Heimdall: Get to Know the Viking Superhero and Guardian of Asgard

Heimdall, the god who guards the Rainbow Bifrost Bridge of Asgard, is the son of nine mothers and is described as possessing superpowers.

Jun 3, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology

heimdall guadian of asgard


Heimdall has become one of the most popular gods of Asgard thanks to his portrayal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by Idris Elba. He is also one of the more fascinating gods in Norse mythology. Born from nine mothers, he has the godly equivalent of superpowers and uses them to guard the Rainbow Bifrost Bridge entrance to Asgard. In addition to being the sentinel of Asgard, Heimdall is also credited with establishing the Viking social order and was responsible for Thor’s cross-dressing adventure.


The Shining Beacon of Asgard

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Odin’s Reward, from Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology, by Mary Foster and Mabel Cummings, 1901, Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository


The name Heimdall has an unclear etymology but probably means something along the lines of “he who illuminates the world.” This is one of several names associated with the god, which also includes Hullntanni, meaning “one with the golden teeth.” He is frequently described as the brightest or the whitest of the gods.


This may suggest that the Vikings associated Asgard with something shining that they could see in the heavens. Some scholars have suggested the Milky Way, which would have been more visible in the Viking Age due to less light pollution.


Heimdall may have been considered to shine particularly brightly because he stands at the entrance to Asgard, as its sentinel. Specifically, he is responsible for guarding the Bifrost Bridge, which Odin built to connect Midgard, the world of men created by Odin and his brothers, with Asgard, the world of the gods.

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Bifrost means “fleetingly glimpsed rainbow,” which is why it is often called the Rainbow Bifrost Bridge. It is made from the elements of fire, water, and air. Heimdall lives in a great stronghold near the bridge entrance to Asgard, called Himinbjorg, which means “sky cliffs.” He is known to have a pretty good time there and is described as drinking excellent mead.


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Odin, the All-Father, by Emil Doepler, 1882, Source: Wikimedia Commons


It may have been after a few drinks that Heimdall suggested Thor dress up as a woman and go undercover as Freyja. When the giant Thjazi stole Thor’s hammer, he said that he would only return it in exchange for Freyja’s hand in marriage. While Thor expected Freyja to marry the giant, she bluntly refused.


As the gods sat around and tried to come up with an alternative plan, Heimdall suggested that Thor dress up as Freyja and pretend to marry Thjazi to get the hammer back. While Thor initially refused because he thought it would undermine his manhood, Loki convinced him. Thor and Loki headed off to Jotunheim, the land of the giants, disguised as women.


Heimdall’s Many Superpowers

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Heimdall in front of a beast alongside other images of Ragnarök on the Gosforth Cross, England, c. 10th century. Source: Newcastle University, United Kingdom


One source refers to Heimdall as a son of Odin. But this information is not repeated in other surviving sources. He is often described as the son of nine mothers. Heimdall himself is described as bragging about this side of his parentage, though he doesn’t say exactly who these mothers are.


Scholars assume that his mothers are the nine daughters of the sea giant Aegir. They are also known as the nine waves. This may be why Heimdall is sometimes called Vindler, which means “protector against the wind of the sea”. It may also be why some sources say that he was nourished by the power of the earth, the water of the sea, and the heat of the sun.


This fantastical parentage may be responsible for Heimdall’s divine superpowers. He is described as requiring less sleep than a bird, as being able to see for over 100 leagues during the day or at night, and as having hearing so good that he can hear grass growing in a meadow or wool growing on a sheep. These talents were probably why he was chosen as the watchman of Asgard.


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Yggdrasil: The Mundane Tree, from Northern Antiquities, by Oluf Bagge, 1847, Source: Wikimedia Commons


However, it is also possible that Heimdall made a sacrifice to gain these incredible skills. This would be similar to how Odin plucked out his own eye and sacrificed it for a drink from the Well of Wisdom. This hypothesis comes from the fact that the “hljod” of Heimdall is said to be hidden beneath Yggdrasil, the sacred tree around which exists the cosmos of Norse Mythology. Hljod could mean a horn, hearing, or an ear.


If this is the case, perhaps Heimdall was depicted with one ear in the same way Odin was depicted with one eye. But only one verified Viking age image of Heimdall survives, found on the Gosforth Cross in England. It is not possible to determine whether or not both of his ears are intact.


In addition to his skills, Heimdall also had some important possessions. Specifically, he possessed a horn called Gjallarhorn, which can be heard throughout the Norse cosmos when he sounds it. He also has a horse with a golden mane called Gulltoppr.


Father of Social Order and Raiding

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Rígr Visits a Couple, by W.G. Collingwood, from Elder or Poetic Edda: Commonly Known as Sæmund’s Edda, translated by Olive Bray, 1908, Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository


In addition to being the sentinel of Asgard, Heimdall seems to have played another significant role in Norse mythology as the founder of the Viking social order. This is relayed in a poem called The Lay of Rigr. Rigr is one of the names that Heimdall was called by.


According to the story, Rigr visited the world of men and came across a poor and ugly couple who managed a subsistence living. He stayed with the couple for three nights, giving them advice on the best way to do things. Each night he also slept in bed with the couple.


Nine months later the couple had a son whom they called Thrall, which means slave. A woman called Thir, meaning the female version of a slave, turned up and the two married. Together they had twelve boys and nine girls, all as ugly as their parents and grandparents. This earned them names such as Horsefly, Stumpy, Lumpy-Leg, and Eagle-Nose.


Next, Rigr visited a middle-class couple and repeated his actions. This time they had a son called Karl, which means freeman. Soon a woman called Snor, which means daughter-in-law, came into the area, and the two married. They had twelve boys and ten girls. These children were given names such as Smith, Farmer, Speaker, Bride, and Wife, reflecting their professions and social roles.


Finally, Rigr visited a wealthy and very attractive couple and stayed with them for three nights. But after nine months he returned and claimed their son Jarl, which means earl, as his own. He taught him the secrets of the runes and how to be a warrior.


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Heimdall and the Gjallarhorn, from Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum, SÁM 66, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765, Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository


Rigr also told this warrior son that he must go out and conquer new lands, which he did. Soon Jarl was in command of 18 halls. While on his conquests, he married a woman from another land called Erna. Together they had twelve sons and no daughters. All Jarl’s sons had noble names, but the youngest was the most talented of them all, which earned him the name Konr Ungr, or king.


This story seems to describe Heimdall-as-Rigr creating the three main social classes in Viking society. He also seems to have introduced the idea of raiding, telling Jarl that he must look beyond the boundaries of his home to seek a wife and his fortune.


Heimdall at Ragnarök

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Heimdallr Blowing His Horn, by Lorenz Frølich, from Ældre Eddas Gudesange, translated by Karl Gjellerup, 1895, Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository


Like all the gods, Heimdall has a role to play at Ragnarök, the prophesied end of the world when the gods will battle with a force of giants and monsters. The battle will end in mutual destruction and the end of all things.


As the sentinel of Asgard, Heimdall will be the first to see the force of giants and monsters crossing the Rainbow Bifrost Bridge, which will crumble beneath them. He may also receive a warning from the rooster Gullinkambi, who flies to Asgard when the omens signal the coming of Ragnarök.


In the ensuing battle, Odin will be devoured by Fenrir, who will in turn be killed by Odin’s son Vidarr. Thor will kill the mighty serpent Jormungandr but will die himself from the snake’s poison. Freyr will fight to the death with the fire giant Surtr.


Heimdall will have his own fight to the death, with the trickster giant Loki. The giant had been allowed to live in Asgard among the gods, but was cast out, imprisoned, and punished after he orchestrated the death of the god Balder, the son of Odin and Frigg.


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Heimdall Returns Brisingamen to Freyja, by Nils Blommer, 1846, Source: Museum.org


This ultimate fight may have been fueled by an existing feud between Heimdall and Loki. According to the Skaldic poem Husdrapa, attributed to the 10th-century Icelandic poet Ulfr Uggason, Loki, and Heimdall had previously battled in seal form over possession of Brisingamen, a stunning gold necklace that belonged to Freyja.


While few other details are provided, it may be that this fight happened in the aftermath of Thor dressing up as Freyja to reclaim his hammer from the giant Thjazi. Thor borrowed Freyja’s necklace Brisingamen to complete his disguise. It may be that this allowed Loki to get his hands on the necklace and he tried to keep it for himself.


Since it was Heimdall who suggested Thor dress up, he may also have convinced Freyja to lend Thor the necklace. Perhaps Heimdall felt responsible for ensuring that Brisingamen was returned to Freyja.


Whatever the cause of their dispute, the two will kill one another at Ragnarök.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica holds a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.