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The 9 realms explained - Norse Cosmology

The 9 realms explained - Norse Cosmology

In Norse mythology Yggdrasil, the tree of life, was the centre of the universe and connected all of the 9 worlds. The 9 realms were home to the various beings that were part of the religion of the Norse and Germanic peoples.  It should be noted that it was often thought of as a metaphorical structure rather than a physical tree, and since there were no explanations or drawings of the realms and their locations most modern depictions are considered to be mostly speculative.
Yggdrasil - the 9 realms- norse cosmology - viking style
The ash Yggdrasil - Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1886
Watch this video by 'Mythology & Fiction Explained' for a brief overview of the realms.

1. Midgard - the world of humans

Midgard translates from Old Norse to "middle enclosure". It was created by Odin and his two brothers, and was the realm of men. The story says that they made the first man and woman, Ash and Elmba, from the ash of an elm tree. They then went on to give birth to mankind. 

It is the only one of the realms that is fully located in the visible world.

midgard - the 9 realms norse cosmology - viking style

Life in the Viking age - Anonymous


2. Asgard - the world of the Aesir

In Norse mythology Gods including; Odin, Thor, Loki, Frigg and Heimdall amongst others are all part of a group called the Aesir. Asgard was the home of the Aesir and was said to be located somewhere in the sky. It was connected to Midgard (the world of men) by a rainbow bridge called the Bifrost.

Asgard was described as a great city with many towers and high walls. It was there that Odin could see all of the 9 realms from his throne, Hildskjalf. It is also the home of Valhalla, which is a great hall where Viking warriors who die in battle go and wait to be called to fight at Ragnarok. 

Asgard - the 9 realms norse cosmology - viking style

Bifrost between Asgard and Midgard - Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, directed by Otto Schenk, 1990

3. Vanaheim - the world of the Vanir

Home to the tribe of Norse Gods known as the Vanir. They often went to war with the Aesir in the past and exchanged hostages in order to keep the peace intact. 

Vanaheim was thought to be a fertile and magical land, however there are no surviving descriptions of this realm. Most of the Vanir gods were associated with fertility and sorcery and it is thought that they went to war with the Aesir over cultural differences about incest and forbidden magic.

Vanaheim - the 9 realms Norse cosmology - viking style

The Course of Empire: the Pastoral or Arcadian State - Thomas Cole, 1834

4. Jotunheim - the world of frost giants

This world was inhabited by the Jotun who were frost giants. It was a realm of pure chaos and disorder, in stark contrast to Asgard. Loki was said to be one of the Jotun and it was supposed that he too could have been a hostage which was exchanged in order to keep the peace between Jotunheim and Asgard. 

Jotunheim was located beneath Asgard and was separated from it by the river Iving, which was notoriously difficult to cross and never froze. Aesir gods are often described as crossing the river to enter Jotunheim in order to search for giantess lovers, and Thor himself was said to have travelled there on a quest.

Jotunheim - the 9 realms - norse cosmology

Mountain out of the Mist  - Albert Bierstadt, 1873

5. Niflheim - primordial world of ice

Along with muspelheim this is one of the oldest of the 9 realms, although the climate could not be more different. It was a primordial land of ice and mist, from where all life was said to have begun. 

However descriptions of Nilfheim describe a world that is inhospitable and uninhabited, even by the frost giants. This was said to be the location of Hvergelmir, which was one of the wells which nourished the life tree, Yggdrasil

Nilfheim - the 9 realms norse cosmology - viking style

Morning Mist in the Mountains - Caspar David Friedrich, 1808

6. Muspelheim - primordial world of fire

A realm of chaos and fire, Muspelheim was one of the oldest worlds in Norse cosmology. It was a primordial worlds full of fire and lava and the home of the great fire giant, Sutr. He was destined to be freed from his realm by a great earthquake during Ragnarok and unleash havoc on Asgard, destroying the city with his great burning sword.

This is often thought to be one of the many Norse inspirations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the creature on which the 'balrog' is loosely based.

Muspelheim - the 9 realms norse cosmology - viking style

Vesuvius from Portici - Joseph Wright of Derby, 1775

7. Alfheim - the world of elves

The world of Elves, also located in the heavens, was said to be close to Asgard. It was home to a race called the bright elves, who were known for their music, poetry, art and magic. The realm itself is not described clearly in Norse writings however due to its position close to Asgard and the nature of its inhabitants it lead historians to believe that it was an organised and elegant land.

Aelfheim the 9 realms Norse Mythology - viking style

Forest Sunrise - Albert Bierstadt, 1873

8. Nidavellir/Svartalfheim - the world of drawves

Known as both Nidavellir and Svartalfheim this was the world of Drawves, who were known for their craftsmanship and magic. It was here that Mjolnir, the Hammer of Thor was created. They also created Gungnir, which was the spear wielded by Odin. 

This world was said to be located deep beneath surface of the earth (Midgard) where their tunnels were lit only by the fires of their forges and torches on the walls.

Nidavellir - the 9 realms norse cosmology - viking style

Soria Moria Castle - Theodor Kittelsen, 1990

9. Helheim - the world of the dead

 Helheim is a gloomy and dark underworld which is presided over by the goddess Hel, daughter of Loki and sister to Jormungandr and Fenrir. Hel was cast into the dark realm which was below the roots of Yggdrasil by Loki as he knew that she would cause trouble. 

The realm could only be reached by travelling down a long path, known as Helveg. The world was inhabited by the souls of the dead who did not die in battle and of those who died of old age o disease. Hel herself was said to be a giantess who was said to be rather melancholy, quite a contrast to the character in the Marvel film. 

Helheim - the 9 realms norse cosmology - viking style

Heimdall Desires the Return of Idun from the Underworld - Emil Doepler, 1881

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