Yggdrasil (pronounced ig-druh-sil,) sometimes referred to as the Tree of Life, is an enormous Ash tree which is at the center of the Norse spiritual cosmos. This tree, which is always green, connects the nine worlds, or realms, of Norse cosmology. It’s origins are unknown and the exact size of either the tree or the nine realms cannot be measured. It transcends both space and time, serving as the central point of the world, but also encompasses all the realms; the beginning, middle and end. It ties earth, the underworld, and Valhalla together. The Tree of Life brings human beings, Gods, Goddesses, elves, dwarves, giants, and all sorts of creatures from the animal kingdom, together under one single encompassing system.
The most accepted translation of the word Yggdrasil is “Odin’s Horse” – Ygg is another term for Odin and drasil is a horse. In the grand scheme of things, Odin and the great tree can be considered one in the same. Everything we know about Yggdrasil comes from a series of anonymous Old Norse poems called the Poetic Edda. Several versions exist, all consisting primarily of text from the Icelandic medieval manuscript known as the Codex Regius (royal book) which is arguably the most important source of Old Norse history/mythology known. In the Poetic Edda, Yggdrasil is mentioned in three poems; Völuspá, Hávamál and Grímnismál.
The Nine Realms
Asgard is the first level of the Norse cosmology and it is located at the top of the great tree. It is the home of the Gods, the Aesir, and is surrounded by a partially constructed wall. Odin and Frigg, husband and wife, rule Asgard. Vanaheim is another world inhabited by Gods; the Vanir are Gods associated with fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see into the future. No one is exactly certain where Vanaheim is located. The third realm is called Alfheim and it is inhabited by the light elves and located adjacent to Asgard. The elves are described as something akin to the sun or sunlight itself. The Vanir are considered “guardian angels who can help or hinder humans with their minor God-like powers. Of all the worlds, this one presents some confusion among scholars since it is ruled supposedly by Freyr a Vanir.
Jotunheim also known as Utgard, is another of the realms and also the land of the frost giants, also referred to as the devourers. Under the rule of King Laufey, Jotunheim is one of the most dangerous and terrifying places in the cosmos, and was the birthplace of Loki, the shape-shifting trickster. The giants are sworn enemies of the Aesir and do battle with the Gods almost constantly. Jotunheim is located right across the river Iving from Asgard. The land called Svartalfheim, also known as Nidavellir is a rocky place where the dwarves reside. These dwarves are master craftsmen and metal workers and were the source of many of the magical weapons and items known throughout Norse history, including Gugnir, the Spear of Odin.
Helheim, also known as Hel, is the underworld. It is thought to be somewhere underground in the cold reaches of the north. A fierce Goddess named Hel rules the Underworld. She is a giantess and the daughter of Loki and is known for being cruel, greedy, and harsh to the demands of the dead or the living. The Norse underworld is nothing like the Christian version aside from being ruled by a tyrant. While the latter is said to be a place of fire and brimstone, pain and suffering, the Norse version is closer to neutral ground. An in-depth look at the differences can be found here. It’s said that when the time of Ragnarok comes, all the dead will rise up to attack the Gods and Goddesses in an end-of-the-world event.
Midgard is the realm of the humans; also called Middle Earth, it is located in the middle of the great tree. It is surrounded by a great and impassable ocean, but connected to Asgard by a rainbow bridge. A huge sea serpent lives in the great Ocean; so huge is the Midgard serpent that it encircles the world entirely. Of the nine worlds, Midgard is the only visible world and positioned near the base of the trunk of Yggdrasil, below Asgard but above Helheim.
The other two realms are Niflheim, the land of mist and fog, and Muspelheim, the land of fire. Niflheim is the darkest and coldest realm; it’s also the first of the nine worlds and it is protected by the huge dragon called Nidhug (Níðhöggr). As Yggdrasil started to grow, it stretched one of its three large roots far into Niflheim and drew water from the spring Hvergelmir, which the oldest of the three holy wells. Muspelheim lies to the far south and resembles the inside of an active volcano complete with boiling lava, fire, smoke, and heat. It’s the home of the great fire giants and ruled by the greatest fire giant, Surtr.
The Three Roots
Yggdrasil is supported by three great roots; each extends to a different realm and each draws water from one of three sacred wells. The first root draws water from the Well of Urd, the well of knowledge, which is found in Asgard. The second root leads to the Well of Wisdom, also known as the Well of Mimisbrunner . It is located in Jotunheim and guarded by Mimir the giant. Mimar is the wisest creature in the universe and he drinks each day from the Well of Wisdom. The third root leads to Niflheim and the Well of Hvergelmir; the oldest of the three wells and the source of the eleven rivers, which are the ancient water sources for the entire world. A great stag called Eikthyrnir gnaws on the branches of the great tree, and from his horns flows the water that runs into Hvergelmir. Snakes inhabit the water in the well of Hvergelmir plus it’s guarded by a great serpent.
The Inhabitants of Yggdrasil
The great tree is inhabited by many creatures, which each serve a specific function in maintaining balance and order. A great Eagle sits atop the uppermost branch of the tree; the branch was called Lerad. This unnamed eagle is omniscient, knowing everything. The giant bird continuously flaps its great wings to provide wind to each individual realm. There is also a hawk, Veðrfölnir, which sits right between the eyes of the eagle. There are many speculative theories about the role the hawk plays, but none can be validated. A dragon or serpent called Niðhǫggr is also found among the creatures inhabiting Yggdrasil; usually gnawing at the roots of the great world tree from beneath along with a horde of smaller unnamed dragons, demons, and other serpents. Níð is a Viking word describing someone who is villainous or has done something to cause a loss to their honor.
A giant squirrel named Ratatoskr runs up and down the tree continuously; its only job is to deliver messages and insults between the great eagle and the dragon. Ratatoskr does everything in his power to keep the hatred between the two fueled. Also, four great red deer (stags), Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, live among the branches of the great tree, continuously eating its leaves. The four stags aren’t completely understood, but their names have given rise to theories over the years. Dáinn translated means “The Dead One,” Dvalinn “The Unconscious One,” Duneyrr, “Thundering in the Ear,” and Duraþrór “Thriving Slumber.” One theory was that each represented a differing degree of wind; something important to Viking sailors. Other theories have attempted to tie them to the four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West), the four seasons (Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall), and even the four Elementals (earth, air, water, and fire.) These stags, like the hawk, are not defined as to their function as part of the Yggdrasil environment.
As the great tree is under constant assault by many of its inhabitant, three Norns attend to it each day. The Norns are female divine beings which have more influence over destiny than any other creatures in the cosmos. The dwell within the Well of Urd and shape destiny by carving Runes in the trunk of the tree. Their names are Urd (Old Norse Urðr, “What Once Was”), Verdandi (Old Norse Verðandi, “What Is Coming into Being”) and Skuld (Old Norse Skuld, “What Shall Be”). The three draw water from the Well of Urd and combine it with sand to replenish the tree.
This is only a brief introduction to Yggdrasil. There are many sources of information on-line; and many of them have conflicting information, especially concerning the roots and inhabitants. I’ve tried to include what is generally accepted as agreed-upon facts in this piece, so if you see something you don’t agree with, please let me know.