The Eddic picture of the origin of the universe goes back to a time when neither gods nor men, Heaven nor earth, existed. There was a great abyss, Ginnunga-gap, “Yawning chasm,” a conception probably due to popular belief in an abyss outside the ocean surrounding the earth. North of it had been made (by whom?) Niflheim, a frost and mist region, within which was the well Hvergelmir, “Cauldron-rushing,” from which flowed several rivers. To the south was Muspell, light and glowing, ruled over by Surt. The streams or Elivagar from Niflheim, as they flowed, became ice, which spread into Ginnunga-gap. There the ice met warm airs from Muspell or Muspellheim and began to melt. Life was quickened in this by the power of that which sent the heat (whose was this power? there is perhaps a Christian influence here), and took form as a giant Ymir. From him came the Frost-giants.

From the dripping rime there sprang the cow Audhumla (explained as “the rich, polled cow,” audr, “riches,” i.e., its milk, and humla, “polled”). Streams of milk from its udders nourished Ymir, and the cow was nourished by licking the salty ice-blocks. As she licked there came forth from the ice Buri, who was father of Borr. Borr married Bestla, a daughter of the giant race. They had three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve.

Thus the giant race preceded the gods, as Saxo also indicates, and gods and giants were opposed to each other.

The sons of Borr slew Ymir, and his blood drowned all the Frost-giants save Bergelmir with his wife and household. The three brothers bore Ymir’s body into Ginnunga-gap and made



On this Cross at Bewcastle, Cumberland, and on the similar cross at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, there are elaborate designs of a tree with roots, trunk, branches, foliage, and fruit. Birds and animals are shown in the tree, eating the fruit. On this face of the Bewcastle Cross, counting from below, there are a complete quadruped, two fantastic animals with forelegs only, two birds, and two squirrels. It illustrates Bugge’s theory that a Norse poet saw these designs and from them elaborated the myth of the Ash Yggdrasil in which were various animals, as told in Grimnismal. The serpent is lacking in the design on the Cross. See p. 332. The Cross is Anglo-Saxon and dates from the seventh century. For a full description of these two Crosses see Professor G. Baldwin Brown, The Arts in Early England, vol. v, from which the illustration is taken.


of it the earth. Sea and waters came from his blood; gravel and stones from his teeth and such bones as were broken; rocks from

his bones. The sea was placed as a ring round the earth. His skull became the sky, set up over the earth and upheld by four dwarfs. The earth is ring-shaped, and on its coasts the gods gave lands to the giants. Within the earth they erected a wall against the giants, made of Ymir’s eyebrows. This they called Midgard. Of Ymir’s brain, thrown into the air, they made the clouds. The glowing embers and sparks from Muspellheim were set in the Heaven, above and beneath, to illumine Heaven and earth. The gods assigned places to all, even to such as were wandering free.1

This is Snorri’s account, based partly on sources now lost, partly on stanzas of Voluspa, Grimnismal, and Vafthrudnismal. Voluspa says:

“In time’s morning lived Ymir,
Then was no sand, sea, nor cool waves;
No earth was there, nor Heaven above,
Only a yawning chasm, nor grass anywhere.

Then Borr’s sons upheaved the earth
And shaped the beautiful Midgard;
From the south the sun shone on earth’s stones,
And from the ground sprang green leeks.”

The first verse seems to contain the myth of Ymir formed in Ginnunga-gap. The second gives a myth of earth raised out of an existing ocean, not made from Ymir’s flesh. The sun shone on it and growth began. Whether both verses come from one hand or, as Boer holds, the second alone belongs to an earlier form of the poem, is immaterial. The myth of earth raised out of ocean is found in other mythologies.3 The next verses tell how sun, moon, and stars were allotted their places, and how the gods gave names to night, new and full moon, etc.

In Vafthrudnismal the giant in response to Odin’s question, tells how earth and sky arose, but does not speak of them as a work of the gods.


“Out of Ymir’s flesh was shaped the earth,
    The mountains out of his bones,
The Heaven from the ice-cold giant’s skull,
    Out of his blood the boisterous sea.”
This is succeeded by an account of the giants, the first of whom is said to have been made out of the venom from Elivagar. No mention is made of fire and heat, only of frost and ice.4

Grimnismal speaks of the origin of earth from Ymir’s flesh, ocean from his blood, Heaven from his skull, the hills from his bones, and it adds that trees were formed from his hair, Midgard from his eyebrows, made by the gods for men, and out of his brain the clouds.5

In Voluspa three gods lift earth out of ocean, but the other poems merely mention gods, without specifying the number or saying how they came into existence. Snorri says that from Odin and Frigg came the kindred known as the Æsir, a divine race.6 In an earlier passage he speaks of All-father or Odin living through all ages and fashioning Heaven, earth, and all things in them.7 The latter is probably a reflexion from Christian views of Creation.

The conception underlying Snorri’s main account is that giants, gods, and all things may be traced back to the union of water (ice and mist) and fire. The ice contains salt, and this plays an important part in the myth of Audhumla. An interesting comparison is found in Tacitus, who, speaking of the sacred salt springs near the Saale, says that the waters were made to evaporate on red-hot coals, and salt was thus obtained from two opposite elements, fire and water. This may point to an old Germanic cosmogonic myth with fire, water, and salt as elements.8 Skaldic kennings illustrate the Eddic myth of Ymir. Heaven is “skull of Ymir” or “burden of the dwarfs”; earth is “flesh of Ymir”; the sea is “blood of Ymir”; the hills are “Ymir’s bones.”9

Grimm cites passages from medieval ecclesiastical documents dating from the tenth century onwards, in which man is said to



The illustration shows one of the fantastic animals and a bird. From Prof. Baldwin Brown, The Arts in Early England, vol. v.


have been created out of different materials. One of these says that Adam’s bones were made from stone, his flesh from earth, his blood from water, his heart from wind, his thought from clouds, his sweat from dew, his hair from grass, his eyes from the sun. The four documents differ in details, but there is a curious inverse parallel with the Eddic account, which “uses the microcosm as material for the macrocosm, and the other inversely makes the universe contribute to the formation of man.”10

Voluspa goes on to tell that the gods met at Ithavoll in the midst of Asgard and built temples and altars, made forges to work gold, wrought tongs and fashioned tools. This was during their golden age. Then the creation of dwarfs is described.11 Snorri amplifies this. All-father gave counsel about the town in the midst of Ithavall. A temple was made with twelve seats and a thirteenth for All-father. It is all of gold and is called Gladsheim. A second house was built for the goddesses, called Vingolf. Houses were made for workshops; and tools, anvils, hammers, and tongs were fashioned. The Æsir worked in metals, stone, and wood, and fashioned their household wares of gold. Hence that time is called the Age of Gold. Then follows the creation of the dwarfs.12

Voluspa next gives the myth of human origins. Odin, Hœnir, and Lodur came forth to the land and found Ask and Embla (Ash and Elm) unprovided with fate and without strength, soul, breath, movement, heat, or colour. Odin gave them soul, Hœnir sense, Lodur heat and goodly colour.13 Snorri says that Odin, Vili, and Ve, walking on the shore, found two trees, which they shaped into human beings. Odin gave them soul, Vili life, Ve hearing and sight. They named the male Ask and the female Embla, and of them mankind was begotten.14 In an earlier passage, where biblical influence may be seen, Snorri says that All-father made man, giving him spirit which shall never die, though the flesh-frame rot or burn to ashes.15 The shaping of human beings out of trees may have been suggested by wooden images, such as those which the


speaker in Havamal says that he found and on which he put clothes. Now they regarded themselves as champions. Such images, called tremadr, are mentioned in other documents.16 In Rigsthula the different classes of men were begotten by Rig. The account given by Tacitus of the founders of the Germanic race is interesting by way of comparison. The Germans celebrate in ancient hymns a god Tuisto, issued from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the originators of their race. Mannus had three sons, progenitors of the Ingvæones, Herminones, and Istævones. Some, however, think that the god had other sons, progenitors of other tribes.17 Mannus is thus the first man, born of a god who comes out of the earth, perhaps regarded as spouse of a Heaven-god. His sons were eponymous ancestors of three chief German groups. If Tuisto was thought to be produced by earth alone, and himself alone produced sons, he would resemble Ymir, who begat giants without a female (p. 275).

Separate cosmogonic myths occur here and there. A river, Van, is formed from the slaver out of the mouth of the Fenris-wolf. Stars were made of the eyes of Thjazi or Aurvandill’s toe; a well from the footprint of Balder’s horse, etc.18

For the Eddic conception of the universe we begin with the earth, the middle of things, a general Teutonic conception — Gothic midjungards, OS middelgard, AS middangeard, OHG mittigart, ON midgard, literally “boundary-wall,” i.e., the mountains by which the giants were shut out from the habitable earth, then the earth as the dwelling-place of man, or, as Snorri conceived it, a citadel. Thor is “Midgard’s warder” (veorr) against the giants.19 Earth is a vast disc, surrounded by the ocean or floating upon it, and in this ocean is the Midgard-serpent, lying about the land and surrounding it, his tail in his mouth, “the girdle of all lands.” Around the shores of earth are mountains, rocks, wastes, and caves, and these are the dwelling of giants, Jötunheim or Utgard, though Utgard was also regarded as being beyond the ocean.20


According to one passage of Snorri, Asgard, the abode of the gods, is a city which men call Troy, in the midst of Midgard. It is the new Asgard, in place of the elder Asgard in Asia.21 This conception of Asgard is due to Snorri’s euhemerism and the desire to connect the Scandinavian people and deities with ancient Greece. The earlier pagan view of Asgard made it a heavenly abode, or possibly it was on the top of a lofty central mountain, which would give a link with Snorri’s view of Asgard on earth.

Above all was Heaven, overarching and resting on earth. Between Heaven and earth was the bridge Bifrost or Bilrost, which the gods had made, the Asbru or “bridge of the Æsir.” It is the rainbow, of three colours. It is very strong and made with greater craft than any other structure. The red colour is fire, which keeps the Hill-giants off. Over this best of bridges the gods ride daily to their tribunal at Urd’s well. Another name of the bridge is Vindhjalmsbru, “Wind-helmet’s (the sky) bridge.” At the Doom of the gods the sons of Muspell will cross it and break it down. Meanwhile Heimdall is its guardian.22

Valhall is Odin’s hall in Asgard, where are also Gladsheim and Vingolf, but Grimnismal places Valhall in Gladsheim, “the Place of joy.”

Separate dwellings of gods and others are enumerated in Grimnismal and by Snorri, and these appear mainly to be in Heaven. The chief of them are Alfheim, abode of the Alfar and Frey; Breidablik, Balder’s abode; Valaskjalf, “Seat of the fallen,” possessed by Odin and thatched with silver, in it is Hlidskjalf, “Gate-seat,” whence Odin surveys all worlds. Valaskjalf may be Valhall. Thrudvangir, with its hall Bilskirnir, is Thor’s abode.

Much speculation has been indulged in regarding the “nine worlds,” spoken of in Voluspa and Vafthrudnismal, as well as in an interpolated stanza in Alvissmal where the dwarf says: “Oft have I fared in the nine worlds all, and wide is my wisdom in


each.” In Voluspa the Volva says that she knows “nine worlds, nine rooms of the mighty World-tree.” The giant in Vafthrudnismal says that he has been in every world, the nine worlds, even to Niflheim.23 In all three passages the idea is that of comprehensive knowledge on the part of the speaker — dwarf, seeress, giant. This knowledge is possessed by different kinds of beings dwelling in different regions. Alviss knows the names given to various things by several orders of beings dwelling in earth, Heaven, Alfheim, etc. “Nine worlds” would thus be more a figurative phrase than one expressing local geography or cosmology. In Voluspa these worlds are connected with the World-tree, itself a comprehensive symbol.

Regarded as different regions, the nine worlds may be — 1. Asgard, 2. Vanaheim, 3. Alfheim (though this is one of the dwellings in Heaven), 4. Midgard, 5. Jötunheim, 6. Muspellheim, 7. Svartalfheim, 8. Hel or Niflhel. The ninth is uncertain. It may be obtained by dividing Hel from Niflhel or, preferably, by including a Water-world.24 Undoubtedly the numbering of nine worlds is connected with the sacredness and importance of the number nine in religion, myth, folk-belief, and poetry.25

Below Midgard is Svartalfheim, the region of the dwarfs. Hel or Niflhel is also a subterranean abode. While Snorri speaks of Niflhel in this sense, he also speaks in error of Niflheim, apparently another form of the name, as a region in the North, the cold region of mist, whence streams flowed into Ginnunga-gap. In Niflheim Snorri places the well Hvergelmir, whence spring certain rivers, among them Gjoll, which is near Hel-gates. It is under the root of Yggdrasil which stands over Niflheim. In Grimnismal, the site of Hvergelmir is not given, but it is said that from the horns of the hart which eats the branches of Lærad, a stream drips into Hvergelmir and thence all the rivers run.26



To the seeress of Voluspa the World-tree with its nine divisions or worlds, is “the mighty Fate-tree (or “well-planned tree,” myotvithr), deep in the earth.” The nine worlds are contained in the tree or symbolized by its divisions. In later passages the Volva speaks of an ash called Yggdrasil, reaching high aloft, wet with white water, thence come the dews that fall in the dales. It stands by Urd’s well, and the three Norns dwell in a hall under it.27 This reference to the three Norns may be interpolated, enlarging on Urd’s connexion with the tree. Heimdall’s horn is hidden under the tree, and a mighty stream pours from Odin’s pledge (which is in Mimir’s well) on the tree. At the Doom of the gods the tree shakes and its leaves rustle.28

The picture of the tree in Svipdagsmal is similar. Mimameith (“Mimir’s tree”?) stretches its branches over all lands. No one knows what roots are beneath it. Few can guess what shall fell it, not fire and not iron. Then follows a piece of folklore. The fruit of the tree placed in fire is good for women in childbirth. What was within then comes out, such might has the tree for men. Gering points out that in Icelandic belief a hard legumen borne to Iceland by the Gulf Stream is used for the same purpose. On the highest bough stands the cock Vithofnir, glittering like gold, shining like lightning, ever-watchful, the terror of Surt and Sinmora.29 If this bird is the same as Gollinkambi, who wakes the heroes in Valhall, the top of the tree must be in Asgard. The bird’s watchfulness is a terror to the enemies of the gods.

These two passages give a picture of a wonderful world-tree, its roots on or under the earth, beside it Mimir’s well — probably the older conception — or Urd’s well. As we shall see, Snorri puts these two wells beside two separate roots of the tree.

A more elaborate picture is given in Grimnismal. The ash Yggdrasil is “best of trees.” Beneath one of its three roots is


Hel; the Frost-giants beneath the second; mankind are beneath the third. A lost stanza may have spoken of the wise eagle that sits on the top of the tree, for the next stanza speaks of the squirrel Ratatosk which carries the eagle’s words to the dragon Nidhogg below. Four harts nibble the uppermost twigs, perhaps a later amplification of the single hart of a succeeding stanza. Numerous serpents lie beneath the tree and gnaw its branches. Thus the tree suffers, for the hart bites its top; its trunk is rotting; and Nidhogg gnaws its roots. Meanwhile the gods ride daily to give judgments at the tree. Thor walks there.30

Snorri combines this information, but gives varying details. Of the three roots, one is among the Æsir, one among the Frost-giants, and one over Niflheim. Beneath each is a well or stream. As the Æsir are in Heaven, a root cannot be there, unless we assume that Snorri still regards Asgard as on earth. But later he says that the root is in Heaven, and underneath it is Urd’s well. Mimir’s well is underneath the root among the Frost-giants. The third root, over Niflheim, is gnawed by Nidhogg. The eagle in the tree knows many things. Between his eyes sits the hawk Vedrfolnir. Ratatosk bears envious words between the eagle and Nidhogg.31

Snorri thus upsets the whole conception of Yggdrasil by placing one of its roots in Heaven, with Urd’s well there, and by setting Mimir’s well among the Frost-giants.

Most of the details in Grimnismal may be no more than decorative motifs, perhaps derived from the presence of birds or other animals in sacred trees or groves, or, as R. M. Meyer supposes, from sculptured representations of trees with conventional animals.32 Bugge thought that the poet had seen monuments in the north of England with ornamentation like that on the Bewcastle cross in Cumberland, if not that cross itself. On such crosses was carved a tree, in the foliage of which sat an eagle or hawk, squirrels and serpents, and ate of its fruits.33 If the tree or the animals had any mythic significance, the key to it



The left and right sides of the Ruthwell Cross are decorated in a similar manner to the design on the Bewcastle Cross. The illustration shows the left side. The long lower panel shows the tree and begins below with a bird having a fantastic tail, an otter, two birds, two fantastic animals. The upper panel has a bird and possibly a squirrel. This Cross is also Anglo-Saxon, of the seventh century, and illustrates Bugge’s theory of Ash Yggdrasil, see p. 332. The illustration is from Prof. Baldwin Brown, The Arts in Early England, vol. v.


is lost, in spite of the ingenious conjectures of modern mythologizers.

The ash Yggdrasil has many prototypes. It recalls sacred trees beside sacred wells from which oracles were obtained. It is linked to the Vårträd or “Ward-tree “growing beside Swedish houses, which, if cut down, brings the prosperity of the house to an end — a significant fact when we remember that the gradual destruction of Yggdrasil denotes the approach of the Doom of the gods. It may thus have once been a mythic heavenly Vårträd, growing beside the hall of the gods. Such a tree is spoken of in a stanza quoted by Snorri — Glasir growing by the doors of Valhall, its leafage of red gold, the fairest tree known among gods and men.34 Grimnismal also speaks of a tree, Lærad, growing beside Odin’s hall. From the horns of the hart which bites its branches a stream falls into Hvergelmir, whence all the rivers flow. This also resembles a Vårträd, and both trees may be forms of Yggdrasil.35 When Grimnismal speaks of the gods riding to judgment beneath Yggdrasil, this maybe reminiscent of actual processions to judgment beneath a Vårträd or a temple tree.36

Yggdrasil also resembles the sacred tree growing beside a temple, like that one described by the scholiast to Adam of Bremen. Beside the temple at Upsala was a great tree with spreading branches, always green, even in winter. Its origin was known to none. Near it was a spring used for sacrifices.37 The branches of Yggdrasil were also far-spreading; it was always green; beside it was a spring; no one knew its fate or its roots. The Old Prussian holy oak at the sanctuary called Romove also offers an analogy to Yggdrasil. It had three divisions, each sacred to a god, and an image of each stood in each section. Before the god Perkuna of one division burned perpetual fire; before Potrimpo was the snake fed by the priests and priestesses; before Patollo the heads of a man, horse, and cow. This tree was also evergreen.38

The full name of the Eddic tree was Askr Yggdrasils, “the


Ash which is Ygg’s (Odin’s) Steed,” or “the Ash of Odin’s Horse.” Yggdrasil was a kenning for Odin’s horse Sleipnir. The name may be due to the fact that victims sacrificed to Odin were hung on sacred trees, riding the tree, gallows, or horse sacred to him. Other explanations are given. It is the tree in which is Odin’s steed, the wind. Or Odin tethered his horse to the tree, or, less likely, it is the tree on which Odin hung, hence his gallows or steed.39 In the same way the gallows was called “the ice-cold steed of Signy’s husband” in a skaldic poem.40 But, as Chadwick points out, there is “not a single reference to the World-tree having served as Odin’s gallows,” while “the name Yggdrasil may have been applied to the earthly Vartrad, and transferred together with the conception of the tree to its heavenly copy.”41

The mythic Yggdrasil was almost certainly a tree growing on earth before it was transferred to the Other World and the region of myth.

This tree is also connected with wide-spread myths of a World-tree growing on a mountain or in the centre of the earth, and reaching to Heaven. Such a tree also resembles the mythic World-pillars supporting Heaven. Both trees and pillars are many-storied. The roots of the tree go down into the Underworld, its topmost branches pierce the sky, and it stands by a spring, lake, or sea, or in the sea itself. As in a Yakut tale, a goddess dwells at the root of the tree and foretells the future, like Urd or Mimir. Tree or pillar is often the tethering-post of deities, especially of the Over-god, as in the Yakut tale, and this throws light on Yggdrasil as connected with Odin. Such mythical pillars and trees are known all over Northern Asia, and can be traced in India, Iran, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The eagle Garuda or Garide is believed to dwell in the tree. At its roots is a dragon or snake at which the eagle pecks.42 In some of these myths a spring flows from the tree or from its sap, and, as in Iranian belief, all the rivers of earth have their source in it.43 So out of Yggdrasil flows dew, called by men honey-dew,


on which bees are nourished, and the source of rivers is connected with the tree Lerad.44

Such mythic trees would be suggested by lofty forest-trees on which the sky seemed to rest, and, as in some Polynesian myths, which separated earth and Heaven. Then, as the sky seemed to recede into a remoter distance, arose the fable of one lofty tree reaching from earth to Heaven.45 Myths of a Heaven-supporting tree are numerous, and they survive in tales of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”46 The resemblances of the Scandinavian tree to such mythic trees are numerous, and its origin need not therefore be sought in medieval Christian legends of the Cross as a World-tree, which, in fact, carry on the tradition of these mythical trees.

The myth of the sky as a tent-roof supported on a pillar or post occurs among the Lapps, Finns, and North Asiatic tribes, Japanese, and ancient Egyptians.47 The Asiatic pillar is seven-storied, representing the seven Heavens, and it is the tethering-post of the stars or of the horses of the gods.48 Posts with seven branches, on which sacrificial victims are hung, symbolize the mythical post. The Lapps also had such sacrificial pillars, representing the heavenly pillar supporting the world, with an iron nail at the top, a symbol of the World-nail which fixed the sky in place. The nail of the sky is the Pole Star, round which the Heavens are thought to revolve. This belief of the Lapps may have been borrowed from the Scandinavians.49 Similar beliefs were entertained by the Celts and in ancient India.50 The symbolism of the seven Heavens in tree or pillar, like the three divisions of the Romove tree, recalls the nine worlds or divisions of the Eddic tree.

This helps us to understand the Irminsul of the Saxons, a word denoting “sanctuary,” “image,” or “pillar,” such as was destroyed by Charlemagne,51 but its general significance was that of a pillar or tree-stump. Rudolf of Fulda says that the Saxons venerate leafy trees and springs, and worship a huge tree-trunk called Irminsul, which means universalis columna, as if it sustained


all things.52 The Irminsul must have been a symbol of a mythic World-pillar, and connected with the cult of a god Irmin. The nail of the sky may also have been known in Scandinavia, as its name, veraldarnagli, occurs in Icelandic folk-poetry.53 The mythic World-mountain may be seen in the Himinbjorg, or “Heaven-mountain,” situated at the end of Bifrost.

These various conceptions show that, whatever details may be due to Christian influences, the Eddic World-tree was a native conception. The theory that it was copied from the medieval legend of the Cross was advanced by Bugge, E. H. Meyer, and Golther, though Bugge admitted the existence in Scandinavian belief of a wonderful holy tree, which, under Christian influence, was transformed into a World-tree. In the medieval legend the Cross was a tree linked to the Tree of Life in Paradise. Its end, set in the earth, reached down to the Underworld, the top reached to Heaven, the two arms spread over the world. The Cross was our Lord’s steed, according to medieval poetic usage, and “steed” was a metaphor for “gallows,” the victim being the Rider. The point d’appui here is the explanation of Yggdrasil as Odin’s gallows, because he hung on it. As we have seen there is no evidence that the tree on which he hung was Yggdrasil. The dragon Nidhogg is the serpent of Eden, associated with the Tree from which the Cross was derived.54 Be this as it may, the Yggdrasil conception is not entirely, if at all, due to such legends as these.


A phrase used in the Poetic Edda is ragna rok, “fate or doom of the gods” (ragna being genitive plural of regen, “powers,” “gods”). It resembles the phrase aldar rok, “destruction of the world,” used in Vafthrudnismal. Another phrase, with which it is often confused, is ragna rokr, “the darkness of the gods,” which occurs in Lokasenna and is used by Snorri.55 Used mis-



This illustrates the tree design as on the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses, but here the tree-stem only is shown, while the branches have become a chain plait ornament. The date of this Cross at Dearham, Cumberland, is c. 1000 A.D. From a photograph by Prof. Baldwin Brown.






with no summer between. Over the earth are mighty battles. Brothers will slay each other for greed’s sake: none spares father or mother in murder and incest. He then cites a stanza of Voluspa which refers to these evils:

“Brothers shall fight and slay each other,
Sisters’ sons break kinship’s bonds;
Hard is it on earth, with much unchasteness,
Axe-age, sword-age,
Shields are cloven,
Wind-age, wolf-age, ere sinks the world;
No man will ever another spare.”

3. A third myth is that of the destruction of the world by fire. Voluspa tells how Surt comes from the South with “the scourge of branches,” i.e., fire. In the stanza which describes earth sinking into the sea, it is said that steam rages and the preserver of life (fire); fire shoots high to Heaven itself. The fires of Surt are also mentioned in Vafthrudnismal as occurring at the end of the world. The possible destruction of the world by fire, viz., by the sun, is spoken of in Grimnismal. If it were not for the shield in front of the sun, mountains and seas would be set in flames. Snorri often refers to this final fire, and says that Surt will cast fire and burn the world. The sons of Muspell ride forth, Surt at their head, before him and after him burning fire. His sword is very good, from it shines a light brighter than the sun. As they ride over Bifrost, the bridge breaks down. In an earlier notice, Surt is said to sit at the world’s end by Muspellheim. At the last he will go forth and harry, overcome the gods, and burn the world with fire.61 Fire and heat were sources of life: now they are its destruction.

These separate myths, or at least the first and second, are combined in Voluspa, together with the myth of the freedom gained by chained monsters, the Fenris-wolf, Loki, and Garm, and all three appear in Snorri’s account of the Doom, in which he quotes freely from the poem.

The doom begins with moral evils on earth.62 The sons of


Mim (the waters or spirits of the waters) are in motion.63 The Gjallar-horn sounds the note of Doom as Heimdall blows it. All the Hel-ways are in fear. Yggdrasil shakes; its leaves rustle, for the giant, the Fenris-wolf, is free. Odin consults the head of Mim, but the wolf will slay him soon. Then comes an impressive stanza:

“How fare the gods? How fare the Alfar?
All Jötunheim roars; the gods take counsel.
The dwarfs stand groaning before their rock-doors,
The lords of the rock-walls. Would ye know yet more?”

From the East comes Hrym, leader of the giants. The Midgard-serpent writhes in giant-fury. The eagle Hræsvelg screams aloud, gnawing corpses. The ship Naglfar is loose, steered, as Snorri says, by the giant Hrym and carrying the giants.64 Another ship sails from the North with the people of Hel, steered by Loki. Wild hosts65 follow the Wolf. With them is Byleipt’s brother (Loki). From the South comes Surt with fire. The hills are shattered; the giantesses fall; the dead crowd Hel-way; Heaven is cloven.

To Frigg comes yet another grief: she sees Odin die by the Wolf. Frey seeks out Surt, Vidarr pierces the Wolf with his sword, avenging Odin. Thor advances against the Midgard-serpent, and strikes a death-blow, but himself falls dead, suffocated by the venom. Now the sun turns black; earth sinks into the sea, stream and flame grow in fierceness, and fire leaps up to Heaven itself. It is the end.

Snorri’s account of the advance of the gods and the fighting is vivid. The Wolf rushes forward, mouth gaping, the upper jaw touching Heaven, the lower the earth, fire blazing from eyes and nostrils. The Midgard-serpent by its side blows venom. Heaven is cloven, and Muspell’s sons, led by Surt, ride forth, fire preceding and following them. They ride to a field Vigrid, and there come also the Fenris-wolf, the Midgard-serpent, Loki, Hrym, and the Frost-giants. The people of


Hel follow Loki. Heimdall blows his horn. Odin rides to Mimir’s well to take counsel with him. Yggdrasil trembles: all in Heaven and earth are in fear. The Æsir arm themselves and ride to the field, with all the Einherjar from Valhall. Odin is in front, with golden helmet, birnie, and spear. Thor is beside him, but cannot aid him against the Fenris-wolf, as he must encounter the Midgard-serpent. The watch-dog of Hel, Garm, is loose, doing battle with Tyr, each slaying the other. Thor slays the Serpent, strides away nine paces, and falls dead, overcome by its venom. Frey fights with Surt and falls, for he lacks his sword, having given it to Skirnir. The Wolf swallows Odin, but Vidarr sets one foot on its lower jaw, and with his hand seizes the upper jaw, and tears them in two. Loki fights with Heimdall, and each slays the other. Surt then throws fire over the earth and burns it up.66

Snorri gives details not in Voluspa, e.g., Tyr’s fight with Garm, and Heimdall’s with Loki. He incorporates some incidents from Vafthrudnismal which also contains some notices of the Doom, viz., the field Vigrid, Njord’s return to the Vanir before the end, the mighty winter which Lif and Lifthrasir survive, the swallowing of the sun, the fires of Surt, Odin’s death by the Wolf, its slaying by Vidarr, and Thor’s end.67

In spite of the large muster of forces, only a few are described as actual combatants — on one side Odin, Thor, Tyr, Heimdall, Frey, and Vidarr; on the other the Wolf, the Serpent, Garm, Loki, and Surt. No account of the participation of other gods or of the Einherjar is given. Some of these pairs of opponents are found in hostility to each other in non-eschatological myths — Thor and the Serpent, Heimdall and Loki.

The Doom is known to the poets who wrote Baldrs Draumar and Grimnismal. In the former the sibyl tells Odin that none shall seek her till Loki is free from his bonds and the destroyers come to the Doom of the gods. In the latter Thor is to dwell in Thrudheim “till the gods are destroyed” — a phrase used also in Vafthrudnismal.68 Some of the skaldic poems also refer to


it. In Eiriksmal Odin speaks of the time not being known when the grey Wolf shall come upon the seat of the gods. In Hakonarmal are the words: “the Fenris-wolf shall be let loose on mankind ere such a good king as Hakon shall arise.” Verses by Kormak (c. 935 A.D.) say: “the earth shall sink, the mountains drop into the sea” before such a fair woman as Steingud shall be born. Arnor Iarlaskald (c. 1065 A.D.) wrote: “the bright sun shall turn black, the earth sink into the dark sea, the dwarfs’ burden (Heaven) shall be rent, the sea rush up over the hills, ere such a one as Thorfinn shall be born.” These references are in conformity with the Eddic account. In the story of the Hjadnings’ battle, it is said that the fight will continue till the Doom of the gods; and when the maiden saw the dead Helgi and his men riding to their barrow, she cried: “Is this the Doom of the gods, that dead men ride?”69

How far Christian influences have coloured or moulded the ideas and incidents of the world catastrophe is problematical. Different critics assume more or less of such influence. While here and there echoes of Scriptural language and incidents may be found, the conception as a whole seems original, or at least based on native folk-lore and eschatological myths. Parallels from other mythologies exist, but it does not follow that there was borrowing from these. The swallowing of the sun by a monster is a wide-spread myth. Iranian mythology has a parallel to the mighty winter in its eschatology — the devastation caused by the rain of MalkMsh, when most of mankind die of excessive cold, snow, and famine. Rydberg and others regard the Iranian and Eddic myths as examples of an old Indo-Germanic belief.70 The belief in the world’s destruction by water and fire existed among the Celts, apart from Christian influence. There are classical references to this belief among the Celts, and it exists in native Irish documents. The prophecy of the War-goddess Badb about evils to come and the end of the world, and that of Fercertne in The Colloquy of the Two Sages have a certain likeness to the prophecy of Doom in Voluspa.71


One point requires further elucidation. Snorri says that the sons of Muspell ride with Surt at their head over Bifrost bridge. At the end of the conflict the fires of Surt consume the world. He has already spoken of the southern region of fire, Muspell or Muspellheim, at whose frontiers sits Surt waiting to go forth against the gods and destroy the world with fire. Muspell has the largest ship, Naglfar. From the sparks flowing out of Muspell, the gods made the chariot of the sun and the lights of Heaven.72

Two passages only of the Poetic Edda mention Muspell. Loki told Frey that when the sons of Muspell ride through Myrkwood he will be weaponless. In Voluspa the manuscripts have the reading “the people of Muspell,” which is corrected by critics to “the people of Hel.”73 Bifrost is spoken of twice. In Fafnismal the gods assemble at Oskopnir (“the not yet created,” perhaps another name for Vigrid) to meet Surt, and Bifrost breaks down as they cross it. Elsewhere it is the hosts of Surt who break it down. A stanza in Grimnismal speaks of Thor wading through rivers, for Bifrost burns in flame. This may either refer to the time of Doom or express a myth of the sun’s reappearance after thunder when the rainbow-bridge seems to be on fire.74

Is Muspell a word originating from pagan or from Christian conceptions? Grimm says that in it “we find another striking proof of the prevalence of Old Norse conceptions all over Teutondom.”75 The word occurs in the Saxon Heliand: “the power of mûdspelli fares over men,” and “mûdspelli comes in dark night as a thief.” The reference is to the Day of Judgment; and a Bavarian poem says of the fire which burns up the world: “no friend can help another for the mûspilli.”76 Thus the word refers to a world conflagration as in the Eddas. Did it first betoken the fire as a Christian conception, or was it originally applied to a similar pagan conception? Opinions are sharply divided here, as also on the root-meaning of the word. Grimm takes it to mean “fire,” its component parts being mud,


mu, “earth,” “wood,” “tree,” and spilli, cognate with ON spilla, “destroy”: hence the word is an epithet of fire. Others connect spilli with OHG and AS spell, “prophecy,” and regard mud as a Latin loan-word from mundus — hence “a prophecy of the world,” viz., of its end. In this sense the word, originating from Christian preaching about the end of the world by fire, took root in Teutonic thought and passed to Scandinavia.77 Other derivations have been suggested and there is a copious literature on the subject.78

There is every likelihood that the destruction of the world by fire was a native conception, as in other mythologies, though Christian influences may have worked upon it. The Poetic Edda personifies the agents of destruction as “Muspell’s sons,” i.e., spirits of fire or Fire-giants. Fire may have been personified as a giant called “Muspellr.”79 Snorri then gives the conception of a southern region of fire, Muspell or Muspellheim, whether this originated with him or not. The destruction of the world by fire was a Celtic conception, as has been seen, and this may have passed from Celts to Teutons or have been a belief common to both.

Why a myth of the destruction of the gods should have originated in Scandinavia is uncertain. It does not appear to signify the defeat of Norse gods by the Christian religion, for there is no trace of such a conception in the sources. We cannot even say that it arose out of a weakening of the old religion among the people. They were still firmly attached to it when Christianity appeared in the North. The best parallel to it is found in Scandinavian mythology itself (as in Greek) — the destruction of the older race of giants by the gods.


The gods are gone, men destroyed, the earth sunk in the sea or burned, but now appears a new world. This is the theme of the final stanzas of Voluspa:


“Now I see for a second time
Earth in fresh green rise from the sea;
The cataracts fall, the eagle flies,
He catches fish from the rocks.

The Æsir assemble on Ithavoll,
They speak of the mighty earth-engirdler,
They recall the mighty events of the past,
And the ancient-runes of Fimbul-tyr.

Then once more will the wonderful
Golden tables be found in the grass,
Which once in old time the gods possessed.

On fields unsown will fruits spring forth,
All evils vanish; Balder comes back.
Hod and Balder dwell in Hropt’s battle-hall,
The hall of the mighty Battle-gods.

Then can Hœnir choose the prophetic wand.
The sons of the brothers of Tveggi abide
In spacious Vindheim. Would ye know yet more?

A hall I see, brighter than the sun,
O’erlaid with gold, on Gimle stand;
There dwell for ever the righteous hosts,
Enjoying delights eternally.

From on high comes a Mighty One
To the great judgment, ruling all.
From below the dark dragon flies,
The glistening snake from Nithafjoll;
On his wings bears Nidhogg, flying o’er the plain,
The corpses of men. Now must I sink.”

There is thus a new earth without ills, where fruits unsown ripen — a typical Elysian or Golden Age world. Some of the gods return — those who were not destroyed, Balder, Hod, Hœnir, the sons of Tveggi’s (“the Twofold,” Odin) brothers, of whom nothing is known. They speak of the things of the past, of the Midgard-serpent, of Odin’s runes (Fimbul-tyr, “the mighty god”). They find the golden tables on which the


gods had once played a kind of draughts in the Golden Age (cf. v. 8: “In their home at peace they played at tables”). The mysterious “Mighty One” is almost certainly a borrowing from Christianity, just as the hall on Gimle is a reflexion of the Christian Heaven. The final stanza about Nidhogg is apparently not in its right place. Its last words, however, belong to the end of the poem, and refer to the Volva, who, having delivered her prophecy, sinks back whence she came. Some have taken the verse as meaning that the dragon tries to rise, but is defeated and sinks forever. This is unlikely, and “she must sink” = “I must sink”) refers to the seeress.

Hyndluljod also speaks of the High God to come:

“There comes another, a Mightier,
Yet dare I never his name forthtell;
Few are they who can further see
Than when Odin shall meet the Wolf.”

The new world, as well as other details, is known to the poet of Vafthrudnismal. During the mighty winter Lif and Lifthrasir survive. The sun (Alfrodull) will bear a daughter ere the Wolf swallows her, and this daughter will follow her mother’s ways when the Powers fall. Odin then enquires about the maidens who shall fare over the sea. Vafthrudnir’s reply shows that three throngs of maidens descend over Mogthrasir’s dwelling-place. They will be guardian spirits to men, though they come of giant stock. These are perhaps kindly Norns. The giant then tells Odin that, after Surt’s fires have sunk, Vidarr and Vali shall dwell in the realm of the gods, and Modi and Magni, sons of Thor, shall have his hammer Mjollnir.82 In this forecast of the new world, there is a further conception. Lif and Lifthrasir (“Life” and “Vitality”), progenitors of a new race of men, are hidden in Mimir’s grove, possibly Yggdrasil if Mimameid, “Mimir’s tree,” mentioned in Svipdagsmal, is the World-tree. This corresponds to the Iranian myth of the vara or “enclosure” of Yima, the first mortal, whose reign is a Golden Age. He was commanded to make this vara and fill it with



Draughtsmen, of horses’ teeth, beginning of seventh century. From a set of sixty-three pieces found at King’s Field, Faversham, Kent, now in the British Museum. Another set, of the same date but of more elaborate technique, found in a tumulus at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, and now in the British Museum. These illustrate the passages in Voluspa regarding the game of tables played by the Gods. See pp. 345-46. From photographs, by permission of the British Museum authorities.


happy mortals, who will repeople the earth after the devastating winter has passed.83 There will be a new sun, and certain gods will reappear, their names differing from those in Voluspa. The giant maidens who act as guardian spirits, presumably to the dwellers on the new earth, descend over Mogthrasir’s “thorp” or dwelling-place; and, as Boer suggests, Mogthrasir, “he who desires sons,” may be the same as Lif, progenitor of the new race.84

Snorri combines the Voluspa and Vafthrudnismal passages in his account of the new world. But he adds a description of places of bliss and punishment, and here, as we have seen, he seems to have misunderstood his sources.85

Apart from the reference to Gimle, which appears to be for the righteous dead, the poems say nothing about the lot of the dead in the renewed world.