Nordic Mythology – The World Tree

The Yggdrasil -World Tree and its Roots

Yggdrasil World Tree is, in fact, the great tree of life, the Tree of Existence, wonderfully elaborated and extended through the whole system of the universe. It furnishes bodies for mankind from its branches; it strikes its roots through all worlds, and spreads its life-giving arms through the heavens. All life is cherished by it, even that of serpents (who devour its roots and seek to destroy it).

The name Yggdrasil is derived from Odin’s name: Yggr (the deep thinker), and drasill (carrier, horse). Yggdrasil , therefore, means “the Bearer of God”, a phrase which finds a literal explanation when Odin hangs nine nights on this tree before he discovered the Runes.

Yggdrasil, the Ash-tree of Existence, has its roots deep down in the kingdom of Hela (or Death); its trunk reaches up to heaven, spreads its main branches over the whole universe. Its main branches, with their buds and leaves stretch through all lands and times. These branches connect events, things suffered, things done, catastrophes, etc. Every leaf of it is like a biography, every fiber is like an act or a word, etc.

Yggdrasil has three great roots far apart:
      1) One of them extends to the Aesir (the Nordic gods).
      2) Another to the hostile Jötunn /Giants (giant beings who are offspring of the chaos-giant Ymir ).
      3) The third stands over Niflheim (the homeland of primordial darkness, cold, mist, and ice).

Under the root of Yggdrasil that stretches out toward the Jötunn /Giants is Mimer ’s fountain, where wisdom and knowledge are hidden. Mimer , the fountain’s owner, is full of wisdom, because he drinks its waters every morning with the Gjallarhom (the “yelling horn” or “the loud sounding horn”).

The Jötunn /Giants are older than the Aesir , and looked deep into the darkness of the past. They had witnessed the birth of the gods and the beginning of the world. Therefore, the gods had to go to the Jötunn /Giants for knowledge. In the first song in the Elder Edda, a vala (or prophetess, from Jotunheim) is represented as rising up from the deep and unveiling the past and the future to gods and men.

Thus, there was a time when Odin had not yet acquired strength and wisdom. But, though self-sacrifice, he was able to acquire a drink from the celebrated Mimer (who dwells in the deep and has charge of the mighty runes). However, he had to leave one of his own eyes in exchange for it.

After the drink from Mimer ’s fountain had given him strength, Odin slue the chaos-giant Ymir, arose from the crust of the earth, and created Midgard (meaning something like “Middle Enclosure”). Midgard is the terrestrial world, the only primarily visible world of Nordic Mythology’s Nine Worlds. A serpent lives in the sea and the wilderness that surrounds Midgard .

The power from which Odin was made able to form the upper world, came from the lower world and from Mimer ’s fountain of wisdom. Mythology makes Mimer the first smith and chief artist, and keeper of treasures and the ruler of a group of dwarfs, underground artists, for originally these were and remained creative forces personified…

– Paraphrase from Norse Mythology (1884) by Rasmus B. Anderson
and Teutonic Mythology (1889) by Viktor Rydberg


The Root of the Aesir, the Urdar-Fountain and the Norns

Under the root of Yggdrasil that extends to the Aesir (in heaven) is the holy Urdar -fountain. Here the gods sit in judgment. Every day they ride up hither on horseback over Bifrost (the rainbow), which is called the ‘bridge of the gods’. The gods who have horses ride them over this bridge, except for Thor, who has to go on foot. He cannot pass this Aesir -Bridge, for the thunder (which he is) would destroy it; therefore he daily wades through the rivers to get to the council of the gods.

The Jötunn /Giants cannot pass the Aesir -Bridge, since the red in it is burning fire and the waters of heaven roar around it. If it were easy for every one to walk over it, then the Giants would go up to heaven by that bridge, and perhaps succeed in bringing ruin upon the gods.

At the Urdar -fountain dwell also three maidens, named Urd , Verdande and Skuld (Present, Past and Future). These maidens fix the lifetime of all human beings, and they are called the Norns . They guard the fountain, which takes its name from the first and highest of the three, Urd .

There are also other Norns , some of which are of heavenly origin, but others belong to the races of elves and dwarfs. The Norns who are of good origin are good themselves, and dispense good destinies. Those persons to whom misfortunes happen ought to ascribe them to the evil Norns . Thus it is that some people are fortunate and wealthy, while others acquire neither riches nor honors; some live to a good old age, while others are cut off in their prime.

The Norns who dwell by the Urdar -fountain, draw water from this spring every day. With it (and the clay that lies around the fount), they sprinkle the Ash tree, in order that the main branches may continue green, and not rot and wither away. This water is so holy that everything placed in the spring becomes as white as the film within an egg-shell.

The dew that falls from the tree on the earth people call ‘honey-dew’, and it is the food of the bees. Finally, two swans swim in the Urdar -fountain, and they are the parents of the race of swans. Thus all the tribes of nature partake of the universal tree and all life is figured by the tree.

– Paraphrase from Norse Mythology (1884) by Rasmus B. Anderson
and Teutonic Mythology (1889) by Viktor Rydberg


The World Tree, the Nations of Midgard , and the Universe

Furthermore it must be stated of the Yggdrasil Ash tree, that on its top-most branch sits an eagle who knows many things, and between the eagle’s eyes sits a hawk. A squirrel runs up and down the tree, seeking to cause strife between the eagle and the serpent Nidhug (who is together with many snakes & reptiles). Four stags leap about beneath its branches and feed on its buds.

As has been mentioned, its branches connect events together and every leaf is like a biography, every fiber is like an act. Its main branches are histories of nations; the rustle of it is the noise of human existence. It is Yggdrasil , the Tree of Existence. It is the past, the present, and the future; what was done, what is doing, what will be done; it is the infinite conjugation of the verb ‘to do’.

Yggdrasil is the tree of the experience of humanity. It has three roots, and experience teaches that there are, in reality, but three kinds of people in the world: some that work energetically for noble and eternal purposes (their root is in Asaheim ); some that work equally energetically, but for evil and temporal ends (their root is in Jotunheim ); and many who distinguish themselves only by sloth and impotence (their root is in Niflheim with the goddess Hela or death, in Hvergelmer , where the serpent Nidhug , with all his reptile brood, gnaws at their lives).

There is a deeply-laid plan in the universe, a close union between spirit and matter. There is no such thing as independent life or action. The ends of the threads wherewith our life is woven lie deeply hid in the abyss of the beginning.

For the Ancient Nordic peoples, the mortal individual was merely a leaf, who imagines themselves to be something, but is in fact only a bud that unfolds itself and falls from the tree of the universe. The struggle between absolute necessity and free-will was an unsolved riddle in Nordic Mythology and still puzzles many today…

– Paraphrase from Norse Mythology (1884) by Rasmus B. Anderson
and Teutonic Mythology (1889) by Viktor Rydberg



Download the Handout for this class:


– = Read the NEXT PART = –