Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life in Norse Mythology

Known as the Tree of Life or the World Tree, Yggdrasil is the mighty tree that stands at the center in Norse cosmology. According to the myths, Yggdrasil is associated with all Nine Worlds in the cosmology.

In the article below WHE explores the meaning, origin story and significance of Yggdrasil in Norse mythology.

Depiction

Tree of Life

Yggdrasil (1895) by Danish painter Lorenz Frølich

According Norse myths, Yggdrasil is a massive ash tree that is always green and full of life. It symbolizes the life force of everything that is in the Norse cosmos. In other words, Yggdrasil stands at the center of the universe, with its branches and roots spreading far and wide into the vastness of space.

Roots of Yggdrasil

According to Grímnismál in the Poetic Edda, the three roots of Yggdrasil grow in three directions. The first root is found in Helheim, the realm of the dead. The second is found in the realm of the frost giants, and the third root grows into Midgard, the realm of mankind.

Odin is the chief of Aesir tribe of gods in Norse mythology. Image: Odin (1883-84) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones – Artvee

Meaning

In some accounts, Yggdrasil was referred to as “Horse of Odin” or the “Gallows of Odin”. This meaning further reinforces the importance of Odin, chief of the Aesir gods, in the Norse world. The word “Yggr” was sometimes used as a name for Odin, while “drasil” translates to “horse”.

Odin’s sacrifice on Yggdrasil

Odin sacrificing himself upon Yggdrasil (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

The above meaning of Yggdrasil came from the story of Odin hanging himself upside down on the Tree of Life for nine nights.

In the Poetic Edda poem Hávamál, while hanged on the tree Odin had his spear, Gungnir, pierced straight into his body. He also did not take any food or drink. He then forbade any of the Aesir gods from coming to his aid. Odin decided to put himself through this excruciating ordeal in order to acquire the knowledge of the runes. The knowledge of the runes were revealed to him just as he was about to die.

Odin’s sacrifice to Yggdrasil

How knowledge of the runes from the Tree of Life made Odin more powerful

The runes, which are a sacred set of Germanic symbols, were believed to enhance one’s knowledge and wisdom, allowing the individual to have the capability to gaze into events that are yet to happen. Some say that Odin’s knowledge of the event of Ragnarok came after gaining knowledge of the runes. In other words, the knowledge of runes made Odin even more powerful. He could use the knowledge of the runes to even bring the dead back to life, extinguish fires, cause people to fall in love with him, make his opponents’ weapons useless, and many more others.

Read More: Most Powerful Weapons in Norse Mythology: From Mjolnir to Gleipnir

The tree that holds together the Nine Worlds

The Nine Realms in the Norse cosmos are: Asgard (Realm of the Aesir), Vanaheim (Realm of the Vanir gods), Nidavellir (Realm of dwarfs), Jotunheim (Realm of the giants), Alfheim (Realm of the Bright Elves), Niflheim (Realm of Ice), Muspelheim (Realm of fire), Midgard (Realm of humans), and Svartalfheim (Realm of the Black Elves).

The paramount function of Yggdrasil is to connect the many worlds together in Norse mythology. Kind courtesy of the Tree of Life, beings can move from one world to another, say from Asgard, the home of the Aesir gods, to say Jotunheim, the home of the giants (Jotnar).

In terms of the position of the Norse worlds on Yggdrasil, the myths have us believe that Asgard occupies the highest level of the tree. The remaining eight worlds then follow in the lower levels. For example, Midgard, the world of humans, is believed to occupy the central position on Yggdrasil.

Asgard – the world of the Aesir gods who are ruled by the Allfather Odin

Midgard – the realm of humans that is surrounded by a mighty ocean.

Jotunheim – the realm of the giants (i.e. Jotuns/Jotnar), arch enemies of the Aesir gods

Niflheim – the world of ice and mist which is home to ice giants

Vanaheim – the realm of the w, deities often associated magic, fertility and wisdom.

Alfheim – the realm of the light elves, brightest of beings in all the Nine worlds

Muspelheim – the primordial region of fire and volcanoes which is home to the fire giants, most famous among them the giant Sutr

Helheim – the dead region of the Norse cosmos which is ruled by Hel, one of the three monstrous children of Loki

Svartalfheim – the realm of the dwarfs, most gifted forgers and smiths in Norse mythology.

After seizing Loki’s monstrous children, Odin is believed to have cast Jormungandr into the deepest parts of the world’s ocean – the mighty ocean that surrounds Midgard. Come Ragnarok, Jormungander,also known as the Midgard Serpent, will emerge from the ocean and wreak a lot of damage on Midgard and other realms in the Norse cosmos.

Svartalfheim is where the Norse dwarfs reside. The dwarfs are master artisans and blacksmiths who are praised for forging many powerful weapons and objects in Norse mythology. For example, the dwarfs were the one who forged Thor’s mighty hammer, Mjolnir. They also made items such as Gungnir, Odin’s powerful spear; Sif’s golden hair; and Gleipnir, the strongest and lightest chain in the universe.

Niflheim and Muspelheim are regarded in the myths as the two oldest realms in Norse mythology.

It is said that Helheim – a region ruled by Hel, the queen of the dead – is home to people who were not worthy enough to make their way to Valhalla or Folkvanger. In other words, Helheim takes people that died a normal death, while Valhalla takes brave fallen warriors in battle.

The fate of Yggdrasil during Ragnarok

According to the myths, the three Fates (Norns) – Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld – that reside near Urdarbrunnr (Urdr’s Well) revealed to Odin the dire fate that awaits the Norse gods and the world in general. In the prophecy, the forces of evil and chaos, led by Loki and his allies, will be unleashed upon the gods and the world at the onset of Ragnarok (i.e. the Demise of the Gods). And no matter what Odin does he will be unable to stop the prophecy coming to past. All his knowledge and power will prove futile to what the Fates have prophesied to happen. Therefore, Odin and his Aesir gods will have to fight and simply accept whatever results that fate has given to them.

The trio of Fates (Norn) that live near Urdarbrunnr (Urdr’s Well) are known for
deciding the fates of people. Image: Norns (1832) from Die Helden und Götter des Nordens, oder das Buch der Sagen

Massive loss of life, destruction and widespread suffering will be the order of the day, as the sea boils, the air thickens with poisonous gases, and mountains shatter into small pieces. The Norse giants will move from their realms and attack places in Midgard as well as Asgard. Then Loki will lead the Jotnar, along with his three monstrous children – Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungandr – to attack Asgard.

Many Norse deities will perish during Ragnarok, including Odin, Thor, Tyr, and Heimdallr. Similarly, many of the gods’ opponents will die, including Loki, Jormungandr and Fenrir.

As the Nine Realms are destroyed so will the Tree of Life; however it will be reborn once Ragnarok ends. Life will restart and the beings and gods that survived Ragnarok will dust themselves up and start everything anew.

Branches of the Tree of Life

The four stags – Dáinn, Duneyrr, Dvalinn, and Durpror – that live on the tree are known for gnawing on the branches of Yggdrasil, putting the tree in agonizing pain. The branches of Yggdrasil stretch into the heavens, and beneath the tree are three giant roots that meander into the various realms. Image: The Ash Yggdrasil (1886) by German-born painter Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

In addition to the roots of Yggdrasil, the tree’s branches were also very important parts. According to the myths, the branches were home to many creatures, including an eagle and a squirrel called Ratatoskr. The latter animal was used as a messenger to deliver messages between the unnamed eagle and the dragon called Nidhoggr.

According to Odin, Yggdrasil’s buds are constantly being eaten by four very hungry stags, which represent the four winds of the cosmos  – Dáinn, Duneyrr, Dvalinn, and Durpror. As a result, the Tree of Life writhes in pain all the time.

The Bifrost Bridge

In the myths, the rainbow Bifrost bridge is what connects Asgard to Midgard. Standing guard at the Asgard side of the bridge is the Norse god Heimdallr.

The three wells of Yggdrasil

For a tree as massive as Yggdrasil, surely it must tap its energy from something. According to the myths, the Tree of Life relies heavily on three very important wells that are spread across the Nine Realms.

The first well is Urdabrunnr, also known as the Well of Destiny. This well is located in Asgard, the realm of the Aesir. In addition to nourishing Yggdrasil, Urdabrunnr serves as the home of the Fates (i.e. the Norns), magical beings gifted in the art of prophecy. The Fates are the ones who foretold of the coming of Ragnarok (i.e. the demise of the gods).

The next well is Mimisbrunnr, also known as the Well of Mimir or the Well of Wisdom, located in Jotunheim. In the myths, anyone who takes a sip of this well water instantly becomes very wise. The drinker also becomes very knowledgeable in the secrets of the universe. However, to drink from the Mimir’s well comes at a huge personal sacrifice. Odin for example had to sacrifice one of his eyes in order to get a sip from the well. Many beings from all over the Nine Realms came and went back because they could not afford the price the well asked for.

Finally, the third well is Hvergelmor. This well is located in the in Niflehiem, the frigid and ice region of the ice giants. The well, which is also known as ‘Hot Well’, is responsible for providing water for the eleven rivers that go through the Norse cosmos. Close to this well is the home of the fierce dragon Nidhogg.

Read More: Top 10 Norse Gods and Goddesses

More facts about Yggdrasil

  • Yggdrasil is the sacred tree that grows at the center of the Norse cosmos. It is commonly described in the myths as the holiest place in the cosmos.
  • In some versions of the myth, Yggdrasil has been called Mimameidr (“Mimir’s Tree”), a reference to Mimir, a being considered the wisest of all in the cosmos. Mimir enhances his knowledge and wisdom by taking a drink from the well Mimisbrunnr (also known as Mimir’s Well, the Well of Wisdom). As stated above, Mimir’s Well is one of the three wells that nourishes Yggdrasil.
  • It was believed that the Norse gods congregated at Yggdrasil every day.
  • In one account of the story, Odin describes Yggdrasil as the noblest tree in the cosmos.
  • Other names of the Tree of Life in Norse mythology include Laeradr, Mimameidr, and Hoddmimis holt.
  • Much of what we know about Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree of Life, comes from two main sources – the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. The latter, a compilation of Norse stories and myths, was written by 13th-century Icelandic poet and judge.

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