The beings of Norse mythology inhabit a universe of Nine Realms. Two of these realms existed before there were gods. It is said that all beings emerged from the coming together of these two worlds.
Having come into being, Odin, the Allfather, together with his brothers, fashioned the remaining seven realms from the body of the first primordial being, the vast frost giant named Ymir.
This is our four part series on Norse Cosmology
- Part one: The Norse Creation Myth
- Part two: Yggdrasil, The Bifrost and Well of Urd
- Part three: The Nine Realms
- Part four: Ragnarok
The two original realms are named Niflheim and Muspelheim, the realms of ice and fire. Between these two was the great void of Ginnungagap, ‘the gaping abyss’, and the world tree Yggdrasil, also from a time before the gods.
The seven realms created by Odin and his brothers are home to the Aesir, the Vanir, the elves, both bright and dark, mortals, dwarves, and of the dead.
The Nine Realms are:
- Niflheim – A place of frost, ice, snow, and mist. The spring Hvergelmer, which gives rise to the rivers Elivagar and Gjoll, is located here.
- Muspelheim – A place of fire and home to the fire giants. Surt, who will one day set fire to the world tree, dwells here.
- Asgard – Home of the Aesir tribe of gods and source of the Bifrost rainbow bridge.
- Vanaheim – Home of the Vanir tribe of gods
- Alfheim – Home of the bright elves
- Jotunheim – Home of the frost giants
- Midgard – Home to mortal humans, positioned between Jotunheim and Asgard.
- Nidavellir – Home of dwarves and Svartalfheim – home of the dark elves, lie beneath the surface of Midgard.
- Hel – Home to Hel and her familiars. The final abode of all the dead, save for those chosen to sit in Odin’s hall of Valhalla and Freya’s bright hall of Folkvangr.
1. Niflheim – Realm of Frost, Ice, Snow, and Mist.
Niflheim, ‘mist-home’, ‘mist-world’, also called Niflhel, is an endless expanse of frost, ice, snow, and mist that lies to the north of Ginnungagap. It is a place of darkness, opposite in everything to Muspelheim to the south.
The spring Hvergelmer, ‘bubbling, boiling spring’, runs through Niflheim, dividing itself into twelve icy streams. These twelve streams later conjoin together to form the rivers Elivagar and Gjol. Nidhogg the dragon as well as a whole host of other serpents, lies next to the spring, guarding it.
The mouth of Helheim is said to be nearby as the dragon also acts as sentry here, preventing the dead from leaving their home to enter the worlds of the living.
The spring itself is the source of all life, and so it is the place to which all life will ultimately return at the end of ages.
Elivagar and gjol flow out into the abyss
Throughout the eons the rivers of Niflheim poured into the abyss, slowly filling Ginnungagap, and forming an endless plain of ice. This vast stretch of ice came ever closer to fiery Muspelheim until eventually, the ice began to melt. The droplets from the ice brought into being all that lives in the nine realms.
Nifelheim is so frozen and inhospitable that not even the frost giants live here. Only the dragon Nidhogg and his accompanying nest of reptiles can abide the frozen environment in their eternal guardianship of the spring and the gates of Helheim.
One great root of Yggdrasil the world tree stretches to Nifelheim and draws sustenance from Hvergelmer. Thus, without this lifeless place of darkness and cold, there would be no life in our world.
At one time Odin, Allfather, cast Loki’s daughter Hel into Niflheim, giving her dominion over most of the dead save those who have died an honorable death in battle as well as the ones ending up in some of the other realms one could go to in death. She rules from her underworld, Helheim, as Queen of the Dead.
2. Muspelheim – Realm of Fire
Muspelheim, ‘home of Muspel’, ‘ lies to the south of Ginnungagap and is a place of unbearable heat and fire, filled with lava, soot, and tongues of flame.
This inhospitable domain is the home of fire giants and of fire demons and is ruled over by the infamous fire giant Surt, also known as Muspel, who will one day set fire to the world tree.
The flames of Muspelheim melted Niflheim ice and lead to the birth of Ymir, the first being of creation. Without heat, the vast frost giant would have remained ever frozen in the ice and there would be no consciousness in our world. Therefore, both fire and ice gave rise to all living things in the Nine Realms.
Surt, the fire giant lives to hate the Aesir tribe of gods and will use a sword, lit from the flames of Muspelheim to attack Asgard and burn the world at the time of Ragnarok. The vengeful fire giant will rally his sons and all the demonic beings of Muspelheim to lay siege to the gods in one final battle.
All of Asgard, home of the Aesir will be reduced to ashes in the inferno he rains down upon it. His sword will set fire to Yggdrasil the world tree and cause havoc to all who dwell within its roots and branches.
The fire of Muspelheim which sparked the creation of the worlds will also be used to destroy them in the end times.
3. Asgard – Realm of the Aesir
Asgard, ‘enclosure of the Aesir’, is the home of the Aesir tribe of gods, including Odin, Frigga, and Thor.
This realm is central to the universe. It floats in the skies high above Midgard and is the source of the Bifrost rainbow bridge that allows the gods instantaneous passage from their world to ours. It is an amazingly rich land where all the gods have their great halls, bounded by a protective wall and ruled by law, order, and design.
Odin is lord of this realm and rules over it with his queen Frigga. It is here that the glorious hall of Valhalla is to be found. Here half of those fallen in battle who are deemed worthy by Odin join the Einherjar to battle and feast until Ragnarok. The other half of the fallen dead pass instead to the heavenly world of Folkvangr and the hall of Sessrumnir, within the bounds of Asgard, and are ruled over by the beautiful war goddess Freya.
travelling between worlds on the bifrost
Passage between the worlds of Asgard and Midgard is made possible by the Bifrost when the gods see fit to intervene in our affairs. Heimdall with his hawk-like vision and lack of need to sleep guards its entrance to the world of the gods.
Asgard is orderly, controlled, ruled by justice and law. Jotunheim, home of giants, is its opposite, a world of chaos, anarchy, and injustice. It is the model upon which the world of Midgard must set itself to be worthy of the favor of the gods.
Asgard was the stronghold of the Aesir during their violent war with the Vanir. This war led to an exchange of hostages to bring peace between the realms. Therefore, there are many Vanir who live in Asgard side by side with the Aesir and likewise many Aesir who dwell in peace among the Vanir in Vanaheim.
Thor, Odin, Frigga, Loki, Baldur, and all of the most famous of the pantheon call Asgard, with its tall towers and great protective wall, home.
The gods built a hall for Odin, named Valaskjalf, and thatched its roof with precious silver. Here the Allfather sits upon Hlidskjalf his throne and looks out upon all creation, seeing the deeds of giants, gods, and mortals from his royal vantage point in Asgard.
4. Vanaheim – Realm of the Vanir
Vanaheim, ‘home of the Vanir’, is the realm of the second tribe of gods known as the Vanir.
While the Aesir are a warlike tribe unafraid to seek vengeance and destroy enemies, the Vanir, though capable of violence, are more peaceful and associated with fertility and the natural world.
This beautiful realm is located to the west of Asgard as the Vanir god of the seas and of wealth, Njord, father to Freyja and Freyr, traveled east on his journey to Asgard. Like the Vanir goddess Freya’s realm of the dead, Folkvangr in Asgard, Vanaheim is fertile, bright, and magical.
Only Asgard and Midgard are places of ‘innangard’, surrounded by walls and fences and governed by the rule of law. The other realms or ‘heims’ are not so well bordered and are utangard places. Vanaheim is therefore a place more natural and wild than Asgard.
So too are the Vanir more untamed and less urban than their Asgard. They are masters of magic, witchcraft, and seership. During the war between the gods, they held their own against the Aesir and eventually exchanged hostages with them to keep the peace. Njord, Freyr, and Freya of the Vanir went to live among the Aesir in Asgard, while Mimir and Hoenir of the Aesir went to Vanaheim.
It is then in Vanaheim that Mimir’s head was severed from his body and returned with contempt to Asgard due to the incompetence of Hoenir. The wisdom of Odin however, prevented this brutal act from re-igniting the flames of war.
Despite the violence of which they are sometimes capable, the Vanir are the gods of good harvest, favorable weather for farming, and for travel overseas.
5. Alfheim – Realm of the Light Elves.
Alfheim, also called Ljosalfheim, ‘elf-home’, is the abode of the light elves and is located near Asgard in the skies above Midgard.
The light elves are beautiful, mystical beings and their ruler is Freyr, the Vanir god of fertility, hunting, and harvest. The elves are guardian spirits to be called upon for help and protection in dangerous ventures or in dire straits. In their role as subjects of Freyr, the elves also possess powers and magic to enhance or hinder fertility, favor the harvest, inspire poetry, music, and other works of sublime creativity.
This tribe of elves has a luminosity that rivals the sun and brings clarity and light to wherever they choose to go. Their world is a shining sanctuary of pure light, healing, beauty, peace, and calm.
6. Jotunheim – Realm of the Frost Giants
Jotunheim, ‘giant-home’, is the dwelling place of the ‘jötnar’, the giants. These massive creatures are wild, chaotic and the born enemies of the Aesir. They perpetually seek revenge for the death of Ymir and their giant forefathers at the hands of Odin and his Aesir allies. The only survivors of Odin’s slaughter were the giant Bergelmir and his wife who escaped in a small boat with the help of the merciful Aesir god Tyr, a son of Odin. Having found this rocky place, they claimed it as a sanctuary for giants and their offspring.
The giant world is a stony, barren place of boulders, rocks, sparse wilderness, and thick, impenetrable forest. The climate is perpetually cold and the frost giants who inhabit it live close to the ocean shore where they subsist on fishing and hunting. Their barren homeland has no land worth cultivating and their people have little skill in cultivation, thus their preference for wild shores and forests.
Mixed relationships od the Aesir and Jötunn
Although the jötnar mostly war with the Aesir, their destinies and bloodlines are intimately interwoven with many gods, including Odin himself, being partly giant in their ancestry. Likewise, god and giant will often cross the bounds of tribal hatred to form bonds of love and romance, leading to many partnerships and progeny that bring together the wild physical prowess of the giants with the civil and magical qualities of the gods.
Both Odin and his most famous son Thor took lovers from the tribe of giants and Loki the trickster god is himself a giant from Jotunheim. It should be no surprise then when he takes the life of Baldur, the kindest and most just of all the Aesir, in a sly act of vengeance for his kind.
The realm of the frost giants, like Alfheim is near to Asgard. The two are separated by the river Iving. This river possesses a magical property that prevents it from freezing over despite the eternal winter that reigns in the land of giants.
Within the land of Jotunheim is the fortress of Utgard, ‘outside the fence’. This abode of giants is huge and it is almost impossible to see its highest reaches from their base. Being ‘outside the fence’, this domain of giants is a place of chaos, injustice, and wild instinct. Asgard is the ‘enclosure of the Aesir’, protected and orderly. Outside is the Utgard of the giants and their lawless world.
Utgard-loki king of the frost giants
The giants’ stronghold is carved from the ice and snow of their world. There you find the dwelling place of Utgard-Loki, the fearsome king of all frost giants.
Their great land is vast in size, stretching from Asgard all the way to our mortal world of Midgard. With this proximity to Jotunheim, we humans need the protection of powerful gods and wise light-filled elves.
All travel to this world is ill-advised for gods and mortals alike. However, both Odin and his son Thor have crossed over to Jotunheim at different times and returned without harm. Harm to themselves that is, numerous Jötunn have met their end.
The well of Mimir, Mimisbrunnr, the Well of Wisdom is located under the root of Yggdrasil that reaches into Jotunheim. The Allfather in his quest for knowledge traveled through giant country to drink from the well and increase his knowledge.
Thor, the thunder god, has visited Jotunheim on more than one occasion. It is here in the stronghold of the giant King Utgard-Loki, that he wrestled with old age, drank a draught from the oceans that sank sea levels the world over, and lifted the tail of the world snake above his head. On another occasion, he raids Jotunheim to retrieve his magical weapon Mjolnir.
7. Midgard – Realm of Mortals
Midgard, ‘middle enclosure,’ or ‘middle-earth’, is home to mortal humans and is positioned dangerously between Asgard and Jotunheim. Worse than this, the ‘middle’ refers to Midgard’s unfortunate situation of being surrounded by Jotunheim. With enemies at all sides Midgard is in need of protection by the gods and light elves.
The Bifrost bridge connects the mortal world with Asgard and allows the gods to travel here instantaneously whenever needed.
Although surrounded by Jotunheim, Midgard is separated from the violent world of giants by an ocean. In the ocean lies the immensely large Midgard Serpent, Jormungand. The serpent and the ocean serve to keep the hostile frost giants at bay.
Aegir, Ran and the Island of Hlésey
Aegir the giant and his wife, the sea-goddess Ran live underneath an island in these waters. The island is called Hlésey, which is derived from “Hlér” (another name for Aegir) and “Ey” (island). Under the island there are huge magnificent halls richly decorated in gold and silver.
In modern day Hlésey is actually the Danish island of Læsø, located midway between Northern Denmark and Western Sweden. Læsø, or Hlésey, comes up several times in Norse myths and was regarded as an almost magical island.
Although on good terms with the gods of Asgard and Vanaheim, they make the world ocean a dangerous place. Ran will seek out sailors to catch them in her net, drawing them down below the waves to their deaths.
Odin, Vili and Ve created Midgard
Before Midgard was home to humans, Odin placed trees and other vegetation here, fashioned from the hair of Ymir’s corpse. He and his brothers Vili and Ve fashioned the first man and woman. They formed them from two ancient trees, an ash, and an elm. The first man was named Ask, and the first woman, Embla.
Midgard, like Asgard, is surrounded by a “gard”, an enclosure. It is therefore closer in essence to the orderly world of the gods than to the wild world of Jotunheim. Asgard is the most ‘innangard’ of realms, Jotunheim however is the most ‘utangard’. Midgard lies between these two states of being, aspiring to the former.
Another protection, in addition to the ocean, Jormungand the Midgard Serpent, and Aegir and Ran, is the long fence the gods fashioned from Ymir’s eyebrows that encircle the world like a wild impenetrable forest.
At the time of Ragnarok, despite all of its defenses, it is foretold that Midgard will sink into the sea. This will cause untold death and destruction.
8. Svartalfheim/Nidavellir – Realm of Dark Elves and Dwarves.
Nidavellir, ‘low fields’, or ‘dark fields’ is the home of the dwarves. Svartalfheim, ‘black-elf-home’, is the abode of the dark elves. However, there is a possibility that dark elves and dwarfes are actually the same people making it all one large and dark realm.
So both, or possibly the one, dwelling places are located beneath the surface of Midgard.
The dwarves are masters of every kind of metal shaping, mining, jewel making and smithing as well as craftwork. Their home is a maze of underground mines and forges. There they dig for raw materials and shape them into useful and splendid objects.
Within Nidavellir there is a magnificent golden hall, shaped entirely by the ingenuity of dwarf folk. This hall is home to the family of Sindri the dwarf.
The dwarves have fashioned many mythical objects for the gods. These include Odin’s magical ring Draupnir and his spear Gungnir as well as Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. Freyr’s magical ship, Skidbladnir, which can be folded into his pocket was also crafted by dwarves.
The gods did not create the dwarf people in the same way that they created mortal humans. The dwarves instead grew from the maggots and worms that left the rotting flesh of Ymir as his lifeless body decomposed. These lowly creatures were given understanding and diminutive human form by decree of the gods. Their world is smokey, cavernous, and dark, and yet also capable of creating much beauty.
The black elves and their world are an entirely mysterious tribe and a place unknown to mortals.
9. Helheim – Realm of the Dead
Helheim, ‘Hel-home’, or Hel, ‘hidden’, is the dark residence of death goddess Hel and her terrifying familiars. This foreboding place is the final destination of most dead souls. Except for those chosen by the Valkyries to sit in Odin’s hall of Valhalla or Freya’s hall of Sessrumnir in beautiful Folkvangr as well as the few drowned by Ran.
While those who have lost their lives honorably in battle continue on to feast with the gods. Those who lack courage, die in dishonor, and must dwell in the murky presence of the Queen of Death.
Hel is located far below Midgard, Svartalfheim, and Nidavellir and is a fearsome place for the gods as well as mortals. Even bright Baldur sits in gloom after his unjust death at the hands of Loki, Hel’s deceitful father. Although they may not feast with gods, the inhabitants of Hel yet continue to exist and may fight and feast much as they did in the brighter worlds above.
Helvegr, ‘Hel-way’, is the road to Hel that is traveled by all the dead who must continue their existence there. It is this road that brave Hermod, son of Odin and messenger of the gods traveled to bargain the soul of Baldur with Hel the Queen of the dead.
Hermod used Sleipnir, his father’s eight-legged steed to travel from Asgard to Helvegr and on to Helheim. He traveled this lonely, pitch-black road for nine nights. Then he arrived at Gjoll, ‘loud noise’, to pass over the bridge of Gjallarbru, ‘bridge over Gjoll’.
Failing to save Baldur
At the bridge, he was confronted by the giantess Modgudr. She allowed him to pass by on his mission to rescue Baldur. The realm of Hel, like Midgard and Asgard, is surrounded by Helgrindr, or ‘Hel-fence’. This wall is also called Nagrindr, ‘corpse-fence’ and Valgrindr, ‘fence of the slain’. Hermod jumped the wall to find the miserable Baldur sitting next to Hel in the place of honor where he bravely proceeded to bargain for his freedom.
Hel is a daughter to Loki and sister to Jormungand the serpent and Fenrir the wolf. Knowing that they were likely to cause trouble however, Odin threw Hel into the dark world of Helheim, and chained up the wolf for the protection of the world. Jormungand the serpent he threw into the Midgard sea to protect the world as a barrier to giants.
Hel will muster all those in her realm, the most numerous of all the dead, to lay siege to the Aesir and Vanir on the plains of Vigrid at the time of Ragnarok.
World Map of the Nine Realms
The Nine Realms co-exist, interconnect, and are linked together by the world tree Yggdrasil. To the north of the tree is Niflheim, the south, Muspelheim. High up in the upper branches of the central tree lies Asgard, home of the Aesir. To the west of Asgard is Vanaheim and by its side is Alfheim.
Directly below Asgard, linked to it by the Bifrost, is Midgard, surrounded by Jormungand and Jotunheim.
In the earth deep below Midgard is the realm of Svartalfheim and Nidavellir.
Far, far below, by the lower roots of Yggdrasil is the dark realm of Helheim.
All these worlds will be threatened at the time of Ragnarok and yet, though many gods, mortals and other beings of the nine realms shall perish, there will be a new beginning. And so the worlds will rise again with the rebirth and regrowth of Yggdrasil.