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The Nine Worlds and Their Inhabitants

- by Tyr

According to the Norse, the realm of existence is divided into separate worlds. The mortal, mythic, divine, and dead inhabitants of these realms are all there for a purpose, and each domain is unique in its entirety. From frost giants to Freyr, jarls to Jormungand, all are encompassed in the Nine Worlds, beneath the branches of the great World Tree.

Yggdrasil is the great ash tree, which is the focal point of the realms. It has three roots, all which end in water. The well of Urd at Asgard, the well of Mimir at Jotunheim, and the spring of Hvergelmir, all these are end points for the great roots. Urd was guarded by the Norns, who know destiny. They tend to it by bathing the branches of the World Tree in Urd’s water. Mimir’s well is the fount of all wisdom, where Odin sacrificed an eye to drink. Hvergelmir was the fount for the eleven rivers of Niflheim, all which fed ice into the primal gap, from which giants and gods were born. It then seems that these roots encompass the past at Hvergelmir, the present at Mimir (knowledge of what is), and the future, of course, at Urd.

At its bottom most roots, Niddhog, the fearsome dragon and corpse-bearer of Niflheim, gnawed continuously, in an effort to kill Yggdrasil. Thousands of worms aided him in this. A great eagle stood at the top of its branches. Ratatosk, a squirrel, was the messenger between the two, who always exchanged insults. Odin also hung from the tree for nine days, in an effort to learn runes and poetry. Stags and goats feed from its growth, and bees make honey with its dew. Yggdrasil is supposed to survive the Ragnarok, although some sources indicate that the death of the tree signifies the start of the apocalyptic battle. It seems more likely, however, that it survives; Lif and Lifthrasir, the two mortals who survive Ragnarok, are supposed to take shelter in its trunk.

On the first of three levels of the nine worlds are Anaheim, Vanaheim, and Alfheim. Anaheim, is, of course, the home of war or industrial gods. It holds the realms of all the Aesir; Valhalla, hall of the warrior slain; Hlidskjalf, the throne of Odin, and Bifröst, the mighty rainbow bridge which connects Asgard and Midgard. It also contains the rivers Ormt and Kormt, and the streams Kerlaug. These are the rivers Thor was forced to ford.

Vanaheim, on the other hand, is where the gods of nature preside. There was a great war between the two, and when peace was made, an exchange of gods (Njord, Freyr, and Freya of Vanir, and Honir and Mimir of Aesir) to symbolize the friendship. Alfheim was the land of light elves and fairies, very small creatures, who were invoked to bless households. Frey ruled over them, and they rode on beams of moonlight, forming divine circles at night.

The second plane contained Jotunheim, Midgard, and Svartalfheim. The ground of this plane was made from Ymir’s flesh, and the rocks and mountains from his bones. The sea was his blood. His skull became the sky, and his brains clouds. From this creation, Odin and his brothers carved out tracts of land for the giants, which became Jotunheim. Underneath all this lived the dark elves, or dwarves, in Svartalfheim.

Midgard was the world of men, often visited by Odin and Thor while they were in disguise. The ocean was thought to encompass all lands, and was home to Jormungand, the World Serpent. This hellish son of Loki was so large it wrapped around the earth.

Jotunheim was the home of frost giants, rock giants, and trolls. Trolls were thought to be diviners, and the giants were the sons of Thyrm, the storm giant. The giants and the gods shared an uneasy truce; sometimes they would marry, while other times they would war on each other

Svartalfheim was the home of dark elves. They caused mischief, capture beautiful women, lust for gold, and craft beautiful things. These were the maggots that crawled from Ymir’s flesh, and who made Odin’s ring and spear, Heimdall’s boat, Freyr’s boar, and Thor’s hammer. If exposed to daylight, they would turn to stone. Dark elves were also believed to wear red caps; these made them invisible. These hats were also the only salvation against the rays of the sun.

On the third, and final level, are Niflheim and Hel. Contrary to popular belief, Niflheim is not the world of the dead. It is the realm of ice and snow, one of two primary forces in the Creation. As previously mentioned, it is home to Hvergelmir and Nidhogg. Hel, on the other hand, is the realm of those who die in beds. Nastrond, a subsection, is the destination for criminals. Hel is guarded by the fearsome dog, Garm, and it is possible to please him with Garm-cake. A tribute of blood is exacted in order to gain induction to Hel. It is also the domain of Hel, the hideous half-dead daughter of Loki. At the Ragnarok, she will rally her terrible armies of corpses.

The last domain does not exist on one of these three plains, rather, it is opposite of Niflheim. It is a place of molten rock and lava, home to the fire gods, whose captain is Surt. Surt carries a great, flaming sword, and will be the last divine survivor of the Ragnarok. At that point, he will perish the old world with his sword, and the world will be reborn from ashes.

Sources:
Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas by H.A. Guerber
The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland