The Prose Edda and the ‘World Tree’

I recently finished reading the Prose Edda which is one of the major sources of information about Norse mythology. All has its roots in Germanic/Danish languages. I thought Norse myth would be a useful insight in to the way the Vikings saw the world and ‘all’. Indeed it was. Below is an excerpt from the Penguin edition, concerning itself largely with the ‘Yggdrasil’, or, the ‘World Tree’.

yggdrasil - the world tree of norse mythology

In describing different places in the cosmos, the Edda often employs the imprecise word heimr, meaning ‘home’, ‘world’ or ‘land’, and we must guess at the locations of many of the described areas. In addition to the realms of the gods, men and giants, the Edda speaks of geographically disparate regions such as Ginnungagap in the north, an empty place filled with ice, and Muspell, a burning place of intense heat to the south. So also there are several heavens; one is called Andlang and another, ‘further up’ is where light elves live.

Many elements in Norse cosmology, however, as described by in the Edda, fit into a coherent picture derived from the main stories. One is the World Tree, whose trunk remains consistently at the centre of the Norse universe. Another is the heavenly vault which the gods made from the skull of the giant Ymir, and which gives a shape to to the upper part of the universe. Four dwarves, one under each of the compass points, hold up this vault. At the skull’s upper reaches shine the heavenly bodies, and some of them – the ones that appear to the naked eye to remain steady – were thought to be farthest up in the heavens, while the heavenly bodies that were visibly moving were thought to be lower in the sky. The sun and the moon were clearly the most important of these moving bodies, and chariots pulled them daily across the sky, just ahead of hungry pursuing wolves. In the sky there is also a giant who, in the guise of an eagle, beats its wings and blows winds across the world.

Rising up into the heavens, the World Tree is a living entity whose branches spread majestically over all lands. This axis mundi or cosmic pillar at the centre of the world is described as a giant ash, binding together the disparate places of the universe, and it serves as a symbol for a dynamic cosmos.

The concept of a World Tree exists in many mythologies. In the case of the Scandinavian World Tree, the idea may reach back thousands of years and may have an Indo-European origin. Although people in Old Scandinavia probably interpreted the tree in different ways, the name Yggdrasil, a compound word with several layers of meaning, perhaps gives us a clue as to how the tree was understood in symbolic terms. One possible interpretation is that the first part of the name, Ygg, meaning the ‘terrible one’ and one of Odin’s many names, is connected to the aspect of Odin’s persona as god of the hanged. Drasill is an ancient term for horse. Hence Yggdrasil (Ygg-drasill) means (Or Odin’s) horse and is a metaphor for a gallows tree. This view assumes that the ancient Scandinavians saw a similarity between how people ride horses and how a hanged person bobs as he ‘rides’ the gallows. The gallows tree was an emotionally significant site for the passage between life and death, and is a fitting symbol for the World Tree as the causeway connecting the heavens and the underworld.

I like the fact that the Skalds (poets) and their audience didn’t seem to see the need to illustrate reality too closely. They gave themselves free reign. I feel like we miss that a bit sometimes. I also like the fact that the Edda is so meta textual. It’s all told as a story within a story. When I started reading it I expected blood and violence. In fact, it’s quite sophisticated. Sadly, it’s difficult to tell how much of this is down to the Prose Edda’s author, Snorri Sturluson and how much is a true reflection of Nordic culture. This is in itself very interesting and perhaps worthy of a separate post.

Finally, I’m going to leave this particular post with this extract from the Edda, simply because I thought it was quite wonderful.

After this, the gods began to fear that they would not succeed in binding the wolf. So All-Father sent Skirnir [Bright One], Frey’s messenger, down to Svartalfaheim [World of the Dark Elves], and there he had some dwarves make the fetter called Gleipnir. It was constructed from six elements; the noise of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird. Though previously you had no knowledge of these matters, you now can quickly see the proof that you were not deluded. You must have noticed that a woman has no beard, a cat’s movement makes no loud noise and mountains have no roots. Truly, I say, all you have been told is equally reliable, even though you have no way to test some things.

This fetter was used to trap the Fenriswolf, who was prophesied to be the doom of the gods, explaining why they wanted to fetter it. The fetter described above worked and the wolf was buried. It will remain so until the end of time when the gods will (we’re told) fight in Ragnarok, the massive cataclysmic fight to end all fights. Nuts. The most cataclysmic forces in the world are held at bay by the vaguest of soft thoughts, when the strongest cast iron had already been broken.

PS – Edda means Grandmother. And one of Odin’s names is All-Father.

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