The Nine Worlds:
©2005 Ingeborg S. Nordén
The following transcriptions came from an online Asatru course which I taught several years ago. Since some new converts (and a few curious mythologists outside Heathenry) have questions about cosmology in Norse belief, I thought that writing a series of articles on each world would help answer those questions.
If you're reading this message normally, chances are good that you're in Midgard already. In other words: Midgard is the Norse name for our ordinary physical universe, which the Eddas describe as placed around the center of the World Tree (thus its name).
If you have a Kabbalistic background, this idea of the physical world's placement might clash with your tradition--but the two "cosmic tree" maps developed in different cultures and do not map onto each other. The Sephirot are abstract divine attributes, with a clear hierarchy and balance. But the Norse worlds are definitely seen as places, even if some of them are spiritual--and there is no defined goal of reaching a given world, no sense that one is inherently better than the rest. The gods don't "evolve" from belonging in one world and work their way toward another; they travel freely back and forth, seeking knowledge wherever they can.
The elemental fire-world, on the south side of the void (Ginnungagap) into which the gods placed Midgard. Nothing normally lives here except the fire-giants. (For those of you who know of ceremonial magic, think of Norse giants as over-sized elementals--with an attitude problem and a bit more intelligence.)
Fire giants are one of the races specifically mentioned as leading an army against the gods at Ragnarok. But this doesn't make Muspellheim all bad; fire and ice are both necessary for creation to take place. (The first life-forms, according to the Eddas, were created when parts of those two elements met in the void.)
The elemental ice-world on the north side of the void. Its inhabitants are never described in the lore: logic would seem to place the frost giants here, but they are usually associated with a different world (Jotunheim--q.v.) Some Norse texts also blur the distinction between Niflheim and Hel (q.v.): both are described as cold dark places, reached by journeying "down and north" from Midgard. I prefer to keep the two worlds distinct, though: in the creation story, Niflheim is clearly an elemental plane. (Besides, a world of the dead makes no sense when no life has appeared yet in the cosmos!)
The realm where most of the Norse giants live, on the eastern side of the void that surrounds Midgard. A river which never freezes over is said to divide Asgard (q.v.) from Jotunheim.
Some ceremonial magicians might mistakenly label Jotunheim as the elemental air-world, for two reasons:
1. Air is usually placed to the east in ceremonial magic when a circle is cast.
2. The lore describes some giants taking the shape of eagles and raise storms with their wings.
Despite those chance correlations, however, Norsemen apparently believed in only two elements, fire and ice (symbolizing rigid form vs. raw energy). Any other substance was considered an emanation of those two, not an element in its own right.
The world on the western side of the void, with no clear elemental association. (Water exists in many places under, within, and around the World Tree: as oceans and rivers dividing the worlds, as wells beneath roots of the tree, as liquid dripping from inhabitants' bodies. Calling Vanaheim a water-world, based on an analogy with ceremonial symbolism, would therefore be redundant and unsupported by the lore.)
Since Vanaheim isn't an elemental world, what is it supposed to be? The name of the world translates simply enough: the home (Old Norse heimr) of the Vanir. And who are the Vanir? They're one of the two divine clans mentioned in the lore: at the very least, the sea-god Njord and his children belong to the Vanir. (Both Njord and his son Freyr married giant-women, who might be considered "honorary Vanir".) Some scholars also place a few gods with otherwise unknown ancestry into this group.
Anyone who's read Thor comic books knows of this world and how most beings get there. Asgard is the world closest to the crown of Yggdrasil (though the tree grows higher than that). Its best-known natives are the Ćsir--the larger family of Norse gods, those related to Odin by either birth or marriage. (As I stated in my article on Odin, some people wrongly equate Asgard with Valhalla--but that would be like equating my apartment building with the whole city it's in. Other deities have halls in Asgard too, although the Eddas don't mention anyone going to those halls after death.)
How does a traveler between worlds reach Asgard? Believe it or not, the Eddas imply that more than one way exist to get there. The rainbow bridge (Bifrost) is probably the best-known and shortest path leading to Asgard. But like the other routes, Bifrost has its dangers: it was built from water, air, and fire (too light to support the gods' giant enemies, and too hot for them to cross without burning their feet). Coincidentally, the mythical description meshes with scientific fact here: rainbows are created when sunlight (fire) shines through raindrops (water) in the air! Bifrost also has a guardian, the god Heimdall, on continuous duty; he is said to have supernaturally keen sight and hearing, as well as a magical sword to fight intruders.
What about the other pathways to Asgard? Five rivers surround it, according to the lore: Thor has to cross four of them each day to reach the gods' council-site underneath the World Tree. The fifth river divides Jotunheim from Asgard; though no one is ever described as crossing it, that should be possible in theory.
I've already discussed Hel thoroughly in my article on the goddess of the same name. Some scholars, by the way, believe that the idea of Hel as a personal deity is a late Scandinavian innovation. They point out that other Germanic sources use names related to "Hel" only for the underworld itself, not for anyone who lives and rules there. Other sources (including some passages in the Eddas!) blur the distinction between Hel and Niflheim. The two worlds do have some traits in common: both are cold, dark places that lie "down and to the north" of Midgard. (A few generations ago, by the way, Norwegians still used a euphemistic idiom for "go to hell": dra nord og ned, literally "go north and down." This shows that the old folk beliefs about Hel partially survived Christianization.) However, I personally believe that Hel and Niflheim are not the same place: the Norse creation story has Niflheim present before any dead souls could exist to inhabit it, and before any sentient being appears.
Getting to Hel, according to the lore, is a long and difficult trip: nine days' trip downward and northward. Like Asgard, it is surrounded by a river (which can be crossed only over one bridge, guarded by a giant-woman). Also like Asgard, it is surrounded by a high wall and heavy gates; the dead can enter easily, but a guard dog named Garm prevents them from leaving.
The lore says little about this world, whose name literally translates as "home (heimr) of the elves (álfar). Judging by what is recorded, though, Alfheim is somewhere in the upper air between Asgard and Midgard. Its inhabitants are shining spirits, usually friendly to the gods and humans--although folk tradition implies that the elves had their vengeful side too, since they could strike enemies with paralysis or deadly illness. (Several Danish folk ballads mention elf women who try to lure noblemen into their kingdom. When the elves succeed, the victim usually forgets his old home and identity; when they fail, the victim is often killed. Judging by the more benevolent images of elves in the Eddas, I believe that their later role as temptresses arose because of Christian influence--any pagan spirits became dangerous demons, whether or not earlier Norsemen saw them as all bad.)
The idea that Alfheim is a generally good place is supported by two points in the lore:
1. Many Eddaic poems conventionally link "Ćsir and elves" together, which implies that the two are on friendly (or at least neutral) terms with each other. Enemies of Asgard are never linked in this way.
2. The Ćsir are said to have given Alfheim to Freyr--a generally benevolent, peaceful god--in his childhood, and Freyr is said to be their king.
The "home of the dark elves", as one might expect, lies between Midgard and Hel. Its inhabitants are the dwarves or "dark elves" described in the lore. (The name, BTW, refers to the darkness of their surroundings--not to their skin or moral character, despite the images shown in fantasy fiction and role-playing games.)
Dark elves are described in the lore as master craftsmen who forged many of the gods' own weapons and tools--Thor's hammer, Odin's spear and ring, Freyr's ship, Freyja's necklace. They aren't outright "evil" as demons are in Judeo-Christian belief, but they do have a vengeful and greedy streak. (If someone steals from a dwarf or forces him to work magic, the perpetrator usually ends up with a curse on his ill-gotten gains: weapons turn on their wielder, wealth inspires someone else to kill the thief and steal from him in turn. The inhabitants of Svartalfheim are definitely not to be taken lightly; any Heathen magician should count the cost before dealing with them.)
As if those dwarf-stories weren't enough to emphasize their power, the Eddas also mention that the gods placed four dwarves at the compass points to support the heavens. These four beings are the closest thing to "directional guardians" in our lore--but since Germanic magic doesn't use a four-element system like ceremonial magic, I would hesitate to equate them with Kabbalistic archangels or any similar figures in Hermetic tradition.