In Norse mythology, there is a very important natural element. The Yggdrasil is the tree of life on which the whole universe is based. This ash tree is therefore of great importance to the gods and to mankind. The Yggdrasil tree is indeed at the origin of the creation of Midgard, but not only.
The notion of the tree of life in other mythologies
Within many mythologies lies the concept of the world tree. It consists in the existence of a cosmic tree that would serve to connect all the parts of the universe. There are celestial, ground and underground worlds.
According to Chevalier and Gheerbrant, "the oak would be the figure par excellence of the tree, or the pinnacle of the world, both among the Celts and in Greece, at Dodona. It is still the case among the Siberian Yaguts." Many peoples therefore have an archetype of the world based on this concept.
Among the Indo-Europeans, the Persians, Slavs and Germans have a tree of life. Among the pre-Columbian peoples, and in particular the shamanists of Siberia, it symbolizes Mother Earth and would help the shaman to pass from one world to another. The tree of life is also found in the Maori culture of New Zealand, where it is called Kauri/Tane.
The concept of the Yggdrasil is particularly important in Norse mythology. It is perhaps the civilization in which the world tree takes on so much importance, both in the stories, and for the people.
The 9 worlds of the Yggdrasil
As mentioned earlier, the design of the Yggdrasil is at the heart of a story with gods and giants.
This tree represents the world and life. It is said that if it were to die, it would cause the total destruction of the universe. The men and certain Viking deities wanted to avoid this situation at all costs. On the other hand, the dragon Moin, who flies around the tree, wishes for destruction. Its root has a fountain which shelters the well of knowledge. The ash tree is inhabited, in its foliage, by an eagle, Vidofnir. The wind that its wings produce is a threat to the tree of life in Norse mythology.
The four stags Dain, Duneyr, Durathror and Dvalin feed on the leaves of the tree. The 5th stag Eikthymir grazes on the branches. From the trunk of the Yggdrasil tree, the squirrel Ratatosk escapes and runs into the tree. He also causes a fight between the snake Nidhogg, who gnaws on the roots and the falcon Vidofnir. The tree is thus confronted with struggles between life and death because in addition to that, the goat Heidrun feeds on its leaves.
The Yggdrasil is ultimately a representation of the world and what it contains. This can be affirmed with the presence of the animals described above and with all the worlds it contains. In spite of all the threats that weigh on it, the tree remains strong and firm, which allows everyone to live, more or less in harmony.
The first world that Yggdrasil maintains is Asgard. It is located in the upper part of the ash tree because it is the domain of the Aesir gods. After the creation of the human being, the three sons of Borr, Odin, Ve and Vili built Asgard.
The great fortifications were built by the giant and craftsman Smior. In Asgard is the Idavoll plain. It is here that there are 12 temples in honor of many Aesir gods. But this also represents the 12 signs of the zodiac according to Finn Magnussen. Asgard also contains a fortress which is the Valhalla Palace. It is here that the bravest Viking warriors will come to prepare for the final battle of Ragnarok.
This world is also called Lighalfheim. It is one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology and the home of Freyr. He is one of the most important gods of the Viking world. Freyr is associated with prosperity and commands the rain and the rays of the Sun. This makes him a god of fertility.
The Poetic Edda describes that the gods gave Freyr the gift of the world Alfheim. This took place when he pierced his first tooth, which is a custom still present in Iceland. But this version contradicts the myth of the war between the gods Vanes and Ases. This same poetic text also says that the world is the residence of the luminous Alfes. But no relation is proven between these creatures and Freyr.
Unlike the Aesir deities, the world Vanaheim represents the habitat of the Vanes gods. It is described as being far from Asgard, which does not prevent the two kingdoms from cohabiting within the Yggdrasil. Unfortunately, the two groups of gods fought each other to establish their divine supremacy.
The power of the Vanes and the Aesir could not be enough to separate them. A truce was then decided. To seal this peace, an exchange was agreed between the two groups. Freyr and Freya, Vanir gods, were exchanged with the simpleton Honir and Mimir, which provoked the anger of the Vanes gods. In response they beheaded Mimir and sent his head back to Asgard.
Þrymr is a giant king at the head of the world Jotunheim. According to mythology, this territory is the one Odin leaves to the ice giants at the Creation. Þrymr owns the fortress Utgard. The French Scandinavian scholar François-Xavier Dillmann, who studied the notes of the Edda of Snorri, places the world to the east of Midgard, in the center of the Yggdrasil.
The most recent prose texts, however, situate Jotunheim to the north. To stay on the cardinal points, within this kingdom, the Iron Forest is located in the East. It is indeed in Járnviðr that the wolf-like giants reside. Jotunheim is also the home of Hrungnir, the giant that Odin challenges to a horse race.
Midgard etymologically means "middle court". It is the name of the Earth and the dwelling place of men. It is also called Manheimr for the "house of men", a term used for the whole of humanity. This world is the only one visible to men. The other kingdoms are almost all invisible.
Midgard is surrounded by a vast ocean that is considered impassable. This body of water is inhabited by Jormungandr, the gigantic sea serpent. It is so large that it can encircle the entire world, managing to bite its own tail. This animal protects the Earth from uninvited guests.
If the Alfes of light have their world, the Black Alfes also have it with Svartalfheim. This world is sometimes confused with the world of the dwarves, called Nidavellir. The latter is sometimes represented as being alone in the representation of the Yggdrasil. Svartalfheim is like Midgard and Jotunheim located halfway up the world tree.
The distinction between light and dark elves is only made in Snorri's Edda. It is likely that it is a transposition of the opposition between angels and demons among Christians. This may also refer to two aspects of the cult of the Elves. The luminous Elves represent the cult of fertility while the dark Elves represent the cult of the dead.
In Norse mythology Muspeillheim is the world of fire. It is the kingdom of the giant Surt who constantly threatens the balance of the entire universe. He will join the Jotun at the time of the Ragnarok and will destroy the 9 worlds with his sword, whether they are gods, humans and the roots of the Yggdrasil.
Ginnungagap is the name given to a vast abyss of flames, which brings chaos. This torrent of fire represents violence and destruction. Unfortunately, few texts come to speak about this world. The sources mainly mention the creation of the world and the final battle of Ragnarok.
Together with Muspeillheim, Niflheim is one of the two worlds that created the universe. Called the world of mist or the world of darkness, it is described as icy. It is located in the North, under the 3rd root of Yggdrasil. The center of Niflheim has the Hvergelmir spring, from which the Elivagar rivers flow.
The meeting of cold and heat allowed the birth of Ymir and the creation of the other worlds that make up Yggdrasil. Niflheim, the kingdom of snow, represents death, the passage of time and oblivion, for there is no inhabitant, no light and no wind.
Finally, Helheim is another world held by the Yggdrasil. It is in a cold and misty place that the dead live. Indeed, if the best Viking warriors fallen in battle join Valhalla, it is not the case of the dead of old age or disease.
It is Hela, the goddess of death, who reigns in this world, which is described as the antechamber of Niflheim because it is even darker. During the Ragnarok, Hela will send all the dead to fight one last time. They will then be under the command of Loki, Hela's father.
The hanging of Odin
It is one of the most important rites for the Viking community. Odin, considered the god of gods, hanged himself on the Yggdrasil. But for what reason?
Odin hanged himself from the world ash tree to gain more power. In one of the poems of the Edda, we can read the god expressing himself as follows:
« I was hanged, I know it
To the tree beaten by the wind,
Nine days and nine nights.
I was struck with a spear
And given to Odin
Sacrificed myself to myself. »
This practice is also associated with the one that can be found among the shamans of Ireland or Northern Asia.
During his hanging, of 9 days and 9 nights, Odin will deprive himself of water and food. The god undergoes in particular the spear Gungnir, which is planted in the center of his body. He undergoes a kind of ritual death, which will allow him to access the knowledge of runes:
« They gave me no alms
Neither meat nor a drop of water
I lowered my eyes,
I grabbed them and screamed,
Then I fell back. »
The vision of Odin discovering the rune stones and the symbols that will compose the Nordic alphabet is no longer made with his flesh eyes, but with his spirit eyes. Giving up physical sight has finally made him clairvoyant and the magical power of the runes appears before him. In spite of the youthfulness he has achieved during his action, Odin feels filled with a new youth. He is now not only the god of warriors, but also the god of poets and sages.
The hanging is similar to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The theory that the sacrifice made by Odin was inspired by the passion of Jesus is no longer valid. Christ did this action to save suffering humanity. In the case of Odin, he did it to gain more individual power. And it is the Yggdrasil, symbolizing life and the world, which will be the witness and one of the actors of this access to the knowledge of the rune stones.
Yggdrasil in popular culture
Viking mythology has a representation of the tree with large roots, emanating from the depths of the earth (for birth) and possessing a robust stem to overcome the adversities that one may encounter in life. This stem divides into multiple branches and leaves making its way to the sky, until reaching the divinity (for death).
In popular culture, the Yggdrasil is strongly represented. It is found in the American Gods series where Grimnir uses it to repair his Gungnir spear. The famous series Vikings has also represented it. At the end of season 1, Ragnar takes his son Bjorn, who is still a teenager, and his future wife Aslaug, to discover the tree.
On the video game side, the God of War saga shows it in 2 forms in the opus released in 2018. First, it is an element of the room that allows players to move between the realms. The Yggdrasil is also shown in the form of its branches in the world between realms, which allows for faster movement within a realm.
Finally, it is also the name of the server to authenticate players of the games of Mojang, a studio well known for having created Minecraft.