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Yggdrasil the Tree of Life: Norse Mythology & Symbol

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

To understand the cosmos in Norse mythology, we have to start with Yggdrasil. In this lesson, we'll explore the tree of life and see what role it played in the beliefs of the Norse.

Yggdrasil

A lot of Norse mythology revolves around figures and places that seem intentionally unpronounceable. But Yggdrasil? Seriously? It's actually not as bad is it looks. You pronounce it ''IG-druh-sill''. Just make sure to say it with a bit of Viking swagger, and you've got it.

Okay, now that we can pronounce it…what is it? Norse mythology views the cosmos as a set of nine distinct worlds. Humans live on Midgard, the gods live in Asgard, giants live in Jotunheim, etc. The thing that connects all nine worlds together is Yggdrasil, the world tree. This cosmic ash tree is the frame the Universe, the spine of existence, and the conduit between the nine worlds (which rest in its roots and branches). Norse mythology is complex and diverse, but Yggdrasil was the ultimate family tree that tied it all together.

Yggdrasil, the tree of life
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The Well of Urd

Apart from the nine worlds that grow within Yggdrasil, this cosmic landscape contains a couple of wells, natural springs of divine water. The Well of Mímir is associated with the root that leads to Jotunheim and the well called Hvergelmir is associated with the root to Niflheim, but the last well is the most important of all. Associated with Asgard, the Well of Urd is the principle spring from which Yggdrasil grows. The Well of Urd is a frequent meeting place of the gods, and is also the cosmological representation of destiny and the past. We'll get back to that concept in a minute.

Beings around Yggdrasil

If Yggdrasil holds the nine worlds in its branches and leaves, then is the space between these worlds habitable? In a sense, yes. Norse mythology lists a number of powerful beings who live in and around the world tree. At the top, for example, is an unnamed eagle that perches on the branches. A number of dragons and snakes also hang around Yggdrasil, the most malicious of which is Nidhogg. Nidhogg lies below Yggdrasil, gnawing on its roots in an eternal quest to plunge the cosmos back into chaos. It's said that this dragon will fight alongside the giants in the final battle of Ragnarok. The eagle at the top of the tree and Nidhogg don't get along, and part of this is thanks to a troublemaking squirrel named Ratatosk, who scurries up and down the tree all day to deliver messages and spread rumors about the eagle and dragon to each other.

Nidhogg, eating the roots of Yggdrasil
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There's also one other being who is frequently connected with Yggdrasil: Odin, chief of the gods. Odin spends his time traveling along the branches and roots of Yggdrasil, visiting each of the nine worlds. It was at the Well of Mímir that Odin sacrificed his eye in order to gain cosmic knowledge. Even more drastically, Odin hanged himself from the branches of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights in order to learn the runes, the magical symbols that constitute the Norse alphabet. These symbols were kept by the Norns, three female deities who control destiny and reside in the Well of Urd. They could reshape destiny by carving their magic runes into Yggdrasil, and Odin wanted to learn this secret, which he did.

Odin learned the secret of the runes by hanging from Yggdrasil for nine days and nights
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Odin's connection to Yggdrasil is so deep that even the tree's name reflects this. Yggdrasil may literally translate to ''ash tree of the horse of Odin'', since Odin rode his horse along the tree from world to world. In fact, Ygg was another name of Odin himself.

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