Much is made by Heathens of the Nine World cosmology, but what in reality do we know about this? Firstly let’s do some “myth busting”
The Nine Worlds are never listed definitively in any of the source either Icelandic or from anywhere else. Six are listed in the Alvismal from the Poetic Edda where Thor questioning the Dwarf Alvis asks by what name are the winds known in every world. In his answer Alvis names Midgard, Asgard, Vanaheim, Jotunheimr, Alfheimr, and Helheimr, or “The other World of the Dead” missing from the list is Svartalfheimr which is mentioned elsewhere.
We know that Alfheimr and Svartalfheimr are two distinct worlds one being the world of the light elves whose allegiance and lord ship is held by Freyr, and the other the home of the dark elves and the Home of Dvergar (Alvismal stanza 14)
We find that the Voluspa and Vafthrudnismal (Poetic Edda), both mention nine worlds in one stanza each, yet these worlds are still not listed.
The Prose Edda in the Gylfaginning, perhaps adds more to the confusion, in stanza 34 we are told that Odinn casts Hel into Niflheimr and gives her authority over Nine Worlds.
The list goes on with spurious references cropping up.
Then we must throw into the pot the distinction between worlds and realms:-
Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr, the primordial elements of fire and ice are considered by some to be realms and not worlds and by others they are considered worlds. To further clarify the world of Helheimr is found within the realm of Niflheimr therefore, advising that the former is found within the realm of the later, make your own mind up.
The distinction of Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr could for the pedantic define a seven world cosmology and indeed this in turn could explain the belief that our Anglo Saxon fore-fathers had in a seven world cosmology (taken from the Anglo-Saxon nine herbs charm) but there is possibly another explanation for this.
The Nine Herb Charm of Anglo Saxon Leechcraft details the nine major herbs for healing and ties them to one of the worlds of the known cosmology (in this case seven). As an observation it seems a little odd that there are nine central herbs yet only tied to seven worlds and not equally to nine worlds, as nine worlds are mentioned although not named in later mythologies. A plausible explanation is to do with the translation, the Nine Herbs Charm was translated by Monks during the early Christian period and as there was only a concept of seven worlds/planets during this period it could have been corrected by the translators to fit the accepted norm of the time. Again make your own mind up on this point. Some Heathen religions will equate the nine worlds onto three levels, The Heavens, The Middle level, and the underworlds or lower level, this could possibly be drawn from the Anglo-Saxon belief in worlds being in the Heavens on the middle level and below the Earth.
Whatever you believe (nine or seven), perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that the nine worlds mentioned are not representative of an entire cosmos just the known cosmos, and maybe we are just on the edge of true infinity.
If we now go deeper and look at the mechanics we are told the cosmology is supported by a great tree, Yggdrasil. The interpretation of the name is various from Odinn’s Horse to Terrible Steed to Yew pillar Yggia being Old Norse for Yew, again a case of believe what you will we certainly believe that the great sacred tree found at the temple enclosure at Gammla Upsalla in Sweden was ancient and evergreen leading us to believe a mighty Yew. Also in our own lands ancient yews seemed to be central to Anglo-Saxon sacred sites, yet it has to remembered that in this country as well as in Northern Europe certain trees were considered to be sacred to particular Gods as with Thor or Thunor and the Oak. The association of the Ash with the world tree comes from the Prose Edda where the term Askr Yggdrasil is used, Askr translates as Ash. Whatever you believe the tree to be I think we should focus on the fact that the Tree was the means by which the seidr practitioner journeyed the cosmos, it is possible to be found manifest in every great tree in Midgard. It is described as a mighty tree with a dragon gnawing at its roots, which rest at the sources of great rivers and a well (Mimir’s well) from which all wisdom comes. An eagle sits in its topmost branches, a squirrel mischievously running between the two ferrying insults between the dragon and the eagle. Deer feed on the leaves of its ancient branches and the whole tree is tended and nurtured By the three greater Norns who take clay formed by the water of the well to plaster the great trunk and branches to protect and nourish it, whilst this magnificent tree shudders from its great age.
The Norns live beneath the great tree and spend their time not only tending the tree but carving, spinning and weaving the fates of Gods and men.
The Norns are central to the whole of Heathenry. They are said to be Jotun Maidens who arrive to mark the end of the golden age of the Gods, it is stated that their primary care is not only for the great tree but for the inhabitants of Midgard, yet we know that the Gods are also subject to their weaving and scribing.
Urdr translate from the Old Norse as that which is becoming, Verdandi as that which has become, and Skuld seems to create a little bit more debate regarding translation with different offerings from Debt through to need or ought to be.
Apart from the Norns major there are a large host of other Nornir who are individually allotted to humans at birth and there is a folk custom from Sweden whereby a libation of Nornegrautin (Norn porridge) would be made prior to and at the time of birth to attempt to win favour for the unborn/new born from the allotted Norn.
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