Yggdrasil and the Nine Realms of the Norse Cosmos
So Norse Mythology - what is it? How much of it is there? What does it all mean? In this series of blog posts we hope to be able to provide you with Norse Mythology 101. Each post we aim to dive into a topic drawn out from the Eddas and ancient belief system of the Vikings and their Ancestors. For this week we decided to paint of picture of the universe or cosmos to the mind of a Viking and explain how the Vikings saw themselves and placed themselves in their idea of creation.
In Norse Mythology the Vikings believed that the world they lived upon was not the only one inhabited in the universe but in fact there were another 8 worlds all containing their own unique races or indigenous populations. These worlds were interrelated and held together by a giant cosmic Ash tree known as Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil was the largest and most resplendent tree in the universe with its branches reaching to and connecting all the nine worlds together. What we can discern from the sources is that Yggdrasil had three large roots however where the terminated is the topic of some debate with some believing it was into three wells and others into three of the nine realms themselves. What we do know however is that the tree was home to inhabitants of its own. For example Nidhogg, a large dragon that lurks at the base of the tree gnawing its roots, a large eagle that lives it its upper branches and Ratatoskr, a squirrel that trades rumour and insult between the aforementioned two. Yggdrasil also played an active role in the lives of the Gods serving as a meeting place that they would attend every day to hold court and a gallows for Odin to hang himself from in his question for wisdom. For the Vikings Yggdrasil was the central component to creation and therefore a very holy and spiritual concept.
As we now know the mighty Ash Yggdrasil is central to the cosmos and holds together the nine realms however we havn’t yet actually established what these nine realms are. Again when examining sources of norse myth from poetic to prose Edda interpretations can change which has mean that the specific names of the worlds themselves can vary but broadly speaking there is:
Asgard - Similar to the concept of ‘heaven’ in Christianity Asgard was the realm and home to the pantheon of God’s in Norse Mythology. This is the place in which Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Frigg, Balder, Tyr and many others dwelt. It was also the place that those who had died a noble death in battle went to after they died or more specifically Valhalla.
Alfheim - Home of the light elves beings of light and grace. Although there is not much source material describing them in detail the closest concept in popular culture may be the elves of Tolkein’s ‘MIddle Earth’.
Vanaheim - The home of the Vanir a tribe of Demi-God like beings similar to the Aesir however lesser in power
Midgard - Earth the world of man and the one that we inhabit
Jotunheim - A mountainous world perpetually gripped by winter and home to the frightening race of giants
Nidavellir/Svartalfheim - Nidavellir often causes some confusion due to the interchanging of Svartalfheim used in its naming. This is the world of the dwarves and the birth place of legendary items such as Gungnir or Mjolnir. Unlike the MCU representation of a giant space forge, Nidavellir was most likely a subterranean world again not unlike those conceived in the imagination of Tolkien.
Niflheim - One of the primordial worlds that existed at the time of Ginunngagap. Niflheim is a cold world of fog and ice
Muspelheim - Standing in stark contrast to Niflheim, Muspelheim is a world of fire and heat that spews sparks and fire into the cosmos. It was the conjoining of the heat of Muspelhim and cold of Niflheim that Ymir the giant was born from. Muspelheim is also the realm of Surer the fire demon who will play a central role in Raganrok and the downfall of the Gods.
Hel - A dark world full of despair and coldness. Unlike in Christianity were Hel is associated with punishment for wrongdoing in Norse Mythology Hel is simply a place for the souls of those that had not died in battle to go after death. This could include those that died of sickness or old age.