The World-Tree in Literature

Illustration of Yggdrasill from AM 738 4to

Illustration of Yggdrasil from the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to, fol. 43r.

Yggdrasill in the Poetic Edda

Our main sources for the Norse understanding of Yggdrasill are the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda (particularly Völuspá and Grímnismál) and Snorri's Prose EddaVöluspá ('The Prophecy of the Seeress) gives us certain details about the tree, but the statements of the Seeress are brief and allusive - probably intended for an audience already familiar with the mythology. In the following stanza, the Seeress refers directly to Yggdrasill:

An ash I know there stands,
Yggdrasill is its name,
a tall tree, showered
with shining loam.
From there come the dews
that drop in the valleys.
It stands forever green over
Urðr's well.

[st 19, trans. Ursula Dronke]

The Inhabitants of Yggdrasill

The poem Grímnismál tells us some more detail about the tree: it has three roots which run to the world of men, the giants and Hel. An eagle lives in the branches, and a squirrel named Ratatoskr delivers messages from the eagle to the serpent Níðhöggr which gnaws its roots. The tree is both a source of sustenance, and suffers agony: four harts consume its upper boughs, serpents writhe around its roots, and its trunk decays. 

Illustration of Yggdrasill from AM 738 4to

Detail of the serpent Níðhöggr from AM 738 4to.

A True World-Tree

Snorri tells us that the gods hold court at Yggdrasill each day, and gives more information about the wells that lie at the base of its three roots. The Norns live by one of these wells, and bathe the tree to prevent it decaying. In Snorri's account, the branches of Yggdrasill extend out across the whole world, and dew falls to earth from its foliage: it is a world-tree in the fullest sense. Although Snorri does not refer to this myth directly, Yggdrasill is almost certainly the gallows-tree on which Odin sacrificed himself for nine nights to gain knolwedge of the runes, recounted in Hávamál. In this poem it is described as 

"that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run" (st. 137, trans. Larrington)

Whilst the poet may be acknowledging that the origin of the World-Tree is beyond human comprehension, what is certain is that it represents a living system: one that sustains and responds to its surroundings. Like all trees, its roots reach below the earth, and its upper branches appear to touch the sky.

The Fate of Yggdrasill

There is only a brief reference to the fate of Yggdrasill in the Poetic Edda. It is said to shiver and groan as a precursor to Ragnarök - the cataclysmic events that unravel the world of gods and men. It is unclear whether the tree itself is destroyed, or whether it is rejuvenated when the earth rises once again "eternally green" along with the serpent Níðhöggr. It may be that the World-Tree is a symbol of continuity that outlasts the cycles of birth and destruction in the world of gods and men.  

Artists have often struggled with the difficulty of representing the World-Tree, and reconciling the myriad imagery. Continue the tour to see how it was represented in the earliest sources.

The World-Tree in Literature