An elaborate digital painting of Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree from Norse mythology

Yggdrasil: The Terrible One’s Steed

Yggdrasil, the ash tree central to Norse mythology, raises many questions regarding its origin. In the Norse mythology that comes down to us, Yggdrasil is the tree that binds together the Norse multi-verse. It simply exists, and there is no mention of how it comes into being. There is no doctrine that tells whether it sprang to life from a seed or was formed from fire and ice. Was it part of the potential inside Ginnungagap? Or did it come after the death of Ymir? There is simply no record of the legendary ash tree’s birth. But that’s not the only mystery surrounding Yggdrasil, the terrible one’s steed.

The Evergreen Ash

Yggdrasil is an ash tree. However, unlike its Midgard counterparts, it is evergreen. It connects all of the realms, but the Norse did not provide a clear map of how it connects them. One conception places the realms in the same plane but at different distances from the trunk of the tree. Another aligns the realms vertically along the tree trunk. A third has the realms nestled in the branches of the tree.

Yggdrasil as Natural Phenomenon

One scholar has suggested that Yggdrasil represents the Milky Way. This interpretation has precedent, similar to how Norse mythology depicts rainbows as the bi-frost bridge. On a clear night, away from the light pollution of the modern age, it’s not hard to see the Milky Way as a tree.

Roots of Yggdrasil

We may not know a lot about the structure of the mythological Yggdrasil as far as the placement of the realms is concerned, but we do have two differing descriptions of its root system. These two accounts agree that there are three roots, and these roots are fed by three water sources. Grimnir’s Sayings claims that the roots cover the worlds of man (Midgard), giants (Jotunheim), and the dead (Hel). Snorri Sturluson has them covering the gods (Asgard), giants (Jotunheim), and Niflheim. According to Sturluson, one root extends upwards to encompass Asgard.

The water sources feeding the roots include Mimir’s Well, which contained wisdom and was guarded by Mimir. Urd’s Well was in the realm of the gods and was called the “spring of fate;” the Norns, a Norse version of the Greek Fates, lived near this well. The bubbling cauldron, known as the spring Hvergelmir was at the base of the third root and was the source of all the world’s rivers.

Yggdrasil’s Ecology

Niddhoggr, the dragon, lives at the root in Hel along with other snakes. They chew on its roots. Ratatoskr, or Drill-tooth, the squirrel, runs from the top of the tree to the roots where Niddhoggr lives. Drill-tooth acts as a messenger between the dragon and a bird of prey, likely a hawk or an eagle named Vedrfolnir, perched atop the tree. The messages are often insults between the two. Four stags, Dainn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr, and Durathror, graze on the tree’s leaves.

Yggdrasil: The Terrible One’s Steed

The tree’s name is a combination of two Old Norse words. “Yggr” is one of Odin’s many names. It means “the terrible one,” “the one who strikes awe,” or “the terrifier.” “Drasil” means “horse.” Combining the two gives us something akin to “the Terrible One’s Steed” or “Odin’s Horse.” This may be a reference to how Odin uses Yggdrasil to travel the nine realms, giving us an idea of its function.

However, it is also a reference to the time when Odin hung himself from the tree for nine nights. As Professor Jackson Crawford says this is “Norse gallows humor.” Odin rode the tree through his hanging. Odin sacrificed himself to himself to gain knowledge of runes.

Other Aspects of Yggdrasil

The tree is speckled with white clay. Yggdrasil will herald the coming of Ragnarök through its own trembling and shaking. The mysteries of Yggdrasil, the terrible one’s steed, will likely remain shrouded in time. However, what we do know about it allows us a glimpse into the way the Norse saw the universe. Exploring these aspects of Yggdrasil not only enriches our understanding of Norse mythology but also illustrates the depth of the Norse cultural imagination.

Sources: The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price (2020).

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