In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil (Old Norse: Yggdrasill) is a gigantic European Ash tree (called the "World Tree"") that provides the axis mundi—the axis of the universe—uniting the various realms of gods, giants, and humans. According to Norse cosmology, the tree's enormous branches connect the multiple worlds of the Ásgard (the realm of the Aesir), Álfheim (the realm of the elves), and Vanaheim (the realm of the Vanir). The trunk of the tree represents the world-axis, which pierces through the center of Midgard (the human realm) and (in some accounts) Jötunheim (realm of the giants). Around its base are clustered the underworld realms, including Niflheim (the frozen underworld ruled by Hel and inhabited by the unrighteous dead), and Muspelheim (the domain of the fire giant Surtr).
Intriguingly, Norse mythology's central emphasis on the "World Tree," which is at the heart of their cosmological schemata, parallels the importance of the Tree of Life found in other religions, such as the Judaism (especially Kabbalistic thought) and Christianity, which both place a tree at the center of their creation stories.
Yggdrasill in a Norse context
As a central element of the Norse cosmology, Yggdrasill 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 Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E.
(Though some scholars have argued against the homogenizing effect of grouping these various traditions together under the rubric of “Norse Mythology,” the profoundly exploratory/nomadic nature of Viking society tends to overrule such objections. As Thomas DuBois cogently argues, “[w]hatever else we may say about the various peoples of the North during the Viking Age, then, we cannot claim that they were isolated from or ignorant of their neighbors…. As religion expresses the concerns and experiences of its human adherents, so it changes continually in response to cultural, economic, and environmental factors. Ideas and ideals passed between communities with frequency and regularity, leading to and interdependent and intercultural region with broad commonalities of religion and worldview.")
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates 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.
Etymology and alternative names
The most commonly accepted etymology of the world-tree's name is ygg ("terrible") + drasil ("steed"). This seemingly oblique epithet becomes clearer when one recalls that Yggr ("Terrible One") is a name occasionally used to describe Odin, and that "steed" is a common skaldic kenning (poetic allusion) for the gallows. As such, the name of the tree itself alludes to the mythic episode (described elsewhere) of Odin's self-sacrifice upon an enormous ash tree (undertaken for initiation into runic magic). Though the name could also be interpreted more broadly as "terrible horse," this possibility lacks the mythic resonances of the previous option.
Fjölsvinnsmál, a poem in the Poetic Edda, refers to the World Tree as Mimameid (Old Norse: Mímameiðr, "Mímir's tree" )—a reference to the god of knowledge whose well was nestled into the tree's roots. Most probably, the tree can also be identified with Lærad (Old Norse: Læraðr), a tree rooted at Valhalla, whose shoots and leaves provide food for the goat Heiðrún and the stag Eikþyrnir that live on the roof of the divine hall.
In the Norse cosmology, Yggdrasill provided the axis mundi—the axis of the universe—that united the various realms of gods, giants, and humans. This understanding is demonstrated throughout the Prose and Poetic Eddas (the most complete, extant sources in the Norse corpus). The identity between the cosmos and the tree are attested to in the Völuspa, where the deceased sibyl uses it as a metonym to describe the universality of her knowledge:
- Nine worlds I knew, | the nine in the tree
- With mighty roots | beneath the mold.
In a more specific manner, the Grimnismal, a section from the Poetic Edda, provides a clear overview of the Norse perspective on the tree's cosmological significance:
- 31. Three roots there are | that three ways run
- 'Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
- 'Neath the first lives Hel, | 'neath the second the frost-giants,
- 'Neath the last are the lands of men.
- 32. Ratatosk is the squirrel | who there shall run
- On the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
- From above the words | of the eagle he bears,
- And tells them to Nithhogg beneath.
- 35. Yggdrasil's ash | great evil suffers,
- Far more than men do know;
- The hart bites its top, | its trunk is rotting,
- And Nithhogg gnaws beneath.
This account clearly demonstrates the role of the mystical ash in undergirding the universe, with roots in the lower realms and leaves in the realm of the gods. Intriguingly, this account also implicitly affirms the pessimism (or even fatalism) of the classical Nordic worldview, as it describes the world-tree being constantly victimized by stags, who devour its leaves, and a dragon (Niddhogg: "Evil Blow") who is steadily gnawing at its roots. Despite these evil (or at least entropic) influences, Yggdrasill was destined to survive until the cataclysmic battle of Ragnarök.
This vision of the heavenly tree is extended by Snorri Sturluson (a thirteenth century mythography and historian), who assembled the following detailed picture in his synthetic text, Gylfaginning:
- The Ash is the greatest of all trees and best: its limbs spread out over all the world and stand above heaven. Three roots of the tree uphold it and stand exceedingly broad: one is among the Aesir; another among the Rime-Giants, in that place where aforetime was the Yawning Void; the third stands over Niflheim.
The only major difference between the two accounts is the placement of a root in Asgard (the realm of the Aesir) instead of in the human world. Snorri's version then continues, noting that beneath each root lies a well: Under the root in Niflheim is Hvergelmir (the "seething cauldron"), understood to be the source of all cold rivers; under the root in the realm of the giants (Jotunheim), one finds "Mimir's Well, wherein wisdom and understanding are stored;" under the third root is the Well of Urd (fate), which is the home of the Norns. Conflating the roles of the Aesir and the Norns, Snorri suggests that the gods ride to this location every day to "hold their tribunal" and "give judgment" (which, one must assume, is directed at their mortal constituents). In this account, the Norns are also assigned a vital function in maintaining the tree, as they are described as being responsible for watering it and packing its roots in rich topsoil.
Given its awe-inspiring role and stature, it is understandable that Yggdrasill would have been conflated with ideas of eternity and permanence:
- Mimameith [Mimir's Tree] its name, | and no man knows
- What root beneath it runs;
- And few can guess | what shall fell the tree,
- For fire nor iron shall fell it.
However, this permanence was to be sorely tested, as the world-tree was destined to be shaken to its roots during the history-negating, eschatological battle of Ragnarök.
When the legions of giants (led by Loki) converge upon the halls of the gods, it is said that Heimdall will hasten to the base of the tree and unearth the Gjallarhorn (great horn), which he will then proceed to blow—signaling the advent of the apocalypse.
In the battle that follows, where all of the Aesir are destined to fall in combat with their nemeses, Yggdrasill (the foundation of the universe) "shakes, | and shiver[s] on high // the ancient limbs." Following these ominous signs, the celestial order itself begins to collapse:
- The sun turns black, | earth sinks in the sea,
- The hot stars down | from heaven are whirled;
- Fierce grows the steam | and the life-feeding flame,
- Till fire leaps high | about heaven itself.
Despite this calamity, the fact that a new world will emerge from the embers implies that the tree itself (as figurative "root" of the cosmos) will not be entirely destroyed in the conflict. Indeed, this supposition is validated by the tale of the two human survivors of the apocalypse (Lif and Lifthrasir), who persevere by sheltering themselves in Yggdrasill's branches:
- Othin spake:
- "Much have I fared, | much have I found,
- Much have I got of the gods:
- What shall live of mankind | when at last there comes
- The mighty winter to men?"
- Vafthruthnir spake:
- "In Hoddmimir's wood | shall hide themselves
- Lif and Lifthrasir then;
- The morning dews | for meat shall they have,
- Such food shall men then find."
Yggdrasill in Norse Religion
Given the centrality of Yggdrasill in Norse cosmology, it is reasonable to draw parallels between this mythical entity and the prevalence of trees (both actual and symbolic) in Nordic worship.
The Nordic/Germanic custom of hanging sacrificial victims from trees could very easily have been developed in the context of this myth, where the victim could be seen playing the role of Odin (as mentioned above). This practice is described in detail in Adam of Bremen's depiction of the Temple of Uppsala:
The sacrifice is as follows; of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims.
Veneration of trees
Yggdrasil apparently had smaller counterparts in the sacred tree at Uppsala, the enormous evergreen of unknown species that stood at the Temple at Uppsala, and Irminsul, an oak venerated by the pagan Saxons that was said to connect heaven and earth. More broadly, sacred trees were known to be a central component of Nordic worship, shamanism, and healing magic.
Mircea Eliade, a noted religious comparitivist, offers a generalized explanation of the role played by Yggdrasil in Norse cosmology. Specifically, he suggests that it plays the role of axis mundi, connecting the realm of the sacred (Asgard) to the realm of the profane (Midgard). Exploring these issues in a generalized fashion, he posits that the primary goal of human religiosity is to experience (and, if possible, unite with) the sacred. As the sacred is often depicted as an extra-terrestrial or otherwise transcendent realm, a sort of divine rapprochement must occur for this fundamental desire to be fulfilled. Describing this process, he suggests that, through individual or collective effort, the spiritual gulf may be bridged, yielding a "communication" between these realms:
This communication is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth and whose base is fixed in the world below (the infernal regions). Such a cosmic pillar can be only at the very center of the universe, for the whole of the habitable world extends around it.
In this way, the axis mundi provides experiential evidence that the gulf between the sacred and the profane can be surmounted by human beings.
Eliade also explores the specific image of cosmic trees in Norse mythology and draws some interesting comparisons with other cultures:
The image of the tree was not chosen only to symbolize the cosmos but also to express life, youth, immortality, wisdom. In addition to cosmic trees like the Yggdrasil of Germanic mythology, the history of religions records trees of life (e.g., in Mesopotamia), of immortality (Asia, Old Testament), of knowledge (Old Testament), of youth (Mesopotamia, India, Iran), and so on. In other words, the tree came to express everything that religious man regards as pre-eminently real and sacred, everything that he knows the gods possess of their own nature and that is only rarely accessible to privileged individuals.
- Lindow, 6-8.
- Munch, 289.
- Lindow, 207.
- Poetic Edda, sacred-texts.com Voluspa. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
- Poetic Edda, sacred-texts.com Grímnismál. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
- Lindow, 239.
- Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning XV, Brodeur 27.
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- Poetic Edda, sacred-texts.com Svipdagsmol. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
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- Poetic Edda, sacred-texts.com Voluspa. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
- Poetic Edda, sacred-texts.com Vafthruthnismol. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
- Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum. Retrieved April 8, 2008.
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- Munch, P. A. Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1926.
- Orchard, Andy. Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell, 2002. ISBN 0-304-36385-5
- The Poetic Edda. Translated and with notes by Henry Adams Bellows. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936.
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