Otherworld streams and rivers in Norse mythology

I have previously discussed how the ancient Greeks and Irish believed that all rivers flowed eventually to the otherworld where they then took a mysterious course before returning to our own. The Irish medieval ‘Dindsenchas’ texts refer to this belief in regard to a number of mythologically and geographically important rivers such as the Shannon and the Boyne.

The much older classical Greco-Roman texts refer to Okeanos – the world-river composed of all the world’s waters – at whose furthest reaches the heavens begin and where there are islands such as Elysium, Erytheia/Hesperides, Ogygia etc peopled by Titans, monsters and the shades and souls of the dead. The Greek Orphic mysteries (another expression of the core pagan faith of the ancient Mediterranean world) were concerned with the transition of souls to and from this far-off watery/spiritual realm, and it appears that Irish myths entertained similar beliefs.

What about the myths of the Norse peoples of the middle ages, who were among Europe’s longest-surviving pagan cultures? Putting aside for now the various Germanic folklore elements which preserved much of the Atlantic metempsychosis myths in the form of fairy lore, I wish to focus on the Icelandic Edda mythology, recorded and written down during the Christian era in Iceland during the 13th century.

This was written down as the result of a desire among some learned Christian Icelanders to preserve as much as possible of the ancient culturally-important ‘portable’ oral mythology which had followed them on their difficult emigration from the ‘viking’ homelands of Norway, Sweden and Denmark as well as Britain and Ireland. They survive in the form of a number of traditional pagan ‘theogonies’ (descriptions of the gods) detailing the construction of the universe and discussing how the dynamic interplay of spiritual forces cause time to unfold and its cycles repeat – an ancient version of what modern astrophysicists are currently trying (with more or less success) to achieve!

The Icelandic manuscript Codex Regius is the source of the important metrical verse accounts known as the Poetic (or ‘Elder’) Edda, containing the most important pieces of preserved pagan Viking theogony. These are as explicitly about actual gods as the Greek myths, in contrast to many Irish tales which are sometimes not so easy to derive a ‘pantheon’ from. They detail the cosmology of how the comprehended universe was arranged, how the world was formed and (perhaps) how the world ends and is reborn. As such, they share many similarities with ancient Greek and NW European ‘Atlantic’ myths, in particular the belief about the role of springs, streams, rivers and the journey to and from the Otherworld.

The most informative of the Poetic Edda narratives about these themes is the cryptic ‘Seer-woman’s Prophecy’, otherwise known as Völuspá. In some ways it is of a similar genre to the prophetic utterings found in a fragmented state in Atlantic Celtic folktales about the character known as Cailleach: A seeress narrates the theogony of the Norse gods from creation to ‘Ragnarok’ when the gods die. Within this narrative the seeress details the first creation of the giants and gods and the earth/sun/moon etc from the waters; she then says the gods and giants made subterranean men (dvergr – dwarfs) who then produced two supra-terrestrial trees – Ash and Elm – from which the gods made men. Then came the creation of the great ash tree Yggdrasil upon which (figuratively) the creation of the world ‘above-ground’, up to the heavens, rested…

An Ash I know stands, Yggdrasil by name, a high tree, drenched with bright white mud; from there come the dews that drop in the dales, it always stands green over Destiny’s well.

From there come maidens, knowing much, three from the lake that stands under the tree: ‘Destiny’ they called one, ‘Becoming’ the second – they carved on wood tablets – ‘Shall-be’ the third; laws they laid down, lives they chose for the children of mankind, the fates of men.

This famous passage describes the immortal ‘Norns’ who were possibly the same three giantesses who came to disturb the peace of the Aesir (apparently to mate with them) and create the dwarfs, who then helped create the sprouts of the word-tree (Ask and Embla) into which the gods infused life. The poetic Edda is vague or deliberately cryptic as to the exact points but, the picture emerges of a life-giving stream of humanity, reflected in the form of a great tree which grew from the subterranean world (of the dvergr) and which rises to the heavens. This feeds from the ‘lake’ of the Norns at the base of the tree, and it appears that the Norns ‘weave’ the wood of the tree from the water – an idea rooted (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the similarity of trees and plant-life with the branching nature of streams and rivers across the landscape. The Ash tree’s bark has the colour of clay, and has many similarities to water in its shape, form and mode of growth: its ‘raining’ seeds, and the blue-tinged flames that lick around its wood when it burns.

A ‘euhemerised’ version of the poetic Edda myths was produced in the late 13th/early 14thC by the great Icelandic scholar and politician Snorri Sturlusson, and (because it was told in prose form) became known as the Prose Edda. Although purporting that the ‘Gods’ were actually just deified real historic persons and the visions conjured of the spiritual world were illusions and hallucinations, it went on to add increased detail to the poetic Edda narratives which (because of their nature) are likely to be based on traditions that the Christian Snorri understood were important to keep. After all, paganism needed to be understood if it was to stay suppressed – a lesson perhaps learned from the experiences of the Irish… Snorri is obviously reasonably well-versed in certain Greek myths which were of interest to the European Christian euhemerist narratives – Troy, the Golden Age, etc, and weaves them into his narrative. He quotes from the poetic Edda and some Skaldic verses throughout, although he sometimes plays free and loose with the sequencing of the information – possibly to obfuscate the pagan themes from understanding. Snorri elaborates a great deal upon the Yggdrasil in part 15 of his Prose Edda narrative known as Gylfaginning. After going into great detail about the creation of the world, the gods, men and dwarves he tackles the great tree:

Then Gangleri said, ‘Where is the central or holy place place of the gods?’ High answered, ‘It is at the ash Yggdrasil. There each day the gods hold their courts.’… ‘The ash is the largest and the best of all trees. Its branches spread themselves over all the world, and it stands over the sky. Three roots support the tree and they are spread very far apart. One is among the Aesir. A second is among the Frost Giants where Ginnungagap once was. The third reaches down to Niflheim, and under this root is the weel Hvergelmir; but Nidhogg [Hateful Stikrer] gnaws at this root from below. ‘Under the root that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence are hidden there, and Mimir is the name of the well’s owner. He is full of wisodom because he drinks of the well from Gjallarhorn. All-Father went there and asked for one drink from the well, but he did not get this until he gave one of his eyes as a pledge…’ ‘…The third root of the ash is in heaven, and under that root is the very holy well called the Well of Urd. There the gods have their place of judgement. Every day the Aesir ride up over Bifrost, which is also called Asbru [Bridge of the Aesir]… ‘…A handsome hall stands under the ash besides the well. Out of this hall come three maidens, who are called Urd [Fate], Verdandi [Becoming] and Skuld [Obligation]. These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them the norns. There are yet more norns, those who come to each person at birth to decide the length of one’s life, and these are related to the gods. Others are descended from the elves, and a third group comes from the dwarves…’

These passages relate each root of the tree to a nourishing source of water – a well. These lie within three realms: that of primal chaos (the giants), that of the Aesir (gods) and that of the mortals who are open to fate (men) and under the destiny of the ‘Norns’ (who remained un-named in the original Völuspá).

Note: Although widely accepted as a ‘map’ of the ‘spiritual world’ of the pagan Scandinavians, the Gylfaginning text should perhaps be seen as Snorri’s attempt to reconcile some kind of ordered state upon a corpus of pagan folk-knowledge with diverse origins and traditions some 300 years into the Scandinavian Christian era. His textual ‘map’ of the ‘worlds’ and description of lists of gods, dwarves, elves and giants is probably his own interpretation and should not be accepted as canonical in understanding Norse paganism.

Later in the Gylfaginning, Snorri introduces us to Valhöll (Valhalla) – the mighty hall of the fallen warriors. He describes this as a hall of repose and reconciliation in the otherworld where warriors can still enjoy their sport (fighting) but as immortals, who can feast and enjoy each others’ company after doing battle. Snorri sites the hall (which belongs to Odin) in Asgard (‘Aesir Home’) although his poetic Edda source (one of which is Grimnismal) is less certain of the arrangement of the worlds.

To the hall is ascribed a very important pair of animals, said to dwell upon its roof and feed from a great tree called ‘Laerad‘, which seems (given the presence of the dead in the hall) to be a version or part of Yggdrasil. Although Snorri does not make this connection with Yggdrasil explicit in his prose Edda, it is more certain in the poetic Edda which places Laerad somewhere above the roots of Yggdrasil. From the tree, the goat Heiðrún feeds and her milk is the mead drunk by the heroes in Valhöll . Also up on the roof (think of it as a turf roof extending down to the ground if you want to be authentic) there is the stag named Eikþyrnir (Eikthyrnir) who too feeds upon the foliage of the great tree, and from whose antlers drips a dew which falls downwards and collects in the deepest chthonic pool of  Hvergelmir from which Yggdrasil is nourished, and from which (the poetic Edda says) all rivers arise.

The prose Edda contains other descriptions of munching stags wandering among the branches of Yggdrasil, in part 16 of Gylfaginning. Although Snorri doesn’t comment on dew coming from their antlers, he does refer to the nourishing dew supposed to drip down from the tree’s branches as described in the Voluspa. Hvergelmir was supposed in the poetic and prose Eddas to be the pool of serpents (which in ancient mythology share the winding characteristics of rivers). Níðhöggr (‘Malice Striker’) was the serpent who occupied this deepest region, and who may have been cognate with Thor’s great foe (in fishing and at Ragnarok) – the world-serpent, Jörmungandr. By the ancient reckoning ‘serpents’ included the whole class of earth-loving burrowing animals and might include earth and mud-worms, insects and larvae and even stinging insects: not just snakes. They were linked to the idea of gnawing and decay in disease, and the stings of serpents (venoms or poisons) were often blamed (figuratively or as exemplars) for diseases – mundane or magical. The dwarves or dvergr of Norse myth were sometimes characterised as serpents or worms who first burrowed in the dead body of the Earth-Giant Mimir – dead corpses were believed to generate worms by the old reckoning. The same for pools of water, in which insect larvae seem to ‘appear’ by magic. For this reason dwarves and dragons have their strange correlation in Norse mythology – none moreso than Sigurd’s opponent Fafnir who is described as both dwarf and dragon.

Conclusion:

It is evident that the Edda’s descriptions of the world tree are an important depiction of the flow of creation to and from the Otherworld. The identity of water and wood is very explicit, and the strong connection in old European pagan lore between the tree (and hence rivers) and the generations (and regenerations) of humanity is explicit. The connection with serpents, death and regenesis is also a part of this deep mythology. The connection between mead (the milk of Heiðrún) and poetry is common in the ancient northern and north-western European world. Here, in the case of Valhalla, it signifies the satisfaction given to ancestors by the telling of lays and poems in their honour – a key aspect of the Atlantic religion’s ancestor-cult. The stag Eikþyrnir fulfils the mystical recirculation of water, no doubt the reason that the pursuit of white stags so often presage the encounters between brave knights and fairy-women at fountains in the forest-pursuits of medieval lays and Arthurian Romances. The mystical process explains why northern Europe’s ancient pagans typically venerated trees in the richly-wooded forests of central northwest Europe, and perhaps why trees played a subservient role to ‘fairy hills’ in the relatively tree-denuded extents of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Then again… what would an Irish ‘fairy hill’ be without its attendant spring and its thorn tree? 

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