The concept of a world tree is present in many cultures’ legends. Examples of this include the sacred Bodhi fig tree under which the Buddha reached Enlightenment, and the holy Aśvattha tree believed by Hindus to have no beginning or end. Certain trees are still considered to hold power in Scandinavian culture. Thought to bless their caretakers with good luck, farmers still plant warden trees in Norway and Sweden. In Norse mythology, the cosmic tree of life is arguably the most important element of their spiritual world. The Yggdrasil tree is grounded at the center of the universe, with the nine worlds revolving around it, held in place by its branches and roots. Here is an exploration into why this tree is deeply significant in the Norse spiritual cosmos.
World Trees: The Yggdrasil Tree Is One of Many
In different cultures’ mythologies and religions, the many variations of the world tree all function as a connection between the heavenly realm, the earth on which humans reside, and the underworld beneath the roots. These trees contain eternal wisdom that is always sought out by gods and significant figures in each culture. This motif acts as the axis mundi, rooted in the center of the world. Acting as the whole system’s nucleus, it embodies order and harmony of all that surrounds it. The treetops correlate with the heavens, the trunk with earth, and the roots with the underworld. Each parallels an element: the top with fire, the middle with earth, and the bottom with water.
Because the tree is seen as the link between the heavenly and hellish realms, the people existing between the two worshipped it. Stars and other celestial bodies are located above along with birds, and often the eagle symbolizes the creator or the controller of the weather and of the belief systems. Humans and the majority of the animals live beneath its branches, and snakes and reptiles claim the soil at the foot of the tree. It is often analogous to immortality, with a fruit growing from its branches or a spring of water nearby believed to grant eternal life.
The Origin of the Word “Yggdrasil”
A meaningful myth surrounding the tree is revealed when the name is broken down. “Yggr” translates to “terrible one” in Old Norse, which was the title of the incredibly powerful god Odin. “Drasill” translates as horse. Combining these into “Yggdrasil” exposes the story that led to the tree’s given name. One of Odin’s distinctive characteristics is his intense craving for knowledge. The Norns, named Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, are three women who personify Time and spin fate.
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In Odin’s feverous pursuit of wisdom, he learned of the Norns’ carvings on the trunk, etched runes regarding their plans for the Nine Worlds. To comprehend them, he hung himself on a branch and felt more powerful than before due to his absorbed knowledge. The image of Odin hanging from the tree is reminiscent of a man hanging from the gallows, which is described in poems as a horse and his rider.
The Tree’s Physical Appearance
Old Norse literature identifies the Yggdrasil as an ash tree, although some believed its true species could never be identified. In the poem the Völuspá, the tree is considered “the friend of the clear sky, so tall that its crown is above the clouds.” Its dramatic height is said to cause frequent, fierce winds to blow at the zenith. The roots are deep, and no one knows exactly how far they stretch, only that they snake down into the underworld. This is a mystery because only shamans can visualize the underworld before death.
The arrangement of the nine worlds around the tree is speculated upon. The most likely positioning shows the worlds revolving around a vertical and horizontal axis. The vertical axis corresponds to the trunk, with Asgard (land of the gods) in the highest branches, Midgard (Earth) on the ground, and Hel (the underworld) under the roots. The horizontal axis shows Asgard right over the trunk, Midgard around the trunk, and Jotunheim (the realm of giants) surrounding Midgard. This theory is based on the classification system created by the Vikings defined by that which is innangarðr (“within the enclosure”) or útangarðr (“beyond the enclosure”).
The Root System
The first root is so deep that Odin’s horse Sleipnir would have to run full speed for nine days to reach it. It is far beneath the thick ice in the world of death, Niflheim, or Hel. Its correlating well is called Hvergelmir, sometimes known as the well of poison. This mysterious well is also considered the source of life and contains the liquid that formed the first living being in Norse mythology.
The second root is in Jotunheim. Mimir’s well is connected to this root and is known as the well of wisdom, due to the god Mimir’s defining trait of knowledge. He drinks from the well daily and allows some to partake at a high cost. This well is the most significant landmark in this world, besides the freshwater rivers that nourish the tree’s roots.
The third root is connected to Asgard. Urðr is the well associated with the roots and is where the Norns live. These three women draw water from the well and take care of the tree. This sacred water is magical and everything it encounters turns white. This well is also the meeting place of gods and goddesses each day and is known as the “tinget”. This term identifies it as a form of parliament, where the holy rulers would cast judgement.
The Creatures of the Tree
Next to the well called Hvergelmir connected to the first root, the dragon Níðhöggr (“Hateful Striker”) resides. This creature’s objective is to chew on the root until the tree falls. It only pauses its gnawing during Garmr the Hell hound’s howl. At this time, Níðhöggr flies to the entrance of Hel and sucks the blood out of the freshly deceased. Many snakes slither around the base of the tree with the dragon and are thought to eat away at the tree alongside it. This symbolizes how the mortality of the cosmos depends on the health of the tree; if these monsters were successful, all nine worlds would collapse.
A giant eagle lives at the top of the tree and is believed to hold vast wisdom. Its size is confirmed by the fact that a hawk named Veðrfölnir sits between its eyes. Found running up and down the trunk is the squirrel Ratatoskr (“Drill Tooth”). This little creature serves as an irritant to both the dragon and the eagle, who endure insulting whispers from it often. The squirrel is an annoying messenger, communicating gossip about the two creatures to each other. Ratatoskr keeps the hatred burning hot between the two rivals who exist at the bottom and top of Yggdrasil.
The branches hold four stags named Dáinn (“The Dead One”), Dvalinn (“The Unconscious One”), Duneyrr (“Thundering in the Ear”), Duraþrór (“Thriving Slumber”). They constantly eat the tree’s leaves and are interpreted as being associated with the four elements, seasons, or phases of the moon. The morning dew pools together in their horns and flows down into the rivers of the world.
Sources of Information
The primary origin of the information regarding Yggdrasil comes from the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda (specifically Vǫluspá, Grímnismál, and Hávamál) and the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda is the contemporary name for an untitled collection of Old Norse poems mostly written anonymously. The Vǫluspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress), gives details about the tree in outline but intel about the Seeress who’s providing this information is limited. One line from the poem reads, “An ash I know there stands, Yggdrasill is its name, a tall tree, showered with shining loam.”
Grímnismál provides more detail about the roots and the creatures of the tree, and the poem Hávamál expresses more details about elements of the three such as the daily god council and the wells where the Norns reside. The tree’s branches are said to extend over the world and provide rain with the dew that they collect.
Snorri Sturluson was an Icelandic poet born in 1179 who wrote the Prose Edda and some poems in the Poetic Edda. He is one of the main authors to write about Norse mythology. Centuries later after some poems from the Poetic Edda were written, Snorri created the Prose Edda to create a more complete account of the significance of Yggdrasil. Gylfaginning and Skáldskaparmál are two poems in the collection that mention the tree. It is identified as the holiest place of the gods and the grandest of all trees.
The Prose Edda adds more about the events of Ragnarök, describing Odin’s important interaction with Mimir. The prophecy states that “the ash Yggdrasil will shake, and nothing will be unafraid in heaven or on earth” and the battle on the field of Vígríðr will commence. A war between gods and forces of evil will ensue during the end times, but the fate of the world essentially rests on the status of the tree.
How the Yggdrasil Tree Indicates Ragnarök’s Arrival
As mentioned previously, the well-being of the Yggdrasil tree determines the health of the entire universe in Norse mythology. If the tree begins to tremble, this is a sign of the arrival of Ragnarök, the end of the world of gods and humans. There are various beliefs about what occurs during this event of mass destruction. One poem proposes a story in which the world tree isn’t destroyed in this Armageddon. Instead of defeat, two human beings are birthed from the tree, Líf (“Life”) and Lífþrasir (“Vitality”), and the world is repopulated once again. Yggdrasil is thought to have been hit hard, suffering damage, but revives itself and proceeds to be the main source of life.
The strength of the tree is immeasurable; its proposed ability to surpass the destructive powers existent during Ragnarök reveals this. The complex functioning of its entire ecosystem was perfectly designed to sustain all life surrounding it and the flourishing of the tree itself. Every root, well, creature, and every other element serves a purpose and maintains the stability of the cosmos. Without Yggdrasil, the entirety of the universe in this Nordic belief system would crumble.