Yggdrasil – and Nordic Mythology
In Old Norse, áss (plural æsir) is the term denoting a member of the principal groups of gods of the pantheon of Norse paganism. They include many of the major figures, such as Odin, Frigg, Thor, Baldr and Tyr. They are one of the two groups of gods, the other being the Vanir. In Norse mythology, the two are described as having waged war against one another in the Æsir-Vanir War, resulting in the unification of the two into a single tribe of gods.
Three of the roots of the tree support it, and these three roots also extend extremely far: one “is among the Æsir, the second among the frost jötnar, and the third over Niflheim.
The root over Niflheim is gnawed at by the wyrm Níðhöggr, and beneath this root is the spring Hvergelmir. Beneath the root that reaches the frost jötnar is the well Mímisbrunnr, “which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir”.
‘Wotan is the god of storm and frenzy, the unleasher of passions and the lust of battle; moreover he is a superlative magician and artist in illusion who is versed in all secrets of the occult.’
In the beginning was Muspell, the realm of fire.
It is a place of dreadful light and heat.
Only its natives, the Fire Giants, can tolerate its flames. Surt, a Fire Giant, guards Muspell’s border, armed with a flaming sword.
At the end of the era, at Ragnarok, Surt and his companions will destroy all the Gods and and their world with fire.
Outside of Muspell lies the void called Ginnungagap, and north of Ginnungagap is Niflheim, the world of awesome dark and cold. In this world are eleven rivers flowing from a great well.
The rivers are frozen and occupy Ginnungagap.
When the wind, rain, ice, and cold meet the heat and fire of Muspell in the center of Ginnungagap, a place of light, air, and warmth is born.
Where fire and ice first met, thawing drops appeared.
Beneath the melting ice lay a Frost Giant named Ymir.
Ymir slept, falling into a sweat. Under his left arm there grew a couple, male and female Giants. One of his legs begot a son with the other.
The melting frost became a cow called Audhumla from whose udders ran four rivers of milk that fed Ymir.
After one day of licking salty ice blocks, she freed a man’s hair from the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was released from the ice. The man’s name was Buri.
Buri had a son named Bor. Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a Giant, with whom he had three sons.
Odin was the first, Vili the second, and Vé the third. Odin, in association with his brothers, is the ruler of heaven and earth. He is the greatest and most famous of all Gods.
Odin and his brothers killed the Giant Ymir. They carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and created the world, called Midgard, from his body.
Ymir’s blood became the sea and and lakes. His skull became the cover of the sky which was set over the earth. Ymir’s brains were tossed into the air, and became clouds. Then sparks and burning embers from Muspell were placed in the middle of Ginnungagap to give light to Midgard.
They named the stars and set their paths. Ymir’s skeleton became the mountains of Midgard. His teeth and jaws became rocks and pebbles. His flesh was ground into dirt in the great mill Grottekvarnen.
Ymir’s hair became trees. Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh became Dwarves, who had human understanding and the appearance of men, but lived in the earth. Under each corner of the sky the suns of Buri put a Dwarf.
The four Dwarves are called Austri (East), Vestri (West), Nordri (North), and Sudri (South).
Midgard was surrounded by an enormous ocean.
Odin, Vili and Vé gave lands along the coasts to the friendlier Giants, the Etin, for their settlements.
From two trees they created a human man and woman.
Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life.
Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement.
Vé gave them clothing and names.
The man was named Ask [Ash] and the woman Embla [Elm]. Ask and Embla are the ancestors of all humans in Midgard.
Next they built Åsgard, the home of the Gods.
In a hall named Hlidskjálf, Odin sits on a high seat from which he can look out over the whole world.
Odin married Frigga, the daughter of the Giant Fjörgvin.
Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, the tree of fate, arises in the center of the Midgard. Its branches reach up over Asgard.
The entire universe is dependent on the World-Tree.
The tree has three three roots.
One reaches into the underworld Hel, another to the world of the Frost-Giants, and the last one to the world of human beings.
Beneath the tree is the Urda well, guarded by the Norns, the three Goddesses of Fate.
Two other wells also feed Yggdrasil.
One is called Hvergelmer, and the other is Mimer’s well.
The dragon Nidhog lies in Hvergelmer and gnaws on the roots of the tree. Mimer’s well is the well of wisdom, guarded by the wisest of all beings, Mimer.
Odin once gave his right eye for a drink of the water from this well.
The Gods built a bridge called Bifröst from Asgard (heaven) to Midgard (earth).
They ride daily over the great rainbow bridge. Bifröst is guarded by the God Heimdall.
Heimdall sleeps lighter than a bird, sees one hundred travel-days in each direction, and has such sharp ears that he can hear the grass and the wool grow.
There is nothing that can be relied on when the sons of Muspell are on the warpath.
GODS & GODDESSES
The Norse deities are divided into two major groups, the Aesir and the Vanir.
The Vanir, the “Earth Gods”, symbolize riches, fertility, and fecundity.
They are associated with the earth and the sea.
The most important Gods of the Vanir are Njord, Freyr, Aegir and Freya.
The Aesir, the “Sky Gods”, symbolize power, wisdom, and war.
They are long lived, but not immortal.
Odin is the leader of the Gods, with magical skills.
Thor, with his magic hammer, is the God of Thunder who presides over working men.
Loki is a Giant who is an Aesir by adoption.
He and Odin made a vow of friendship and became blood-brothers.
Loki is a trickster, a shapeshifter, and a troublemaker.
In the distant past a fierce war was fought between the Aesir and the Vanir.
The conflict between the Gods began when Odin and Thor refused to recognize the full status of Godhood to the Vanir.
The Vanir sent a beautiful woman, Gullveig (gold-drink), to the Aesir, who tried to destroy her. She came back to life three times, and led to their corruption.
War then broke out.
After both sides were exhausted, each side exchanged members of its group with the other; the Vanir sent Njord and his son and daughter Freyr and Freya, the Aesir sent Mimir and Hoenir. The truce was celebrated by a meeting at which all the Gods spit into a bowl, creating a Giant called Kvasir, who is the sign of peace and harmony among the deities. Kvasir was later sacrificed and from his blood became a potent drink which inebriates deities and gives inspiration to poets.
Balder, one of the sons of Odin, appeared as the essence of intelligence, piety, and wisdom. Both Gods and men came to him to settle legal disputes, and his judgments were reconciling and fair.
Balder had a dream in which his life was threatened.
Upon reporting this dream to his mother, Frigga, she exacted an oath from fire, water, metals, earth, stones, and all birds and animals.
They swore they would not harm Balder.
Because of his immunity, the Aesir used Balder as a target in games, throwing darts and stones at him.
When Loki saw this, he disguised himself as a woman and asked Frigga why Balder suffered no harm.
Frigga told him of the oath. Loki tricked her into telling him that mistletoe was the only being that did not agree to the oath.
Loki immediately took mistletoe and created arrows.
He took the arrows to the Blind God Hoder, brother of Balder, and volunteered to direct his aim so that he would participate in the game.
When the mistletoe struck Balder, Balder fell dead.
Because Balder was not a warrior and did not die in battle, he did not go to Valhalla, the hall of slain heroes, but into the domain of Hel, Keeper of the Dead.
When Odin begged his release, Hel (Loki’s daughter) responded that if everything in the world both dead and alive wept for Balder, then he could return to the Aesir.
If not, he would remain with Hel.
The Aesir sent messengers throughout the world asking all to weep for Balder.
All responded except a Giantess, Thokk (Loki in disguise), whose refusal to weep forced Balder to remain in Hel’s domain.
The Aesir succeeded in capturing Loki.
To punish him for his many crimes, they chained him beneath a serpent, which dripped venom onto him, causing terrible pain.
The Ragnarok, or end of the world, has been prophesied.
The days will grow colder until even Urda well freezes solid.
Loki will lead monsters and Giants to attack the Gods in the great battle of Ragnarok on Vigrid plain.
The winds will increase and blow Yggdrasil from every direction until the great World-Tree falls. The Dark Elves forge will tip and the World-Tree will burn.
This final destruction will be followed by a rebirth, the Earth reemerging from the sea.
Most of the stories about Balder concern his death. He had been dreaming about his death, so Frigg extracted an oath from every creature, object and force in nature (snakes, metals, diseases, poisons, fire, etc.) that they would never harm Balder. All agreed that none of their kind would ever hurt or assist in hurting Balder. Thinking him invincible, the gods enjoyed themselves thereafter by using Balder as a target for knife-throwing and archery.
The malicious trickster, Loki, was jealous of Balder. He changed his appearance and asked Frigg if there was absolutely nothing that could harm the god of light. Frigg, suspecting nothing, answered that there was just one thing: a small tree in the west that was called mistletoe. She had thought it was too small to ask for an oath.
Loki immediately left for the west and returned with the mistletoe. He tricked Balder’s blind twin brother Hod into throwing a mistletoe fig (dart) at Balder. Not knowing what he did, Hod threw the fig, guided by Loki’s aim. Pierced through the heart, Balder fell dead.
While the gods were lamenting Balder’s death, Odin sent his other son Hermod to Hel, the goddess of death, to plead for Balder’s return. Hel agreed to send Balder back to the land of the living on one condition: everything in the world, dead or alive, must weep for him. And everything wept, except for Loki, who had disguised himself as the witch Thokk. And so Balder had to remain in the underworld.
The others took the dead god, dressed him in crimson cloth, and placed him on a funeral pyre aboard his ship Ringhorn, which passed for the largest in the world. Beside him they lay the body of his wife Nanna, who had died of a broken heart.
Balder’s horse and his treasures were also placed on the ship. The pyre was set on fire and the ship was sent to sea by the giantess Hyrrokin.Loki did not escape punishment for his crime and Hod was put to death by Vali, son of Odin and Rind. Vali had been born for just that purpose.
After the final conflict (Ragnarok), when a new world arises from its ashes, both Balder and Hod will be reborn. Rising from the ashes goes to Egyptian mythos about the Phonnix she who rises from the ashes – resurrection and rebirth.
Odin is a god of war and death, but also the god of poetry and wisdom.
He hung for nine days, pierced by his own spear, on the world tree.
Here he learned nine powerful songs, and eighteen runes.
Odin can make the dead speak to question the wisest amongst them.
His hall in Asgard is Valaskjalf (“shelf of the slain”) where his throne Hlidskjalf is located.
From this throne he observes all that happens in the nine worlds.
The tidings are brought to him by his two raven Huginn and Muninn.
He also resides in Valhalla, where the slain warriors are taken.
Odin’s attributes are the spear Gungnir, which never misses its target, the ring Draupnir, from which every ninth night eight new rings appear, and his eight-footed steed Sleipnir.
He is accompanied by the wolves Freki and Geri, to whom he gives his food for he himself consumes nothing but wine.
Odin has only one eye, which blazes like the sun.
His other eye he traded for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, and gained immense knowledge. On the day of the final battle, Odin will be killed by the wolf Fenrir.
He is also called Othinn, Wodan and Wotan.
Some of the aliases he uses to travel icognito among mortals are Vak and Valtam. Wednesday is named after him (Wodan).
Amongst his gifts to us, his children, was the greatest of all: the gift of writing. To accomplish this Odin hung himself upside down upon the World Tree, [Tree of Life] the gigantic ash Yggdrasil (a compound meaning “terrible horse”).
After nine days of fasting and agony, in which “he made of himself a sacrifice to himself”, he “fell screaming” from the tree, having had revealed to him in a flash of insight the secret of the runes. Their initial manifestation took the form of eighteen powerful charms for protection, increase, success in battle and love-making, healing, and mastery over natural causes.
This story illustrates an important dynamic of the Northern pantheon, which did not allow for omnipotence – even Odin must pay his due.
At Mimir’s well, which lay deep under the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, the god had earlier chosen to undergo an important forfeit.
Odin paid with one eye for a single drink of the enchanted water. His mouthful granted him wisdom and fore-sight.
It is due to this sacrifice that Odin’s face is depicted with a straight line indicating an empty eye, or alternately, in a wide-brimmed hat pulled down low over the missing orb.
His quest for knowledge was never-ending. Upon his shoulders perched two ravens, Hugin (“Thought”), and Munin (“Memory”).
These circled the Earth each day, seeing all, and then at night reported to Odin what they had learnt.
He cherished them both, but particularly Munin, which seems to underscore the importance he placed on rune writing, record keeping, and honouring the heroic deeds of the past.
There is another bird associated with Odin, the eagle.
The god often transformed himself into this raptor, both to view the workings of the world and to intervene when an avian form was better suited to his ends.
Odin’s fabulous grey horse Sleipnir was like no other.
This is the eight-legged horse depicted so beautifully on the painted stones of Gotland, a now-Swedish island in the Baltic.
Sleipnir was the offspring of a giant’s magical stallion and the “trickster” god, Loki, who disguised himself as an alluring mare to distract the stallion from the task of building a wall around Asgard, home of the Gods.
If the wall had been completed by a certain date, Freyja, the goddess of beauty, war and sexuality would have been forfeit to the giant as payment for his labors. (The gods also stood to lose the Sun and the Moon, but did not seem particularly concerned about their impending loss!)
Loki was successful, but vanished for a few seasons as he had to bear the fruit of his trickery. He returned to Odin leading his equine offspring, which he presented as a gift.
With his eight legs, Sleipnir could run twice as fast as ordinary steeds, and it is he who carries the valiant dead from the battle field to Valhalla.
Odin’s imagery marks him as a Shaman of shamans. He is unusual in another way: a god actively seeking wisdom and making sacrifices to open pathways to self-development. On memorial stones and urns his emblem appears: the valknut, three interlocked triangles.
He is a son of Odin and Jord, and one of the most powerful gods. He is married to Sif, a fertility goddess. His mistress is the giantess Jarnsaxa (“iron cutlass”), and their sons are Magni and Modi and his daughter is Thrud.
Thor is helped by Thialfi, his servant and the messenger of the gods. who is Hermes in Greek Mythology and Mercury in Roman Mythology.
Thor was usually portrayed as a large, powerful man with a red beard and eyes of lighting. Despite his ferocious appearance, he was very popular as the protector of both gods and humans against the forces of evil. He even surpassed his father Odin in popularity because, contrary to Odin, he did not require human sacrifices.
In his temple at Uppsala he was shown standing with Odin at his right side. This temple was replaced by a Christian church in 1080.
The Norse believed that during a thunderstorm, Thor rode through the heavens on his chariot pulled by the goats Tanngrisni (“gap-tooth”) and Tanngnost (“tooth grinder”). Lightning flashed whenever he threw his hammer Mjollnir.
Thor wears the belt Megingjard which doubles his already considerable strength.
His hall is Bilskirnir, which is located in the region Thrudheim (“place of might”).
His greatest enemy is Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent.
At the day of Ragnarok, Thor will kill this serpent but will die from its poison. His sons will inherit his hammer after his death.
Donar is his Teutonic equivalent, while the Romans see in him their god Jupiter.
Thursday is named after him.