HEIMDALLR is a Scandinavian deity who is the watchman of the Æsir, the dominant group of gods. Rarely mentioned in Norse court poetry, Heimdallr appears frequently in Eddic poetry. According to Grímnismál (st. 13) he lives in Himinbjorg, the "celestial shelter" from which he guards the abode of the gods, happily drinking mead while performing his task. The giant Loki claims (Lokasenna, st. 48), however, that Heimdallr was fated to an awful life and will forever stand watch with a muddy back due to his constant exposure to foul weather. According to Þrymskviða (st. 15), Heimdallr is the "whitest of the gods" and able to predict the future. The eddic poemVo̜luspá mentions that men are called "Heimdallr's children" (st. 1); similarly, the medieval scribe of Rígsþula, a poem explaining how the classes of society arose from the three sons of a being named Rígr, identifies Rígr as Heimdallr. Vo̜luspá (st. 46) also states that Heimdallr will blow his horn to warn the gods of the start of Ragnarǫk, their last battle against the giants and monsters. This instrument is named Gjallarhorn (loud-sounding horn) and can be heard throughout the nine worlds.
Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) provides some additional details: Heimdallr is great and holy, and is also known as Hallinskíði, a poetic term that also designates the ram (perhaps because both a ram and Heimdallr are known for their horns). Heimdallr was possibly associated with the ram, as Þórr is associated with goats and Freyr with his boar. Heimdallr has a third cognomen, Gullintanni (Golden Tooth), because he had teeth of gold. The function of this brilliant appearance is unexplained. Heimdallr's horse is called Gulltoppr (Gold Tuft), and his home is located next to Bifröst, the rainbow bridge at the edge of heaven that he guards against invasion by the mountain giants. Heimdallr is the ideal watchman: needing less sleep than a bird, he is able to see for a distance of one hundred leagues by day or by night and to hear the grass growing on the earth, the wool growing on the sheep, or any other noise, an ability for which he pledged or hid an ear below the world tree (Vo̜luspá, sts. 27–28), just as Óðinn gives up an eye to gain knowledge at Mímir's well.
Vo̜luspá hin skamma (Short prophecy of the seeress) ascribes his birth to nine mothers, all giant maidens who bore and breast-fed him at the edge of the world, a tradition confirmed by the poem Heimdallargaldr (The magic song of Heimdallr). The nine mothers who are also sisters might, in addition, be the waves of the sea, who give birth to him on the seashore, the "edge of the earth." The tenth-century Icelandic poet Úlfr Uggason describes Loki fighting with the "son of nine mothers" (Húsdrápa, st. 2) for the possession of a beautiful hafnyra (literally "sea kidney," but meaning "a piece of amber"); Snorri explains that Loki's adversary was Heimdallr and that they fought in the shape of seals for this object, which Snorri identifies with the Necklace of the Brisings. Snorri also explains the poetic circumlocution "Heimdallr's head" for "sword," which comes from the fact that a blow from a human head caused Heimdallr's death. It is not clear how this fits in with the tradition of his last fatal fight with his arch-foe Loki at Ragnarök. Another detail strengthens the depiction of Heimdallr and Loki as opposing parallels: according to Vo̜luspá hin skamma, both are said to have become either figuratively or literally pregnant. Heimdallr was made potent or pregnant with the power of the earth, and Loki ate the half-roasted heart of a witch, from which he became pregnant with the race of ogresses.
Linguistic analysis of Heimdallr's name scarcely elucidates his basic character. The first element is usually identified with heimr (homeland, world), a cognate of the English word home ; the second is a masculine noun dallr (of which the feminine equivalent, döll, appears as the second component of one of Freyja's names, Mardöll). It has been connected with the Old English deall (brilliant, bright, proud), and thus may refer to Heimdallr's shining whiteness. This interpretation is supported by another etymology that connects his name with the Old Frisian hemtiacht (brilliantly luminous). However, Jan de Vries's Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1961) is probably correct in considering the Old Norse dallr/döll as developments of the Germanic *dalþu - (blooming, flourishing), with a root appearing also in the Greek word thállo (bloom, be luxuriant) and the Gothic duls (festival), originally connected with the renewal of nature. According to Gabriel Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North (vol. 1, 1964), the Early Modern Icelandic word dallur is glossed as arbor prolifera (prolific tree) by the nineteenth-century lexicographer Björn Halldórsson. This would point to a special relationship between Heimdallr and the cosmic tree, which is said to be drenched with white mud (Vo̜luspá, st. 19), the same substance that Loki says covers Heimdallr's back. This would also corroborate the etymology of Heimdallr as "god of the world." Despite these investigations, Heimdallr remains an enigmatic god. In addition to the many Celtic elements of his story, he is like Óðinn in leaving something at the foot of Yggdrasill in exchange for special powers. Like Þórr, he is a defender of the world of the gods and is associated with a male domestic animal; like St. Michael, he will blow his horn at the end of time. Evidently, the memory of Heimdallr had faded by the time the extant sources were composed.
Sayers, William. "Irish Perspectives on Heimdallr." Alvíssmál 2 (1993): 3–30.
Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. New York, 1964.
Vries, Jan de. "Heimdallr, dieu énigmatique." Études germaniques 10 (1955): 257–268.
Vries, Jan de. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden, 1961.
Edgar C. PolomÉ (1987)
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)