Yggdrasil is a massive tree at the centre of Norse Cosmology which links and shelters the Nine Worlds. It is thought to be an eternal green ash tree whose branches stretch over the homeworlds and extend above the heavens.
The Underworld, also known as the Otherworld or Netherworld, is featured in most mythologies around the world. It is a realm of the dead, where the souls of the recently departed go in their afterlife. Many versions of the Underworld are seen as places of abundance and joy, and reward for good work during their mortal life.
World mythologies call the Underworld by several names:
Celtic – Annwn, Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Hy-Brasil, Ablach, Sídhe mounds
Norse – Hel, Niflheim, Valhalla, Gimlé, Vingólf
Greek – Hades, Elysium, Tartarus, Asphodel
Roman – Inferno, Avernus, Orcus/Hades, Pluto
Egyptian – Aaru, Duat, Neter-khertet, Amenti
Christian – Heaven, Hell
In the Celtic world, the Underworld was known by many names. The Welsh concept of the Underworld was known as Annwn, a world of delights and eternal youth ruled by Arawn/Gwyn ap Nudd. In Irish mythology, Mag Mell (‘delightful plain’), was a place of pleasure thought to be a mythical island far off the west coast of Ireland or a kingdom beneath the ocean (similar to the realms of Hy-Brasil or Emain Ablach).
Tír na nÓg (‘land of youth’) or Tir Tairngire (‘land of promise’) is another Irish concept of the Underworld, an earthly paradise of supernatural beings and a few lucky mortals who were invited to stay. Similar to Mag Mell and Hy-Brasil, Tír na nÓg was seen as a place far to the west of Ireland, on the edges of the map, which could only be reached by an arduous journey or by a special invitation. Famous residents of Tír na nÓg was the mortal Oisín who was brought by Niamh of the Golden Hair (Niamh Chinn Óir), as well as one of the places settled by the Tuatha Dé Danann after being banished from Ireland.
Another concept of the Underworld comes from the sídhe, or faery people, of Ireland. It is thought that when the Milesians (Celts) invaded Ireland, they banished the Tuatha Dé Danann who then took refuse in the sídhe mounds. These mounds can still be seen today in the form of barrows or hollow hills (cnocs) which are inhabited by faery rulers such as Knockma, Finvarra, or Ainé.
The concept of the Underworld in Norse Mythology is related to the World Tree, Yggdrasil (Germanic Irminsul). It was thought that brave warriors would be chosen by the Valkyries to travel to Asgard to join Odin in Valhalla or Freyja in Fólkvangr.
The base of Yggdrasil is the home of the Underworld realms of Hel/Helheimr and Niflheim/Niflheimr. Hel was the Land of the Dead, ruled by the goddess Hel, daughter of Loki. When humans were not accepted to Valhalla or Fólkvangr, they went to Hel’s hall Elivdnir. Niflheim was a place of Ice and Fog, the lowest of the nine realms, and has been associated with the region of Hel.
There was also Gimlé/Gimli, a beautiful place where survivors of Ragnarök (the end of the world) were thought to live. Also described as the golden roof of a building in Asgard where righteous men go when they die, similar to Vingólf, one of the buildings of the gods.
In Greek Mythology, upon death the soul was separated from the corpse and transported to the entrance of Hades. Hades was either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or at the ends of the earth.
Tartarus was similar to Hades in that is was far beneath the earth, and was the place where Zeus cast the Titans after defeated them, along with his father Kronos who became king of Tartarus. The Fields of Punishment was where those who wreaked havoc on earth or committed crimes against the gods were banished. The Fields of Asphodel was where ordinary souls who did not commit crimes nor achieve any greatness would inhabit.
The Elysian Fields, or Elysium, was where the souls of those who especially distinguished went after death, particularly those who were associated with the gods or performed exceptional feats. While in Elysium, the soul had a choice to either stay or be reborn. If the soul achieved Elysium three times, they were sent to the Isles of the Blessed to achieve eternal paradise.
Also in Greek mythology, there were five rivers that flowed in both the real world and the Underworld. The River Styx was the most prominent Underworld river, also known as the ‘river of hatred’, and was thought to circle the Underworld seven times.
© A Year And A Day (2013)
Thor is the Norse god of thunder, also associated with oak trees, strength, protection and fertility. ‘Thor’ comes from the Germanic word for ‘thunder’, thus he is associated with thunder, lightning and storms. He is often viewed as a fierce warrior with red hair, a red beard, and eyes like lightning. He is likened to the Greek hero Heracles through his strength and skill in battle, as well as the Roman god Jupiter and Teutonic god Donar.
Thor was the son of Odin through the jötunn (giant) Jord, however his mother was also thought to be the earth goddess Fjörgyn. He was married to fertility goddess Sif, whose long golden hair was cut by the trickster god Loki. Thor’s mistress was the giant Járnsaxa (“iron cutlass”), which whom he had sons Magni and Modi, and daughter Thrud.
Thor’s home was Bilskinir, located in the region of Asgard called Thrudheim / Thrudvangar (“place of might”).
It was thought that Thor rode through the heavens on his chariot pulled by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, which was responsible for the sound of thunder during a storm. The lightning bolts, called Thorsviggar, were produced when Thor threw his large hammer Mjölnir. Thor also wore a belt of strength named Megingjardir, iron gloves named Járngreipr, and carried the staff Gríðarvölr.
Thor was responsible for the protection of mankind as well as protecting the Aesir gods from the frost giants. He was involved in several fierce battles, especially with his greatest enemy, the Midgard serpent named Jörmungandr. On the day of Ragnarök, the end of the world, Thor will finally defeat his enemy, however later die from its poison.
Thor is very popular in Germanic and Norse mythology, and his hammer was seen as a symbol of defiance of the Christianization of Scandinavia. He was worshipped especially in Uppsala, where his father Odin can be seen standing at his right side. Some suggest that Thor surpassed Odin in popularity due to the fact that worship of Thor did not require human sacrifice.
The day Thursday bears his name (“Thor’s day”), just as Týr/Tiu was the namesake of Tuesday, Odin/Woden was the namesake of Wednesday, and Frejya (or Frigg, according to some sources) was the namesake of Friday.
© A Year And A Day (2013)
Woden / Wodan / Wotan (Anglo-Saxon)
Odin was the chief god of Norse mythology, head of the Æsir gods. He was also called Alfodr (All Father), Yggr (terror), Sigfodr (father of victory) or Valfodr (father of the slain). Odin is thought to be the same as Woden, Wodan or Wotan in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic mythology.
Odin lived with the rest of the Æsir in Asgard, one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology.
Odin was the son of Bor and Bestla, and with Frigg fathered Balder, Hod and Hermod. By the goddess Jord, Odin is also father to the god of thunder, Thor.
Odin is associated with war, battle, victory, death, but also poetry, wisdom, prophecy, Shamanism and magic. He was also known as ‘father of the slain’, as it is thought that brave warriors would be chosen to go to Valhalla after death.
From his throne Hlidskialf, Odin would gain knowledge from his two ravens, Hugin (‘thought’) and Munin (‘memory’), who would fly throughout the world every day and bring news back to Odin in Valhalla.
Odin is also associated with the spear Gungnir, which never misses its target, the ring Draupnir, which reappears every ninth night, and his eight-footed horse Sleipnir. He also has two wolves, Freki and Geri.
Odin was also a shapeshifting god, using the aliases Vak or Valtam amongst humans.
On the day of Ragnarök, the end of the world, Odin is killed by the wolf Fenrir, the offspring of the god Loki and the frost giantess Angrboda.
Odin is tied to the story of the Runes, as the Poetic Edda states he hung upside down from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and pierced himself with his spear in order to obtain their magical knowledge.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
This story of sacrifice and physical tribulation in order to receive mystical wisdom is similar to a shamanic initiation, and tells how Odin became associated with shamanism.
The name Yggdrasil is thought to mean ‘Odin’s Horse’, since drasil means horse and Yggr is another name for Odin. ‘Odin’s Horse’ is a reference to ‘gallows’, as Odin sacrificed himself by hanging from the world tree.
Odin still desired more knowledge, and later traded one of his eyes for a drink from the Well of Wisdom, gaining immense knowledge. Also, the Vanir goddess Freya taught Odin the magic of Seidr in exchange for his knowledge of the Runes.
Sources say that every ninth year, during blóts, people made human sacrifices to Odin at the Temple at Uppsala. It is thought that male slaves and males of each species were sacrificed and hung from the branches of the trees.
Romans equated Odin with the messenger god Mercury. Some parallels can also be drawn between Odin and the Gaulish god Lugus, such as their association with the raven and the spear. Some also say that Odin replaced the Proto-Germanic god Týr/Tîwaz during the Germanic migration period.
Wednesday is named after Odin, in the form of ‘Woden’s Day’. This is thought to come from the Latin dies Mercurii (‘Mercury’s day’), given the Romans compared Odin to their god Mercury.
Odin is often pictured as an elderly man with a long white beard, wide brim hat, and wooden staff or spear. Tolkien based his character Gandalf from Lord of the Rings on an “Odinic wanderer”. Odin is also thought to be an early version of Father Christmas in Scandinavian and Germanic countries.
© A Year And A Day (2013)
Norse Cosmology contains ‘nine homeworlds’ (Níu Heimar in Old Norse) in which all beings inhabit. These worlds are centered on the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which lies at the centre of the cosmos. Each of these Nine Worlds is the homeland of various classes of beings that are part of Norse and Germanic mythology. Travel between the worlds are described in myths, where gods and other beings sometimes interact directly with humans.
I recently attempted to construct a family tree of the Celtic deities. This proved to be much harder than I initially thought! Not only do you have to deal with a multitude of sources, but you have to filter out which sources are more accurate, and what information has been lost in the sands of time.
Timeless Myths has genealogies for several pantheons; Irish, Welsh, Norse, Greek and Roman. These were constructed from various sources and are in no means complete (and in some cases, contradict each other). But I find it helpful to see the various deities displayed in this way. It allows me to see the bigger picture and to understand the context of their many stories and adventures.
© A Year And A Day (2013)
Hella, Hela, Halja
Hel is the Norse Goddess of the dead and underworld, ruler of the Land of Mist. Her name is thought to mean ‘hidden’, ‘to conceal’, or ‘to cover up’. To say to “go to Hel” is to die, as described in the ancient Norse manuscripts, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Heimskringla.
Hel is the youngest daughter of the trickster god Loki and the jötunn (giant) Angrboda. Her other siblings were the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jörmungandr. Because she was born of a God and a Giantess, some say Hel is only a half-goddess, who have higher standing then their half-god counterparts.
Hel was sent by Odin to the remote land Niflheimr/Helheimr, the lowest of the Norse Nine Worlds along the world tree Yggdrasil. Those who were killed in battle went to Odin’s hall in Valhalla or Freya’s hall in Fólkvangr, however the rest, including those that died from old age or illness, went to Hel’s court.
The Norse ‘Hel’ is not the same as the Christian concept of ‘Hell’. The lowest of the Norse Nine Worlds is alternately called Niflheimr, Niflhel, or Helheimr, thought to be a land of mist, snow and ice in the far north. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Múspellsheimr in the south was a land of fire and heat. Some divide the lowest worlds into Niflheimr, land of arctic cold and mist, and Helheimr/Niflhel, realm of the dead. Hel’s hall is called Elivdnir, meaning ‘Sleet Cold’, whose gates are guarded by Garnr the watch dog.
In the Christian ‘Hell’, the sins of man are punished. In Niflheimr/Helheimr, Hel would determine the fate of the souls who entered her realm. The dead would transition through nine different stages of death, and seers and shamans from other worlds would journey there to consult with them.
Hel is described as having a gloomy appearance, being half alive, half dead. Also seen as half black, half white, representing both sides of the life spectrum. She is thought to have brought disease and plague to the world.
Although Hel is Queen of the Underworld and banished from Asgard, other Gods respected her judgement. In one case, the beloved God Baldr was killed by Loki’s treachery. Hel agreed to let Baldr return to the land of the living if all creatures on earth mourned for his death. All the world mourned for Baldr, except the giantess Thokk, who was really Loki in disguise. Due to this, Baldr was not released from the land of the dead.
In several pagan traditions, Hel represents the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess. She is seen as strong, powerful and fierce, full of wisdom and knowledge. However her loneliness has made her hard and vindictive, unwilling to change and be compassionate towards others.
© A Year And A Day (2013)