Yggdrasil: Norse Tree of Life

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Yggdrasil Norse Tree of Life

It is common for all established cultures to have a creation story. It is also really common to find similar elements woven into the many existing stories of creation. These stories often relate back to one another. For that reason you would think we would be much more accepting of different religious beliefs. However, we tend to take stark contrasting view of those variations instead. Yggdrasil is sometimes thought to be an influence in the creation story of Christianity. If you are familiar with the Christian story then you might notice some similar themes.

Mentioned in the Edda’s

When it comes to Yggdrasil (sometimes called the world tree), we mainly learn of its myth from two sources. The first is the Elder, or Poetic Edda. We do not know who authored this text. The second source, however, is the Prose Edda. This was written by Snorri Sturluson. You will come to hear of Snorri multiple times throughout blog posts. He was an integral figure in the preservation of the history of Norse mythology.

Poetic Edda

The Elder Edda is a collection of poetry. They were thought to originally be penned in the 9th century. What we have now exists from a 13th century collection known as the Codex Reguis. This is a Latin name given to what translates simply to “King’s Book”. It was compiled for the King of Norway sometime around 1275.

Prose Edda

The second source we have is Snorri’s Prose Edda. Snorri was an exceptional man known as the Law-speaker. In a time before mass production of pamphlets, or books, the people needed a way to learn the news. Snorri would literally stand on a hill and shout the laws at the crowd. It was his responsibility to memorize the current laws, and communicate them to the people. We will learn more about him as we progress into Viking Law. For now, it is his text, and it’s information with which we are concerned.

Both of these texts exist in the public domain and you can find copies in both Old Norse, or English translations all over the internet.

Snorri was clearly familiar with the work of the Elder Edda, and he used this in his own work. He also expanded upon it, and told us of Norse cosmology before and after the coming of Christianity. These works are so interesting because many poems and stories harken back to the pagan period, but are written from a Christian perspective.

Center of the Universe

The mighty tree is thought to be at the centre of the universe and contains the entirety of existence. It contains within it all the realms of giants, man, the and the gods. It balances both the good and bad forces of existence, with creatures beneath, and blue skies above.

A Popular Symbol

The Yggdrasil symbol, is usually depicted as an immense ash tree. The branches of Yggdrasil reach far into the heavens, and hold up the sky. Yggdrasil’s root system typically mirrors its branches. It brings together, and separates the many worlds. High amongst the tree’s leaves is the world of Asgard. Here the gods sit in their great halls. As you move down the trunk towards the mighty roots, in the trunk of the tree, you will find Middlegard. This is where the humans live in their more humble halls. Finally, within the roots of the tree, you will find Hel (sounds familiar right?)

There are certainly common elements between this creation story, and the Christian creation story, with which many people today might be more familiar. There are actually nine worlds within Yggdrasil, though these main three are sufficient for an introduction to the world tree today.

For more information on Yggdrasil’s connection to Christian beliefs, check out Tree of Salvation by G. Ronald Murphy.

A celtic knot design that resembles a giant tree. The knots on top create the foliage and expansive branches of a large tree. There is a braided trunk, and a visible root system that has three definable sections.

It Contains Wells within the Tree

The Edda’s both speak of wells within the worlds of Yggdrasil, though they differ slightly on their placement. In the Poetic Edda, the poem Völuspá, places the well of Urd (sometimes called the well of fate), in the heavens. We hear of the enormous tree in the poem Völuspá, when we see the great tree described as a friend of the clear sky, with the top of the tree extending beyond the clouds. In Hávamál, we are also told of fierce winds that surround its highest branches. Snorri disagrees with Urd being in its upper branches.

In Snorri’s source, he claims that the three wells are within the tree’s roots. Accourding to Snorri, the first roots of Yggdrasil extend into the well of Urd. This is where the gods apparently hold their daily council. The Old Norse literature brings us so many great tales of the gods speaking amongst one another. You’ll get familiar with their chats as you find your way around the content in this blog. The second root extends into the spring Hvergelmir. This is a body of water that extends into Nilfhelm (we will talk more about the nine worlds within Yggdrasil in another post). This second root is the one that the dragon Nidhogg chews on. Finally the the third root extends into Mimir’s well. Mimir is a wise old fella who councils the gods. This is sometimes called the well of wisdom for this reason.

The named can be broken down into “Yggr” which means “terrible”, which is a name of Odin. The second part “drasil” pertains to the horse of Odin. This emphasizes the reverence the world of mankind held for the God Odin.

It will Signal the End of Days

According to Norse legend and literature Yggdrasil’s trunk will shake someday and this will signify the end of the world. In many ways this is also reminisent of many creation stories. All good things must come to an end. This is likely because with life and death, we humans tend to think linearly. We like things to have a beginning and an end so we often weave them into our stories.

What Lies Beneath

In typical Old Norse fashioned, many creatures dwell beneath Yggdrasil. A dragon named Nidhogg who we mentioned above gnaws at one of the roots. There are also snakes who apparently gnaw at the roots. There is mention of an unnamed eagle, and according to Rudolph Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology, there is even a squirrel who runs back and forth conveying insults between the eagle and dragon. The Norse love their insults and they seem to be a battle of wits. It’s not surprising that people who took such pride in their wit and intelligence were among the first to create large volumes of creative and non-fiction works.

Themes of Regeneration and Eternity

But the beauty of this creation story is the everlasting or eternal quality of the tree. There are evil forces who gnaw at its base and certainly damage the tree. However, it continues to grow, to expand, and regenerate its health and vibrance. It is unthreatened by the evil forces, and continues to thrive. This cannot escape comparison to nearly all creation stories. With the good there is always found a balance of evil. As with many other stories, the good will thrive until the ultimate day of destruction when universes will implode. In many ways it can be religiously linked to the book of Revelations, or it can be thought of secularly, as our universe being on a collision course with Andromeda.

The scared tree is both familiar and fantastical, which is why it continues to fascinate us!

We cannot escape a post on the viking tree of life, without talking about a Yggdrasil tattoo. I know you all have them, so why don’t you head over to social and tag us in a photo of your Yggdrasil tat!

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