Yggdrasil, also known as the “World Tree” or “Universe Tree”, is an immense tree in Norse mythology. Its branches compose the world in Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, the lord god Odin’ spear Gungnir is also made of a branch from Yggdrasil. Odin once hung himself from a branch of this tree, pierced himself with his spear Gungnir, and then discovered the runes. Odin refers to this as “horse-riding”, which is also why the World Tree is named Yggdrasil. According to the legends, this skyscraping tree is a Chinese ash. This tree connects nine realms.
In 1643, a bishop named Brynjólfur Sveinsson got 45 pieces of vellum containing poems and prose from the heart of ancient Nordic aboriginal culture. This collection is called The King’s Book (Codex Regius in Latin). It is thought to have been written around 1270. Between 1270 and 1643, this manuscript was hidden from public view, with a possible purpose of protecting it from being destroyed by the new religion from Roma. We do not know who in this family had been protecting this manuscript over three centuries, neither do we know about their tradition. But there is one thing we can be sure: in centuries of medieval times, they safely kept a secret which would be considered treachery. The bishop did not keep the manuscript himself, instead, he offered this collection to the King of Denmark as a gift. It was kept in Copenhagen till 1971, when it returned to Iceland.
The manuscript has to be transported by sea with warships, as air transportation was considered too risky – this also reflects the preciousness of this manuscript. It is not surprising, these vellum papers represent the very few written relics of Nordic indigenous people.
When we open this old manuscript, we find the heart of Norse mythology containing a symbol as old as bonfire: the World Tree, Yggdrasil.
An ash I know there stands, Yggdrasil is its name, a tall tree, showered with shining loam. From there come the dews that drop in the valleys. It stands forever green over Urd’s well.
The most satisfactory translation of the name Yggdrasil is “Odin’s horse”. “Ygg” is another name of Odin, while “drasill” means “horse”. However, “drasill” also means “walker” or “pioneer”. There are also some academics who believe that this name means “Odinwalker”. And in some parts of the manuscript, Yggdrasil and Odin seem to be the same.
After spending nine days on Yggdrasil, Odin said the words about “sacrificing himself”. This section provides us a description about the uniformity between the world tree and divinity in myths. To emphasize this connection, we find a word in Old English, “treow”, which means both “tree” and “truth”. Etymologically, truth and tree grow out of the same root. Subsequently, both men and women originated from trees in Norse creation myth. We are all the sons and daughters of the Ash and Elm tree: the first man was called Ask, born from the Ash, and the first woman Embla, born from the Elm. Their oxygen offers us the primordial conditions for life. Ask and Embla sprouted from Yggdrasil’s acorns, and so it is that every human being springs from the fruit of Yggdrasil, then to be collected by two storks ,who bring them to their longing mothers-to-be. In Scandinavian folklore, they say that children are born through the knot holes in the trunks of pine trees, which is another version of the same myth.
Artur Lundkvist is one of the greatest tree worshippers in Swedish literature. After a reflection on trees and forests, he wrote:
‘… in every human there is a tree, and in every tree there is a human, I feel this, the tree wonders inside a human being, and the human being is caught in the tree … I serenade the forests, the forest sea is the second sea on earth, the sea in which man wanders. The forests work in silence, fulfilling nature’s mighty work; working with the winds, cleaning the air, mitigating the climate, forming soil, and preserving all our essentials without wearing them out.’
People represented Yggdrasil by planting a “care tree” or “guardian tree” in the center of the homestead. It was a miniature version of Yggdrasil, and a stately landmark in the courtyard. The care tree was a symbolic expression of the interdependence of the world around us. It had a soul which followed the lives of those who grew up under its shadow and branches. If the care tree had witnessed many families growing up, the relationship between the tree and the family would have strengthened; this relationship was known to be private and confidential within the family. Many such care-trees can still be seen in Scandinavia. I believe that this is the origin of Christmas tree. We unknowingly bring the World Tree into our home every winter solstice.
We also learn from this old vellum scripts that the World Tree is not a transcendental entity beyond time and space; rather, it is alive, organic, fragile, and strong, and bound by the three dimensions of time : past, present, and future. The fragility of Yggdrasil is always a concern to the gods. There is a dragon called “the Bane Biter” who bites its deepest root. There are also other animals that attack the World Tree: four deer named Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr and Duratro feed from the branches. Dain and Dvalin are described as “as if they are dead” or ”living with indifference, living in a mist”. The two animals stand on the roof of Valhalla (the abode of the gods): the goat Heidrun and the deer Eiktyrner, and they feed from the branches too – but they give back gifts to the Tree. The goat offers mead and the deer pours waters from its antlers into the roots. It is said that they both live in balance with the Tree.
Three old wise women known as the Norns are the protectors and guardians of Yggdrasil. The three Norns weave on a loom which represents time itself. They are portrayed as Urd (past), Verdandi (present), and Skuld (future). Every morning, from the leaves of Yggdrasil, there is a sweet glimmering dew which fills the valley; this dew is our memory of yesterday. Before the sun evaporates the dew, Urd collects this memory water and pours it into her well: the Well of Memory. The dew water is named Aurr. In the center of Urd’s well, there are two sacred swans which form a heart shape with their long necks when facing each other, creating the fertility symbol of the god Frey (the god of love and fertility). Love arises from this holy well. .If the past is discarded, memories forgotten, the roots will dry up. Verdandi, who symbolizes the present, presides over the flowers during the flowering time, where life is said to manifest. Skuld assists the flowers to reach out to the future. Curiously, the name Skuld implies debt, as if the future owes something to the work of the past.
The World Tree is connected with our own creation, preservation, and destruction. It teaches us that trees are bound to the fate of the world. It is up to us to care for our past, to remember that which we have lost, and also to celebrate the flowering world, the present moment, whilst reaching forward to a possible future.
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