Somewhere Over the Rainbow......
Images of Old Norse Cosmology
Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds
The Poetic Edda
  
 
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Old Norse Cosmology in the Poetic Edda
©2010 William P. Reaves 

Huginn ok Muninn
fljúga hverjan dag
Jörmungrund yfir;
óumk ek of Hugin
at hann aftr né komit,
þó sjámk meir um Munin.

 

Hugin and Munin
fly each day
over Jörmungrund.
I fear for Hugin,
that he not come  back,
though more anxious am I for Munin.

 


Towards a Genuine Understanding
of the Old Heathen Worldview
 

As is well-known, the ancient Norse conceived of the cosmos in the form of a Tree, commonly called Yggdrasil (Völuspá 20) or, more often, Yggdrasills Askur, Yggdrasil’s Ash. This tree, mentioned several times throughout the Eddic poems, is said to contain all of the known ‘worlds’ or ‘homes’ (heimar) of the beings who inhabit the universe, including the gods and men. As shall be demonstrated below, by gathering and analyzing the many statements in regard to mythic geography found in the Poetic Edda, it is possible to form a coherent world-view, similar but different than the one presented by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda.

“Icelandic Manuscripts: Sagas, History, and Art”  by Professor Jónas Kristjánsson, translated by Jeffrey Cosser; The Icelandic Literary Society, 1996:
 
“The narrative of Snorri's Edda is based for the most part on old mythological poems, in particular Völuspá ("The Sibyl's Prophecy"). But there are discrepancies of one sort and another between the poems, and the other fragmentary sources about the pagan religion are either disjointed or terse and difficult to interpret. Völuspá is a collection of vivid poetic visions, and was probably rather enigmatic originally; in addition, it was in a poor state of preservation in Snorri's time. We have to be content with an imperfect and patchy understanding of the old religion. But this does not entitle us to assume that the religion itself was correspondingly primitive or incomplete. We must bear in mind that no extensive direct information about the pagan religion was recorded until fully two centuries after the conversion to Christianity, and the generations which had come and gone meanwhile were, or were supposed to be, hostile to these pagan heresies.”  

 

"It seems an inescapable conclusion that stories told in prose must always have existed alongside stories told in verse. Many of the heroic lays are shaped in such a way that it is evident the poets assumed more knowledge of the subject-matter on the audience's part than the poems themselves encompass: a whole legend is there as a backdrop to the verse." 

 
   
 
 
 

It is my belief that only a theory which successfully incorporates and explains all of the cosmological statements found in the Poetic Edda can be the correct one. Because the lore is fragmentary, it is probably best to begin at the end, so to speak, and present a model which naturally explains all of these statements, leaving none out. Only then will it be possible to analyze the view of later Christian-era works such as Snorri’s Edda, and attempt to reconcile them with the oldest sources.

 

If illustrated, the conclusion drawn in the following argument might look like this:

 

 
 

 

  • Hvergelmir
  • Cold

 

NIFLHEIM

  • Mimir's well
  • Warm

 

GINNUNGAGAP

  • Urd's well
  • Hot

 

MUSPELLSHEIM

 

According to this view, the universe consists of three levels arranged one on top of the other. They are Heaven, Earth, and Hel.

 

Asgard the home of the gods is located in heaven.

Midgard, the home of men lies in the middle. It is an island surrounded by the sea. Jötunheim, the home of the giants is situated on the opposite shore.

Hel is the lower world—the oldest world & the foundation of everything.

 

In its main points, this theory agrees with Snorri’s statements regarding Old Norse cosmology in the Prose Edda. However, it differs in the following manner:

 

All three roots of Yggdrasil and the three wells that nourish them are located in the lower world, the oldest part of the universe. The three wells are arranged horizontally along a north-south line. Hvergelmir lies in the north, Mimir's well in the center directly beneath the trunk of Yggdrasil, and Urd's well to the south.

   

   Somewhere Over the Rainbow

 

This vision of the cosmology is based on several passages from the Poetic Edda, starting with Grímnismál verses 28 through 31, which read:

 

 Körmt ok Örmt

ok Kerlaugar tvær,

þær skal Þórr vaða

hverian dag er hann dæma

 ferr at aski Yggdrasils,

þvíat Asbrú brenn öll loga,

heilög vötn hlóa. 

 

29. Körmt and Örmt

and the two Kerlaugar,

these must Thor wade

every day, when he goes to judge

at Yggdrasil's ash,

or else the As-bridge would burn all aflame,

and the holy waters boil.

 

 Glaðr ok Gyllir,

Gler ok Skeiðbrimir,

Silfrintoppr ok Sinir,

Gísl ok Falhófnir,

Gulltoppr ok Léttfeti,

þeim ríða æsir

ióm dag hvernn,

er þeir dæma

fara at

aski Yggdrasils.

 

30. Glad and Golden,

Glare and Race-surger,

Silvertop and Sinew,

Whip and Fallowhoof,

Goldtop and Lightfoot,

these horses the Æsir ride

every day,

when they go to judge

at Yggdrasil's ash.

Þriár rætr standa 

á þriá vega

undan aski Yggdrasils;

Hel býr undir einni,

annarri hrímþursar,

þriðio mennzkir menn.

 

31. Three roots stand

on three ways

under Yggdrasil's ash;

Hel dwells under one,

frost-giants (hrimthursar) another,

human men (mennskir menn), a third.   

 

 

 

Grímnismál 29-30 inform us that the gods ride over Bifröst "every day" presumably from their homes in Asgard to Urd's well to sit in judgment. Thus, Bifröst is a bridge which connects Asgard to Urd's well. The sources do not give us the precise location of Asgard,  but most commentators agree that Asgard is a heavenly city located either in the sky or on a mountaintop. This is apparent when we consider that Odin has a throne named Hilðskjálf from which he can “look into all the worlds” (sá um heima alla). In the opening prose of Grímnismál, Odin and Frigg sit in this throne and look into Midgard, where they observe their human protégés Geirrod and Agnar in a seaside kingdom. In the opening prose of Skírnismál, Frey sits in Odin’s seat and looks into Jötunheim where he sees the giantess Gerd whose arms shine so that “all the sea and air catch light.” From these passages, it is clear that from Hilðskálf, the gods can see Midgard, its surrounding sea, and Jötunheim. Thus, it stands to reason that Asgard is located above both Midgard and Jötunheim, which lie on opposite sides of the sea. From their perch above, the gods can see what’s happening there.

 

So where is Urd’s well located? According to Snorri’s Edda, Urd’s well is located in the heavens, but as we shall see, he places Asgard on earth and identifies it with the city of Troy, made famous in Homer’s Illiad.  In his view, Bifröst stretches from Asgard (Troy) on earth to Urd’s well in the heavens, yet still under a root of Yggdrasil. That view cannot be supported by the Poetic Edda. So for now, let’s set his idea aside and continue to examine what the Eddic poems have to say on the matter.

 

Grímnismál 29-30 inform us that the gods ride their horses across the Bifröst bridge daily, except for Thor who must walk lest his thunder-chariot set the bridge on fire. The skaldic poem Haustlöng provides a brilliant description of Thor and his chariot.

 

 

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

14/ 5-8: …The son of Jörd drove to the game of iron [battle] and the moon’s way [sky] thundered beneath him.  Wrath swelled in Meili’s brother [Thor].

 

 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.

15. All the hawks’ sanctuaries [skies] did burn because of Ull’s stepfather [Thor], and the ground below was battered with hail, when the goats drew the temple-deity [Thor] of the easy-chariot forward to the encounter with Hrungnir. Svölnir’s wife [Odin’s wife, Earth] split apart. 

 

   

It is customary for Thor to drive his chariot through space. In our sources, Thor always meets his opponents on foot. When he travels to Jötunheim, Thor drives his chariot through the sky to the outskirts of Midgard, where he leaves it with a caretaker, before wading across the river that separates the world of the gods from the land of the giants and travelling on foot into Jötunheim (Hymiskviða 7 calls the caretaker Egil; while Snorri identifies him only as a ‘peasant’ and the father of Thjalfi and Röskva). When Thor travels to Urd’s well, he cannot drive his chariot or else the holy waters of Urd’s well would boil. Instead he must walk, traversing four rivers.  Since Thor is obliged to wade across four rivers before he gets to Urd's fountain, the beds of these rivers must be conceived of as crossing the path travelled by the god journeying to Urd’s thingstead. Accordingly, they must have their courses somewhere in Urd's realm or on the way to it.  In the preceding verses (Grímnismál 26-28), thirty-six rivers are named rising out of the well Hvergelmir. (Whether all of them were found in the original text is doubtful. Most commentators agree that some of these river-names have been interpolated here.) Three of them are mentioned in other records — namely, Slíður in Völuspá 36; Gjöll in the Snorri’s account of Hermod's journey to Hel's realm (Gylfaginning 49); and Leiftur in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, 31. All three are referred to in such a way that they can be identified as subterranean rivers. Slíður flows to the realms of torture; weapons whirl in its eddies. A golden bridge over the river Gjöll leads to Baldur's subterranean abode. Leiftur (whose name means "the shining one") has clear waters, which are holy, and by which solemn oaths are sworn, as by Styx in Greek mythology. Of these last two rivers which flow out of Hvergelmir, it is said that they “fall down to Hel” (falla til Heljar, Grímnismál 28). Thus they are subterranean. The next verse (Grímnismál 29) adds four rivers —Körmt and Örmt, and the two Kerlaugar. These Thor must wade every day when he goes “to judge” (dæma) by Urd’s well. He does not ride across Bifröst to the thingstead near Urd's fountain. He walks. Based on what we know of his travels, it is conceivable that he rides his chariot to some point, leaves it behind, then walks the rest of the way, wading through rivers— as he does when he journeys to Jötunheim.

Bifröst is a bridge necessary for the gods to cross when they leave their homes in Asgard and travel to Urd’s well. It is generally conceived of as a rainbow. When viewed from earth, a rainbow is seen as a giant arch stretching from the heavens downward to somewhere just over the horizon. Although partial-arcs are known, a full rainbow looks like a suspension bridge with its apex in the heavens and its bridgeheads extending beyond the horizon in two directions. If the rainbow is seen as a full arch, then Urd’s well must be located at the end of one of its two legs. So, if Asgard is in the heavens (or on a mountaintop), at the apex of Bifröst, it stands to reason that Urd’s well is situated somewhere below, beyond the horizon of Midgard at one of its ends.

 

Mythological horses can certainly bear their riders through the air without pressing a firm foundation under their hoofs. Odin rides through the air on Sleipnir when he meets the giant Hrungnir and challenges him to a race. The competition ensues through space. But such a mode of transport was not the rule, even among the gods, and, when it did happen, it attracted attention. Gylfaginning 35 cites a verse from an unknown poem which states:

 

Né eg flýg,

þó eg fer

og að lofti líðk

á Hófvarpni

þeim er Hamskerpir

gat við Garðrofu.             

I am not flying

although I fare

and pass through the air

on Hofvarpnir

whom Hamskerpir

begat with Gardrofa.

 

 

The bridge Bifröst would not have been built or established for the daily connection between Asgard and Urd's subterranean realm if it had not been necessary. To every child that grew up in a heathen home the question would have occurred what such a bridge was for, if the gods had no advantage of it. Fáfnismál 15 tells us that when Bifröst eventually breaks under the weight of riders then the horses will “swim” in the “sea”, er þeir á brú fara, og svima i módu marir. Here the atmosphere with its currents of air is likened to a sea. Grímnismál 21 informs us that the currents of this stream are too great for those riding from the battlefield to wade across (árglaumur þykir ofmikill valglaumi að vaða). In the same verse, Bifröst is likened to a fish, holding steady in the stream. This ‘fish’ belongs to Thjóðvitnir:

 

21. Þýtr Þund,

unir Þjóðvitnis

fiskr flóði í;

Árstraumr þykir

ofmikill

valglaumi at vaða.

21. Thund roars

Thjodvitnir’s fish

abides in the flood;

The river-current seems

too strong for

the host of the slain to wade.

 

 

While it may seem strange to liken a bridge to a fish, we must consider that in common Icelandic usage, the end of a bridge is known as a sporðr, a fish-tail. Sigurdrífumál 16 tells us that runes are cut on the bridge’s ‘fish-tail,’ brúar sporði. Thus it is no stretch to liken the bridge itself to a fish.

     Grímnismál 21 is perhaps one of the most enigmatic verses in the entire Poetic Edda. The name Þjóðvitnir has never been satisfactorily explained, but is commonly translated as the “great-wolf” and thought to refer to the Fenris Wolf. Vitnir can, indeed, mean "wolf", but the etymology of the word demonstrates that it is related to the word "vit" = "sense, senses". Magnússon's Etymological Dictionary states that the original meaning of the word is "one with sharp senses". As a prefix in men's names, þjóð- simply means "great, powerful". Thus it seems probable that Þjóðvitnir is an epithet for Heimdall, the god known for his extraordinary senses. According to Gylfaginning, he can see one hundred ‘rasts’ about during night as well as day. He can hear the grass grow, as well as the wool on sheep’s backs. If any divinity deserves the name Þjóðvitnir, "one with powerful senses," it is Heimdall. If this interpretation is correct, Bifröst, the rainbow bridge shimmering colorfully in the sea of air, is likened to a fish shimmering in the stream. The name of the stream, Þund, is related to “thunder”, an atmospheric phenomenon, and the verb þýtr, which can refer to the howling of wolves, is also applied to the roar of the surf and the whistling of the wind. ‘Thjóðvitnir’s Fish” thus might be a poetic circumlocution meaning “Heimdall’s Bridge.” This unusual metaphor may also explain the meaning of Heimdall’s epithet Vindlér, i.e. Vind(h)lér. Hlér is an alternate name of Ægir, the sea-god (Skáldskaparmál). As guardian of Bifröst, Heimdall is the “Hlér of the wind.” For a detailed analysis of this verse, see  Here.

 

    

        Bifröst is a celestial bridge spanning the atmosphere as a terrestrial bridge spans an expanse of water. This solid connection, built in space is thus useful for the Æsir. The gods as well as the valkyries, riding over with Odin’s chosen, find this solid road advantageous. A horse moves faster on dry land than it does in water.  In the lore we find two examples of gods riding from Asgard to the lower world. In Baldrs Draumar 2, Odin saddles Sleipnir and rides to Niflhel and in Gylfaginning 49, Hermod rides from Asgard to Hel. So unless Sleipnir swam there, it would appear that Bifröst was conceived of as a road connecting Asgard to the lower world.

Conversely, in the skaldic poem Eiríksmál 1-3, when the recently fallen King Erik along with five other rulers and their attending war-bands come riding up to Asgard, the gods hear a mighty din on their approach; the very foundations of Asgard quake. All the benches of Valhall tremble.

 

 

Hvat's þat drauma,
hugðumk fyr dag rísa
Valhöll at ryðja
fyr vegnu folki ;
vakðak Einherja,
baðk upp rísa,
bekki at stráa,
bjórker at leyðra,
valkyrjur vín bera
sem vísi kœmi.

1. “What kind of dream is it,” said Odin

In which just before day rises

I thought I cleared Valhall

For the coming of slain men?

I awoke the Einherjar,

Bade Valkyries rise up,

To strew the benches

And to scour the beakers

To bear wine

As if a king were coming.

 

Es mér ór heimi
hölða vánir
göfugra nökkurra,
svá's mér glatt hjarta.

2. To me, from the world,

I expect heroes to come

Certain great ones

So glad is my heart.’

 

Hvat þrymr þar Bragi
sem þúsund bifisk
eða mengi til mikit?
Braka öll bekkþili
sem myni Baldr koma
eptir í Óðins sali.

3. ‘What thunders there’ said Bragi,

‘Like a thousand stirring

Or too many a multitude?

All the benches are creaking

As if Baldur were coming

Back to Odin’s halls.’

 

 

Did the skald imagine that the chosen heroes arrived on horses which swim in the air and whose movements in this element produced a noise that made Valhall tremble? Or was it Bifröst which thundered under their hoofs and quaked beneath their weight? Consider that the name Bifröst itself means the “trembling way.” The skald himself provides a clue when he lets Bragi say that from the din and quaking one might suppose that it was Baldur who was returning to Asgard. After his death, Baldur dwells in Hel. If he were to return to Asgard via Bifröst, Bifröst must be the connection between Asgard and Hel. In addition, this connection is of such a nature that it quakes and trembles beneath the weight of riders, and it is said that during Ragnarök it shall break under the weight of a host of riders (Fafnismál 15). So Bragi's words demonstrate that it is Bifröst from which the noise is heard when Erik and his men ride up to Valhall. But to get to the bridgehead of Bifröst, Erik and his riders must have first journeyed across the river Gjöll into Hel. Do any of our sources support this? Do they place fallen warriors destined for Valhalla in Hel?

 

The Road to Hel

 

Although Valhall is located in Asgard, our sources indicate that heroes chosen for Valhall travel to Hel like the rest of the dead. Fáfnismál 10 informs us:  

 

því at einu sinni skal alda

hverr fara til heljar heðan.  

 “For there is a time when every

 man shall journey hence to Hel."

 

 No exceptions are made; “every man” comes to Hel, even those destined for Valhall. In our sources, besides walking, only two means of transport to Hel are known. One can either sail or ride to the underworld. When Baldur dies, his body is burnt along with that of his wife Nanna on his ship Hringhorn and pushed out to sea. Later Hermod finds him and Nanna in Hel. In the 8th book of Saxo Grammaticus’ Danish History the adventurer Thorkill sails north, leaving the stars behind, before entering into the heathen underworld, where he finds the giant Geirrod and his daughters whom Thor had previously slain. This explains the numerous ship-burials found across northern Europe. The most common means of travel to Hel, however, is a road. In the prose introduction to the poem Helreið Brynhildar, Brynhild was burnt on a pyre “in a wagon draped with costly woven tapestries,” (í reið þeiri, er guðvefjum var tjölduð).  Later she “drove the wagon along the road to Hel,” (með reiðinni á helveg). This is well attested by numerous grave-finds, such as that of the Oseberg ship burial, which contain not only a ship, but wagons and horses for the dead. 

 

In the 1st of Saxo Grammaticus’ History of Denmark, written a generation before Snorri Sturluson composed the Prose Edda, Saxo speaks of the road to Hel as “a path worn away by long ages of travelers.” Saxo’s protagonist, Hadding, sees a host of warriors gathered there engaged in war-games. His guide confirms that “these are men who met their death by the sword.” This is confirmed in the Icelandic sources. Fallen warriors ride or walk this road like everyone else. In Gisli Surson's Saga (ch. 24) warriors destined for Valhall received Hel-shoes like all the rest: "It is custom to bind hel-shoes to men, so that they shall walk on to Valhall,” það er tíðska að binda mönnum helskó, sem menn skulu á ganga til Valhallar. Throughout the sources, we find examples of warriors killed in battle who are said to come “to Hel”. In Egil’s Saga chapter 45, for example, we read how Egil saved himself from men whom King Erik Blood-axe had sent in pursuit of him. After killing three of the king’s men in combat, Egil says:

 

at þrymreynis þjónar

þrír nökkurir Hlakkar,

til hásalar Heljar

helgengnir, för dvelja.

 

“I do not boast overly—

By sending three servants

of that tree of [the valkyrie] Hlökk (i.e. the king)

to the otherworld, to dwell

in Hel’s high hall.”

  

The fallen men were king's men and warriors. They were slain with weapons and fell at their posts, one from a sudden, unexpected wound; the others in open conflict. But the skald Egil, who as a heathen born about the year 904 and must have known the mythological views of his fellow-heathens better than the people of our time, assures us that these men from King Erik's body-guard, instead of going immediately to Valhall, went to the lower world and to Hel's high hall there. Snorri confirms this belief in Gylfaginning 49 by stating that when Hermod crosses the golden bridge over Gjöll, the attendant remarked that five fylki of dead men crossed there the day before, making less noise than him. Fylki are divisions of an army. The large number of them traveling together suggests they fell together in battle. Like King Erik and his companions, they travel together. Thus, across a broad spectrum of the lore, we have examples of warriors coming to Hel and arriving in Valhall. This has led some to the erroneous belief that Valhall was once located in Hel, or that this represented a variant belief. Yet we find examples across the spectrum, in both older and younger sources, before and after the conversion to Christianity. How can these ideas be reconciled?

 

 

The Thingstead by Urd’s Well

 

Grímnismál 29-30 inform us that the gods ride over Bifröst “every day” to “judge” (dæma) by Urd’s well. What they judge there is not stated. Whatever it is must be important to them, as they ride there every day. Since they travel to Urd’s well on horseback across the rainbow bridge, we can infer that the journey was not a short one. These points are underscored in the case of Thor, who cannot use his customary mode of transport, his goat-drawn chariot, but must walk, wading through no less than four rivers to arrive there daily.  Since Grímnismál does not tell us why the gods travel there, let’s examine what the sources have to say of Urd’s well and what goes on there for clues.

 

In the Hauksbók version of Völuspa 20, there is a hall under Yggdrasil from which Urd and her sisters emerge. In the Codex Regius version, they emerge from the “sea”.

 

 Þaðan koma meyiar

margs vitandi

þriar or þeim (Hauksbók: sal)

er a þolli stendr.

vrd hetv eina

aðra u erdandi

skaaru aa skiði

skulld hina þriðiu.

Þær log logðu

þær lif kuru

allda bornum

orlog at segia.

20. Thence come maidens,

much knowing,

three from the sea (or hall),

which under that tree stands;

One is named Urd,

the second Verdandi, -

on a tablet they graved -

Skuld the third.

They laid down laws,

they allotted life

for the children of men;

örlog (destiny) to pronounce.

  

In Hávamál 111, we find a bard’s seat (þular stóli) at Urd’s well, upon which one can hear manna mál, the “speech of men”: 

 

Mál er at þylja

þular stóli á

Urðarbrunni at,

sá ek ok þagðak,

sá ek ok hugðak,

hlýdda ek á manna mál;

of rúnar heyrða ek dæma,

né of ráðum þögðu

Háva höllu at,

Háva höllu í,

heyrða ek segja svá:

 

It is time to recite

from the bard’s seat

at Urd's well;

I saw and stayed silent,

I saw and reflected,

I listened to the speech of men,

Of runes, I heard and judged,

nor were they silent in counsels

at Har's hall,

in Har's hall,

thus I heard it said --

 

Sólarljóð 51 speaks of a dead man sitting in the “norns’ seats” (norna stóli) nine days before proceeding to the places of punishment in the lower world:

 

Á norna stóli

sat ek níu daga,

þaðan var ek á hest hafinn;

gýgjar sól

er skein grimmliga

ór skýdrúpnis skýjum.

51. In the Norns' seat

nine days I sat,

thence I was mounted on a horse:

there the giantess's sun

shone grimly

through the dripping clouds of heaven.

 

 

So besides the gods, who arrive at Urd’s well daily, the Eddic poems also place human beings there. Hávamál says that from the bard’s seat (þular stóli) by Urd’s well voices of men are heard. Sólarljóð places dead men in seats there (á norna stóli). From the same sources, we know that the dead cannot speak except under special circumstances, Sólarljóð 44 informs us that the tongues of the dead are cold and “like wood” (tunga mín var til trés metin) and in Hávamál 157, Odin speaks of runes with which he can animate the dead and make them speak. This is confirmed in the 1st book of Saxo Grammaticus’ Danish History, when the giantess Hardgrep employs runes to make a dead man speak, whereupon he curses her. Such runes are described in Sigrdrifumál:

 

 Málrúnar skaltu kunna

ef þú vilt, at manngi þér

heiftum gjaldi harm:

þær of vindr,

þær of vefr,

þær of setr allar saman,

á því þingi,

er þjóðir skulu

í fulla dóma fara.

12. Speech- runes thou must know,

if the man you violated

should be prevented in his revenge.

Those thou must wind,

Those thou must wrap,

Those thou must put together in that Thing,

Where people shall go

into full judgment.

 

 

This verse is commonly understood to mean that such runes impart eloquence useful to favorably settle legal disputes brought before a court (Thing). But the verse is clearly not speaking of all courts. It limits the scope of the court in question to “that thingstead” (því þingi) before which people go into “full judgment” (fulla dóma). The use of the words því and fulla distinguish this court from all others. While eloquence would certainly be useful in any court which settles legal disputes, in “that court” where men go into “full-judgment”, speech-runes are particularly useful. Although the phrase is ambiguous, the judgment on the dead could certainly be considered a fulla dóma. Moreover, this statement corresponds to what we already know of the dead: they cannot speak except by means of runes. This may be the ultimate meaning of Hávamál 111’s expression, sá ek ok þagðak , “I saw and remained silent” on the bard’s seat by Urd’s well. A defendant in the court of the dead apparently cannot speak on his own behalf, except with the assistance of speech-runes.

 

The Assembly of the Gods

Set Design by Bernardo Buontalenti

  

Since Snorri does not mention a court of the dead in his Edda, many assume that the Old Norse religion did not know of one. But these passages, taken together, raise the real possibility that the thingstead by Urd’s well, at which both gods and men gather, is just that court. If so, the gods arrive there daily to decide the final fate of the dead in conjunction with Urd and her sisters who “lay down laws” and “allot life” to human beings. Although we know that Odin chooses fallen warriors for Valhall independently, it is remarkable that Völuspá 30 of the Codex Regius manuscript, names the youngest norn, Skuld, as the foremost of the Valkyries (cp. Völuspá 20, Codex Regius). Clearly, Odin does not make his decisions in this regard in a vacuum. Urd’s sister acts as the executor of Odin’s will. 

 

 Sá hon valkyrjur

vítt um komnar,

görvar at ríða

til Goðþjóðar.

Skuld helt skildi,

en Skögul önnur,

Gunnr, Hildr, Göndul

ok Geirskögul.

Nú eru talðar

nönnur Herjans,

görvar at ríða

grund, valkyrjur. 

30.  She saw Valkyriur

coming from afar,

ready to ride

 to the gods’ people:

Skuld held a shield,

and Skögul another.

Gunn, Hild, Göndul,

and Geirskögul.

Now are tallied

Herian´s maidens,

ready to ride

over the earth

the Valkyriur.

 

From this it would appear that the thingstead by Urd’s well is the Germanic court of the dead, and that those who arrive in Hel daily gather there awaiting the judgment of the gods before proceeding on to their final destinations. Those chosen by Odin proceed over Bifröst to Valhall. The rest remain in Urd’s realm, the land of the dead, probably to dwell with previous generations of their families who arrived there before them.  When Ragnarök is at hand, Völuspá (Hauksbók 47) speaks of “everyone on the Hel-ways,” (allir á helvegum). It appears that Urd’s realm is known as Hel which the Eddic poems distinguish from Niflhel— its cold, northern district. The prefix nifl- (cloud, mist, fog) indicates that that place was thick with fog and mist. Niflhel is thus the cold, misty part of Hel.  Váfþrúðnismál says: 

 

 Frá iötna rúnom

ok allra goða

ek kann segia satt,

þvíat hvern hefi ek heim um komit;

nío kom ek heima

fyr Níflhel neðan,

hinig deyia ór helio halir.

 

43. Of Jötuns’ runes

and those of all the gods’,

I can truly say; 

I have come to every world;

I came to nine worlds

down below Niflhel,

where men die out of Hel.

 

 

The journey from Hel to Niflhel is likened to a second death. Snorri informs us that only “wicked men travel to Hel and thence to Niflhel (vándir menn fara til Heljar ok þaðan í Niflhel). Thus it appears that Niflhel is the location of the places of punishment in Germanic mythology, a fact borne out by other passages we shall examine below. It is the final destination for those who lived a life immoral by heathen standards.

 

That the living face judgment upon death, according to Northern European heathen precepts, should come as no surprise since other Indo-European mythologies speak of such a court, and our own sources speak of just such a judgment on “each one dead”:

 

Hávamál 77:

 

Deyr fé

deyja frændr

deyr sjálfr it sama

ek veit einn

at aldri deyr

dómr um dauðan hvern

Cattle die,
kinsmen die,
you yourself will die;
I know one thing
that never dies:
the judgment of each of the dead.

  

This verse is commonly interpreted to mean that the judgment of the living on the dead is eternal. But, for this everlasting judgment to be truly applicable to every one of the dead (dauðan hvern), it must be more than simply the memory of the dead among living men, who cannot recall their ancestors for more than a generation or two. Many people die in obscurity or in circumstances unknown to their family and friends. Few are remembered by more than their immediate family. Such judgments die quickly. Yet, Hávamál assures us that the judgment on each of the dead “never dies”; for such a judgment to be eternal, the judges themselves must be immortal. This idea is not a Christian one, but inherent in our sources.

 

Three Roots on Three Ways

 

The only reliable heathen statement we have regarding the placement of Yggdrasil’s roots is found in Grímnismál 31:

 

Þriár rætr standa 

á þriá vega

undan aski Yggdrasils;

Hel býr undir einni,

annarri hrímþursar,

þriðio mennzkir menn.

 

30. Three roots stand

on three ways

under Yggdrasil's ash;

Hel dwells under one,

frost-giants (hrimthursar) another,

human men (mennskir menn), a third.   

 

 

 

From Mary E. Litchfield's The Nine Worlds

 

Each of Yggdrasil’s roots is associated with a well that nourishes it. Like the roots themselves, only three of these are named. They are: Urd’s well, Mimir’s well and Hvergelmir. Snorri confirms this, placing each of these on a different level of the cosmos vertically. At first glance, these locations appear to correspond with those named in Grímnismál 31. Snorri places Hvergelmir in the underworld, which he calls Hel and which is virtually synonymous with Niflhel in his Edda. He identifies Mimir’s well, the well of wisdom, as the one with the ‘frost-giants,’ located in Jötunheim on the same level as Midgard; and places Urd’s well, the spring of fate, in the heavens, where it is visited by the human Æsir who arrive there daily from their homes in Asgard, which he describes in the previous chapter as an earthly city identical to Troy (Gylfaginning 14 and 15, also see Gylfaginning 9). That these statements are based on his interpretation of Grímnismál 31 is made clear by the fact that he quotes Grímnismál 29 and paraphrases Grímnismál 30, repeating the list of the Æsir’s horses found there with the addition of Sleipnir, in Gylfaginning 15, before placing the roots and their corresponding wells. Thus it is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the fact that Snorri must have identified the root near Urd’s well with the one extending to “human men” in Grímnismál 31. When we recognize that Snorri identifies the gods as men, and portrays them as such through his Edda, the conclusion is inescapable. But most commentators, fully aware that the Eddic poems never identify the Æsir as “human men,” are not inclined to draw this conclusion. Carolyne Larrington, for example, citing this verse comments:

 

“Óðinn’s perspective broadens now from a close focus on the ‘sacred land’ out into a more inclusive view of the universe, situating the realm of death, of frost-giants and of humans below the central point of the divine land, Yggdrasil. The gods now seem to exist above humans, not contiguous with them.”
 
[“Vafþrúðnismál and Grímnismál: Cosmic History, Cosmic Geography,” 2002]

 

Even though Snorri consistently identifies the Æsir as human beings, those who comment on the phrase mennskir menn in Grímnismál 31, traditionally interpret the phrase to mean the home of “human men”, Midgard. Yet, if we accept this reading of Grímnismál 31, we are left with a logical dilemma. Instead of one root on each of three levels, as Snorri describes, we are left with no root in heaven. According to this interpretation, one root lies in the underworld (Hel) and the other two are located on the earth-plane: Midgard, the home of “human men” and Jötunheim, the home of “frost-giants.” Outside of this verse, no known root of Yggdrasil extends to Midgard, the home of “human men.”  This dilemma has lead to many distorted picture of Yggdrasil loosely based on Snorri’s interpretation of it. 

 

 So, short of postulating a fourth root, something seems amiss. Is this verse an anomaly or can it be justified in the existing sources? Do the poems of the Edda ever inform us that living “human beings” (mennskir menn) live under a root of Yggdrasil? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes.

   

   

Ariel view of the underworld from Mary E. Litchfield's The Nine Worlds

  

Well, Well, Well

 

The Eddic poems associate each root with a well that nourishes it. From statements in the Poetic Edda, we can confirm that there are only three wells associated with the roots of Yggdrasil: Urd’s, Mimir’s and Hvergelmir. No others are mentioned.

 

Urd and her well are mentioned in Völuspá 19 and 20. Verse 20 has already been cited. Verse 19 says:

 

Ask veit ek standa,

heitir Yggdrasil,

hár baðmr ausinn

hvítaauri,

þaðan koma döggvar

þærs í dala falla,

stendr æ yfir grœnn

Urðarbrunni. 

19. An ash I know stands

named Yggdrasil,

a high tree, washed

with white clay;

from it come the dews

that fall in the valleys,

it stands ever-green

over Urd’s well.

 

 

As described above, the dead appear to gather by Urd’s well to await “full judgment” by an assembly of the gods. As Fáfnismál 15 says, all men come to Hel. the root of Yggdrasil nourished by Urd’s well appears to be that which Grímnismál 31 describes as “with Hel.” This will be confirmed as the investigation continues. That leaves the one with the “frost-giants” (hrímþursar) and the one with “living men” (mennskir menn).

 

Mimir’s well is mentioned or can be inferred in several places. It is named directly in Völuspá 28:

 

Allt veit ek, Óðinn,

hvar þú auga falt:

í inum mæra

Mímis brunni!

Drekkr mjöð Mímir

morgin hverjan

af veði Valföðrs!

Vituð ér enn, eða hvat ?   

28. I know it all, Odin,

where you hid your eye,

within Mimir’s well,

much famed.

Mimir drinks mead

every morning

from Val-father’s pledge.

Would you know more— or what? 

 

Hávamál 138-139 describe the time when Odin sacrificed an eye for a drink from Mimir’s well. Then, he hung on Yggdrasil as a sacrifice to himself and peered down into the well, before taking up runes.  The fact that he could look down while hanging, and take up runes suggests he was hung by his feet, as a sacrificial animal would be [See the work of Jere Fleck for a detailed examination of this concept] :

 

Veit ek, at ek hekk

vindga meiði á

nætr allar níu,

geiri undaðr

ok gefinn Óðni,

sjalfr sjalfum mér,

á þeim meiði,

er manngi veit

hvers af rótum renn.

 

138. I know that I hung,

On the windy tree,

nine whole nights,

wounded with a spear,

and given to Odin

me to myself

on that tree,

of which few know

from what roots it springs.

Við hleifi mik sældu
né við hornigi;
nýsta ek niðr,
nam ek upp rúnar,
æpandi nam,
fell ek aftr þaðan.

139. Bread no one gave me,

nor a drinking-horn,

I peered downward,

I took up runes,

wailing learnt them,

then fell down thence.

 

 

 

That he Odin could peer down into Mimir’s well as he hung on the Tree suggests that Mimir’s well was conceived of as located directly beneath the trunk of Yggdrasil. This probably explains why the tree also bears his name. In Fjölsvinnsmál 20, it is called Mímameiður, Mimir’s Tree. All commentators agree that it is identical with Yggdrasils Askur, vindga meiði, “the windy tree.”

 

... hvað það barr heitir, 

er breiðast um 

lönd öll limar

 

Mímameiður hann heitir, 

en það fáir vita,

af hverjum rótum rennur; 

við það hann fellur, 

er fæstan varir; 

fellir-at hann eldur né járn.

19/4-8. What is the name of the tree, 
whose branches extend 
through all the lands?

 

20. Mimir’s Tree ‘tis called;

but few men know

from what roots it springs:

it will fall by that

which fewest know.

Do it no harm—fire nor iron. 

 

 

Although there is no question that Mimir is a jötun, it is uncertian whether he is a hrím-þurs.   Snorri tells us in Gylfaginning 14 that Mimir’s well is the one with “frost-giants” (hrím-þursar), but unlike the frost-giants who seek to destroy the gods and their creation, Mimir is friendly to both the Æsir and mankind. Odin is called “Mimir’s friend” Míms vinur in Sonatorrek 23. The giant name Asviðr, ‘friend of the Aesir’(?) in Hávamál 143 has a similar ring. With Odin, he helps distribute runes.

        Váfþrudnismál 45 informs us that two human beings are preserved in a grove. They are Lif and Lifthrasir, kept safe in “Hoard-Mimir’s grove” (hoddmimis holt) so to repopulate the world after Ragnarök.  Mimir is their keeper. The prefix hodd-  means “hoard” or “treasure” and Mimir is well-known as a collector of treasures. In Völuspá 27 and 28, Mimir is said to keep both “Val-father’s pledge” and “Heimdall’s hearing” hidden beneath Yggdrasil. In the German heroic cycle of poems “Mimi der alte” is associated with treasure-making dwarves, and  in the 3rd Book of Saxo’s Danish History, the hero Hotherus travels to the underworld to obtain a sword and wealth-producing arm-ring from the “satyr” Mimmingus. Of Mimir, Váfþrudnismál says: 

 

hvat lifir manna,

þá er inn mæra líðr

fimbulvetr með firom?

 

44. …What men remain alive,

when it moves among mankind,

the infamous Fimbul-winter?

Líf ok Lifþrasir,

en þau leynaz muno

í holti Hoddmímis;

morgindöggvar

þau sér at mat hafa;

þaðan af aldir alaz.

 

45. Lif and Lifthrasir

lie hidden

in the grove of Hoard-Mimir;

the morning dews

they shall have as meat,

from them generations will spring.

  

Metaphorically speaking, Lif and Lifthrasir, are precious treasures, hidden underground and kept for a future world, like a seed which lies dormant through the final winter. This metaphor is not unique in Germanic poetry. The Anglo-Saxon poem Exodus  (l. 368) speaks of the contents of Noah’s ark in a similar fashion:

  

Niwe flodas         Noe oferlað,
þrymfæst þeoden,         mid his þrim sunum,
þone deopestan        
drencefloda

365

þara ðe gewurde         on woruldrice.
Hæfde him on hreðre         halige treowa;
forþon he gelædde         ofer lagustreamas
maðm
horda mæst,         mine gefræge.

On feorhgebeorh         foldan hæfde

370

eallum eorðcynne         ece lafe,
frumcneow
gehwæs,         fæder and moder
tuddorteondra,         geteled rime
mismicelra         þonne men cunnon,
snottor sæleoda.         Eac þon sæda gehwilc

375

on bearm scipes         beornas feredon,
þara þe under         heofonum hæleð bryttigað.

Source

Inexperienced, Noah sailed over the floods,

Glory-solid leader, with his three sons,

That deepest drowning-flood

Of any that happened in the world-kingdom. 365

He held in heart the holy troth;

On account of that he led over the ocean-streams

The greatest treasure-hoard, as I’ve learned:

Into that life-refuge he had the last remnant

Of all the earth-kin of the world, 370

The origins of the new generation, father and mother

Of womb-gathered offspring, a carefully reckoned number

Of the many species that men knew about,

The wise sea-farer. Also, every one of those seeds

In the bosom of the ship the men carried, 375

Those that under heaven men make use of.

 

 

 

  The Anglo-Saxon poetic version of Exodus 12:29-15:27 is found in The Junius Manuscript, one of the four manuscripts containing most of what remains of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Critics find it to be one of the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon epic poems, comparable to Beowulf in its artistry and narrative strength.  Anglo-Saxon renderings of biblical stories tend to recast them in terms of Germanic culture. Exodus is no exception. In Anglo-Saxon imagery, meter, and wording it retells the tales of the Israelites.  Like “Dream of the Rood” it reshapes the biblical story in the image of the Anglo-Saxon comitatic tribal values. The wording reflects Germanic culture, particularly the legal aspects of Anglo-Saxon life. Here as in Vafþrúðnismál, the parents of a new world are referred to as treasure-hoard. The human beings Lif and Lifthrasir reside in Hoard-Mimir’s grove, until the flames of Ragnarök have subsided and a new world has risen from the sea. As shown above, Mimir likely lives directly beneath the trunk of the tree that bears his name, and therefore directly below Midgard and its sea. Although he is a giant, his home is not in Jötunheim, but in Hel.

So indeed, the Eddic poems do speak of living “human beings” (mennskir menn) under one root of Yggdrasil who are not the inhabitants of Midgard. They are Lif and Lifthrasir in Hoddmimis holt. Grímnismál 31 doesn’t specify who the “human beings” under the root of Yggdrasil are. Commentators and translators have simply assumed the poet meant the inhabitants of Midgard. Some of the translations reflect this assumption. Lee Hollander for example translates this line as “'neath the third; Mithgarth's men.Clearly, this need not be the case. In Snorri’s account, Lif and Lifthrasir are said to lie hidden in Hoddmimir's Holt “during the fire of Surtr,” (í surtaloga). Snorri doesn’t tell us how or when they arrived there. The source of his information is clearly Vafþrúðnismál. he doesn’t elaborate on it. Nevertheless, some commentators have assumed that Lif and Lifthrasir must be human beings from the last age, who climb onto Yggdrasil and survive there during Ragnarök. But considering their inherent innocence and the environmental conditions of the times, we have reason to doubt this. According to Völuspá, in the last days, “great whoredom” (hórdómr mikill) reigns in the world; kinsmen slay their own and “no man shall spare another.” Yggdrasil itself shudders and flames play against the heavens. The earth is burnt and sinks into the sea. Snorri adds that prior to this three winters pass without an intervening summer. No one on the surface of the earth could survive this; and those that did certainly could not have remained innocent. I would simply observe that Vafþrúðnismál does not inform us how long Lif and Lifthrasir have been hidden. Their innocence suggests it may have been a very long time, perhaps since before the corruption of mankind. According to a variant of the final line of verse 45 contained in the Utrecht manuscript of Snorri’s Edda, Lif and Lifthrasir reside in Hodd-Mimir’s grove, “through the ages” (ok þar um alldr alaz). That Váfþrudnismál says they live on “morning dew,” supposedly at a time when the dome of the sky cracks, the sun turns black and the stars fall from the heavens seems odd, unless we understand them to have been there long before that catastrophe struck. As living examples of man in his naturally innocent state, fed on the pure morning dews, they are indeed “treasure.”

       The Eddic poems may contain other references to this place, although if so, they are allusive. Grímnismál 27, for example, lists 14 rivers flowing out of Hvergelmir which it says “wind round the hoard of the gods,” (þær hverfa um hodd goða).  That these rivers ring the hoard like a series of moats suggests that it is well protected. Since at least three of the rivers said to “wind around” this hoard are subterranean, this hodd of the gods may well be to Hodd-mimis holt, located under a root of Yggdrasil where we know other treasures such as “Val-father’s pledge” are concealed. However, in modern commentaries, the phrase hodd goða in Grímnismál 27 is commonly interpreted as a reference to the city of Asgard, defined as “a holy place, temple, sanctuary, where the holy things are hoarded.” (Cleasby-Vigfusson, s.v. hodd). This special definition, applied only to Grímnismál 27 is obviously based on Snorri’s paraphrase of the same verse in Gylfaginning 39. There he repeats the names of twelve of these rivers in the same order given in verse 27, replacing the line concerning these rivers winding around hodd goða with the phrase, “these rivers run through where the Æsir live,” (Þessar falla um ása byggðir).

 

Both the Cleasby-Vigfusson and Egilsson dictionaries incorporate Snorri’s paraphrase into their definitions of the word hodd, giving it a special meaning only applicable to Grímnismál 27. There and only there, Egilsson says that the word hodd “probably means ‘residence, homeland’” (antaga at betyde ‘bolig, hjemland’). Of this meaning, Cleasby-Vigfusson adds “of this sense, which occurs in Heliand (Schmeller), the Grímnismál 27 is the single instance left on record.” So clearly this is a scholarly attempt to reconcile Snorri’s interpretation of the word with other known usages. Yet in Heliand, the Old Saxon word horð, corresponding to the Old Icelandic hodd, is not used of a city, but merely of the holiest of holies in the Jerusalem temple. Within Heliand, Fitt 67, it says:

 

5666 an themo uuîhe innan | uuundron gistriunid
5667 hêl hangoda | -- ni muostun heliðo barn,
5668 thia liudi scauuon, | huat under themo lacane uuas
5669 hêlages behangan: | thuo mohtun an that horð sehan

 

“The colorful curtain so wonderfully woven, which for many a day had been hanging whole inside the shrine, was torn in two down the middle— people could then see the treasure hoard.”

 

 

G. Ronald Murphy explains that “the veil of the temple concealed the holy of the holies, the room which once contained the ark of the covenant. The Heliand interprets this concealed sacred possession of the Jewish people as a hidden Germanic treasure in the tradition of the last scenes of Beowulf, and the treasure of the Nibelungs hidden in the Rhine.”

The word horð  indicates only the most precious things which are concealed within a well protected sacred place, not the city as a whole.  Hodd is the Norse equivalent of the Saxon  horð. So if this interpretation is correct, it would seem that Mimir as the keeper of divine treasures, collects a hoard of wealth dear to the gods. Included among these are Lif and Lifthrasir, who are to emerge from his sacred grove beneath the Tree after the flames of Ragnarök have burnt out, just as the precious living ‘hoard’ of Noah emerges from the Ark in Hebrew scripture, to repopulate a new world. In Germanic mythology, when a new earth emerges from the sea, a new act of creation is not necessary. According to Eddic passages, Lif and Lifthrasir, as well as Baldr and Höðr who previously resided in Hel, are found on the new world. Similarly, an eagle hunts for fish in the falls, and fields sprout grain without being sown.  These precious treasures preserved from the old world, kept hidden in the earth below Yggdrasil, enrich the new world.

 

Sigrdrifumál 13-14 may also contain a reference to this place in the name Hoddrofnir:

 

Hugrúnar skaltu kunna,

ef þú vilt hverjum vera

geðsvinnari guma;

þær of réð, þær of reist,

þær of hugði Hroftr af þeim legi,

er lekit hafði ór hausi Heiðdraupnis

ok ór horni Hoddrofnis.

13. Mind-runes you must know

If you want to be

Wiser in spirit than every other man;

Hropt interpreted them,

Cut them, thought them out,

Out of the liquid that leaked

Out of the head of Heiðdraupnir,

And out of the horn of Hoddrofnir.

 

Á bjargi stóð

með Brimis eggjar,

hafði sér á höfði hjalm;

þá mælti Mímis höfuð

fróðligt it fyrsta orð

ok sagði sanna stafi

14. On the mountain he stood

with Brimir's sword,

On his head the helm he bore;

Then spoke Mimir’s head,

Wisely from the first word

And said true staves.

 

 

Jens Peter Schjødt in his work, Initiation Between Two Worlds, 2008, admits that the content of these two verses is “especially obscure and difficult to understand,” observing that “Mimir’s role is very uncertain” but that “a certain possibility appears when other elements of the Mimir-complex are considered. If the stanza says anything about Mimir, it must be because it is he who is hidden behind the names Heid-draupnir and Hodd-drofnir, which do not appear elsewhere in the mythology. These names mean respectively ‘he who drips clearly’ and ‘he who opens treasures’ or ‘treasure-breaker’ and can be connected with what we otherwise know about Mimir.”

 

Schjødt notes that had it not been for the following stanza, one would hardly think of Mimir in connection with these two names; nevertheless, the connection of a skull and horn with Mimir in other sources leaves open the possibility of placing all these referents in a semantic field with Mimir at its center. Völuspá 27 places hljóð Heimdalar (which Snorri identifies with the horn Heimdall blows at the beginning of the battle Ragnarök) in connection with Mimir’s well, and Völuspá 46 mentions both Heimdal’s horn and Mimir’s head:

 

“It is therefore important that there seems to be a certain connection between the hugrúnar, ‘mind-runes,’ of Sigr. 13/1 and the liquid from Mimir’s well together with Óðinn’s acquisition of runic wisdom.”

 

Schjødt concludes:

 

“In that case, the meaning must be that Óðinn (Hroptr) has become master of ‘mind-runes,’ which he obtained from a liquid that has dripped from Mimir’s skull (Mimir’s head) and from Mimir’s horn, which, if we follow Snorri, is identical with the Gjallarhorn.”

 

        That accounts for two of the three wells: Urd’s and Mimir’s, most likely corresponding to the roots of Yggdrasil “with Hel” and the one extending to living “human beings,” by which it seems to mean Lif and Lifthrasir concealed in Hoard-Mimir’s grove. Their existence as living beings in the land of the dead makes them noteworthy. That leaves the third root found with “frost-giants” (hrím-þursar) to account for. Hrím-þursar are well-known to be hostile to the gods and men. Not surprisingly, we find an environment conducive to their existence around the remaining well.

      The third well is only named in Grímnismál 26, where it is called Hvergelmir, “the roaring kettle.” This well and its corresponding root are alluded to several times in the Eddic poems, as are the kinds of beings who reside there. Grímnismál 34 and 35 inform us that a number of serpents lie under Yggdrasil gnawing at its roots. One in particular is named Niddhögg.

 

Ormar fleiri liggja
und aski Yggdrasils,
en þat of hyggi hverr ósviðra apa:
Góinn ok Móinn,
þeir ro Grafvitnis synir,
Grábakr ok Grafvölluðr,
Ófnir ok Sváfnir,
hygg ek, at æ skyli
meiðs kvistu má.  

 

34. More serpents lie

under Yggdrasil’s ash,

than any fool would imagine

Goin and Moin

who are Grafvitnir’s sons -

Grabak and Grafvöllud,

Ofnir and Svafnir,

will, I think, ever lacerate

that tree’s limbs.

Askr Yggdrasils
drýgir erfiði
meira en menn viti:
hjörtr bítr ofan,
en á hliðu fúnar,
skerðir Niðhöggr neðan.
 

35. Yggdrasil’s ash
suffers hardship
greater than men know;
a hart bits it above,
and it rots in its side,
Nidhögg tears it beneath.

  

Völuspá (Codex Regius 37, 38; Hauksbók 34, 35) informs us that Nidhögg can be found near a hall, woven of serpents backs whose doors face north, inside of which the damned are punished for their sins. There murderers, liars and adulterers wade in streams of venom, spewed on them by the serpents.

 

Sal sá hon standa  
sólu fjarri 
 
Náströndu á, 
 
norðr horfa dyrr.
  
Fellu eitrdropar 
 
inn um ljóra, 
 
sá er undinn salr 
 
orma hryggjum.
  

She saw a hall standing,
far from the sun,
in Náströnd;
its doors are turned northward,
venom-drops fall
in through its apertures:
entwined is that hall
with serpent’s backs.

Sá hon þar vaða 
þunga strauma
 
menn meinsvara
 
ok morðvarga
 
ok þanns annars glepr
 
eyrarúnu.
 
Þar saug Niðhöggr
 
nái framgengna,
 
sleit vargr vera -
 
vituð ér enn, eða hvat
? 

There she saw wading
sluggish streams
bloodthirsty men
and perjurers,
and him who the ear beguiles
of another’s wife.
There Nidhögg sucks
the corpses of the dead;
the wolf tears men.
Would you know more, or what?

 

In the final verse of Völuspá (R 63; H 58), we learn that Nidhögg survives Ragnarök, untouched by the fires that played against the vault of heaven as they incinerated the earth. As in the verses above, this monster is associated with the corpses of the dead (náir), which are the staple of his diet: 

 

Þar kømr inn dimmi 
dreki fljúgandi,
 
naðr fránn, neðan
 
frá Niðafjöllum.
 
Berr sér í fjöðrum
 
- flýgr völl yfir -
 
Níðhöggr nái -
 
nú mun hon søkkvask.
 

There comes the dark
dragon flying from beneath,
the glistening serpent,
from Nidi’s mountains
On his wings Nidhögg bears,
flying over the plain,
a corpse.
Now she will descend.

 

 

 

Few exact statements can be found in the Poetic Edda regarding the location of the three wells and their corresponding roots. One such passage is Hrafnagaldur Óðins 25, which locates one of Yggdrasil’s roots in the extreme north. It lists the kind of beings who make their homes there:

 

Jörmungrundar 

í jódyr nyrðra 

und rót yztu 

aðalþollar 

gengu til rekkju 

gýgjur og þursar, 

náir, dvergar 

og dökkálfar.

 

At Jörmungrund's (the great-ground’s)

northern border,

under the outermost root

of the noble tree,

went to their couches

ogresses and thurses,

corpses, dwarves,

and dark-elves.

 

 

Among the ogresses and þursar (cp. hrím-þursar, ‘frost-giants’), dwarves and dark-elves, we find the corpses of dead men (náir), the food that Nidhögg feeds on. There can be little doubt that this root is the one Grímnismál tells us is located with the hrím-þursar. Besides finding þursar  there, the name Hvergelmir associates this well with the primeval giants Thrudgelmir, Bergelmir, and their progenitor Ymir, who is called Aurgelmir by his own people according to Vafþrúðnismál 29, 30 and 35. These are the only names in the entire canon that end with the suffix –gelmir. According to Gylfaginning, Ymir himself was formed when the quick-drops of venom that flowed out of Hvergelmir met the heat rising from the south in the void of Ginnungagap.

 

The native home of these giants is the world of ice, north of Ginnungagap, known as Niflheim. In regard to this place, Völuspá informs us that those who did not follow the heathen precepts of a moral life are punished there. They wade among serpents in streams of venom and Niddhögg tears their flesh near Hvergelmir. Snorri confirms that Hvergelmir is situated in Niflheim, the primeval world of cold, situated north of the chasm Ginnungagap, which existed before Odin and his brothers created Midgard and Asgard from Ymir’s corpse.  Niflheim, the primeval world of ice, is among the oldest places in the Old Norse cosmos. As such, it remains at the lowest level of creation, corresponding to Niflhel in the order established by the Sons of Bor. So it seems that the places of punishment in the underworld are confined to its northern districts, to Nifl-hel, the mist-enveloped portion of Hel.

 

Another poetic passage which gives us information regarding the location of the wells that feed Yggdrasil is found in a loose verse composed by the Christian skald Eilífr Guðrúnarson, preserved in Snorri’s Edda, Skáldskaparmál 65. Speaking of Christ, it says:

 

kveða sitja
sunnr at Urðarbrunni,

“He is said to sit

south at Urd’s well”

 

 

The newly converted skald places Christ, rather than the Æsir in the judgment seats there.

 

If Urd’s well was originally conceived of as located in the sky, as Snorri says, the designation of “south” by an originally heathen skald would seem odd. While a world of ice exists in the north, we know from Snorri’s tale of the creation (which is largely confirmed by passages in Völuspá, Grímnismál and Vafþrúðnismál) that a world of fire exists in the far south. The fiery land is the home of Surt. The poet Eyvind Skaldaspillar refers to this place as Surts sökkdalir, “Surt’s deep dales” (Skáldskaparmál 2). At Ragnarök, Völuspá (R 51, H 44) tells us that Surt arrives from the same direction:

 

Surtr ferr sunnan

með sviga lævi,

skínn af sverði

sól valtíva.

Surt travels from the south

with the bane of branches (i.e. fire)

shines from the sword

the sun of the god(s) of the slain.

 

The southern location of Urd’s well makes it the polar opposite of Hvergelmir in the north. In contrast to Hvergelmir, from which the rivers Svöl (Cool) and the Elivogar (Icy-waves) flow, there is every indication that the waters of Urd’s well are warm. Rather than venomous serpents, such as Niddhögg, swans swim in the waters of Urd’s well. In Gylfaginning 16, Snorri informs us:

 

Fuglar tveir fæðast í Urðarbrunni. Þeir heita svanir, ok af þeim fuglum hefir komit þat fuglakyn, er svá heitir.

"Two birds feed in Urd's well. They are called swans, and from these birds has come that species of bird that has that name."

 

 

This poetic association can be confirmed in Eddic poetry to a degree. In the first verse of the poem Völundarkviða, when three swan-maidens meet the artist Völund and his brothers in the winter-cold Wolf-dales, they arrive from the south:

 

Meyjar flugu sunnan

myrkvið í gögnum,

alvitur ungar

örlög drýgja.

Þær á sævar strönd

settust að hvílast,

drósir suðrænar,

dýrt lín spunnu.

 

1. The maidens flew from the south

across Mirkwood,

foreign, young,

to fulfill fate;

there on the sea shore

they sat to rest,

the southern ladies

spun precious linen.

 

 

Of this verse, Ursula Dronke notes, “the three women spinning, fulfilling their fate, form a tableau of fate at work (by the poet’s design).” [Poetic Edda II: Mythological Poems, p. 304]. Like the Norns themselves, the swan-maidens are three in number; they spin flax on a seashore and are associated with fate. Moreover, they are 'southern ladies' and arrive 'from the south.' As shown above, Urd’s well is most likely located in the southern districts of Hel, at one end of the rainbow bridge, which has its bridgeheads there. The gods ride from their homes in Asgard daily to sit in judgment by Urd’s well. One leg of Bifrõst runs between them.

 

In Hrafnagaldur Óðins, when 'evil wights' confound the weather with magic and 'fill the air with evil' (lofti með lævi), Urd herself is appointed to protect Óðhrærir from the “mightiest winter month.”

 

 Ætlun æsir

illa gátu,

veður villtu

vættar rúnum;

Óðhræris skyldi

Urður geyma,

máttk at verja

mestum þorra.

 

2. The Æsir suspected

an evil scheme;

wights confounded

the weather with magic;

Urður was appointed

Óðhrærir's keeper,

powerful to protect it

from the mightiest winter month (þorra).

 

 

       Óðhrærir is a by-name of Mimir's well in Hávamál 140. In Snorri’s Edda, it is used as the name of one of three vessels that hold the poetic mead, the same liquid found in Mimir’s well. The trio of vessels used to contain the poetic mead is an apt metaphor for the wells themselves. In Hrafnagaldur Óðins, Odin sends Heimdal, Loki and Bragi to the underworld to gain information about this dire situation There his envoys make inquires from a woman designated as Gjallar sunnu gátt, “the post of Gjöll’s sun.” On the surface this phrase is simply a kenning for "woman." In skaldic poetry, gold is commonly designated as "fire of a body of water”, cp. Gjallar eimur). Thus “Gjöll's sun” is a paraphrase for gold. Gátt indicates a door-post and metaphorically a tree. A “tree of gold” is a standard kenning for a woman, just as a “tree of weapons” is a standard kenning for a man. Since all human beings descend from Ask and Embla, whom the sons of Bor created from wood, people are designated as trees. A gold-bearing tree is a well-adorned woman. A tree bearing weapons is a warrior. Once Odin’s envoys arrive in Hel, they ask this woman if she knows “the origin, duration, and end of heaven, of hel, and the world,” (hlýrnis, heljar, heims ef vissi ártíð, æfi, aldurtila)— appropriate questions if this woman is Urd. The use of the river-name Gjöll is well-chosen based on their location. Gjöll is the name of a river in Hel, running near the hel-gates. Hermod crosses over it on aq golden bridge on his way to visit Baldur in the underworld. The term sunna for fire is also well-chosen, as it indicates both life-sustaining warmth and may infer a southern location. In Völuspá 5, when the sun first shines over Midgard, it arrives from the south (Sól varp sunnan). Similarly, in Völuspá, when Surt arrives from the south, he wields a sword which shines like “the sun of the god[s] of the slain” (sól váltiva). So again we encounter a semantic field surrounding Urd’s well consisting of the south, the sun, swans, and heat.

 

 In Sólarljóð 51 as the deceased skald sits on the “norns’ seats nine days”, he remarks that the “giantess’ sun shone grimly through dripping-clouds” (gýgjar sól er skein grimmliga ór skýdrúpnis skýjum)  The meaning of this expression is unclear. Lee Hollander remarks that this is “a difficult passage, but there is no doubt reference to the light of another world.” (Old Norse Poems, p. 131). Might this light emit from Urd’s well itself? It seems plausible when we consider that Snorri informs us that everything that comes into contact with its water turns as white as the inner lining of an eggshell.  The Norns lave the southern root of the Tree with this water, likely explaining why the Tree is unseen by the naked eye. Its fruits are seen by night as the countless points of light on the canopy of the starry heavens. The Norns weave on the loom of the stars, plotting the lives of men in their web, "beneath the halls of the moon" (Helgakvida Hundingsbana).

 

 

 

The warm southern location of Urd’s well can be corroborated in another way. As cited above, Grímnismál 30 warns that should Thor drive over Bifröst in his thunder-chariot, the Æsir's bridge would burn and the 'holy waters' of Urd's well would ‘glow’ (hlóa).  The southern span of Bifröst is apparently too delicate to support such a powerful vehicle. In time, what Grímnismál warns against will happen. Bifröst will break when a fiery band of riders attempts to cross it. Fáfnismál 14 and 15 inform us that when Surt and his men ride to face the Æsir in battle, the bridge breaks:

 

"Segðu mér þat, Fáfnir,

alls þik fróðan kveða

ok vel margt vita,

hvé sá holmr heitir,

er blanda hjörlegi

Surtr ok æsir saman."

 

14. Tell me Fafnir,

you are said to be wise

and to know a great deal,

what is the island called

where Surt and the Æsir

will mix sword-liquor (blood) together?

 

Fáfnir kvað:

 

"Óskópnir hann heitir,

en þar öll skulu

geirum leika goð;

Bilröst brotnar,

er þeir á brú fara,

ok svima í móðu marir."

 

Fafnir said:

 

15. Óskópnir 'tis called,

and there all the gods

shall sport with spears;

Bilröst will break

as they journey away,

and their horses will swim

in the great river."

 

  

Völuspá 52 tells us that Surt comes from the south (ferr sunnan). Snorri also places the world of fire there:

 

"There was the world in the southern region called Muspell. It is bright and hot. The area is flaming and burning and it is impassable for those that are foreigners there and not native to it. There is one called Surt that is stationed there at the frontier to defend the land. He has a flaming sword and at the end of the world he will go and wage war and defeat all the gods and burn the whole world with fire."

 

In a verse by the skald Eyvind, preserved in Skáldskaparmál 9, Odin in eagle guise bears the poetic mead "flying from Surt's deep dales" (Surts sökkdalir). The term sökkdalir, 'sunken dales', suggests that Surt's realm is located in the deep south, lower than Urd's own, in a land dangerous for the gods to venture into. In Hávamál 106, Odin enters that place using an auger (rata munr) to drill a passage through solid rock; giants’ paths laid above and below. He escapes in the night with the stolen mead in the form of an eagle, pursued by one of the giants. In verse 108, Odin expresses his belief that he might not have come out of that giant's court alive, if it had not been for the help of Gunnlöd, the giant's daughter. Hávamál 13-14 inform us that when Odin was "in Gunnlöd's court," that he was "drunk, very drunk at Fjalar's." Thus Fjalar appears to be an alternate name for Gunnlöd’s father, the same giant that Hávamál 109 calls Suttung (perhaps a contraction of 'Surt-ungr,' the son of Surt). Odin arrives and steals back the store of poetic mead concealed there. Nor is Odin the only god to venture there. In Hárbarðsljóð 26, the ferryman Harbard taunts Thor saying:

 

Þórr á afl orit,

en ekki hiarta;

af hræzlo ok hugbleyði

þér var i hanzka troðit,

ok þóttiska þú þá Þórr vera;

hvárki þú þá þorðir fyr hræzlo þinni

hniósa né fisa, svá at Fialarr heyrði.

 

"Thor has strength enough,

but no heart,

in fear and cowardice

you were stuffed in a glove,

and didn't seem like Thor then;

in your terror, you dared not

sneeze or fart, lest Fjalar hear it."

 

 

 

 In Snorri's Edda, this event occurs on Thor’s way to Utgard-Loki. But instead of calling him Fjalar, Gylfaginning 47-48 informs us that another of the giant's names is Skrymir. Thor spends a night on guard in Skrymir's glove, kept awake by the giant's thunderous snoring. Later in the same story, we learn that Skrymir is also called Utgard-Loki, the 'Loki of the outer-yard'. He challenges Thor and his companions to games of skill. First Thor is bid to drink from a horn. Despite taking three draughts (as Odin did when he drained Gunnlod’s mead), Thor cannot empty the horn. Unbeknownst to him, it is connected to the sea. As the games continue, Fjalar’s nature as a fire-giant becomes apparent. He commands the servant Logi, who is wildfire itself. In an eating contest with Loki, Logi consumes not only the meat, but the trencher too. His master Utgard-Loki (Fjalar) deceives Thor and his companions with 'eye-spells', illusions akin to heat-mirages. In the last scene, when Thor finally learns the truth, the entire city fades away before his eyes and Thor is left standing on a barren plain. In all probability, the giant called Utgard-Loki, Skrymir, and Fjalar is Surt or his close kinsmen. These early interactions with Odin and Thor may explain why Surt returns with such destructive force during Ragnarök. The sources are otherwise silent on his motivation.

 

The battle of Ragnarök begins, it would seem, when the giants of Niflheim, led by Loki, break their chains, and begin to ascend the bridge toward Asgard. The Æsir meet them. Odin meets the Fenris Wolf and Thor meets his old foe the serpent Jormungand. Heimdall joins Loki in battle. In the opposite direction, Surt and his minions, ride up the southern half of the bridge toward Asgard. From what we can gather, the Vanir meet him. Surt faces Frey, and Vafþrúðnismál 17 informs us that Surt shall meet the “sweet gods,” (svaso goð) gods. Thus, the battle is probably fought on two fronts. The Æsir and Vanir each pour down one side of Bifröst to meet their foes. The Æsir meet Loki, Fenrir, Jormungand and the giants in the north. The Vanir meet Surt and his men in the south. This probably explains why both Odin and Freyja collect the fallen in their halls. Grímnismál 8 and 14 inform us that both Odin and Freyja choose half of the slain for their respective halls. During Ragnarök, these armies will follow their respective tribes into battle.

 

Our sources are consistent in placing one well in the cold north, and another in the warm south, corresponding to the primeval world of ice in the north and the primeval world of fire in the south.  That accounts for two of the three known wells: Hvergelmir in the north and Urd’s well in south. Only Mimir’s well remains.

 

 

North
Hvergelmir
Niflheim
Middle
Mimir's well
Ginnungagap
South
Urd's well
Surts Sökkdalir

 

As we have seen, Fjölsvinnsmál 20 says of Yggdrasil: 

  

Mímameiður hann heitir, 

en það fáir vita,

af hverjum rótum rennur; 

 

20. Mimir’s Tree it is called;

but few men know

from what roots it springs:

 

 

The same phrase is echoed in Hávamál 138, while in Hávamál 139, Odin says that when he hung on Yggdrasil as a sacrifice:

 

nýsta ek niðr,
nam ek upp rúnar

I peered downward,

I took up runes

 

Since a man hanged by his neck cannot peer downward and lift something with his hands, Jere Fleck has suggested that Odin hung by his feet looking straight down into Mimir’s well. This position strongly suggests that Mimir’s well stands directly below the trunk of the Tree, between Hvergelmir to the north and Urd’s well to the south. In other words, that Mimir’s well was conceived of as being located in the space between the northern world of ice and the southern world of fire, corresponding to the great chasm Ginnungagap, which existed before Bor’s sons created Midgard and Asgard. It should come as no surprise then that Snorri actually says this! In Gylfaginning 15, when speaking of the three wells that feed Yggdrasil, he writes:

 

Þrjár rætr trésins halda því upp ok standa afarbreitt. Ein er með ásum, en önnur með hrímþursum, þar sem forðum var Ginnungagap. In þriðja stendr yfir Niflheimi, ok undir þeiri rót er Hvergelmir, en Níðhöggr gnagar neðan rótina. En undir þeiri rót, er til hrímþursa horfir, þar er Mímisbrunnr, er spekð ok mannvit er í fólgit, ok heitir sá Mímir, er á brunninn.

“Three roots of the Tree support it  and extend very far: one is with the Æsir; another with the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap once was; the third stands over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nídhöggr gnaws the root from below. But under that root which turns toward the frost-giants is Mímir's Well.”

 

 

On one hand, Snorri says that Mimir’s well is the one with the frost-giants, and on the other that it is located where Ginnungagap once was. As demonstrated above, the first claim is probably based on his interpretation of Grímnismál 31. So the second claim may also be based on some poetic passage now lost to us. While we have reason to doubt that Grímnismál 31 refers to Mimir’s well as the one with “frost-giants”, we have good reason to accept Snorri’s statement that Mimir’s well is located where Ginnungagap once was as a genuine heathen tradition.  The location of Mimir’s well over Ginnungagap would logically explain the statements in Fjölsvinnsmál 20 and Hávamál 138 regarding Yggdrasil’s roots, which state: “No one knows from what root it springs.” In addition, since Odin peers down into Mimir’s well while hanging on the tree, we can surmise that Mimir’s well is located directly under the trunk of the tree. Since Hvergelmir is located in the north and Urd’s well is in the south, this would place Mimir’s well between them. This provides an equal distribution of the three wells: one in the far north, one in the far south, and one in the middle; corresponding to the original conditions of creation.    

   

© 2001 Nicky Page 

 

Located in the oldest part of creation, these wells are naturally guarded by the oldest beings in creation; and not subject to the rule of the gods. Vafþrúðnismál 31-33 tells us that the giant Ymir fathered three children:

 

Vafþrúðnir kvað:

 

Ór Élivagom

stukkoo eitrdropar,

svá óx, unz varð ór iötunn;

þar órar ættir

kómu allar saman,

því er þat æ allt til atalt.

 

Vafthrudnir said:

 

31. “Out of the Elivagor

sprang venom-drops;

so they grew until out came a giant;

From there our clan

came altogether.

Thus they are all terrifying.”

Óðinn kvað:

 

Segðu þat it siaunda,

allz þik svinnan kveða

ok þú, Vafþrúðnir, vitir,

hvé sá börn gat,

enn baldni iötunn,

er hann hafðit gýgiar gaman.

 

Odin said:

 

32. “Tell me this seventh,

since you are said to be wise,

and you Vafthrudnir know,

how he got children,

the fierce giant

without the pleasure of a giantess.”

Vafþrúðnir kvað:

 

Undir hendi vaxa

kvaðu hrímþursi

mey ok mög saman;

fótr við fæti

gat ins fróða iötuns

sexhöfðaðan son.

Vafthrudnir said:

 

33. “Under the frost-giant’s

Arm grew

girl and boy together;

foot with foot

of the wise giant begot

a six-headed son.”

 

 As two of the oldest beings in the universe, the unnamed “girl and boy” born together under Ymir’s arm are primary candidates to be Mimir and Urd. They are older than Odin and the other gods, and thus could have established their right to their wells before Odin and his brothers were born.  The sources tell us that Urd and Mimir are benevolent giants, friendly to the gods, but unquestionably more powerful than them. Odin himself is called “Mimir’s friend” (Míms vinur - Sonatorrek 23). Odin seeks Mimir’s advice and never challenges the hold he has on his well even after Mimir’s death. Likewise, the gods are subject to Urd’s degree. They too are subjects of fate and death.  Logically, Urd and Mimir existed and established their homes before Midgard was created. If so, their wells cannot be in the heavens near Asgard, or in Jötunheim on the level of the Midgard plane as Snorri states. Logic dictates they are located in the primeval world—the current underworld— which serves as the foundation for everything else. As two of the oldest beings in the universe, Mimir and Urd are likely the “boy and girl” born under Ymir’s arm. Born under his arm, they are higher beings than those born of his feet. In Hindu mythology, the various parts of the primeval giant from which the world is made, form the basis of the various castes. The higher the part of the body, relative to the giant’s feet, the higher the caste.

 

The six-headed son of Ymir begotten from the old giant’s feet is obviously of lower birth. His race remained hostile to the gods. Their homeland is in the far north where the venomous Elivagor first flowed from their headwaters in Hvergelmir. Urd and Mimir reside in warmer territory in the south. In time, other generations were born, who slew Ymir and constructed the upper worlds from his corpse.

 

In addition to Ymir, Snorri tells us that a cow named Auðumbla sprang to life in Ginnungagap. She licked a man out of the ice. His name was Burr, the first god. After him came Borr, who married the giantess Bestla and beget three sons, whom Snorri calls Odin, Ve, and Vili, probably based on Lokasenna 24, where Odin and his brothers are called Vidrir, Vili and Ve. After these three gods create Midgard, Snorri says that the “sons of Borr” walked along the sea-shore and found Ask and Embla growing as trees. The brothers endowed the trees with gifts and made them human. In Völuspá 18, the three gods creating gods are named Odin, Hoenir and Lodur. Thus, Ve and Vili are Hoenir and Lodur. Like all things in Germanic mythology, they have multiple names. Snorri informs us that together these three slew Ymir and formed the world from his corpse. Although the cow Auðumbla is unknown in Eddic and skaldic poetry, the remainder of the tale can be largely confirmed there. Grímnismál 40, 41 says:

 

 Ór Ymis holdi

var iörð um sköpuð,

en ór sveita sær,

biörg ór beinom,

haðmr ór hári,

en ór hausi himinn.

 

40. Out of Ymir’s flesh

The earth was fashioned,

And out of his sweat the sea,

mountains out of his bones,

trees out of his hair,

and of his skull, heaven.

 

 En ór hans brám

gerðo blið regin

miðgarð manna sonom;

en ór hans heila

vóro þau in harðmóðgo

ský öll um sköpuð.

41. And from his brow

The blithe powers made

Midgard for the sons of men;

And from his brain

Were the hard-tempered

Clouds all fashioned.

 

A kenning for the sea in Sonnatorrek 3 informs us that Ymir was killed by opening the veins of his neck. The sea is jötuns háls undir, “the blood gushing from the neck-wounds of the giant, i.e. Ymir. That he was decapitated and his blood drained into a basin suggests that he was sacrificed, a view supported by Indo-Europeanologist Bruce Lincoln. From Ymir’s corpse, the sons of Borr built a structure on the foundation of the oldest world. Völuspá 4 and 17 refer to Midgard as a hall (salr) and a house (húsi), respectively. It rests firmly on the foundation of the underworld.

The design of this structure was most likely imagined to be a lúðr or "mill-box." Various references speak of a mill grinding out sand at the bottom of the sea, causing the tides and the rotation of the starry firmament. In mythological terms, Ymir's skull, the dome of heaven, sits on the mill-wheel causing the revolution of the constellations, necessary for timekeeping and navigation. It is a slow and steady motion. Vafthrudnismal informs us that the flesh and bones of the primeval giant Ymir were transformed into rocks, pebbles, and soil. It does not tell us the mechanism by which this is done. That Ymir's corpse was ground on a mill can be inferred from the fate of his grandson Bergelmir, whom Vafthrudnir says was "laid upon lúðr." The only reason to be laid on a mill, of course, is to be ground. The framework of the lúðr, resting on the foundation of the lower world, best explains the three-tier structure of the universe:

 

  Canopy of Yggdrasil
Asgard
 
   
Midgard

Jötunheim
Hel Niflhel
Urd's Well Mimir's Well Hvergelmir

 

The 'house' or 'hall' of the world imagined as a lúðr

 

The mill-box, where the grain collects is the basin of the sea. Ymir's blood pools here, forming the ocean that rings the world. Midgard is an island in its midst, built of Ymir's flesh and bones.  Völuspá says: 

 

Áður Bors synir

bjöðum um ypptu,

þeir er Miðgarð

mæran skópu;

sól skein sunnan

á salar steina,

þá var grund gróin

grænum lauki.

 

4. Once Bor’s sons

raised the land,

they who fashioned

glorious Midgard;

the sun shone from the south

on the hall of stones,

then the ground was green

with growing leeks.

Uns þrír kómu

úr því liði

öflgir og ástkir

æsir að húsi,

fundu á landi

lítt megandi

Ask og Emblu

örlöglausa. 

17. …Until three came

Mighty and loving

Æsir to the house.

They found on land,

with little might

Ask and Embla

without destiny.

 

When Odin and his brothers first find Ask and Embla growing as trees on Midgard near the shore they are without destiny, but upon becoming human beings in Völuspá 18, the following verses inform us that Urd and her sisters begin to “lay down laws, and determine the fate of men.” Already established, “beneath the tree”, Urd and her sisters must have existed before the upper worlds were created.  Surely, they did not wait for Odin and his brothers to create Midgard and Asgard before establishing their home. If so, why are even the Æsir subject to fate?  The same goes for Mimir— surely, Odin could not have completed his most important works, before he obtained a drink of Mimir’s sacred well. Hávamál 140-141:

 

Fimbulljóð níu

nam ef af inum frægja syni

Bölþorns, Bestlu föður.

Og eg drykk of gat

ins dýra mjaðar,

ausin Óðreri.

 

140. Nine mighty songs

I took from the wise son

of Bölthorn, Bestla’s father.

And I got a drink of

the precious mead,

poured from Óðrerir.

Þá nam eg frævast

og fróður vera

og vaxa og vel hafast,

orð mér af orði

orðs leitaði,

verk mér af verki

verks leitaði.  

141. Then I began to thrive

and be wise,

to grow and prosper,

word to me of word

words directed,

work to me of work

works directed.

 

When Odin got a drink of the mead poured from Mimir’s well, only then did he begin to thrive and prosper. Only then could he have participated in creating such enduring wonders as Midgard and the human race. If so, then Mimir must have established his claim on the well some time before Midgard and Jötunheim were created. Perhaps to indicate the early date of this event, Hávamál 140 informs us that Odin obtained this precious drink from the previous generation, from “the son of Bestla’s father” that is from Bestla’s brother. Bestla is Odin’s mother. Since Odin obtained this drink from Mimir, that would make Mimir Odin’s maternal uncle. In that case, Bölthorn, like Aurgelmir, is simply another name for Ymir. In Germania, Tacitus informs us that the relationship between a man and his mother’s brother is sacred. The mythology appears to bear this out. This relationship opens up the very real possibility that Mimir’s sister— Odin’s mother, Bestla— is Urd herself or a very close relative. The surviving sources are silent on the matter.

   

Midgard is thus conceived of as an island, floating in the Ocean. The island is circled by the World-Serpent biting its own tail. To the north and east of Scandinavia, it is separated from Jötunheim [The Arctic region] by an icy channel known as the White Sea, where the head of the Midgard Serpent can be found, spewing forth its cold venom (as when Thor goes fishing in Hymiskvida). The Ocean is contained in a giant mill-box (luðr), which rests on Jormungrund, the Great Foundation. The World-Mill spins at the bottom of the sea, churning the waves and rotating the starry canopy of heaven above. Ymir's skull rests on the edges of the upper mill-stone. The eye of the mill-stones are located above Hvergelmir, the great fountain in the north part of Jormungrund called Niflhel or Niflheim. Thus sailing from any point on Midgard would result in reaching the edge of the great mill-box and arriving on the shores of the underworld below Midgard: either Niflhel in the north (Home of Hvergelmir the mother of all waters) near Bifrost's northern Bridgehead guarded by Heimdall or Hel, the warm, green lands in the south (Home of Urd's well and the Thingstead of the gods at Bifrost's southern bridgehead.

   

See Also:

The World-Mill at the Bottom of the Sea

  

    

Carla O'Harris and Siegfried Goodfellow present

A map of the Underworld

   

        

Nicky Page Presents

a Map of the Underworld

   

 
     
  And finally,
Here is an illustration of the same concept.
Notice the placement of Urd's well.

 
 
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