In 1643 a Bishop called Brynjolf Sveinsson was given forty- five pieces of vellum containing poetry and prose from the heart of ancient Northern European indigenous culture. This collection is called The King’s Book (the Codex Regius in Latin). It is thought to have been written around 1270. Between 1270 and 1643 the manuscript was hidden from public view, presumably to protect it from being destroyed by the new religion which arose from Rome. Who the family was that protected this manuscript for over three hundred years we don’t know, and nor do we know their tradition, but we can be sure that it would have been a treacherous secret to bear safely through the medieval centuries. The Bishop did not himself keep the manuscript; instead, he offered the collection as a gift to the King of Denmark. There it remained in Copenhagen until 1971, when it was returned to Iceland.
Warships had to transport the manuscript across the sea, as a plane journey was seen as too risky – such was the preciousness of the papers. It is not surprising: these vellum papers represent the few written remains of our indigenous past of Northern Europe.
When we open these old scripts we find at the heart of the Norse mythology contained within a symbol as archaic as campfire: the World Tree, Yggdrasil.
I know that an ash-tree stands called Yggdrasil, a high tree, soaked with shining loam;
from there comes the dews which fall in the valley, ever green, it stands over the well of fate.
Codex Regius (The King's book) of Eddaic Poems and Flateyjarbok (Wikimedia Commons)
The most satisfactory translation of the name Yggdrasil is ‘Odin’s Horse’. Ygg is another name for Odin, and drasill means ‘horse’. However, drasill also means ‘walker’, or ‘pioneer’. Some scholars would argue that the name means ‘Odinwalker’. In some parts of the manuscript, Yggdrasil and Odin seem to be one and the same.
When Odin hung, speared, for nine days on the World Tree, he uttered the words that he had ‘sacrificed himself onto himself’. This stanza gives us a description of the unity existing between the Godhead and the Tree in the myths. To emphasise this connection, we find in old English the word treow, which means both tree and truth. Etymologically, then, truth and tree grow out of the same root. Subsequently, in the Norse creation myth, man and woman originated from trees. 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.
Odin creates Ask and Embla. Published in Gjellerup, Karl (1895). ‘Den ældre Eddas Gudesange’. (Wikimedia Commons)
Artur Lundkvist is one of Swedish literature’s greatest tree worshippers. Following a reflection on trees and forests, he writes:
‘… 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, preserving all our essentials without wearing them out.’
The people represented Yggdrasil by planting what was called a ‘care-tree’, or ‘guardian tree’, in the centre of the homestead. It was a miniature version of Yggdrasil, and a stately landmark in the courtyard. The care-tree was a figurative 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 boughs. 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 line. Many such care-trees can still be seen in Scandinavia. I would argue that this is the origin of the Christmas tree. We unknowingly bring the World Tree into our home every winter solstice.
The Yggdrasil from Prose Edda, 1847. Painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge (Wikimedia Commons)
We also gain an understanding from the 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 into its deepest roots. There are also other animals that assail the Tree: four deer feed from the branches, and their names are Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr and Duratro. Dain and Dvalin are described seeming ‘as if they are dead’ or ‘living with indifference, living in a mist’. Two animals stands 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. They are both said to live in balance with the Tree.
The four stags of Yggdrasill. From 17th century Icelandic manuscript (Wikimedia Commons)
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 centre 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 symbolises 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 Nornic trio of Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld beneath the world tree. From Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. ‘Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden’. (Wikimedia Commons)
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 future possible.
Featured image: Mythological tree (Credit: Ealing Abbey)
Perman, Mikael. Mimers Källa (2014). Varför används ett träd för att symbolisera världens ordning? Årgang, 17, nr 31 Page 6.
Hallgren, Henrik. Odengångarens träd. Mimers Källa (2014). Årgang, 17, nr 31, page 8.
Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda, Tales from Norse Mythology, Dover Publications.
Mackenzie, Donald A. (1918) Teutonic Myth and Legend, The Gresham Publishing Company.
Metzner, Ralph (1994), The Well of Remembrance, Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe, Shambala Publications.