Many cultures or religions are known to worship nature, especially mountain and trees. The Norse people had a tree they revered and considered holy, called Yggdrasil. Also known as the Tree of Life, this might ash tree is perhaps the most important symbol among the Vikings and in Norse mythology. It is said to be at the center of the cosmos and is what connects the world of men where the Vikings lived, to the world of gods and giants.
But you must be wondering, what truly is Yggdrasil and what’s its role in Norse mythology? What does it mean and why is it important to Viking’s belief system and Norse culture? In an attempt to answer these questions, in this post, we take a deeper look at Yggdrasil in Norse mythology.
What Is the Yggdrasil?
Based on Norse mythology Yggdrasil is commonly described as a massive ash tree geographically situated at the center of the cosmos. Although, other times it’s said that no one truly knows whether it’s an ash tree or what tree species it belongs to. Being at the center, the rest of the cosmos including the nine realms are said to be arranged around it and connected by its roots or branches that nourish all things. As such, the well-being of the cosmos is said to depend on the well-being of the Tree of Life. It is, however, not definitive which of the nine realms are connected to the tree given that more than nine realms are described in the Norse sagas. It is also not clear how the tree connects the realm. Asgard for example is sometimes described as being at the highest branch of the tree while other times one of the tree’s roots is said to extend to Asgard.
Being an important part of the Norse mythology, Yggdrasil has been attested many times in both the Poetic and Prose Edda both written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th Century. According to one of the poems in Poetic Edda, Völuspá, the tree is described as a friend to the sky. The poems say Yggdrasil was so tall that its crown went above the clouds, making it seem snow-capped like the tallest mountains. The poem further describes that the dale’s dews would slide off its leaves. Another poem, Hávamál, continues to say, that the tree is windy given that there are always fierce winds surrounding it. The poem adds that no one knows where the roots stretch out to since they go all the way to the underworld which no one can see until their death.
The tree was also home to animals as well. According to Norse legends, the was an eagle, whose name isn’t known, who lived in the highest branches of the tree. At the base of it, lived a dragon named Nidhogg along with several snakes, and they would always nib at the roots of the tree. There was also a squirrel named Ratatoskr, meaning ‘drill tooth. Because the Eagle and the dragon were said to be enemies, the squirrel would always run up and down the tree conveying messages between the two.
On top of that, Yggdrasil holds a holy status in Norse culture and is seen as a sacred tree. The gods are said to hold their council under the tree every day. Although the tree is described as eternal, the dragon and snakes nibbling at it are symbolic of its mortality which is connected to the mortality of the entire cosmos.
Being at the center of Norse mythology, many scholars and experts have analyzed the meaning of Yggdrasil. As a result, there are several theories on the exact meaning behind the term Yggdrasil. The first theory is what the experts call Odin’s gallows or horse theory, where they believe that Yggdrasil means Odin’s gallows based on its etymology. The term Yggdrasil is a compound term made up of two words. Ygg(r), means Terrible one, and according to Norse Myths, is one of Odin’s many names. Drassil, on the other hand, means horse but, in some contexts, could refer to gallows. This ties in with time Odin is said to have hung from the tree while in search of the knowledge of the runes. That makes the tree his gallows.
In Old Norse, however, Yggdrasil was sometimes also referred to as Askr Yggdrasil, where Askr means ash tree. Because Yggdrasil, to most scholars, does mean Odin’s horse, Askr Yggdrasil would translate to, The World Tree where Odin’s horse is bound.
Another theory is the Yew Pillar theory by F.R. Schröder. He believes that the term Yggdrasil comes from the terms yggia/igwja and dher. That means that Ygg(r), originated from the terms yggia or igwja which both mean yew tree, a common European berry tree, and Drassil originated from dher, meaning support. Therefore, that would mean that Yggdrasil stands for the Yew Pillar of the world. This theory, however, conflicts with the belief that Yggdrasil was an ash tree.
One last theory is the terror theory, suggested by F. Detter, who believes that the term Ygg(r), is not connected to Odin in any way. He believes, instead, that the term means terror. Considering that Drassil still means horse/ gallows, that would make Yggdrasil, the tree or gallows of terror. The downside to this theory is that there is no connection between horse and gallows, to make the tree, the gallows of terror. Still, since the gallows are sometimes described as the horse of the hanged, this theory could have some standing.
Some believe that the alternative name for Yggdrasil is Mimameidr, which translates to Mimir’s tree. Mimir was the wisest of all the gods, and he got his wisdom from drinking from the Well of Wisdom, Mimisbrunnr. Since Yggdrasil also fed on the same well, the two were said to be connected, hence the name, Mimameidr.
Viking Tree of Life Symbol
As the World Tree or Tree of Life, Yggdrasil is highly symbolic. It is one of the most complicated Viking symbols with layers of meaning. Some see it as destiny or prophecies, while others see it as the natural order of things. The following are some of the symbols the tree represents:
- Interconnectedness – given that Yggdrasil connects different worlds it’s a clear representation of the fact that all things in the universe are connected. Yggdrasil nurtured all creatures in the cosmos and provided them a place to dwell.
- Wisdom – three Norns, female figures said to create the fate of the world and have the wisdom that many creatures desire, are said to dwell in Yggdrasil in the Well of Urd. They curved the runes carried the destinies of all beings in the cosmos on the Yggdrasil’s trunks. The tree is also fed from the Well of Wisdom, attesting to the fount of wisdom the tree carries.
- Suffering – Odin at one point described Yggdrasil as the representation of suffering given the agony it endured that was not known to many. The creatures that lived in the tree were said to torture it daily. The dragon would always gnaw at its roots because it believed that Yggdrasil would fall someday. Four stags kept biting its leaves causing its trunks to decay and a deer that also ate its leaves to produce mead for Odin’s warriors.
- Eternity – although no one knows the origin of Yggdrasil, it is said to have survived even Ragnarok, the end of the gods, and carried with it, the seeds of humanity into the new world. Even with the suffering it supposedly went through daily, Yggdrasil never trembled nor did it fall. Therefore, it is seen as a representation of eternity, something that always was and continues to be.
Yggdrasil and the 9 Norse Worlds
As mentioned earlier, it is not clear how Yggdrasil connects to the nine worlds, nor is it definitive which worlds these are. Although the worlds are often mentioned in different Old Norse sources, their descriptions vary from one poet or writer to another. There are therefore conflicting ideas as to what these nine realms are. The following, however, is a brief description of what they are commonly believed to be:
It’s commonly known as the home of the Aesir gods, although sometimes generalized as the realm of all Norse gods. Here is where you’ll find notable figures in Norse mythology such as Odin, Thor, Loki, Frigg, Njord, and Freya among others. It is also home to the famous Valhalla, where Odin keeps the souls of half of the slain heroes in battle. Snorri describes Asgard in his writings, as the most fertile land that is abundant in gold and jewelry. It is characterized by the incomplete wall that was left unfinished after Thor struck down the giant stonemason who was tasked to build it.
It’s also referred to as Útgarðr, the land or realm of the Jötnar, the giant race. The giants are mortal enemies of the Aesir gods, yet many of the Norse deities are known to have had affairs with the giants. Thor, for example, is believed to be the son of the giantess Jord and the Allfather, Odin. According to Edda, Jötunheimr is characterized by dark forests with cold frosty mountain peaks where it is always winter.
Otherwise known as earth, Midgard is said to be the land of humans. Since Midgard translates to ‘middle earth’, it is believed to be at the center of Yggdrasil. Earth is said to be surrounded by a big ocean and a great sea serpent called Jörmungandr. As such, the place is inaccessible to other realms apart from Asgard. The Aesir gods are believed to have traveled to earth via the Bifrost, a burning rainbow bridge that comes from Himinbjörg, the hall of god Heimdallr. It’s believed that Midgard will be destroyed during Ragnarok, but rise again in the new creation cycle as fertile and green land.
The name is believed to mean Mist World or Abode of Mist. It is a realm of extreme cold and frost and made predominantly of ice. It is said to be one of the two realms that existed from Ginnungagap. It plays an important role in the Norse creation story. This is the home of the frost giants starting with Ymir the first giant and being to have ever existed according to Norse mythology.
This is the other of the two oldest realms in Norse mythology. Unlike Niflheim, Muspelheim is a realm of extreme heat, characterized by hot lava and fire. It is said to have melted the ice from Niflheim during the cosmogenic process when the two came into contact in the middle of Ginnungagap. The melted ice is what formed Ymir, the first being. Muspelheim is also the home of giants, fire giants. It is ruled over by Surtr one of Odin’s mortal enemies. He is said to be the one to lead the war against Asgrd during Ragnarok.
Commonly referred to as the underworld or sometimes the Realm of Hel. Not surprising, Helheim is almost equivalent to today’s definition of Hell, only less agonizing. It’s neither a place of endless torment nor eternal bliss. This place is the realm of the dead, where the souls of all those who were not killed in battle or died dishonorably would be sent. It is ruled over by the goddess Hel.
Despite being the home of Norse gods, the Vanir, there isn’t much known about this realm. That is because the Vanir are the lesser-known deities of the Norse Pantheon. They are, however, said to be masters of magic and are strongly associated with nature. You are therefore likely to find deities with control over fertility or who can see the future. After the Aesir-Vanir war, however, the Vanir became like a sub-group of the Aesir, which is why they may sometimes be referred to as such. Vanaheim is also home to the famous Fólkvangar, where Freya took the other half of the souls of slain heroes in battle.
This place is sometimes referred to as Ljósálfheimr. The term Alfheim is taken to loosely mean Elfland or Land of the Elves because it is the realm where the Jósálfar, light elves, live. These are beautiful creatures said to shine brighter than the sun. Today, they could be considered the equivalent of angels based on appearance. The realm is among the smallest of the nine and is said to have been ruled over by the goddess Freya, who was known to love beautiful things.
It’s also known as Niðavellir, which translates to the wane of the moon or new moon. This realm is characterized by a dark field and is home to the dwarves, who are sometimes associated with the dark elves. Dwarves, according to Norse mythology are considered the best smiths and craftsmen in all the realms and are responsible for making most of the weapons the Norse deities use, like Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. Being miners, dwarves preferred living underground where they would work in the mines and their forgings.
Yggdrasil Has Three Roots
The great ash tree is anchored by three enormous roots. As legend would have it, the trees are said to each extend to one of three wells, located in three of the nine realms. Yggdrasil feeds and receives nourishment from these three wells. Moreover, these wells are believed to have magical abilities.
The first and longest root is said to grow and extend far below Niflheim. According to Norse sources, the roots are so far below Niflheim that it took Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, nine days to reach it while running at full speed. Here is where Helheim, the realm of the dead, is located, far below Niflheim. The well-located here, from which Yggdrasil’s root feeds, is called Hvergelmir, meaning burning cauldron. There isn’t much known about the well. This burning hot is commonly referred to as the Well of Poison although it is believed to be the source of life as well. The liquid that created Ymir, the first living being is said to have come from this well. Hvergelmir is also said to be responsible for feeding the eleven rivers that that flow through the nine realms. The dragon, Nidhogg along with the seven snakes are said to dwell in or near Hvergelmir. It is here that they continuously eat away at Yggdrasil’s roots. There is also a stag named Eikthyrnir, he also feeds from Yggdrasil, which causes water to sprout from his horns and replenish the well.
The second root extends to Jotunheim, the land of the giants. There is where Mímisbrunnr, the Well of Wisdom is located and which the root of Yggdrasil feeds from. The well is also called the god Mimir’s well since he is believed to own it. He gets his wisdom from drinking from it every day using his horn Gjallarhorn, which is similar to the one Heimdallr uses. Mimir, however, isn’t selfish with the well. He does allow others to drink from the well too, but for a hefty price. Odin for example had to sacrifice his eye to drink from the Well of Wisdom.
The third root extends to Asgard where the well Urd is located, also known as the Well of Destiny. Here is where the three Norns are found. They are said to be the personification of time, given that their names mean past present, and future. There is Urðr, who represents the past, Verðandi, who represents the present, and Skuld, who represents the future. Together they weave the loom of time itself and know the fate of all beings. Their responsibility is to guard the World Tree. Every morning, they take water from the Well and pour it over Yggdrasil to keep it green and healthy. Anything else the water touches, however, becomes a bright white color, which symbolizes light, purity, beauty, greatness, pride, and death. That’s because the water from Urd is believed to be holy and the well to be a sacred place. Next to the Well of Destiny, there was a place called ‘tinget’, where the gods assembled daily for a council and pass their judgments.
Although all three wells are believed to be below Yggdrasil, the poem Völuspá states that the Well of Destiny, Urd is up in the sky. That would mean, therefore, Yggdrasil’s root that feeds from the well, grows out of the ground, and bends upward to the sky to reach the well.
The prophecy of Ragnarok predicts the fall and destruction of the nine realms. Given that the nine realms are connected by Yggdrasil, the fact that the World tree plays a role in Ragnarok comes as no surprise. It’s believed that Yggdrasil’s trembling is what initiates the apocalypse.
The prophecy starts with a rooster warning Odin of the coming of Ragnarok, where he is destined to die at the hands of Fenrir, the giant Wolf. Upon hearing this, Odin travels to Mímisbrunnr, where he consults with the Wise Mimir, who tells him that nothing can be done to change this fate. Still the gods decide to fight in the battle.
The sign of Ragnarok nearing is said to have been prevalent in Midgard, where famine, war, and other series of disasters ensued. The beginning of Ragnarok was finally initiated with violent earthquakes in the world of men. Midgard being at the center of Yggdrasil, the earthquakes sent shockwaves up the length of the tree, which cracked open Muspelheim. This allowed the giants who were trapped there to travel to other worlds being led by Surtr. The same shock waves freed the ship, Naglfar, which is made of toenails and fingernails of the dead. The ship is said to have the ability to ship the dead from Helheim, and it is what Loki used to carry the goddess Hel and the dead out of Helheim into the battle.
Although the prophecy states that all the nine worlds were destroyed after Ragnarok, there isn’t anything that talks about Yggdrasil being destroyed along with them. Many believe that the World tree survived and was in fact where two humans, Líf and Lífdrásir, were birthed, to bring new life into the new world, after Ragnarok.
The reason why Yggdrasil is so important to the Vikings is that it helped them understand their place in a mystical universe that was largely hidden from them. The World Tree is considered the basis and foundation of Norse Mythology. Not only did it connect different worlds, but it also brought forth a new world and life after everything was destroyed. Today Yggdrasil is rooted in modern pop culture as well. You may often see it in museums and galleries through modern painting, statues, and carvings