The 9 realms are important to understand if you want a clear understanding of Norse mythology. These realms lay the context for the existence of Norse gods, human beings, the Jötunn (giants), and all other beings.
These nine realms help us understand the battles, evolution, and development of the saga of Norse mythology. In addition to being an integral aspect of the old Norse religion, the nine realms tie us to an understanding of Norse cosmology in the Viking Age. In other words, the realms help us to better understand the way old Norse religion understood the creation of the universe.
This article explores everything that a beginner needs to know about each one of the nine realms. We'll also cover the creation of these realms, exploring how they fit into the great Norse sagas as told by the Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturluson.
Let's take a closer look.
The Nine Realms of Norse Mythology
Before we look at each of the realms, it's worth discussing the creation of the universe. It's impossible to understand the context of the realms without knowing how they came to be and where they're situated in the cosmos.
Before the union of the nine realms, the cosmos consisted of the void (Ginnungagap), the realm of fire (Musphelheim), and the ice realm (Niflheim). You can think of the fire and ice realms sitting opposite one another with Ginnungagap in between. This was the primordial world, existing before the presence of any beings.
In addition to those three realms, Yggdrasil was rooted in the center of the universe. Yggdrasil is akin to the "tree of life," although it's distinct in meaning and description. All of the nine realms exist somewhere on or in Yggdrasil, although there's some confusion as to where or how they do so.
We'll talk about the arrangement of the realms surrounding Yggdrasil in future sections.
The Merging of Realms
Over time, Musphelheim and Niflheim drifted toward one another. These polar opposites drew close, causing ice to conflict with fire. In the heated chaos of their collision, the first giant Ymir emerged.
Ymir existed alone, with only the company of the cow goddess Auðumbla to nourish him. As Ymir took nourishment from Auðumbla, she gnawed away at a salt lick, uncovering the god Buri in the process.
Source Texts and Origins
There's some confusion about the emergence or original existence of the Yggdrasil and the realms. This challenge is a result of the fact that Nordic people had predominantly oral cultures during the Viking Age.
As a result, there isn't a lot of primary source material to give us the fine details. Some accounts say that Yggdrasil existed amidst Ginnungagap before Niflheim and Musphelheim merged. The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda are the earliest texts referencing these gods, origins, and creation stories.
Both are Icelandic, with the Poetic Edda coming from early, unnamed sources of the 13th century. The Prose Edda is slightly younger and compiled, in part, by the aforementioned Snorri Sturluson.
In any case, both texts were written almost two hundred years after the Viking Age. While the myths and stories still had a heavy presence in Nordic culture, the nuances of the origin story might not have been as accessible in the 13th century.
Further, Norse mythology is supposed to have been integrated into culture rather than preached and learned through study. It was functional mythology, utilized in everyday life.
In light of that, it makes sense that someone might not know whether Yggdrasil came before the merging of Musphelheim and Niflheim. People would be more concerned with the Gods as they existed in the context of their lives rather than knowing the particulars of the origin story.
As a result, we'll have to wait for more source material to emerge or we'll never know the exact origin story. The same goes for various details throughout the nine worlds scattered amongst the branches of the world tree.
We know a lot about the dynamic saga of Norse mythology, but we might never know everything. Let's explore the best understanding of what each of the nine realms is and how they fit into the context of Norse cosmology and mythology.
Niflheim is one of the first realms in existence, serving an important role in the creation of the gods.
It's known as the darkest, coldest realm of all, going by the name "land of fog and mist," "mist home," or "home of mist." Its first position was in the northern area of Ginnungagap before it was drawn toward Muspelheim to create Ymir and the rest of the gods.
Niflheim is notable for its springs. It's thought that all of the cold springs stem from Niflheim, and it's also home to the eldest spring in the world, Hvergelmir, which is guarded by the dragon Níðhöggr.
It's worth noting that Norse mythology includes the view that all life comes from springs and that all life will go back to springs when it dies.
Further, as Yggdrasil grew from the abyss, it stretched itself deep into the streams and rivers of Niflheim to plant its roots. Yggdrasil drew its nutrients from Hvergelmir.
We also know that Yggdrasil took root and was nourished by the mist, possibly from the icy mists after Niflheim and Musphelheim collided.
So, although this gloomy realm presided over Ginnungagap in an ominous way, it served an important purpose in the creation of life. The primordial land also provided a home for a few brave frost giants.
Musphelheim was Niflheim's counterpart in the early days of the universe. In fact, these two realms are opposites in many ways.
Musphelheim is at the very southern end of Ginnungagap and is a land of fire. The land is extremely hot, bubbling with lava, burning at all times, and occupied by various monstrous creatures.
Fire demons, fire giants, and a giant named Surtr rule the land of Musphelheim. In fact, the fire giant Surtr plays a very important role in the grand scheme of the Norse sagas.
He is a Jötunn, so he's just one of the giants to emerge from the original giant Ymir. That said, he holds an important role as leader of the fire giant realm, and his glowing sword fights Freyr during Ragnarok in an attempt to encircle Midgard with flames.
Just because it's burning and occupied by a healthy fire giant population, Musphelheim isn't exactly the Norse version of "hell." It's not the most pleasant place for gods or humans, but the closest realm to hell will come later in our list.
Midgard is the realm of humans. Midgard was created by Odin and his brothers from Ymir's body.
After slaying Ymir, the brothers transformed different aspects of his body into aspects of the visible world. His flesh made the land, his blood filled out the oceans, and his brains were even floated up to serve as the clouds.
His hairs spread across Middle Earth in the form of trees. It was from two of those trees that Ash and Embla, the first humans were created. Those two populated the earth with humans.
There's also a great ocean that encircles Midgard. This ocean is occupied by Jörmungandr, a giant Midgard serpent. Jörmungandr is the middle child of Loki.
He was cast into the sea by Odin, and he's long enough to encircle the entire earth, which gives him the name of World Serpent. His length allows him to wrap the earth and eat his own tail, forming a representation of infinity.
This is an early instance of the "ouroboros" idea, and there are many modern images of snakes eating their tails as symbols of infinity, reincarnation, repetition, and more.
Norse mythology tells us that when Jörmungandr releases his mouth from his tail, Ragnarok (the end-time) begins. Thor, the protector of Midgard, is the enemy of Jörmungandr.
The Aesir gods are the original pantheon of Norse mythology. Many of the key gods such as Thor, Odin, Baldr, Frigg, and Freyja are amongst the Aesir.
Asgard is the realm of the Aesir gods. Odin is the ruler of this place, and his contribution is one that many people are familiar with; Valhalla.
Valhalla exists inside of Asgard. The name "Valhalla" means "hall of fallen warriors," and is the final destination for all those who died bravely in battle.
Odin monitors the valor of humans fighting through the observations of his Valkyries. Valkyries fly down to battles in Midgard, watching for the bravest fighters.
When someone dies in battle, they're carried away to Valhalla by the Valkyries to meet Odin. This glorious aspect of Norse mythology is often confused for the only type of "heaven" that a person could go to.
Other realms offer similar heavenly end-points for those who die.
Vanaheim is a counterpart to Asgard, and home to a secondary tribe of gods, the Vanir gods.
Generally speaking, the Vanir gods are a little more peaceful than the Aesir gods. Whereas gods like Loki and Thor are inclined to enter battle, the Vanir gods are more interested in peace and harmony.
That said, the two tribes of gods do battle it out with one another from time to time. Asgard and Vanaheim are located near one another.
They're separate realms, but they're certainly similar to one another in some respects. At the very least, they're both located at about the same height on Yggdrasil. Vanaheim is far wilder and more natural than Asgard, however.
Vanaheim is a notoriously fertile land as well.
Innangard and Utangard
Pre-Christian Scandinavian people had a preference for what was called "innangard," which means "enclosed," or "within the enclosure."
This is another way of saying "orderly." You might have thoughts that were innangard, meaning they fell in line with the agreed-upon ways of behaving and thinking. Utangard, on the other hand, just means wild and unorderly.
Vanaheim falls into the "utangard" category. Interestingly, only three of the realms fall into the category of innangard, and this is reflected in their names.
Only Asgard, Midgard, and Utgard (another name for Jötunheim) were orderly and composed, granting their names the suffix "gard."
The rest of the realms changed their ways to be less orderly and more chaotic. It's also important to note that there are positive aspects of utangard.
The necessity of chaos and uncertainty is reflected in old Norse myths as well as in other gods and goddesses that behave in morally ambiguous ways.
Jötunheim is the home of the giants. The Jötunn were the first beings in existence, and many of the gods share blood with these giants.
For example, Loki is a Jötunn yet he serves an integral role in the lives of giants.
The home of the giants is filled with different territories and important aspects that interweave with the stories of the gods. The Jötunn weren't necessarily "monstrous," dopey, or evil as they're often portrayed in other contexts.
Some giants were certainly huge and terrifying, but others didn't look much different from the gods. Some were also very smart, capable, and wise.
For example, Mimir, a wise Jötunn, was the keeper of a great well under one of the roots of the world tree. The well housed great wisdom and Mimir was a good keeper of the well and all it could teach.
Odin, trying to access the mysterious knowledge of Mimir's well, voyaged through Jötunheim to consult with Mimir.
Aflheim is home to the light elves. It's situated at the top of the sky over Midgard, just below Asgard.
The elves there are helpers and spread clarity and understanding to those who need it. They're also able to be called upon in times of need. In many ways, these light elves are similar to angels.
The home of the light elves is a magical place, prone to healing, peace, and astounding beauty. In that spirit, it's ruled by the fertility goddess Freyr.
Her powers extend through those of the elves, granting the elves the ability to increase or decrease fertility.
Svartalfheim is the home of the dwarves beneath the surface of the earth. Even though this world is contained within the crust of the earth, Midgard and Svartalfheim are still different worlds.
These are relatively standard dwarves in terms of how dwarves get portrayed in most cases. They're important members of the Norse universe, although they don't get a lot of credit.
They're excellent craftsmen, and they're responsible for the creation of some of the most important artifacts in Norse mythology.
Helheim is the dark world in Norse mythology and is the most hellish of the nine worlds.
This place is ruled by the daughter of Loki, Hel. Interestingly, this daughter of Loki is the sister of the World Serpent that holds the key to Ragnarok. Helheim is occupied by those who have died outside of battle, died of old age, or by some other means.
This makes Helheim the most populous realm. That said, Hel isn't quite as torturous as "Hell." It's located below Ygdrassil, however, and nobody, not even a god, is allowed to leave once they enter.
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We hope you can answer the question "what are the 9 realms" the next time it comes up in conversation. The ideas above just scratch the surface, though, and there's a whole lot more to learn. We're here to help with all of the insights you need.
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