This illustration, created by the Danish artist Oluf Bagge (c. 1780-1836), depicts the Yggdrasill, a World Tree of Norse mythology. Traces of the tree (usually described as an ash) were said to have pervaded all of the realms of the Norse world, so that the roots, trunk and branches of the Yggdrasill acted as a cosmic scaffolding around which everything was built. This great tree was a fragile thing, however, plagued by rot and covered in harmful parasites. The Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), described the Yggdrasill:
“The ash is the largest and best of all trees. Its branches spread themselves over all the world, and it stands over the sky. The roots support the tree and they are spread very far apart. One is among the Æsir. A second is among the frost giants where Ginnungagap once was. The third reaches down to Niflheim, and under this root is the well Hvergelmir; but Nidhogg gnaws at this root from below” (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, section 15).
Descriptions of more creatures, such as the Nidhogg, that plague the Yggdrasill can be found in the poem, Grimnir’s Sayings, within the Poetic Edda, which was compiled in Iceland around the 13th century. The following stanzas from the poem vividly describe the lively wildlife that scurry across and nibble on the tree:
“Ratatosk is the squirrel’s name, who must scurry
about on Yggdrasill’s ash;
the eagle’s utterances he must bring from above
and tell to Nidhogg below.
There are four harts too, who browse on its shoots,
with their necks tilted back;
Dain and Dvalin,
Duneyr and Durathror.
More serpents lie under Yggdrasill’s ash
than any numbskull fool can imagine:
Goin and Moin, they are Grafvitnir’s sons,
Grabak and Grafvollud,
Ofnir and Svafnir I think for ever will
Erode the tree’s branches.
Yggdrasill’s ash suffers agony
more than men know:
A stag nibbles it above, but at its side it’s decaying,
and Nidhogg rends it beneath.”
(Poetic Edda, Grimnir’s Sayings, stanzas 32-35)
Such is the scene that Oluf Bagge re-creates in his image. Following the mythology, it shows the World Tree with its roots and branches woven through the different inhabited lands. Other prominent features exhibited in the image include Bifrost, the rainbow bridge of the Norse gods, as well as the Midgard Serpent (or Jörmungandr), which circles the water around Middle Earth (Midgard).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
- Poetic Edda, produced anonymously in Iceland c. 13th century. Translation by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford University Press, 2014).