The Religion of the Northmen
OF THE MYTHIC DIVISIONS OF THE WORLD
Heimr in the Old-Norse signifies home, and in a wider sense, the World as the home or abode of all living beings. The name has thus a twofold significance: one comprehensive, embracing all things; and one more limited, namely, the abode of a greater or smaller circle of beings, as the Gods, Mankind, the Jötuns, &c. In its broader sense the name was probably not used in heathendom, but frequently in the more limited one. The conception of a Universe was lost among the Asa worshipers in the representation of many isolated worlds, each one of which was considered to be the special abode of a distinct class of beings.
From many passages in the old Eddaic poems, it is clear that the Asa Mythology admitted of nine such worlds, but how they were designated or how situated in reference to each other is less certain, and the notions of the interpreters are much divided in the matter. The following order appears to be the most in accordance with the ancient sources:
1. Muspellheimr, the highest Fire-World, the realm of Surtur. In its highest regions it appears that Gimli was thought to be situated.
2. Goðheimr, the World of the Gods, or Ásgarðr, the Æsir's Ward, the proper Heaven, which apparently forms a vault above the Earth. In the midst of this world is Iðavöllr (1)---the Field of Activity, the Assembling-place of the Æsir. Here is Odin's lofty throne Hliðskjálf, (2) which towers above the highest arch of the Heavens.
3. Vanaheimr, the World of the Vanir; the air, or the space between Heaven and Earth filled only with clouds.
4. Mannheimr, or Miðgarðr, the World of Mankind, the round disc of the Earth, surrounded by the great World-Ocean. The name Miðgarðr appears to have been often used as more comprehensive, as including the arch of Heaven, or at least its lower border, which was actually believed to form a hedge or defense against the Jötuns.
5. Álfheimr, the World of the Light-Elves---the fertile surface of the Earth and the next adjoining region of the atmosphere.
6. Svartálfheimr, the World of the Dark-Elves or Dwarves---the interior of the Earth-disc.
7. Jötunheimr, the World of the Jötuns---the mountain wastes around the Earth's disc. This world was believed to slope downward, especially towards the north. It was occasionally placed within the World-Ocean, but mostly, and especially at first, outside of it as a border inclosing it. (3) It was thus believed to be separated from Mannheim by the ocean, as it was from Goðheim by a stream called Ifing, (4) which was never frozen over.
8. Helheimr, the World of the Dead, the lower World, the abode for the bodies of the Dead (Halir). Thither the way from the upper Worlds (Helvegr) led down by the North through Jötunheim over the stream Gjöll---the Sounding or Shining (Northern Lights?); the bridge over it, Gjallarbrú, was roofed with shining gold.
9. Niflheimr, the Mist-World. The first and last of these were primeval worlds, which were thought to be situated without the proper mundane World-system, to which the Æsir belonged.
We may remark, however, that the representations of these different worlds and their mutual relations, were very obscure and variable, even in heathen times. We could expect no other of a people but little enlightened, especially at a time when the knowledge of Nature was so very limited. In later times the confusion was increased when the Learned began to look for these Worlds upon the Earth, and to rack their brains in finding out proper regions to refer them to. (5)
1. From iðja, to work; Ið, activity; völlr, a field. [Back]
2. Evidently derived from hlið (AS. hlið), a gate or port; cogn. with Engl. lid. In the O. Edda (Atlakviða 14), liðskjalfar seems to mean towers. Grimm thinks the word may mean a turret-window, or the seat at a portal or window, and that skjálf thus corresponds to the AS. scylfe; Engl. shelf, in the sense of bench. Hliðskjálf was therefore supposed to be a portal or large window in Heaven, with its adjoining seat (Deut. Mythol. p. 124). [Back]
3. Compare the L. Edda: Gylfaginning 51, with the O. Edda: Hýmiskviða. [Back]
4. The word if or ef, ordinarily signifies doubt, but the original meaning appears to have been fluctuation, unrest. [Back]
5. Magnusen's ideas of these worlds are set forth in his "Eddalære," page 179, et seq.; Petersen's in "Danmarks Historic" III. pp. 122-124. The above system corresponds with the latter. [Back]