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        Viking Cosmology - The Nine Worlds

        The elaborate and intricately structured Norse cosmology starts with the very moment of creation. Ice from Niflheim in the north and fire from Muspellheim in the south meet in the vast chasm of Ginnungagap, and their fusion engenders life. The first two beings are a frost giant, Ymir, and a cow, Audumla. The cow licks a man out of the ice and his three grandsons are the gods Odin, Vili and Ve. As the first myth in the cycle tells, these three brothers kill the giant Ymir and from his body create nine worlds.

        The Norsemen visualised the universe as a tricentric structure – like three plates set one above another with a space between each. On the top level was Asgard, the realm of the Aesir or warrior gods. This is where the gods and goddesses had their halls, situated within a mighty citadel the walls of which were built by a giant mason as part of a wager (Myth 3). This, too, is where Valhalla was situated, the huge hall that housed all the Einherjar, the dead warriors who fought each day and feasted each evening, awaiting Ragnarok, the battle at the end of time between gods and men, giants and monsters; and this was the site of that all-consuming battle, a vast plain called Vigrid that stretched one hundred and twenty leagues in every direction. But the Aesir were not the only inhabitants of this highest realm. On this level also lay Van-aheim, where the Vanir or fertility gods lived until they fought and then united with the Aesir; and Alfheim, the land of the light elves, was here too.

        The second level was Midgard, the middle world inhabited by men. It was surrounded by an ocean so vast that, as our most important source, the thirteenth-century Icelander Snorri Sturluson says, ‘to cross it would strike most men as impossible’. Jormungand, the terrify­ing world serpent, lay in this ocean; he was so long that he encircled Midgard and bit on his own tail. The world of the giants, Jotunheim, lay either within Midgard (in the mountainous eastern part along the coast) as indicated on the map, or across the ocean; sources do not agree on this point. The giants’ citadel was called Utgard, the outer world. This is where Thor and his companions were taken for a ride by the magical and evil giant king, Utgard-Loki.

        At this level, too, in the north of Midgard, there were dwarfs; they lived in Nidavellir (Dark Home) in caves and potholes, while somewhere below was Svartalfheim (Land of the Dark Elves). No valid distinction though can be drawn between the dwarfs and dark elves; they appear to have been interchangeable.

        Asgard and Midgard were connected by a flaming rainbow bridge called Bifrost (Trembling Roadway). Snorri Sturluson wrote in ‘Gylfaginning’, which is a part of the Prose Edda: ‘You will have seen it but maybe you call it the rainbow. It has three colours and is very strong, and made with more skill and cunning than other structures.’ We know from the eddaic poem Vafthrudnismal that the River Iving, which never iced over, constituted the boundary between Asgard, the world of the gods and Jotunheim, the world of the giants; in a number of myths, moreover, gods and giants made an overland journey direct from Asgard to Jotunheim without passing through Midgard. How can they have done so? It would seem physically impossible unless we tilt the Asgard- and Midgard-levels so that, at one point, they actually touch each other! This kind of problem demonstrates the limitations of logic in trying to define precisely where the worlds stood in relation to one another. It is best simply to bear in mind that the structure of the universe was basically tricentric and assume that the Norsemen themselves were rather vague and unconcerned about more exact geography.

        On the third level lay Niflheim, the world of the dead, nine days’ ride northwards and downwards from Midgard. Niflheim was a place of bitter cold and unending night; its citadel was Hel, a place with towering walls and forbidding gates presided over by the hideous female monster, half white and half black, of the same name. She is described in detail by Snorri Sturluson. The Norsemen may have distinguished between the worlds of Hel and Niflheim; in Vafthrudnismal, it seems that evil men passed through Hel to die again in the world of Niflhel or Niflheim (Misty Hel).

        The nine worlds were, then, Asgard, Vanaheim and Alfheim; Mid-gard, Jotunheim, Nidavellir and Svartalfheim; and Hel and Niflheim. If Hel and Niflheim comprised one world, however, the ninth world may have been Muspellheim, the land of fire. This region had no place in the tricentric structure of the universe and we can do no better than quote Snorri Sturluson:

        The first world to exist, however, was Muspell in the southern hemisphere; it is light and hot and that region flames and burns so that those who do not belong to it and whose native land it is not, cannot endure it. The one who sits there at land’s end to guard it is called Surt; he has a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he will come and harry and will vanquish all the gods and burn the whole world with fire.

        At Ragnarok, Surt is accompanied by the sons of Muspell; Snorri says that they ‘will form a host in themselves and that a very bright one’; but we do not hear about these fiery inhabitants of Muspellheim on any other occasion.

        The axis of the three levels and nine worlds was the mighty ash tree, YggdrasillThis timeless tree, which seems to have had no known origin and which will survive Ragnarok, is so vast that, as Snorri says, ‘its branches spread out over the whole world and reach up over heaven’. Yggdrasill had three roots. One sunk into Asgard; under this root was the Well of Urd (Fate) guarded by the three Norns or goddesses of destiny, and this is where the gods gathered each day in council. The second root delved into Jotunheim; under this root was the Spring of Mimir, and its waters were a source of wisdom. Odin sacrificed one eye to drink from it and Heimdall, watchman of the gods, is said to have left his horn there until he needed it at Ragnarok. The third root plunged into Niflheim; under this root was the Spring of Hvergelmir. This was the source of eleven rivers and, near by, the dragon Nidhogg and other unnamed serpents gnawed at the root of the ash Yggdrasill.

        Usually known as a Guardian Tree, Yggdrasill nourishes, and suffers from, the animals that inhabit it, feed on it and attack it. While the dragon Nidhogg gnaws the roots, deer and goats leap along the branches and tear off the new shoots; and a squirrel runs up and down the trunk, carrying insults from Nidhogg to an eagle who sits in the topmost branches, with a hawk perched between its eyes. The tree, moreover, drips dew so sweet that bees use it for the making of honey.

        Yggdrasill does not only sustain animals. A stanza in the eddaic poem Svipdagsmal (Myth 23) mentions that the cooked fruit of Yggdrasill ensures safe childbirth. When Ragnarok draws near, it is said the ash tree will tremble and a man and a woman who hide within it, Lif and Lifthrasir, will survive the ensuing holocaust and flood. They stand alone at the end of one cycle and the beginning of another in the world of time and men.

        But the tree that suffers, that cares for all living creatures and ensures continuity, is in turn sustained by the Norns, Urd (Fate), Skuld (Being) and Verdandi (Necessity). In a sense, therefore, the life not only of man but also of the guardian of men lies within their hands. Snorri Sturluson wrote:

        It is said further that the Norns who live near the spring of Urd draw water from the spring every day, and along with it the clay that lies round about the spring, and they besprinkle the ash so that its branches shall not wither or decay.

        A great many mythologies have a tree or column or mountain at the centre of the world. More specifically, the symbol of three cosmic regions connected by a tree that we find in Norse mythology also appears in Vedic Indian and Chinese mythologies. H. R. Ellis Davidson has written of Yggdrasill that the fact that it formed a link between the gods, mankind, the giants, and the dead meant that it was visualised as a kind of ladder stretching up to heaven and downwards to the underworld. This conception of a road between the worlds is one which is familiar in the beliefs of the shamanistic religions.

        The use of Yggdrasill for a shamanistic journey is the subject of another myth, in which Odin voluntarily hangs on the tree for nine nights, his side pierced with a spear, in order to learn the wisdom of the dead. And, indeed, the squirrel Ratatosk’s carrying of insults between the eagle and the serpent can be seen to represent both the division and the unity of heaven and hell.

        Nine worlds encompassed by the tree (which so becomes a symbol of universality known to mythologists as the World Tree); nine nights hanging on the tree: the number nine recurs again and again in Norse mythology. Odin learns nine magic songs from a giant that enable him to win the mead of poetry for the gods; Heimdall has nine mothers; Hermod, Odin’s son, journeys for nine nights in his attempt to win back the god Balder from Hel; the great religious ceremonies at the temple of Uppsala lasted for nine days in every ninth year, and required the sacrifice of nine human beings and nine animals of every kind. Why nine was the most significant number in Norse mythology has not been satisfactorily explained, but belief in the magical properties of the number is not restricted to Scandinavia. In The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer records ceremonies involving the number nine in countries as widely separated as Wales, Lithuania, Siam and the island of Nias in the Mentawai chain. Nine is, of course, the end of the series of single numbers, and this may be the reason why it symbolises death and rebirth in a number of mythologies; hence it also stands for the whole.

        This section offers a guide only to the most notable features of the Norse mythical universe – the nine worlds that undoubtedly owe many of their characteristics to the volcanically active, often hostile island of Iceland in which they were finally shaped and recorded. The individual myths describe that universe in much more detail. The way in which the giant Ymir’s body is divided so that everything, even his eyebrows, were used in the creation of the world; the four dwarfs who hold up the sky; the wolves that chase the sun and moon; the giant’s eyes that are tossed up into heaven and turned into stars: these and a host of other particulars become narrative elements within the cycle. It is time now to turn to the Norse pantheon.

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