Originally translated by Rasmus Anderson, edited by William Reaves, further edited by Úlfgrim Vílmeiđson
Copyright © William Reaves
In regard to the position of Yggdrasil and its roots in the universe, there stands statements in both Gylfaginning and in the ancient heathen records. To get a clear idea free from conjectures and based in all respects on evidence of how the mythology conceived the world-tree and its roots, is of interest, not only in regard to the cosmology of the mythology, to which Yggdrasil supplies the trunk and the main outlines, but especially in regard to the mythic conception of the lower world and the whole eschatology.
...The first condition, however, for a fruitful investigation is that we consider the
heathen or heathen-appearing records by themselves without mixing their statements with
those of the Younger Edda's Gylfaginning. We must bear in mind that the author of
Gylfaginning lived and wrote in the 13th century, more than 200 years after the
introduction of Christianity in Iceland, and that his statements accordingly are made to
be a link in the chain of documents which exist for the scholar, who tries to follow the
fate of the myths during the Christian period and to study their gradual corruption and
"This caution is the more important for the reason that an examination of Gylfaginning very soon shows the whole cosmological and eschatological structure which it has built out of fragmentary mythic traditions is based on a conception wholly foreign to the Germanic mythology, (that is, on the conception framed by scholars in Frankish cloisters and then handed down chronicle to chronicle,) that the Teutons were descended from the Trojans, and that their gods were originally Trojan chiefs and magicians. This learned conception found its way to the North and finally developed its
most luxurious and abundant blossoms in the Younger Edda's preface and in certain parts of that work.
Permit me to present in brief, a sketch of how the cosmography and eschatology of Gylfaginning developed themselves out of this assumption: The Aesir were originally men, and dwelt in the city of Troy which was situated at the center of the earth, and which was identical to Asgard (ch.9).
The first mythic tradition which supplies material for the structure which Gylfaginning builds on this foundation is the bridge Bifrost. The myth had said that this bridge united the celestial abodes with a part of the universe somewhere below. Gylfaginning, which makes the Aesir dwell in Troy, therefore makes the gods undertake an enterprise of the greatest boldness, that of building a bridge from Troy to the heavens. But they are extraordinary architects and succeed (ch. 13).
The second mythic tradition employed is Urd's fountain. The myth stated that the gods daily rode from their celestial abodes on the bridge Bifrost to Urd's (subterranean) fountain. Thence Gylfaginning draws the correct conclusion that Asgard was supposed as situated at one end of the bridge and Urd's fountain near the other. But from Gylfaginning's premises it follows that if Asgard is situated on the surface of the earth, Urd's fountain must be situated in the heavens, and that the Aesir accordingly when they ride to Urd's fountain ride upward, not downward. The conclusion is drawn with absolute consistency ("Hvern dag ríđa ćsir ţangat upp um Bifröst," ch. 15)
The third mythic tradition used as material is the world-tree, whose roots went (down in the lower world) to Urd's fountain. According to Voluspa 19, this fountain is situated near the ash Yggdrasil. The conclusion drawn by Gylfaginning by the aid of its Trojan premises is that since Urd's fountain is situated in the heavens and still under one of Yggdrasil's roots, that this root must be located further up in the heavens. The placing of the root is also done with consistency, so that we get the following series of wrong localizations: Down on earth, Asgard-Troy; Thence up in the heavens, the bridge Bifrost; Above Bifrost, Urd's fountain; High above Urd's fountain, one of Yggdrasil's three roots (which in the mythology are all in the lower world).
Since one of Yggdrasil's three roots thus had received its place far up in the heavens, it became necessary to place a second root on a level with the earth, and a third one was allowed to retain it's position in the lower world. Thus was produced a just distribution of the roots among the three regions, which in the conception of the middle ages constituted the universe, namely, the heavens, earth, and hell.
In this manner two myths were made to do service in regard to one of the remaining Yggdrasil roots. The one myth was taken from Voluspa, where it was learned that Mimir's fountain is situated below the sacred world-tree; the other is Grimnismal 31, where we are told that frost-giants dwell under one of these roots. At the time Gylfaginning was written, and still later, popular traditions told that Mimir was of giant descent. From this, Gylfaginning draws the conclusion that Mimir was a frost-giant, and it identifies the root which extends to the frost-giants with the root that extends to Mimir's fountain. Thus the fountain of creative power, of world preservation, of wisdom, and of poetry receives from Gylfaginning its place in the abode of the powers of frost, hostile to the gods and men, in the land of the frost-giants, which Gylfaginning regards as being Jotunheim, bordering on the earth.
In this way, Gylfaginning with the Trojan hypothesis as its starting point, has gotten so far that it has separated from the lower world, with its three realms and three fountains, Urd's real and fountain, they being transferred to the heavens, and Mimir's realm and fountain, they being transferred to jotunheim. In the mythology, these two realms were the subterranean regions of bliss, and the third, Niflhel with the regions subject to it, was the abode of the damned. After these separations, Gylfaginning, to be logical had to assume that the lower world of the heathens was exclusively a realm of misery and torture, a sort of counterpart to the Hell of the Church. This conclusion is also drawn with due consistency, and Yggdrasil's third root, which in the mythology descended to the well Hvergelmir and to the lower world of the frost-giants, Niflhel, now extends over the whole lower world regarded as being identical with Niflheim and the places of punishment therewith connected. ... The manner in which he placed the roots of the world-tree first makes us conceive Yggdrasil as lying horizontal in space. An attempt to make the matter intelligible can produce no other picture of Yggdrasil in accord with the statements of Gylfaginning, than the following:
(Rydberg II, 56) But Gylfaginning is not disposed to draw this conclusion, it insists that Yggdrassil stands erect on its three roots. How we then are to conceive the roots united with one another and with the trunk of this, it prudently leaves us in ignorance, for this is beyond the range of human imagination.
<<Rydberg envisions the world-tree with its branches in Asgard, as they are in
the poem Fjolsvinsmal, and all three roots and wells located in the underworld. Bifrost is
a semi-circular arc with its apex in Asgard and its ends in Hel and Niflhel, in the lower
world. Odin uses his throne Hildskjalf to peer down into Midgard and Jotunheim. Midgard
forms a sort of
roof over the underworld, thus making Odin's ravens necessary to see what is happening there. >>
(Rydberg II, 63) This result carries with it another. The goddess of the lower world and particularly its domain of bliss, was in the mythology, the goddess of fate and death, Urd; also called Hel, when named after the country which she ruled. In a local sense, the name Hel could be applied partly to the whole lower world, which rarely happened, and partly to Urd's and Mimir's realms of bliss, which was more common. Hel was then the opposite of Niflhel, which was solely the home of misery and torture. But when the lower world had been changed into a sort of hell, the name Hel, both in its local and in its personal sense, must undergo a similar change, and since Urd had been transferred to the heavens, Gylfaginning substituted Loki's daughter, cast down into Niflhel, for the queen of the lower world and gave her the name Hel, and the scepter over the whole lower world.
This method is also pursued by the author of Gylfaginning without hesitation, although he had the best of reasons for suspecting its correctness. A certain hesitancy might have here been in order. According to the mythology, the pure and pious As-god Balder comes to Hel, that is to say to the lower world, and to one of its realms of bliss. But after the transformation to which the lower world had been subjected in Gylfaginning's system, the descent of Balder to Hel must have meant a descent to and a remaining in the world of misery and torture, and a relation of subject to the daughter of Loki. This should have awakened doubts in the mind of the author of Gylfaginning. But even here, he had the courage to be true to his premises, and without even thinking of the absurdity in which he involves himself, he goes on and endows the sister of the Midgard-serpent and the Fenris-wolf with that perfect power which before had belonged to Destiny personified, so that the same gods who had cast the horrible child of Loki down into the ninth region of Niflhel are now compelled to send a minister plenipotentiary to her majesty to treat with her and pray for Balder's liberation.
This result, that Urd is identical with Hel, ...may seem unexpected to those, who on the authority of Gylfaginning, have assumed that the daughter of Loki cast into the abyss of Niflhel is the queen of the kingdom of death; that she whose threshold is called Precipice (Gylf. 34) was the one who conducted Balder over the threshold to the subterranean citadel glittering with gold (Vegtamskvida); that she whose table is called Hunger and whose knife is called Famine was the one who ordered the clear, invigorating mead to be place before him; that the sister of those foes of the gods and the world, the Midgard-serpent and the Fenris-wolf, was entrusted with the care of at least one of Yggdrasil's roots; that she whose bed is called Sickness, jointly with Urd and Mimir, has the task of caring for the world-tree and seeing that it is kept green and gets the liquids from their fountains.
Colossal as this absurdity is, it has been believed for centuries! And in dealing with an absurdity which is centuries old, we must consider that it is a force that does not yield to objections simply stated, but must be conquered by clear and convincing arguments. Without the necessity of traveling the path which I have reached the result indicated, scholars would long since have come to the conviction that Urd and the personal Hel are identical, if Gylfaginning and the textbooks based thereon had not confounded the judgment.
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