(Gylfaginning 15) "The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its
branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky.
Three of the tree's roots support it and extend very, very far.
One is among the Æsir, the second among the frost-giants, where
Ginnungagap once was. The third extends over Niflheim, and under
that root is Hvergelmir, and Nidhogg gnaws the bottom of the
root. But under the root that reaches towards the the
frost-giants, there is where Mimir's well is, which has wisdom
and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is
called Mimir. ...The third root of the ash extends to heaven,
and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called
Weird's well (Urd's well). There the gods have their court.
Every day the Æsir ride there up over Bifrost. It is called
As-bridge. The names of the Æsir's horses are as follows: best
is Sleipnir, he is Odin's, he has eight legs. Second is Glad,
third Gyllir, fourth Glær, fifth Skeidbrimir, sixth Silfrintopp,
seventh Sinir, eight Gils, ninth Falhofnir, tenth Gulltopp,
Lettfeti, eleventh, Baldr's horse was burned with him. And Thor
walks to the court and wades rivers whose names are:
"Kormt and Ormt and two Kerlaugs,
these shall Thor wade every day
when he is to judge at the ash Yggdrasil,
or As-bridge burns all with flame, the
holy waters boil." [GRM 29]
Clearly Snorri based the structure of his cosmology,
in large part, on his
Grímnismál 29-31. He cites or paraphrases
verses 26-31 in this part of Gylfaginning, embellishing their
allusive information with additional details. Concerning the
roots of Yggdrasil,
Grímnismál 31 informs us:
31. Þriár rætr standa
á þriá vega
undan aski Yggdrasils;
Hel býr undir einni,
þriðio mennzkir menn.
Three roots stand
on three ways
under Yggdrasil's ash;
Hel dwells under one,
human men, a third.
The quote from Gylfaginning 15 above demonstrates that Snorri understands
the verse in this manner:
"Three of the tree's roots support it and
extend very, very far. One is among the Æsir, the second among
the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap once was. The third extends
over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir."
Unless we postulate the existence of
additional roots and wells, something we have no evidence for,
or reduce the three roots and wells mentioned throughout our
sources into a single formation, [scholars have put forth both
proposals] the two sources correspond thus:
|The root with Hel
||in Niflheim and
the spring Hvergelmir
|The root with
and Mimir's well
|The root with Human Men
||The human Æsir at Urd's well
One well is associated with
each of the three roots. According to the larger passage
cited above, in Snorri's interpretation of Grímnismál 31, Mimir's well corresponds to the root
of Yggdrasil located "with the
frost-giants." In Gylfaginning 5, Snorri places the well
Hvergelmir in Niflheim, which in his understanding corresponds to the root "with
Hel" in Grimnismál 31. Thus the remaining root and its corresponding well must, as
Grímnismál 31 tells us lie "with human men." according
to the internal logic of Gylfaginning,
this must be Urd's well located in the heavens. This is
possible because in his conception,
the Æsir are human beings from
who came to the northern part of the world, and presented
themselves as gods to the natives there. They are such skillful
magicians that they build a bridge to heaven, where they find
(Gylfaginning 9): "When the sons of Borr
were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and
took up the trees and shaped men of them: ...They gave them
clothing and names: the male was called Askr, and the female
Embla, and of them was mankind begotten, which received a
dwelling-place under Midgard. Next they made for themselves in
the middle of the world a city which is called Ásgard; men call
it Troy. There dwelt the gods and their kindred; and many
tidings and tales of it have come to pass both on earth and
aloft. There is one abode called Hlidskjálf, and when Allfather
sat in the high-seat there, he looked out over the whole world."
(Gylfaginning 14) "...What did All-father (Odin) do then,
when Asgard was built? High spoke: 'In the beginning he
established rulers and bade them decide with him the destinies
of men and be in charge of the government of the city. It was in
the place called Idavoll in the centre of the city. It was their
first act to build the temple that their thrones stand in,
twelve in addition to the throne that belongs to the All-father.
This building is the best that is built on earth and the
After establishing the city of
Asgard at the center of the world, the human Aesir embark on a
more ambitious endeavor:
(Gylfaginning 13) "Has no one ever told you that
the gods built a bridge to heaven from earth called Bifröst? You
must have seen it, maybe it is what you call the rainbow.'
(Gylfaginning 15) "Then said Gangleri:
'Does fire burn over Bifröst?' Hárr replied: 'That which thou
seest to be red in the bow is burning fire; the Hill-Giants
might go up to heaven, if passage on Bifröst were open to all
those who would cross. There are many fair places in heaven, and
over everything there a godlike watch is kept. A hall stands
there, fair, under the ash by the well, and out of that hall
come three maids, who are called thus: Urdr, Verdandi,
places Asgard "on earth" and Urd's well "up in the heavens."
Using Grímnismál 29 and 30 as support, he asserts that Bifröst
stretches between them. Thus the rainbow bridge connects earth
and the heaven, forming a path between Asgard and Urd's well. The human Aesir ride their horses across
this bridge daily
to sit in council by Urd's well, with the exception of Thor
who walks. His path is not explained, other than to repeat the
information found in
Grímnismál 29 that he must wade through
four rivers. The courses of these rivers are left unexplained.
conception, the city of
is located on earth and Urd's well is in the heavens. Oddly, he
places Hlidskjalf, the throne from which Odin can see out over
all the world, on earth, in Asgard. Still, most all of those who
have chosen to illustrate this concept have not drawn that
conclusion. Instead they place both Asgard and Urd's well in the
heavens, yet still depict Bifröst as a connection between the
earth and heaven. This is not in agreement with Snorri's text.
The fact remains, Snorri expressly conceives of Asgard
as an earthly city:
(Prologue to Gylfaginning): "In that part of the world [Asia]
is all beauty and splendour and wealth of earthly produce, gold
and jewels. The middle of the world is there too, and just as
the earth there is more beautiful and better in all respects
than in other places, so too mankind there was most honoured
with all blessings, wisdom and strength, beauty and every kind
of skill. Near the middle of the world was constructed that
building and dwelling, which was called
We call the land there
This place was built much larger than others and with greater
skill in many respects, using the wealth and resources available
there. Twelve kingdoms were built and one high king, and many
countries were subject to each kingdom. The twelve rulers of the
kingdoms were superior to other people who have lived in the
world in all human qualities."
"...Wodan, it is he whom we call
Odin. He was an outstanding person for wisdom and kinds of
accomplishments. His wife was called Frigida, whom we call
Frigg. Odin had the gift of prophecy and so did his wife, and
from this science he discovered that his name would be
remembered in the northern part of the world and honored above
all kings. For this reason he was eager to set off from
and took with him a very great following."
"Odin went north to what is now
...Odin found the conditions in the country attractive and
selected as a site for his city the place which is now called
Sigtunir. he also organized rulers there on the same pattern as
had been in
set up twelve chiefs in the place to administer the laws of the
when the Æsir leave the city of Troy and migrate to Sweden, they
establish a new city on the pattern of the old one. While some
commentators distinguish between the two cities as an "old" and
a "new" Asgard, Snorri places both of them on earth.
Throughout Gylfaginning, Snorri does not place Asgard in the heavens.
Instead he has the gods ride "up" over Bifröst and establish a
thingstead, and a few halls there. This is built on the model of
the Icelandic Thing, where people established temporary
residences near the Thingstead site, during the time it was in
session. Snorri names the halls found there:
"Then spoke Gangleri: 'You are able to give a great deal
of information about the heavens. What other chief centres are
there besides the one at Urd's well?'
High said: 'Many splendid halls are there. There is one
place that is called Alfheim. ...One place there is called
Briedablik, and no fairer place is there. Also there is one
called Glitnir ...There is also a place called Himinbjorg. It
stands at the edge of heaven, at the bridge's end (literally sporðr:
'fish-tail') where Bifrost reaches heaven. There is also a place
called Valaskalf. This place is Odin's. ...And when All-father
sits on that throne he can see over all the world."
Here Snorri duplicates the same
information from Gylfaginning 9. According to him, Odin has
two thrones over which he can see the world. One called
Hlidskjalf located in Asgard, which men call Troy, and one
called Valaskjalf up in heaven, near Urd's well. And, if we take
this information at face value, we encounter another internal
Grímnismál 30, Snorri informs us that the gods ride
their horses across Bifröst daily. Their journey takes them from
their homes in Asgard, upward to the thingstead and their
temporary residences near Urd's well. Snorri places Heimdall's
home, Himinbjörg, there at the very edge of heaven "at the
bridges's end, where Bifröst meets heaven. the names of these
horses, according to Snorri are the same as those in Grímnismál
30. They are: Glad, Gyllir, Glær, Skeidbrimir, Silfrintopp,
Sinir, Gils, Falhofnir, Gulltopp, Lettfeti. To this list Snorri
adds Odin's horse Sleipnir, remarking that Baldur's horse was
burned with him.
For the most part, which gods ride which of these horses is
not known. Most of the names appear only here and in þular
of horse-names based on the same verse. Of these horse-names, only one is clearly associated
with a god. That is Gulltop. Snorri informs us that:
(Gylfaginning 26): "There is one called Heimdall.
he is known as the white As. He is great and holy. Nine maidens
bore him as their son, all of them sisters. He is also called
Hallinskidi and Gullintanni: his teeth were of gold. His horse
is called Gulltop."
And when he describes the scene of
Balder's funeral pyre, he remarks:
(Gylfaginning 49) "This burning was attended by beings of many
different kinds: firstly to tell of Odin, that with him went
Frigg and valkyries and his ravens, while Freyr drove in a
chariot with a boar called Gullinbursti, or Slidrugtanni. But
Heimdall rode a horse called Gulltopp, and Freyja her cats."
So, according to Snorri's understanding
of Grímnismál 30, the gods have their homes in Asgard on earth, and
ride "up" into the heavens daily, over Bifröst, where they sit in
council by Urd's well. To arrive there, the gods ride their
horses over the bridge. Among these horses is Heimdall's steed,
Gulltop. But, according to Snorri, Heimdall's home is located in heaven.
Thus, for Heimdall, the daily ride from earth to heaven appears
to be a journey home each day. Why would ancients have Heimdall stay away from home
each night, only to return to his abode in the company of the
gods by day? Can this really be what the heathen poet who
composed Grímnismál 30 intended or is it Snorri himself who has
misunderstood the meaning?
Based on the frequency of logical errors in the cosmology as
presented by Snorri, we should begin to suspect that something
is amiss. While we can confirm some of what Snorri says
regarding the mythic cosmology, too many pieces don't fit and
must be rationalized, most often in favor of Snorri's vision.
Since the Eddaic poems are Snorri's acknowledged source,
shouldn't this be the other way around? Shouldn't the
information found in the older heathen poems take precedence
over Snorri's later interpretations of them? Sadly, this has not
been the case since the inception of Eddic scholarship in the
late 17th century.
Lest anyone label this "Snorri-bashing", I simply wish to
point out that most all mainstream scholars today question
Snorri's understanding of the older poetic material he sought to
SO WHERE ON EARTH IS ASGARD?
statements in his Edda, which are internally consistent,
Snorri most likely understood the three roots of
Yggdrasill described in Grímnismál 31 and their corresponding
wells in the following manner:
Mimir's well — "with the frost-giants", the citizens of
Jotunheim to the east of Midgard and thus on the level of the
Hvergelmir — "with Hel", the underworld as a local and a
personal name, and thus on the level of the lower world.
Urd's well — with "human men," by which he means the
Æsir themselves, who gather at Urd's well daily. Throughout his
Edda, Snorri maintains that the Aesir are human beings who build
a bridge to heaven, and fool the people of the north into
believing they are gods. Clearly, this is not the understanding
of the heathen poets. Snorri places Asgard on earth, and places
Urd's well in the heavens. Thus, the root with "human men" in
Snorri's understanding, is the root extending to heaven.
It must be noted that nowhere in the
corpus of Eddic and skaldic poetry are the gods referred to as "human men"
(mennskir menn). Thus, one can
rightly ask, was this the heathen poet's understanding of Grímnismál 31, or is
this interpretation unique to Snorri Sturluson?
While the Eddic and skaldic poems never
expressly tell us where Asgard is located, we can be fairly sure
it was not located on the face fo the earth. That Odin can
survey the entire world from his throne is a strong indication
of that. While in verse
21 of Egill Skallagrímsson’s
skaldic poem Sonatorrek, the poet’s son is said to have gone
upp í Goðheim (‘up into the
world of the gods’).
In agreement with the surviving poetic
sources, I contend that in the genuine heathen understanding of
this passage, the wells and their corresponding roots are
best understood in the following manner:
Grímnismál 31 says:
standa á þría vega
undan aski Yggdrasils;
Hel býr und einni,
þriðju mennskir menn.
stand on three ways
under Yggdrasil's ash;
Hel dwells under one,
human men (mennskir menn),
These three locations can be explained simply and naturally in the system outlined in the
first part of this essay. Within the framework of that interpretation,
this verse most likely meant to a heathen ear:
"The three roots of Ygggrasil's ash are
located in three directions below the world-tree,
"Hel dwells under one":
Hel is the warm southern part of the lower world, ruled over by
Urd. Swans swim in its waters. The gods arrive there daily to
sit in judgment of men's souls. Therefore, Urd is the personal
Hel; the goddess of Death is the goddess of Fate. Loki's
daughter, who does not appear in Eddic poetry, is a side-figure
to her, a messenger of death by disease. Her proper sphere is
"Rime-giants under another":
This is the cold well Hvergelmir, the mother of waters, that
flows from Niflheim in the earliest days, Grímnismál 28.
Hrafnagaldur Ódins 25 informs us that thurses, ogresses, dead
men and dark elves dwell by the northern root of Yggdrassil. All
of these beings are denizens of Niflhel. Grímnismál 34-35
places biting serpents here. Völuspá 36 speaks of a hall to the
north wattled of serpents' backs, where evil men are punished.
The frost-giants are the primeval thurses. Saxo knows that when
giants die they go to Niflhel. He locates the dead giant Geirrod
and his daughters there (Danish History, Book 8).
"with human men, a third" refers
to Lif and Lifthrasir in Hodd-Mimir's (Hoard-Mimir's) grove,
Vafþrúðnismál 44. Mimisholt is the archetypal sacred grove
located at the center of the universe on its oldest layer.
Yggdrassil grows up from here. Thus it is called "Mimir's Tree."
Mimir is the collector of treasures. His home is also referred
to as hodd-goða, "the hoard of the gods" in
Grímnismál 28. The
underworld rivers wind around it. The lower world is the
common home of dead men. The fact that we find "human (i.e.
living) men" in the underworld is remarkable. These living men
clearly belong to Óðains-akre, the acre of the not-dead,
well-known from Icelandic folklore. They are humans kept as
treasures for a future day, saved to repopulate the world, when
the upper worlds have been burned away by Surt's fire. Snorri
informs us that Mimir's well lies where "Ginnungagap once was"—
between a world of ice and a world of fire. It is the temperate
spot where all life originated.
Since the beginning
of Eddic scholarship in the mid-1660s, scholars have tried to depict the Old Norse cosmos as Snorri describes it.
The task is a
difficult one. Here are several historic efforts. Notice
the placement of the three roots of Yggdrasil in each drawing, as
well as where the ends of Bifröst are located.
As you view the following
illustrations, ask yourself:
||—What are the Nine Worlds and where
is each one located?
—Would Bifröst appear as a natural rainbow, if viewed
—Do these images, based on Snorri's text, agree with
what Snorri actually says?
Perhaps the oldest illustration of Yggdrasil, this comes from
a 17th century manuscript of Snorri's Edda known as
AM 738 4to or "Edda Oblongata"
This is a general representation of Yggdrassil
as described in
There is no indication here where
Asgard, Midgard or Hel are located.
1825 Finnur Magnússon
Eddalæren og dens Oprindelse
The first systemized drawing of Old
Norse cosmology appears on page 340. These
illustrations demonstrate that
Finnur was the first modern scholar to systemize the
This is an iconic image, often
reproduced. Notice that the rainbow bridge is
depicted vertically, stretching from Asgard to Hel,
and bypassing Midgard altogether. Two branches of
the tree cradle Midgard and a third penetrates the
earth and rises above Asgard.
the text (pp. 184 ff.) we can see that he locates the
worlds in the following manner:
Special Thanks to Terry Gunnell for pointing out
the source of these images.
THE NINE WORLDS
I. Ljósalfaheimr: Home of the Light-elves.
Location of the palace Gimli, ruled by Surt. The
heaven Vidblainn arches over this world.
II. Muspell of Muspellsheimr, world of fire,
inhabited by Muspels sons. The heaven Andlang
arches over this world.
III. Godheim, the æther or starry heavens.
This is Asgard, the home of the gods and the
location of the palaces Valhall and Vingolf.
IV. Vanaheim, home of the air- and sea-gods,
also called Vindheim (Home of the Winds). This
is the Earth's Atmosphere.
V. Manheim, dwelling place of human beings. Also
called Midgard. It is the located in the middle
of the worlds.
VI. Jötunheim, home of the giants, also called
VII. Svartalfaheimr, the home of Dark or Black
elves, lies deep in the earth.
VIII. Helheim, Hel's home, the realm of death or
Earth is the heaven of Helheim.
IX. Niflheim, Mist or Cloud-Home, lies at the
bottom of the entire system of worlds.
Hence flow the Elivagor rivers from the well
Hvergelmir. On the outer edge is found the
Nastrond, the corpse-beach. Here the dragon
Nidhug gnaws the roots of the Tree.
then draws comparisons
with other Indo-European
The Nordic cosmology is depicted in the upper left hand
Gustav T. Legis
Fundgruben des Alten Nordens
This appears to be the second attempt to
systematically depict the 9 worlds. The
illustration and accompanying text appeared as a folded
page in the back of the book.
Notice that Muspellheim is located
above Liósalfaheim and Asgard; and that Niflheim is placed below Helheim or Niflhel.
Udáins-akr (the Acre of the Not-Dead) is located beyond
the World Sea (Welt Meer) on the middle plane, and
Glasor (Glasir in Snorri's Edda) is
located outside of Asgard.
This illustration does not appear in the original French
or in the English translations of 1770 or 1809. First
published in 1847, it was painted by
Oluf Olufsen Bagge (1780-1836), apparently modeled on
the image of Yggdrassil from the book by Finnur Magnússon
1871 A.& E. Keary
The Heroes of Asgard
Illustrations by Huard
Notice that in the drawings immediately above
the rainbow is depicted as a full arch with
bridgeheads beyond the sea.
Above, the branches of the tree seem to arch over Midgard.
The tree trunk extends through Midgard and up above Asgard.
Frederich Wilhelm Heine
Here, the branches of
the tree appear to cradle Midgard
and then arch up over Asgard forming a kind
of tuft at the top.
Niflhel is represented by a tripartate root
entwined by a serpent.
The instinct to create a visual depiction of
Snorri's account is
alive and well.
Oddly, some artists place the roots under the worlds,
while others place the worlds below the roots.
The following images were gathered from the internet.
I have identified the
artists when possible:
In the picture below, the various
worlds seem to be placed
in the branches of the Tree, and the root system is located beneath Hel.
The "worlds" appears as a series of independent flat discs:
In the first image below,
Asgard is depicted as a two part plain, ringing the trunk of the
Tree. This would seem to satisfy the claim that Bifrost ran from
Asgard to Urd's well, (from one part of heaven to another part
of heaven apparently), since we are told the gods rode there
daily (Grímnismál 29-30). Yet, we are still supposed to believe
that the Bifrost bridge also extends to earth.
branch out into 3 ways at the same level as Midgard.
One root of Yggdrasil spirals upward toward heaven from
another delves deeper into Niflhel, and a third penetrates the earth
and reappears rising from the which rings the world in which the
Midgard Serpent swims, biting its own tail. The root rises from
the waters, and extends itself into Jotunheim, presumably into
Mimir's well, according to Gylfaginning.
In the next two pictures, the entire trunk and canopy of the tree are
located above Asgard,
while only the roots descend into the worlds below:
In this one, by
Elías Snæland Jónsson, author of Valkyrjunnar and
Two roots extend down past the Asgard plane, Midgard, and
another to Niflheim.
The entire tree
trunk and canopy are located above Asgard.
In the image below by
Dietwald Doblies, the tree trunk and canopy
also rise high above Asgard.
Midgard rests on a plate of ice.
Hel and Niflhel appear as two distinct
and Bifrost extends from Asgard to Midgard:
image below by Miguel Coibra, the entire root system is located
Bifrost appears to extend vertically from Asgard to Midgard:
Two crude illustrations from Auden & Taylor's translation of
the Poetic Edda
also depict the trunk and branches of Yggdrasil above the
Together, these two diagrams make it apparent
that Asgard and Midgard
are located on the same plane,
separated by the ocean.
Bifrost forms a natural arch extending over
the sea between Asgard and Midgard.
Asgard is located on the same plane as
Jötunheim and Muspelheim.
Map of the Nine Worlds as depicted in
the fantasy series
Runemarks by JoAnne Harris,
the roots are located in Hel:
In the images
above, notice that all the artists seem to have had trouble placing
in relation to the worlds, and each treat the matter in their own unique
Although they are all based on
Snorri's text, the sheer number of varieties is
If you think about it rationally, Snorri's
description doesn't make much sense.
The proof is that artists have been unable to accurately depict
it for over two centuries now. Certainly, something is amiss.
Could the ancient sea-faring Scandinavians really have had such a
confused vision of the world and their place in it and still have been able to successfully navigate
CAN THERE BE
ANOTHER WAY TO INTERPRET THE SAME DATA?
Yes, there is— by examining the statements in the
drawing a map independently.
For the results of such an examination, see
In the 20th century, at the dawn of
the Space Age, the interpretation
of the Old Norse heimar,
as 'worlds' seems to have taken on new meaning.
Now these heimar
are commonly envisioned as individual 'worlds' or planets,
denoted by a more spherical shape. This concept becomes more
pronounced with the passing of time.
In the drawing
below notice that Muspell, Surt's realm, is located above Niflhel.
Niflhel and Niflheim are labeled separately.
Branches of the tree appear to descend into Midgard and Niflhel.
Asgard and Urd's well are located in the same place,
but Bifröst stretches
between the Asgard plain and the sea surrounding Midgard.
Grímnismál 29-30 and Snorri say
the gods ride over Bifröst
to sit in judgment at Urd's well.]
From an unknown German publication.
The title reads:
"The Plan of the Nine Worlds (Spheres)"
Notice that Vanaheim and Alfheim are given their own spheres, and
the world of men is given two: Munarheim
('World of Friendship and Love")
and Midgard/Manaheim ("World of Human Beings").
Munarheim and Midgard sit one above the
Niflheim is shown as a disc above Hel.
Hvergelmir, indicated by the snake twisted around the root,
is located in Utgard, home of the giants,
and Urd's well is located at the lowest level under Muspellheim.
The drawing below is from a Finnish publication:
Here the entire world is spherical with the divine regions
lying in the space outside the globe.
Midgard, Jötunheim, Hvergelmir and Nidavellir all lie on the same
Only Niflheim lies below.
This one is from
The Book of Runes
by Frances Melville (2003):
In this view, each heim is a
separate planet, with a
root of its own.
Bifrost stretches from Asgard to a root between Midgard and
This illustration by Katherine Girdaukas
accompanies a translation of
Here, Yggdrasil seems to sit upon a dome over
Midgard rests on the coils of the snake below
Below is a
highly detailed worldview from a German website
The caption reads "The World of the Edda":
How would Bifröst look to an observer
standing on the surface of Midgard?
Notice the location of Thrudvang, Thor's home.
Also, note the placement of Mimir and Urd's wells in the lower
This map of the 9 worlds was published
by Marvel Comics,
publisher of 'The Mighty Thor', in 1988:
The visible structure of the tree is located
entirely above Asgard.
Notice the placement of Nidavellir (home of the dwarves) in the
Once again, Bifröst stretches between Asgard and Midgard without
extending to Urd's well.
Midgard is an earth-like sphere.
The other worlds appear as a series of