• The World Tree Of The Northern Tradition

    The World Tree Of The Northern Tradition
    I know an Ash,   it is called Yggdrasil 
    a high, holy tree,   splashed and coated with white clay.
    From it come the dews   that fall in the valleys.
    It will always stand   green over Urdhr's Well.
    Poetic Edda, Voluspa (st. 19)
      The world tree of the Northern Germanic cosmology stands at the center of all realms of existence. Such a dynamic and dauntingly complex symbol of the multiverse can ultimately be approached as a living, organic gateway or portal to exploring all possible realities in its life-sustaining and supporting structure. As we shall see, it is in this dynamic complexity that dwells the journey towards recovering, understanding and seeing important and sometimes contradictory facets of our ancestors' spiritual world-view.
        The myth of human origins descending from trees is in fact a multicultural concept spanning the globe (see my previous post, From Trees We Did Spring!). Indeed, the central idea of a divine cosmic tree connecting everything in existence is such a pervasive and widespread motif around the world that it can almost be referred to as universal. Such diverse and widespread ancient traditions from Greece, Nepal, Persia, Egypt, Hungary, Japan, India, Siberia, China, and the Indigenous Americas all understood and taught of an enormous, uniting tree supporting the very fabric of the cosmos.
       What I will attempt to convey and share in this essay is the essential mythic characteristics that lend themselves to the overall structure of the Northern Germanic worlds tree; specifically the nine worlds and how they interrelate with our own realm and vice versa. Furthermore, I will intentionally skip over the myriad creatures, abodes, halls, wells, roots etc that populate the worlds tree, and explore their mythic symbolism in future posts.
                                               Names & Species Of the Tree
       Through the preserved Northern Germanic myths of the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, we learn that the worlds tree had differing names that actually reveal the complexity of the shifting symbolism given to the myths through the ages. The most commonly used title in ancient Norse mythology is Yggdrasil (steed of Ygg / Ódhinn) which links the cosmic tree with Ódhinn's shamanic quest for consciousness expansion. Yggdrasil is described as an Ash tree that is always green, supporting the Nine Worlds of the multiverse. The idea that the worlds tree would be an ash tree has its roots in Proto-Indo-European beliefs and is common to many European cultures as well as Indian Vedic myths and ritual practices. 
       The description of Yggdrasil being "evergreen" and a "needle ash" hints that it may alternately be of the Yew species. This would make cultural sense since yew trees were revered by the ancient cultures of Northern Europe as powerful connectors to ancestral lineage and the cycles of birth, death and renewal. Yew wood is extremely dense and was primarily used for the handles of tools, bows and spears. Because yew trees also contain toxins poisonous to humans, working with them could be dangerous. Our ancient Germanic Ancestors had a great deal of contact with the yew tree since three-quarters of the post Ice-age European forests were of the yew tree species.
       Another less commonly used name for the worlds tree is Lærath, which can simultaneously mean "the guardian" and "the listener." Perhaps this is a pre-Ódhinnic title, since Ódhinn's shamanic sacrifice of self to self as he hung on Lærath earned him Runic consciousness and knowledge of the nine worlds. This hard won awareness involved penetrating sonic barriers that were inaccessible to the uninitiated. Etymological roots of the word Rúna refer to "secret lore", "wisdom" and "mystery". The cosmic tree Lærath, guards and whispers the lore of the Northern cosmology through the runic consciousness it conceals.
       Yet another name for the cosmic worlds tree, Mimameith, or "Mímir's Tree" refers to the ancient etin, Mímir, "the rememberer" or "the wise one", whose well lies at the base of one of the tree's three roots. Mímir's well, Mímisbrunnr, nourishes the worlds tree with the sacred waters of ancestral memory and knowledge of primordial origins. So, Mimameith is "memory's tree", preserving the lore of the cosmos and the nine worlds through the cyclic ages.
                                                     The Nine Worlds
       Our ancestors saw the multiverse as being divided into nine interrelated worlds that either existed alongside the primordial Ginnungagap or were fashioned by the conscious use of magic and will wielded by the Æsir (see my previous post Void To Existence). The descriptions of these worlds as described in the Eddas do not always provide us with a consistent, concrete map of this complex cosmology. Because this is an organic and mythic multiversal system, we must attempt to jettison some of our modern rationalistic thinking in order to delve more deeply into the mystery of the enshrouded cosmos.
       We, as humans, dwell in Midgard (middle yard), the material crossroads of the multiverse. Midgard is the realm governed by time and the cyclic recurrences of seasons, vegetal growth, birth and death. Since this is a liminal world, we can view this as a point where all potentials meet and blend; consciousness & unconsciousness, solve & coagula, joining & dissolution. Functioning as a crossroads, Midgard can be visited and/or influenced by the inhabitants and energies of the surrounding eight worlds. The rune Jera is emblematic of the constantly cycling reality of material manifestation and existence. 
      If we view Midgard  as the crossroads of a vertical column, then two worlds exist above and two worlds dwell below. The remaining four worlds can be oriented in a horizontal plane represented by our four cardinal directions of east, west, north and south. 
       Concerning the horizontal plane, the Prose Edda tells us that Niflheim exists in the north and Muspellheim in the south. Muspellheim is described as being the first properly understood world, and is perhaps eternal, existing alongside Ginnungagap in the primordial beginning. Since Muspellheim is the realm of creative and destructive fire, expansion, electricity, and solvent properties, the rune Sowilo represents this world. Niflheim being the northern world of ice, frost giants, venom and contraction is represented by the rune Isa. 
       Also on the horizontal plane lies Jötunheim (Etin-Home) to the east of Midgard and to the west is Vanaheim (Vanir-Home). Continuing the thematic concept of balance that pervades the horizontal plane, we see these two worlds as opposites of a differing nature than that of Niflheim and Muspellheim.
       Vanaheim is the realm of the Vanir, a race of gods that govern the natural patterns of nature and motion. This is the realm responsible for cycles of life, fertility, ecosystems and fruitfulness. A type of regularity and order is the energy that Vanaheim produces. Ingwaz is Vanaheim's rune, symbolic of the hidden gestation period of the seed in the soil before transformation signals a return of growth.
       Countering Vanaheim's regular cyclic patterning is Jötunheim's realm of resistance and irregular, irrational change. Jötunheim is the realm of the Etins, Thursar, or giants. These beings oppose the conscious order of Vanaheim, Midgard and Asgard by continually producing imbalance and chaotic disarray. Nauthiz, the rune of restriction, stress and friction symbolizes this realm's oppositional but necessary nature.
       The horizontal plane thus exhibits the most fundamentally extreme polarities in all of nature. These are forces that elementally break up and dissolve or unify and bind. Midgard stands at the center of this harmony of opposites, weathering the hardships, misfortune and unpredictable changes produced by the tension of these realms. The very transitory and often strife riddled nature of our lives here in Midgard is also fertile ground for values that our Northern Germanic ancestors venerated such as courage, resolve, honor, and loyalty. These are all human characteristics that cannot exist in a vacuum of peace and serenity, but must be brought out by tests and hardship.
       Turning to the vertical column, we see two pairs of worlds that exist above and below Midgard. These pairs are representative of the bright revealed consciousness of the heavens above and the dark hidden subconscious of the earth below.
       As we descend downwards from our world we first encounter Svartalfheim (Dark Elf-Home). The dark elves, or dwarves, are a chthonic, counter-race to the light elves, in that they dwell concealed in a subterranean underworld. Svartalfheim is the realm of material formation and processes of the inner earth such as crystallization, chemical metamorphoses, and solidification. What all these have in common is a slower, unconscious type of biological mechanization that can be linked to the deeply buried genetic processes of all terrestrial life. The formation of connective networks, much like tunnels betwixt concealed subconsciousness and revealed awareness is another of this realm's functions. The rune Eihwaz is symbolic of this above / below relationship.
       Journeying to the very bottom of the vertical world column we encounter the realm of HelThis the world of death and utter unconsciousness, as still as a corpse and totally concealed in darkness and mystery. Mythically, Hel is quite peaceful, although this state of existence lends itself only to nonactive, undynamic matter devoid of what we acknowledge as "life'. Hagalaz, the "mother rune" of dark feminine mysteries is Hel's rune.
       Directly above Midgard is Ljosalfheim (Light-Elf Home) sometimes referred to as Alfheim. The elves are the "shining-white ones" of northern lore, associated with memory and intellect. As we ascend the vertical world column we encounter this realm of broad expansive light and spirit. The elves are beings of mind not bound to the earth as we are, yet they are not quite gods either. In some northern esoteric circles they are associated with ancestral spirits that have risen to a higher frequency of existence registering as shining luminous beings. Dagaz, who  is connected to bright dawning daylight is the rune of this world.
       Above Ljosalfheim, at the very top of the vertical column is Asgard (Æsir Home / Yard). Asgard is the realm of active life, pure conscious awareness and revealed truth. Because this is the sought after and idealized realm, the journey to Asgard from our world is a difficult one to say the least! It's not just any common human that can waltz up the flaming rainbow bridge Bifrost and skip into the Æsir's realm. The rune Gebo, symbolic of the Æsir's gift of consciousness and the sacred Troth between the Gods and humans, is Asgard's rune.
                                        Reclaiming Our Ancestors' World View
       As one delves into the lore of the Northern Germanic Tradition it becomes readily apparent that this wasn't a "logical" system formulated to be streamlined and easily digestible to anyone but the folk that orally transmitted these myths. Indeed, Northern lore is a vastly complex animal with deep esoteric layers concealed under the entertaining stories of our ancient ancestral culture. What I have attempted to synthesize and make understandable about the world tree in this essay also negates vast amounts of details that do indeed add to the vibrant landscape and scope of the multiverse. These complexities often contradict and befuddle the stiff analytical mind. The conflicts and contradictions in our mythic tradition add to the richness of our culture's legacy whilst illuminating ever deeper levels of meaning.
       The boundless symbolic truths our premodern ancestors had revealed to themselves when looking at the world was informed by how they saw their world. Their mythic worldview held fundamental truths more profound and timeless than any "literal truth" which is ultimately static and dead. When our ancestors stood on a summit and gazed at Midgard's natural splendor, their vision of the world's interwoven components was informed from within. The meaning and symbolic weight of their experience was then expanded outwards to permeate all of Midgard in a reciprocal relationship of mythic exchange. From within is the only path available to conceptualize and truly regain our ancestral worldview. Trying to logically think our way in from the outside is doomed to fall short and fail. This is a shifting, mythic terrain that requires an equally dynamic and poetically charged soul complex to receive and conduct the transmissions over the large expanses of time that still whisper this immortal lore.
        The myths slither through the cracks in this age's artificial armor of concretized progress.
    We must retune our ears and eyes to receive the ancestral medicine!
     I owe a great debt to these practitioners and writers of the Northern Tradition.
    They have expanded my worlds view, assisted me in reconnecting with my ancestral heritage, and informed all my creative endeavors.
    Freya Aswynn  "Leaves of Yggdrasil"
    Kelley Harrell "Runic Book of Days"
    Thomas Karlsson "Nightside of the Runes"
    Ingrid Kincaid "Lost Teachings of the Runes"
    Nigel Pennick "Runic Lore and Legend"
    Evelyn C. Rysdyk "The Northern Shaman"
    Snorri Sturlson "The Prose Edda"
    Edred Thorsson "Runelore"
    "The Poetic Edda" all translations differ, are equally valuable and add layers of symbolic kennings.