At the heart of symbolism

Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree


Yggdrasil, Nordic tree.

The Tree with nine worlds

Norse mythology is especially well known thanks to an Icelandic written documentation dating back to the 13th century and entitled Edda. The oldest, the Poetic Edda, is a body of thirty poems some of which date back to the 7th century. The other, the Prose Edda, is interpreting and commenting on the first work.

The World creation

The Hof, the abode of Norse gods, consists of two families of gods, the Vanir and the Aesir. The oldest gods, the Vanir, are gods of nature whereas the more recent ones, the Aesir, are more the product of societies. It would seem that originally the mythology gave an important place to the Goddess Mother and Life, a life bringing the forces of contraction and expansion, of condensation and dissipation, of creation and dissolution, of manifestation and non-manifestation together.

In the beginning, there was nothing, emptiness, Ginnungagap or the abyss. According to the poem Voluspa (The Sibyl's Prophecy), stanza 3 of the Poetic Edda:

Of old was the age

Where there was nothing.

Sea nor cool waves

Nor sand there were.

Earth had not been,

Nor heaven above.

But a yawning gap

And grass nowhere.

Of this abyss gushed the polarity of the two basic principles, fire and water, symbolized by two worlds:

  • Nilfheim, the country of ice and mists, continually plunged into obscurity;
  • Muspellheim, the country of fire spreading light constantly.

The interaction of fire and ice generated the first living beings: the giant Ymir, the primeval Androgyne and father of the giants, and the cow Audhumla, the wet nurse of the giants and ancestor of first creatures. While licking ice, Audhumla fashioned the god Buri (The Procreator). Then, Buri gave birth to the god Bor (The Procreated). From the union of Bor with the ice giantess Bestla three children were born: Odin (Spirit), Vili (Will) and Ve (Sacred), the first Aesir gods of the Asgard world.

The Spirit represents the One, the unifying principle of all states of the being. The Sacred exists for the sole purpose of making alive the knowledge of this principle in the human world. Will's purpose is to bring the Spirit and the Sacred, the unifying principle and its knowledge together in order to realize on Earth the Will of Heaven.

With the help of giants, the three gods undertook the killing of Ymir and to dismember It to create the universe 1. As the first living being, Ymir symbolizes the Principle, the Unity at the source of everything in the universe and Its dismembering describes the manifestation process. According to the poem Vaftrudnismal (The Lay of Völund), stanza 21 of the Poetic Edda:

Out of Ymir's flesh,

The earth was formed

And out of his bones the mountains.

Heaven from the skull

Of the frost cold giant.

And from his blood, the sea.

Then, the gods created man from an ash stump and woman from an elm one. The human beings found refuge in the world of Midgard, the intermediary world between Heaven and Earth. Even dismembered, Ymir continued to symbolize the Whole, the Axis of the universe also represented by the trunk of the Norse World Tree, a gigantic ash known as Yggdrasil (or Yggdrasill, the steed of Ygg or Odin). Its branches carried nine worlds, the number of the achievement of a cycle of the universe manifestation. Indeed, the next number 10 marks the beginning of a new cycle following the preceding one (the cycle starting from 0 and associated with emptiness, the Void) and that reproduces it at a different scale. Moreover, nine can be represented by three ternaries, three celestial, intermediary and terrestrial spheres containing three worlds each:

The nine worlds

The celestial sphere composed of:

  • Asgard: the world of the gods Aesir associated with or akin to Odin:
  • Vanaheim: the world of the gods Vanir;
  • Alfheim: the world of light Elves.

The intermediary sphere formed from:

  • Midgard: the world of human beings;
  • Jötunheim: the world of the Giants of ice;
  • Svartalfheim: the world of dark Elves.

The terrestrial sphere gathering:

  • Helheim: the world of the dead;
  • Muspellheim: the world of fire;
  • Niflheim: the world of ice and mist.

A fourth underground sphere consisting of the three roots of the tree completes the three preceding ones. Each of the roots was linked to one of the celestial, intermediary and terrestrial worlds and associated with a body of water:

  • The first root was linked to the world of Niflheim, near the spring of Life kept by a serpent or a dragon named Nidhögg.
  • The second root was linked to the world of Asgard, close to the well of Destiny kept by three Nornes that regulated the fate of humans and gods;
  • The third root was related to the world of Jötunheim, close to the spring of Wisdom kept by the giant Mimir;

The Yggdrasil was source of Life, Destiny and Wisdom.

1 back We rediscover here the evocation of the split of the primeval being, Adam Kadmon, at the origin of the birth of the universe in the Hebraic tradition.

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