Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life
Yggdrasil is an eternal and sacred Ash tree with branches stretching out to harbor the nine realms. In Norse mythology, it is the tree of life and has three roots with each root reaching out to different mysterious worlds. Asgard, where the Aesir gods live, is connected to the first root. Jötunheimr is the home of the giants and is connected to the second root. Nilfheim is a place surrounded by darkness and ice and is connected to Yggdrasil's third root. Inside each world is a sacred well. The Aesir gods have the Urd's well where they would gather upon daily. It is even said that Yggdrasil grew out of Urd's well, however, this has not been proven. In the Well of Urd lives three wise women who are able to shape destiny. They go by the name Norns. The giants have the Mimir’s well and is associated with the god of wisdom, Mimir. Several sagas tell of stories of how Odin lost his eye to Mimir in his quest to gain more knowledge and drink from his well. A well called Hvergelmir lies in Nilfheim from which many rivers flow. Nidhug is said to guard Nilfheim, sucking on the blood of dead bodies that arrive as they die. Encircling all the nine realms is the serpent Jormungand protecting it from all its enemies. In Yggdrasil, time was cyclical and not linear which meant that Yggdrasil's growth depended on how the waters of the past seep into the tree and its roots. Eventually a new present is created when water gathers on the leaves and in turn returns to the wells.
Aside from being the tree of life, Yggdrasil was also home to several creatures. At the very top of the tree lived an eagle by the name of Yggdrasil. At the very bottom lived a dragon by the name of Nidhogg. Within the tree itself lived a squirrel by the name of Ratatosk. Yggdrasil and Nidhogg were bitter enemies and hated each other. It is said that Ratatosk caused the feud by feeding them gossip about one another and carrying insults that they said about the other. Four stags by the names of Dvalinn, Duraþrór, Duneyrr, and Dáinn bound themselves along the branches feeding on the buds that grew on the tree. These stags represented the four winds.
Yggdrasil plays a vital role in the beginning and end of the nine realms. In general, the tree represents life, loyalty, fertility, growth, wisdom, knowledge and strength.
The Nine Realms
In the beginning, there were two contradicting ends of the world, the fiery place of Muspell and the icy land of Niflheim. In the land of Niflheim was a spring, Hvergelmir, and from it flowed numerous rivers called the Élivágar. The flowing river brought along with it poisonous substances which, in time, came to harden and turned to ice. Turning entirely solid, the poisonous vapor rose from the ice and solidified into rime. These thick ice layers grew and spread across the void of Ginnungagap. From the misty void of Ginnungagap grew the tree of life, Yggdrasil. On the opposite side of Ginnungagap, was Niflheim which was an icy void. As time passed, the fires of Ginnungagap melted the ice of Niflheim and from this emerged Ymir the giant and Audhumla the cow. Audhumla drew sustenance from licking the melting ice of Niflheim and soon Buri, the ancestor of the gods, was discovered. Out of nowhere comes the giantess Bestla and Buri's son by the name of Borr. They mated and gave birth to the first three known gods, brothers Odin, Vili and Ve. Ymir too gave birth to other giants through the process of self-fertilization. While he slept, from his left armpit came the birth of a male and a female and from his legs came a son. These were the first known giants. Upon hearing of the existence of Ymir's children, Borr's sons decided to execute the giants. Bergelmir and his wife were the only ones who escaped. This incident started the feud between the Aesir gods and the giants. Upon Ymir's death, Borr's sons dragged his body to the fiery flames of Ginnungagap, creating their own world from his corpse. This was the creation of the first man (Ask), the first woman (Embla) and along with it the nine realms.
In Norse mythology, the universe was visualized in three vertical levels which was tricentric in structure. Between each level and its adjacent level was a space. The axis of the nine worlds and the three levels was of course the tree of life, Yggdrasill.
The first level
Asgard, world of the Aesir
Vanaheim, land of the Vanir
Alfheim, land of the light elves.
The second level
Midgard, Land of humans (middle world/garden)
Nidavellir, Land of the dwarfs
Jotunheim, Land of the giants (Jotuns)
Svartalfheim, Land of the dark elves.
The third level
Hel, Realm of the dead
Niflheim, World of the dead.
Asgard, World of the Aesirs:
One of the first of the Nine Realms is Asgard, known in Old Norse as Ásgarðr meaning Enclosure of the Aesir. In Norse mythology, there were two tribes of gods, the Aesirs and the Vanirs. The Aesir's called Asgard home while the Vanirs called Vanaheim their home. It is surrounded by an incomplete wall, which according to Gylfaginning, was attritbuted to Hrimthurs riding the stallion Svaðilfari.Asgard is further subdivided into twelve or more realms.
Valhalla. Splendid golden palace that is home to Odin, the Valkyries and their chosen fallen warriors, the Einherjar.
Bifrost. Located at the ends of Asgard and resembling a rainbow, it bridges Asgard and Midgard.
Bilskírnir. Meaning lightning-crack and Thor's domain.
Fólkvangr. Meaning "field of the host" and where half of those fallen in combat reside. This is where Freya rules.
Hliðskjálf. Odin's throne from where he sits to watch over the nine realms.
Vanaheim, World of the Vanirs:
Vanaheim, known in Old Norse as Vanaheimr, meaning "Homeland of the Vanir". Situated around Yggdrasil, it was one of the nine realms and home to the deity gods, the Vanir tribe, who were more in touch with nature as compared to their counterparts, the Aesirs. The Vanaheim lies on the western side of Yggdrasil. It was a large island with rolling hills, meadows and pastureland. The Vanaheim had four perfect seasons and was blessed with generally perfect weather all throughout the year. Because of its perfect weather and fertile land, it was the food basket of the Nine Realms and would often export and trade agricultural products with the rest of the world.
At one point in time, a war broke between the Aesirs and the Vanirs resulting to sufficient loss of life for both parties. This is partly due to the Aesir’s underestimating the Vanir’s skills in warfare. While they were not as open about their warfare strategies, preferring peace and agriculture, the Vanir's were just as skilled in the art of war. In the end, both parties waved the white flag and agreed to trade hostages as a way of learning from one other. The Aesir sent over Mimir and Hoenir, both men of great wisdom. However, they felt that it was an insult to their status to have been traded as hostages. As a sign of rebellion on their part, Mimir did nothing but babble and Hoenir refused to speak. Insulted by this, the Vanir’s sent Hoenir back to Asgard but only with Mimir's head. Perhaps out of spite, Odin decided to resurrect Mimir's head and threw him to a well. This well is to later be called Mimir's well and is located in the land of the giants.
On the other hand, the Vanir's asked Njord, the god of ships and sail, to teach the Aesir's their ways. Together with his twin children, Frey and Freya, the gods of fertility and love, they shared strategies on how to grow their food. Odin was especially interested in Freya for she was extremely beautiful. Freya was also the mistress of seidhr-magic and Odin being the god of wisdom wanted to learn more about it from her. So, while the Vanir’s returned their Aesir hostages back to Odin, the Vanir hostages were eagerly accepted in Asgard. As part of their peace treaty, the hostages were allowed to go home granted they did not all go together. Because of this, Njord returned in the spring and high summer. Frey would return home around Lammas to help out with their fertility based Ing ritual, staying only until the first snow fell. Freya returned home to see the spring open onto the land as this was her favorite time of the year.
Vanaheim had several noteworthy trademarks.
Njord's Hall. Found on the eastern seashore facing Alfheim and Asgard. As he was known to be their god of ships and sails, in his hall was a tall, white and arched building on the rocky outcrop of the largest northern bay. He protects all of the Vanir ships even in his absence.
Nerthus's Hall. A high priestess and earth mother of Vanaheim, Nerthus, was wife to Njord but only in name. They lived separate lives and their marriage was strictly a ritual affair meant for the magical mating of earth and sea. This was what brought fertility to all the lands of Vanaheim. She is mother to the twins, Frey and Freya.
Frey's Hall. While in Asgard, Frey lives with his sister, Freya. However, he also maintains a home in Vanaheim with his wife, Gerda.
Freya's Hall. Like his brother, Frey, Freya also spends half of her time divided between Asgard and Vanaheim. For the time, she spends in Asgard, her Vanaheim home is taken care of by her four sisters.
Frodi's Hall. Meaning the "Fruitful One", Frodi is one of the oldest Vanir gods and father of Njord. His hall is a small wooden hall surrounded by orchards.
Nehallenia's Hall. Goddess of visitation and the sea, Nehallenia's name also means the "Fruitful One". Her hall is by the ocean facing Asgard and just down the coast from Njord's hall. Her home is made of woven branches made in the shape of a cornucopia, her symbol.
Holda's Hall. Holda is a Germanic goddess with her actual home in some strange underworld location. However, she also holds residence in Vanaheim. Her cottage sits in the middle of many fields of white and blue flax flowers.
Billing's Hall. Master of the Vanirs, Billing the giant is in charge of handling the trade between Vanaheim and Jotunheim. Located at a large port on the Jotunheim-facing coast of Vanaheim, his hall is more warehouse than home.
Aegirheim. The underwater palace of the sea god, Aegir, it lies just off the coast of Vanaheim.
Alfheimr, World of the Light Elves:
Álfheimr, in Old Norse, meaning "The Homeland of the Elves", was inhabited by the elves and ruled by the Vanir god, Freyr. It was sometimes referred to as Ljosalfheim, home of the Light Elves.
The Elves were a class of demigod-like beings present in Norse Mythology. They were described as being more beautiful than the sun. There were two different races of Elves: The Dark Elves, Dokkalfar, and the Light Elves, Ljosalfar. The Dokkalfar dwelled in the underground while the Ljosalfar lived in Álfheimr, which was at the southernmost end of heaven.
The elves were ruled by the Vanir god, Freyr. Freyr was tall, blond, beautiful and a friendly and accessible deity who was said to laugh a good deal. He had divine rulership over fertility, growth, abundance, peace and contentment. He was also the god of marriage, but unlike Frigga and his sister, Freya, he often blessed unconventional marriages. Freyr was married to the giantess, Gerda, and while their union was frowned upon it was clear to anyone who met them that they were very much in love. Freyr also had a personal assistant and man-at-arms by the name of Skirnir, gifted to him by the Aesirs. It was said that it was with Skirnir's help that Freyr was able to win the hand of Gerda. When in Vanir, Freyr had two servants, a married couple by the name of Beyla and Byggvir. Similar to Skirnir they pledged their loyalty to Freyr and would do anything he asked for.
Midgard, World of the Mortals:
Midgard, in Old Norse meaning "middle enclosure", was where the mortals lived. It was understood to reside at the approximate midpoint of the tree of life and was surrounded by an impassable sea. The sea surrounding it was occupied by a huge serpent by the name of the Midgard Serpeant. It was so huge that it encircled the world entirely by biting its own tail. Midgard stood between Asgard (where the Aesirs lived) and Niflheim (the frigid home of the dead).
The word Midgard had a double meaning. First, it means "in the middle of" referring to their position in the nine realms. It is surrounded by the uninhabited wilderness of Jotunheim, the world of the often-hostile giants. This is the horizontal meaning of the word. The vertical meaning of the word refers to its position below Asgard. This vertical axis is represented by the tree of life holding Asgard in its upper branches.
Thor was the elected protector of Midgard just as he protected Asgard. Odin also surveiled the lands every day with the help of his two ravens, Hugin and Munin.
As predicted in Ragnarok, the destruction of the cosmos, Mingard sinks into the sea along with everything else in the nine realms.
Nidavellir, World of the Dwarves:
Nidavellir (pronounced “NID-uh-vell-ir) was the home of the dwarves. The dwarves were master smiths and crafstmen living beneath the ground. Being master craftsmen, the dwarves were renowned for their work with precious metals and built exquisite halls for themselves.
Nidavellir, being underground, had no sunlight. Instead, the dwarves planted special flowing moss which helped give them light. In many sagas, it was described to be chilly and dark.
Jutenheim, World of the Frost Giants:
Home to the giants, Jotunheim (pronounced “YO-tun-hame”) is one of the worlds in the nine realms. When Odin and his brothers slaughtered the children of Ymir, Bergelmir and his wife managed to escape and founded Jotunheim making it the sanctuary of all frost giants. However, not all giants occupy Jotunheim. Only the rock and frost giants live in Jotunheim while the fire giants lived in Muspelheim.
Jotunheim is described to be a grim environment surrounded by deep dark forests and mountain peaks. There is no fertile land in Jotunheim which forces its inhabitants to hunt instead. The river Iving separates it from Asgard and Midgard. The river never freezes over which prevents the giants from crossing over to other realms.
In the prophecy of Ragnarok, it is said that the frost giants would bring the end of Asgard and fearing this, Odin and the other Aesir gods continued to slaughter their kind in hopes of preventing the inevitable. It was only the god Tyr who helped the giants escape out of pity. He removed all their access to the nine realms to help them hide from Odin and the other Aesir gods.
However, the relationship between the giants and the Aesir gods was quite complicated. While they hated one another, there were several relationships that bloomed between the giants and the Aesir gods. Odin himself had a love affair with the giantess Jord, this union would result to their son, Thor. Thor would follow in his father's footsteps and father two sons with his giant love, Jarnsaxa. The god Freyr was married to the giantess Gerd. Loki, himself, was the result of the mating between a giant and an Aesir god Loki, too, was married to an Aesir god by the name of Sigyn, with whom he had two sons, Nari and Vili. This, however, did not prevent him from seeking love elsewhere. Loki also had a giantess lover by the name of Angerboda. Angerboda gave him three children, the Midgard serpent Jormungandr, Fenrir the wolf and the rule of Helheim the giantess Hel.
As a result, the Vikings often feared the children of the giants and the Aesir gods. They considered them dangerous and could not be trusted.
Svartalfheim: World of the Dark Elves.
In Norse mythology, the light elves lived in the low fields of Nidavellir. The dark elves, on the other hand, lived in the dark fields of Svartalfheim. The dark elves lived under rocks, in caves and in the underground. They were under the rule of Hreidmar and were known to be masterful craftsmen.
Helheim: World of the Dishonorable Dead.
Hel is the place in the underworld where most of the dead dwell. It is ruled by the goddess Hel and is often referred to as Helheim. It is dark and hostile and borders to Svartalfheim and Nivlheim. Once you enter Helheim no one escapes, not even the gods. The impassable river Gjoll flows from the spring Hvergelmir and encircles Helheim making it impossible for anyone to leave.
Hel is where all who die from disease and old age go to after they die. They are deemed as dishonorable as they did not die in battle nor have they accomplished anything worthwhile when they were still living.
Hellway is the name of the long road from Svartalfheim that leads towards Helheim. The long road is dark and light can only be seen at the end once the glittering golden Gallarbridge can be seen crossing the river Gall. Gallarbridge is guarded by Modgunn. He is a good-hearted guardian that asks those who wish to pass why they would like to enter Helheim. The final gate blocking entrance to Helheim is called Hellgate and is guarded by the hound Garm. Overlooking Helheim is the giant Hraesvelg making sure no one escapes. It is only when Hellgate is opened that the souls of the dead can enter back to haunt the living.
Niflheim: The World of Fog and Mist.
Niflheim meaning Mist World is the oldest, coldest and darkest of the nine realms. It is in the northern region of Ginnungagap and is where the oldest of three wells called Hvergelmir is located. A huge dragon by the name of Nidhug is its protector. The well of Hvergelmir is said to be the source of all the eleven rivers in Norse mythology. It is the start and end of all living things.
At the beginning of the world, Niflheim had rivers and had streams floating out of Hvergelmir. The icy waves of the rivers called Elivagar flowed down to the mountains to the plains of Ginnungagap. It solidified to frost and ice and formed a very dense layer which results to their cold climate.