Even before the creation of our world, there existed Jotunheim and Asgard. Before Jotunheim and Asgard, there was the coming together of Fire and Ice in the Abyss of Ginnungagap. Before the coming together of Fire and Ice, there was Yggdrasil, the great Tree of Life.
This tree supports all the worlds of creation, and we live within its branches and leaves.
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 Naming of the Tree
Yggr, meaning ‘Terrible’, is a name of Allfather Odin. Drasil, meaning ‘horse’, brings us to the conclusion that this tree was at one time, likened unto ‘The Terrible One’s Horse’, or ‘Odin’s Horse’.
Wise Odin hung himself from the tree for nine desolate, nights; one for each of the Nine Realms. He paid this sacrifice to discover the rune-magic of the gods. Hung as though upon a gallows, the tree became a steed, bearing him into unseen realms of understanding.
At one time, the gallows was called the horse of the damned. Yggdrasil is, therefore, the gallows horse of Odin.
The Placing of the Tree
Yggdrasil forms the center of all the worlds. The Nine Realms surround it and are held in place by its roots and branches. Its vast trunk forms the central column of all things that mortal and god can know. The homes of gods, giants, and mortals are interconnected through its many parts.
Without this sustaining tree, the cosmos, such as it is, would not survive. Should Yggdrasil tremble, the time of Ragnarok will be at hand.
The Great Ash
Of all earthly trees, the ash resembles Yggdrasil most closely. Therefore, is it the model for all the ash, and is the first of all trees. Some call the tree Askr Yggdrasils, Askr meaning ‘ash’ in old Norse.
Attributes of the World Tree
According to the poem, Völuspá, the great tree is ‘the friend of the clear sky’ and rises so tall that its height is lost far above the clouds. Being so prodigious in stature, the topmost leaves and branches are covered in snow as would be the highest of mountains.
From the poem Hávamál, we learn that the upper reaches of Yggdrassil are moved constantly by powerful winds and that its roots run straight through to the netherworld which neither god nor mortal may know before their final passage to the other side.
The Age of Yggdrassil
No god nor mere mortal knows with certainty the age of Yggdrassil. Perhaps to the Norns alone is this knowledge given. It supports the Nine Realms and may therefore be said to pre-exist them.
Some say that it grew from a sapling, which grew from a seed, and that the ground from which it sprang is more ancient still.
How Yggdrasil Serves Creation
It is known that the gods gather every day under its leaves to exchange views, hold council, and consult with the Norns by the Well of Urd.
Myriad and diverse animals dwell among its branches and vast, sprawling roots. A great eagle makes its home in the higher reaches. The eagle has no name, but some say it is a form of Odin himself.
Vedrfolnir, ‘Wind Bleached’, a hawk, sits between the eyes of this eagle.
Ratatoskr, ‘drill-tooth’ or ‘swift teeth’, the squirrel knows well the length of the tree from root to treetop, as every day he travels its length to carry insulting messages between the Eagle and Nidhogg the dragon who dwells below.
Four magnificent stags live also by the tree and feed upon its leaves. They are named Durathror, Dainn, Duneyrr, and Dvalinn. These magnificent creatures are the four seasons, the elements, the four directional winds of the compass, and the stages of the passage of the moon.
Each day a nourishing dew falls from the heights of the tree all the way to Midgard. Known as ‘honeydew’, it is from this that bees are said to find the food which sustains them.
The tree serves as means of transport from one part of the Nine Realms to another. It also acts as a barrier to those that should be held apart. The root that imprisons Nidhogg the wyrm also keeps shut the gates of Niflheim and Hel, preventing the dead from entering the worlds of the living.
Another part of Yggdrassil shields creation from the flames of Muspelheim, preventing the fire giants from escaping their abode.
Yggdrasil And The Nine Realms
The world tree is at the center of all the realms, which some say lie along its vast trunk, others say they rest on its boughs, still others say that the great ash lies beneath Midgard, buried deep below.
Although its exact location is not always clear, it is certain that the tree supports all of the nine worlds of creation. Its roots stretch from Hel, Jotunheim, Muspelheim, and Nifelheim, all the way through to Asgard, home of Odin and the Aesir.
Yggdrasil supports not only all of the Nine Realms it also provides the means by which the Bifrost rainbow bridge connects the worlds of Asgard and Midgard. This sacred passage allows the gods to intervene in the destinies of mortals and to play an active role in the affairs of Midgard.
The bridge is also used as a means to make contact with those who have passed into the underworld of the dead.
The gods use the Bifrost each day to reach the well of Urd where they consult with the Norns and hold their meetings.
Without Yggdrasil, there would be no Bifrost for the gods to make their journeys.
The Roots and Wells of Yggdrasil
The great tree supports all the worlds, yet it does not support itself. It stands upon three gigantic roots, each of which is nourished by a sacred well.
The first root is fed by Urdarbrunnr or ‘The Well of Urd’. This well, the most famous of the three, is known as ‘The Well of Fate’. It is the meeting place of the Norns, and each day they pour water and mud from the well onto Yggdrassil so that the great tree remains vital and does not wither away.
The Norns are three in number, named Skuld, Verdandi, and Urd, from which this last the well derives its name. They represent the past, present, and future.
The root which feeds Udarbrunnr extends high upwards to Asgard. It is by this well, that the destinies of every living creature in the Nine Realms are cast and interwoven. The Norns carve their runes into the bark of the tree, sealing the fates of god and mortal alike therein.
This well holds the fate of all the worlds in balance. Its waters are filled with white mud so that only the Norns may read its wisdom with clarity.
The Norns, being seers of destiny, know that the tree will ultimately weaken and usher in the battle of Ragnarok. Nevertheless, they work tirelessly to keep this time at bay.
Mimisbrunnr, ‘Well of Wisdom’, nourishes the second great root. The head of Mimir, god of wisdom, was placed here by Odin, where it drinks eternally from its waters.
The well is said to impart boundless knowledge to all who are permitted to drink from its wisdom.
Odin often comes here to consult the wisdom of his uncle’s head that guards the well. It is here that he concedes an eye to the god of knowledge, making sacrifice of his sight into the water so that he might drink and grow wiser.
It is said that when Odin hung from the world tree in his other great knowledge quest, that he looked down upon a pool that was Mimisbrunnr and found the rune wisdom contained therein.
The root that drinks from Mimisbrunnr extends to Jotunheim, the realm of frost giants.
The third and final root is fed by Hvergelmir, ‘Roaring Kettle’, or ‘Bubbling Cauldron’.
Nidhogg the dragon dwells here by this root with his nest of fellow reptiles.
This well not only nourishes the tree but is said to be the source of all life itself. The freezing temperatures of the abyss caused its waters to harden and freeze, giving rise to the icy realm of Niflheim at a time when nothing else existed.
When ice of Niflheim began to melt on the approach of Muspelheim, the mist from this encounter formed the ancestors of all living creatures in the Nine Realms today.
The waters of this well and the root, run to Niflheim, land of endless ice from which the first giants and gods emerged.
Enemies of the Tree
Nidhogg, the spiteful wyrm, or ‘dragon’, lies with his nest of snakes at the third root of Yggdrasil. Fully ensnared, he gnaws ceaselessly upon the root that holds him fast. As he chews, his potent venom is released into the bark, weakening the tree throughout vast expanses of time.
A sworn enemy of the eagle at the peak of the tree, Nidhogg cannot attack him, trapped as he is. Instead, he relies upon the malicious nature of the squirrel Ratatosk to carry his barbed insults to the highest living creature of all the worlds. The squirrel travels the prodigious length of the tree daily, his sharp teeth and claws steadily damaging the bark and leaves as he goes about his business of gossip, insult, and slander.
The fire giant Surt, it is said, being freed on the day of Ragnarok, will set the tree ablaze.
The Allfather And The World Tree
It may be that Odin inhabits the tree at its peak, shape-shifted into the form of a great eagle with a hawk perched on his forehead.
While it is uncertain that the great bird is the Allfather in disguise, it is known that the king of the gods offered himself as a living sacrifice to the tree. He hung upon its branches as upon a gallows for nine nights. There, pierced by a spear and blown by the wind, he gained deep knowledge of the magic of runes.
After his sacrifice, he was possessed forevermore with the depth of this knowledge and wisdom of the sacred runes.
Ragnarok And Yggdrassil
In the time of Ragnarok, the Allfather shall ride his mystic steed Sleipnir to Mimisbrunnr, the well of wisdom. There to consult the head of his uncle, Mimir, god of wisdom, that he might save the world.
After this consultation, the great ash tree will tremble. There will be fear and doubt in all the Nine Realms and throughout all creation. At this time, the gods will prepare themselves for war. Making their way to the final battlefield of Vigrid, also known as Oskopnir.
The great roots and leaves of Yggdrasil, being eaten away interminably by its inhabitants over millennia, will weaken, allowing the beings of Hel, Jotunheim, Niflheim, and Muspelheim to pour forth into the worlds of gods and mortals.
After the horror of Ragnarok, Yggdrasil will serve as a home for some time to two mortals. These will be named Life, ‘Life’ and Lifthrasir, ‘Life Lover’. Of all mortals, they will survive the great destruction and find refuge in the remaining branches of the world tree, surviving from its leaves.
Eventually, new lands are created in the remnants of Midgard. Then this couple will leave the tree, and repopulate the newly created world of mortals.
After all of the trials, and destruction of Ragnarok, Yggdrassil will flourish and serve as the world tree once more.