The cosmology of Norse mythology has 'nine homeworlds', unified by the world tree Yggdrasil. Mapping the nine worlds escapes precision because the Poetic Edda often alludes vaguely, and the Prose Edda may be influenced by medieval Christian cosmology. The Norse creation myth tells how everything came into existence in the gap between fire and ice, and how the gods shaped the homeworld of humans.
In the beginning, there were two regions: Muspelheim in the south, full of fire, light and heat; and Niflheim (cf. "unfallen" nephilim and unfalling ) in the north, full of arctic waters, mists, and cold. Between them stretched the yawning emptiness of Ginnungagap. Rivers of fire, called hellwaves, flowed outward away from the burning hot firmament in Muspelheim and cooled as they got further from their source, eventually solidifying and forming layer after layer of ice in Niflheim. Between these two extremes, in the center of Ginnungagap, the river was mild and hospitable and here life arose. Eventually, there evolved a race of fire giants, called the sons of Muspell (cf. Mazda), that lived in Muspelheim. (cf. Ra hatching from the world egg).
- Gylfaginning 5
- [Intending to find out how he might journey to Asgard, Ganglere, who was actually king Gylfe, travelled to Valhalla and asked Harr, Jafnhar, and Thridi a series of questions.] Said Ganglere: What took place before the races came into existence, and men increased and multiplied? Replied Har, explaining, that as soon as the streams, that are called the Élivágar, had come so far from their source that the venomous yeast which flowed with them hardened, as does dross that runs from the fire, then it turned into ice. And when this ice stopped and flowed no more, then gathered over it the drizzling rain that arose from the venom and froze into rime, and one layer of ice was laid upon the other clear into Ginungagap.
- Gylfaginning 5
- As cold and all things grim proceeded from Niflheim, so that which bordered on Muspelheim was hot and bright, and Ginungagap was as warm and mild as windless air. And when the heated blasts from Muspelheim met the rime, so that it melted into drops, then, by the might of he-who-sent-the-heat [Surtr/Ra?], the drops quickened into life and took the likeness of a man, who got the name Ymir.
From Ymir's left armpit, a man and woman were born and from his legs a son was born. From these come the races that are called Icemen. (cf. the 100-handed Typhon)
- Gylfaginning 5
- By no means do we believe him to be god; evil was he and all his offspring, them we call Icemen. It is said that when he slept he fell into a sweat, and then there grew under his left arm a man and a woman, and one of his feet begat with the other a son. From these come the races that are called Icemen
Over the course of three days the hermaphroditic cow Audhumbla (cf. Gavaevodata or the 100-breasted Artemis) managed, by licking the ice, to release Buri who had somehow become "buried" in the ice.
Buri's son Borr had three sons, the Æsir gods Óðinn, Vili and Vé. The three "slew" Ymir, and all of the icemen except Bergelmir were drowned (baptised as it were) in the deluge of blood that flowed from Ymir's wounds. This may or may not be the war known as the Æsir–Vanir War.
From Ymir's body, they made the world.
- Gylfaginning 8
- They took the body of Ymir, carried it into the midst of Ginungagap and made of him the earth.
- Of his blood they made the seas and lakes;
- of his flesh the earth was made,
- but of his bones the rocks;
- of his teath and jaws, and of the bones that were broken, they made stones and pebbles.
- Jafnhar remarked: Of the blood that flowed from the wounds, and was free they made the ocean;
- they fastened the earth together and around it they laid this ocean in a ring without,
- and it must seem to most men impossible to cross it.
- Thride added: They took his skull and made thereof the sky, and raised it over the earth with four sides.
- Under each corner they set a dwarf, and the four dwarfs were called Austre (East), Vestre (West), Nordre (North), Sudre (South).
- ...The earth is round, and without it round about lies the deep ocean, and along the outer strand of that sea they gave lands for the giant races to dwell in; and against the attack of restless giants they built a burg within the sea and around the earth. For this purpose they used the giant Ymir's eyebrows, and they called the burg Midgard.
Next they sent Night and Day to drive around the heavens in horse-drawn chariots. They also set a girl Sun and a boy Moon on paths across the sky. These two must drive fast to outrun the wolves who pursued them.
- Gylfaginning 8
- Then they took glowing sparks, that were loose and had been cast out from Muspelheim, and placed them in the midst of the boundless heaven, both above and below, to light up heaven and earth...
- Then took Alfather Night and her son Day, gave them two horses and two cars, and set them up in heaven to drive around the earth, each in twelve hours by turns. Night rides first on the horse which is called Hrimfaxe, and every morning he bedews the earth with the foam from his bit. The horse on which Day rides is called Skinfaxe, and with his mane he lights up all the sky and the earth.
- Mundilfare...called his son Moon, and his daughter...he called Sun. But the gods became wroth at this arrogance, took both the brother and the sister, set them up in heaven, and made Sun drive the horses that draw the car of the sun, which the gods had made to light up the world from sparks that flew out of Muspelheim...Moon guides the course of the moon, and rules its waxing and waning.
Svalinn is a legendary shield which stands before the sun. The name Svalinn means "cold" or "chill" and is derived from the verb svala means "cool"; svala sér means "to slake one's thirst" and svala-drykkr is a "icing draught" (cf. Dvalinn). It is attested in original Grímnismál:
- Grímnismál 38,
- In front of the sun
- does Svalinn stand,
- The shield for the shining god;
- Mountains and sea
- would be set in flames
- If it fell from before the sun.
The world will end during the events of Ragnarök when the fire giants led by Surtr destroy heaven and earth. However, the palace Gimle (or Grimle) in the third heaven called Vidblain shall stand even when heaven and earth shall have passed away. In this hall the good and righteous shall dwell through all ages.
- Gylfaginning 17
- It is said that to the south and above this heaven is another heaven, which is called Andlang. But there is a third, which is above these, and is called Vidblain, and in this heaven we believe this mansion (Gimle) to be situated; but we deem that the light-elves alone dwell in it now.
Bifrost is the rainbow bridge to Asgard.
- Gylfaginning 13
- Then asked Ganglere (actually king Gylfe in disguise): What is the path from earth to heaven? Har answered, laughing: Foolishly do you now ask (Gylfaginning literally means "the making a fool of Gylfe"). Have you not been told that the gods made a bridge from earth to heaven, which is called Bifrost? You must have seen it. It may be that you call it the rainbow. It has three colors, is very strong, and is made with more craft and skill than other structures. Still, however strong it is, it will break when the sons of Muspel come to ride over it,
The realm of the Norse gods, the Æsir (cf. Os-iris, "many-eyes"), is called Asgard (Ásgarðr) or the 'Townwall of the Ás'. The Æsir built it after the homeworld of humans, and it contains many halls. Odin's hall, Válaskjálf, is roofed in silver. He can sit within it and view all the worlds at once. Gimli, a hall roofed in gold, to which righteous men are said to go after death, also lies somewhere in Asgard. Valhalla, the hall of the slain, is the feast hall of Odin. Those who died in battle are then raised in the evening to feast in Valhalla. Two important gods, the brother and sister, Freyr and Freyja, are citizens of Ásgarðr but actually exchange-hostages from Vanaheimr. Heimdall, the god's warden, dwells beside Bifröst, the rainbow bridge which is the path "to heaven from earth" (lit. "til himins af jörðu"). Each day, the gods ride over Bifröst from Asgard to their meeting place at the Well of Urd.
A cosmic ash tree, Yggdrasil, lies at the center of the Norse cosmos.
- Gylfaginning 15
- This ash is the best and greatest of all trees; its branches spread over all the world, and reach up above heaven. Three roots sustain the tree and stand wide apart; one root is with the asas and another with the frost-giants, where Ginungagap formerly was [but which is now flooded]; the third reaches into Niflheim; under it is Hvergelmir, where Nidhug gnaws the root from below. But under the second root, which extends to the frost-giants, is the well of Mimir, wherein knowledge and wisdom are concealed...The third root of the ash is in heaven, and beneath it is the most sacred fountain of Urd. The asas riding hither every day over Bifrost, which is also called Asa-bridge.
The tree is tended by the Norns, who live near it. Each day, they water it with pure water and whiten it with clay from the spring to preserve it. The water falls down to the earth as dew.
- Gylfaginning 15
- A hall stands there, fair, under the ash by the well, and out of that hall come three maids, who are called thus: Urdr, Verdandi, Skuld; these maids determine the period of men's lives: we call them Norns; but there are many norns: those who come to each child that is born, to appoint his life; these are of the race of the gods, but the second are of the Elf-people, and the third are of the kindred of the dwarves
Animals continually feed on the tree, threatening it, but its vitality persists evergreen as it heals and nourishes the vibrant aggression of life. On the topmost branch of the tree sits an eagle. The beating of its wings cause the winds in the world of men. At the root of the tree lies a great serpent, Niðhǫggr, gnawing at it continuously. The squirrel Ratatosk carries insults from one to the other. Harts and goats devour the branches and tender shoots.
The phrase 'nine homeworlds' is Níu Heimar in Old Norse. Relating to another term heima meaning 'home' or 'homestead', the term heimr means a 'place of abode' in the sense of a homeland or 'region', or in a larger sense a 'world'. These nine homeworlds include the earth, called Miðgarðr, the homeworld where humans as a family dwell.
In the Poetic Edda, the phrase Níu Heimar occurs in the following Old Norse texts.
- 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, the phrase occurs here.
- 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 'homeworld' (heimr) 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 enchanting-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 homeworld of a particular family of beings. By inference, they correspond to the following place names mentioned elsewhere in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda.
- Æsir (gods): Ásaheimr (see Ásgarðr).
- Vanir (gods): Vanaheimr.
- Jötnar (giants): Jötunheimr.
- Álfar (elves): Álfheimr.
- Náir (corpses, the other world of the dead): Hel.
- Menn (humans): Manheimr (see Miðgarðr).
The homeworld of the Dvergar is missing from the above list. Elsewhere, the poem mentions the Dvergar separately from the other families of beings. For example, Alvíssmál 14 lists the Dvergar as distinct from the Álf. Moreover, the two place names, Álfheimr and Svartálfaheimr, confirm there are two separate heimar or 'homeworlds', one for each family. The byname Svartálfar or 'Black Elves' refers to the Dvergar. and likewise Svartálfaheimr or the 'Homeworld of the Black Elves' is the home of the dwarf Brokkr (Skáldskaparmál 46). Alternatively, the home of the Dvergar is called Niðavellir or the 'Downward Fields' (Völuspá 37). Thus, these families of beings mentioned in the poem Alvíssmál are identified with seven of the nine homeworlds.
- 7. Svartálfar (Dark Elves, Dvergar, Døkkálfar): Svartálfaheimr.
Seven homeworlds for seven families of beings. The last two of the homeworlds are less certain. Usually, the list adds the primordial realms of the elements of ice and fire, counting them as 'homeworlds'. The place name of the element of ice, Niflheimr, means the arctic 'Mist Homeworld', suggesting it is one of the Nine 'Homeworlds'.
The above identies for the Nine Homeworlds are common. However the relationships between these and other significant realms have resulted in confusion. Precise mapping remains uncertain. For example, Hel is said to be located in Niflheim:
- As for Hel, ... Odin sent her down into the realm of mist and darkness, Niflheim. There she rules a kingdom encircled by a high wall and secured by strong gates.
Later scribes may have believed Hel, or at least Niflhel, was identical with Niflheimr. Properly, Niflhel is the lowest level of Hel where the evil dead suffer torment, whereas Niflheimr is the primordeal realm of icy mist, yet some early manuscripts consistently confuse these two names.
- "The confusion between Niflheim and Nifhel is summed up by variation in the manuscript of Snorri's [Prose] Edda'. In describing the fate of the giant master builder of the wall around Asgard, two of the four main sources say Thor bashed the giant's head and sent him to Niflheim, and the other two say Thor sent him to Niflhel."
The primordeal Niflheimr and the punishing Niflhel are 'equally dreadful' places, possibly identical. Yet, Hel and Niflhel may remain distinct.
From south to north
The list of the nine homeworlds can arrange to form a continuum, with Niflheimr in the extreme north and Muspellheimr in the extreme south. The other seven form gradations in between, with the human homeworld in the center. The following nomenclature refers to the Old Norse names for the families of beings.
- Múspellsheimr: Home of sons of Muspell (fire, in the south)
- Vanaheimr: Home of the wise (i.e. ancient) Vanir
- Ásgarðr: Home of the Æsir
- Álfheimr: Home of the Ljósálfr ('light elf')
- Svartálfaheimr: Home of the Svartálfar ('dark elves', aka Dvergar 'dwarves')
- Manheimr: Home of man (Maðr)
- Helheimr: Home of Hel (the realm of the dead)
- Niflheimr: Home of Nifl (Nephilim?)
Three levels of three homeworlds each
The three worlds above the earth, in heaven:
- 1. Vanaheimr (Vanaheim): Realm of the Vanir
- 2. Álfheimr (Alfheim): Realm of the light elves
- 3. Ásgarðr (Asgard): Realm of the gods
The four worlds on earth:
- 4. Niðavellir (Nidavellir): Realm of the Dwarves
- 5. Miðgarðr (Midgard): Realm of man
- 6. Jötunheimr (Jotunheim): Realm of the giants
- 7. Svartálfaheimr (Svartalfheim): Realm of the Dark Elves
The two worlds below the earth, in underworld:
- Davidson 1964:27
- Davidson 1964:28.
- Hilda R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions, 1988:171.
- Geir T. Zoega, 'heimr', 'heima' in A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, 1910.
- Andy Orchard, "Black Elves" in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell, 1997.
- Davidson 1988:172.
- Lars Magnar Enoksen: Norrøne guder og myter (2008)
- Rudolf Simek: Dictionary of Northern Mythology (1993)
- Davidson 1964:32.
- Orchard, "Niflheim".
- Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse mythology. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, ISBN 1-57607-217-7) 2001:241.
- Orchard, "Niflheim".
- "The Nine Worlds" in Nordic Names , retrieved 2010 5/27.
- Anderson, Rasmus B., trans., Prose Edda, 1897: notes chap. 7. Northvegr Foundation - Prose Edda, Andrson Translation
- Davidson, HR Ellis (1964), "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe", Penguin Books
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