The Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology
Modern heathenism has been fascinated by the concept of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology and readily provides the names of these worlds and their meanings. Academics are equally guilty. Whereas this is a good practice from a psycho-analytical point of view, we should remember that this has little to do with what our ancestors understood by the concept.
Only three passages mention the Nine Worlds and they are Voluspa 2, Vafthrudnismal 43 and Gylfaginning 34. One more passage briefly skims the concept, and that is Skirnismal 35.
Völuspá is the first and best known poem of the Poetic Edda. "Odin and the Völva" (1895) by Lorenz Frølich. ( Public Domain )
Let’s look at the relevant fragments.
Of Nine Worlds, I Remember
Níu man ek heima, níu íviðjur, mjötvið mæran fyr mold neðan.
‘Of nine worlds, I remember, nine giantesses, the famous Mjötvið, beneath the earth.’
Níu kom ek heima fyr Níflhel neðan; hinig deyja ór helju halir.
‘Nine worlds I traveled beneath in Niflhel, where die the heroes from Hel.’
Hel kastaði hann í Niflheim ok gaf henni vald yfir níu heimum.
‘[Odin] cast Hel in Niflheim and gave her power over nine worlds.’
Hrímgrímnir heitir þurs, er þik hafa skal fyr nágrindr neðan; þar þér vílmegir á viðarrótum geitahland gefi; æðri drykkju fá þú aldregi.
‘Hrimgrimnir is called the Thurs who will own you beneath in Nagrind. There villains at the tree’s roots will give you goat piss. Another drink you will never fetch.’
In each case, the “nine worlds” are under the earth. And in three out of four times, these “worlds” are related to the Underworld, at one time Niflhel and Hel, at another time Niflheim. Lastly it is related to Nagrind, which is Valhalla’s main gate, but Valhalla is a place of the dead, too. And it is certainly depicted below the earth. Hel, Niflhel and Niflheim are interchangeably used in the sources. Originally, Valhalla may have been situated in Hel. Ellis-Davidson certainly argues so.
A depiction of valkyries encountering the god Heimdallr as they carry a dead man to Valhalla (1906) by Lorenz Frølich. ( Public Domain )
Especially the quote from Gylfaginning seems to identify the nine worlds with the realm of the dead. The line can just as well be translated as “he cast Hel into Niflheim and gave her power over the nine worlds.” Niflheim and the nine worlds then cover one and the same domain. The goddess Hel traditionally governs the dead. Even Balder arrives in her halls when he is slain.
Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts, pictured here with her hound Garmr. ( Public Domain )
Hel corresponds to Vrouw Holle or Frau Holle from Dutch and German folk tales. In her legend, two girls reach her world by jumping into a well. She lives underground, and this is where the girls find her. The well may be reminiscent of Urd’s Well at Yggdrasil’s roots.
In Norse mythology, the wells, the roots and the different worlds constitute one complex motif. The nine worlds somehow exist below Yggdrasil. This is explicitly the case in Voluspa 2 where Mjötvid is mentioned. This is an alternative name for Yggdrasil. It is implicitly the case in Grimnismal 35 ( á viðarrótum ).
Yggdrasil, the immense mythical tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Two passages from the Edda’s describe these roots in some detail. These are Grimnismal 31 and Gylfaginning 15. The passages run almost parallel.
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Top Image: Mural, 1907. Heimdallr brings forth the gifts of the gods to the humans ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )