Part 1 of 3
This is the second of two essays on the Germanic cosmology or worldview. In the first essay (“The Fourfold”) I explored the very idea of a “world” itself, freely adapting Martin Heidegger’s analysis of the four moments of human “dwelling”: earth, sky, divinities, and mortals.
To briefly summarize: Mortals live on the sheltering earth, underneath the sky. Living between earth and sky, mortals live between concealing and revealing, or concealing and truth. They draw things out of concealment and into the light, striving for the ideal of truth, clarity, and illumination represented by the daylight sky – while all the time recognizing that revealing never completely triumphs over concealing. The open sky never completely triumphs over the mystery of the sheltering, concealing earth. The very mortality of the mortals opens them to the uncanniness of Being itself: wonder in the face of the fact that things are at all. And in this wonder, they encounter the constants of existence: the immortals, the gods.
This mortal existence – living between the sheltering earth and the mercurial sky, in awareness of divine presence – is what Heidegger calls dwelling. And in dwelling Heidegger says that we bring forth a world. The world does not mean the planet or the universe. The world we live in is a “place,” but it is a place shaped through our attempts to understand, to bring things into the light, and to express what we have discovered. The world, in other words, is a human world. It is earth and sky, and all that lies therein, as encountered – primarily – in the form of myth and poetry.
Poetry speaks when human beings are struck with wonder in the face of Being. Poetry – which includes myth – registers the Being of beings. It is the most basic thing about us that makes us human. Poetry is expressed in language, but Heidegger tells us that the primary purpose of language is to register Being. We are the beings who register and communicate Being in language, and we live in a world that is structured and informed by language. Human beings erect an alternate conceptual or linguistic universe of ideas, generalizations, classifications, myths, stories, theories, ideals, and standards (moral and otherwise). When we do anything at all we are always simultaneously going through this conceptual counter world as well.
But conceptual worlds change – and may even be lost to us. When our ancestors walked on this earth, they walked though the words of their poets. And the poets told them that they dwelt at the intersection of eight worlds, with their world, the ninth world, in the middle. We have lost their world – or worlds. Is there a way back? In this essay I will attempt to find such a way.
In the next section, I will give an account of the details of the Germanic cosmology. I will draw freely from the available sources (chiefly the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson) and weave together a brief summary of the mythic material. My concern here is not to offer an exhaustive survey of all the Germanic cosmological information available in the primary sources, and still less am I concerned to identify where individual points are to be found in different source texts. (Interested readers can consult the sources on their own.) My aims here are not scholarly.
My summary of the Germanic cosmology will attempt to present the available information in a coherent, non-contradictory account. As we shall see, however, this will prove extremely difficult. But this very difficulty will point us toward a way to recover the cosmology of our ancestors. And this will go well beyond merely summarizing what we know about its curious details. My real objective, in fact, will become an attempt to approach the cosmology from within and to make it our own. But getting to that point involves a difficult journey.
2. Overview of the Germanic Cosmology
As is well known, our ancestors believed in the existence of nine, interrelated “worlds.” The central world is the one that we are on, Midhgardhr. The other worlds exist on two planes in relation to us: a vertical plane, and a horizontal plane. On the vertical plane, two worlds exist above Midhgardhr and two worlds below. But these are not “north” and “south.” The four geographic directions all exist on the horizontal plane, and in each direction – north, south, east, and west – is a world.
Let’s begin on the horizontal plane with north and south, for the worlds there precede all the others in time. In the south is Muspellsheimr, which (according to the Prose Edda), is actually the first world that existed. (The Prose Edda does not make it clear if Muspellshemr was first in the sense of being eternal, or first to be – somehow – created.) Muspellsheimr is a world of fire. We don’t have much information as to its inhabitants. In fact, all we really know is that the fire giant Surtr lives there. It is said that he will burn the whole world when Ragnarok comes. (The universe begins and ends with fire – and begins again. . . .)
After Muspellsheimr, Snorri tells us that Niflheimr came to be made in the north (though how it was made is a mystery). For some time, only these two worlds existed and – between them – Ginnungagap. This is a kind of void whose name has been interpreted as “yawning gap,” but – more interestingly – as “magical (and creative) power-filled space.” I’m not going to dwell on the Germanic account of creation, because my purpose here is to discuss cosmology (the structure of the cosmos), not cosmogony (its origin). Nevertheless, it should be noted that what we have at the beginning is not a cosmos in the true, Greek sense of order (κόσμος).
In Niflheimr eleven rivers flow from a well called Hvergelmir. The eleven rivers are collectively referred to as Élivágar. These rivers are filled with eitrkvika, which has been translated as “yeasty venom.” Why are these rivers filled with venom? Well, Snorri tells us that they are filled with countless serpents. When the rivers flow far from Hvergelmir and into Ginnungagap, their waters harden into ice. This ice is then struck by sparks and embers flung off from Muspellsheimr.
The rest of the creation story will be very familiar to many of my readers. The frost giant Ymir – progenitor of the other frost giants – is created from the combination of fire and ice. The giant has a humanoid form, and this is an important point. The very first definite thing created by the purely impersonal, unplanned collision of fire and ice is something like an initial sketch of the human. Ymir survives by drinking the milk of the cow Audhumla, while she survives by licking a salty ice block. Soon, “a man” named Buri, who was “handsome and tall and strong” is formed out of the ice block. Here again, we see that it is as if the human is the telos of creation. Something approaching the human keeps popping up automatically out of the interaction of material forces, without anything seeming to direct the process. (As Hegel said, “the very stones cry out and raise themselves to Spirit.”)
However, it is only with the grandchildren of Bor – Ódhinn, Vili, and Vé – that true consciousness (or, rather, self-consciousness) comes on the scene. Prior to them, things happen, but in a kind of disordered, chaotic fashion. This is most apparent in how generation takes place in this earlier, “Titanic” period. A “man” is licked out of a salt block; out of Ymir’s left armpit grow a man and woman; one of Ymir’s legs mates with the other and produces a son (from whom the frost ogres are descended), etc.
Ódhinn, Vili, and Vé kill Ymir, drag his body into the center of Ginnungagap, and construct the cosmos out of his parts. The cosmos – an ordered system of the gods’ own design – comes into being where once there had been only chaos. In the center of this cosmos the gods build Midhgardhr, a “stronghold” for men (whom they create out of two trees, Ask and Embla; see my essay “The Gifts of Ódhinn and his Brothers”). Midhgardhr is round, and is encircled by a world ocean. According to Snorri, giants occupy most of the beach front property, while humans live inland.
The gods also build a world for themselves in the heavens: Ásgardhr . A rainbow bridge, Bifröst, connects the domain of the gods to the earth. Also in heaven (presumably between Midgardhr and Ásgardhr) is the realm of the “light elves,” Alfheimr (or Ljóssálfheimr – “home of the light elves”). These beings are “light” in contrast to the “dark elves” or dwarfs. Snorri tells us that the dwarfs were born in the flesh of Ymir (i.e., the earth) through spontaneous generation (they “quickened in the earth” like maggots). Thus, they are indirectly the creation of the gods, who chose to endow them with “human understanding and the appearance of men.” The realm of the dark elves, under the earth, is Svartálfheimr. And below this, at the furthest below of all, is Hel, the realm of the dead.
So far we have surveyed seven worlds, including all those that lie along the vertical plane:
Muspellsheimr (S) Midgardhr Niflheimr (N)
Two more worlds remain to be discussed, both of which are to be found on the horizontal plane. West of Midgardr is Vanaheimr, home of the Vanir. These are chthonic gods, gods of fertility: Freya, Freyr, Njördhr, Ing, and possibly others. Which of the Vanir actually live in Vanaheimr is not clear, however. Freya is found among the Aesir in Ásgardhr , while Freyr is actually supposed to live in Alfheimr. In the east, opposite Vanaheimr, is Jötunheimr (or Utgardhr): home of the Etins, or giants. (Although, as we have seen, giants are to be found elsewhere: in Muspellsheimr and in Midgardhr.)
Now, in addition to the foregoing description of the nine “worlds,” our brief tour of the universe would not be complete without an account of the world tree Yggdrasil, which Snorri describes as an ash. (As we shall see, however, squaring Yggdrasil with the system of nine worlds presents some difficult problems.) First of all, Snorri tells us that “its branches spread out over the whole world and reach up over heaven.” The tree has three roots: one is “among the Aesir.” Under this root is the spring of Urdhr, where the gods hold their council of justice. The second is “among the frost giants where once was Ginnungagap.” Under this root is the well of Mimir, which Ódhinn drank from at the cost of one of his eyes.
The third root extends into Niflheim, and under it is the aforementioned well Hvergelmir. The great serpent Nídhhögg gnaws at this root. In the upper branches of Yggdrasil sits a wise eagle and betwixt its eyes perches a hawk called Verdhrfölnir (“weather-bleached one”). A squirrel called Ratatosk scampers up and down Yggdrasil carrying “words of abuse” between the eagle and Nídhhögg. Four harts (i.e., deer) dwell in the branches of the ash, leaping about and eating its foliage. These harts and Nídhhögg together bring great pain to Yggdrasil, and to ameliorate this the Norns (fates) sprinkle the tree with water from Urdhr’s well.
3. “Problems” with the Germanic Cosmology
Now, the above treatment of the Germanic universe omits a good deal, and glides over quite a lot of problems. The problems are basically of two sorts. One has to do with reconciling inconsistencies. The different sources actually give us conflicting information – and the conflicting information is sometimes to be found in a single source (e.g., Snorri). The second problem has to do with concretizing or visualizing the information we are given. For now, I will give some examples of the inconsistencies in the accounts that have come down to us, restricting myself mainly to Snorri. I will note right away, however, that my view of all of these “problems” is very positive. I will argue in the conclusion to this essay that we should view them as stepping stones in a kind of dialectic that will carry us beyond a wrongheaded, overly-literal approach to the cosmology of our ancestors, and closer to our goal of actually entering into and reappropriating how they saw the world.
Let’s consider a few items, in no particular order. Snorri tells us at one point that one of the eleven rivers in Niflheim, Gjöll, is “next to Hel’s gate.” However, Niflheimr is supposed to exist to the north of Midgardhr, on the horizontal plane. Hel exists on the lowest point of the vertical plane, below Midgardhr and the realm of the dwarfs. How can a river in Niflheim adjoin any part of Hel? Actually, the issue of the relation between Niflheim and Hel is fraught with difficulties. Some sources actually locate Hel in Niflheim. And sometimes Hel is a goddess (the goddess of death), sometimes a location that may take its name from the goddess.
The information we have about Midgardhr is rather confusing as well. In some sources Midgardhr seems to denote our earth itself. In Snorri, however, Midhgardhr is actually a “stronghold” occupying part of the earth, built out of Ymir’s eyebrows by the gods and intended to provide human beings protection from the hostility of the giants (who, as noted earlier, occupy the land closest to the encircling world ocean: Utgardhr, the “outer world” or “area outside”). There are problems with the nature of Ásgardhr as well. According to Snorri, after creating humans and giving them Midgardhr to live in, the gods create Ásgardhr for themselves “in the middle of the world.” And within Ásgardhr is the hall known as Hlidhskálf, with Ódhinn’s high seat.
Snorri tells us that Midgardhr is built “round the world” but inland, away from the giant-occupied lands near the encircling ocean. This suggests that Ásgardhr is in the middle of Midhgardhr; a fortress within a fortress. The picture that emerges is one of interlocking circles:
However, later on when writing about what is to be found in heaven, Snorri tells us of a hall built by Ódhinn called Valaskjálf (“Hall of the slain” = Valhalla). In this hall is the “high seat known as Hlidhskálf” from which Ódhinn can survey the entire world. Earlier, however, we are told that Hlidhskálf is in Ásgardhr “in the middle of the world” (again, presumably in the middle of Midhgardhr). Snorri further suggests that the Aesir are in heaven, rather than on earth, when he speaks of the roots of Yggdrasil – though here the account is confusing as well.
As noted earlier, one root is “among the Aesir,” the second is “among the frost giants,” and the third “extends over Niflheimr.” However, just after mentioning all this (and what lies under each root) Snorri writes “the third root of the ash tree is in the sky, and under that root is the very sacred spring called the spring of Urdhr.” Now, this “third root” cannot be the one mentioned earlier, that “extends over Niflheim,” under which is the well Hvergelmir. In fact, the second mention of the “third root” must refer to what is earlier referred to as the first root, which is “among the Aesir.” This makes perfect sense, because Snorri tells us that it is at the well of Urdhr that “the gods hold their court of justice.” But if the root that is “among the Aesir” is in the sky, then the dwelling place of the Aesir would seem to be in heaven, not on earth.
I might also mention that when Snorri speaks of the second root as being “among the frost giants” he specifies that this means “where once was Ginnungagap.” But earlier Snorri tells us that the gods created “the world” in the center of Ginnungagap, out of the parts of Ymir. This suggests that the universe itself occupies the space that once was Ginnungagap, and that this cannot thus be a distinct region inhabited by frost giants.
I have already noted that when speaking of “heaven” Snorri mentions “a great dwelling called Valaskjálf owned by Ódhinn.” In the same section of text he mentions Alfheimr, the home of the light elves. Curiously, he then goes on to write:
It is said that there is another heaven to the south of and above this one, and it is called Andlang [“outstretched”]; and there is yet a third heaven above these ones which is called Vidhbláin, and we think that this place [the hall Gimlé] is there. At present, however, we think that it is inhabited only by light elves.
One hardly knows where to begin. Is Andlang “south of and below” Ásgardhr? Or Alfheimr? Or are both Ásgardhr and Alheimr here thought of as being in one heaven? And what of the third heaven?
Let us now turn briefly to the difficulties surrounding Yggdrasil. At times, Snorri’s descriptions seem to suggest that Yggdrasil grows on earth (i.e., on Midhgardhr). But, of course, this is impossible because it has roots in Niflheim and in heaven (in Ásgardhr , presumably). The location of the other root is problematic, as I’ve already indicated. In the Poetic Edda things are quite different: one root extends into Hel, another into the realm of the frost giants (Niflheimr?), and the third into Midhgardhr. In Snorri, the High One is asked “Where is the chief place or sanctuary of the gods?” He answers: “It is by the ash tree Yggdrasil. There every day the gods have to hold a court.” This turns out to mean, however, that the gods hold court at the well of Urdhr, under one of Yggdrasil’s roots.
On the other hand, Snorri also tells us that Yggdrasil’s branches “spread out over the whole world and reach up over heaven.” We are being told simultaneously that Yggdrasil’s branches reach up over heaven – and that one of its roots is in heaven as well. This is indeed a very strange tree. When we are told that Yggdrasil’s branches “spread out over the whole world” this cannot simply mean Midhgardhr, for the simple reason that – as just noted – those branches reach up over heaven as well. So, “world” here seems to mean universe. It appears we are therefore supposed to imagine Yggdrasil stretching throughout all the different worlds.
Questions now abound. Where is the base of Yggdrasil (the base, not the roots)? How was it created? There is nothing in the account of the creation of the world out of Ymir to explain how Yggdrasil comes into being. Was it created by the gods? If so, it seems strange that Ódhinn would hang himself on his own creation in order to achieve runic wisdom. We’ve been given some basic sense of “where” the different worlds are vis-à-vis Midhgardhr, but perhaps a better question would be what are the different worlds? Midhgardhr is described as “round,” but this doesn’t mean that it is a ball. It is much more probably on the order of the ancient Greek conception of the earth as a kind of rounded plate with encircling ocean.
Is Ásgardhr a similar disc or plate hanging in heaven, somewhere within the foliage of Yggdrasil? Are Muspellsheimr, Niflheimr, Jötunheimr, and Vanaheimr to the north, south, east, and west of Midgardhr in the sense of all lying on the same earth? Or are they (as they are often visually depicted) physically detached “worlds” lying in those four directions? Is Hel “under” the earth in the sense of being deep within it or, again, in the sense of being a detached world? Things get even murkier when we look back to the Titanic era that precedes the arrival of the gods. Where are Ymir and Audhumla? The earth has not been created yet.
And are there really “nine worlds”? We have seen that it is not entirely clear, for example, if Midhgardhr is a separate world or an enclosure within a world. And it is not clear that there is a separate “world” of the giants, as the giants are sometimes spoken of as living at the outer edges of Midhgardhr. Further, we have also heard talk from Snorri about multiple “heavens” (which might put the number of worlds at more than nine). We find frequent talk about “nine worlds” among followers of today’s Ásatrú movement, but perhaps this is mistaken.
And yet the seeress in Voluspa clearly says “I remember nine worlds.”
There are many more questions and problems that we could raise. Having raised them, two roads present themselves to us, and we have to decide which one we want to travel. One is to dismiss these mythic accounts as “primitive” and fraught with inconsistencies for the simple reason that they are the products of simple, primitive minds. I will assume I don’t need to spend too much time convincing my readers of the arrogance and foolishness of this approach. We must entertain instead the possibility that we are dealing with a form of “thought” – a way of looking at the world – which is extraordinarily different from our modern way. And that it is our modern way that generates the sort of “problems” discussed above. We must entertain the idea that the “mytho-poetic thought” of our ancestors is, in fact, an extraordinarily subtle, powerful, and significant way not just of looking at the world, but of being in the world – and that it has been largely lost to us. I will return to the nature of mytho-poetic thought in the conclusion.
Recovering the worldview of our ancestors involves getting at it from within. Consider the following. Our ancestors stood on the same earth that we inhabit. When they gathered in clearings in the Teutoburg Forest they saw (mostly) the same flora and fauna that we do today. Yet though virtually the same images were presented to them, they saw quite differently. For these images were interpreted by them in very different terms.
For our ancestors, the trees were the hairs of Ymir. The rocks and pebbles at one’s feet were Ymir’s teeth and broken bones, the earth his decayed flesh. And beneath the earth there was another world, that of the dwarfs. Looking up to the bright heaven, one saw Ymir’s brains floating by (the clouds), and above them – somewhere – one knew the elves were there. And, above them, the gods. After a rain, one could see Bifröst gleaming on the horizon – and one thought of the gods transiting back and forth between heaven and earth. At night one saw the sparks and embers of Muspellsheimer – the land in the distant south – hanging in the sky. And one hurried home through the forest, both fascinated and terrified by the possibility of encountering the one-eyed Wanderer.
Was all this believed in literally? Undoubtedly it was – but, as I will discuss in my conclusion, the concept of “literal belief” is trickier than most people assume it is, at least when we are discussing how our pre-modern ancestors thought and felt. Our ancestors could run their fingers through the soil and feel a chill, convinced they were handling the literal flesh of Ymir. But this type of experience was primarily a way in which things were given meaning, rather than literally “explained.” Their experience of the natural and human worlds was overlaid with these meanings, which were understood to be true – but not exactly in the sense of what we mean by “literal truth.” (Again, I will discuss this point more fully in my conclusion.)
There is a deeper truth than the literal. The truth, as Heidegger argues, is what reveals the world to us; that which brings things out of concealment. Myth does this. It lights up the world for us and helps us to see fundamental truths. Myth, which is taken by moderns to be synonymous with “falsehood” (e.g., “that’s only a myth”) is thus profound truth – truer than “literal truth,” and truer than history.
Obviously, to find our way back into seeing the world as our ancestors did – to understand their worldview from within – is no easy task. It requires an insight into the inner meaning of the nine worlds discussed in section two above. But that is an ambitious undertaking. The following represents only a first step.
 However, the horizontal plane may actually be tilted – with the world in the north below the one in the south. This is because – as Edred Thorsson points out – the Indo-European root from which “north” is derived (*ner-) meant “under.” See Edred Thorsson, Runelore (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1987), 155.
 Because of the ginn-prefix, which is also found in terms denoting sacrality. See Jan De Vries, Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 167.
 See Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 33.
 Snorri’s account seems to suggest that Audhumla appears after Ymir. However, it must be acknowledged that an argument can be made – based upon Snorri’s text – that the two appear together.
 Prose Edda, 34.
 See G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Nature, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 15.
 A common mythological motif is the division of time into two periods: that of the Titans (as in Greek mythology), who pre-exist the gods – and that of the gods, who usurp the titans. The first period is a period of chaos – of disorder in the sense both of randomness and in the sense of a reign of monstrosities. The gods negate this and bring about an order of their own design, in which a regularity of cycles and patterns prevails. See my essay “The Missing Man in Norse Cosmogony” in Summoning the Gods (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2011).
 Prose Edda, 41.
 Edred Thorsson argues in Runelore (p. 188) that the Etins are not necessarily giants. Rudolf Simek disagrees, stating that ON jǫtunn is “the generic term for giants.” See Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer), 107.
 Prose Edda, 42-43.
 In Snorri’s account, Hel is a goddess, the daughter of Loki. Snorri tells us that Ódhinn “threw Hel into Niflheimr and gave her authority over nine worlds, on the condition that she shared all her provisions with those who were sent to her, namely men who die from disease or old age” (Poetic Edda, 56). So here Hel is not a place but a goddess, and the abode of those who die straw deaths is in Niflheimr. However, this is thought to represent a late personification of Hel, which is clearly depicted as a “world” in other, earlier sources. That Hel in Snorri has “authority over nine worlds” can simply mean that she, as personification of death, has power over the inhabitants of the nine worlds (save those warriors who die in battle).
 Prose Edda, 46.
 Prose Edda, 43.
 Prose Edda, 43.
 Prose Edda, 47.
 Gríminsmál 31. See The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 56.
 Prose Edda, 42.
 Prose Edda, 42.
 Voluspa 2. Poetic Edda, 4.