Yggdrasil | Norse Mythology


Yggdrasil, Old Norse meaning: World Ash, is the name of a giant ash tree in Norse mythology, which embodies the entire cosmos as a world tree. Other names of this tree were probably Mimameid or Lärad.

Yggdrasil in the Edda

In the Edda, after the gods killed the primordial giant Ymir, according to myth, they create all existing things from his corpse. The world ash tree Yggdrasil is the first tree to grow. It is the largest and most magnificent tree in the world.

Its branches spread over all nine worlds and stretch across the sky. An eagle without a name sits in its branches, and between its eyes is a hawk called Vedrfölnir.

Yggdrasil has three great roots, one of which grows to Jötunheim, the land of the giants, where Mimir's well is located. The other root leads to Niflheim to the spring Hvergelmir, where the dragon Nidhögg gnaws at it.

The third root is found near Asgard. The squirrel Ratatöskr always climbs between the treetop and roots, spreading ill rumors from the eagle to the dragon.

Four stags named Dain, Dwalin, Dunneir and Durathror eat the sprouts of the world ash tree. The two serpents Goin and Moin, descended from Grafwitnir (Grave Wolf), gnaw at the roots of Yggdrasil.

Under the branches of the tree the gods hold court. At the foot of Yggdrasil also lies the Urdwell, where the three Norns Urd (that which has become), Werdandi (that which is to become) and Skuld (that which is to come) have their seat, determining the fate of mankind. When Yggdrasil begins to quake (or wither), the end of the world Ragnarok approaches.

Structure of Yggdrasil

In the Eddic literatures certain mythical places are assigned to one of the worlds. In no place, however, is it enumerated what the names of the nine worlds embodied by Yggdrasil are. In total, more world names are mentioned than nine.

The below mentioned division into three levels and the naming of the nine worlds is therefore a purely modern reception, which is not represented in the research in such a way any more, but outside of it still finds much approval.

1. Upper world

  • Asgard: Home of the Aesir gods.
  • Hlidskialf: High seat of the allfather Odin.
  • Folkvangr (Field of the People) and Valhalla (Hall of the Fallen): Places of heroes who died in battle.
  • Vingólf (roughly the friendly house): Seat of the Aesir goddesses.
  • Bifröst: the rainbow bridge connecting Asgard and Midgard.
  • Vanaheim: Home of the Vanir gods.
  • Alfheim: Home of the light elves.

2. Earth

  • Midgard: Home of the humans.
  • Jötunheim: Home of the ice giants.
  • Utgard: The Outer World
  • Muspellsheim: Home of the fire giants.

3. Underworld

  • Svartalfheim: Home of the dwarves and dark elves.
  • Niflheim: Realm of ice, fog and darkness.
  • Hvergelmir: Origin of all rivers.
  • Helheim: Realm of the dead and the goddess Hel.

Yggdrasil's Symbolism 

Yggdrasil, the world ash tree, is the embodiment of creation as a whole: in space, time and in substance. He is the world tree, because he stands in the center of the world and connects all worlds with each other.

As world axis (axis mundi) it connects the three levels heaven, middle world and underworld. As a pillar of heaven it supports the vault of heaven. The Edda also calls it the measuring tree.

The world reaches only as far as its branches and roots reach, and creation exists only as long as he exists: a symbol of space-time. Yggdrasil is also a symbol of life itself and of passing and becoming, the renewal of life.

The animals on the tree take from its life force, the three Norns sprinkle it with the sacred water of the Urd well and give it new life force again and again.

Because Yggdrasil's form of life is always renewed, or because Yggdrasil is evergreen, the world ash tree is also a symbol of immortality. Through Odin's self-sacrifice, Yggdrasil becomes a sacrificial tree.

Since Odin hangs himself on the tree to gain the secret knowledge at the roots of Yggdrasil, one can also see in Yggdrasil a knowledge tree through which one reaches the secret knowledge.

Ancient Cults of Trees

In view of the numerous Germanic tree cults, it is probable that among the Germanic tribes certain physical trees represented the mythical world tree.

However, they need not necessarily have been ash trees. The Dona oak, the Irminsul, or the sacred tree in Uppsala, Sweden, reported by Adam von Bremen in the 11th century, may have been cultic equivalents of Yggdrasil. They are to be considered in conjunction with Yggdrasil. From the Baltic Pruzes such a cult site in Romove has been handed down.

According to the Edda, Yggdrasil is the meeting place of the gods. Here they gather, deliberate and hold court. Since the conditions in the world of the gods often mirror earthly conditions, it can be assumed that the Germanic Thing took place at or near an embodiment of the world tree.

Presumably it was accompanied by rituals. In Germanic times, the religious and the legal were not yet separated. The court trees of the Middle Ages (in Germany oaks and lime trees) could be an echo of the old times.

Animal and human sacrifices are reported from the sacred tree in Uppsala. The Irminsul is interpreted as a pillar of heaven and axis of the world.

Etymology of Yggdrasil

The name Yggdrasil, Old Norse Yggdrasill, is probably composed of Old Norse yggr "fear", "terror", "terrible" and Old Norse drasill "horse".

Some interpreters suggest that Yggdrasil means "horse of the terrible one", and that this refers to the world ash tree itself as Odin's horse. According to the Hávamál, a being usually identified as Odin hung for nine nights in a self-sacrifice on a tree often equated with the World Tree. Even in later times, the Germans, English and the North Germanic peoples said to the gallows tree Ross and to the hanged rider.

The Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnússon, however, thought that Yggdrasil was the mount of Odin and not the tree itself. The actual world tree had been called askr Yggdrasil,[14] that is, the tree to which Odin tied his horse.

Another view traces Old Norse yggr back to its actual meaning 'terror' and translates the tree name with "tree of terror", "gallows" This would again express Odin's self-sacrifice at the gallows of the world tree.

In principle, interpretations going back further are based on comparisons to other Indo-European religious-cultic ideas. According to this, Yggdrasil means "egg pillar". Old Norse yggia would be derived from Germanic *igwja "yew" and Old Norse drasill from Indo-Germanic *dher- "support".

Historical roots

The historical roots of the Nordic World Tree go back at least to Indo-European times, since the World Tree belongs to the mythological fund of many Indo-European peoples: Balts (the oak Austras koks), Indians (the fig tree Asvattha), Persians (Simurgh tree) and Slavs - possibly also the tree of the Hesperides of the Greeks. In these mythologies there is often a bird of prey at the top and/or a snake at the roots of the tree.

Nowadays, it is rarely thought that Yggdrasil is a late pagan borrowing from the medieval Christian tree of the cross. Rather, it is believed that the concept of the Christian tree of the cross was influenced by pagan ideas.

Connection to Shamanism 

In the shamanic cultures of the Eurasian north similar ideas of the world tree as reported by Yggdrasil can be found. Odin's self-sacrifice to Yggdrasil, his close relation to ecstasy, and his eight-legged horse Sleipnir are features very close to classical Siberian shamanism.

Therefore, it can be considered that the Nordic world tree originates from a time when it was used by shamans in their practical work. Characteristic for world trees of Siberian shamanism is - or was - the idea that it represents the world in its entirety. Thus, it was also the first of all trees.

It stood in the center of creation and connected the three planes heaven, earth and underworld (and all other worlds that exist) with each other. Mostly it was connected with a mother deity and martyrdom.

If we see in the Norns Urd an ancient mother deity, Yggdrasil combines all these basic characteristics. Incidentally, the tree species of the world tree was different in the various Eurasian cultures.

Shamans used the world tree in their imagination for their work to "travel" to the spirit world beyond, so that they could take care of people's affairs there.

At an equivalent of the World Tree, shamans were also initiated to some extent. Odin's self-sacrifice to Yggdrasil, in order to reach the secret knowledge (of the runes) in the depths, can certainly be understood as a shamanic initiation rite.