The Divisions of the Universe: Nine Worlds of the Ancient Norse

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THE Asa-gods built Asgard, the celestial city set high above the heavens. It stands upon a holy island in the midst of a dark broad river flowing from the thunder-vapours that rise through the great World-tree from Hvergelmer (“the roaring cauldron”), the mother of waters.

A dark and lofty wall protectes Asgard, and the great boiling river breaks angrily at its base. There is no entry-way apart from Odin’s mighty gate. If anyone who is unworthy cross the river unscathed by the vafer-flames and wants to open the gate of Asgard, he would be caught suddenly by a chain which which crushes him.

In the middle of Asgard is Idavoll, the Court of Judgment, in which the gods’ divine affairs are discussed and arranged. There was set the great golden throne of Odin, the chief ruler of Asgard, and around it are placed twelve golden seats for the gods who sit with him in judgment, and to whom the All-father gave power to rule and to issue decrees. Another stately structure is built as a sanctuary for the goddesses called Vingolf (“the abode of friends”).

There was also smithy which are furnished with anvils, hammers and tongs. With these the cunning elf-smiths, Ivalde’s sons and Sindre’s kinsmen, made for the gods every instrument they need. On a green place in the celestial city were found the golden tablets with which was played the Game of the Gods. This was in the Golden Age, which lasted until there came from Jotun-heim three giant maids, who brought corruption. In Midgard lived a race of dwarfs. In the deep, dark mould of Ymer’s body they swarmed , going here and there with no purpose or knowledge. All the gods gave the dwarfs human shape. There are also the the Trolls, who have power to change their shape.

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English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge

The wonder of the Universe is the great ash tree, Ygdrasil, the Tree of Existence, which nourishes and sustains all spiritual and physical life. Its roots are spread through the divisions of the worlds that fill the yawning gulf, and its boughs are above the high celestial city of the gods. It grows out of the past,  lives in the present and reaches towards the future.

The World-ash has three great roots. One root reaches the realms below Midgard – it receives warmth and life in the glittering plains from the deep fountain of Urd where Hela the goddess of fate and of death, lives. Another root reaches the egg-white well of Mimer, who is Wisdom and Memory. The last root is in gloomy Nifel-heim, where it finds hardening sustenance in Hvergelmer, the fount of primeval waters, ice-cold and everlasting.

The souls of good men go to the realm of Urd. Near to it, in the underworld, is Mimer’s grove, where the race which will regenerate the world of men live. Below Nifel-heim are the nine divisions of torture in which the souls of the wicked are punished.

The roots of the great World-tree suck up the waters of the three eternal fountains which,  mixed together, give imperishable life. In the well of wise Mimer the fibres are made white with the holy mead which gives wisdom and poetry, and also is the very elixir of eternal life.

On the high branches of Ygdrasil, which overshadow Asgard, sits a wise eagle, and between its eyes is perched a hawk named Vedfolner. On the topmost bough is Goldcomb, the “cock of the north”, which awakens the gods from sleep and puts the demons to flight. From Hela then answers the red cock, whose fire purifies what is good and destroys what is evil.

The great World-tree bears a more painful burden than human beings understand. In the well of Hvergelmer, in the black realm of Nifel-heim, is the corpse-eating dragon Nidhog (“the lower one”), which chews constantly at the root. Above the tree, four giant harts are biting its buds and its leaves. Age rots its side and serpents gnaw its tender fibres in the dark underworld. Because, there is never a good which is not approached by evil, and there is never a growth that doesn’t experience decay and the passing of time.

Up and down the World-tree runs constantly the squirrel Ratatosk, which bears gossip between the eagle on the highest branches and the dragon Nidhog at the root, and is thus forever cause strife. Greatly dreaded is Nidhog, who flies to the rocks and cliffs of the lower world with the bodies of dead men beneath its wings.

The three Fates, who are called Norns, are Urd and her two sisters–Urd, (“present”), Verdande (“past”) and Skuld (“future”). The Norns sprinkle the great ash-tree each morning with precious mead from Urd’s fount of life, so that its leaves forever be green. From there comes the honey-dew, which drips upon the world and is stored by the bees. And in Urd’s fountain are the two mystic swans which are the ancestors of the swan race in Midgard. The Norns are spun  the fates of men and women. There are also Dises, who are maids of Urd, unto whom various duties are assigned. The Hamingjes are those Dises who are guardians of men through their lives, and appear to them in dreams to give warnings and noble counsel. There are also the sweet elf-maids who have care of babes unborn in the fair realms of Urd, and find them kindly mothers in the world of men; and there are maids who conduct the souls of the dead to Hela’s glittering plain.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin

The souls of the dead are judged in Helaand rewards and punishments are meted out by Odin. There is only one road therer from Asgard for all the gods save Thor, and that is over the curved bridge Bif-rost (“the rainbow”) which has its foundation beyond the edge of the world of men. The southern span reaches to the fount of Urd in the realms of green verdure that never. know decay. Bif-rost is built of air and water, and is protected by red fire flaming on its edge. Frost giants and mountain giants always seek to capture the bridge, so that they may ascend to Asgard and overcome the gods; but its sentinel, Heimdal, is constantly on guard against them. The gods set Heimdal, son of the waves, to protect the bridge forever against the enemy. He is clad in silvern armour, and he wears a  burnished helmet with ram’s horns. His sight is so keen that he can see by night as well as by day the length of a hundred leagues, and he listens so keenly that he can hear the grass growing. He sleeps as little and as lightly as a bird. When the giants and monsters come to assail the gods at Ragnarok, Heimdal shall blow a thunderblast on Gjallar-horn which is hidden in the deepest shade of the World-tree.

Every day the horses of the gods thunder over Bif-rost as they descend to and return from the lower-world. Except for Thor, the thunder god – he cannot travel this way because the fire of his thunder chariot might set the bridge aflame and destroy it. He has to wade across the four great girdling rivers in the underworld to reach Hela’s glittering plains.

 When the gods come unto Hela they descend from their horses and take their seats in the Thingstead. The dead are then brought before them. Down the valley of thorns the dead came – the feet of the wicked were torn and bleeding. When they walked over on boards, the unjust amongst them were sorely wounded and covered with scars, so that their bodies dripped blood.

Those who are justified pass to the eternal realms of Hela, where joy prevails, because they have lived upright lives, brave and also because they worshipped the gods and gave offerings in the temples. But those who are condemned are sent to Nifel-hel, the region of torture. They are judged to be unworthy if they injured others by falsehoods or wicked deeds, if they were adulterers, or murderers, or despoilers of graves, or cowards, or were traitors, and profaners of the temples. Those who are to share eternal joy are given to drink from the horn of Urd, which imparts to them enduring strength. The doomed are given a draught of burning venom which changes them to monsters. Their tongues are then for ever bereft of speech and they can only moan.

The happy dead then meet lost friends and ancestors from the earliest years of the world while the doomed are driven towards Nifel-hel by elves, who carry thorny rods with which they lash those who falter or seek to turn back. Their first punishment is received when they  pass through the regions of eternal bliss, and see the joy of the blessed which they can never enjoy. Then they cross the rivers which girdle Hela, and climb towards the dark mountains of Nifel-hel. Then they enter the Na-gates and die the second death. Punishment is given in the nine realms of torture according to the sins that were committed. Some are seized by the dragon and some by the birds of prey, according to their deserts. Others are tempted for ever by illusions of sinful things they sought in life, and there are those who are torn to pieces by the great wolf.

In the Venom-dale is a river called Slid, and it is full of daggers and sharp spears. Through it must wade the perjurers and murderers and adulterers, who are continually suffering new and fierce wounds. Others sit together on benches of iron, while venom drips on them, within a hall which is full of unberarable stench. Traitors are hung on trees and cowards are drowned in pools of foulness.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin.

Naglefar, the “ship of death”, lies in the Gulf of Black Grief, in the outer regions of Nifel-hel, fastened to a dark island with chains that shall not sever until Ragnarok (“the dusk of the gods”). The warriors who are slain in battle, or drowned at sea, are brought  to Valhal in Asgard by the maids of Urd, who are called Valkyries. They are horsed on swift steeds, and first they pass to Hela, where the gods give judgment and reject the unworthy. Then they are carried by the Valkyries over Bif-rost, and the hoofs of their steeds resound in Asgard. In great Valhal the heroes feast with Odin in eternal triumph and happiness.

Now these are the divisions of the Universe. In the midst is the earth, Midgard, which is encircled by the ocean. On high, and above all else, is Asgard, and below it is the realm of white elves, who flit between the branches of the great World-tree. Then Vana-heim, the home of the Vana-gods, is in the air and in the sea; and in the depths of the western sea is the hall of Æger, god of Ocean. Alf-heim, the home of elves, is to the east. In the lower world, below Nifel-heim, are the Nifel-hel regions of torture, and under Midgard are the Hela realms of Mimer and of Urd. Far below the path of the gods towards Hela’s fields of bliss are Surtur’s deep dales on the borders of Muspel-heim, where the great giant Surtur, the swarthy sentinel, keeps watch with his flaming sword. Jotun-heim is to the north and the east, beyond the world’s edge.

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