The Nine Worlds
of Norse Mythology
 

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NINE WORLDS

IN THE TREE    

 

The designation "Nine Worlds" is a well-known staple of Old Norse mythology, but what are the nine worlds exactly? Can anyone name all nine?  Where are they located? These are natural questions.

  

 
  In the Poetic Edda, we first learn of the tree Yggdrassil and the Nine Worlds. The clearest declaration of this is found in Völuspá 2, where the völva says:

 

Ek man jötna

ár of borna,

þá er forðum

mik fædda höfðu;

níu man ek heima,

níu íviðjur,*

mjötvið mæran
fyr mold neðan.

2. Jötuns I remember

early born,

those of old

who reared me.

I remember nine worlds,

nine in the tree,

the great measuring-tree,

down in the mould.

 

*íviðjur "in the woods", can also be translated as giantesses, 'wood-wives'. Perhaps referring to Heimdal's nine mothers. (Larrington).

 

Mjötvíð, the Measuring Tree, is commonly understood to be the world-tree, Yggdrassil, so-named in Völuspá 20. Yet the nine worlds are nowhere enumerated. Exactly what the völva means when she says 'nine worlds' here is never clarified. There is no master-list of the 9 worlds.

 

To complicate matters, not only are there nine worlds, according to the Eddas, but also twelve heavens. Snorri provides us a list of 12 heavens in Skáldskaparmál 69. Of these, Snorri informs us that Vidblainn and Andlang are the heavens of the higher worlds: 
 

Þessi nöfn himins eru rituð, en eigi höfum vér fundit í kvæðum öll þessi heiti. En þessi skáldskaparheiti sem önnur þykkir mér óskylt at hafa í skáldskap, nema áðr finni hann í verka höfuðskálda þvílík heiti.      

Himinn: Hlýrnir, Heiðþorrnir, Hregg-mímir, Andlangr, Ljósfari, Drífandi, Skatyrnir, Víðfeðmir, Vetmímir, Leiftr, Hrjóðr, Víðbláinn.

LV. "These names of the heavens are written, but not all these names are found in poems. But these skaldic heiti unlike others, are not found in skaldic writing, unless one finds such heiti in the works of chief skalds.

 

Heaven:  Warmer, Heidþorrnir, Tempest-Mímir, And-lang, Light-farer, Driving, Skatyrnir, Við-feðmir, Wet-Mimir, Flash, Hrjóðr, Vid-blainn. 

 

Nine Worlds— the concept is easy enough to grasp. The universe consists of nine worlds or "homes", each primarily inhabited or ruled by a unique tribe of beings. The names of at least a few of the worlds probably have already sprung to mind.

 

Over the years, there have been several attempts to list the nine worlds. The following chart provides the lists compiled by Finnur Magnússon, the first scholar to undertake the endeavor; Gustav Legis, Karl Simrock, and lastly the one presented by Marvel Comics in their popular Thor series. The first three are the oldest representative lists, often repeated by others, and the fourth is a modern popular view, also representative of other similar models:

   

 Magnússon 1825  Legis 1829 Simrock 1865 Marvel Comics 1988
 I. Ljósalfaheim
II. Muspellsheim  
III. Asgard
IV. Vanaheim  
V. Midgard
VI. Jötunheim.      
VII.Svartalfaheim
VIII. Helheim
IX. Niflheim
 
1. Muspelheim
2. LjosAlfheim
3. Asgard  
4. Vanaheim  
5. Midgard  
6. Jotunheim  
7. SvartAlfheim   
8. Helheim or Niflhel  
9. Niflheim  
 
1. Asgard
2. Ljosalfaheim
3. Jotunheim (east)
4. Vanaheim (west)
5. Niflheim (north)
6. Muspellsheim (south)
7. Midgard
8. SvartAlfheim
9. Helheim
 
1. Asgard  
2. Vanaheim  
3. Alfheim  
4. Nidavellir [?]  
5. Midgard  
6. Jotunheim  
7. SvartAlfheim
8. Hel and Niffleheim
9. Muspelheim
 

Although several illustrations of Yggdrassil have been published, these 4 works contain the primary representative efforts to create a list of the nine worlds. Similar lists appear with little or no variation. Looking at their similarities and differences may help determine the actual meaning of the phrase "the nine worlds."

All 4 of these lists share the following worlds in common:
  Asgard
Midgard
Jötunheim
Vanaheim
Svartálfaheim

Only the first four are found in the poems of the Elder Edda. The fifth is unique to Snorri's Edda. The following worlds, common to all of the lists, appear in variant forms, suggesting some confusion regarding the exact form of the name:

  Muspellheim or Muspellsheim or just Muspell
Ljósálfheim or Ljósálfaheim or just Álfheim

Of these Muspelheim (and its variants) is unique to Snorri's Edda, and does not appear anywhere in the poems of the Elder Edda or skaldic poetry. And while Álfheim appears as a place-name in the Elder Edda, Ljósálfheim does not appear in either the Elder or the Younger Edda. It is a term invented and promoted by modern scholars, to distinguish it from Svartalfheim (a placename found only in Snorri's Edda), no doubt.

Note too that
while the first 3 scholars list Niflheim and Hel (or Helheim, a name not found in the lore) as distinct worlds, the final list suggests that there is some confusion in the modern popular imagination whether Hel and Niflheim are alternate names for the same world. The map of Yggdrassil published by Marvel Comics presents Hel and Niflheim (sic Niffleheim) as one world— the world of death— and adds Nidavellir as another world to round out the nine. Other popular cosmological maps present Hel and Niflheim as one world, as conjoined realms, and as independent worlds. Those that combine the two realms sometimes add Nidavellir, a place name found in Völuspá, as a separate world. Below I will examine the reasons for and implications of  these choices.

Before doing so, I just want to point out that in addition to "the nine worlds in the tree", Vafþrúðnismál speaks of "nine worlds" located below Niflhel, which itself is identified as the lowest or "ninth" world. The poem Vafþrúdnismál specifically speaks of "nine worlds" below Niflhel. These are distinct from the "nine worlds in the tree":

 

Vafthrudnir  

 

"Frá jötna rúnum

ok allra goða

ek kann segja satt,

því at hvern hef

ek heim of komit;

níu kom ek heima

fyr Niflhel neðan;

hinig deyja ór

helju halir."

Vafthrudnir

 

43. Of the runes of Jötuns

and all gods,

I can truly tell;

for I have travelled

over each world;

to nine worlds I came,

down below Niflhel;

here die men from Hel.

 

So with these things in mind, let's explore the nine worlds, and see what the sources actually say. At the end, I will present a list of the nine worlds, based on the best available evidence, using the older poetic sources as my primary sources, and Snorri's later prose retelling as a secondary source.

 

First and Second Worlds:
HEL AND NIFLHEL
 

 

Notice in the verse above that the world known as Hel is distinguished from Niflhel. Men "die from Hel" into Niflhel. It's a second death, most likely for the worst of sinners. From Völuspá 38-39 we know that terrible punishments await those who transgress the heathen moral code  in a land "far from the sun" known as the ná-strands (the corpse-beaches). There condemned men wade in venom inside a hall braided from serpents' backs.  Völuspá 39 informs us that the dragon Niddhögg tarries there eating nair (corpses). In agreement with this, Grímnismál 34 says many serpents lie below Yggdrasill, and the following verse adds that Nidhögg rends Yggdrasill from beneath. Völuspá informs us that the doors of this hall face north, and a passage in Saxo Grammaticus' Danish History, book 8,  tell us that this hall can be reached by sailing due north from Denmark, across dark waters, leaving the sun behind.

 

Other passages in the Poetic Edda also support this separation. In Baldurs Draumar, Odin rides "to Niflhel", and once there, as he continues to ride, apparently toward the border between these two realms, since in Niflhel he sees a dog with a bloody breast, "coming out of Hel". Long it howled at the father of spells, as he rode further to "Hel's high hall". The ground now "thunders" (v. 10)  beneath the weight of a living rider, just as it did when Hermod crossed this same way on Sleipnir, Odin's own horse (Gylfaginning 49).

 

Upp reis Óðinn,
alda gautr,
ok hann á Sleipni
söðul of lagði;
reið hann niðr þaðan
niflheljar til;
mætti hann hvelpi,
þeim er ór helju kom.

Sá var blóðugr
um brjóst framan
ok galdrs föður
gól of lengi;
fram reið Óðinn,
foldvegr dunði;
hann kom at
hávu Heljar ranni.

      
2. Uprose Odin
lord of men,
and on Sleipnir he
laid the saddle;
 he rode thence
down to Niflhel.
He met a whelp,
coming out of Hel.

3. It was bloody
about its breast.
It bayed long
at the father of spells:
Forth rode Odin —
the field-way thundered —
he came to
the high hall of Hel.

We cannot be certain if the use of the word Hel in the last line (hávu Hels ranni) is a a personal name or a place name— in other words, we don't know whether the hall belongs to Hel or simply is found in Hel. One thing is certian, however, the description of the hall in the following verses, as an opulent, well-adorned hall with sparkling mead served in goblets prepared for Baldur's arrival stands in stark contrast to the hall of Loki's daughter, whom Snorri names "Hel" in Gylfaginning 37. In Gylfaginning 3, Snorri also distinquishes between the worlds of Hel and Niflhel, and identifies Niflhel as "the ninth world":

 

"Hitt er þó mest, er hann gerði manninn ok gaf honum önd þá, er lifa skal ok aldri týnast, þótt líkaminn fúni at moldu eða brenni at ösku, ok skulu allir menn lifa, þeir er rétt eru siðaðir, ok vera með honum sjálfum þar sem heitir Gimlé eða Vingólf, en vándir menn fara til Heljar ok þaðan í Niflhel. Þat er niðr í inn níunda heim." 

What is most important, he (God) made man and gave him a spirit, which shall live, and never perish, though the body may turn to dust or burn to ashes. All who live a life of virtue shall dwell with him in Gimli or Vingolf. The wicked, on the other hand, go to Hel, and  from there to Niflhel, that is, down into the ninth world.

 

Elsewhere, Snorri states that Loki's half-livid daughter, whom he names Hel, was given power over "nine worlds" after she was thrown into "Niflheim" by Odin. In Gylfaginning 34, he writes:

  

Hel kastaði hann í Niflheim ok gaf henni vald yfir níu heimum, at hon skyldi skipta öllum vistum með þeim, er til hennar váru sendir, en þat eru sóttdauðir menn ok ellidauðir.

 

 Hon á þar mikla bólstaði, ok eru garðar hennar forkunnarhávir ok grindr stórar. Éljúðnir heitir salr hennar, Hungr diskr hennar, Sultr knífr hennar, Ganglati þrællinn, Ganglöt ambátt, Fallandaforað þresköldr hennar, er inn gengr, Kör sæing, Blíkjandaböl ársali hennar. Hon er blá hálf, en hálf með hörundarlit. Því er hon auðkennd ok heldr gnúpleit ok grimmlig.

Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age.

 

She has great possessions there; her walls are exceeding high and her gates great. Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce.

 

This description of Hel's hall, the abode of Loki's daughter, is the exact opposite of hávu heljar ranni, the "high hall of Hel", seen by Odin in Baldurs Draumar:

 

Óðinn kvað:

"Vegtamr ek heiti,
sonr em ek Valtams;
segðu mér ór helju,
ek mun ór heimi:
Hveim eru bekkir
baugum sánir,
flet fagrlig
flóuð gulli?"
Odin said:

6. "Vegtam is my name,
I am Valtam's son.
Tell me (news) of Hel,
I remember (events) of the world.
For whom are benches
strewn with rings,
fair rooms (or benches)
adorned with gold?"
Völva kvað:

7. "Hér stendr Baldri
of brugginn mjöðr,
skírar veigar,
liggr skjöldr yfir..."
The Völva said:

7. "Here stands mead,
for Baldur brewed,
bright liquids (lit. 'clear strengths')
a shield laid over..."

 

Instead of a plate of hunger and a knife of famine in a dreary hall, Odin sees a rich feast spread for his beloved son.  Loki's daughter is nowhere to be found. Arguably, she does not appear in the poems of the Elder Edda.

 

The place-name Niflheim is unique to Snorri's work. The older Eddic poems instead use the term Niflhel. So, Niflhel, is most likely the same as Snorri's Niflheim, and one of the nine worlds. As shown above, he uses the terms interchangably. Being distinct from it, Hel is most likely another world. Niflhel appears to be a world especially for the wicked dead (adulterers, murderers, and seducers of other men's wives, and their ilk), leaving the world Hel for the remaining dead, not worthy of ascending to Valhalla. According to Vafþrúðnismál, men die "out of Hel" into "Niflhel". The passage from Hel to Niflhel is thus equivilent to the passage from Midgard, the world of living men, into Hel. It constitutes a second death.

 

In the poems of the Poetic Edda, the word Hel is a place-name referring to the land of the dead, distinct from Niflhel. In Snorri's Edda, Hel is the personal name of Loki's daughter, a terrible being best fit to rule over Niflhel. Snorri calls her realm Niflheim. This explains the confusion among scholars regarding the names and natures of these worlds.

 

In Gylfaginning 4, Snorri introduces Niflheim as one of two opposing elemental worlds, existing before the creation of the ordered universe:

 

Fyrr var þat mörgum öldum en jörð var sköpuð er Niflheimr var gerr, ok í honum miðjum liggr bruðr sá, er Hvergelmir heitir, ok þaðan af falla þær ár, er svá heita: Svöl, Gunnþrá, Fjörm, Fimbulþul, Slíðr ok Hríð, Sylgr ok Ylgr, Víð, Leiftr. Gjöll er næst Helgrindum."


"Fyrst var þó sá heimr í suðrhálfu, er Múspell heitir. Hann er ljóss ok heitr. Sú átt er logandi ok brennandi. Er hann ok ófærr þeim, er þar eru útlendir ok eigi eigu þar óðul. Sá er Surtr nefndr, er þar sitr á landsenda til landvarnar. Hann hefir loganda sverð, ok í enda veraldar mun hann fara ok herja ok sigra öll goðin ok brenna allan heim með eldi.

"It was many ages before the earth was shaped that Niflheim was made; and at its center lay the well called Hvergelmir, from which spring the rivers called Svöl, Gunnthrá, Fjörm, Fimbulthul, Slídr and Hríd, Sylgr and Ylgr, Víd, Leiptr; Gjöll is nearest the Hel-gates."

 

"Yet first was the world in the southern region, which was named Múspell; it is light and hot; that region is glowing and burning, and impassable to foriegners, who have no holdings there. He who sits there at the border, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire.

Before Odin and his brothers arranged the created worlds, Niflheim, the primordial northern world of ice, was the natural home of the ancient frost-giants. Surt ruled over a southern world of fire.

 

In Skirnismál 25, after Gerd refuses to accept 11 golden apples and the ring Draupnir, burned on Baldur's breast, Skirnir draws his sword, the blade he got from Frey, and threatens to dispatch the giant maid to the underworld. There, Skirnir says, she will dwell among hrim-thursar ("frost-giants"), joyless and subject to "endless horrors" (v. 30).  This place is so horrible, he predicts, she will climb a mountain each morning and look toward Hel (v. 27), but there will be no escape. Naturally this place is identical to Niflheim, the home of the ancient frost-giants.

 

Skirnir elaborates on the threat. After he kills her with the sword, instead of a bliss-filled life with the lord of  harvests, Gerd will be wed to a three-headed thurs (31 cp. 35), but she will never know a man's pleasure (v. 34) for like Ymir, these giants reproduce asexually. Under Ymir's arm, a man and maid sprang together; and together his feet begot a three-headed son. To underscore this point, Skirnir threatens to carve for Gerd the runes thurs, ergi and othala (cold-heartedness, sexual deviancy, and burning lust). She finally relents to his threats and agrees to meet Frey.

 

Taken together, these statements paint Niflhel (or Niflheim) as a dismal place inhabited by monsters and dead men. Snorri confirms this view in his Edda. He calls the primordial world of ice Niflheim. This appears to be the same realm that the Poetic Edda designates as Niflhel, after the creation of the nine worlds. Thus, before Odin and his brothers created the worlds, there existed a world of ice to the north and  a brilliant world of fire to the south, later guarded by Surt (Soot, Black). Between them yawned a great abyss called Ginnungagap, into which the rivers of Niflheim flowed. 

 

 

The Third World: 

A SOUTHERN WORLD OF FIRE

 

The primary evidence for a world of fire to the south is found in Gylfaginning 6:

 

Gangleri mælti: "Hversu skipaðist, áðr en ættirnar yrði eða aukaðist mannfólkit?"

 

Þá mælti Hárr: "Ár þær, er kallaðar eru Élivágar, þá er þær váru svá langt komnar frá uppsprettum, at eitrkvika sú, er þar fylgði, harðnaði svá sem sindr þat, er renn ór eldinum, þá varð þat íss. Ok þá er sá íss gaf staðar ok rann eigi, þá hélði yfir þannig, en úr þat, er af stóð eitrinu, fraus at hrími, ok jók hrímit hvert yfir annat allt í Ginnungagap."


Þá mælti Jafnhárr: "Ginnungagap, þat er vissi til norðrættar, fylltist með þunga ok höfugleik íss ok hríms ok inn í frá úr ok gustr, en inn syðri hlutr Ginnungagaps léttist mót gneistum ok síum þeim, er flugu ór Múspellsheimi."

 

Þá mælti Þriði: "Svá sem kalt stóð af Niflheimi ok allir hlutir grimmir, svá var allt þat, er vissi námunda Múspelli, heitt ok ljóst, en Ginnungagap var svá hlætt sem loft vindlaust. Ok þá er mættist hrímin ok blær hitans, svá at bráðnaði ok draup, ok af þeim kvikudropum kviknaði með krafti þess, er til sendi hitann, ok varð manns líkandi, ok var sá nefndr Ymir

Gangleri said: What took place before the races came into existence, and men increased and multiplied?

 

The Har replied, "The rivers called the Elivogs had come so far from their source that the venomous yeast which flowed with them hardened, as does dross that runs from a forge, then it became ice. And when this ice stopped and flowed no more, then the vapor arising from the venom froze into rime, and layer was laid upon layer everywhere in Ginungagap.

 

 Then said Jafnhar: All that part of Ginungagap that turns toward the north was filled with thick and heavy ice and rime, and everywhere within were drizzling rains and gusts. But the southern part of Ginungagap was lighted up by the glowing sparks that flew out of Muspellsheim.

 

Then Thridi spoke: As cold and all things grim proceeded from Niflheim, all that which bordered on Muspel was hot and bright, and Ginungagap was as warm and mild as windless air. And when the heated blasts met the rime, it melted into living-drops, by the power of him who sent the heat, and took the likeness of a man, who was so named Ymir.

 

This place —Múspell or Múspellsheim— is the home of Surt. Like Niflheim, the place-names for the southern world of fire are not found in documents older than Snorri's text. Still, we find evidence for its existence in the Poetic Edda. Völuspá 52 states:
Surtr ferr sunnan
með sviga lævi,
skínn af sverði
sól valtíva;
grjótbjörg gnata,
en gífr rata,
troða halir helveg,
en himinn klofnar.
Surt from the south fares
With the bane of branches (i.e. 'fire');
From the sword shines
The sun of the war-god(s).
Rocks dash together
And witches ride,
Men tread the Hel-ways
And heaven is cloven.

 

As one of the first worlds, Surt's homeland must now be at the very base of the created world structure— i.e. "buried" under the subsequent created worlds. As a foundational world, it lurks at the base of the pyramid. For this reason, the heathen skald Eyvind refers to it as Surts sökkdalir, Surt's sunken-dales. It is located in the deep south.

 

As shown above, the spring Hvergelmir, which waters the northern root of Yggdrassil, flows out of Niflheim into Ginnungagap. To the south of the great abyss, we find Surt's home. In a verse by the newly-coverted Christian skald Eilífr Guðrúnarson preserved in Skáldskaparmál 65, Christ is said to sit in the judgment seats of the old heathen gods "south at Urd's well" (sunnr at Urðarbrunni).  Thus, it would seem that Urd's warm well, in which swans swim, is located in the same direction as Surt's fiery homeland. When Mimir's well Oðrerir, which lies "where Ginnungagap once was" (Gylfaginning 9) is threatened by the "mightest winter" (mestum þorra), Urd is appointed its protector (Hrafnagaldur Óðins 2) The southern position of Urd's well can be confirmed in another way.

 

Grímnismál 29 warns us why Thor cannot cross over the Bifröst bridge to join the other gods in their daily journey to Urd's well.

 

Körmt ok Örmt
ok Kerlaugar tvær,
þær skal Þórr vaða
dag hvern,
er hann dæma ferr
at aski Yggdrasils,
því at ásbrú
brenn öll loga,
heilög vötn hlóa

Kormth and Wormth
and the two Charlocks
Thor must wade
every day
when he goes to court
at Yggdrassil's ash
Because (otherwise) the God-bridge
would burn all aflame,
and the holy waters glow.

Should he try to cross Bifröst in his goat-drawn chariot, the bridge would burn and the holy waters (or Urd's well) would boil. Haustlöng's account of Thor's chariot in flight provides a vivid explanation of why this is true:

 

Ók at ísarnleiki
Jarðar sunr, en dunði,
- móðr svall Meila bróður-
mána vegr und hánum.

 Knáttu öll (en) Ullar
(endilág) fyr mági
(grund vas grápi hrundin)
ginnunga vé brinna,
þás hafregin hafrar
hógreiðar framm drógu
(seðr gekk Svölnis ekkja
sundr) at Hrungnis fundi.

And to the game of iron [i.e. 'battle']
The son of Jörd [Thor], thundered
—Wrath swoll Meili’s brother [Thor]—
Moon’s way under him.
All the hawks’ sanctuaries [i.e. 'skies']
were burning because
of Ull’s stepfather [Thor];
The ground was beaten with hail,
when the goats drew the temple-deity [Thor] in his chariot
forth to meet Hrungnir.
Svölnir’s [Odin's] wife [Earth] split asunder.

 

In motion, Thor's chariot causes the sky to burn and the ground below to tremble. Thus, it can only be ridden through wide-open spaces. If Thor attempted to drive his fiery chariot across Bifröst, the delicate span would burn and break.

 

At Ragnarök, we see that this is precisely what happens. When Surt arrives from "the south" with the "bane of branches" [fire]. His men ride with him, and the rainbow bridge breaks under the weight of riders, causing the horses to swim in the stream. Fáfnismál 15 says:

 

Bilröst brotnar,
er þeir á brott fara,
ok svima í móðu marir.

Bil-röst ['Trembling Way', Bifröst] breaks,
when they depart,
and horses swim in the river.

 

Grimnismal 21 tells us that this stream is too rapid for the battle-slain to wade, thus they need the steady road of "Throdvitnir's fish" (Heimdall's bridge, Bifröst):

 

Þýtr Þund,
unir Þjóðvitnis
fiskr flóði í.
Árstraumr þykir
ofmikill
valglaumi at vaða.

Thunder roars,
Thjodvitnir's fish
(Heimdall's bridge, i.e. Bifröst)*
rests in the flood.
The river-current
seems too strong for
the host of the slain to wade.

 

 

*Þjóð-vitnir = "the one with mighty senses" [i.e. Heimdall]; the phrase is usually translated as "the mighty wolf" and scholars have struggled to understand its meaning. The word vitnir, "wolf", however, literally means "one with sharp senses" [see Sveinbjörn Egilsson's Lexicon Poeticum vitnir= ulv egl  'med (skarpe) sanser': wolf literally 'with (sharp) senses']

 

 fiskr = metaphorically "a bridge", since a bridgehead is called a brúar-sporðr, "bridge's fish-tail."


Here, the atmosphere is concieved of as a mighty river, and the shimmering bridge is compared to a fish at rest in the stream. Although the horses of the gods can swim in these 'waters' (i.e. fly), the bridge is necessary to efficiently cross the heavy currents.


In the poems of the Elder Edda, Surt and his men do not ride downward from above through a crack in the sky to reach Asgard, as Snorri describes in Gylfaginning. He likely got this idea from Völuspá 52 cited above. Instead, they most likely pour out from their sunken volcanic homes, far below the surface of the earth and ride upward over Bifröst, the same span that the gods ride down daily to reach Urd's well, according to Grímnismál 29, 30, where they sit in judgment of dead men's souls, determining who can stay in Hel and who must proceed onward to Niflhel. Thus Surt's men ride in the opposite direction that the gods normally do, using Bifröst to reach Asgard from Urd's well, located in Hel near the southern root of the world-tree. On this occasion, the bow breaks leaving them to swim in the fierce currents of the atmospheric sea. The following diagram illustrates this scene:

 

Heimdall guards the northern span, preventing Frost-giants from reaching Asgard. The gods ride from Asgard to Urd's well daily on the southern span. At Ragnarök, Surt and his men ride up over this same span to reach Asgard.
Bifröst forms a complete arc, just as a natural rainbow would,
with bridgeheads in the north and south of the underworld.

 

Many modern scholars equate Surt's men with Muspel's Sons. This because, Snorri tells us that they arrive together, through a hole in the sky in Gylfaginning 51. Snorri equates them with the "light-elves" who live in Gimli!  But in Völuspá 51-52, we find that "Muspel's sons arrive with Loki from the east", while "Surt arrives with the bane-of-branches ['fire'] from the south." According to Völuspá, Surt and Muspel's sons arrive to the battle separately, from two different directions.

 

In contrast to this in Gylfaginning 51, Snorri says that Muspel's sons arrive with Surt, riding through a crack in the sky. In Gylfaginning 5, he calls the southern world of fire, variously: Múspell, Múspellsheim ('Muspel's world') and Múspellheim ('Home of Muspel'), as if he was unable to decide on a name for it. According to his own usage, Múspell seems to be the name of a giant whom some scholars identify with Surt. In Gylfaginning 43, Snorri says of the ship Naglfari, built of deadmen's nails, that "Muspel has it". [En Naglfar er mest skip. Þat á Múspell.] This ship best belongs in Niflhel.

 

In Gylfaginning 51, it's almost as if Snorri portrays Surt and his men as Christian angels of light who have come to destroy worship of the old pagan gods. Considering the Christian thrust of both the Formáli (Prologue) and Gylfaginning, this may have been Snorri's purpose at the final chapter of  Gylfaginning. It cannot, however, have been the intent of the heathen poet who composed Völuspá.

 

Remarkably, this interpretation, based on a literal reading of Snorri's text, led some of the earliest modern scholars to  place Muspelheim above Asgard and to identify Muspel's sons with the light-elves! As an older and more reliable source of heathen mythology, Völuspá says: 

 

Kjóll ferr austan,

koma munu Múspells

of lög lýðir,

en Loki stýrir;

fara fíflmegir

með freka allir,

þeim er bróðir

Býleists í för.

 

Surtr ferr sunnan

með sviga lævi,

skínn af sverði

sól valtíva;

51. That ship fares from the east:
Muspell’s people will come

over the sea,
and Loki steers.
The monster’s kin [Muspel's people?]
all fare with Freki ['Greedy', Fenrir];
with them on their journey
is Byleist's brother [Loki].
 
 52. Surt from the south
comes with the 'bane of branches';
shines from his sword
 the sun of the War-god(s).

 

We find evidence in Lokasenna 42 and in a German poem titled Múspelli that the word múspell is an ancient Germanic word associated with the end times.  Nevertheless, the place-name(s) Múspell, Múspellsheim and Múspellheim are unique to Snorri's text and may simply be a back-formation of the tribal names muspels lýðar and muspels sonar, "Muspel's people" and "Muspell's sons" found in the Poetic Edda. Their designations are sometimes translated as "sons (or people) of Destruction". In the Poetic Edda,  the term "Muspel's sons" seem to refer to the packs of werewolves born of "the old one in the Iron wood" (Völuspá 40) by Fenrir, Loki's son. They are "Fenrir's children," wolves. Loki himself brings them to the battlefield by ship "from the east" to meet the Aesir. In contrast, Surt and his followers arrive over Bifröst from the south.

 

Snorri's identification of Surt's men with the Light-elves is found in Gylfaginning 17. There Snorri provides more information about the homes of the Light-elves and the Dark-elves. He doesn't use the terms Ljósalfaheim (Light-elf Home) and Svartalfaheim (Black-elf Home) however. Snorri simply says that Light-elves live in Alfheim, and that Dark-elves live below ground. He writes:

 

Þá mælti Gangleri: "Mikil tíðendi kannt þú at segja af himninum. Hvat er þar fleira höfuðstaða en at Urðarbrunni?"


Hárr segir: "Margir staðir eru þar göfugligir. Sá er einn staðr þar, er kallaðr er Álfheimr. Þar byggvir fólk þat, er Ljósálfar heita, en Dökkálfar búa niðri í jörðu, ok eru þeir ólíkir þeim sýnum ok miklu ólíkari reyndum. Ljósálfar eru fegri en sól sýnum, en Dökkálfar eru svartari en bik. Þar er einn sá staðr, er Breiðablik er kallaðr, ok engi er þar fegri staðr. Þar er ok sá, er Glitnir heitir, ok eru veggir hans ok steðr allar ok stólpar af rauðu gulli, en þak hans af silfri. Þar er enn sá staðr, er Himinbjörg heita. Sá stendr á himins enda við brúarsporð, þar er Bifröst kemr til himins. Þar er enn mikill staðr, er Valaskjálf heitir. Þann stað á Óðinn. Þann gerðu goðin ok þökðu skíru silfri, ok þar er Hliðskjálfin í þessum sal, þat hásæti, er svá heitir, ok þá er Alföðr sitr í því sæti, þá sér hann of alla heima. Á sunnanverðum himins enda er sá salr, er allra er fegrstr ok bjartari en sólin, er Gimlé heitir. Hann skal standa, þá er bæði himinn ok jörð hefir farizt, ok byggja þann stað góðir menn ok réttlátir of allar aldir. Svá segir í Völuspá:

Then said Gangleri: Great tidings you are able to tell of the heavens. Are there other remarkable places than the one by Urd’s fountain?   

Answered Har: There are many magnificent dwellings. One is there called Alfheim. There dwell the folk that are called light-elves; but the dark-elves dwell down in the earth, and they are unlike the light-elves in appearance, but much more so in deeds. The light-elves are fairer than the sun to look upon, but the dark-elves are blacker than pitch. Another place is called Breidablik, and no place is fairer. There is also a mansion called Glitnir, of which the walls and pillars and posts are of red gold, and the roof is of silver. Furthermore, there is a dwelling, by name Himinbjorg, which stands at the end of heaven, where the Bifrost-bridge is united with heaven. And there is a great dwelling called Valaskjalf, which belongs to Odin. The gods made it and thatched it with, sheer silver. In this hall is the high-seat, which is called Hlidskjalf, and when Alfather sits in this seat, he sees over all the world. In the southern end of the world is the palace, which is the fairest of all, and brighter than the sun; its name is Gimli. It shall stand when both heaven and earth shall have passed away. In this hall the good and the righteous shall dwell through all ages. Thus says Völuspá (64)

 

Sal sér hon standa
sólu fegra,
gulli þakðan
á Gimléi;
þar skulu dyggvar
dróttir byggja
ok um aldrdaga
ynðis njóta.


A hall I know, standing
fairer than the sun,
brighter than gold,

Gimli by name.

There shall good

people dwell,

and forever

enjoy delights.

Þá mælti Gangleri: "Hvat gætir þess staðar, þá er Surtalogi brennir himin ok jörð?"


Hárr segir: "Svá er sagt, at annarr himinn sé suðr ok upp frá þessum himni, ok heitir sá Andlangr, en inn þriði himinn sé enn upp frá þeim, ok heitir sá Víðbláinn, ok á þeim himni hyggjum vér þenna stað vera. En Ljósálfar einir, hyggjum vér, at nú byggvi þá staði."

Then said Gangleri: Who guards this palace when Surt’s fire burns up heaven and earth?

 

Har answered: It is said that to the south and above this heaven is another heaven, which is called Andlang. But there is a third, which is above these, and is called Vidblain, and in this heaven we believe this mansion (Gimli) to be situated; but we deem that the light-elves alone dwell in it now."

 

 The placename Ljósálfaheim never occurs in the lore. It is a term invented by and carried forward by modern scholars (beginning with Finnur Jónsson, see below), based on the term Svartálfaheim found several times in Snorri's Edda. I shall discuss Snorri's use of the term Svartálfaheim, as the home of dwarves, below (see "The Last World— Svartálfaheim?") 

 

In Gylfaginning, Snorri says that the Light-elves live in Alfheim, which he places in the highest heaven, where the hall Gimli is located.

 

The idea that Surt's realm "Muspellheim" and Alfheim are higher worlds clearly comes from Gylfaginning 54's account of the battle of Ragnarök. Here, the Sons of Muspel arrive with Surt after the sky is rent in two (inspired by Völuspá 52). As Finnur Magnússon (1825) and Gustav Legis (1829) illustrate, Snorri's text seems to place Muspellheim and Alfheim above Asgard.  Accordingly Snorri says that Surt and Muspel's sons  ride together through the crack in the sky, presumably downward from above. This contradicts the testimony of Völuspá, which Snorri cites as evidence of his own correctness!  There they ride from opposite directions.

 

Gylfaginning 54:

 

Hrymr heitir jötunn, er stýrir Naglfari, en Fenrisúlfr ferr með gapandi munn, ok er inn neðri kjöftr við jörðu, en in efri við himin. Gapa myndi hann meira, ef rúm væri til. Eldar brenna ór augum hans ok nösum. Miðgarðsormr blæss svá eitrinu, at hann dreifir loft öll ok lög, ok er hann allógurligr, ok er hann á aðra hlið úlfinum. Í þessum gný klofnar himinninn, ok ríða þaðan Múspellssynir. Surtr ríðr fyrst ok fyrir honum ok eftir eldr brennandi. Sverð hans er gott mjök. Af því skínn bjartara en af sólu. En er þeir ríða Bifröst, þá brotnar hon, sem fyrr er sagt. Múspellsmegir sækja fram á þann völl, er Vígríðr heitir. Þar kemr ok þá Fenrisúlfr ok Miðgarðsormr. Þar er ok þá Loki kominn ok Hrymr ok með honum allir hrímþursar, en Loka fylgja allir Heljarsinnar. En Múspellssynir hafa einir sér fylking, ok er sú björt mjök. Völlrinn Vígríðr er hundrað rasta víðr á hvern veg.

 

 

 

 

 The Fenris-wolf advances with wide open mouth; the upper jaw reaches to heaven and the lower jaw is on the earth. He would open it still wider had he room. Fire flashes from his eyes and nostrils. The Midgard-serpent vomits forth venom, defiling all the air and the sea; he is very terrible, and places himself by the side of the wolf. In the midst of this clash and din the heavens are rent in twain, and Muspell's sons come riding through the opening. Surt rides first, and before him and after him flames burning fire. He has a very good sword, which shines brighter than the sun. As they ride over Bifrost it breaks to pieces, as has before been stated. Muspell's sons direct their course to the plain which is called Vigrid. Thither repair also the Fenris-wolf and the Midgard-serpent. To this place have also come Loki and Hrym, and with him all the frost-giants. In Loki’s company are all the friends of Hel. Muspell's sons have thier troops apart, and they are very bright. The plain Vigrid is one hundred miles (rasts) on each side.

 

In an apparent attempt to reconcile his work with Völuspá, Snorri tells us that Gimli is located in the southern portion of heaven.  Comparing this to his citation of Völuspá, however, we see that only Surt arrives from the south (verse 52); while in verse 51, Muspel's sons arrive with Loki from the east. Völuspá 64 gives no direction for Gimli.

Snorri's understanding of Völuspá's Ragnarök sequence calls into question his name for the southern world of fire. There is no reason to call it Múspel, Múspellsheim or Múspellheim, if Muspel's sons do not dwell there. As noted before, in the poetic sources, the southern world of fire is simply called Surts sökkdalir, "Surt's sunken-dales." And, as shown above, we can safely do away with Ljósalfaheim. Instead we have Alfheim.

 

The Fourth World

ÁLFHEIM

  

In Gylfaginning 17, Snorri informs us that only Light-elves live in Álfheim. Dark-elves he says abide beneath the earth. He does not use the modern term Ljósálfaheim to designate their home. As confirmation, we also find Álfheim as a place-name in older poetry. It occurs once in the Poetic Edda in Grímnismál 5. The preceding verse, Grímnismál 4, informs us that Thrudheim, Thor's home in Asgard, lies closest to the Æsir and the Alfar:

 

 Land er heilagt,

er ek liggja sé

ásum ok álfum nær

en í Þrúðheimi

skal Þór vera,

unz of rjúfask regin

4. Holy is the land,

 which I see lying

 to Æsir and Alfar near;

 but in Thrudheim

 Thor shall dwell

 until the powers perish.

 

 

When Thor travels from Asgard to meet the giant Hymir in Jötunheim, Hymiskviða 7 (cp. 38) gives us some sense of direction: 

 

Fóru drjúgum

 dag þann fram

 Ásgarði frá,

 unz til Egils kvámu;

 hirði hann hafra

 horngöfgasta;

 hurfu at höllu,

 er Hymir átti.

7. They travelled
far that day 
from Asgard,

until they reached Egil’s.
He took care of the goats,
with the splendid horns,
while they turned away
towards Hymir’s hall.

 

On the way from Asgard (located 'up' in the sky) to Jötunheim ('in the east'), Thor stops and leaves his goat-team and chariot at the home of a person named Egill. The exact location of Egill the goat-keep’s, house is not stated in the surviving lore. However, the available clues provide some indication of where it was thought to be. When Thor leaves his goat-team behind, safe at Egill's, he heads east on foot toward Hymir's hall. Hymir, we are told, lives “east of the Elivagor” at “the edge of heaven.” (Hymiskviða 5/1-4).

   

 

"Býr fyr austan

 Élivága

 hundvíss Hymir

 at himins enda;

 

5. "Dwells east of
Elivagor (‘Icy waves’)
Much-wise Hymir
at heaven’s end."
  

If Hymir's home is 'east of the Elivagor' (Ice-waves) and we know that Thor regularly crosses a body of water to enter Jötunheim then Egill's must be west of these same waters, on the opposite shore as Jötunheim, on the Midgard-side of the boundary waters.

 

In the Poetic Edda, the only other Egill we find is the brother of the famous smith Völund. In Völundarkviða, Völund and Egil are "elf-princes" and "sons of a Finnish king". In fact, the Lapps (Saami) are often equated with the elves in the Icelandic sources. Geographically, Finland is north-east of Scandinavia, and continuing the same direction one encounters the Arctic Ocean. The mythic worlds of Jötunheim and Niflhel lie to the east and to the north respectively. Both lands are inhabited by giants hostile to the gods.  Once in Jötunheim, Thor and Hymir fish for the Midgard serpent.  The Snake circles the known world biting its own tail. His home is the great river which rings the world. Thor crossed these waters to reach Hymir's, and will flee over them with Hymir's kettle when he leaves. His belt of strength gives him the power to "grow as high as heaven" so that he may wade these waters safely. (See Ásmegin: Thor's Might and the Belt of Strength)

 

In Hymiskviða, Thor leaves his goats on the opposite shore, safe with Egill in Álfheim before crossing over with Tyr, then he and the giant venture out on the same waters to fish for the Midgard Serpent.  Thus, its head and tail were thought to lie in the northern Arctic waters. In a poetic metaphor found in Þórsdrápa 5, these waters are said to be as cold as venom. in Skáldskaparmál 25, when Thor carries his friend Aurvandill across these waters in a basket on his back, one of his toes is left exposed to the venomous liquid. As a result, the toe turns black from frost-bite. Thor breaks it off and makes a star of it. Völuspá informs us that at Ragnarök, Thor will succomb to this same venom, stepping back nine paces before falling. 

 

Grímnismál 4 informs us that Thor's home Thrudheim lies closest to the land of the Aesir and the Alfar. Egill, the "peasant" (bondi) who keeps his goats, is an elf-prince and the son of a Finnish king according to Völundarkviða. In Hymiskviða 37 (cp. Gylfaginning 44), we discover that Egill's home is where Thor gained his servant Thjálfi, whose very name contains the word alf. For this reason, he is often identified as such in modern scholarship.

 

From the available evidence, Alfheim seems to be a way-station for Thor on his journey from Asgard to Jötunheim. Thor leaves his goat-car there and enters the land of giants on foot, first crossing a great body of water. It should come as no surprise then that Váfthrúðnismál 16 speaks of boundary waters located between Jötunheim and Asgard.

  

"Ífing heitir á,

 er deilir með jötna sonum

 grund ok með goðum;

 opin renna

 hon skal of aldrdaga;

 verðr-at íss á á."

16. That river is called Ifing

 That cuts off the land

 Of the giants’ sons

 From the gods;

 It runs open throughout all time.

 On that river no ice forms.

  

 

In Hymiskviða, it is apparent that Hymir lives near the 'river' that circles Midgard. We know this, because he and Thor go fishing on it, and Thor catches the Midgard Serpent in its waters. Therefore, it is probable that Elivagor ('Icy-waves') is another name of Ifing, the river that rings the world. It is bitter-cold, but never freezes over. Like all mythic things, it is known by more than one name. This river is the Arctic ocean. Jötunheim lies beyond its waters (within the Arctic Circle). From there, the way to Niflhel is "north and down".  In Saxo Book 8, the adventurer Thorkill arrives there by ship, sailing due north into the murky darkness, leaving the sun and stars behind. In real world geography, these turbulent icy waters were known as The White Sea, and as Gandvik, the 'Magic-bay'.

 

The Fifth World
Vanaheim: Home of the Vanir
 

In Váfthrúðnismál 16, we discover that at Ragnarök, the sea-god Njörd will return to his homeland Vanaheim, westward across the sea.

   

Óðinn kvað:

 

 38. "Seg þú þat it tíunda,

 alls þú tíva rök öll,

Vafþrúðnir, vitir,

hvaðan Njörðr of kom

 með ása sonum

hofum ok hörgum

hann ræðr hundmörgum

- ok varð-at hann ásum alinn."

 

 Vafþrúðnir kvað:

 

 39. "Í Vanaheimi

skópu hann vís regin

 ok seldu at gíslingu goðum,

í aldar rök hann mun

aftr koma heim

með vísum vönum."

 

Gagnrad

 

38. Tell me tenthly,

since thou all the origin

of the gods knowest, Vafthrudnir!

 whence Niörd came

among the Æsir´s sons?

O’er fanes and offer-steads

he rules by hundreds,

yet was not among the Æsir born.

 

 Vafthrudnir

 

39. In Vanaheim

wise powers him created,

and to the gods a hostage gave.

At the world’s dissolution

he will return

to the wise Vanir.

 

The Vanir are a powerful clan of gods who once defeated the Æsir in war (Völuspá 23-24). Their native home is Vanaheim. We might also assume that Njörd's hall Noatun (Ship-yard) is located there.

Because the Vanir are a tribe of gods akin to the Æsir, Vanaheim is typically placed alongside Asgard in the heavens. However, it is probably best placed across the western sea from Midgard, opposite from Jötunheim. Perhaps related to this, Baldrs Draumr 11 informs us that "Rind bore Vali," Baldur's avenger, "in western halls." In contrast, Odin's avenger, Vidar is born to the giantess Grid, who lives in the east.

Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Worlds
DOING THE MATH 

 

I believe that the evidence for Midgard, Asgard, and Jötunheim (the homes of men, gods and giants respectively) are too well established to require explanation.

 

Midgard, the home of Men, is found as a placename in Völuspá (4, 56), Harbarðsljóð 23, and Hyndluljóð (11, 16), as well as being attested in various forms in several later Germanic works. 

 

In the Poetic Edda, Asgard appears as a place-name in Þrymskviða 18 and Hymiskviða 7. In the skaldic poem Sonnatorrek, preserved in Egils Saga, we are told that Goðheim ('Home of the Gods') is located above Midgard. The poet, whose son died young, expresses his hope that Odin has taken him to Valhalla, "up in Godheim"  (es upp of hóf í Goðheim).

 

Jötunheim, the home of the Jötuns, is named in a number of Eddic poems including Völuspá (8, 48), Skírnismál 40, and Þrymskviða (7, 12, 13, 20, 21, 26, 28). Occassionally, some illustrations of Yggdrassil will include Utgard, a place-name found in Gylfaginning, either as a separate world or as a city in Jötunheim. For example, the map of Yggdrassil in Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths (1988) lists Utgard as "a citadel of the giants" in the world of Jötunheim. Yet, he lists Asgard as "the world of the gods." Using the logic applied to Utgard, Asgard might best be described as a "citadel of the Æsir" located in the world called Goðheim.

 


Numerous models of the 9 worlds have been patterned on this illustration.

 

Based on evidence found in the tale of Utgard-Loki as told by Snorri in Gylfaginning 45 and 46 and references to the same myth in Harbarðsljóð 26 (compared to Hávamál 12 and 104-110), Utgard is best understood as another name for Surts sökkdalir, the southern world of fire. Utgard-Loki appears to be the fire-giant Suttung, also called Fjalar. He commands Logi (wildfire) and is a master of "eye-spells" (heat mirages). The fire that consumes the world at Raganrök is known as Surtarlogi, Surt's wildfire, and the name Suttung may be interpreted as a condensed form of Surts ungr, Surt's son. Surts sökkdalir is the only name the old poems give us for the fiery realm that Snorri calls Muspell.  Snorri calls this same place Utgard later in Gylfaginning.

 

For reasons that are unclear to me, some accounts of the nine worlds in modern scholarship identify Utgard as the underworld. In regard to location, I would tend to agree, placing it directly below Hel, not for the same reasons, but rather for those which I have already given above. As one of the primoridal worlds, "Surt's sunken dales" lies at the very base of the created worlds. When he destroys the upper worlds with fire at Ragnarök, his flames burn up the created worlds, leaving the lower world (the original plain) as a "new earth" in its place. Thus, the fields that the gods tread upon in their youth (Idavellir, Völuspá 7) are found again in the "new" world (Völuspá 58). There the surviving Æsir find the golden game-pieces that their parents played with in the earliest days. Properly it is Mimir's realm, "where Ginnungagap once was" (Gylfaginning 9). Thus, the human survivors Lif and Lifthraisir, emerge from Hoddmimis holt, "Hoard-Mimir's grove" when the fire subsides.

 

So without further speculation, I think we can safely name most of the nine worlds as found in the surviving lore. In no particular order, we have:

  

1. Asgard  
2. Midgard  
3. Jötunheim  
4.Vanaheim  
5. Alfheim  
6. Surts Sökk-dalir (Snorri's Muspell, Muspellsheim, and Muspellheim)
7. Hel  
8. Nifhel (probably also Niflheim)  

 That brings our count to eight worlds. These are the ones that appear by name in the lore. Most notably, we are lacking a home for the dwarves, and we have an additional place-name to account for found only in Snorri's Edda, i.e. Svartálfaheim, home of the black-elves.

 

 

The Last World
Svartálfaheim, Home of the Dwarves?

 

In most all of the models of the nine worlds, we find the world  Svartálfaheim, a term found only in Snorri's Edda. As shown above, instead of Ljósalfaheim, "home of the light-elves", we simply find Alfheim,  home of the elves. Snorri informs us that only "light-elves" live in Alfheim, but that "dark-elves" (dökk-alfar) live "below the earth."  Noticeably absent from these lists is a home for the dwarves (dvergr), beings well-known in the lore. Instead we find Svartálfaheim, home of svart or black-elves (cp. dökkalfar). Oddly, time and again, Snorri identifies Svartálfaheim as the home of dwarves. This lack of clarity on Snorri's part has understandably lead to much confusion in modern times.

 

Because, Snorri says in Gylfaginning 17 that the dökk-álfar (dark-elves) "dwell down in the earth" and that they are "black as pitch," the dökk-alfar (dark-elves) are commonly understood to be identical with the svart-alfar (black-elves) in modern scholarship and in turn are commonly interpreted as dwarves, based on additional statements in Snorri's Edda. This use of multiple terms for a single class of beings suggests confusion on Snorri's part regarding the dwarves, or perhaps that his idea developed as he wrote the text.

 

Anthony Faulkes in his Glossary to Skáldskaparmál (1998) remarks "svartálfar are not mentioned in sources older than Snorri and were possibly conceived of as identical to dwarfs." Snorri's text supports this view. In Gylfaginning 34, he states: 

 

Eftir þat óttuðust æsirnar, at þeir myndi eigi fá bundit úlfinn. Þá sendi Alföðr þann, er Skírnir er nefndr, sendimaðr Freys, ofan í Svartálfaheim til dverga nökkurra ok lét gera fjötur þann, er Gleipnir heitir.

Then Allfather sent him who is called Skírnir, Freyr's messenger, down into Svartálfaheim, to certain dwarves, and caused to be made the fetter named Gleipnir.  

 

 

And again in Skáldskaparmál 36: 

 

Þá sendi Óðinn Loka í Svartálfaheim, ok kom hann til dvergs þess, er heitir Andvari. Hann var fiskr í vatni, ok tók Loki hann höndum ok lagði á hann fjörlausn allt þat gull, er hann átti í steini sínum. Ok er þeir koma í steininn, þá bar dvergrinn fram allt gull, þat er hann átti, ok var þat allmikit fé. Þá svipti dvergrinn undir hönd sér einum litlum gullbaug.

Thereupon Odin sent Loki into Svartálfaheim, and he came to the dwarf who is called Andvari, who was as a fish in the water. Loki caught him in his hands and required of him in ransom of his life all the gold that he had in his rock; and when they came within the rock, the dwarf brought forth all the gold he had, and it was very much wealth.

 

If we accept that the dark-elves (dökk-alfar) and the black-elves (svart-alfar) are identical then their home Svartálfaheim must be a subterranean. Their home appears to be located under the northern root of Yggdrassil according to Hrafnagaldur Odins 25:

  

Jörmungrundar
í jódyr nyrðra
und rót yztu
aðalþollar
gengu til rekkju
gýgjur og þursar,
náir, dvergar
og dökkálfar.

At Jörmungrund's
northern border,
under the outermost root
of the noble tree,
went to their couches
ogresses and thuses,
dead men, dwarves, 
and dark-elves.

 

This verse, however, appears to distinquish between dark-elves and dwarves. Snorri on the other hand seems to equate dwarves with black-elves.  In Skáldskaparmál 43, after Loki has cut off the golden hair of Thor's wife Sif, the Thundergod  threatens him, until Loki promises to persuade artisans to replace what he has damaged:

 

En er Þórr varð þess varr, tók hann Loka ok myndi lemja hvert bein í honum, áðr hann svarði þess, at hann skal fá af Svartálfum, at þeir skulu gera af gulli Sifju hadd þann, er svá skal vaxa sem annat hár. Eftir þat fór Loki til þeira dverga, er heita Ívaldasynir, ok gerðu þeir haddinn ok Skíðblaðni

But when Thor learned of this, he seized Loki, and would have broken every bone in him, had he not sworn to get the Black Elves to make Sif hair of gold, such that it would grow like other hair. After that, Loki went to those dwarves called Ívaldi's Sons; and they made the hair, and Skídbladnir also.

 

Earlier in Gylfaginning 43, Snorri identifies Ivaldi's sons are dwarves:

 

Dvergar nökkurir, synir Ívalda, gerðu Skíðblaðni ok gáfu Frey skipit.

Certain dwarves, sons of Ívaldi, made Skídbladnir and gave the ship to Freyr.

 

However, using passages from the eddic poetry, we have reason to believe that Ivaldi's sons were originally conceived of as elves (Alfar). In Hrafnagaldur Odins 6, the goddess Idunn is said to be their sister.

 

Dvelur í dölum
dís forvitin,
Yggdrasils frá
aski hnigin;

álfa ættar

Iðunni hétu,

Ívalds ellri

ýngsta barna.

Dwells in dales

 the curious dis,

from Yggdrasil‘s

 ash descended,

of elven kin,

Idunn by name,

Ivaldi‘s youngest

elder child.

 

In Grimnísmál 5, we learn that Alfheim was given to Frey upon cutting his first tooth. Thus, the elves are subject to him. Lokasenna 2 speaks of the Æsir and Álfar gathered in the hall, when Loki bursts in and insults the gathered gods. Among those seated inside we find Idunn, as well as servants of Frey named Byggvir and Beyla. Thus indeed we find Alfar (elves) mingled with the Æsir in the hall.

 

I suggest that Snorri's confusion between the "álfar" (elves) and "dvergr" (dwarves) was likely caused, at least in part, by the so-called dwarf-list of Völuspá, which contains the names of both dwarves and elves. This list, however, is not considered to be an original part of the poem, and is generally thought to have been interpolated with additional names by copyists.

 

In Gylfaginning 14, Snorri speaks of the creation of the dwarves, citing Völuspá 10 and 11 as support.

 

Þar næst settust goðin upp í sæti sín ok réttu dóma sína ok minntust, hvaðan dvergar höfðu kviknat í moldinni ok niðri í jörðunni, svá sem maðkar í holdi. Dvergarnir höfðu skipazt fyrst ok tekit kviknun í holdi Ymis ok váru þá maðkar, en af atkvæðum goðanna urðu þeir vitandi mannvits ok höfðu manns líki ok búa þó í jörðu ok í steinum. Móðsognir var æðstr ok annarr Durinn.

Next, the gods sat in their seats and held judgment, and minded whence the dwarves had quickened in the mould down in the earth, even as do maggots in flesh. The dwarves had first received form and life in the Ymir's flesh, and were then maggots; but by decree of the gods had become conscious with the intelligence of men, and had human shape. And yet they dwell in the earth and in stones. Módsognir was the first, and Durinn the second.

 

Immediately following this, Snorri begins reciting the so-called "dwarf-list" from Völuspá 11-16, a þula which includes obvious names of elves such as Álfr, Gandálfr, and Vindálfr.  In the midst of this, Snorri says: "And these also are dwarves and dwell in stones, but the first in mould" (En þessir eru ok dvergar ok búa í steinum, en inir fyrri í moldu). Yet, in Gylfaginning 15, Snorri clearly distinquishes between elves and dwarves, citing a verse from the the Eddic poem Fafnismál as support:

 

Enn eru fleiri nornir, þær er koma til hvers barns, er borit er, at skapa aldr, ok eru þessar goðkunnigar, en aðrar álfa ættar, en inar þriðju dverga ættar, svá sem hér segir:


Sundrbornar mjök
segi ek nornir vera,
eigu-t þær ætt saman;
sumar eru áskunngar,
sumar eru alfkunngar,
sumar dætr Dvalins."

There are many norns: those who come to each child that is born, to appoint his life; these are of the race of the gods, but the second are the kin of elves, and the third are the kindred of dwarves, as it is said here:


Most sundered in birth

I say the Norns are;
They claim no common kin:
Some are of Æsir-kin,

some are of Elf-kin,
Some are Dvalinn's daughters."

In Völuspá 14, Dvalinn is said to lead his own band of dwarves (dverga í Dvalins liði). Dvalinn is the name of a famous dwarf, best known for spreading runic knowledge among his people (Hávamál 143). In the same verse, Dáinn spreads runes among the elves (alfar), suggesting a separation between the two tribes. In Völuspá 48, we also find a separation between the elves and the dwarves in a single verse:

 

Hvat er með ásum?
Hvat er með alfum?
Ymr allr Jötunheimr,
æsir ro á þingi,
stynja dvergar
fyrir steindurum,
veggbergs vísir.

What of the Æsir?

What of the elves?
All Jötunheim resounds

The Æsir are at council;
The dwarves groan

Before stone doors,
Wise in rock-walls


Due to this confusion among dark-elves, black-elves and dwarves in the Prose Edda, not being shared in the poems of the Poetic Edda, the place-name Svartálfaheim as a designation for the home of dwarves is suspect. Because of the dwarf-list in Völuspá, which includes the names of elves, it seems likely that Snorri either created the term "Svart (Black)-elves" or else misunderstood and built upon the term "Dökk (Dark)-elves" he encountered in some source, now lost to us. The term svartálfar is unique to Snorri's text and not found in the older poems. The term dökkálfar also appears in the Eddic poem Hrafnagaldur Óðinns 25, but the age and authencity of the poem is in dispute. Some modern scholars consider it a modern imitation penned in the 17th century, and there is no indication that Snorri knew this poem.

 

Another possible name for the home of dwarves found in older poetry is Nidavellir (No Moon Plains), a geographical term used in Völuspá 36. Worthy of remark, in some of the more recent models which combine Hel and Niflhel into a single world, we also find the "world" Nidavellir listed among the nine. However, these maps also frquently include the redundant world Svartálfaheim. From Völuspá, we learn that Nidavellir contains a golden hall which is the home of "Sindri's race." Sindri is the name of a famous dwarf who created Thor's hammer, with help from his brother Brokk (Skáldskaparmál 43). Thus, like Svartálfaheim in the Prose Edda, Nidavellir is inhabited by artisan dwarves in the Poetic Edda.

 

Stóð fyr norðan

 á Niðavöllum

salr ór gulli

Sindra ættar;

en annarr stóð

á Ókólni

bjórsalr jötuns,

en sá Brimir heitir.

On the north there stood,
on Nida-vellir (No Moon Plains),
a hall of gold,
for Sindri’s race;
and another stood
in Okolnir (Not Cold),
the Jötun's beer-hall
who is named Brimir.

 

Mentioned alongside Sindri's hall, we find the "beer-hall" of a giant named Brimir. Earlier the same poem informs us that the dwarves were created from "Brimir's blood" and "Blainn's limbs." Brimir and Blainn are commonly taken to be alternate names of Ymir, the primeval giant whose body was used to create the world. I'd like to suggest another possibility.

 

 

Snorri tells us that the dwarves first grew as maggots in Ymir's flesh. Thus, Blainn (the Blue One) is likely a poetic name for Ymir, who was slain by Odin and his brothers and whose body was used as raw material to build the upper worlds. Brimir, however, seems to be associated with Mimir. As one of the oldest beings, older than Odin, Mimir must be one of the first created beings. As such, he could be a son of Ymir himself. Since Odin is the third generation from Ymir, Mimir must be among the first or second generations. The choices are limited. Vafþrúðnismál 33 says us that "a boy and a girl together" were born under Ymir's arm. As some of the first beings, Mimir and Urd may well be that boy and girl. The evidence is simply too slight to base any conclusions on.

 

The association between Brimir and Mimir is most apparent in Sigrdrifumál 14:

 

Á bjargi stóð

með Brimis eggjar,

hafði sér á höfði hjalm;

þá mælti Mímis höfuð

 fróðligt it fyrsta orð

ok sagði sanna stafi.

On the cliff he stood
with Brimir's sword
a helmet he had on his head;
then Mim's head spoke
wisely the first word
and told true staves.

 

Odin also speaks with Mimir's head, just before the battle of Ragnarök in Völuspá 45, and pawns an eye for a drink of Mimir's well in Völuspá 28. The expression "Brimir's sword" may be a poetic metaphor meaning "Brimir's head" as Snorri says a head could be called "Heimdall's sword" since he was killed with a man's head. If so, then the verse simply says that when Odin stood on a cliff with "Brimir's sword" (i.e. Brimir's head), then "Mimir's head" spoke to him wisely. It is not uncommon in eddic poems to restate the same thing which appears in the first half of the stanza using poetic metaphor, in the second half of the stanza more plainly. As it stands Brimir's blood is associated with Blainn's (Ymir's) limbs as components in the creation of the dwarves, and the giant Brimir has a beer-hall in the vicinity of a hall for dwarves. In the same poem, Mimir is said to drink mead "every morning" from his well, the same spring in which Odin pawned his eye.  The name Brimir is also directly associated with Mimir's head in Sigrdrifumal 14, which speaks with Odin, as it does in Völuspá 45. 

"Brimir's blood" suggests a liquid. Here it is used in a creative process, along with "Blainn's limbs" (Ymir's flesh) to create the dwarves. In poetic language, any type of liquid can be substituted for any other. For example, in Fafnismál 14, blood is called "the liquor of the sword" (hjörlegi). I suggest that "Brimir's blood" here refers to  the creative liquid in Mimir's well. Thus Mimir may have had a hand in the creation of the dwarves. Völuspá 10-11 suggest as much. (See Commentary on Völuspá 10-11).

 

We have good reason to associate Mimir with the dwarves:

 

—Motsognir ('Mead-sucker', 'Mead-drinker') is said to be the foremost or master of the dwarves in Völuspá 10, taking part in their creation.

—In the same poem, Mimir is said to drink mead each morning from his well (Völuspá 28)

—Óðrerir is both a name for the poetic mead and for Mimir's mead-well, from which Odin pawns an eye for a drink. (Gylfaginning, Hávamál, Hrafnagaldur Óðins)

— The poetic mead is also known as Dvalinns drykkr, the drink of the dwarf Dvalinn (Skáldskaparmál 10).

—Mime der Alt ('Mimir the Old') is the master of the dwarves in Germanic mythology. (Þidreks saga af Bern)

—The dwarves are makers of weapons and valueable treasures such as Odin's spear, Thor's hammer, the ring Draupnir, and Freyja's necklace Brisingamen.

—Mimir is the famous keeper of treasures such as Heimdall's horn (Völuspá 27). In Vafþrúðnismál 44, he is called Hoddmimir, Hoard-Mimir. The living human beings Lif and Lifthrasir emerge from his holt, "grove" after Surt's fire has slackened.  The U manuscript of Gylfaginning 53 says instead that they hid themselves in Mimis holdi (Mimir's flesh),  a parallel formation to Ymis holdi (Ymir's flesh), used in Grímnismál 40-41. This suggests a conceptual relationship between these two ancient giants, both of whom were beheaded.

 

So it's no stretch to consider Mimir's realm to be the home of the dwarves. Gylfaginning 9 tells us that Mimir's realm is located "where Ginnungagap once was." In other words, it is situated directly between the southern world of fire and the northern world of ice which existed before the creation of the upper worlds by Odin and his brothers.

 


 

Ginnungagap was the birthplace of Ymir, and the origin of all life. Here, when the sparks from the south met the ice-floes from the north, life quickened from the venomous drops, developing into Ymir and Audhumbla, the primoridal giant and the primeval cow, the source of all life. Mimir's well is located at the physical and spiritual center of all creation. As such, Yggdrassil is called Mimameiðr, 'Mimir's Tree' (Fjölsvinnsmál 24).  Rising up the trunk of the tree, we find Midgard and Valhalla in Asgard as other central points along the vertical axis of the Tree.

 

In several of the Icelandic Fornaldarsagas and in Saxo's Danish History Books 1 and 8, we encounter the giant Gudmund who is the ruler of the "Glittering-Plains" (Glæsisvellir). He is a giant and champion of the heathen faith. His is a rich, fertile country, a neighbor of the realm of the giants.   Gudmund of Glæsisvellir appears to be a historic memory of the mythic Mimir, the treasure-hoarder, Odin's life-long counsellor.

 

As the physical and symbolic centre of the universe, Mimir's realm is the DNA of the entire universe, the seed inside the World-Tree. It is a world onto itself. Gylfaginning 9 informs us that Mimir's well stands where Ginnungagap once was. From this same place, all life in the universe sprung from its "living drops" (kvikkdroppar). Hávamál assures us that "no one knows from what root it springs." His home, Hoddmimis holt is conceived of as a grove, and serves as the divine archetype of the earthly sacred grove where men gather in worship.

 

 

 

  

In this diagram, I believe that Mimir's realm and the native home of the dwarves should be added as an enclosure within Hel, surrounding the green dot in the illustration. It is a self-contained biosphere surrounded by an impenetrable wall.  In Book 1 of Saxo's History, the hero Hadding sees this place ringed with a high wall, on a journey to theland "where men must go when they die." Nothing dead may enter there. His guide wrings off the head of a rooster and throws it over the wall. The head returns, and the cock crows, attesting to its resurrection.  Gudrunarkviða II, 23 calls this place "Hadding's land", as the hero once visited there. Eiriksaga refers to it as Óðains-akr, the 'Acre of the Not-dead'. It is an oasis of life within the kingdom of death. Mimir is its ruler and caretaker. For this reason, Fjölvinnsmál 20 calls Yggdrasil "Mimir's Tree". His home is the place called "Hel's high hall" in Baldurs Draumar, to which Baldur comes after death. Inside bright mead is poured out in goblets awaiting his arrival (cp. Brimir's beer-hall in Völuspá 36). Only Hermod on Sleipnir is able to leap the otherwise impregnable wall. Inside, it is lavishly adorned, quite unlike the bleak hall of Loki's daughter. From there, Völuspá informs us Baldur and Höður will return, along with the "living men" (mennskir menn, Grímnismál 31) Lif and Lifthrasir, according to Vafþrúðnismál 45.

 

Mimir is called Hodd-Mimir, Hoard-Mimir. He is known for keeping treasures, and is a king of the dwarves, the tireless artisans of Norse mythology. In Grimnismal 17, this place is referred to as hodd goða, 'the hoard of the gods', all the rivers of Hel wind round it, making the place impregnable. As the archetypal 'sacred grove', Mimir's holt is a  physical and spiritual paradise at the heart of the organized universe. In a sense, it acts as a seed within Yggdrassil, which will replenish the worlds with new life, after the fires of Ragnarök have died out.

 
       In Conclusion
THE NINE WORLDS OF NORSE MYTHOLOGY

Based on a thorough investigation of the source material, placing greater weight on the heathen poems of the Poetic Edda than on the later prose retellings of Snorri Sturluson, a list of the nine worlds consists of the following realms:


          1. Asgard or Godheim (Home of the Gods)
          2. Midgard or Mannheim (Home of Men)
          3. Alfheim (Home of the Elves)
          4. Jötunheim (Home of the Giants)
          5. Vanaheim (Home of the Vanir)
          6. Hel (Home of Urd and the Blessed Dead)
          7. Surts Sökkdalir or Utgard (Southern World of Fire)
          8. Hoddmimis Holt (Home of Mimir and the Dwarves)
          9. Niflhel or Niflheim (Northern World of Ice, Realm of the Damned)



FOUR HISTORIC ATTEMPTS TO MAP
THE NINE WORLDS OF NORSE MYTHOLOGY


 
 
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[See Also: Going to Hel: The Consequences of a Heathen Life]