The Nature of Níðhöggr

The Nature of Níðhöggr

Serpents are everywhere in Norse mythology. Jörmungandr, Fafnir, and the myriad of snakes at the base of Yggdrasil to name a few. Níðhöggr is one of the most intriguing serpents, as his symbolic presence can be interpreted in very flexible ways. The potential for outside influence (particularly Christianity) in the interpretation of its story is large, but the figure of the malevolent death wyrm has a widespread appeal in global mythology, and some natural cross-over is possible. The vicious and destructive nature of Níðhöggr is the only thing we are certain about.

Níðhöggr, whose name variably translates as “Malice Striker” or “Curse Striker”, lives entwined in the roots of Yggdrasil. It spends its days chewing on the roots, causing the tree great suffering and agony. Are the roots of Yggdrasil Níðhöggr’s prison and it is trying to chew its way out? Is it deliberately trying to torment the World Tree? Its intentions are clearly malicious, as its name states its foul nature. The fact that once it is free of the roots of Yggdrasil it will fly to the aid of the giant armies during Ragnarök proves that this thing is a rancorous honey badger of doom. According to Snorri’s Edda (Gylfaginning), Níðhöggr trades insults and spreads discord with the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil via the squirrel Ratatöskr. It is clearly not a benevolent creature, as its daily “to do” list is filled with “make the world a more miserable place”.

Níðhöggr is also represented as almost being an “Eater of the Sinful Dead”. Its chthonic origins and propensity to gnaw or chew on the very roots of the tree that gives the universe life invokes the image of a dark and cruel creature with vile motives. In the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, it is described:

A hall I saw, far from the sun,
On Náströnd it stands, and the doors face north,
Venom drops through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls do serpents wind.

I saw there wading through rivers wild
Treacherous men and murderers too,
And workers of ill with the wives of men;
There Níðhöggr sucked the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?

Náströnd is the “Shore of Corpses” where oathbreakers and murders go after they die. The implication is that part of Níðhöggr’s role is to torment the “sinful” dead, but it is possible this is a reinterpretation of the myth through a Christianized filter. The role of the snake or serpent of Genesis in Christian mythology is to sit in a tree in Eden and sow discontent and sorrow for the world. This serpent is associated with Satan. Satan is also the considered to be the ruler of Hell, where Christian sinners are tormented eternally. However, contrary to popular belief, this is a contemporary literary view, not a biblical one, and it was probably not particularly popular during the time the Eddas were being written down. This does lead one to wonder if the influence went the other direction, with the Norse mythology flavoring the Christian viewpoint through oral tradition.

That Níðhöggr is a dragon raises questions about the physical origins of the myth. It has long been theorized that tales of dragons had their origins in the discovery of dinosaur fossils in ancient times. There are many modern dig sites in Northern Europe to attest to an abundance of fossils to choose from as a possible proto-Níðhöggr (including the charmingly named Grendelius, an ichthyosaur found in Great Britain). The discovery of a large, toothy, lethal looking skull that resembles no other known living creature buried deep in the ground is bound to start people talking.

Ultimately, many of the creatures that call Yggdrasil home have meaning that is lost to us in the modern age. They no longer represent to us what they represented to our ancestors, the stories behind their births are shrouded in time. They have become the victims of conflation, confusion, revision, and filtration, and Níðhöggr is no exception. Instead, the best we can offer is an attempt to understand the world of the ancient Norse and try to project the implications of a figure like Níðhöggr for a man or woman living in that age.

Loki vs. the Kinsey Scale

Loki vs. the Kinsey Scale

In recent comic book news, it was announced that the character of Loki in the Thor comics is going to be portrayed as being both bisexual and being able to switch genders. This has become a polarizing subject for people on both sides of the fence. Some people are pleased to see more LGBTQ characters being introduced into the world of comics, some are offended. Some LGBTQ people are irritated that Loki is a villain in the books and consider this to be negative stereotyping, others applaud the historical accuracy of the character’s portrayal. It’s interesting to see Loki’s sexual activity still has the same ability to churn up chaos and discord even in the 21st century. Loki’s sexuality and fluid gender identity generates change within the universe on an epic scale, creating mythical beasts and monsters, while altering the course of mythic events.
The first of Loki’s unions of note is his relationship with female jötnar Angrboða (Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning XXXIV).  Although the nature of his relations with the Angrboða  is never made entirely clear, we do know that they had procreated on more than one occasion, producing the monsters Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel. Whereas most fertility gods/goddesses will have offspring that are natural phenomena or gifts from the gods, Loki’s offspring are literal agents of chaos and death. Loki is capable of sowing the actual seed of discontent. Fenrir is an instrument of Ragnarök, destined to kill Odin and be destroyed by Odin’s son Víðarr. He is a harbinger of the death of the gods. Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, is a fearsome beast, destined to poison the sky and slay (and be slain by) Thor during the last battle. Hel is the embodiment of death with out great honor. Those not worthy of the pleasures of Valhalla go to Hel. All three of these offspring are death incarnate. Because Loki represents a reversal of expectation, the results of his sexual union are the antithesis of life.Loki’s fluid gender identity comes into play so frequently and at such important moments in the timeline of the gods, that it can’t be seen as anything but his “specialty”. His role as a trickster includes episodes of cross dressing, feminized behavior and appearance, and outright gender-swapping, and this is almost exclusively his domain (Thor’s adventures in drag and Odin’s predilection for seiðr not withstanding). Lokasenna is rife with accusations of his intrinsic feminine nature. Njord says of Loki:

“Small ill does it work, though a woman may have
A lord or a lover or both;
But a wonder it is, that this womanish god
Comes hither, though babes he has borne.”

and more than once Thor states, “Unmanly one, cease, or the mighty hammer, Mjollnir, shall close thy mouth.” (Poetic Edda, Lokasenna 57). Loki changes gender to betray the gods on several occasions; when he fools Frigg into revealing Baldr’s one vulnerability is mistletoe (Snorri’s Edda Gylfaginning) and again when Hel states she will only release Baldr if all the creatures of the earth will weep for him. Loki, presumably in the guise of a giantess, refuses, and Baldr is consigned to Hel’s domain until Ragnarök. Conversely, Loki’s twitchy gender has been used playfully and in service to the gods, as when he assists Thor in regaining Mjollnir (which was probably stolen by Loki in the first place).
Allegedly, Loki promises the moon, the sun, and Freya to an unnamed giant in exchange for fortifications around the realm of the gods, provided he finish the job within three seasons. When it looks like the giant might actually achieve this goal and deprive the gods of Freya (not to mention the sun and the moon), Loki is basically told, “Fix it. We don’t care how.” Loki then transforms not only his gender but his species, and becomes a saucy mare to seduce the giant’s faithful stallion. After spending a lost weekend in the forest with the stallion, the deal with the giant has been nullified and Loki finds himself in a family way. Eleven months later, out pops Odin’s horse Sleipnr While this story seems to have an innocent (if not slightly deviant) ending, it is interesting to note that Sleipnr is believed by some to be more than just your average magical eight-legged horse. The eight legs of Sleipnr are thought to represent the pallbearers that carry a body to their final resting place (Ellis Davidson, H. R  Gods And Myths Of Northern Europe). Sleipnr is also the steed taken by Hermóðr to Hel to beg for  Baldr’s life. Sleipnr is the steed of the shaman, a conveyance between this world and the world of the dead. Yet again, the issue of Loki’s loins subverts the convention of procreation.
Loki’s sexuality is oddly potent, in fact more is made out of his sexual exploits than any of the gods associated with fertility and fecundity. He is prolific in his progeny, although all his children bear the stigma of death somewhere in their genetic make up. At the same time, he is perceived as being androgynous and even effeminate, and doesn’t seem to shy away from sexual partners regardless of gender or even species. Within Loki is a transgressive representation of the spectrum of human sexuality, with all of its joy, comedy, humiliation, drama, and pain.

Odin is the Fickle Finger of Fate

Odin is the Fickle Finger of Fate

To bring the Norse Mythology portion of this class to an end, let’s talk about Odin and his strangely fickle nature. Odin gives his favor as easily as he takes it away again. I don’t know that many people notice that in the Norse tales, Odin tends to be the only god who actually intercedes in mortal affairs (sometimes it’s Frigg, but she seems to do so with Odin’s involvement). If you want a baby, want to win in battle, whatever, ask Odin. I also love how Odin usually doesn’t show up with great pomp and circumstance. I almost picture a bunch of guys arguing and yelling, when this old dude just sort of saunters in, stabs a sword in a tree, nonchalantly says “pull this out and it’s yours” and then meanders off into the night. The scene where he shows up as Sigurd is preparing to kill Fafnir cracks me up. It’s like that slightly annoying elderly neighbor who shows up anytime you are working on a project in the garage. John Deere hat (with an eight legged deer) over the crew cut he’s had since “dubya dubya two”, plaid shirt, red suspenders, eyepatch, chewing on a toothpick, rocking back on his heels, hands (with one missing finger) shoved in his pockets and squinting up at the sky, “Hullo der! Sooo… whatcha got going on der? I remember back in tha’ day when we’d kill a dragon, we’d dig TWO trenches. But dat’s just me…. I hear da fishin’s good up at da lake dis year…” (My grandparents were old school rural Washingtonians, I couldn’t help casting my grandfather as Odin. As a completely tangential side note, many of my grandparents friends were loggers, farmers, etc and were missing body parts either from the war or hazardous work. When I was a little girl I thought that as you got older parts of you fell off like leaves on a tree.).

Odin’s favor is fleeting. I firmly believe that this is due to his knowledge of future events. He manipulates events like Bobby Fischer with a chess board. He stacks the deck by filling his hall with the best einherjar he can, but not before he has ensured they have done as much to further the plot here on earth. Odin doesn’t take away his favor because you have failed him, he does so because it’s time to do so.

I am still convinced that Brynhild’s continued sorrows are due to her defiance of Odin. She chooses to kill the king that Odin has promised victory to, and he puts her in a state of suspended animation on a mountain top surrounded by flame. This seems like an odd punishment, aside from the fact that inactivity would be hell for a shieldmaiden. In reality, I believe he is punishing her by setting up a lifetime of having break to every oath she has ever made to herself. She broke her oath to Odin, there for all her oaths will be broken. He has taken her free will from her, and forced her to give up the one thing that means anything to her; being a shieldmaiden. Brynhild/Brunhilde has always been my favorite character, and one that I can personally relate to. As someone who was, in a very literal way, raised by my mother to be a “sheildmaiden” (she made sure I knew how to fight, that I was tough, that I was unafraid to compete with men, that I had a sense of honor, etc. She was like the Great Santini in a Maidenform bra), I know how hard it is to lay down your arms. I always joked that I married my husband because he was the first man I ever met who could best me in a fair fight, not to mention he really did ride through the fire for me early in our courtship (the first year we were dating I ended up unemployed, both my grandparents died, and I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The fact that he didn’t run for the hills still amazes me.). She is a woman who trusted her own judgment over Odin’s and paid by always having her heart’s desire dangled just out of reach. This may seem like a particularly cruel act on Odin’s part, but when you think about it the message is that you don NOT mess with Odin’s plans. Because Odin’s plans are Fate’s plans, and you can not change fate in the world of the Norse. The warp is set, the weft must follow. If Odin were to go easy on someone who meddled with the order, there would be chaos. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! (I have now quoted Ghostbusters in my English class. Good night, Bellingham!)

People More Interesting Than Sigurd (Just About Everyone)

People More Interesting Than Sigurd (Just About Everyone)

OK, this is where things start getting confused for me. Because the story of Sigurd the Dragonslyer is basically the “ur-myth” for Northern Europeans, I always get it confused with millions of similar stories. Even rereading it now I am confused, and I keep having to refer back to it to remember what happened. I am going to try and stick with the saga version for this, but please be forgiving if I wander a bit.

The interesting thing about Sigurd is how completely uninteresting he is. The heroes of Norse mythology tend to be extremely flat and one-dimensional. They are large, brave, strong, and great warriors… and that’s about it. It’s the ancillary characters that are truly fascinating. Take Fafnir, for example. Fafnir starts out as your average dull Norse warrior, brave, strong, blah blah blah. Then Loki kills his brother, his father takes Odin and Hoenir captive, and Loki has to pay to get them back. Suddenly, Fafnir becomes greedy, kills his father, steals the gold, and becomes a horrific poisonous serpent and J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal poster boy. I’m not really sure why he suddenly goes from honorable warrior to fire-breathing patricidal douche, but he’s at least more interesting as a dragon. Sigurd, on the other hand, seems to drift from life event to life event. “Go kill the dragon, Sigurd.” “Switch bodies with me, Sigurd.” “Drink this magic potion, Sigurd.” Dude is either bone stupid or just really eager to please. We never really get a sense of how he feels about what he is doing, what is driving him. All of his actions are punctuated with “raaaaaahhhhrrr!” and a mighty charge towards the danger, or which ever direction someone has pointed him in.

The women of these stories are far more often the real stars. Brynhild is complex, driven, and tormented. She has stated values and a very specific world view. She has motives for her actions, she interacts with her world, Sigurd only reacts to his. In the Poetic Edda version of his fight with Fafnir, Fafnir warns him repeatedly that the gold will be his undoing and that Regin will betray him. Sigurd’s response is to continue on his single-minded path to ruin. Snicker-snack, the deed is done. In many of these stories, the concept of the concrete tapestry of “urd” (or wyrd, fate or destiny) is demonstrated by the actions of bull-headed heroes who blindly ignore all warnings and forge ahead with their mission. They are pathologically incapable of veering off course. Sadly, this does not lead to very sympathetic or relatable characters for modern readers. Sigurd has no inner conflict, in fact the one place where he could have had inner conflict, his betrothal to Brynhild being obliterated by Grimhild’s memory wipe potion, is taken away from him.

Another important thing to note, Brynhild’s oaths are to herself, she is not beholden to anyone else. The men tend to take oaths to one another. Gunnar and Hogni can’t kill Sigurd because they have sworn oaths to him, but Guttorm can. As restrictive as a woman’s world was in that time, men were bound by equally stringent and confining social rules. Of course, this doesn’t make them any less impulsive. When Brynhild is told of Sigurd and Gunnar’s deception, she outright accuses Sigurd of impropriety. Her husband Gunnar then reacts by devising a plan to kill Sigurd, confirming that it was not Gunnar who rescued her from her bower (he would have know if things had gotten extra friendly on the mountain if it had been). Brynhild has confirmation, but Gunnar just assumes she is being truthful. Just like Sigurd assumes the birds are being truthful when they tell him Regin means to do him harm. Time and time again, the men of Norse myth burst forth with swords drawn at the slightest provocation, whereas the women are more than happy to bide their time before getting their revenge. Just know that the longer that revenge festers, the more painful it will be in the end. Not to mention the more dead children she will leave in her wake. Seriously, I am going to start a dead baby body count for these stories. There is this attitude of “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out again for the simple reason I don’t like your daddy”.

Vengeance is a Bitch

Vengeance is a Bitch

(For some reason, this was especially hard to write about. I have taken a much more informal tone, since it was the only way I could squeeze out my journal entry this week.)

Wow. These Volsung women are absolute pros when it comes to revenge. Let’s start with Sigyn, shall we? Girlfriend is promised to a man she doesn’t want to marry (thanks, dad). Because her dad is an arrogant jerk, he slights the new husband, ignores her warnings, and ends up crow-fodder for his efforts. Meanwhile, Sigyn is sitting back rolling her eyes at the massive “dick-measuring contest” going on around her and putting her plans for revenge into motion. Her vengeance is amazing in it’s heartless indifference to every other person in the story. Bitch is a one woman juggernaut of death and destruction. She begins by throwing her brothers to the wolves- literally. She has them subjected prolonged torment and death, until only Sigmund is left. Then, in a display of extreme Viking bad-assery, dude bites the tongue out of a giant she-wolf’s head and uses her death throes to free himself.

Now comes a display of physical stamina and patience unparallelled in history. Princess Sam Peckinpah decides to start having babies. Once these boys are old enough, she tests their mettle by sewing their sleeves to their wrists and ripping them off again. And I thought my mother was bad. She then sends them to live with their dear Uncle Siggy in the forest. When the boys fail the flour sack test, her reaction is to shrug and say, “Kill the little bastard, I’ll make more”. Eventually, she ends up impregnated by her own brother through an oddly convoluted “Freaky Friday” switch with a sorceress (which is a word we should bring back in to the common vernacular. I think I want to be known as Scarlett the Sorceress. Or maybe “The Scarlett Sorceress”. Yeah, that rolls off the tongue well… but I digress). The end result of this unholy union, Sinfjotli, passes the tests and runs off with Uncle Siggy to be raised in the family tradition of murder, mayhem, and windpipe biting. Meanwhile, Sigyn is back at the ranch, popping out more royal crib lizards (just in case, ya know?) and waiting for Volsungageddon. When Siggy and Son show up to hand out ass-kickings and lollipops, her precious little darlings immediately run and narc them out to her husband. When Sigyn learns of this, her advice to her brother is to squash the little bugs and be done with them. He isn’t up to the task, but their Stockholm Syndrome victim of a son had no problem making toddler kebabs out of them, like any inbred psychopath raised in a hole in the forest would. Things happen, people die, our heroes are bested and then freed by Sigyn the Human Wrecking Ball. The story culminates in Siggy and Son lighting the castle on fire with King Fuckmuppet and his Merry Band of Morons (because, seriously, he never questioned the fact that his first three sons just disappeared? Or that his wife was constantly in the corner twirling her mustache and cackling like a silent movie villain?) inside. Sigyn, having destroyed everything that ever came out of her vagina and most things in the general vicinity of it, decides that a world without anything to kill is no world for her, and jumps into the fire.

This story is a prime example of why I love the way women are portrayed in Norse mythology. Unlike so many women of yore, they aren’t just motivated by petty jealousy or victims of the men around them. These women inherit a crapsack world where they are traded for goods and services like Monopoly money, but instead of whining about it, they sink the whole bloody ship. We get to see them fight for honor and revenge, they are fearless and sacrificing. No wonder women are viewed as duplicitous and untrustworthy. If you kick a dog enough that it bites you it becomes a bad dog. Is Sigyn a hero? Depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, she is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want and her entire family is killed, so spends 30 years of her life plotting her vengeance with a single-mindedness that is awesome in it’s tunnel vision. On the other hand, she is willing to annihilate everyone in her path to get to that goal, including her own offspring. I feel a certain amount of admiration for her dedication and cunning, but damn, bitch, you scary!

Ethics and Numbers

Ethics and Numbers

One of the challenges of this class is writing these journal entries. I have spent the last year or two studying mythology, linguistics, and history for a pagan clergy program, and I am required to submit essays and analysis throughout. I apologize if my focus tends to shift to subjects or angles not as pertinent to our goals as you might like, but I am finding it difficult to read this material without analyzing the mythology in the context of my previous studies (of course, I am going to get my backside handed to me during the Celtic mythology portion of the class. I am woefully ignorant in that subject.). I have also tried to keep my own religious views out of it as much as possible, but a few of the topics covered in the Havamal and some of the things we have discussed in class are just far too tempting. This is also sort of “what I do”, analyzing mythology makes me bounce like Tigger, so forgive me for my self-indulgence.

The repeated use of the numbers three and nine in Norse mythology are fascinating to me. Three is a number humans seem obsessed with in general, and nine is three squared, or a perfect set of threes. According to people in the “woo woo” world (pagans, new agers, hippies and the like) this makes nine the perfect representation of three. The use of nine in Norse mythology is very deliberate. Rarely does a specific number occur in Norse mythology that isn’t a nine or a three. The Nine Worlds, Odin’s nine days hanging on the tree, Heimdall’s nine mothers, etc. In most modern Heathen traditions, you are expected to strive for the nine virtues. These vary depending on the specific tradition, but they typically revolve around values like courage, truth, honor, loyalty, discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance. While the specific values might vary slightly, they are always drawn mostly from the Hávamál. Some of us further break these down into a triad of triads, linking things like courage and honor with discipline; truth and fidelity with hospitality; self-reliance and industriousness with perseverance. This breaks down the basic values of the Havamal into how you relate to your world, how you relate to your kindred, and how yourself. Ostensibly, this is the framework for how the modern Heathen should relate to the gods. I found it interesting that the class interpreted many lines in the Havamal as saying that “ignorance is bliss”. I have always seen those lines as saying that humility of intellect is what is important. No matter how much you know, you know nothing, and that is good. You don’t want to be burdened with the kind of knowledge Odin has. To know the unavoidable future is to despair. Life should always have a spoiler alert attached. That isn’t the same as ignorance being blissful, that is an admission to the failings of your own mortal flesh. It is better to live your life with dignity, courage, and loyalty to yourself, your family, and your kindred. This isn’t a guide to how to get into “heaven” or to spiritual enlightenment, it’s a survival guide to life in Norse society. In a society where people could and would kill each other over slights and discord most of us in the modern world would consider trivial, you had to have a strong code of honor and respect.

One of my favorite parts of the Havamal is the section where Odin describes his trials on the tree. Then again, who doesn’t love a grueling shamanic journey into the abyss in search of arcane knowledge? However, what this actually means is a mystery. Was this suffering for the purpose of revealing the art of divination? Language? Writing? Sacred symbols? Different scholars say different things. Personally, I think that it’s all of the above. Language is “magic”, it weaves our world and set events in motion. Words have power, regardless of whether or not you think that power is mystical in origin. Many of the guidelines laid out in the Havamal revolve around how we use words, how we communicate with others, how we interpret their words. This section is followed by the list of charms, many of which correspond to words that are as powerful and primal today as they were then; help, healing, death, shelter, glory, and love. Humans turn to magic for the same basic needs universally. Are the runes Odin struggled to retrieve the cipher to these universal needs?

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

I have read The Poetic Edda several times, and each time I find something new that I didn’t see before. Usually, I enjoy reading it, but this version is proving to be a bit taxing. I have the Bellows version, which is nice because he breaks down which parts come from the Codex Regius and which come from the Hauksbok. He also explains the kennings and other references that we might not understand clearly in the modern world. It’s not 100% chocked full of awesome, but it is very helpful when trying to wade through some extremely dense and obscure reading. To be completely honest, the Larrington version, although probably more accurate, reads like an Ikea manual. I can appreciate the need for accuracy, that is crucial in understanding the myths, but I really wish there had been some effort put forth into preserving the loveliness of the language and cleverness of word play.

For example, the first verse of the Larrington translation is:

Attention I ask from all sacred people,

greater and lesser, the offspring of Heimdall

Father of the Slain, you wished that I should declare

the ancient histories of men and gods, those which I

remember from the first

That’s nice… for an overhead announcement at an airport. I half expected the next verse to be about how there is no parking in the white zone (Bifrost is for loading and unloading only…)

The same verse from Bellows:

Hearing I ask from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, that well I relate
Old tales I remember of men long ago.

Now we’re cooking with Nordic gas! This version has spirit and passion. I understand not only the intent of the text more clearly, but I am already engaged (you had me at “Heimdall”). I find it hard to believe that the only way Larrington could give us a more accurate text was to strip it of any actual poetry. After researching the translator (because I do that), I was even further baffled to find that one of her areas of study is medieval emotion. When verses like:

In their dwellings at peace they played at tables,
Of gold no lack did the gods then know,–
Till thither came up giant-maids three,
Huge of might, out of Jotunheim.


They played chequers in the meadow, they were merry,

They did not lack for gold at all,

until three giant girls came,

mighty and powerful, out of Giantland.

Chequers? Chequers?? Did she really just tell me that the gods played checkers on the lawn like a bunch of bored retirees? Even if they were playing checkers, at least flower that language up a bit. That isn’t epic poetry, that sounds like a sunny afternoon at a nursing home. I do understand why this text was chosen for our class, it is the current accepted translation, but I do wish that the current accepted translation was more artfully done. Why did she replace words like “jötnar“? Jötunheimr sounds like a place where giants live, Giantland sounds like a theme park.

I suppose my point is this; The Poetic Edda is extremely important as an historical document. It is crucial we get the facts as straight as possible if we are to understand the subject matter. However, just as important to the document is the art of the words. There are layers of meaning that are lost if we strip soul from the piece. While it is entirely possible this “soul” is something that we ourselves have invested in the work after the fact, I honestly don’t feel that this in and of itself invalidates the importance of the end result. Authenticity is important, but the imagery and what the work symbolizes are important as well.



I am realizing these journal entries are going to be difficult to keep on topic, since I have already read a lot of the material, and my ideas are sort of interwoven with things we have not and may not cover in class. Please bear with me, and I apologize in advance.

The concept of Yggdrasill as axis mundi (and similarly Irminsul in Continental Europe) is complex and not easily explained. While the symbolic world tree is a near-global theme, Yggdrasil adds an absurd menagerie and has entire words hanging on it like Christmas ornaments. The translation of the name seems to be “Odin’s Horse”, which in turn is a sort of kenning for “Odin’s Gallows” (as a rider on a horse, so is the hanged man on the gallows). This points to Yggdrasil being the tree that Odin hung from when he sacrificed himself to discover the gift of the runes (Havamal). I have always wondered if this meant he discovered writing or the means of divination. I personally, have always thought that this shamanic experience implied that the revelation of the runes was much more than just the acquisition of an alphabet. The fact that this occurs on the World Tree, the center of the universe is important. Odin says he sacrificed himself to himself, but in doing so he also sacrifices himself to the cosmos. By stripping away the ego and surrendering to the universe, he is able to come back with sacred knowledge.

The reference to the tree as a gallows also gives it an element of death. It is frequently described as being a creature in a perpetual state of decay, on the brink of dying and of having to be sustained by the mud formed by the waters of Fate by the Norns. It is in constant agony, tormented by the myriad of lifeforms that call it home. It is life, and life is suffering. It is death, but it can not die, fate keeps it going. The tendency of Norse myth to incorporate bodily fluids, filth, mud, dirt, and decay into how things are formed makes Yggdrasil a potentially nasty place, yet these are the very building blocks of life in general.

The denizens of Yggdrasil are also of interest to me. Mimir’s well (and by extension, his head), the Norns, the various wells, lakes, and seas are all here, as well as many animals. Ratatosk (or Ratatoskr) is interesting, as he delivers verbal “hate mail” between Nidhogg the serpent that gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil and the unnamed eagle at the top. I get confused with the stag that chews the leaves of the tree (part of the great agony of Yggdrasil according to Odin in the Grimnismal) and the 4 harts. I have read things that indicate that they might be one and the same, others that say they are different. If they are different, what purpose do the 4 harts serve? Similarly, are Nidhogg, the Midgard Serpent, and the various other snakes related? The significance of the serpents is curious as well, since I wasn’t aware that snakes were a big part or the environment in Northern Europe.

One of my favorite parts of the Yggdrasil myth is the (possibly post-conversion) story of the last 2 humans to survive Ragnarok. They survive by hiding in the world tree, which is a really cool full-circle for the origins of humanity (Askr and Embla pulled from trees by Odin, Vili, and Ve). From where we began, we will begin again. Even if this is a Christian alteration to the story, it is an great addition in my opinion.

On a somewhat personal note, part of my fascination with the idea of Yggdrasil is not only how widespread the World Tree mytheme is, but that it works on so many levels. The World Tree, the Tree of Knowledge, the tree-like shapes of neurons in the human brain, Odin hangs from the tree to gain knowledge: it’s all so very elegant in its synchronicity. Part of my main focus in studying the Norse myths has been analyzing the structures and elements of the Yggdrasil mythos. How does this way of seeing the universe affect the way a person actually experiences the universe? What is the significance of figures like the squirrel, the eagle, and the serpents? Is the tree meant to represent a “macrocosm within a microcosm” universe? My questions are endless, and there is so much more to learn on the subject.