The Tree of Life: Yggdrasil
Have you ever wondered about the roots of how things came to be? There are many stories that act as origin stories. Myths and folk tales describing how a certain piece of creation came to have always fascinated me. The Tree of Life is no different. Yggdrasil is a world tree (a cosmic tree or a tree that connects the heavens, the earth, and the underworld) prominent in Norse mythology. It was known to be an ever-green Ash tree, with white bark which contained countless leaves (both male and female). It is said that great wisdom dwells in this mighty tree and all of the worlds would die without its presence. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is described as the Tree of Life located at the center of the universe, supporting its structure and connecting it with the nine worlds: Asgard, Midgard, Vanaheimr, Alfheimr, Helheimr, Muspelheimr, Jotunheimr, Niflheimr, and Svartalfheimr.
The Tree of Life is a topic that translates nicely and is fairly unique in the realm of symbolism. Scholarly, the tree can be traced back to ancient Babylonian creation myths. This tree has many names but was commonly known as the World Ash Tree (or Tree of Life), which represented the ever-encompassing nature of the tree as it rose to both heaven and earth. The branches were said to reach into every direction in a symbolic fashion, being able to reach all four points on the compass. In other cultures, the tree was described differently, but most major religions with creation myths have a tree somewhere in their path; from Judaism (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) to Christianity (The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden) and even Buddhism (The Bodhi tree).
The Yggdrasil tree is a Norse mythology image found in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, which is commonly associated with Norse cosmology. Its name comes from the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá. The meaning of this name is obscure but possibly related to Old Norse yggr ("terror").
Yggdrasil Symbolism & Meaning
Yggdrasil, the tree of life, is an important mythological symbol in Norse mythology. The World Tree is an enormous ash tree that holds up the nine realms of the universe and has been present since the beginning of time. The branches stretch across the cosmos, connecting all of the worlds and holding them in place. Yggdrasil's roots are said to extend deep into three wells called Urdarbrunnr, Mimirbrunnr, and Hvergelmir. Urdarbrunnr is located under a great root of Yggdrasil and is said to be where the Norns—the goddesses who govern fate—dwell. Mimirbrunnr is connected to Yggdrasil's trunk by a river and contains great wisdom, while Hvergelmir is a spring at the base of the tree that flows down into valleys throughout Midgard (the world we live in).
Yggdrasil is the World Ash, a great tree that connects the nine worlds of Norse mythology. This majestic tree has been in existence since before time began, and it will live on long after the world ends. It is also known as 'the steed of the winds,' for Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, can be seen tethered to its branches.
Yggdrasil is an immense mythical tree that holds together the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. Its roots dig deep into the underworld—the domain of death and decay—while its branches extend above the heavens, where the gods live and experience life. Yggdrasil is home to many creatures, among them the eagle and the squirrel, which gnaw on its bark to help keep it strong. Under Yggdrasil lies a wellspring of wisdom—the sacred well that contains all knowledge in the cosmos. According to legend, if you drink from this well, you will gain knowledge and power beyond imagination.
The Yggdrasil Tree, of Norse Mythology, is known as the "World Tree". This tree connects the 9 Realms of Norse mythology; Asgard: home to the Gods, Vanaheim: home to the Vanir Gods, Alfheim: home to the Light Elves, Svartalfheim: home to Dark Elves, Midgard: our world, Jotunheim: land of Giants, Niðavellir: land of Dwarves and Helheim: underworld.
The Yggdrasil Tree holds up the sky and is located at the center of our world. The roots of this tree branch out from a well in Niflheim and it is said that 3 wells exist here. These root tips are said to extend through Hel and into Jötunheim (land of giants) - where they are held by a giantess named Hyrrokin who sits beside a well.
Myths tell us that Odin sacrificed himself on this tree so that he could gain wisdom and knowledge in order to be able to better rule his kingdom. He hung himself upside down from one of its branches for nine days without food or drink. During this time he saw and experienced many things. When he returned he had received what he wanted - wisdom.
The Story of Odin and Yggdrasil
The story of Odin and Yggdrasil is like a puzzle. You have to fit all the pieces together to get the full picture. Odin, or Woden, was one of the most important of the major figures in Norse mythology, yet there is still much debate surrounding him. One of the fundamental questions regarding Odin is where he originated from. The problem lies in the fact that his name has been attributed to various origins throughout history, and some of these origins are contradictory with each other. The main sources for this debate come from two different myths—the Hervarar saga and Heimskringla—both written by Snorri Sturluson in 1225 CE.
The first myth comes from the Hervarar saga. In this myth, a scholar came to King Hrolfr's court at Hleidr in Norway and told him about Odin's name. The scholar said that "Odin" comes from "oddi", which means "poetry", but more specifically refers to inspired poetry (Simek 25). It is also said that Odin had a son named "Odd" who settled in Denmark as an earl (de Vries et al., 126).
The tree Yggdrasil was so massive that it helped hold up the nine worlds of Norse mythology. It stood as a symbol of the connection between those nine worlds: if it were to fall, all of the realms would crumble and cease to exist.
Odin, the chief deity in Norse mythology, was said to have been born at the base of Yggdrasil. He was linked to the tree in other ways, too—when he wasn't busy being a god or engaging in epic adventures, he would take time out from his schedule to sit under Yggdrasil and fish for wisdom.
Yggdrasil and Odin's relationship with the tree wasn't always serene, though. One story tells of how Loki, a trickster god with a sense of humor that matched his lack of empathy (and who was also Odin's step-brother), convinced Odin that he could climb up and fish for wisdom from Yggdrasil. Still not having learned his lesson about listening to Loki, Odin followed through on this promise—but when he tried to climb down again, he found himself stuck between the branches.
Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve, killed the giant Ymir and set out to create the universe. Their first act was to fashion a man-made world from Ymir's body, but they couldn't find a proper place for humankind to live. They enlisted a giantess to help them in their quest; she gave them an ash tree, which they called Yggdrasil. They planted it above the well that housed all of the world's wisdom.
The three gods left to attend to other matters, leaving Groa, the giantess (and perhaps also a goddess), to tend to the tree. One day, as she sat beneath its branches, she took a drink from the well and was stunned by the overwhelming power of its knowledge. She knew everything there was to know about how the universe worked.
So there you have it; the story of Yggdrasil, the great tree of life in Norse mythology. It touches on a wide range of themes: Valhalla, the nine worlds, and stories from many days of yore. If you've never heard of Yggdrasil before, then hopefully this article has sparked your interest to learn more about it.
I hope this has been a useful introduction to the tree of life, and a little bit of its history. In closing, I leave you with one final thought: Yggdrasil may be thousands of years old, but as long as there are gods and humans, it will continue to stand tall.
If you want to learn more about the mythology behind this legendary tree, this site is a great place to start. It offers a comprehensive overview of Yggdrasil and its branches, as well as how they connect to the world we live in.