The cosmology of Norse mythology has 'nine homeworlds', unified by the world tree Yggdrasill. 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.
A cosmic ash tree, Yggdrasill, lies at the center of the Norse cosmos. Three roots drink the waters of the homeworlds, one in the homeworld of the gods, the Æsir, one in the homeworld of the giants, the Jǫtnar, and one in the homeworld of the dead. Beneath the root in the world of the frost giants is the spring of Mimir, whose waters contain wisdom and understanding.
The root in the Æsir homeworld taps the sacred wellspring of fate, the Well of Urðr. 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.
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 dragon, Niðhǫggr, gnawing together with unnamed serpent at it continuously. The squirrel Ratatoskr carries insults from one to the other. Harts and goats devour the branches and tender shoots.
In the beginning, there were two regions: Muspellsheimr in the south, full of fire, light and heat; and Niflheimr in the north, full of arctic waters, mists, and cold. Between them stretched the yawning emptiness of Ginnungagap, and into it poured sparks and smoke from the south and layers of rime-ice and glacial rivers from the north. As heat and cold met in Ginnungagap, a living Jötunn, Ymir, appeared in the melting ice. From his left armpit, the first man and woman were born. From his legs, the frost jötnar were born, making Ymir the progenitor of the jötnar. Most sources identify Ymir's oldest son as Thrudgelmir, who bore Ymir's grandson, Bergelmir. The other jötnar are usually unnamed. Ymir fed on the milk of the cow Auðhumla. She licked the blocks of salty ice, releasing Búri.
Buri's son Borr had three sons, the gods Odin, Vili and Vé. The three slew Ymir, and all of the jötnar (giants) except for Bergelmir and his wife were drowned in the blood. From Ymir's body, they made the world of humans: his blood the seas and lakes, his flesh the earth, his bones the mountains and his teeth the rocks. From his skull they made the dome of the sky, setting a dwarf at each of the four corners to hold it high above the earth. They protected it from the jötnar with a wall made from Ymir's eyebrows. Next they caused time to exist, and placed the orbs of the sun and moon in chariots which were to circle around the sky.
Odin, passing through the world of the jötnar, found two beautiful young giants named Sól and Máni, sun and moon. They were brother and sister, and their father had named them after the beautiful lights in the sky. Odin decreed that Sól and Mani should drive the chariots of the sun and the moon across the sky, and to ensure that their journey was always constant and never slowed, he created two great wolves. These wolves were called Hati and Sköll, and they were placed in the sky to pursue the chariots and devour them if they caught them.
The realm of the Norse gods, the Æsir, is called 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. Each day, the gods ride over Bifröst to their meeting place at the Well of Urd.
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. Inferably, they correspond to the following place names mentioned elsewhere in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda.
- 1. Menn (humans): Miðgarðr.
- 2. Aesir (gods): Ásgarðr.
- 3. Vanir (gods): Vanaheimr.
- 4. Jötnar (giants): Jötunheimr.
- 5. Álfar (elves): Álfheimr.
- 6. Náir (corpses, the other world of the dead): Hel.
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. Dvergar (dwarves): 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 identities 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 primordial 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 primordial Niflheimr and the punishing Niflhel are 'equally dreadful' places, possibly identical. Yet, Hel and Niflhel may remain distinct.
- Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis (1988). Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. p. 171.
- Crossley-Holland, Kevin (1980). Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings. The Penguin Books, pp. xxii-xxiii.
- Davidson 1964:27
- Davidson 1964:28.
- Geir T. Zoega, 'heimr', 'heima' in A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, 1910.
- Orchard, Andy. "Black Elves" in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell, 1997.
- Davidson 1988:172.
- Enoksen, Lars Magnar (2008). Norrøne guder og myter
- Simek, Rudolf (1993). Dictionary of Northern Mythology.
- 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".
- Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis (1964), "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe", Penguin Books