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The World Tree

By: H.R. Ellis Davidson



This world had for its centre a great tree, a mighty ash called Yggdrasill. So huge was this tree that its branches stretched out over heaven and earth alike. Three roots supported the great trunk, and one passed into the realm of the Aesir, a second into that of the frostgiants, and a third into the realm of the dead. Beneath the root in giant-land was the spring of Mimir, whose waters contained wisdom and understanding. Odin had given one of his eyes for the right to drink a single draught of that precious water. Below the tree in the kingdom of the Aesir was the sacred spring of fate, the Well of Urd. Here every day the gods assembled for their court of law, to settle disputes and discuss common problems. All came on horseback except Thor, who preferred to wade through the rivers that lay in his path, and they were led by Odin on the finest of all steeds, the eight- legged horse Sleipnir. The gods galloped over the bridge Bifrost, a rainbow bridge that glowed with fire. They alone might cross it, and the giants, who longed to do so, were held back. Near the spring of fate dwelt three maidens called the Norns, who ruled the destinies of men, and were called Fate (Urdr), Being (Verdandi), and Necessity (Skuld). They watered the tree each day with pure water and whitened it with clay from the spring, and in this way preserved its life, while the water fell down to earth as dew. The tree was continually threatened, even as it grew and flourished, by the living creatures that preyed upon it. On the topmost bough sat an eagle, with a hawk perched on its forehead: the same eagle, perhaps, of whom it is said that the flapping of its wings caused the winds in the world of men. At the root of the tree lay a great serpent, with many scores of lesser snakes, and these gnawed continually at Yggdrasill. The serpent was at war with the eagle, and a nimble squirrel ran up and down the tree, carrying insults from one to the other. Horned creatures, harts and goats, devoured the branches and tender shoots of the tree, leaping at it from every side.

Creation - The tree formed a link between the different worlds. We are never told of its beginning, but of the creation of the worlds of which it formed a centre there is much to tell. In the beginning there were two regions: Muspell in the south, full of brightness and fire; and a world of snow and ice in the north. Between them stretched the great emptiness of Ginnungagap. As the heat and cold met in the midst of the expanse, a living creature appeared in the melting ice, called Ymir. He was a great giant, and from under his left arm grew the first man and woman while from his two feet the family of frost-giants was begotten. Ymir fed upon the milk of a cow called Audhumla, who licked the salty ice-blocks and released another new being, a man called Buri. He had a son called Bor, and the sons of Bor were the three gods, Odin, Vili, and Ve. These three slew Ymir the ancient giant, and all the frostgiants save one, Bergelmir, were drowned in his surging blood. From Ymir's body they then formed the world of men:

... from his blood the sea and the lakes, from his flesh the earth, and from his bones the mountains; from his teeth and jaws and such bones as were broken they formed the rocks and the pebbles. From Ymir's skull they made the dome of the sky, placing a dwarf to support it at each of the four corners and to hold it high above the earth. This world of men was protected from the giants by a wall, made from the eyebrows of Ymir, and was called Midgard. The gods created inhabitants for it from two trees on the sea-shore, which became a man and a woman. They gave to them spirit and understanding, the power of movement, and the use of the senses. They created also the dwarfs, creatures with strange names, who bred in the earth like maggots, and dwelt in hills and rocks. These were skilled craftsmen, and it was they who wrought the great treasures of the gods. The gods caused time to exist, sending Night and Day to drive round the heavens in chariots drawn by swift horses. Two fair children, a girl called Sun and boy called Moon, were also set by them on paths across the sky. Sun and Moon had to drive fast because they were pursued by wolves, who meant to devour them. On the day when the greatest of the wolves succeeded in swallowing the Sun, the end of all things would be at hand.

Asgard - Once heaven and earth were formed, it was time to set about the building of Asgard, the realm of the gods. Here there were many wonderful halls, in which the gods dwelt. Odin himself lived in Valaskjalf, a hall roofed with silver, where he could sit in his special seat and view all the worlds at once. He had another hall called Valhalla, the hall of the slain, where he offered hospitality to all those who fell in battle. Each night they feasted on pork that never gave out, and on mead which flowed instead of milk from the udders of the goat Heidrun, one of the creatures that fed upon Yggdrasill. Odin's guests spent the day in fighting, and all who fell in the combat were raised again in the evening to feast with the rest. Horns of mead were carried to them by the Valkyries, the maids of Odin, who had also to go down to the battlefields of earth and decide the course of war, summoning fallen warriors to Valhalla. Somewhere in Asgard there was a building with a roof of gold, called Gimli, to which it was said that righteous men went after death. There were other realms beyond Asgard, like Alfheim, where the fair elves lived, and as many as three heavens, stretching one beyond the other.


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