Yggdrasil: Understanding the Norse World Tree

Myselhoj mound world treeIt’s both literal and a metaphor. How? Yggdrasil the World Tree is a pattern.

Rather than this being a strictly literal, single place “on the other side”, Yggdrasil is a template for understanding and navigating physical existence both within and outside of yourself. From there, it’s an excellent starting point for journeying through the inner worlds and into non-physical realms of consciousness.

Through frequent journeying, careful research of Norse poetry and history, and the illuminating scholarship of Maria Kvilhaug, this is what I have learned over time about the World Tree. I don’t claim to have a comprehensive and certain knowledge of all aspects of the Tree, and may revise this over time as my experience of it expands, but if you journey in a Northern European matrix, I think you will find this little-shared working information and comparison of the literary data extremely useful.

It’s also probably not how you’ve been taught to view Norse myth.

The concept of a World Tree sitting upon a cosmic hill or divine hall, called Laerad, Miodvidr, orYggdrasil, is central to the Norse cosmos and the act of journeying itself in Norse mythology. Mythically described as an ancient, lofty ash where the Gods meet to hold their councils, a well or several wells lie at its base and its three deep tap roots reach into three cosmic realms, including ours. Cared for and renewed daily by the Norns, it is under constant threat of being consumed by four stags/dwarves eating its leaves and a serpent gnawing its roots, shook by an eagle with a hawk perched between his eyebrows flapping at its crown, and shelters the survivors of Ragnarok, the end of an era.

Since physical things connect through this model, and divinity is immanent throughout Northern European thought, the World Tree is a very easy place to meet the Gods, the ancestors and other spirits. It is, itself, described as a grand being a concept in keeping with a universe imbued with consciousness, divinity and awareness.

The elegant efficiency of this model for how energy connects, moves through a system, and builds physical form manifests on both the microscopic and macrocosmic scales. It can be observed in everything from a river delta to the veins of a leaf, and, on a more mammalian level, the placenta, lungs and nervous systems. All of these shapes stem, branch and even, sometimes “leaf out” in intricate beauty.

In this sense, all trees are Yggdrasil, and a conduit for going there in trance. So is the human spinal column, nerve network, and brain.

In Norse lore, wood and trees are frequently used as a metaphor for the body.

Russian Yggdrasil
Notice the humanlike shape, with deer-like creatures perched in this traditional Russian World Tree embroidery.

Poems frequently use trees as kennings (metaphors with layered meanings) for people. For instance, in one poem, the Goddess Idunn is tempted by Loki out of the safety of the Gods’ home, lured to see an especially attractive apple tree  i.e., a handsome young stranger. The first two humans, significantly, are described as being made from logs found on a shore. Named Ask (Ash) and Embla (Elm), this also points to a connection between human bodies and trees. (The color of dried, unfinished hardwood is remarkably similar to the complexion of northern Europeans, as clay is to humans of more Biblically-oriented climes.) In central and northern Europe, especially, statues of Gods were carved from wooden poles, furthering this tree/body connection.

Aspects of the Tree can also be described as a “high seat” from which all the worlds can be viewed in the act of seidhr, Norse trance magic. According to literature, these were wooden platforms placed upon poles for working seidhr; while archaeology, literature and living tradition shows us tall wooden seats, set on a raised platform, from which an entire room can be viewed. (Think of the monarch on the throne, and the place of honor—at the “head” of the table, the focal point of the room.)

The motif of a raptor perched in Yggdrasil’s upper  branches (or forehead, if we look at the tree as a spinal column) also appears as a ‘falcon cloak’, an essential journeying tool of the Goddess Freyja, and Odin’s transformation into an eagle to escape certain death in one myth.

Why is this important?

Connecting to Yggdrasil is foundational to understanding one of the greatest mysteries of seidhr: you and the Gods are not wholly separate beings.

The same is true of you and the land. Internalizing this concept is a challenge, but one of the greatest and most liberating steps to deep power, awareness and responsibility as a magician.

Strung throughout the cutting edge of physics in field and string theory, this connectedness is a mystery known to the ancient Vedic and European ancestors, preserved in the forms of poetry, myth and animistic beliefs. More easily perceived in Celtic literature, this idea can nonetheless be discovered readily by a close reading of Norse myths, especially the Poetic Edda, with a willingness to “hang upside down” like Odin on the tree looking at them from a magical perspective, rather than viewing mythology as literal poetic history.

As the ancient Welsh bard Amergin says,

‘I am a stag: of seven tines

I am a flood: across a plain

I am a wind: on a deep lake

I am a tear: the Sun lets fall

I am a hawk: above the cliff…

I am a wizard: who but I

Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?’

(‘The Calendar of Amergin’, Reconstruction by Robert Graves, from John Montague’s The Book of Irish Verse).

What can we learn from the names given to the World Tree?

  • Yggdrasil, the most commonly known Norse name for the world tree, means ‘The Terrible One’s Steed’, or, according to historian Maria Kvilhaug, ‘The Old One’s Steed’—a fitting name for both the Cosmos and vehicle of the God named ‘Spirit’ who rides a symbolic steed (Sleipnir, ‘Slipper’ or ‘Glider’) to travel throughout existence: Odhin.
  • Miodvidr, a second name taken from the Edda poem Voluspa, means ‘The Mead Tree’—a source of that sacred drink of inspiration and memory which is another central motif in Norse religion.
  • Laerad, a third name from the poem Grimmnismal (‘The Lay of the Masked One’, i.e. Odhin), has disputed and ambiguous names according to Norse scholar Rudolf Simek, including  ‘Causer of Harm’ and ‘Giver of Protection’.

Given the cleverness of ancient Norse poetic meanings, in which one being or thing can have multiple names and identities (and riddle games were played to discern them), and the transformational qualities visible in Viking artifacts (in which a dragon on a sword scabbard can be a tree or a dog, viewed from a different angle), those two seemingly disparate meanings are not necessarily opposed!

A close look at this stave church carving from Norway, for instance, shows ambiguous, possibly transforming animal and plant motifs: serpent, bird, deer or dog and dragon are all intertwined in vinelike tendrils, possibly depicting Yggdrasil:

Stave church carving Urnes Norway

So how do you apply this on a practical level when you fare forth to journey?

That’s part II.

 Recommended reading:

  •  ·         Maria Kvilhaug has done brilliant detailed scholarship outlining the concepts of the World Tree in her book The Seed of Yggdrasill. I found her work invaluable in expanding upon ideas I had already been taught or intuited, and integrating deeper understanding.
  •  ·         Awesome discussion of the nature of quantum mechanics, field theory, string theory and magic can also be found inPaganism: An Introduction to Earth-Based Religions by Joyce and River Higgenbotham, which exceeds the basic knowledge of physics taught to most US college graduates. (This book is a stellar Magic 101 for pagans and covers concepts that are far from introductory to most books on the topic.)
  • ·         Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism is the go-to book of anthropology on world shamanism, including Norse and Celtic shamanistic religious practice. It’s a dry read that nonetheless demonstrates links between motifs in myths, historically documented practices and modern records of their use in traditional societies around the globe.

See also:

Image credits, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Tree on the bronze-age burial mound of Mysselhoj. Roskild, Denmark.
  • “Yggdrasil” World Tree Image from a traditional Russian Embroidery.
  • Stave Church carving from Urnes, Norway, possibly showing Yggdrasil