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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
September 2012

World Treee

What is the cosmic stage on which the powerful drama of the Norse myths is played out? The ancient Nordic storytellers envisioned their mythic universe as being comprised of Nine Worlds, arranged in three tiers (three worlds to a tier), and tied together by the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree (think of the Mother Tree in the movie “Avatar,” but infinitely larger). We’ll return to the World Tree a little later, but first let’s characterize the Nine Worlds and their inhabitants.

The upper tier is the realm of the gods and their principal allies, the elves. More specifically, Asgard is the home of the Aesir gods (Odin All-Father and his kin) as well as the warrior dead who join them in Valhalla; Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir fertility gods; and Alfheim, the home of the Light Elves. A great spring called Urd’s Well arises in Asgard beside a root of Yggdrasil.

The middle tier (which is connected to the upper tier by Bifröst, the Rainbow Bridge) is home to humankind and three tribes of giants. Midgard (think of Tolkien’s Middle Earth) is where humans reside; Muspellheim is home to the Fire Giants; and Jötunheim (literally “Giant Home”) is where the Frost and Hill Giants dwell. Incidentally, some Norwegians still refer to the Jötunheim mountains north of Valdres as “the place where the big trolls live.” Another large spring, Mimir’s Well (aka the Well of Wisdom), is said to exist in Jötunheim beside yet another root of the World Tree.

The third, and lowest, tier is largely—if not entirely—underground. The world closest to the surface appears to be Svartalfheim (“Dark Elf Home”—there is general agreement that the term refers to the Dwarves and not to a second tribe of elves, but an ancient kinship can’t be ruled out). The two remaining worlds include Niflheim (which is generally uninhabited save for ice, mist, and dragons) and Hel (home of Loki’s daughter of the same name and her charges—the non-warrior dead). And, yes, this tier also possesses a large spring, Hvergelmir—source of the waters of Creation and home to a family of dragons that gnaw on the third great root of Yggdrasil.

Which brings us back to the World Tree and its significance to Nórse mythology. Those ancient Nordic storytellers who created the myths not only had wonderful imaginations, but they were also astute observers of the natural world and its cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death—cycles that are reflected in the myths, and in none more clearly than those about Yggdrasil. In addition to the aforementioned dragons gnawing on the root in Nifiheim, four deer and a goat clamber through the branches of the Tree browsing on its leaves and buds, and the trunk of Yggdrasil is infected with a rotting disease. And, unlike trees in the mundane world, the World Tree has not produced any seedlings to succeed it when its time has come. Doesn’t sound good for the survival of Yggdrasil, does it?

The mythmakers were faced with a real dilemma: deny the cycles of nature, or let the World Tree perish. . . and take the Nine Worlds down with it. Fortunately, their imaginations provided another alternative. Let us suppose, they must have thought, that some very powerful beings appeared on the scene and chose to heal Yggdrasil’s ills day after day after day for the indefinite future. The Tree’s “chronic wasting disease” was one for which there was no quick-fix cure, only an eternal holding action. Who could— and would—undertake such a demanding task?

Who better than the Norns (Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld), three giantesses who had already come from Jötunheim to Asgard to weave the Tapestry of Fate, which governs the lives of all beings? Each morning—presumably before they take up their weaving - the Norns mix water from Urd’s Well with white clay from its bank to form a healing paste, which they then spread on the trunk of Yggdrasil. As they perform this healing act, the Norns chant the örlog, the essential laws of the universe that both drive and limit the events taking place in our world. No record of the contents of that chant has survived, but in my book The Northern Path I have suggested a few lines that might reflect its spirit:

“In the midst of darkness, light;                         

In the midst of death, life;                                 

In the midst of chaos, order.                               

 

In the midst of light, darkness;

In the midst of life, death;

In the midst of order, chaos.

 

Thus has it ever been,

Thus is it now, and

Thus shall it ever be.”

The Norns’ action is not merely a symbolic acknowledgment of significant past events; it is meant to create and empower the present. The past is not seen as something remote and fading away—rather it is growing ever larger as more events take place and more knowledge is accumulated.

      If the three Wells are seen as repositories of the past, the World Tree represents the present, depending upon the water of the Wells for both healing and growth. Thus the present is constantly influenced by all that has gone before. This active “power of the past upon the present” is often referred to by the Anglo-Saxon term wyrd. And, of course, the relationship between the Wells and the Tree is reciprocal; once present events have taken place, their effects and implications drip like dew from the Tree back into the Wells to enlarge the past and further complicate and/or clarify it.

     For a more extended discussion of the mythic symbols mentioned above, the interested reader is referred to my book The Northern Path and—especially-—to The Well and the Tree by Paul Bauschatz.

    
© 2012  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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