What is Yggdrasil?
When it comes to discussion of the Runes, a subject which is just as important as the god who first obtained them is the tree from which he hung to do so. Understanding the full symbolic value in a given myth enables one to attain the insight necessary to complete the chain between intangible, unreal things and tangible reality, in other words, looking past the flowery prose enables one to get to the heart of the matter, and so obtain practical information which, in its use, yields practical results. Most, if not all mythology contains bits of knowledge from people who lived much closer to the harsh reality of the natural world, and so they had to deal primarily in the kind of practical thinking which kept them alive – never mind that they didn’t understand the exact mechanisms of the world around them, but that they had functional models based upon their direct experiences was enough.
The world tree, according to the Germanic mythos, was a great yew tree called “Yggdrasil”. Other interpretations have likened it to an ash tree, and they are entitled to their (very wrong) opinions, but given the yew tree’s unique life cycle and poisonous traits, it is much more suitable to the morbid, Plutonian nature of Yggdrasil, and of Wotan himself, than an ash tree, which has no such attributes. The yew has a curious means of reproduction, wherein its branches grow so long that they root in the surrounding soil, either growing into individual trees or sometimes from the stump of the previous iteration. In addition, practically every part of the tree is extremely poisonous, and while folklore states that it might have mind-altering properties, attempting to ingest yew is strongly discouraged unless one’s goal is to validate Charles Darwin’s theories on natural selection.
In the mythos, Yggdrasil can be divided into three main regions, each with a series of subregions: The roots, the trunk, and the branches. Each serves a different role which, surprisingly for such an old mythos, can be substantiated by examination of a literal tree and its corresponding parts, and thus the wisdom of pagan traditions will outlive any written text, as it is contained within natural phenomena.
The roots of Yggdrasil contain very dark, earthy things, such as the Svardalfar, or “Dark Elves”, who forged Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, and Wotan’s spear Gungnir, and Helheim, a general sort of afterlife – and of course Nastrond, the corpse-shore; a sort of anti-Walhalla for the villainous and Sinister. Here, a great Wyrm, or serpentine dragon, named Nithoggr chews at the roots of Yggdrasil. This is also the place of the well of Urd, where Wotan offered his own right eye in exchange for wisdom and true sight. Much like a real tree, this is the part which holds it secure in the ground and provides nutrients from rotting matter, and here, everything which has died is broken apart and remade into new life. While unpleasant as decaying plant and animal remains might be, they are nevertheless essential parts of the whole, and to the nature worshiper, are as lovely as springtime blossoms.
Moving upward, the midsection/trunk contains the world of men, called Migard – and the forces which threaten it, known as the Jotnar, who dwell in the aptly named Jotunheim. As with all of Yggdrasil, which drips with symbolism of contrasting forces, such contrast can be seen in the war of transient order vs. primordial chaos which takes place between Midgard and Jotunheim, and in the meeting of fiery Muspelheim and icy Niflheim. This conflict between opposing elements is what drives the machinery of existence, and without it, there would be nothing, as no reactions would occur due to the lack of action. It may seem chaotic, even destructive at times, but the music of the spheres is in fact a cacophonous din.
The upper regions of Yggdrasil are, unsurprisingly, the branches. Home to the realm of the Gods – Asgard – and a race of ethereal beings called Alfar (Lljosalfar according to some obscure texts, or “Light Elves”), who, in contrast to the Svardalfar below, are more inclined towards the arts and other less practical interests than their earthy counterparts. It is here, in the great hall called Walhalla, that Wotan keeps the heroic individuals which he has selected from those who have met a spectacular end on the battlefield, where they wait until Ragnarok to ride into oblivion alongside Wotan – yet another instance of contrast, in this case a contrast to wicked Nastrond. A great eagle, whose name is unknown, dwells at the top of Yggdrasil, and unkind words are exchanged between it and the Wyrm Nithoggr in the roots. Ultimately the branches of Yggdrasil are a place of light and idealism, and while less substantial than the earth beneath it, a tree still needs the subtle nutrition of air and light in order to grow. It is a more peaceful, luminous contrast to the turmoil beneath, and to the darkness lower still – a less tangible, cerebral balancing factor which aspires upwards.
In my personal view, Yggdrasil is both a symbolic model of the world, and of oneself. The interplay between contrary aspects and the emphasis on a perpetual state of flux between what was and what will be. One who is rooted in what has passed while reaching upwards amidst earthly tumult, and extending downward once at the apex in order to start anew – a cycle of unending creation and destruction which, in my opinion, cements the Plutonian essence of Yggdrasil, and of Wotan, who hung from its branches and reached far down below to obtain the Runes from the darkness of the roots. Wotan is said to never remain in any one place for long, either, and is always wandering the realms of Yggdrasil, as he is in pursuit of wisdom, something which is not obtained just by lingering in once place with one’s nose in a book, but by going out and doing in order to obtain the kind of insight which is otherwise unobtainable.
As a final note, it is difficult to assemble a comprehensive model of Yggdrasil, given the dependence on fragmented, distorted accounts, which is an unfortunate consequence of the ravages of time. What I have done, and what I highly suggest anyone do with things like this, is read a few different sources and looked for common factors, and from these common factors, I have constructed a model. Is it this model the same as the ones used thousands of years ago? There is no way to be sure. However, if the model is internally consistent and holds up to its own logic, then it is enough, and one need not drive themselves mad with unanswerable questions of orthodoxy.
Art- 1886 Friedrich Wilhelm Heine