Norse Cosmology: What Does the Universe Look Like in Norse Mythology?

Norse cosmology refers to the beliefs and stories about the creation, structure, and eventual destruction of the universe in the Viking mythological tradition.

Jul 2, 2023By Rhianna Padman, BA Classics

norse mythology cosmology


  • The Norse universe is organized into nine realms, connected by Yggdrasil. These realms include places for gods, humans, giants, and other beings.
  • A colossal ash tree, Yggdrasil is central to the Norse cosmology, connecting and supporting the nine realms. It symbolizes the interconnectedness and cyclical nature of the universe, hosting various creatures and deities.
  • Ragnarök: The prophesied end-times event in Norse mythology. Despite its destructive nature, marking the demise of many gods and the world itself, it leads to the rebirth of a renewed universe and a new pantheon of gods.


In Norse mythology, the structure of the universe is organized into nine distinct realms that are interconnected by the ash tree Yggdrasil. The nine worlds were Asgard, Midgard, Jotunheim, Niflheim, Muscenters, Helheim, Alfheim, Svartalfheim, and Vanaheim. The universe’s origin story centers around the primal entity of Niflheim and Muspelheim. The creation narrative describes how the universe was formed through the interplay between these two opposing forces. Additionally, the Norse cosmological tradition includes the prophesied event known as Ragnarök, which foretells the end of the world.


Muspelheim and Niflheim: The Primeval Realms of Fire and Ice in Norse Cosmology

Odin and his Brothers Create the World by Lorenz Frølich, Unknown, via Wikimedia Commons


In Norse mythology, Niflheim and Muspelheim were two prominent realms that played a pivotal role in the genesis of the cosmos. Niflheim was regarded as a primeval realm characterized by frigid mist and ice, predating the universe’s inception. This world was associated with obscurity, low temperatures, and demise, and was considered the origin of all the rivers and streams that flowed throughout the Norse universe. Conversely, Muspelheim was a realm of fire, also existing before the universe’s creation, and represented an antithesis to Niflheim. It was a place of blazing heat and radiant light, serving as the source of all the fire in the Norse cosmos.


According to Norse mythology, the convergence of Niflheim and Muspelheim marked the genesis of the universe. Muspelheim’s fiery heat melted the icy terrain of Niflheim, initiating the emergence of life, which took the form of the entity Ymir. The gods Odin, Vili, and Ve subsequently put an end to Ymir and used his corporeal remains to forge the realms. Thus, Niflheim and Muspelheim were the antagonistic forces that engendered the cosmos. Furthermore, the Norse creation myth included the fashioning of the first humans, Ask and Embla, from two trees by the deities. These humans received life from the gods and were placed on Midgard to live.


Midgard: The Human World

Runestone dedicated to a Viking mother, via the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen


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Midgard, located in the center of the Norse cosmos, was the realm designated for human habitation and surrounded by the realms of the gods (Asgard) and the giants (Jotunheim). The gods fashioned Midgard as a place for humans to live and separated it from the remainder of the universe by an ocean and an impassable barrier called the Midgard Serpent. Midgard was considered the most vulnerable of all the realms, continuously threatened by the giants from Jotunheim. Nonetheless, it was considered a realm of hope and rebirth where humans led their daily lives, carried out labor, and raised their families.


Asgard: Realm of the Aesir

Thor wades rivers while the rest of the æsir ride across the bridge Bifröst by Lorenz Frølich, 1895, via Wikimedia Commons


Asgard, the beautiful and radiant realm located high above Midgard, was solely accessible by the rainbow bridge, Bifrost. It was considered the center of the universe and the home of numerous preeminent Norse gods, including Odin, Thor, and Frigg. The realm was a place of feasting, storytelling, and great gatherings, where the gods would assemble to drink, fight, and make momentous decisions about the universe’s fate. In the tradition, it was regarded as a place of immense power and prestige, the center of the universe, and the objective of the heroic journey. Nonetheless, despite its magnificence and beauty, Asgard was not invulnerable to the forces of chaos and destruction, since it would also be the site of Ragnarök, where the gods and giants would engage in a final battle that would culminate in the annihilation of the universe.


Valkyrie by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1865, via The National Museum


Valhalla, a magnificent hall, was also located in the center of Asgard presided over by Odin, the god of war, death, and wisdom. The warriors who resided in Valhalla were thought to be the bravest and most skilled warriors, who had perished in battle and had been chosen by Odin to reside in his hall. In Valhalla, the warriors were said to enjoy an existence of endless feasting, fighting, and revelry as they prepared themselves for the final battle of Ragnarök. The warriors were also said to be equipped with the finest weapons and armor, and they were said to be able to battle all day, only to rise from the dead each evening to feast and drink in Odin’s hall.


Jotunheim: Land of the Giants

Giant Skrymir and Thor by Louis Huard, 1900, via Wikimedia Commons


Jotunheim was a dark and icy realm far from Asgard’s shining halls, it was said to have towering mountains, dense forests, and deep valleys. The giants who inhabited Jotunheim were often depicted as immense in size, strength and power being unpredictable forces of nature. Despite their chaotic nature, the giants were regarded as important figures in Norse mythology, as they were the source of numerous great challenges that the gods and heroes faced. They also played a central role in Ragnarök, the end of the world, as they were perceived as the enemies of the gods who would engage in a final battle that would bring about the end of the universe.


Helheim: The Gloomy Underworld

Illustration of the Norse Cosmos by Henry Wheaton, 1831, via British Library


Helheim was considered to be the bleak underworld situated beneath Midgard, the world of humans. It was ruled by the goddess Hel, a half-dead and half-alive goddess who presided over the souls of the departed. According to the tradition, those who died were destined to Helheim, except for the brave warriors who were chosen by Odin to reside in Valhalla or the goddess Freya’s domain, Folkvangr. In Helheim, the dead were said to live a joyless existence, cut off from the world of the living and condemned to a shadowy existence in the underworld. Despite its grim reputation, Helheim was regarded as a significant dominion in Norse mythology, as it was the ultimate destination for many of the dead and was often depicted as a place of judgment, where the dead were evaluated and assigned their fate.


Alfheim and Svartalfheim: Light and Dark 

Ängsälvor (Meadow Elves) by Nils Jakob Blommér, 1850, via The Guardian


Alfheim was believed to be the home of the light elves. It was characterized by lush forests, flowing rivers, and crystal-clear lakes, and was considered to be a place of beauty and harmony. The light elves who resided in Alfheim were renowned for their artistic and magical skills, and they were known for their great beauty and grace. They were often seen as benevolent creatures who lived in harmony with nature and each other, and their home was considered a place of refuge and peace. Despite its beauty and serenity, Alfheim was not without danger, as it was believed to be home to powerful and potentially dangerous entities and forces.


Contrastingly, Svartalfheim was home to the dark elves or dwarves, who, unlike the light elves, were known for their cunningness, malice, and greed. Svartalfheim was a gloomy and enigmatic realm characterized by cavernous tunnels, mines, and subterranean rivers. The dwarves who inhabited Svartalfheim were known for their exceptional craftsmanship, producing intricate and valuable objects, as well as powerful weapons and tools. Despite their abilities, they were often portrayed as cunning and treacherous, and their realm was considered a place of danger to outsiders.


Vanaheim: Home of the Vanir 

Freyja by Emil Doepler, 1905, via BBC


Vanaheim was the land of the Vanir gods, who were seen as a distinct group of deities from the Aesir. The realm was often portrayed as a place of peace and prosperity, where the Vanir gods lived in harmony with nature and with one another. It was described as a verdant land, filled with lush fields, forests, and abundant crops. In contrast to the warlike Aesir gods, the Vanir gods were characterized as generous and kind, and they were often depicted as promoting peace and fertility. The most well-known of the Vanir gods were Njord, the god of the sea and fishing, and his children Freyja and Freyr, who were associated with fertility, peace, and prosperity.


Yggdrasil: The World Tree

Yggdrasil by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, 1847, via Public Domain Review


Yggdrasil, or the “World Tree”, was a colossal ash tree that served as the central arbor that connected and held together the nine realms of the Norse cosmos. This eternal tree was rooted in the underworld, extending through the worlds and connecting them all. Yggdrasil served as a powerful symbol of the interconnectedness of everything in the Norse universe, representing the cyclical nature of life, death, and rebirth. It was revered as a sacred symbol of the cosmos, and its roots were believed to hold the fate of the universe and all its inhabitants. As the World Tree, Yggdrasil was central to Norse cosmology, with its branches reaching out to the different realms, including Asgard, Midgard, and Helheim, among others. Its trunk and branches were inhabited by several creatures and beings, such as dragons, giants, and even some of the gods themselves.


Ragnarök: Armageddon in Norse Cosmology

The Ride to Asgard by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872, via AKG Images


Ragnarök, which translates to “Fate of the Gods,” was a significant event that marked the end of the current world and the beginning of a new one. The events leading up to Ragnarök began with a long period of conflict and chaos. Known for his trickery and cunningness, the god Loki was said to have broken free from his imprisonment and rallied the forces of evil, including the giant Surtr and his armies from the fiery realm of Muspelheim. The gods and their allies fought fiercely against these evil forces, but they were finally overwhelmed and many of them perished. As the battle raged on, the world was plunged into darkness, and the sky was said to catch fire. The earth shook violently, and the oceans rose, engulfing everything in their path. Ultimately, the world was consumed by fire and water. Despite its ominous overtones, Ragnarök was not seen as a completely negative event but rather as a necessary step in the cyclical nature of existence. After Ragnarök, a renewed world would emerge and a new group of gods would take over the universe’s rule.

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By Rhianna PadmanBA ClassicsRhianna is a recent Classics graduate from the University of Exeter. Her studies mainly focused on Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing her to explore in depth a range of ancient texts. She is especially interested in mythology, language, and psychology, with her dissertation focusing on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to Homer’s Odyssey. During her year abroad at the University of Malta, she developed a keen passion for traveling. Since her time in Malta, she has been to Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and she plans on many more places to visit!