Yggdrasill

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Yggdrasill

Nationality/Culture

Norse

Pronunciation

IG-druh-sil

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

The Eddas

Myth Overview

In Norse mythology , a mighty axis, or pole, ran through the universe in which the gods, giants , and heroes enacted their stormy dramas. That axis, around which all life revolved, was the World Tree, a giant ash tree called Yggdrasill (pronounced IG-druh-sil). The myths paint a complex picture of how the universe was structured around Yggdrasill. Sometimes the World Tree is described as running through nine realms, from the shadowy depths of the underworld , or land of the dead, up to the heavenly abode of the gods. At other times, the trunk of Yggdrasill is said to anchor Midgard, the world of humans, while the tree's three great roots reach down into Jotunheim (pronounced YAW-toon-heym), the land of the frost giants; Niflheim (pronounced NIV-uhl-heym), the land of mist; and Asgard (pronounced AHS-gahrd), the home of the gods.

Although the World Tree offered an avenue of passage from one realm to the next, the distances and dangers involved in such travel were great. The only creature that could run up and down Yggdrasill easily was a squirrel, which carried insulting messages back and forth between a fierce eagle perched in the tree's topmost branch and a dragon that gnawed at its root. Yggdrasill existed in a state of delicate balance, being endlessly destroyed and renewed.

The World Tree was closely linked to sources of hidden or magical knowledge. Its name, which means ”Odin's horse,” refers to Odin hanging himself from the tree for nine days and nights to learn secret mysteries. Near one root rose a spring whose waters provided wisdom. Odin was said to have traded an eye to drink this water. Another root sheltered a spring tended by the Norns, three women who determined the fate of all humans.

Yggdrasill in Context

The Norse people of Scandinavia built their mythological beliefs upon the foundation of the natural world. Even the realms that they considered supernatural were connected by natural elements, such as the rainbow that acts as a bridge for the gods to enter their home at Asgard. It is not surprising that the different worlds of Norse mythology are all connected by a gigantic version of something found in nature—an ash tree. As with the rainbow bridge to Asgard, the belief in Yggdrasill may have been based on simple observations of the natural world; it has been suggested that high-altitude cirrus clouds may have appeared, to an imaginative Norse eye, like branches of a gigantic tree in the far distance. It is more likely, however, that people throughout the world use natural forms to express the symbolic and meaningful elements of myths.

Key Themes and Symbols

The World Tree Yggdrasill symbolizes the interconnection of the visible world and the worlds of Norse myth. The tree also represents life as an eternal and fundamental part of the world. After the destruction of the gods at Ragnarok (pronounced RAHG-nuh-rok), the only humans that survive are those who seek shelter in the branches of Yggdrasill. In Norse culture, the ash tree was associated with protection from evil.

Yggdrasill in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Although images of Yggdrasill are common in traditional Norse art, they are often decorative or symbolic and are not meant to depict the actual tree in its full glory. Indeed, considering the grand scale of the World Tree, few artists have attempted such a thing. Robert Frost refers to the tree in his poem “A Never Naught Song.” Yggdrasill has also appeared in science fiction and fantasy literature, such as the themed short-story collection Rainbow Mars (1999) by Larry Niven, and the HyperionCantos series of novels by Dan Simmons, where it takes the form of a gigantic living spaceship, or treeship.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Yggdrasill is a source of shelter and protection for the last humans at Ragnarok. In modern times, environmental activists sometimes live among the branches of large, old trees—not for their own protection, but to prevent the trees from being cut down. Do you think this is an effective way to draw attention to the uncertain fate of old-growth trees? Why or why not?

SEE ALSO Norse Mythology

views updated

Yggdrasill

In Norse* mythology, a mighty axis, or pole, ran through the universe in which the gods, giants, and heroes enacted their stormy dramas. That axis, around which all life revolved, was the World Tree, a giant ash tree called Yggdrasill.

The myths paint a complex picture of how the universe was structured around Yggdrasill. Sometimes the World Tree is described as running through nine realms, from the shadowy depths of the underworld up to the heavenly abode of the gods. At other times, the trunk of Yggdrasill is said to anchor Midgard, the world of humans, while the tree's three great roots reach down into Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants; Niflheim, the land of mist; and Asgard, the home of the gods.

Although the World Tree offered an avenue of passage from one realm to the next, the distances and dangers involved in such travel were great. The only creature that could run up and down Yggdrasill easily was a squirrel, which carried insulting messages between a fierce eagle perched in the tree's topmost branch and a dragon that gnawed at its root. Yggdrasill existed in a state of delicate balance, being endlessly destroyed and renewed.

underworld land of the dead

The World Tree was closely linked to sources of hidden or magical knowledge. Its name, which means "Odin's horse," refers to Odin* hanging himself from the tree for nine days and nights to learn secret mysteries. Near one root rose a spring whose waters provided wisdom. Odin was said to have traded an eye to drink

* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

this water. Another root sheltered a spring tended by the Norns, three women who determined the fate of all humans.

See also Norse Mythology; Trees in Mythology.

views updated

Yggdrasil a huge ash tree located at the centre of the earth, with three roots, one extending to Niflheim (the underworld), one to Jotunheim (land of the giants), and one to Asgard (land of the gods). Although threatened by a malevolent serpent that gnaws at its roots and by deer eating its foliage, the tree survives because it is watered by the Norns from the well of fate.

The name is Old Norse, and apparently comes from Yggr ‘Odin’ + drasill ‘horse’; Odin hanged himself on the tree for nine nights and days to win the runes for humankind.

views updated

Yggdrasill (Ĭg´drəsĬl, yōōg´–), in Norse mythology, the great tree of the world. Its branches and roots extended through all the universe—the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. At its top sat an eagle, at its bottom twined a serpent, and between them ran a squirrel breeding discord. It was prophesied that at the doom of the gods the tree would be destroyed. See Germanic religion.