Norse cosmology studies the cosmos based on the North Germanic people’s perceptions. It attempts to explain nearly all vital concepts of Norse mythology such as cosmogony, anthropogeny, time and space, eschatology, and personification too. In this write-up, we will discuss the nine realms in Norse mythology.
About the Nine Worlds
According to Norse mythology, the 9 worlds are the original habitats of the different types of beings, such as the dwarves, giants, gods, and Vikings, who existed in ancient times. These worlds are held in the roots and branches of the world tree (Yggdrasil), which is described as a huge cosmic tree that sprung up in the primeval void of Ginnungagap (void in which the world was created).
The main branches of the world tree reach far into the sky, and it is supported by 3 roots that extend to the spring of Hvergelmir, and the well of Mimisbrunnr and Urdarbrunnr. At the time of its growth, female entities meant to spin the threads of fate (Norns) drew water from the well of Urdarbrunnr to nourish the Yggdrasil.
The first two realms, Muspelheim and Niflheim, originated from Ginnungagap, while the rest of the realms were created from Ymir’s body by Odin and his brothers when creating the world. Since then, the world tree has actively unified the 9 worlds of Midgard, Jotunheimr, Asgard, Nidavellir, Vanaheim, Alfhemir, Hel, Muspelheim, and Niflheim.
The Nine Worlds
1.Midgard – The World of the Humans
Midgard is the realm where human beings lived (earth). It is located in the middle part of the world, right below Asgard. It is surrounded by a huge impassable ocean, occupied by the huge Midgard Serpent (Jormungandr) that circles the realm entirely. The two realms – Midgard and Asgard, are connected by a rainbow bridge known as Bifrost, which the gods of Asgard would use to journey to the human world.
When Odin, Ve, and Veli were walking along the sea, they found two trees. They created the first human man from the Ash tree and the first human woman from the Elm tree. They called the man Ask, the woman Embla, and these two humans became the ancestors of the humans. The gods understood the vulnerability of the first humans to the giants, so they created a world for the humans to reside in and keep safe. They used the eyelashes of the giant Ymir to create a sturdy wall and called it Midgar (the human world).
According to Icelandic literary works and several Germanic folklore tales, Midgard will be destroyed at the battle at the end of the world (Ragnarök). The large serpent is set to rise from the ocean and poison the land and sea with its venom. Eventually, the sea tears up and lashes against the entire land to destroy Midgard and all life on it. However, after the war, Midgard rises again, and a new creation cycle begins.
2.Asgard – The World of the Aesir gods
Asgard is found high up in the sky, right over Midgard. It is regarded as the heavens and is the home of the Aesir gods and goddesses. Odin, the chief of the Aesir, has sole authority of Asgard and is married to Frigg (the queen of the Aesir), who helps him rule the realm. Among the Aesir gods who live in Asgard are; Thor (god of thunder), Baldr (god of light and glamor), and Loki (god of mischief), among others.
Most Icelandic literary works describe Asgard as a celestial city with extremely high towers and surrounded by a massive incomplete wall. Supposedly, the wall is incomplete because Thor struck it down when the other Aesir gods found out that he was a Hrimthurs (a particular tribe of giants made from ice) in disguise. Snorri describes the land as the most fertile out of the 9, blessed with an abundance of gold and jewels.
There was a place known as Hildskjalf in Asgard, where Odin (god of war) would go to gaze over the entire world when need be. Inside Asgard, there is Valhalla (the hall of the slain/his throne), where half of those who died in battle would go. The other half would then go to goddess Freya in Folkvangr.
3.Vanaheim – The World of the Vanir gods
Vanaheim is the home of the Vanir gods. The Vanir were the race of gods responsible for wealth and fertility. They were masters of sorcery and magic and had abilities to predict the future and shape it to match their desires. Some of the gods who lived in Vanaheim were; Freya (goddess of love, lust, and fertility), Njord (god of fertility, wind, and waters), and Freyr (god of fertility, peace, and victory). Unfortunately, there is very little information about what Vanaheim looked like or where exactly it was located. However, some Icelandic literary works describe it as a fertile area with an abundance of magic and light.
Generally, the Aesir and Vanir gods and goddesses lived in peace until a time when a member of the Vanir crossed the line. Goddess Freya was a master of seidr (the worst and most powerful kind of sorcery/magic in Norse culture), which made the Aesir seek her services but still feared her. Eventually, she successfully brainwashed the Aesir gods into her selfish desires, and it damaged the harmonious fabric of their world. When they realized it was all a trap, they tried to murder her. They burnt her thrice, but she resurrected twice, which made the Aesir fear her even more. Because of this, there was a great war between the Aesir and Vanir. Eventually, they called a truce, and the 3 gods (Freyr, Freya, and Njord) had to go live in Asgard as a token of peace.
4.Jotunheim – The World of the Giants
Jotunheim/Utgard, located near Asgard and Midgard, is the world of all the giants. Icelandic literary works describe Jotunheim as a place with dark forests and mountain peaks. It was constantly in the winter season and was never fertile. It was full of untamed wilderness, magic, and frequent chaos. The giants constantly fed on the fish from the surrounding river and the animals that lived in the wilderness. The river Iving that separates Jotunheim from Asgard was massive and difficult to cross. However, some of the Aesir gods would constantly travel to Jotunheim when they needed something urgent. Odin, for example, would travel to Mimisbrunnr well in Jotunheim, where he sacrificed his eye for wisdom; and Thor would visit the stronghold of Utgarda-Loki (the most feared giant).
While these gods would visit Jotunheim, they were constantly at war with the giants. However, they also had love affairs with the giants. Odin has multiple giant lovers, Thor had giant blood in him, and Loki was half-giant. Considering its anarchic and chaotic nature, humans barely interacted with the giants. Further, Norse mythology identifies that the giants and the gods are in opposition and balance, which explains their struggles between creation and destruction. For this reason alone, the giants and the gods were constantly at war and needed to keep off each other’s realms.
5.Niflheim – The World of Mist, Ice, and Snow
Niflheim is the world of primordial ice, snow, and mist and was the first realm to emanate from Ginnungagap when the Yggdrasil tree branched out to form the different worlds. According to Snorri and the Hrafnagaldr Odins, Niflheim was the darkest and coldest realm out of the 9. Additionally, no one lives there, not even the frost giant, and it is a lonely environment with corpses. Snorri also describes Nilfheim as part of Hel’s realm but was less dark.
It is located towards the northern part of Ginnungagap, and it hosts a bubbling boiling spring known as Hvergelmir (eldest spring in the world). Further, every Norse person believed that all the cold rivers in their land came from the bubbling boiling spring and is the primary source of the 11 rivers (Elivagar). Also, Norse mythology depicts that the spring is the origin of all living things, and they would all return there towards the end of time.
The spring is protected by Nidhug (a malicious dragon), who gnaws at the Yggdrasil tree. The dragon was a horrific monster that chewed on the corpses of those who inhabited Nastrond- the afterlife for anyone guilty of oath-breaking, murder, adultery, and rape.
6.Muspelheim – The World of Fire
Just like Niflheim, Muspelheim was the first realm to emanate from the primordial void of Ginungagap but is located towards the southern part. During creation, the northern part of Ginungagap (Nelfheim) thickened with ice and frost. However, the southern part (Muspelheim) had glowing sparks of fire and extreme heat, which melted ice and created the moon, sun, and stars. Also, the drops of fire formed Ymir (the primeval giant), who played a vital role in the creation of dwarves and was referred to as ‘Aurgelmer’ by the frost giants.
It is described as a burning hot region filled with soot, active lava, sparks of fire, and flames. It is the home of fire demons and fire giants and is ruled by Sutr (a ruthless fire jotunn). Sutr plays a vital role in the Ragnarok, where he brings up flames that engulf the world of humans (Midgard). He was a great enemy to the Aesir gods, and he carries a flaming sword at Ragnarok to attack Asgard by turning into a flaming inferno. Other Icelandic literary sources identify that Muspell was the giant who lived in Muspelheim and was a horde of evil that invaded the world at the Ragnarok.
7.Alfheim – The World of the Elves
Alfheim is the home of the light elves (Josalfar), and it is ruled by the Vanir god Freyr (god of fertility and love, and is associated with beauty, lust, sex, gold, and war). While the realm of the light elves was ruled by a Vanir god (Freyr), the relationship between the two beings was complex. It was also known as Ljosalfheimr, which means the land of the light elves. Most Icelandic literary sources describe Alfheim as a land full of light and glamor and consider the elves ‘guardian angles’ and magical beings. The elves are often described as minor gods of nature and fertility and would always help the humans with the knowledge that they have about magical powers. They also serve as a great source of inspiration for Scandinavian art, poetry, and music.
It is located in the heavens, right next to Asgard. Different scholars, including John Lindow, claim that Alfheim is the geographical region between the mouths of river Glom and Gota found at the border between Norway and Sweden. Additionally, the scholars describe the people from this region as ‘fairer’ than others in several other Scandinavian regions. While this remains a bone of contention, most people believe that the myths about the world of the elves came from this fair region.
8.Svartalfheim – The World of the Dwarves
Svartalfheim, which means ‘dark fields’ is described as the home of the dwarves and the dark elves. The dwarves and the elves lived in the caves, under the rocks, and underground. According to Nordic creation stories/myths, the dwarves were originally maggots that preyed on Ymir’s (the primeval giant) flesh. However, the gods decided that they should acquire human understanding and created them from Ymir’s flesh to assume the likeness of man. Icelandic literary sources describe Nidavellir as a dark, smoky place that is only lit by torches placed on the wall by the dwarves and fires from the forge.
Initially, Svartalfheim was ruled over by Hreidmar (a sorcerer) but killed by a sword in his sleep. The dwarves are considered a race of master smiths and magicians who played a vital role in Norse culture. They created the Mead of Poetry, which Odin steals from the giants and gives to his fellow gods. They also created Mjolnir, which was Thor’s powerful harmer and Odin’s spear (Gungnir). Further, they made the Freyr’s foldable magic ship and a magical ring known as Draupnir. Most of the dwarves who helped humans lived in Midgard (especially the descendants of Durin, the second dwarf to have been created).
9.Helheim – The World of the Dishonorable dead
The dishonorable dead, such as thieves, adulterers, and murderers who the Aesir and Vanir gods and goddesses felt weren’t brave enough to go to Folkvangr or Valhalla, were sent to Helheim. Most Icelandic literary sources describe it as a grim and extremely cold place and an underworld for dishonorable people to continue their lives. It is not necessarily a place of eternal fire but a dark place beneath the roots of Yggdrasil. Hel (Loki’s daughter) rules over Helheim and uses all the dead in this world at Ragnarok to attack the gods and goddesses at the plains of Vigrid.
Odin sent Hel to the realm of Helheim as a caution to the commotion that she would probably cause to the world of the gods and the humans. He ensured that the realm was surrounded by a wall that only had a gate that could only travel downwards (the one used to send the dishonorable dead) and a section filled with a huge river of weapons.