At the heart of symbolism

Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree

(Detailed page)


Gods, elves, giants and humans

The universe was born from emptiness 1, the deep abyss (Ginnungagap), with the appearance of the primeval polarity of two complementary principles: fire/ice, warm/cold, light/darkness. Their interaction generated nine worlds equally divided into three spheres: celestial, intermediary and terrestrial. These worlds were supported by the branches of the Norse World Tree named Yggdrasil. The tree drew nutritious elements from three roots linked to three worlds covering the three preceding spheres and close to the three sources of Life, Destiny and Wisdom 2.

The first creatures were born from the interaction of both principles: the giant Ymir, the primeval Androgyne father of the giants' line, and the cow Audhumla, wet nurse of the giants and ancestor of living beings and Aesir gods.

The giant YmirAs primeval Androgyne, Ymir unifies both complementary principles within himself. He 3 appears as an image, a reflection in the manifested world of the Unity associated with the Void, the non manifested abyss.

As a reflection of Unity, Ymir also reveals himself as the possessor, the custodian of the primeval Knowledge attached to the origin of the universe and beings.

The Aesir gods killed Ymir with the assistance of giants and dismembered him to create the universe. His death corresponds to the apparent obliteration of the primeval Unity and the Knowledge attached to it and his dismembering associated with the universe manifestation through its diversified form.

The simple fact that gods are divided into two worlds implies that they had to divide the tasks among themselves and could not govern the universe without outer assistance, from elves and giants in particular:

  • The elves are small geniuses endowed with immense powers and mostly invisible as they are made in the image of light and darkness that permanently reign in the worlds they live in.
  • The giants are primitive (in the sense of first) creatures endowed with the forces of the nature, notably of creation and destruction or more precisely transformation, related to the manifestation of worlds and beings or their return towards the original Void, the non-manifested.

In contrast to the preceding creatures which are directly derived from the primeval polarity, the first humans were born from stumps. In fact, the tree is not only representative of the development of the universe, but equally of the human being. By his trunk, it symbolizes the World Axis that links Earth and Heaven and all states of the being, from the most terrestrial to the most celestial ones.

Gods, elves and giants are less depicting three distinct entities than symbolizing three degrees of the development of the universe (the three spheres gathering three worlds) and being (spirit, psyche/soul and body). Therefore, the universe and the being have a destiny in common symbolized by the Yggdrasil.

The highest branches of the tree are inhabited by a gigantic eagle and a hawk, celestial symbols of light. Its roots are continually gnawed by a snake or a dragon (according to sources) named Nidhögg (gnawer from beneath), representative of the terrestrial depths.

The stanza 19 of the poem Voluspa (The Sibyl's Prophecy) of the Poetic Edda starts with these words:

I know an ash tree that stands,

Called Yggdrasil,

A tall tree,

Sprinkled with white mud;

Mud is a mix of terrestrial dust and water of celestial or divine origin. Its white colour characterizes its spiritual, divine aspect, which cures beings and plants. This mud treats the roots of the tree against its withering.

The spiritual aspect is even reinforced in the variant of Snorri Sturluson (13 th century):

I know a besprinkled ash

Called Yggdrasil

A tall tree,

Holy with white mud.

A squirrel is constantly running up and down the trunk of the tree, symbolizing the exchanges between the eagle and Nidhögg, between Heaven and Earth. According to the Edda of the Norse mythology, the squirrel does nothing but transmit the word of the eagle to Nidhögg (The Poetic Edda) or hawk comments sowing discord between them (the Prose Edda).

The Poetic Edda describes the descending way from the celestial towards the terrestrial sphere; the Prose Edda evokes the voice of discord between these two spheres. The Poetic Edda depicts the descending way towards lower states of existence; the Prose Edda, the absence of integration between higher and lower states. In both cases, the Yggdrasil is destined to wither: its roots are not only gnawed by Nidhögg, but its branches are nibbled by four stags and its leaves eaten by two goats. Despite the treatment of its roots, the tree can wither and finally die. However, death is never an end; it is a passage towards a new world.

Life, Destiny and Wisdom

The tree draws its nourishment from three roots. Each of them is linked to one of the celestial, intermediary and terrestrial worlds and a water source.

The root of Life and Nidhögg

The first root of Yggdrasil attains the world of Niflheim (the place where clouds are born) associated with the birth of the higher states of the development of the universe and being. It is watered by Hvergelmir, the spring of all the “rivers of lives” kept by Nidhögg. Nidhögg is consequently the custodian of the source of all forms of Life, terrestrial, human or celestial. Only he can allow the sap to rise from the root to the summit and nourish all the states of existence.

The fact that it is impossible to determine if Nidhögg is a snake or a dragon comes from its ambivalent nature. Is it a warm or cold, luminous or dark, celestial or terrestrial … animal ? In reality, the snake/dragon is all that at once and symbolizes the “vital principle”, carrier of all possibilities of existence.

If the snake/dragon is representative of life through all its forms, it is also its opposite. It is at once creator and destructor. It can allow the existence of the worlds and beings and at the same time gnaw the root of the tree that supports them.

The withering of the tree results from the slow degradation of the links that unite the different spheres and leads Nidhögg to show more its dark that its luminous side. It is said that the tree will definitively perish after a terrible battle named Ragnarök (destiny of gods or powers) opposing the gods Aesir and Vanir to the giants and other hostile powers. However, a new era will start afterwards. New worlds, new gods, new beings will be born at the dawn of a new fate, the views of which will remain unfathomable.

The root of Destiny and the three Nornes

The second root rejoins the world of Asgard (world of Aesir gods) and is watered by the well of Urd (past, origin, primal cause). The well is kept by three Nornes, the three “Destinies”: Urd (past or origin), Verdandi (present or becoming) and Skuld (future or due).

The past represents what has been, the present what is and the future which will be (due). Indeed, all consequences to come will result from the primal cause of the past and the choices carried out among the possibilities offered by the present. The being can choose between the ascending way towards higher states and the descending way towards lower states, but in any case, he will have to pay for the consequences, whatever they are. Of course, the liberty of choice offered by the present is relative, for it is made from the weight of the past and related conditionings, but it nevertheless could allow modifying his due.

In this context, it came back to the three Nornes to weave the threads of the destiny of worlds and beings. As other creatures, gods did not escape the common lot tempered by a relative liberty of choice. Destiny ruled ahead what each one had to accomplish through a limited liberty of choice.

Unless he is a Wise being, a human discovers the meaning of his life only upon his death. Then, he sees clearly all the set of threads that wove the canvas of his fate; he gets the measure of his place in the destiny of the universe and beings. Before he knew what he had to do; now he knows what he had to be.

The root of Wisdom and Mimir

The third root extends to the world of Jötunheim (world of giants) and is watered by the spring kept by the giant Mimir. At the foot of the well lies the head of the wisest Aesir god also known as Mimir.

Mimir was formerly one of both divinities sent to the Vanir as a token of peace. When the Vanir discovered that the Aesir had cheated them, they decapitated Mimir and sent his head back to the Aesir. Odin coated the head with herbs so that it did not go rotten and proclaimed lots of spells. Brought back to life, the head was able to reveal truths incomprehensible to the great majority. Then, it was placed near the well which henceforth became the source of Wisdom.

It is also said that for the sacrifice of an eye, Odin could drink the water of the well every day. Of course, Odin did not sacrifice an eye, but the binocular vision representative of duality proper to the terrestrial sphere for the benefit of the unified vision of the “all seeing eye” characterizing the celestial sphere. Symbolism sometimes teaches us to see things with another eye.

Odin shows the way to follow, the way of Wisdom, the way of Knowledge where to know and to be are only one. Knowledge cannot be communicated; it is the fruit of a deep inner work destined to let the old being die and the new being be born. To reach it, the postulant will have to be related to an organization guardian of the knowledge of the ways to access the higher states of existence. If this filiation is for any reason interrupted, the world is destined to know the lower states only.

Life depicts the being manifestation through all his appearances. Destiny defines what the being has to do. Wisdom brings together what the being has to do and what he is, beyond any appearance.

Overall, the Norse mythology seems dominated by the unfathomable Destiny, a power that determines the fate of worlds, gods, geniuses, humans and giants. This common lot is at once a source of parallels and rivalries between the beings and leads to a final destruction that will not spare the Tree of the Norse World nor the worlds and beings living in. The revival that will follow echoes the tradition of the successive cosmic cycles and the so-called myth of the eternal return. As such, Yggdrasil represents the cosmic tree par excellence.

Bibliography and discography

  • The Poetic Edda:
  • Mythological Poems.
  • John Lindow:
  • “Norse mythology: a guide to the gods, heroes, rituals and beliefs”. Oxford University Press Publisher, 2001;
  • A dictionary to consult.
  • Richard Wagner:
  • Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen):
  • - Prologue: Das Rheingold (The Rhine-gold);
  • - Three act operas: Die Walküre (The Walkyrie), Siegfried and the Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).
  • Wagner wrote the music and the libretto as well. His story was freely inspired by the so-called Burgundian cycle, i.e. the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda related to Sigurd and the German epic Das Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs) recounting the legendary events which led to the disappearance of the Norse gods.

1 back Emptiness is nothing but absence of matter, of substance (not essence).

2 back The names of the nine worlds end in suffixes “heim” (kingdom, world) or “gard” (enclosure). The research concerning the oldest sources suggests that all these names formerly finished in heim (At that time, Midgard was called Mannheim and Asgard Godheim). The misunderstanding would have come from the confusion between the places of certain worlds and their name.

3 back As an Androgyne, Ymir is neither masculine nor feminine, simply neutral. Strictly speaking, we should say “It” instead of “He”.