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Over hill and under hill - towards understanding heathen cosmologies

Fells, like these in Lakeland in northwestern England, often mark borders between worlds in heathen lore
Figure 1. Fells, like these in Lakeland in northwestern England, often mark borders between worlds in heathen lore. Source: Author's own work

Our world. In Old English it is called Middangeard and in Old Norse it is Miðgarð - the Middle Yard or Middle Enclosure. Our old lore teaches us though that this world is just one of many. The Eddas speak of the jötunheimar - the homes of the jötnar, where gold-horned cattle graze in the pastures of great farmsteads.[1:23] There is Ásgarð, where the mighty æsir dwell and where stands Valhöll where many of those who die in battle feast and prepare for the coming Ragnarök.[4:20,71] There is Álfheim, the home of the elves, given to Frey of Vanaheim long ago when he grew his first tooth.[2:5] There is Svartálfheim too where the swart, or black, elves live, who some call dwarfs.[4:305] If you follow the Hellway, or ride over the shining Gjallarbridge you may reach the edges of the land of Hell - the shadowy afterlife that awaits most of us.[4:110] In the middle of all of this is the holy ash tree, known by most as Yggdrasil, whose roots reach out across the nine worlds.[4:375-376]

It's stunning and daunting in its enormity and diversity. Our own world is complicated enough before we start bringing in all the others in our lore, so how do we even begin to try and understand how this whole system works?

In this article, we'll move on from this brief overview of the cosmology to first have a look at mistakes that have been made when trying to understand the components of the system and how they fit together before looking at a way of thinking of it that I feel works best.

Counting worlds

A 19th century attempt at representing the conception of cosmology given in the Eddas
Figure 2. A 19th century attempt at representing the conception of the cosmology in the Eddas. Source: Wikimedia commons

So what are we dealing with then? What is existence made up of? Well almost everyone who learns about the body of early medieval North Germanic folklore commonly lumped together as "Norse mythology" will have come across the concept of the "nine worlds" (Old Norse: níu heimar), which I referenced in the first section. They often feature in modern tellings and wider popular culture and are talked about widely with such confidence that it is surprising to many that we don't know which worlds are meant by this grouping. When working out which heimar are being talked about, it isn't just as simple as picking those placenames that end with heim or related words as that would ignore places like Ásgarð and include not only Thor's home Þrúðheim, normally seen as being a part of Ásgarð, but also placenames in Miðgarð like Birmingham and Trondheim which probably don't constitute worlds of their own.[Note A]

The problem is that we are never told which worlds they are and scholars don't agree either on which they are, or if there ever was a widespread understanding of which worlds were on this list. To make matters worse, in the Old English Nine Worts Galder (also known as the Nine Herbs Charm), we hear about seven worlds, stressing that there cannot have been a single cohesive view on this detail among all the Germanic peoples.[3] This is a key point to always keep in mind that when we are looking at the Eddas and wider Germanic works - each work has its own history and context and we should be really careful when generalising outwards from them. The Eddas were written down by a subset of Icelandish society over a narrow period of time and its contents very likely do not reflect a single, unchanging and uniform worldview held across all of Iceland, let alone the whole Germanic region.[5:55-56]

Despite us perhaps not being able to count exactly how many distinct worlds there are in our lore, there is no doubt that by and large there is a distinction between the lands of humans, gods and jötnar. So how does this distinction work and how do the worlds sit relative to one another? A common representation of Eddic cosmology used both in and out of scholarship is based on Snorri's description in sections 8 and 9 of Gylfaginning where he lays out his understanding of heathen cosmology as a flat disc made of concentric rings, starting with the tree Yggdrasil and working outwards to Ásgarð, Miðgarð and finally to the shores of the sea that surrounds everything where live the jötnar. In this account, the jötnar are separated from the lands of men by great fells that were put there by the gods to stop them reaching Miðgarð and threatening humanity. In the sea, the Miðgarð worm forms a ring around all the worlds by biting its own tail, and below all of this lies Hell.[6:103,131-132] Sometimes details are altered slightly between models that follow the same basic structure, such as that seen in figure 2 where the jötunheimar are separated from Ásgarð and Miðgarð by the sea. The key issue at hand though is that while these disc-models sound at first quite appealing and easy to visualise, none are actually compatible with either Snorri's other descriptions given elsewhere or our other written sources.

As an example of this mess that arises in practice, let's consider how would we get from the land of the gods to the jötnar? By the commonly used model based on Snorri's description, we could travel in any direction along a roughly flat trajectory, first across the lands of humans, before reaching the jötunheimar that lie across the sea. When we look at the Eddic sources, we see quite a different picture, however. In Skírnismál, Frey's helper Skírnir rides his lord's horse to the homestead of the jötun-woman Gerð across wet fells, through flickering flames and through darkness. Snorri locates Gerð's home in the north, yet in Ragnarök, the jötunn Surt comes from the south wielding the sword which is normally equated with that given to Gerð by Skírnir.[6:107] Some other sources place the jötnar north of the gods, however, we also often see the gods faring to the east to find trolls and jötnar like Hymir who is further located in Hymiskviða "at heaven's end"; the jötunn Hræsvelg also is to be found at heaven's end in the form of an erne, or eagle, beating his wings to make the winds. Contrary to the idea of a perfect ring of jötunheimar around the edges of the world, the gods only seem to ever go to find the jötnar by faring northwards or eastwards, while the only example of them being in the south is in the exceptional case of Ragnarök.[6:107][8:106-107,109]

In some cases, like in Þrymskviða, the jötunheimar can only be reached through the air using either Freyja's bird-shape (Old Norse: fjaðrhamr) or Thor's wagon. The jötnar don't even need to be far away from the middle of the world. Ægir, also known as Hlér, is said to live on the island of Læsø which lies in the Kattegat, the part of the sea between the Scandinavian peninsula and Jutland. Similarly, Grímnismál teaches us that the rime-thurses (Old Norse: Hrímþursar, a term broadly synonymous with jötnar) live under one of Yggdrasil's three roots. seemingly placing them in the middle.[6:108] There are also some cases in which they live inside bergs or fells, or below the earth like in Skírnismál where we learn of the jötunn Hrímgrímnir who lives beneath Hell's corpse gates.[6:107-108] A final place where trolls or jötnar are often found is in woods and forests like Ironwood (Old Norse: Jarnviðr) where an old gýgr (or "trollwife") raises her monstrous children who take on the form of wolves.[8:108] In light of this, what we need to ask ourselves is whether this information would lead us to the model that we often see. I myself side with the scholars who argue it wouldn't.

In the past Eddic cosmology has been split into a dichotymy between the æsir and jötnar. These have in the past sometimes been referred to by scholars as innangarðs and útangarðs (either "inside" or "outside the fence" respectively), based on concepts from the farm space, but it is to be noted that these aren't commonly used in Old Norse works to refer to cosmological concepts.[7:378-379] A key issue with this split into two is that the gods and jötnar aren't even necessarily opposed to one another. Many jötunn women (Old Norse: gýgjar) marry into the families of gods. They have bairns together and indeed æsir like Woden and Thor are the children of both gods and jötnar - it's probably best to see the two groups more like kinship groups and families rather than different "species" for want of a better word. They also feast together in the halls of the jötunn Ægir which seems very far from the behaviour of sworn enemies.[4:1-2]

So what do we do with these seeming contradictions? How can we understand this and is it just the result of sloppy and illogical storytelling by our forebears?

Ármann Jakobsson argues that the inability to pin down the jötnar is a result of their intrinsically chaotic and evil nature. While the idea of the dwellings of the jötnar reflecting their discordant essence may be part of the explanation and is a very interesting proposal, I would argue that it is not the whole solution.[8:110] Not to mention the issues in seeing all jötnar as destructive enemies of the gods as discussed above, the lands of the gods can be just as hard to locate relative to our own. In the tale of Baldr's death for example, he is cast out on a burning ship at his funeral yet is later found in Hell by Hermöðr who rode there on the horse Sleipnir.[6:115] Indeed there is a recurring pattern that trying to understand the relative geography of any two worlds in a naturalistic way doesn't go too well.

Passages past paradoxes

Hyllehøj, a howe, or burial mound, at Gammel  Lejre in Denmark.
Figure 3. Hyllehøj, a howe, or burial mound, at Gammel Lejre in Denmark. Source: Author's own work

The best idea I have seen on the topic comes from the scholar Eldar Heide who argues that when we come in from a naturalistic angle, it is "as if we are mistaken as to the very fabric of the mythological landscape".[6:117-118] A lot of this article is based on his paper "Contradictory cosmology in Old Norse myth and religion – but still a system?" and while I will do my best to present his argument as concisely and accurately as possible, my summary will always be to some degree inadequate and this is by no means intended to be a replacement to reading the original paper. I'd highly recommend any interested in this topic to read it and the link can be found in the references below.

Briefly, based on Nordic mythology and other closely related bodies of folklore, Heide instead proposes a model in which we conceive of the different worlds as separated by barriers that can't be travelled through or communicated across under normal conditions, like bubbles. Under certain circumstances or by certain individuals, however, these otherworlds can be reached or contacted by ways like going into the earth or mounds, flying through the air, or crossing or entering a body of water. Often these features are seen in combination with one another. A key point in this way of thinking is that the otherworld to which you're journeying is typically not in the place you travel to in the geographical sense. If you go into a howe, or burial mound, and reach the lands of the dead, that doesn't mean the lands are contained within the howe itself. The entrance to another passageway could be far away in our own world but end up in the same place in the otherworld. Instead, these are passages by which we can reach the otherworlds where the other beings may live. Interfaces and paths lie between one's own land and the other, connecting them but also keeping them separate. Accordingly, the passage doesn't have to match the place it ends up. We can walk into a hillside and beneath the earth and find a farmstead in the open air.[6:119-122,129-130]

It is worth saying though that this problem is not solved and complexities still remain. Sometimes, like in some elf hills or dwarf stones, the otherworld does appear to be geographically located within the present world of humans. These special sites seem to straddle both worlds and behave in a more local manner - these small bubbles don't seem to be part of broad, universal lands like Ásgarð.[6:132-133] This could be the case for Ægir too, who does have a particular bond with the island of Læsø, and perhaps shouldn't be thought of as belonging in any particular jötunheim, despite being a jötunn himself. Another complication is that some features seem to be shared across worlds such as the Midgarð worm, Jörmungandr, who forms a ring around many different lands, or the sun and moon being shared by many separate worlds. It may be that this simply wasn't seen as an issue in the mind of those who came before us - that one worm may surround multiple, separate realms without any conflicts of note arising.[6:132] The possibility also remains that some cases, the otherworld was not conceived of in this manner and that it does not fit this model because it was not intended to, rather than us misunderstanding it. By and large though, this approach does seem to hold in most cases, while disc-models don't.

In the borderlands

The Dwarfie Stane on Hoy in Orkney, a stone which was home to a dwarf in local folklore.
Figure 4. The Dwarfie Stane on Hoy in Orkney, a stone which was home to a dwarf in local folklore. Source: WIkimedia commons

Despite this all being rather confusing, I think this way of thinking put forward by Heide is really quite compatible with what we know now about how our world is laid out. Despite incredible modern technology, we still can't take a three-hour flight from Manchester to Ásgarð. We similarly shouldn't expect to be able to place Álfheim on a globe in the same way as one can with Madagascar or Edinburgh - it seems like our heathen forebears broadly didn't seem to expect that to be the case either.

Whilst some details have changed over the hundreds of years, the basic idea of passages linking to the Other continues into the folklore of the late Middle Ages and the modern period, with elves often still living in hills and lost wanderers bumping into trolls after passing through thick fog. Strange tidings also continue to happen at certain times of year, with Yule being one of the most prominent.[Note B]

In our modern mindset, it is common when trying to understand something to try and draw hard divisions and make strict categories yet our forebears seem to be more comfortable with these blurrings and shiftings that thrive in oral cultures. If Heide is right, reaching the otherworld depends not on knowing specifically where it lies but the way to get there. This way of thinking is conserved even when details may change over time and place. While the passing of years and changing political powers may have carried terms like Ásgarð out of usage, the fundamental conceptions underlying the borders between otherworlds did not. Even in the modern period, some held understandings perhaps not too distant to those held a thousand years before- that the otherworlds are out there, one needs only look in the right place.

Original post written for the North West Heathens blog and shared by AUK with permission


A. I feel that a child of this compulsion to categorise is the term Helheim. In our old lore, we see the Old Norse term Hel (unsurprisingly cognate with modern English Hell) being used to describe both the afterlife location and the god who rules over it. Some folk use the term Helheim to refer to the place specifically, separate from Hel, the being, yet I myself think there is a reason why the same word is used for both in our old sources. That there is meant to be a conceptual blurring between the two. She is both the land of the dead and its ruler and by trying to force a clear division between the two I think we push ourselves further away from understanding the mindset of the early medieval heathens who held these beliefs.

B. There are so many examples of Yuletide visits from the Other but some that come to the mind right away are the draug Raknar in Bárðar saga snæfellsáss (which ends in one of the best scenes I've ever heard of in our lore) and the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. More strange occurrences include the incident of the disappearing food at a Yule feast towards the end of Halfdan the black's saga, in which a Sámi man (referred to as a Finn) takes on the role of the other.



1. Þrymskviða.

2. Grímnismál.

3. "Nigon Wyrta Galdor: "The Nine Herbs Charm"". Developments in Ancient Germanic Studies.


4. Simek, Rudolf (2008). A Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Hall, Angela. BOYE6. ISBN 9780859915137.

5. Gunnell, Terry (2015). "Pantheon? What pantheon? Concepts of a family of gods in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion". Scripta Islandica: Isländska sällskapets årsbok. Isländska sällskapet. 66: 55–76.

6. Heide, Eldar (2014). "Contradictory cosmology in Old Norse myth and religion - but still a system?". Maal og Minne. 106 (1). ISSN 1890-5455. Retrieved 23 April 2022.

7. Nordivg, Mathias (2012). "A method for analyzing world-models in Scandinavian mythology". RMN Newsletter. University of Helsinki. Retrieved 19 August 2023 101-112. Retrieved 6 May 2022.

8. Jakobsson, Ármann (2006). "Where do the giants live?". Arkiv för nordisk filologi. 121: 101-112. Retrieved 6 May 2022.

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