Common knowledge about squirrels is that they are basically furry rats. Yes, they are adorable in an amnesiac sort of way, what with their inability to remember where they buried their nuts, but the modern squirrel is not typically considered a manifestation of anything monstrous. Interestingly, much like Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks, if you combine Viking aesthetics with squirrels, you produce a malevolent little rodent called Ratatoskr (“Drill Tooth” in Old Norse) that spends his days spreading malicious gossip and trying to start a fight between the eagle at the top of the World Tree Yggdrasil and the angry Wyrm beneath called Níðhöggr, generally with phrases like, “Did you hear what he said about your mother?”
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.