Asgard--River and Vafer-Flame--High Thing-stead of the Gods--Odin's Throne--"Abode of Friends"--The Golden Age--Dwarfs--Ygdrasil, "the Tree of Existence"--Roots in the Underworld--The Three Fountains--Eagle and Hawk--"The Cock of the North"--The Biting Deer--The Dragon Nidhog--The Squirrel Gossip--Norns, Hamingjes, and Giptes--Lower Thing-stead of the Gods--Bif-rost--The Sentinel Heimdal--Judgment of the Dead--The Last journey--Bliss of the Just--Doom of the Condemned--Regions of Torture--Valhal--Divisions of the Universe--Night Path of Day and Day Path of Night.
THE Asa-gods built for themselves Asgard, the celestial city, which is set high above the heavens. It stands there in beauty and in glory upon a holy island in the midst of a dark broad river flowing from the thunder-vapours that rise through the great World-tree from Hvergelmer, "the roaring cauldron", the mother of waters. The river is ever troubled with eddies and fierce currents, and above it hover darkly thick banks of kindling mist called "Black Terror Gleam", from which leap everlastingly tongues of vafer-flame, (lightning) filling the air and darting like white froth from whirling billows.
Round Asgard is a dark and lofty wall, and the great boiling river breaks angrily at its base. There is no entry-way save by Odin's mighty gate. And if anyone who is unworthy, be he god or giant or mortal, should cross the river unscathed by the vafer-flames, and seek to open the gate of Asgard, he would be caught suddenly
by a chain which springs from the lock of strange mechanism, and crushed and utterly destroyed.
In the middle of Asgard was built stately Idavoll, the Court of Judgment, the High Thingstead of the Gods, in which their own divine affairs are discussed and arranged. The beauty of the great hall is unequalled in the nine worlds, for its roof is of shining silver and it is resplendent without and within with burnished and graven gold. Therein was set the great golden throne of Odin, the chief ruler of Asgard, and around it were placed twelve golden seats for the gods who sit with him in judgment, and to whom the All-father gave power to rule and to issue decrees.
When Odin sits on his high golden throne he looks over the homes of giants and elves and mortals and sees all things. He is silent and he listens.
Another fair and stately structure did the gods cause to be made as a sanctuary for the goddesses, and by singers of skalds who echo its praises it is called Vingolf, "the abode of friends".
In Asgard was shaped a smithy which was furnished with anvils and hammers and tongs. With these the gods had made for them, by the cunning elf-smiths, Ivalde's sons and Sindre's kinsmen, every instrument they had need of. They worked in fine metals, and so great was the treasure of gold that all movables were made of it.
On a green place in the celestial city were found the golden tablets with which was played the Game of the Gods. This was in the Golden Age, which lasted until there came from Jotun-heim three giant maids, who brought corruption.
To the gods in ages past it became known that there dwelt in Midgard a race of dwarfs. In the deep, dark
mould of Ymer's body they swarmed as do maggots in rotted flesh, and they went hither and thither with no purpose or knowledge. All the gods assembled in their high Thingstead, with Odin seated on his golden throne, and there took counsel one with another. To the dwarfs they gave human shape, but their hue was the blackness of earth in which they had being. Over them the gods set Modsognir, who is Mimer, to be king. In the mounds of the earth dwell one tribe of these earth-black elves, within rocks another, and a third have their habitation inside high and precipitous mountains. Besides these are the Trolls, who fly hither and thither carrying bundles of sticks, and have power to change their shape. Now the wonder of the Universe, which was set in order by the will of All-father, is the great ash tree, Ygdrasil, the Tree of Existence, which nourishes and sustains all spiritual and physical life. Its roots are spread through the divisions of the worlds that fill the yawning gulf, and its boughs are above the high celestial city of the gods. It grows out of the past, it lives in the present, and it reaches towards the future.
The World-ash has three great roots. In the realms below Midgard is one root, which receives warmth and life in Hela's glittering plains from the deep fountain of Urd, the goddess of fate and of death; another root reaches the egg-white well of Mimer, who is Wisdom and Memory; and the last root is in gloomy Nifel-heim, where it finds hardening sustenance in Hvergelmer, "the roaring cauldron", the fount of primeval waters, ice-cold and everlasting, which springs up on Hvergelmer mountain.
In the realm of Urd, which is Hela, the souls of good men be. Nigh to it, in the underworld, is Mimer's well in Mimer's grove, where dwells the race which will
regenerate the world of men. Below cold and darksome Nifel-heim are the nine divisions of torture in which the souls of the wicked are punished. At Hvergelmer the watchman of the root of Ygdrasil is Ivalde, who with his sons contend against the storm-giants who threaten Hela.
The roots of the great World-tree suck up the waters of the three eternal fountains, and these mixed together give imperishable life. In the well of wise Mimer the fibres are made white with the holy mead which gives wisdom to men, and poetry also, and is the very elixir of life eternal.
On the high branches of Ygdrasil, which overshadow Asgard, sits a wise eagle, and between its eyes is perched a hawk named Vedfolner. On the topmost bough is Goldcomb, the "cock of the north", which awakens the gods from sleep and puts the demons to flight. From Hela answers the red cock, whose fire purifies what is good and destroys what is evil.
But the great World-tree bears a more painful burden than mortals can conceive. In the well of Hvergelmer, in the black realm of Nifel-heim, is the corpse-eating dragon Nidhog, "the lower one", which chews constantly at the root; above, four giant harts are ever biting its buds and its leaves; on its side, Age rots it; and many serpents gnaw its tender fibres in the dark underworld. For there never was good to which evil came not, nor growth which has known not decay and the wasting of time.
The Norns of Hela sprinkle the great ash-tree each morning with precious mead from Urd's fount of life, so that its leaves may ever be green. Thence comes the honey-dew, which drips upon the world and is stored by the bees. And in Urd's fountain are the two mystic
swans which are the ancestors of the swan race in Midgard.
Up and down the World-tree runs constantly the squirrel Ratatosk, which bears gossip between the eagle on the highest branches and the dragon Nidhog at the root, and is thus ever the cause of strife. Greatly dreaded is Nidhog, who flies to the rocks and cliffs of the lower world with the bodies of dead men beneath its wings.
The three Fates, who are called Norns, are Urd and her two sisters--Urd, "present"; Verdande, "past"; and Skuld, "future". By them are spun at will the fates of men and women. There are also Dises, who are maids of Urd, unto whom various duties are assigned. The Hamingjes are those Dises who are guardians of men through their lives, and appear to them in dreams to give warnings and noble counsel, and he whom the holy elf deserts for wrongdoing is indeed lost. The decrees of Urd are executed by the Giptes, and men who are favoured are suddenly awarded good fortune and treasure; other Dises attend upon families and even upon tribes. There are also the sweet elf-maids who have care of babes unborn in the fair realms of Urd, and find them kindly mothers in the world of men; and there are maids who conduct the souls of the dead to Hela's glittering plain.
Now in Hela is the lower-world Thingstead of the gods, where the souls of the dead are judged, and rewards and punishments are meted out by Odin. There is but one road thither from Asgard for all the gods save Thor, and that is over the curved bridge Bif-rost, "the rainbow", which has its foundation beyond the edge of the world of men. The southern span reaches to the fount of Urd in the realms of green verdure that never. know decay.
Bif-rost is built of air and water, and is protected by red fire flaming on its edge. Frost giants and mountain giants ever seek to capture the bridge, so that they may ascend to Asgard and overcome the gods; but its sentinel, Heimdal, is constantly on guard against them.
The gods set Heimdal, son of the waves, to protect the bridge forever against the enemy. He is clad in silvern armour, and on his head is a burnished helmet with ram's horns. Horsed on his swift steed, Gull-top, he now watches at the highest point of Bif-rost from his fortified citadel, Himinbjorg, "the ward of heaven", where his hall is supplied with precious mead. Anon he crosses over from side to side of the bridge. His sight is so keen that he can see by night as well as by day the length of a hundred leagues, and he listens so keenly that he can hear the grass growing. He sleeps as little and as lightly as a bird. When the giants and monsters come to assail the gods at Ragnarok, Heimdal shall blow a thunderblast on Gjallar-horn which is hidden in the deepest shade of the World-tree. With his great sword he shall combat with the Evil One in the Last Battle.
Heimdal is loved both by gods and by men, and he is also called Gullintani because his teeth are of gold. There was a time when he went unto Midgard as a child; he grew up to be a teacher among men, and was named Scef.
Every day the horses of the gods thunder over Bif-rost as they descend to and return from the lower-world Thingstead. Thor, the thunder god, cannot travel thus because the fire of his thunder chariot might set the bridge aflame and destroy it. He must needs wade across the four great girdling rivers in the underworld to reach Hela's glittering plains.
Click to enlarge
From the statue by B. E. Fogelberg
When the gods come unto Hela they leap from their horses and take their seats in the Thingstead. The dead are then brought before them.
A weary way and long these dead men and women have travelled. Down the valley of thorns they came, and those who were given hel-shoes in their graves, because they had shown mercy to others while they lived, suffered indeed little; but the feet of the wicked were torn and bleeding. Then they crossed a river full of weapons. The just walked over on boards, but the unjust waded, and were sorely wounded and covered with scars, so that their bodies dripped blood.
To the Thingstead come men and women in full attire, with the jewels and ornaments which those who loved them placed on their bodies ere they were laid in grave-chambers. Warriors carry their weapons, and all are clad so that they may be recommended to the gods as the well-beloved among men. But silent are the dead, save the happy ones under whose tongues were placed, ere yet they were laid in their graves, magic runes, so that they might make answer when accused, and give reasons to justify their deeds. But the Hamingjes can also speak for the dead, and those who have not Hamingjes to speak for them are known to have done evil and to be deserted by their Dises in sorrow and wrath. Those who are justified pass to the eternal realms of Hela, where joy prevails, because they have lived upright lives, and have been honourable and full of pity and have helped others; because they were brave and feared not to die; and also because they worshipped the gods and gave offerings in the temples.
But those who are condemned are sent to Nifel-hel, the region of torture. They are judged to be unworthy if they injured others by falsehoods or wicked deeds, if
they were adulterers, or murderers, or despoilers of graves, or cowards, or were traitors, and profaners of the temples.
Those who are to share eternal joy are given to drink from the horn of Urd, which imparts to them enduring strength. In it are mixed the three meads from the wells which sustain Ygdrasil, the World-ash. But the doomed are given a draught of burning venom which changes them to monsters. Their tongues are then for ever bereft of speech and they can moan only.
The happy dead disport themselves on the green plains of Hela, where they meet lost friends and ancestors from the earliest years of the world. And many beauteous ways they travel, and wonderful tales they hear. The children are cared for in the realm of Mimer, "memory", where joy is theirs forever and their food is honey-dew.
The doomed are fettered and are driven towards Nifel-hel by black elves, who carry thorny rods with which they lash those who falter or seek to turn back. Their first punishment is received when they must needs pass through the regions of eternal bliss, and behold with grief unutterable the joy of the blessed. Then they cross the rivers which girdle Hela, and climb towards the dark mountains of Nifel-hel. The wolf dog barks at them in the shadowy valley where it guards the borders of Hela, and there is blood on its breast. And as they climb tortuous paths and tread the narrow path on the edge of dizzy precipices they hear the barking of the terrible watchdogs at Nifel-hel's gates. The dreaded dragon, Nidhog, hovers near them, and ferocious birds of prey sit on the rocks.
Then they enter the Na-gates and die the second death. Punishment is given in the nine realms of torture according to the sins that were committed. Some
are seized by the dragon and some by the birds of prey, according to their deserts. Others are tempted for ever by illusions of sinful things they sought in life, and there are those who are torn to pieces by the great wolf.
In the Venom-dale is a river called Slid, and it is full of daggers and sharp spears. Through it must wade the perjurers and murderers and adulterers, who are continually suffering new and fierce wounds. Others sit together on benches of iron, while venom drips on them, within a hall which is full of stench unbearable. Traitors are hung on trees, and cowards are drowned in pools of foulness. Eternal night broods over all.
Naglefar, the "ship of death", lies in the Gulf of Black Grief, in the outer regions of Nifel-hel, made fast to a dark island with chains that shall not sever until Ragnarok, "the dusk of the gods". It is constructed of the parings of dead men's nails--the wicked men, hated by their kind because of their evil deeds, whose bodies were cleansed not at life's end, and whose nails were not pared ere they were laid in grave-chambers. When Naglefar breaks loose the avenging hosts shall sail in it to battle against the gods.
The warriors who are slain in battle, or drowned at sea, are borne to Valhal in Asgard by the maids of Urd, who are called Valkyries. They are horsed on swift steeds, and first they pass to Hela, where the gods give judgment and reject the unworthy. Then they are carried by the Valkyries over Bif-rost, and the hoofs of their steeds resound in Asgard. In great Valhal the heroes feast with Odin in eternal triumph and happiness.
Now these are the divisions of the Universe. In the midst is the earth, Midgard, which is encircled by the ocean. On high, and above all else, is Asgard, and below it is the realm of white elves, who flit between the
branches of the great World-tree. Then Vana-heim, the home of the Vana-gods, is in the air and in the sea; and in the depths of the western sea is the hall of Æger, god of Ocean. Alf-heim, the home of elves, is to the east. In the lower world, below Nifel-heim, are the Nifel-hel regions of torture, and under Midgard are the Hela realms of Mimer and of Urd. Far below the path of the gods towards Hela's fields of bliss are Surtur's deep dales on the borders of Muspel-heim, where the great giant Surtur, the swarthy sentinel, keeps watch with his flaming sword. Jotun-heim is to the north and the east, beyond the world's edge.
Billing is the elf-guardian of the western heaven, and when the cars of Day and of Night and of the Sun and of the Moon enter the forest of the Varns, "the protectors", they pass through the lower-world realms of Mimer and of Urd towards the gates of Delling, the elf of dawn, in the east. When Nat reaches Hela, where she must rest, darkness falls around her, and the blessed are given sleep, and light comes again with Dagr, as Nat covers the earth above with shadow and deep slumber.
. . . the Gods arose,
And took their horses, and set forth to ride
O'er the bridge Bifrost, where is Heimdall's watch,
To the ash Ygdrasil, and Ida's plain;
Thor came on foot, the rest on horseback rode.
And they found Mimir sitting by his fount
Of wisdom, which beneath the ash-tree springs;
And saw the Nornies watering the roots
Of that world-shadowing tree with honey-dew.
There came the Gods, and sate them down on stones.
--From "Balder Dead", by Matthew Arnold.