In Norse mythology, Asgard (Old Norse: Ásgarðr) was the realm of the gods (the Aesir) that was mythologically connected to the abode of the mortals (Midgard) via the rainbow bridge. Though Asgard was understood as the home of the Norse gods, it should not be conflated with the Judeo-Christian notion of Heaven. Instead, Asgard, like the Greek Mount Olympus, was seen as the residence of the gods and included their various dwelling places and feasting halls such as Valhalla, Odin's heavenly hall where honorable warriors were sent. In Norse writings, Asgard was the locus for many tales of the gods and their doings.
While Asgard is to be destroyed at the great battle of Ragnarök, the second-generation deities that will survive the apocalypse are prophesized to rebuild it, ushering in an new era of prosperity. Other religions, too, speak of cosmic renewal and restoration after a long process of divine providence.
As an important tale in Norse mythology, Asgard belonged to a complex religious, mythological, and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianizing of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of deities: The Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried, and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the greatest divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility, and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir.
Further, their cosmological system postulated a universe divided into nine interrelated realms, some of which attracted considerably greater mythological attention. Of primary importance was the threefold separation of the universe into the realms of the gods (Asgard and Vanaheim, homes of the Aesir and Vanir, respectively), the realm of mortals (Midgard) and the frigid underworld (Niflheim), the realm of the dead. These three realms were supported by an enormous tree (Yggdrasil), with the realm of the gods ensconced among the upper branches, the realm of mortals approximately halfway up the tree (and surrounded by an impassable sea), and the underworld nestled among its roots.
Though Asgard was understood as the realm of the gods, it should not be conflated with the Judeo-Christian notion of Heaven. Instead, it, like the Grecian Mount Olympus, was the home of the Aesir and, resultantly, was the locus for many tales of the gods and their doings.
In the mythic corpus, Asgard plays a central (if not always well-articulated) role in the exploits of the Aesir. More specifically, as the primary heavenly realm in the Norse cosmological scheme, it was understood as the place where the gods dwelt, interacted with each other, and surveyed their human constituents.
Descriptions of the various dwelling-places of the Aesir, homes that were always conceptualized as being analogous to the castles and feasting halls of human royalty, were fairly common in mythic texts (and, one can assume, in the skaldic poems that they were based upon). One such source in particular, "Grimnismol" (from the Poetic Edda) is largely concerned with enumerating these citadels and exploring their particular characteristics:
The lengthy descriptions from "Grimnismol" are summarized (and in some cases expanded upon) by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda:
There is also in that place [Asgard] the abode called Breidablik, and there is not in heaven a fairer dwelling. There, too, is the one called Glitnir, whose walls, and all its posts and pillars, are of red gold, but its roof of silver. There is also the abode called Himinbjörg; it stands at heaven's end by the bridge-head, in the place where Bifröst joins heaven. Another great abode is there, which is named Valaskjálf; Odin possesses that dwelling; the gods made it and thatched it with sheer silver, and in this hall is the Hlidskjálf, the high-seat so called. Whenever Allfather sits in that seat, he surveys all lands.
Further, the divine city was also home to the paradise of Valhalla:
In addition to their role in paraphrasing sections of the Poetic Edda, these selections are also notable for introducing the ideas that the gods themselves constructed Asgard and that Odin's majestic throne allowed him to survey the entirety of the cosmos.
In addition to the various abodes of the deities, Asgard also featured numerous other mythically important geographical elements. The city of the gods was set upon (or was adjacent to) the splendid plains of Idavoll, a bounteous field where the Aesir would meet to discuss important issues. It was also the location of Yggdrasill's third, world-anchoring root, under which was located the Well of Urd. This well, which was cared for by the Norns, was understood to fulfill two functions: It nourished the World-Tree and was somehow related to destiny or to prophetic wisdom.
While the description above focuses upon the might of the gods in constructing such a magical conveyance, the reality of Bifröst also highlighted another element of existence in Asgard—namely, the fear of hostile invasion.
Describing the red band in the rainbow, the Prose Edda suggests that "that which thou seest to be red in the bow is burning fire; the Hill-Giants might go up to heaven, if passage on Bifröst were open to all those who would cross." This, the constant threat of invasion by the hostile giants (Jotun), represented a genuine fear for the Aesir. In the "Thrymskvitha," an entertaining Eddic poem describing the theft of Thor's hammer, Loki convinces the warrior god that he must dress as a woman to gain admission to a giant's banquet (with the eventual aim of stealing the hammer back). When Thor demurs, Loki chastises him, saying:
The concern about the possibility of invasion also motivated the Aesir to construct an enormous wall around Asgard, a building project that provides the background for one of the most remarkable mythic accounts concerning this realm.
Though the general understanding that the gods dwelt apart from humans in a discrete, heavenly realm was in common currency among the skalds and mythographers of Norse society, the term is relatively underutilized in the Poetic Edda. Regardless, its centrality in the Prose Edda, plus the fact that its use is attested to in the tenth century poetry, indicates the general cultural currency of the notion. Further, the localization of Fólkvang (Freyja's hall) and Nóatún (Njord's hall) in Asgard instead of Vanaheim would imply that this term, at least to some extant, was a general noun that could be used to describe the dwelling place of the gods (that is, it was not exclusive to the Aesir).
In the mythic texts, the Aesir are thought to have constructed Asgard at some point in the mythic past. As Snorri suggests,
In the beginning [Odin] established rulers, and bade them ordain fates with him, and give counsel concerning the planning of the town; that was in the place which is called Ida-field, in the midst of the town. It was their first work to make that court in which their twelve seats stand, and another, the high-seat which Allfather himself has. That house is the best-made of any on earth, and the greatest; without and within, it is all like one piece of gold; men call it Gladsheim.
However, once these various homes and meeting halls were completed, the Aesir realized that they were relatively susceptible to attack. Fortuitously (or so it seemed at the time), a giant stopped by and offered to construct them an impregnable wall and a gate to protect their fledgling realm. However, his terms were quite steep, as he wished to receive in payment the hand of Freya in marriage, as well as the sun and the moon. The Aesir agreed to this bargain, on the condition that the work be completed within six months, and that he do it with no help (as they assumed that such a task would simply be impossible to complete). The giant stone-wright agreed to this once Loki convinced the Aesir to allow him to use his stallion to help in the building process.
As the end of summer neared and construction was proceeding apace, the gods regretted their contract and the solemn vows with which they had concluded it. Since the giant's horse had proved to be an invaluable asset to his progress, they threatened Loki with horrid punishment if he did not somehow disrupt the builder's efforts. Fearful of this, Loki transformed himself into a beautiful mare and pranced past the builder's stallion, who, entranced with bestial lust, proceeded to ignore the building project entirely in order to pursue her. (As an aside, the stallion does eventually have intercourse with Loki, who then proceeds to give birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse that was given to the All-Father as a gift and that eventually became emblematic of him.) After chasing his horse all night, the builder could see that the job could not be completed on time and fell into a rage:
When the wright saw that the work could not be brought to an end, he fell into giant's fury. Now that the Aesir saw surely that the hill-giant was come thither, they did not regard their oaths reverently, but called on Thor, who came as quickly. And straightway the hammer Mjöllnir was raised aloft; he paid the wright's wage, and not with the sun and the moon. Nay, he even denied him dwelling in Jötunheim, and struck but the one first blow, so that his skull was burst into small crumbs, and sent him down bellow under Niflhel.
Intriguingly, some of Snorri Sturluson's depictions of Asgard cast it as a human realm, ruled by a venerable (yet entirely human) clan. While such an approach can doubtlessly be attributed to the increasingly-Christian context that his writings were produced for, it is still a highly intriguing process. In the Prose Edda (in a rather peculiar contrast to the other passages that definitively describe it as a heavenly realm), he identifies the city of the gods with the Troy of Greek mythology:
In a contrasting (or perhaps complimentary) account, he locates Asgard somewhere in Asia:
Given that the river Tanaquisl was understood to flow into the Black Sea, it is possible that these two accounts are, in fact, complimentary (especially given the historical difficulties in locating the classical Troy).
Some depictions of both the gods and the heavens seem to display a similarly syncretic bent. One of the halls of Asgard (Gimlé, "fire-proof") is described in terms that are strongly reminiscent of the Christian notion of Heaven:
Likewise, the depiction of Odin's throne at Hlidskjálf transform the All-Father into an omniscient god (which seems to contradict some earlier mythic accounts, including the sacrifice of his eye at Mimir's well and the necessity of his ravens (Hugin and Munin) in patrolling the world and delivering reports to him): "There is one abode called Hlidskjálf, and when Allfather sat in the high-seat there, he looked out over the whole world and saw every man's acts, and knew all things which he saw."
As with many other elements of the mythic cosmos, Asgard was fated to be destroyed in the world-shattering apocalypse of Ragnarök.
First, the myths describe the inevitability of Bifröst being rent asunder by the fire-giants of Muspelheim, who proceed over it in their quest to sack the capital of the gods:
After this dreadful assault, the gods and the giants meet upon the battlefield, where most of them are lost in mutually destructive combat. In the aftermath of this conflict, Surtr, the lord of Muspelheim razes the entirety of creation with fire (losing his own life in the process):
However, this conflagration does not equate to the ultimate terminus point of history. Indeed, some of the second generation Aesir will survive and will begin to rebuild upon the fields of Ida (amongst the wreckage of their former capital): "Vídarr and Váli shall be living, inasmuch as neither sea nor the fire of Surtr shall have harmed them; and they shall dwell at Ida-Plain, where Ásgard was before."
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