Norse Cosmology

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This article is part of the
Nine Worlds series
The Nine Worlds
of
Germanic Paganism
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Aspect of
  • Norse cosmology

Norse cosmology has the World Tree Yggdrasill unify nine worlds or nine homelands (Old Norse: níu heimar), that represent all that exists within the infinite abyss of Ginnungagap. Norse mythology locates these multiple worlds spatially (like north, south, above, below, and so on) but also describes them as otherworldly dimensions, so to speak. To see beings in other worlds may require ‘second sight’, and to travel between them may be wyrd. Fateful. Mapping the Nine Homelands escapes precision because Norse sources never list them, the Poetic Edda often alludes vaguely, and the Prose Edda often seems influenced by medieval Christian cosmology.

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Níu Heimar

The phrase ‘nine worlds’ is Níu Heimar in Old Norse. Relating to heima meaning ‘home’ or ‘homestead’, the term heimr means ‘homeland’, or in a larger sense the ‘world’.

In the context of Norse Cosmology, each ‘homeland’ is a land that a ‘family’ (ætt) of ‘nature spirits’ or Vættir inhabits. Thus Ásgarðr is the homeland of the family of the Æsir (gods), Álfheimr is of the family of the Álfar (elves), Jötunheimr is of the family of the Jötnar (giants), and so on. These lands correspond to regions of this world, so Niflheimr is in the north of this world, Muspell in the south, Svartálfaheimr below, and so on.

Moreover, these lands appear otherworldly, like separate ‘worlds’ or dimensions, where one can meet the nature spirits who personify some feature of nature. Similar to a dream, the experience of another world symbolizes and exaggerates the natural feature. For example, Hel is a place of perpetual deterioration, unwellness and disrepair, where dinner tables are set without food for a feast of starvation and curtains hang rotten. Besides the thematic emphasis, nature spirits live in societies resembling that of humans, and in towns, farms and caves, like humans may. Traveling between worlds is often accompanied by thick mists, distortions of time, or other uncanny phenomena.

When counting the nine worlds, they include the earth, called Miðgarðr, where humans as a family dwell.

Occurrences of the phrase

The phrase Níu Heimar occurs in the following Norse texts.

The Poetic Edda

Völuspá 2
I remember the nine worlds, nine giantesses [who personify each land], the glorious [world tree] Mjötviðr [that unites them], before the ground below [existed].
Níu man ek heima, níu íviðjur, mjötvið mæran, fyr mold neðan.
Vafþrúðnismál 43
I can say truly [about] the secrets from the Jötnar and all the gods, because I have come [traveling] over each world. I came [traveling over each of] the nine worlds, [even to the remotest places in each one], [even] before Niflhel below [where people] from Hel die.
Frá jötna rúnum ok allra goða ek kann segja satt, þvíat hvern hefi ek heim of komit. Níu kom ek heima, fyr Níflhel neðan; hinig deyja ór helju halir.

In the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson

Gylfaginning 34
[Óðinn] threw Hel [the deity of death] into Niflheimr and gave her authority over the nine worlds.
Hel kastaði hann í Niflheim ok gaf henni vald yfir níu heimum.

Counting the worlds

In the Poetic Edda, the poem Alvíssmál has a stanza that lists six worlds, clarifying each ‘world’ is the realm of a different family of beings. Þórr asks: What is the wind named ‘in every world’ (heimi hverjum í)? Álvíss answers:

Alvíssmál 20
It is named ‘wind’ with the Humans.
But ‘waverer’ with [the Æsir] the gods.
[The Vanir] the awe-rulers call it ‘neigher’ [making sounds like a horse].
The Jötnar ‘shrieker’ [during deadly arctic storms].
The Álfar ‘whistler’.
In Hel, [the dead] call it ‘squall’ [a sharp increase in wind speed before a rain].
Vindr heitir með mönnum.
en váfuðr með goðum.
kalla gneggjuð ginnregin.
æpi jötnar.
alfar dynfara.
kalla í helju hviðuð.

Thus there are at least six worlds, each being the homeland of a particular family of beings. Inferrably, they correspond to the following place names mentioned elsewhere.

1. Humans: Miðgarðr.
2. Æsir (gods): Ásgarðr or Iðavöllr.
3. Vanir (gods): Vanaheimr.
4. Jötnar (giants): Jötunheimr or Utgarðr.
5. Álfar (elves): Álfheimr.
6. Dead: Hel.

Dvergar may be missing from the list because, living in caverns, they have no winds. Dvergar and Álfar are distinguished from each other elsewhere in the poem (for example Alvíssmál 14). Moreover the two place names, Álfheimr and Svartálfaheimr, confirm there are two separate homelands.

7. Dvergar (dwarves): Svartálfaheimr or Niðavellir.

Plausibly, the realms of the primordeal elements of ice and fire count as ‘homelands’. It may be these realms are not the ‘homeland’ of any beings because all beings came to life somewhere in Ginnungagap, the empty wind between these two realms where ice and fire could intermingle (via water, rimefrost, smoke, and sparks) to bring forth life. The place name of the element of ice, Niflheimr, means the arctic ‘Mist Homeland’, suggesting it is one of the Nine Homelands.

8. Ice: Niflheimr.
9. Fire: Muspell.

Nevertheless, the relationships between these and other significant realms can be confusing. Precise mapping remains uncertain.

Uncertainties

In the Prose Edda (Gylfaginning 34), Oðinn the deity of the sky is said to have thrown Hel the deity of death into Niflheimr, where he gave her authority ‘over the Nine Homelands’ (yfir níu heimum), that is, authority over every dead being anywhere. Her realm of the dead is in the underworld and is also called Hel. Hel and Niflheim are sometimes interchangeable. Niflheimr is the homeland of the primordeal element of ice, conceived as beyond the extreme north of Miðgarðr, relating to the arctic icecap. By contrast, Hel is the underworld. Probably, Hel was conceived as being underground, below Miðgarðr, and only the cave mouth that leads to it (called Helgrind, the ‘Hel gate’) is located in Niflheimr, in the north. The cave has a tunnel of such length even Óðins horse Sleipnir takes nine days to travel it. Probably this tunnel leads back south toward the center of Miðgarðr but downward to the underworld. Less likely, Hel was conceived as being deep inside the pure ice of Niflheim.

While the Norse texts occasionally mention the phrase, ‘nine worlds’, they are never itemized and remain uncertain. They are often assumed to include nine places out of those listed below, but the relationships between some of them remains confusing (or confused). It is debatable if Niflheimr and Hel count as one world or two. Similarly, it is debatable if Niflheimr, Jötunheimr, Utgarðr, and Járnvid, count as one, two, or even more worlds, as each is the realm of the Jötnar (giants). Moreover, Niðavellir, being the homeland of the Dvergar (dwarves), and Svartálfaheimr, which is also the homeland of the dwarves, may be identical, thus count as one place, which being in the underworld has unclear borders with Hel. Finally, while the Völuspá text says Múspell is in the south, it also says the ‘Sons of Múspell’ will come from the east, apparently from Járnvid.

Also worth mentioning is Gimle (‘gem leanto’), a place so remote it will survive the damage to Yggdrasil during Ragnarök. The Prose Edda says it is only inhabited by Álfar that seem to be conceived as beings of light and purity, similar to Christian angels. On the one hand, it seems to be a world. On the other hand, seems to not be under the influence of death and Hel, so may not be understood as one of the ‘Nine Homelands’.

  • Ásgarðr – ‘Æsir Enclosure’ (in the center of Miðgarðr?)
  • Miðgarðr – ‘Middle Enclosure’, the realm of humans
  • Utgarðr – ‘Outer Enclosure’, the realm of the Jötnar (giants)
  • Múspell – ‘Inferno’, the realm of the primordeal element of fire
  • Vanaheimr – ‘Homeland of the Vanir
  • Álfheimr – ‘Álf Homeland’, the realm of Álfar (elves)
  • Svartálfaheimr – ‘Homeland of the ‘Svartálfar‘, the realm of the “dark elves”, namely the Dvergar (dwarves)
  • Niðavellir – ‘Lower Fields’, the realm of the Dvergar (dwarves)
  • Niflheimr – ‘Mist Homeland’, the realm of the primordeal element of ice in the north
  • Hel – ‘Underworld’, the realm of the dead
  • Jötunheimr – ‘Jötunn Homeland’, the realm of the Jötnar (giants)
  • Járnvid – ‘Iron Wood’, the realm of the troll in the east

Note the grammatical forms differ slightly: Álfheimr ‘Álf Homeland’ versus Svartálfaheimr ‘Homeland of the Svartálfar’.

Modern systems

The modern Norse religion, Asatru, strives to systemize evidence from the Norse texts, and may list the nine worlds as follows, but this system too has difficulties:[1]

Three worlds above the earth, in heaven:

1. Ásgarðr
2. Álfheimr
3. Múspell (in south)

Three worlds on earth:

4. Vanaheimr
5. Miðgarðr
6. Jötunheimr

Three worlds below the earth, in underworld:

7. Niflheimr (in north)
8. Hel
9. Svartálfaheimr

Nine Giantesses

The first book of the Poetic Edda, Völuspá, opens with a primordeal prophet (Völva) who mentions a time before the nine worlds came into existence.

Völuspá
1. [Óðinn] the Father of the Slain, you will [it] that I tell well old tales [of times] before, those that [are] foremost at [what] must be.
2. I remember the Nine Homelands, the nine giantesses, the glorious [World Tree] Mjötviðr, before the ground below [existed].
1. Vildu at ek, Valföðr, vel fyr telja forn spjöll fira, þau er fremst um man.
2. Níu man ek heima, níu íviðjur, mjötvið mæran, fyr mold neðan.

The prophet was alive before the creation and describes it. A ‘giantess’ personifies each homeland. (Compare the Greco-Roman concept of ‘Mother Earth’, personified by the giant Titan Gaea.) These female Jötnar had not yet found their places. The worlds were not yet in position. The World Tree was still a seedling. The ground itself did not yet exist.

Giantesses: two Old Norse manuscripts determine the reconstructed text of Völuspá, the Konungsbók (also called Codex Regius) and the Hauksbók. The second has the correct reading, íviðjur. The singular íviðja is a rare term for a female Jötunn or ‘giantess’. The first manuscript has íviði, which is a meaningless garble (or abbreviation for íviðjur).[2] The etymology of íviðjur is uncertain but may well derive from í-viðr, the one who lives ‘in the wood’. Thus it may refer to a forest dweller, or the spirit of a particular tree. The term may specify the ‘nine giantesses’ that personify the ‘nine homelands’ of the World Tree. If so, the place in the east called Járnviðr (‘Iron Wood’), where a certain Íviðja is located (whose troll-wolf children devour sun and moon during eclipses), would be one of the Nine Homelands.

Mjötviðr: this name for the World Tree means mjöt-viðr the ‘wood of proper measure’, describing the harmony of the living universe, where every feature has its proper amount.

Contra harmony, another name for the World Tree, ygg-drasill, means the ‘terrible steed’. Relating to the shamans of the Saami, a person can send out their Hugr (‘soul’ or ‘mindforce’ or ‘consciousness’) to travel via the Tree from one world to another. To contemplate the entirety of all worlds and transcend them to peer out across the infinite nothingness of Ginnungagap, awakens existential power. Compare the use of the Tree by Óðinn to reach a trance-like experience that transcends the worlds of life and death, to achieve the power over reality in the form of written language. Also compare cognate concepts of transcendence, nirvana and enlightenment in Buddhism.

See also

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