Yggdrasil and the Nine Realms of Norse Cosmology
Come with us on a ride up and down the Norse World Tree called Yggdrasil, step lightly into each of the nine realms of Norse cosmology, and finally, meet the Norns with us.
What Is Yggdrasil? The Norse World Tree
Put simply, Yggdrasil (pronounced igg-drah-zil) is the world tree in Norse Mythology and Cosmology; thought to be a giant ash (sometimes yew) tree at the center of the cosmos that ties all the worlds/realms together; considered holy. It is outside of time and space and therefore was not created by the gods. It just always has been before the gods even.
Yggdrasil means Yggr’s Steed or Terrible Steed; Yggr is another name for Odin and thus we can draw some conclusions as to why the Norse World Tree is intricately linked to the god of wisdom, the wanderer, the king of the gods who hung himself from Yggdrasil for 9 days and nights in order to receive the wisdom of the runes; also may have to do with the fact that Odin wanders the realms and thus he “rides” up and down the tree as a mode of transportation. Other scholars claim “steed” means “gallows”…though I’m not quite sold on that conclusion personally. Still another scholar proposes Yggdrasil actually means “Sacred Pillar”.
The 3 Parts of Yggdrasil: The Branches, Trunk and Roots
The make-up of Yggdrasil: there are 3 main parts the branches, trunk and its roots. However, it gets complex from there.
The branches extend into the heavens and support Asgard, the realm of the Aesir, the sky gods. (It’s interesting to note scholars believe this part was added into the Norse mythos by Snorri and wouldn’t necessarily be part of a pre-Christian Scandinavia). Asgard was originally thought to exist alongside Midgard. Asgard connects to Midgard via a rainbow bridge called Bifrost. Other branches support Alfheim, the realm of the elves. And still others support Vanaheim, another realm of elves but more specifically the Vanir (a race elven gods). Let’s also note that Vanaheim and the realm of elves was once thought part of the earth and therefore alongside Midgard, indicating once again changes made to the nine realms by Sturluson in the Dark Ages when he committed the mythos to paper.
The trunk of Yggdrasil represents the middle realms where we are currently and is called Midgard. This is the realm of humans and the living.
There are three main taproots that feed into three manifestations of the Sacred Well in Norse Cosmology:
One root terminates in Niflheim in the well Hvergelmir; this is where an ancient serpent/dragon named Nidhogg is gnawing at the root which is said to eventually topple the tree over (the Nornir prevent this from happening on a daily basis by pouring healing waters of the wells over the root to make it whole again). Another root ends in Jotunheim in Mimisbrunr otherwise called Mimir’s Well. And the 3rd ends in Urdabrunnr also known as the Well of Urd (or Wyrd).
There were actual ash trees and other types of trees that our ancient Germanic and Norse ancestors considered a physical representation of Yggdrasil and thus were sacred places of worship; i.e. Donar’s Oak.
Attested to in the Poetic and Prosa Eddas by Snorri Sturluson (we read a few stanzas of the Voluspa in the intro) plus in the Havamal when Odin hangs himself from its branches and in the Griminismal. Then also in the prose edda in the gylfaginning and skaldskaparmal. In the prose eddas, we get a little more info on the 9 realms and the Norse cosmology in general.
Celtic World Tree Mythos Mirroring Yggdrasil
I recently have been reading Celtic Cosmology and noticed some crazy uncanny similarities between the Celtic concept of the World Tree and the Norse Yggdrasil. And I’m not the first, by any means.
Crann Bethadh is the concept of the world tree to the ancient Celts. The name translates to Tree of Life. This is why when a field is cleared, one single tree is ALWAYS left standing. As it represents the cosmos.
Connla’s Well: Celtic Sacred Equivalent to Mimir’s Well
Connla’s Well: a sacred well in the Celtic cosmology that scholars liken to Mimir’s Well of Norse mythology. This is a well that may be located under the sea or in the land of promise. Either way, over the well were nine sacred hazel trees whose nuts contained wisdom, knowledge and inspiration. The nuts fell into Connla’s well and fed the salmon swimming in its waters. Anyone who drank the water, ate the nuts or salmon would acquire all of the wisdom. But it was also forbidden. This well is the mythical source of the River Shannon while another well, a “secret well” called Nechtan’s Well is the source of the River Boyne (interesting how these wells fed geographical locations while the wells in Norse mythology may also have been actual geographical locations)
In the Voluspa, the famous poem of the Poetic Edda, the Volva speaks of Yggdrasil and the Nine Realms:
“Hearing I ask from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, that well I relate
Old Tales I remember of men long ago.
I remember yet the giants of yore,
Who gave me bread in the days gone by;
Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree.
With mighty roots beneath the mold.”
The Nine Realms of Yggdrasil and Norse Cosmology
The Norse mythos don’t provide clarity on the exact nine realms’ names or locations but scholars have drawn some conclusions and generally agree on the nine we detail below.
We’ll start with the realm of the gods, mostly depicted as being at the top of Yggdrasil, in its branches or in the clouds. The name Asgard basically means home of the Aesir which is a group of Norse sky gods including Odin, Thor, and Frigg (among many others). It’s depicted as a large celestial city with beautiful tall towers, and an impenetrable wall. It’s a fortress that protects its inhabitants. Valhalla, Odin’s hall of warriors, is located somewhere in Asgard. I’d venture to say this idea or concept might have influenced how Christians “see” Heaven (think pearly white gates, celestial towers, palace, etc.)
The realm of the Vanir, another classification of gods but more specifically elven gods who preside over fertility, earthly prosperity, and trade. Mostly depicted as being in the branches of Yggdrasil.
Alfheimr is another elven realm in the branches of Yggdrasil. This realm is ruled by the Vanir elven king Freyr. The “Light” Elves live in Alfheim and it’s thought to be beautiful. The Light Elves are responsible for inspiring music, poetry, and the arts. Pre-Christian Scandinavia had Alfheim geographically placed at the border of Norway and Sweden between two rivers…which is interesting because apparently people from this region were considered “fairer” than people elsewhere at that time. (Linda Raedisch goes into great detail on the Dark and Light Elves and theories as to how the mythos arose in her book The Lore of Old Elfland).
Midgard is our realm, the realm of human beings. Located in the middle or trunk of Yggdrasil.
This is the realm of giants called the Jotunn (also called the Frost Giants). Jotunheim is located somewhere near Asgard and Midgard (in a place of chaos/void). The Aesir and Vanir don’t often travel to Jotunheim unless need be. Odin and Thor have both gone to Jotunheim and myths say Loki originates there. This is the realm where Mimir’s Well dwells (yes, Mimir is a Jotunn) and where Odin went and gave up his eye to drink from the well of wisdom and to be able to see everything that happens in the world. Keep in mind Odin’s mother was a giantess according to myth.
Muspelheim is the primordial realm of fire, a key proponent to the creation of the world. A giant lives here who will arise at Ragnarok to destroy Asgard and all.
These 2 realms were seemingly merged as one in Snorri’s Eddas but were thought to have once been separate realms, according to modern scholars. This realm(s) is located beneath the earth near the roots of Yggdrasil and is home to the dwarves. It’s a dark, warm, smoke-filled realm where there are constant forges alight and dwarves toiling over them. They were known for their craftsmanship, particularly with creating magical tools like Thor’s hammer, Freyr’s magic ship and Odin’s spear. Among others.
Niflheim (sometimes Hel)
Niflheim alongside of Muspelheim is one of the oldest of the nine Norse realms. This is the realm of ice, mist and snow. A primordial land that contributed to the creation of the world. Snorri speculated that Niflheim is the location of Hel’s realm – where the sick and old die and go after death. Though many modern scholars and heathens claim Hel is beyond Niflheim and in fact no one lives in Niflheim, not even the gods.
Hel or Helheim
Hel is also called Helheim. This is the realm of the ancestors, the realm presided over by the goddess Hel who takes the souls of those who die in sickness and old age. There she is required to provide them “room and board”. Odin “threw” Hel into this realm and surrounded the realm with a wall that could only be entered through a gate. One can find it by traveling down the road to Hel, called Helveig, and crossing a river of weapons. This idea gave rise to our ancestors requiring burial or cremation while wearing shoes. We’d assume good quality walking shoes were needed to traverse the road to Hel.
Interestingly, the idea that just those who are sick or old die and go to Hel isn’t even true by way of myth, since Baldr goes to Hel, yet technically should’ve gone to Valhalla. Also, the idea of this place being dark and dreary or one of torture is a Christian invention – once the goddess Hel had a hall of the dead that seemed very similar to the great halls of Asgard.
Who Are The Norns of Yggdrasil
Typically depicted and explained as being three divine sisters who lived in the roots of Yggdrasil, the Norns’ job was to spin, measure and cut the threads of men’s destinies. Interestingly, the Norns aren’t just “goddesses” but come from all realms of beings including dwarves, elves and gods throughout Norse mythology. And as we mentioned before, they also heal the gnawed root of Hvergelmir, by pouring well water over it daily to keep the cosmos from toppling.
In many ways they are above the gods themselves, because the gods can’t even control their fate. Only the norns control the destiny of all men, gods, and all things. The Norns are equated to the Greek Fates (the Moirai), the Hittite spinning goddesses Istustaya and Papaya of Bronze Age Anatolia. There are other spinning deities that seem to have much in common with the Norns including Berchta from Germanic lore and even Freya herself.
The Norns theorized to be part of Indo-European peoples, which is why there are multiple fate/spinning goddesses across European/Middle Eastern ancient cultures (just like with the world tree and Yggdrasil). The three famous Norns names are Urd, Verdandi and Skuld (but there were apparently numerous Norns throughout Norse mythology). Urd, Urda or Wyrd is the most ancient of the Norns and governs the past or set-fate. Verdandi embodies fate being made currently. And Skuld governs what’s to come to pass as result of decisions made in the past.