Writing about the sacrality of vegetation in human religious thought, Peter Chemery reminds us that “the earliest sacred places were small-scale reproductions of the world in toto achieved by forming a landscape of stones, water and trees” and that “over the course of time the elements of such a landscape were reduced to the single most important element: the tree or sacred pillar.” He notes the use of trees, water and stones (including stone altars and pillars) at Australian Aboriginal sacred places as well as sites in India and East Asia.
In her book The Sacred Tree, Carole Cusack notes that the “mythology of the Pagan Norse preserves in more complete form several of the medieval themes associated with the sacred tree than medieval Irish, Anglo-Saxon or continental Germanic sources.” Since it is far beyond the scope of this blog or this article to give any full treatment of the Cosmic Tree in various world mythologies, I will focus here primarily on what we know of sacred cosmic trees using examples from Norse mythology.
Cusack notes in The Sacred Tree that “comparative studies of sacred trees foreground two particularly important (and related) meanings ascribed to them” which include the concept of a world tree as axis mundi and as imago mundi, as mentioned above. A study of the beliefs about world trees in various cultures is abundantly illustrative of this shared, near universal concept.
As the world axis, the World Tree runs vertically through the centre of the cosmos and links the heavens, earth and underworld together. Holding the many worlds within its boughs, it is the connecting point between all realms. Its branches (or, in some cases of inverted world trees, the roots) stretch into the realm of the gods while its roots reach into the depths of the world of the dead. It also functions as an anchoring point - a sort of “world nail” or “spike” (Old Norse veraldar nagli) - around which the firmaments revolve. It is sometimes represented by the Pole Star, or North Star, since the skies do appear to revolve around this central, fixed point. As Åke Hultkrantz mentions in a discussion about world trees and pillars in shamanic cultures, the world tree and world pillar/nail were probably two distinct concepts initially which eventually merged together.
Mircea Eliade in particular emphasized in his works the religious importance of the ‘sacred centre’, and the world tree in this sense is representative of the sacred centre of the cosmos. In his book The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade details the dichotomy of sacred and profane, where he defines the sacred as a manifestation of the “wholly other” in an otherwise profane (everyday, non-sacred or anti-sacred) world. Eliade further explains that a manifestation of the sacred (which he called hierophany) within an object such as a stone or tree creates a “break in the homogeneity of space” which leads to a “revelation of an absolute reality”. He suggested that places and objects which functioned as sacred centers (ranging in scale from local to cosmic) allowed us to to communicate with the transcendent and also to harness the infinite power of the timeless, central underlayer of reality in order to create order out of chaos. Since, according to Eliade, all “religious men” sought to live at the center of the world, in connection with the sacred as much as possible, there could be a multiplicity of sacred centres, all of which are simply points where the sacred reality breaks into the profane world.
The imago mundi was thus a microcosmic representation of the universe, with man’s world ordered around a sacred centre often represented by a World Tree or Pillar. When ancient peoples created for themselves an imago mundi (be it temple, home or sacred site with water, stone and tree), Eliade suggested they were essentially re-enacting the work of the gods, and that, for example, by settling and building upon previously uninhabited land, they were founding a world. This re-enactment of the work of the gods through ritual was also at the heart of sacrifice, which effectively renewed the world by repeating the act of creation via the sacrifice of a primordial being.
The World Tree, however, was not just understood as a central pillar supporting the cosmos. It was conceptualized as the very fabric, or matrix, of the universe. If the Tree is the sacred centre, it is in the sense of being at the heart of reality, and all things are joined by being part of it. Despite Eliade’s argument that the sacred is “wholly other”, Carole Cusack in her book emphasizes that “the cosmic picture instantiated by the sacred tree is this-worldly, local and pluralistic, and is thus diametrically opposed to the cosmic picture of the monotheistic religions, which is other-worldly, universal and exclusive.”
Our sources of knowledge about the World Tree in Norse mythology mainly come from two thirteenth century sources, the Poetic Edda (written down in the thirteenth century but containing poems which are older) and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. Combining the information we have from descriptions in Snorri’s work and Eddic poetry, the image of the Tree appears thus: it is an ash tree which stands in the middle of the nine worlds, its branches extending into the farthest reaches of the heavens and its roots descending into the unfathomable depths of the underworld. It is supported by three great roots, and each of these go to a sacred cosmic well: the first, to Urðarbrunnr, the well of fate in the heavens attended by the Norns; the second, to Mímisbrunnr, ‘Mimir’s well’, in the world of giants; and the third, to Hvergelmir, the ‘boiling spring’, full of serpents, in the deepest part of Niflheim. Various animals are said to live upon the Tree, including a great dragon named Níðhöggr which gnaws at its roots, four stags (Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór) which eat its leaves, and a great eagle that sits at the top of the tree. Curiously, the eagle has a hawk named Veðrfölnir sitting between its eyes. A squirrel, Ratatoskr, runs up and down the trunk of the tree, carrying insults between the eagle and the serpent-dragon. The gods gather at the base of the Tree for their assemblies, and the god Heimdall is said to keep his horn (or ear) at the base of this tree. The Norns nourish it with water from the well of fate at its base, and carve runes into its trunk. No one is quite sure how the Tree came to be, but the fate of the tree reflects the fate of the cosmos - at Ragnarök, the end of the world, the Tree trembles and is consumed by destructive powers, only to be reborn again. The World Tree of the Norse is commonly known as Yggdrasil.
As Anders Andren notes in Tracing Old Norse Cosmology, there are in fact “references to at least three mythological trees, namely, Yggdrasill, Mímameid, and Lærad, which may all be viewed as representing three different aspects of the idea of the world tree.” Andren also notes - in contrast to scholars who argue for the ancient origin of the World Tree in early Indo-European religions - that the Old Norse idea of world tree evolved gradually over time, culminating in the detailed concept found in the medieval Icelandic literature.
The most commonly accepted meaning of the name Yggdrasil is that of “Odin’s horse”, with Ygg being a by-name of the god Odin. Andren believes these to be a poetic metaphor for “gallows” which would be a reference to Odin hanging himself from the World Tree. Of course, it may also refer to the shamanic concept of using the Tree as a sort of steed for travelling between worlds. Yggdrasil is mentioned and described in detail in the Eddic poems Völuspá, Grímnismál and Gylfaginning.
Mimameid, perhaps meaning ‘Mimir’s tree’, is mentioned in Fjolvinnsmal and may be connected to Mímisbrunnr, ‘Mimir’s well’. It is said to have “fruit” that can be given to heal the sick. This brings to mind Idunn’s apples, which are said to grant youth and vigour to the gods. This tree may be also be the same as, or connected to, the similarly named Hoddmímis holt or ‘Hoard-Mimir’s Wood’. The latter is the tree trunk in which a human couple, Lif and Lifthrasir, hide in order to survive Ragnarök and repopulate the earth.
There are references to the cosmic tree Lærad in Grímnismál and Gylfaginning. It stands atop Valhöll (perhaps even growing out of it) with a stag named Eykthyrnir and a goat named Heiðrún feeding on its leaves. As they eat, water from the stag’s horns flow into Hvergelmir, the well from which all other waters rise, and from Heiðrún flows mead for the fallen warriors.
On the whole, the Norse mythological World Tree represents the matrix of the cosmos, and the state of the universe is reflected by the state of the Tree - it embodies the mythological cycle. It also has intimate connections with life, fate and death and is a powerful life-giving force and symbol of regeneration (like all vegetative symbols). It serves as a medium for gaining knowledge, perhaps due to the oracular powers of the serpent-entwined cosmic trees of many cultures. It is a gateway to other worlds, the material of creation and destruction.
Another tree called Barnstokkr, meaning ‘child-trunk’, is mentioned in Völsunga saga - a disguised Odin ends up plunging a sword into the tree. This tree grew in the middle of King Völsung’s hall and it has been suggested by some scholars that it may have functioned as a guardian tree associated with marriage, childbirth and fertility as well as the luck of the family. This may serve as a link between mythological trees and much later ‘guardian trees’ recorded on Scandinavian homesteads from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.
It is difficult to say which came first - the mythological tree, or real trees which acted as ‘guardians’ and microcosmic models for a particular place. We know, of course, from accounts such as Adam of Bremen’s description of the tree at Gamla Uppsala that real trees were used in ritual settings. Guardian trees, called vårdträd in Swedish and trunte in Norway, were given votive offerings, especially for childbirth and marriage, and the fate of the tree and that of the farm was considered identical. It was therefore forbidden to harm the tree. Andren notes the connection between the World Tree and guardian trees is “based on certain structural similarities, such as the link between humans, destiny, and trees.” He further suggests that guardian trees may have played a role for pre-Christian Scandinavians as well, particularly due to tree names in place-names from the Iron Age.
Scholars have suggested that early peoples used the human body as a model for understanding the universe, and that the shared characteristics between humans and trees makes trees a good symbolic substitute for humans. Like a tree, the human body can also serve as a microcosmic model of the universe.
There exist many myths throughout the world that say human beings are descended from trees, and these are particularly prevalent among Indo-European cultures. In Völuspá the first humans, Askr and Embla, are created from pieces of wood, and in Gylfaginning Askr and Embla are created from driftwood logs found on land by the sea. The three gods credited with their creation include Odin, and either his brothers Vili and Ve or companions Hœnir and Lóðurr (believed by some to be Loki or, by others, Frey). Each god endowed the first man and woman with different attributes.
Until three gods, strong and loving,
came from that company to the world;
they found on land Ash and Embla,
capable of little, lacking in fate.
Breath they had not, spirit they had not,
character nor vital spark nor fresh complexions;
breath gave Odin, spirit gave Hoenir,
vital spark gave Lodur, and fresh complexions.
- stanza 17-18, Völuspá (Larrington translation)
Several gods are associated with the World Tree in Norse mythology, including Odin, Thor and Heimdall. Odin, of course, is the most well known of these. In fact, the connecting thread between many of the different ‘versions’ of the Tree in the poems is Odin. Most famously, Odin is depicted as hanging himself from ‘the windy tree’ for nine days and nights in order to gain knowledge, and he also sacrifices an eye to Mimir’s Well in exchange for wisdom. As mentioned above, Yggdrasill translates to ‘Ygg’s Steed’ and Odin is also said to possess an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir for travelling between worlds. It has been suggested by many scholars that Odin’s hanging was a sort of shamanic initiation and ordeal in order to gain magic, poetry and command of the runes. The Tree (and the Well) seem to be crucial to this process. Sacrifices to Odin, human and animal, were reportedly hanged in trees. Odin is also considered the divine ancestor of the Völsungs (giving a new layer of meaning to his plunging a sword in the ‘child-trunk’ of the hall of the Völsungs, as described above).
Thor is also connected to trees. Anders Andren states that in Gylfaginning “Thor holds court with the Aesir at Yggdrasill” and he also “saves himself from a flooded river by pulling himself out of the water with the aid of a tree trunk” in Skáldskaparmál. In Germany in the 8th century, St Boniface is said to have cut down Donar’s Oak (called Jove’s or Jupiter’s Oak according to interpretatio romana). The Irminsul (‘mighty pillar’) of the Saxons, described as a tree trunk, was also destroyed in the 8th century and may also have been dedicated to a god (although many suggest an equivalent of Odin rather than Thor). As Tacitus noted early on in his Germania, the Germans venerated sacred trees and worshiped in sacred groves. He mentions ‘Pillars of Hercules’ found in Germania and this recalls to mind the ‘Jupiter Columns’ found in Germania as well as areas of Gaul and Britain. These columns were made of stone and sported various carvings, crowned with ‘Jupiter’ either sitting on a throne or defeating a giant or snake. It is possible these were also connected with Thor/Donar, although many believe it is more likely these depicted a Celtic version of Jupiter.
Finally, Heimdall has some interesting associations with the World Tree. Indeed, some scholars suggest that Heimdall is the World Tree, or rather, he is a personification of the universe as a whole and thus equivalent to the Tree as cosmic matrix. His name translates to something akin to “world-radiance” or, as Maria Kvilhaug translates it in her fascinating book The Seed of Yggdrasill, as “great world”. Some scholars have translated it as “world tree” or “world pillar” Kvilhaug suggests Heimdall and his attributes point to pantheism in Old Norse religion.
In the Völuspá, the seeress begins by asking “Heimdall’s offspring” (meaning either gods, humans or both) to listen. Heimdall is believed to be Rig, described in the Rigsthula as having fathered the three classes of man. This is an interesting notion if we consider Heimdall to be equivalent to the World Tree, and hence the fabric of the universe, as it would be another reference to humans and trees being made of the same material.
It is worth noting that Heimdall’s origins are not clear - he is described as the son of nine mothers (recalling the nine giant maidens and nine worlds of the Tree described in Völuspá). Heimdall is described as “the white god”, which for me brings to mind the hvita-aurr from Urd’s Well which the Norns use to wash down and nourish the Tree, making everything it touches white as the membrane within an eggshell. This, combined with an insult hurled by Loki in Lokasenna that Heimdall has a “wet back” is suggestive again of Heimdall’s World Tree associations. One of Heimdall’s by-names is Hallinskiði, meaning “forward-leaning staff” or “leaning split log”. His role as watchman and guardian recalls the role of the guardian tree.
Heimdall as equivalent to “universe” also connects him with Ymir, the primordial being sacrificed by the gods so they could construct the worlds from his dismembered body. Ymir and Heimdall could also be connected through sound. Ymir may represent the first sound, a sort of primal resounding scream at the beginning of creation. Heimdall’s hearing (or horn) is said to be hidden under the World Tree, and his horn Gjallarhorn, whose sound can be heard in all words, is used to herald Ragnarök. The Gjallarhorn is also used to drink from Mimir’s Well, a well of wisdom and/or memory, and this gives us another giant connection with Mimir. In his hall, called Himinbjörg (“heaven mountain”) he is said to drink fine mead.
Finally, mention must be made of the connection between the World Tree and sacred, intoxicating drink. We have already mentioned above how Heiðrún produces mead by feeding from the Tree. The Tree is depicted as dripping dew in several Eddic poems. In Völuspá the tree is called a “measuring tree”, however Maria Kvilhaug in The Seed of Yggdrasill translates the term mioðviðr as “mead tree”. Since the World Tree is often depicted as an ash tree, the aurr and dew of Yggdrasil may refer to ash tree manna. This will be explored further in a post on precious mead and other sacred drinks.
References and Further Reading:
Andren, A. (2014). Tracing Old Norse cosmology: the world tree, middle earth, and the sun in archaeological perspectives. Nordic Academic Press.
Cusack, C.M. (2011). The sacred tree: ancient and medieval manifestations. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Dumont, D.J. (1992). The Ash Tree in Indo-European Folklore. Mankind Quarterly, 32(4), 323-336.
Eliade, M. (1968). The sacred and the profane: the nature of religion. (Kindle version). Retrieved from Amazon.ca
Eliade, M. (1974) Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy. Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press.
Gilmore, A. (2016). Trees as a Central Theme in Norse Mythology and Culture: An Archaeological Perspective. Scandinavian-Canadian Studies 23, 16-25.
Heimdallr. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 21, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heimdallr.
Kvilhaug, M. (2013). The seed of Yggdrasill: deciphering hidden messages in the Old Norse myths. Helsinge: Whyte Tracks.
Lacharity, E. (2014). Tree Cults in Frankish Heathenism. Odroerir: The Heathen Journal 2, 68-75.
Larrington, C. (1996). The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McGillivray, A. (2011). Mythic transformations: tree symbolism in the Norse plantation. Retrieved from http://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/handle/1993/4433.