptions are vague and could have been influenced by later Christian cosmology. The relationships between the worlds is still uncertain, for example, between Hel, Helheim, Niflhel, and Niflheim. Below is a reconstruction:

Upper level
Asgard / Ásgarðr / Aesir – Land of the Aesir Gods and Goddesses
Vanaheim / Vanaheimr / Vanir – Land of the Vanir Gods and Goddesses
Alfheim / Álfheimr / Álfar – Land of the Light Elves

Middle Level / Middle Earth
Midgard / Miðgarðr / Menn – Land of Humanity
Jotunheim / Jötunheimr / Jötnar – Land of the Giants
Svartalfheim / Svartálfaheimr / Dvergar – Land of the Dark Elves
(Nidavellir –Land of the Dwarves)

Lower Level
Muspelheim / Muspellsheimr – Primordial Land of Fire
Niflheim / Niflheimr – Primordial place of Ice and Fog, Land of the Dead
(Hel / Helheimr / Náir – Land of the Dead, Home of the Goddess Hel)

Asgard / Ásgarðr / Aesir – Land of the Aesir Gods and Goddesses
High in the sky lies Asgard, home to the Aesir, the sky gods. Asgard was also the home of Odin’s Valhalla and Freya’s Fólkvangr, where brave Viking warriors would go after death. Home of Urdarbrunnr, the Well of Fate, guarded by the Norns.

Vanaheim / Vanaheimr / Vanir – Land of the Vanir Gods and Goddesses
A mysterious place, home of the Vanir earth gods. Home of Njord, Freya and Freyr, who came to live in Asgard after the Aesir-Vanir war.

Alfheim / Álfheimr / Álfar – Land of the Light Elves
Next to Asgard in the heavens was Alfheim, home to beautiful elves, the gods of nature and fertility. Alfheim was ruled by Freyr.

Midgard / Miðgarðr / Menn – Land of Humanity
Home of mankind, also known as ‘middle earth’. Midgard was connected to Asgard by Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge.

Jotunheim / Jötunheimr / Jötnar – Land of the Giants
Home of the jotuns (giants), enemies of the Aesir. Jotunheim was mostly rocks, wilderness and dense forests. Loki came from Jotunheim, later to live in Asgard. Home of Mímisbrunnr, the Well of Wisdom, guarded by Mimir.

Svartalfheim / Svartálfaheimr / Dvergar – Land of the Dark Elves
Deep in the underground lived the hideous dark elves, known to cause trouble to humans such as causing nightmares. They could not be touched by the sun, otherwise they would turn to stone.

Nidavellir –Land of the Dwarves
Similar to Svartalfheim was Nidavellir, where dwarves lived in caves underground. Ruled by Hreidmar, the dwarves were masters of craftsmanship and gave presents to the Aesir, such as Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear. Could be the same as Svartalfheim.

Muspelheim / Muspellsheimr – Primordial Land of Fire
Muspelheim was a burning hot place created in the far south. It was home to the fire giants, fire demons, and the giant Surt, enemy to the Aesir.

Niflheim / Niflheimr – Primordial place of Ice and Fog, Land of the Dead
The lowest of the Nine Worlds, this land of ice and mist was located in the northern region of Ginnungagap. The oldest of three wells, Hvergelmir (‘Roaring Kettle’), was located here, which was the source of all cold rivers and the origin of all living things.

Hel / Helheimr / Náir – Land of the Dead, Home of the Goddess Hel
Home of the Goddess Hel, daughter of Loki. When humans were not accepted to Valhalla or Fólkvangr, they came to Hel’s hall Elivdnir. Could be the same as Niflheim.


Watch the video: Niflheim - Germanische Mythologie 55 (September 2022).


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