Playing an important role in Norse cosmology, Yggdrasil is the name of a sacred tree that connects the nine mythological worlds. It is believed to be located at the center of the cosmic system. According to some sources in early Norse literature, Yggdrasil is a gigantic ash tree. Beneath its roots are wells guarded by the Norns.1
Tree of Life Symbolism and the Nine Worlds
The tree of life is a universal motif found in many cultures, especially in Eurasian mythologies and Altai Shamanism.
Although there are many different terms such as tree of life, world tree, cosmic tree in the literature, the historian of religion, Professor Mircea Eliade, argued that all symbols that provide communication between the sky and the earth are variants of the cosmic tree.2
The tree of life is a tool that provides communication between the earth and the sacred sky in both Altai Shamanism and Turkish mythology. However, in the Norse communities, it was handled on a more cosmic scale and presented as a web that connects nine different realms. These realms/worlds are Muspelheim, Niflheim, Hel, Jotunheim, Vanaheim, Niðavellir, Álfheim, Midgard, and Åsgard.
It is also known as Múspell or Múspellheimr. Its etymological origin is uncertain, but it is briefly described as the “fire world”. It is the hottest of the nine worlds. Therefore, it can be considered the opposite of Niflheim, the world of fog. It is guarded by Surtr, a jötunn.
It is thought that Muspelheim lies south of the primeval void, Ginnungagap. To the north is the cold and foggy world of Niflheim. The flames from Muspelheim and the ices from Niflheim met in Ginnungagap to initiate creation.
Niflheim means “world of fog” in Old Norse. It is also known as Niflheimr. It is the coldest and darkest of the nine worlds. Therefore, it can be considered the opposite of Muspelheim, the world of fire. It is the first world created after Muspelheim.
Niflheim lies under one of the roots of Yggdrasil. According to Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241), Ymir, the ancestor of the giants, was formed when the ice from Niflheim and the flames from Muspelheim met.
It is also known as Helheim. In short, it is defined as the world of the dead. It comes from the same root as “hell”. However, it is different from today’s concept of hell.
For many researchers, Hel should be interpreted as a world where the spirits of the dead continue to live, rather than as a realm where sinners are punished.
It is understood from the sources in the early Norse literature that Hel is somewhere underground and that some living beings may enter and leave Hel in various ways.
It is also known as Jötunheimr. In short, it can be described as the world of giants. In Norse literature, the places where giants live are often secluded places such as deep forests and mountains. This contains clues as to how Jotunheim was depicted among the Vikings.
Jotunheimen, a mountainous region in Norway considered part of the Scandinavian Mountains, is named after Jotunheim.
According to the Austrian researcher and philologist Rudolf Simek, Jotunheim was located in the east in the first sources, but shifted to the north in the later sources.3
It is also known as Vanaheimr. It is the world inhabited by the group of gods called the Vanir. Njörðr, Freyr, and Freyja are among the best-known Vanir deities.
According to the poem Lokasenna, Vanaheim is located to the west of Åsgard.
It is also known as Myrkheim. In short, it can be described as the world of dwarfs. In Norse mythology, dwarves, often associated with metalworking, live in Niðavellir/Myrkheim.
According to the poem Völuspá, it is a dark region, “myrkr” already means darkness in Old Norse.
It is also known as Álfheimr. It means “world of the elves” in Old Norse. The light elves (ljósálfar) in Norse mythology live in Álfheim.
According to the poem Grímnismál, the ruler of Álfheim is Freyr, one of the Vanir gods.
It is also called Miðgarðr or Midgård. It can be defined as the other name of the Earth. It is the land where people live in Norse mythology.
The gods built the Earth from the body of Ymir, who is considered the ancestor of giants. Ymir’s flesh formed the land and his blood formed the oceans. His eyebrows were used as fences to protect people from giants.
During Ragnarök, nearly everything on Midgard will be destroyed, but thanks to the hiding Líf and Lífþrasir, humanity will survive.
It is also known as Ásgarðr. It is the world of the group of gods called Æsir. Odin, Thor and Heimdall live here.
Connecting Åsgard to Midgard is a rainbow-shaped bridge called Bifröst. This bridge will be destroyed during Ragnarök.
According to the poem Vafþrúðnismál, a river called Ífingr separates Åsgard and Jotunheim, the land of giants. Because it doesn’t freeze, it is commented that the river flows very fast and thus the giants cannot cross into Åsgard.
- “Yggdrasil and the Norns – or Axis Mundi and Time“, Renata Maria RUSU, Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai – Philologia, 53/2008, p. 85-97
- Le Chamanisme” Mircea ELIADE, Éditions Payot, ISBN: 9755332588
- “Dictionary of Northern Mythology”, Rudolf SIMEK, BOYE6 Revised Edition, ISBN: 978-0859915137