In our modern times, we have a pretty good scientific understanding of cosmology – how the universe began, the story of the universe, how things came to be like they are, and how everything works. Although it should be noted that there are still many questions for science to answer.
Similarly, the ancient Norse and Anglo-Saxon heathens also had quite a sophisticated view of how the universe worked. Theirs was a multiverse (a concept modern science is only just starting to consider). In order to find the details for their cosmology, we can look in a variety of places – the most important of which are the Poetic Edda (Voluspa) and the Prose Edda. In addition, there are sources which give us important details about the Anglo Saxon worldview, including the Nine Herbs charm and Tacitus’ Germania. It should be noted that what we are doing here is making an assumption that the Norse and Anglo-Saxons had a very similar conception of the universe, which is not necessarily true.
According to the Norse sources, in the beginning there was nothing – there was just the void – Ginnungagap. There were also two realms called Nifolham (the dark world) and Muspelham (a world of fire). There were many rivers in Nifolham flowing from a spring called Hvergelmir, and as these rivers got further away from their source, they become ice. Poisonous drops spew out into Ginnungagap and froze into Rime, building up in layers. When the ice meets the sparks and glowing embers of Muspelham, it thaws and from it comes the first life – Ymir. From Ymir come the frost giants. The dripping ice also formed a cow called Audumhla whose milk nourishes Ymir. She also licks the ice and forms the first of the gods – Buri. This story tells us that like other Indo-European people’s, the Norse and Anglo Saxons believed that the universe came about through the interaction of two elements – fire and water.
Buri has a son called Bor and Bor has three sons – Odin/ Woden, Vili and Ve. This has very interesting parallels with the Germanic story of the beginning of the gods in Tacitus’ Germania – the first god is Tuisto, who has a Son Mannus (Proto-Germanic Mannuz = man), who in turn has three Sons – and their offspring are the tribes of germany – the Ingaevones (Ing?), Irminones (woden/ irmin?) and Istaevones. The Ingaevones were the ancestors of the Angles (and therefore the English). Tacitus says that ancient songs/ lays were sung about Tuisto, who was “brought forth from the earth” (maybe born from the Earth Mother). Some scholars consider Tuisto to be the same as Ymir, others consider him the same as, or the son of, Tiw. in one manuscript his name is Tuisco, which connects to Tiwaz, meaning “son of Tiu”. Perhaps therefore the hierarchy of gods is the Earth Mother and Tiw (the original sky father) bore Tuisto. He bore Mannus, and Mannus bore Woden, Ing and Istae? However, Norse texts suggest the Earth was created from Ymir, or that she is the wife and/or daughter of Odin. If we compare it with Vedic mythology about Tvastr, Manu and Yama, Tvastr is the grandfather of Yama (Ymir?) and the brother of Yama is Manu.
In the Norse sources, the three brothers, Odin, Vili and Ve, then kill the giant Ymir and his blood killed off most of the giants except one family. Then the gods used the body of Ymir to make the earth – his blood became the sea, his bones became the mountains, his teeth became stones, his skull became the sky (which was then held up by four dwarves), embers of Muspelham became stars, his brain became clouds, his hair became trees and from his eyelashes was made Middangeard (Middle Earth). This has parallels with other Indo-European myths in which there are two beings Man (mannus?) and Twin (ymir?). Man sacrifices his twin and from his body creates the world. The very creation of the world therefore is through sacrifice, and when we sacrifice in ritual, we are re-enacting that.
The Gods also made humans out of two trees on the seashore. The man was called Ask (from Ash) and the woman Embla (from Elm), and from them came all people. A giant called Norfi has a daughter called “Night” and Night had a son called “Day.” And Odin gives them both chariots to ride around the earth every 24 hours. Similarly a man called Mundilfari has a son called Mona (moon) and a daughter called Sunne (sun), whom the gods placed in the heavens to drive the horses that draw the chariots of the sun and moon. They are chased by wolves, the offspring of Fenrir. The gods also created their own realm – Osgeard, and a bridge from this realm to earth called the Bifrost, the rainbow. Osgeard contains many halls of the gods. And they created dwarves who live in the earth and rocks (along with the dark elves).
At the centre of all things is the world tree, which is called Yggdrasil for the Norse, or Eomensyl for the Anglo Saxons (if they had such a tree). It is an ash tree where the gods gather each day to hold their courts. It has three roots – one in Osgeard, one in Ginnungagap with the frost giants, and one in Nifolham. Below each root is a well. In Nifolham the well is Hvergelmir, Mimir’s well of wisdom is in the realm of the frost giants (where Woden gave an eye in return for wisdom), and the third is the Well of Wyrd in Osgeard, where the gods meet to make judgements. Three maidens – Wyrd (Fate), Werdande (Becoming) and Scyld (Obligation), who score runes on wood, make laws and shape men’s lives. They are the Wyrdae (Norns). There are other Wyrdae too, which come to each of us at birth and decide the lengths of our lives and our fates. The three maidens draw water each day from the Well of Wyrd and mix it with mud to make a sacred white clay, before splashing it over the tree so it won’t wither (some falls to the earth as dew). In this way they help to maintain the universe. In ADF ritual, when we recreate the cosmos, we also put water onto the tree, reenacting this sacred rite.
At the top of Eormensyl sits and eagle and a hawk, at the bottom is the serpent Nidhogg (who gnaws at the tree roots), and between them runs the mischief making squirrel Ratatosk. There are also four stags in the tree who eat its foliage. In the well of Wyrd, two swans nourish themselves.
So we have seen so far, four realms – Muspelham (the place of fire), Nifolham (the dark place of ice), Middangeard (earth) and Osgeard (the home of the gods). Also in the heavens is Elfham, the world where the light elves dwell. It is said to be ruled over by Lord Ing (Frey). Then there is Ettinham, the realm of the giants, and Hel, the place of the dead. And there is Wanham – the place of the Wanes (Vanir). Finally is Dwarfham, the home of the dweorg or dark elves.
At the end of time, the earth, the gods and all the worlds will be destroyed by Surt and the children of Loki. This event is called Ragnarok, but in keeping with the ancient Pagan view of the cyclical nature of time, the earth will be reborn again.
While the Norse worldview talks of nine worlds, the Nine Herbs Charm of the Anglo-Saxons says there are seven worlds. Now there are a couple of ways to look at this – either we could say that the seven worlds are a Greco-Roman or Christian influence, because they originally believed there were seven planets, and just ignore the text. Or alternatively, perhaps there are seven worlds, and the two elemental realms of Muspelham and Niflham weren’t considered proper worlds.
But there are some more complications. In some Anglo Saxon sources, the idea of Neorxnawang is mentioned. This could be translated as a heavenly meadow or field of contentment, where the dead go. Perhaps this is in Osgeard or in Hel? It has been suggested that this is the same as the Norse Idavollr, the place where the gods meet, or Glaesisvellir, a place in Ettinham where those who go there become healthy and never die. Stephen Pollington says that “wang” means meadow or field, while the “neorxes” could refer to a variety of root words related to the dead or the earth. He suggests possible translations as “Plain of those who belong to Nerthus”, “Field of the homes of the dead” or “Field of the Sons of the Earth.” This suggests a realm in the earth and reminds me of the fields of burial mounds across southern England.
When it comes to where the dead may go, we have some clues – many people were buried in burial mounds. Some were buried in ships or with horses which may suggest they would take a journey, however other graves had elaborate chambers like furnished halls set up inside them, suggesting that the dead were likely to be dwelling there rather than journeying on somewhere else. They were often buried with weapons or feasting gear suggesting a need for these items in the afterlife. There is the Wid Ferstice charm which talks about the gods and elves sending “spears” into people to afflict them, but these spears must return to “the mountain-head”. Combine this with the view in the Norse sources that some families “die into” particular mountains (according to H R Ellis), and the story in Eyrbyggja saga of a man who sees a vision of a mountain opened up and a dead man being welcomed by his kin to a great feast within. All this suggests that the realm of the dead is in their mounds or mountains (just like the Sidhe in Ireland).
So where does this leave the realm of Hel? Well, Pollington argues that it was a “dark, cold damp place without joy” and this is reflected in various Old English poems (though Christian). And there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for a goddess called Hel, but there is an Old English version of the Gospel of Nicodemus in which a chthonic female figure orders the devil to leave her realm. Pollington suggests that in the Norse, Hel may be part of Freyja as she chooses half the dead and accepts them into her hall (though Freyja is not part of the Anglo Saxon pantheon). In Beowulf it says “in his fen abode, his soul he laid down, his heathen soul Hel took” but does this refer to the place or goddess? If Hel is the place of the dead, it can only be accessed by crossing a bridge over a river.
We shouldn’t rule out the use of the term “Heofen” (heaven) either just because it sounds Christian – it may have been used by Anglo Saxon pagans to refer to a paradise place (though it usually means “sky”), and the word “himin” for heaven is used in Norse sources to refer to Heimdall’s home as “heaven mountain ” (Himinbjorg).
There is some evidence for Muspelham, or at least beings from Muspel, in Saxon sources as Pollington points out they use the words “Muspilli, Mudspell and Mutspelli” which deal with the worlds ending and come from the latin words “Mundus” and “Spillan” – world destroyers.
Similarly there is Wyrmsele (serpent hall) mentioned in Anglo Saxon sources (the Christian poem Judith), which may be similar to the Norse Nastrond. However, there is no mention or evidence for Wanham in Anglo Saxon sources as it was likely imported into Scandinavia from the Baltic area, and even Ettinham may be a later addition to the Norse cosmology after Iceland was discovered.
Finally, we should remember that “the divine was immanent in the natural world….far from being distant entities in the clouds” according to Pollington, and therefore we should be careful about assuming many worlds that are away from our own.
So where does this leave us in conclusion? What is my cosmology? Well it is far from developed but here are some of the key elements for me….
There is a world tree, Eormensyl, with roots the dip into various wells, where the gods meet and the Wyrdae determine men’s fate. There are also seven realms. These are Middangeard, Osgeard, Elfham, Neorxnawang (which has something to do with the earth and burial mounds i.e. the place of the dead), Muspelham, Nifolham and Hel (Wyrmsele is either in Nifolham or Hel). This is very much a work in progress and I will almost certainly change my mind about this more as I delve deeper into it.
How about you? What do you think?
The Elder Gods – Stephen Pollington
Our Troth – The Troth.
H R Ellis – Road to Hel.
Travels through Middle Earth – Alaric Albertsson
The Prose Edda – Snorri Sturluson
The Poetic Edda – Translation by Henry Adams Bellows.