The «Worlds» of Old Norse Mythology

By Maria Kvilhaug (MA), author of “The Seed of Yggdrasill”

This article was written as an introduction to Vincent Ongkowidjojo´s book to come; “The Doors of Valhalla”.

Few subjects are more confusing than the subject of the various heimir – “worlds” – in Old Norse, pre-Christian cosmology. During the decades of studying the subject, I have seen countless charts and maps attempting to make sense out of the incomprehensible, attempting to fit the Norse “worlds” into an understandable geography – and none of these attempts have been very convincing.

Nine Worlds Beneath Níflhel

If we go to the oldest primary sources, the Edda poems, we first hear of nine worlds (níu heimir) in the Vǫluspá poem (st.2), and these nine worlds are promptly identified as nine iviði – “within woods” – a feminine term that elsewhere in Norse sources describes sorceresses or giantesses. According to another Edda poem, Hrafnagalðr Oðins, the iviðja (the “within wood” sorceress) “brings forth the ages”.

The nine worlds, that are also nine “within wood” sorceresses, are worlds that existed before the present world tree “sprouted from the sea below”, or else nine feminine cosmic beings that came together to create the present, masculine world, which is often also described as a personified, cosmic being. We are reminded of another myth in which the god Heimdallr (“Great World”) was born from nine mothers (Heimdalargalðr, known from the Prose Edda, and Hyndlulióð, Poetic Edda).

There are many references to nine such female beings in the Edda poetry, whether they are giantesses, valkyriur, norns or goddesses, and they are often identified with waves, rivers or the lights that illuminate dark space. The number nine is also associated with the number of nights that Hermóðr has to travel to reach Níflheimr, the number of nights that Óðinn has to suffer before being able to “pick up the runes”, and the number of nights that Freyr has to yearn before he can reach the “breezeless grove of the pine conifer” in which he will be united with the love of his life.

Apart from that reference to nine ancient worlds somehow involved in the very creation of the present world, like nine mothers giving birth to one son, the concept of “nine worlds” is only referred to twice: By Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda, when he lets slip that “Hel rules nine worlds,” and in the Edda poem Vafthrúðnismál, where the giant Vafthrúðnir (Powerful Head Veil) reveals that he knows the secrets of the giants and of all the gods because he has been to “all the worlds” (hvern hefi ec heim vm komit), and these are elaborated in the following sentence as “nine worlds beneath Níflhel”(nio kom ec heima, fyr niflhel neðan).

The Early Cosmos

“Gáp var, Ginnunga.”

           (Vǫluspá, st.2)

In the Edda poem Vǫluspá, the description of the nine mother worlds to the present world tree is followed by a reference to the giant Ymir building his “settlement” at a time when there was no growth, no life, no Earth, no sea, and no sky. Only an “open mouth” (gáp) existed, belonging to the “sacred descendants” (ginn-unga).

In the Prose Edda, Snorri tries to explain this scenario. There was this great abyss of nothingness, the Ginnungagáp, and in the northern end of that abyss, there was a realm of frost and ice, the Níflheimr (Mist World), which is the same as the Níflhel (Mist Hidden) beneath which the nine worlds are situated, and, ultimately, Hel (Hidden, the world of the dead). This primordial realm contained a well, the Hvergelmir (Bellowing Mill) which is the source of all the rivers that run through the cosmos, rivers that are later identified as nine giantesses.

In the southern end of that abyss, there was a realm of poisonous gases and fire, the Muspellheimr (Spark World), and is ruled by Surtr (Sooted One, Sour One), and this “heavenly lineage” is flaming and burning, and impossible to inhabit unless one is born from it. This is the realm from which the Sun is later hurled out into cosmos on her search for her “heavenly steeds” and her “halls”.

Creation began when the Élivágar – the “ancient waves” begin to move like streams of water from the southern realm of heat and gases towards the northern realm of ice and mist. When the southern streams hardened because of the frost from the north, a being was created, or built, namely Ymir, the world giant, or primordial Sound (from ýmr – “sound”, “murmur”, “voice”).

Ymir, is furthermore, nurtured by the four streams of milk that ran from the great cow, Auðhumbla (Abundant Brew Ingredient), who nurtured herself from the frost of Níflheimr. As her hot southern tongue swept over the frosty realm, another being slowly emerged, Búri (Encaged), and from this being emerged the three Aesir who gave shape to the present universe by parting the body of Ymir (Sound) into countless parts (tunes?). Only then could Sun claim her “halls” and shine her heating light upon the rocks of the hall Earth, which began to produce the green growth.

The Worlds of Earth, and Around

As soon as the Earth is fertile, Snorri moves onto describing her. In the Norse language, the Earth is constantly referred to as “she” and “her”. In his introduction, Snorri explained that the Heathen ancestors, after observing the likenesses between Earth and all the living beings that dwell on her, concluded that the Earth has a life and mind of her own, that she is wonderful of nature, incredibly mighty and tremendously ancient, that she raises all life and takes all life back into herself, and thus they considered her the ultimate ancestral mother, and traced their lineages back to her.

She is round on the outside, Snorri now explains. This was written back in 1225 AD, on Iceland. Indeed, the concept of a round Earth was well known to 13th century Norsemen, at least. In the Norwegian 1250 AD document Konungs Skuggsjá, she is said to be bólottr (ball-like), and is also called Iarðarbollr (The Earth Ball). Outside of her lies the deep ocean (cosmos). Along the shores of this cosmic ocean do we find the land of the giants, which is later referred to as either Iotunheimr (Giant World) or Utgarðr (Outer World/Settlement).  Inside the sphere of Earth, there is a wall that marks the known world, namely Miðgarðr (Middle Settlement), in which the first man and woman are given breath, vitality and mind by the gods. After the gods made humans, they built a place for themselves in the middle of the Middle Settlement.

The place is known as Ásgarðr, (God World), and here is a seat, the Hlíðskiǫlf (Opening View Seat), from which Óðinn may look into all the worlds. Here also lies the Iðavellir, “Fields of Streams Returning to Source”,  Hörg (Sanctuary – the splendid hall of the goddesses, also known as Víngolv – the Floor of Friends), as well as the high seat of the All-Father and twelve other seats belonging to the other gods, and this was called Gladsheimr (Joy World).

If we were to make a geographical map of the worlds now presented, based on what we now know of the universe and the Earth, Snorri´s description can only mean that the Giant World is the cosmic sphere that surrounds Earth, literary the Outer World (or outer space), outside of the atmosphere, because the sky is clearly described as a part of the Earth sphere. The Middle Settlement is the realm on the inside of the Earth´s sky, the world in which we may walk and live and breathe. And the central realm of the gods in this round Earth, situated in the middle of the Middle World, can only be within the core of Earth herself.

That the divine realm is an underworld realm may sound weird to modern people who are used to consider the underworld or Earthly realm as lower than the heavenly ones, but this is not the case if you take the perspective of ancient Heathens. We may recall that creation and the birth of the gods began in the realm of Hel/Níflheimr. And it is the outside of the Earth´s sphere that is the dark and dangerous realm in Heathen cosmology.

Snorri moves on to describe the Earth´s neighborhood. To the east of Miðgarðr, that is, in the Outer World of the giants, there is a forest called Jarnviðr (Iron Wood), and there live the sorceresses known as the jarnviði, like the iviði before, ruled by the great iviðja who gives birth to the dangerous wolf-like sons of Fenrir (Greed) who devour the flesh of dead corpses, and who constantly threaten to dim out all the heavenly bodies. This is why Thor often is said to “go east” in order to slay trolls, the frosty rock giants that wage perpetual war against his mother Earth and her children.

The World Tree

From describing a cosmology that is almost scientific in its approach, albeit described in poetical terms, Snorri suddenly moves onto a description that appears far less so. By the Snorri claims that the gods keep their main sanctuary by the ever green ash called Yggdrasill (Old Steed), with branches that reach across the entire universe and above the heaven. He has three roots that keep him standing and that spread particularly widely.

The first root is situated in the middle of where Ginnungagáp was before, among the “frosty thurses”. This used to be the place of nothingness, in which the streams first met to create the first being of sound which became the source of matter in the early universe. Now, it is ruled by frost giants. Here also lies a well, the Mímisbrunnr (Well of Memory), in which all the experience of the world is stored and remembered, and this well is drunk from daily by the giant Mímir (Memory).

The second root is situated in Níflheimr (Mist World) that other primordial cosmic world from which the gods emerged, and which is now ruled by Hel, the goddess of the dead. Here lies the third well, the Bellowing Mill from which all rivers run, and besides is the place where the souls of dead people are ground into flour and brought back to the world by way of the cosmic rivers. Inside this well are many serpents that suck the life out of the dead, and particularly one large serpent called Níðhǫggr (Waning/ Shame/Below Biter), which feeds from the world tree.

The third root is in heaven, and beneath this root lies the realm of the norns. Here, the goddesses of fate decide the laws of cosmos and the destinies of all mortals. From this realm emerge the norns that become followers to human beings, like guardian angels. This root is watered every day by the norn (fate goddess) Urðr (Origin) who takes the water with aurr (mud) from the Well of Origin. The gods from Ásgarðr, which we now know is situated in the middle of the Middle World, or within the core of Earth, ride to this root to hold parliament by way of the Bifrǫst (Shivering Voice), also known as the rainbow bridge.

The Heavenly Worlds

Snorri moves on to describe the various forces that live in this tree, but since we are about worlds, we shall move directly to his description of the heavens. We are now up by the third root, the heavenly root where the norns dwell and where the gods gather to hold parliament.

Apart from the Well of Origin, where all fate begins, there are many other realms. Snorri lists them:

  1. Alfheimr (Elf World), where the liósalfar (light elves) dwell (but the dǫkkalfar – “dark elves” live beneath the Earth).
  2. Breidablik (Broad View), the most beautiful place in Heaven, with that place called Glitnir (Shiny), home to Balder and Nanna.
  3. Himinbjǫrgr (Heavenly Mountain), by the end of Heaven, where the Shivering Voice rainbow bridge ends, and where Heimdallr blows his horn.
  4. Valaskialf (The Shelf of Choice), where Óðinn keeps his Hlíðskiǫlf (Opening Seat) just as he was said to keep it in Ásgarðr, and from which he may look into all the worlds.
  5. Gimlé (Shielded from Fire) In the southern end of Heaven lies the place that is fairest of all and brighter than the Sun, where the souls of righteous and “treason-free” people are entitled to dwell.
  6. Andlangr (Long Breath) – home of light elves. To the south of Gimlé.
  7. Viðbláinn (The Wide Blue – or the Wide Death, since “the blue”, bláinn, is a metaphor for a corpse or death) – home of light elves. Beyond Andlangr.

The Twelve Worlds

In one of the Edda poems that Snorri based his description on, the Grímnismál, twelve divine worlds are listed and numbered as first world, second world and so on, in the following order:

  1. Þrúðheimr (Power World) – realm of Thor, with the Þrúðvangar (Power Fields), from where the thunder god protects the Earth against assaults from the Outer World.
  2. Ydalir (Yew Valleys) – which is also described as Alfheimr (Elf World), and which was once ruled by the god Ullr, but was given to the god Freyr as a tooth-gift.
  3. Valaskialf (Shelf of the Chosen) – inhabited by the unnamed “god”
  4. Sǫkkvabekkr (Sunken River) – inhabited by Óðinn and Saga (History – a name for Frigg) as a happy couple drinking together from golden goblets every day while cool waves resound above, and thus perhaps associated also with Frigg´s realm, Fensalar (The Moist Halls)
  5. Gladsheimr (Joy World) – where the Hall of the Chosen, our famous “Valhalla”, may be perceived from afar. Snorri said this realm was in Ásgarðr.
  6. Þrýmheimr (Drum World) – where Skaði now dwells after the death of her father.
  7. Breidablik (Broad View) – Baldr´s realm.
  8. Himinbjǫrgr (Heaven Fortress/Mountain) – Heimdall´s realm
  9. Folkvangr (People Field) – where Freyia rules the “seating of the hall” in the People Field, choosing the chosen like a valkyria, deciding on the fates of the souls of the dead.
  10. Glitnir (The Glittering) – where Forseti (Front Seated) gives just verdicts, and where all quarrels are put to sleep, and the fires of passion are quenched.
  11. Noatún (Ships´ Harbor) – where Njǫrðr dwells, steering the winds and the waves and the rivers of the world – the place the ships of life return.
  12. Víðarr´s Land Víði (The Wide Land of the Expanding One) – The mentioning of this twelfth world is the beginning of a series of stanzas that describe the realm of Valhalla in a way that appears to be poetical riddles attempting to describe a higher state of being.

My Thoughts on the Twelve Worlds

Even though there are some aspects to the Old Norse descriptions that appear more like natural philosophy well on its way towards a scientific understanding of the cosmos, delving deeper only makes them more confusing, because the worlds seem to fluidly overlap one another, and the descriptions of their whereabouts often seem contradictory. This could be because we are dealing with many different traditions and sources, and the fact that no Heathen ever wrote down a dogmatic text that put the “one truth” down once and forever.

But we could also be dealing with metaphorical descriptions. Old Norse myths and poetry are characterized exactly by their way of describing a few things in countless different poetical terms. It is very possible that the worlds could, on some level, for example be describing inner states of being or perception just as much as they are attempting to describe the world and the dimensions of reality around us.

In my book, The Seed of Yggdrasill, I suggested that we could perhaps reach a better understanding if we looked at the myths from the perspective of Indian yogis who understand the gods and their realms as realms within ourselves, or at least corresponding with realms within our own beings, each “chakra” in the energetic body being perceived as the abode of particular gods and goddesses. I also suggested that if we look at how the twelve worlds are being described and the associations to the gods that inhabit them, we could be looking at levels of perception or being. The twelve worlds could correspond to forces within ourselves:

  1. Electromagnetism (Thor´s realm), Thought, Mind
  2. Passion, Hunger, Life Force, Growth, Vitality (Freyr the god of growth/Ullr the hunter)
  3. Spirit, breath, awareness
  4. Subconscious, the silent knowledge of everything, not spoken (Frigg knows all destiny but speaks not)
  5. Joyful state of hope where Valhalla (salvation) may be seen from afar and the dead may be chosen
  6. Desire, Hunger, Danger, Vibration (Drum World)
  7. Objective and just perception, harmonious, mutual love, wisdom, compassion, completion, broadness of mind (Balder´s Broad View)
  8. The highest perception, ability to hear, see and remember everything (Heimdallr, Mímir)
  9. Here, the fate of people in life and death is ruled by Freyia.

It was earlier said that Hel rules in nine worlds, and since Hel is equal to death, we could perhaps suggest that the first nine worlds are the worlds of mortals, the worlds in which people can still die – indeed, “the nine worlds beneath Níflhel”.

In the Edda poem Vafthrúdnismál, the giant brags that he knows so much because he has been to all the worlds – all the nine worlds beneath Níflhel. And yet he is beaten by Óðinn because Óðinn knows the secret he whispered into the ears of his dead son´s corpse: the secret to immortality, the worlds beyond the mortal realms.

It is in the ninth world that Freyia decides whether a soul should stay with her (in her nine worlds of mortality), or be sent on its way to Valhalla. Thus the next three worlds could very well correspond to the three worlds mentioned by Snorri as being the home of light elves and immortals.

  1. Glitnir – The Glittering: Justice, calm, inner peace, home of righteous souls, survivors of Ragnarǫk, and the children of the gods who survived also. Could correspond to Snorri´s Gimlé (Shielded from Fire). This is the place where passion is quenched and all quarrels end.
  2. Noatún – Movement, vibration, returning to the origin (ships symbolize life). Could correspond to Snorri´s Andlangr (Long Breath) where the immortal Light Elves live.
  3. The Wide Land of the Expanding One – “The Wolf of Greed” is conquered and the soul is expanded. Could correspond to Snorri´s Viðbláinn, the “Wide Death”.

I have left further speculations about the various “worlds” to others to contemplate, hoping to be of assistance in the gathering of “facts” – that is, the facts of what the Edda poets and Snorri Sturluson said about Cosmos.


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