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The Viking Cosmos: A Comprehensive Guide to Norse Realms

The cosmology of Nordic myths is fascinating and unique in many ways but also somewhat confusing at times. We’ve all heard about the nine Norse realms but going over what each of them is, how they are arranged across the cosmos, and how they interact with each other is a whole different story.

This is partly due to the many ancient and abstract concepts of Norse mythology and partly because the Norse religion existed as an oral tradition for centuries and therefore changed quite a bit over time.

Many of the written sources we have of Nordic cosmology and the nine Norse realms today are actually from Christian writers. It is believed that these Christian authors may have interpreted the Norse oral traditions through their cultural and religious lens. While some alterations might have occurred, it is not clear to what extent these influenced the fundamental aspects of the Norse realms.

In this comprehensive article, let’s go over the nine Norse realms, what they are, and what they represent.

What Are the Nine Norse Realms?

Norse realms
Source

According to the Nordic people of Scandinavia, Iceland, and parts of Northern Europe, the entire cosmos was comprised of nine worlds or realms arranged on or around the world tree Yggdrasil. The exact dimensions and size of the tree varied as the Norse people didn’t really have a concept of how huge the universe was. Regardless, however, these nine Norse realms housed all life in the universe with each realm being the home of a specific race of people.

How are the Nine Realms Arranged in The Cosmos / on Yggdrasil?

nine realms Norse mythology
Source

In some myths, the nine realms were spread throughout the crown of the tree like fruits and in others, they were arranged across the height of the tree one on top of the other, with the “good” realms closer to the top and the “evil” realms closer to the bottom. This view of Yggdrasil and the nine realms, however, seems to have been formed later and thanks to the influences of Christian writers.

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In either case, the tree was considered a cosmic constant – something that predated the nine realms and that would exist for as long as the universe itself existed. In a sense, the Yggdrasil tree is the universe.

The Nordic people also didn’t have a consistent concept of how big the nine realms themselves were. Some myths depicted them as entirely separate worlds while in many other myths as well as in many cases throughout history, the Nordic people seem to have thought that the other realms could be found across the ocean if you just sailed far enough.

How Were the Nine Realms Created?

In the beginning, the world tree Yggdrasil stood alone in the cosmic void Ginnungagap. Seven out of the nine realms didn’t even exist yet, with the only two exceptions being the fire realm Muspelheim and the ice realm Niflheim. At the time, even these two were just lifeless elemental planes with nothing of significance happening in either of them.

All that changed when the flames of Muspelheim happened to melt some of the ice shards coming out of Niflheim. Out of these few drops of water came the first living being – the jötunn Ymir. Pretty soon this mighty giant started creating new life in the form of more jötnar (plural of jötunn) through his sweat and blood.

In the meantime, he himself nursed on the udder of the cosmic cow Auðumbla – the second creature to have come into existence out of the melted water of Niflheim.

Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), Ymer dier koen Oedhumbla, About 1777
Ymir Suckles at The Udder Of Auðumbla – Nicolai Abildgaard. CCO.

While Ymir was giving life to more and more jötnar through his sweat, Auðumbla nourished herself by licking on a block of salty ice from Niflheim. As she licked away at the salt, she eventually uncovered the first Norse god buried in it – Buri. From the mixing of Buri’s blood with that of Ymir’s jötnar offspring came the other Nordic gods including Buri’s three grandsons – Odin, Vili, and Ve.

These three gods eventually slew Ymir, scattered his jötnar children, and created “the world” out of Ymir’s corpse:

  • His flesh = the land
  • His bones = the mountains
  • His skull = the sky
  • His hair = the trees
  • His sweat and blood = rivers and seas
  • His brains = the clouds
  • His eyebrows were turned into Midgard, one of the nine realms that was left for humanity.

From there, the three gods went on to create the first two humans in Norse mythology, Ask and Embla.

With Muspelheim and Niflheim predating all that and Midgard created from Ymir’s eyebrows, the other six realms were presumably created from the rest of Ymir’s body.

Here are the nine realms in detail.

1. Muspelheim – The Primordial Realm of Fire

Norse realm Muspelheim
Source

There isn’t much to be said about Muspelheim besides its role in the creation myth of Norse mythology. Originally a lifeless plane of never-ending flames, Muspelheim became the home of some of his jötnar children after the murder of Ymir.

Reshaped by Muspelheim’s fire, they turned into “fire jötnar” or “fire giants”. One among them soon proved to be strongest – Surtr, the lord of Muspelheim and wielder of a mighty fire sword that shone brighter than the sun.

For most of Norse mythology, the fire jötnar of Muspelheim played little role in the deeds of men and gods – the Aesir gods of Odin rarely ventured into Muspelheim and the fire giants of Surtr also didn’t want much to do with the other eight realms.

Once Ragnarok occurs, however, Surtr will march his army out of the fire realm and through the rainbow bridge, killing the Vanir god Freyr along the way and leading the fight for Asgard’s destruction.

2. Niflheim – The Primordial Realm of Ice and Mist

niflheim
On the Way to Niflheim – J. Humphries. Source

Together with Muspelheim, Niflheim is the only other world out of all nine realms to have existed before the gods and before Odin carved Ymir’s body into the remaining seven realms. Like its fiery counterpart, Niflheim was a fully elemental plane at first – a world of frozen rivers, icy glaciers, and freezing mists.

Unlike Muspelheim, however, Niflheim didn’t really become populated with living beings after the death of Ymir. After all, what could even survive there? The only actual living thing to go to Niflheim eons later was the goddess Hel – the daughter of Loki and ruler of the dead. The goddess made Niflheim her home and there she welcomed all dead souls that weren’t worthy of going to Odin’s golden halls of Valhalla (or to Freyja’s heavenly field, Fólkvangr – the lesser-known second “good afterlife” for great Viking heroes).

In that sense, Niflheim essentially became the Norse Hell or “Underworld”. Unlike most other versions of hell, however, Niflheim wasn’t a place of torture and agony. Instead, it was merely a place of cold nothingness, indicating that what the Nordic people feared the most was nothingness and inaction.

This does bring up the question of Hel.

Doesn’t the goddess Hel have a realm named after her where she gathered the dead souls? Is Niflheim just another name for the realm Hel?

In essence – yes.

That “realm named Hel” seems to have been an addition made by the Christian scholars who put the Nordic myths into text during the Middle Ages. Christian authors such as Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241 CE) basically combined two of the other nine realms we’ll talk about below (Svartalheim and Nidavellir), which opened up a “slot” for Hel (the realm of the goddess Hel) to become one of the nine realms. In those interpretations of Norse mythology, the goddess Hel doesn’t live in Niflheim but just has her own hellish realm.

Hel Norse mythology
Goddess Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts. PD.

Does that mean that later iterations of Niflheim continued to depict it as just a frozen empty wasteland? Yes, pretty much. Yet, even in those cases, it’d be wrong to downplay Niflheim’s significance in Norse mythology. With or without the goddess Hel in it, Niflheim was still one of the two realms to create life in the universe.

This icy world can be said to be even more significant than Muspelheim in that regard as the god Buri was housed in a block of salty ice in Niflheim – Muspelheim merely provided the heat to start thawing Niflheim’s ice, nothing more.

3. Midgard – Humanity’s Realm

Created out of Ymir’s eyebrows, Midgard is the realm that Odin, Vili, and Ve gave to mankind. The reason they used the giant jötunn Ymir’s eyebrows was to turn them into walls around Midgard to protect it from the jötnar and other monsters circling Midgard like wild animals.

Odin, Vili, and Ve recognized that the humans they themselves created – Ask and Embla, the first people in Midgard – were not strong or capable enough to defend themselves against all the evil in the nine realms so Midgard needed to be fortified. The gods also later created the Bifrost rainbow bridge coming down from their own realm of Asgard.

There is a section in the Prose Edda written by Snorri Sturluson called Gylfafinning (The fooling of Gylfe) where the story-teller High describes Midgard as such:

It is [the earth] circular around the edge and surrounding it lies the deep sea. On these ocean coasts, the sons of Bor [Odin, Vili, and Ve] gave land to the clans of the giants to live on. But further inland they built a fortress wall around the world to protect against the hostility of the giants. As material for the wall, they used the eyelashes of the giant Ymir and called this stronghold Midgard.

Midgard was the scene of many of the Nordic myths as people, gods, and monsters all adventured across the realm of mankind, battling for power and survival. In fact, as both Norse mythology and Nordic history were only recorded orally for centuries, the two often intertwine.

Many historians and scholars to this day are not certain which ancient Nordic people are historical figures of Scandinavia, Iceland, and Northern Europe, and which are mythological heroes adventuring through Midgard.

4. Asgard – The Realm of The Aesir Gods

Asgard Norse mythology
Asgard with the rainbow bridge Bifrost. FAL – 1.3

One of the most famous realms is that of the Aesir gods led by the Allfather Odin. It’s not clear which part of Ymir’s body became Asgard nor exactly where it was placed on Yggdrasil. Some myths say that it was in Yggdrasil’s roots, together with Niflheim and Jotunheim. Other myths say that Asgard was right above Midgard which allowed the Aesir gods to create the Bifrost rainbow bridge down to Midgard, the realm of people.

Asgard itself was said to have consisted of 12 separate smaller realms – each a home to one of Asgard’s many gods. Valhalla was the famous golden hall of Odin, for example, Breidablik was the abode of the gold of the sun Baldur, and Thrudheim was the home of the thunder god Thor.

Each of these smaller realms was often described as a castle or as a mansion, similar to the mansions of the Norse chieftains and nobles. Still, it was assumed that each of these twelve realms in Asgard was quite large. For example, all the dead Norse heroes were said to go to Odin’s Valhalla to feast and train for Ragnarok.

Regardless of how large Asgard was supposed to be, the only paths into the realm of the gods were by sea or via the Bifrost bridge that stretched between Asgard and Midgard.

5. Jotunheim – The Realm of Giants and Jötnar

While Niflheim/Hel is the “underworld” realm of the dead, Jotunheim is the realm the Nordic people actually feared. As its name implies, this is the realm most of Ymir’s jötnar offspring went to, aside from those that followed Surtr into Muspelheim. Similar to Niflheim, in that it’s cold and desolate, Jotunheim was at least still livable.

That’s the only positive thing that could be said about it.

Also called Utgard, this is the realm of chaos and untamed magic and wilderness in Norse mythology. Located right outside/below Midgard, Jotunheim is the reason the gods had to protect the realm of men with a giant wall.

In essence, Jotunheim is the antithesis of Asgard, as it’s the chaos to the divine realm’s order. That’s also dichotomy at the core of Norse mythology, as the Aesir gods basically carved out the ordered world out of the body of the slain jötunn Ymir and Ymir’s jötnar offspring have been trying to plunge the world back into chaos ever since.

The jötnar of Jotunheim are prophesied to one day succeed, as they are expected to also march on Asgard during Ragnarok together with Surtr’s flaming armies from Muspelheim and the dead souls from Niflheim/Hel led by Loki.

6. Vanaheim – The Realm of The Vanir Gods

vanaheim
Vanaheim

Asgard is not the only divine realm in Norse mythology. The lesser-known pantheon of Vanir gods resides in Vanaheim, chief among whom is the fertility goddess Freyja. 

There are very few preserved myths that talk about Vanaheim so we don’t have a concrete description of this realm. Yet, we can safely assume that it was a rich, green, and happy place as the Vanir gods were associated with peace, light magic, and the earth’s fertility.

The reason that Norse mythology has two pantheons of gods and two divine realms isn’t exactly clear, but many scholars agree that it’s probably because the two originally formed as separate religions. This is often the case with ancient religions as their later variants – the ones we tend to learn about – are the result of mixing and mashing older religions.

In the case of Norse mythology, we know that the Aesir gods led by Odin in Asgard were worshipped by the Germanic tribes in Europe during the times of ancient Rome. The Aesir gods are described as a war-like group and that’s consistent with the culture of the people that worshipped them.

The Vanir gods, on the other hand, were likely first worshipped by the people of Scandinavia – and we don’t have many written records of the ancient history of that part of Europe. So, the presumed explanation is that the ancient Scandinavian people worshipped by an entirely different pantheon of peaceful fertility deities before they encountered the Germanic tribes of Central Europe.

The two cultures and religions then clashed and eventually intertwined and mixed into a single mythological cycle. That’s also why Norse mythology has two “heavens” – Odin’s Valhalla and Freyja’s Fólkvangr. The clash between the two older religions is also reflected in the actual war fought by the Aesir and Vanir gods in Norse mythology.

Aesir vs Vanir war
Artist’s depiction of Aesir vs. Vanir War

Called quite simply The Æsir–Vanir War, this tale goes over a battle between the two tribes of gods with no given reason for it – presumably, the war-like Aesir started it as the Vanir gods tend to spend most of their time at peace in Vanaheim. A main aspect of the tale, however, goes to the peace talks that follow the war, the exchange of hostages, and the eventual peace that followed. That’s why some Vanir gods such as Freyr and Njord live in Asgard together with Odin’s Aesir gods.

That’s also why we don’t have many myths about Vanaheim – not much seems to happen there. While the gods of Asgard are constantly engaged in wars against the jötnar of Jotunheim, the Vanir gods are content to just not do anything of significance with their time.

7. Alfheim – The Realm of The Bright Elves

Dancing elves Alfheim
Dancing Elves by August Malmstrom (1866). PD.

Located high in the heavens/Yggdrasil’s crown, Alfheim is said to exist close to Asgard. A realm of the bright elves (Ljósálfar), this land was ruled by the Vanir gods and by Freyr in particular (Freyja’s brother). Still, Alfheim was largely considered a realm of the elves and not of the Vanir gods as the latter seem to have been pretty liberal with their “rule”.

Historically and geographically, Alfheim is believed to be a specific place on the border between Norway and Sweden – a location between the mouths of the rivers Glom and Gota, according to many scholars. The ancient people of Scandinavia thought of this land as Alfheim, as the people who lived there were seen as “fairer” than most others.

Like Vanaheim, there isn’t much else recorded about Alfheim in the bits and pieces of Norse mythology we have today. It seems to have been a land of peace, beauty, fertility, and love, largely untouched by the constant war between Asgard and Jotunheim.

It’s also worth noting that after medieval Christian scholars drew a distinction between Hel and Niflheim, they “sent/combined” the dark elves (Dökkálfar) of Svartalheim to Alfheim and then combined the Svartalheim realm with that of the dwarves of Nidavellir.

8. Svartalheim – The Realm of The Dark Elves

We know even less of Svartalheim than we do of Alfheim and Vanaheim – there just aren’t any recorded myths about this realm as the Christian authors that recorded the few Norse myths we know of today scrapped Svartalheim in favor of Hel.

We do know of the dark elves of Norse mythology as there are myths that occasionally described them as the “evil” or mischievous counterparts of the bright elves of Alfheim.

It’s not exactly clear what the significance was of distinguishing between bright and dark elves, but Norse mythology is full of dichotomies so it’s not surprising. The dark elves are mentioned in a few myths such as Hrafnagaldr Óðins and Gylafaginning.

Many scholars also confuse dark elves with the dwarves of Norse myths, since the two were grouped together once Svartalheim was “removed” from the nine realms. For example, there are sections of the Prose Edda that talk about “black elves” (Svartálfar, not Dökkálfar), who do seem to be different from the dark elves and may just be dwarves under another name.

Regardless, if you follow the more modern view of the nine realms that counts Hel as separate from Niflheim then Svartalheim isn’t its own realm anyway.

9. Nidavellir – The Realm of The Dwarves

Last but not least, Nidavellir is and always has been a part of the nine realms. A place deep under the earth where the dwarven smiths craft countless magical items, Nidavellir is also a place the Aesir and Vanir gods often visited.

For example, Nidavellir is where the Mead of Poetry was made and later stolen by Odin to inspire poets. This realm is also where Thor’s hammer Mjolnir was made after it was commissioned by none other but Loki, his trickster god uncle. Loki did this after cutting off the hair of Thor’s wife, Lady Sif.

Thor was so furious when he learned what Loki had done that he sent him to Nidavellir for a new set of magical golden hair. To make up for his mistake, Loki commissioned the dwarves of Nidavellir to craft not just new hair for Sif but also Thor’s hammer, Odin’s spear Gungnir, the ship Skidblandir, the golden boar Gullinbursti, and the golden ring Draupnir. Naturally, many other legendary items, weapons, and treasures in Norse mythology were also created by the dwarves of Nidavellir.

Curiously enough, because Nidavellir and Svartalheim were often merged or confused by Christian authors, in the story of Loki and Thor’s hammer, the dwarves are actually said to be in Svartalheim. As Nidavellir is supposed to be the dwarves’ realm, however, it’s safe to assume that the original orally passed myths had the right names for the right realms.

Do All Nine Norse Realms Get Destroyed During Ragnarok?

Battle of the doomed gods
Battle of the Doomed Gods – Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1882). PD.

It’s widely understood that Ragnarok was the end of the world in Norse mythology. During this final battle the armies of Muspelheim, Niflheim/Hel, and Jotunheim successfully destroy the gods and the heroes fighting by their side and go on to destroy Asgard and Midgard with all of humanity along with it.

However, what happens to the other seven realms?

Indeed, all nine realms of Norse mythology are destroyed during Ragnarok – including the three from which the jötnar armies came and the other four “side” realms that were directly involved in the conflict.

Yet, this wide destruction didn’t occur because the war was waged on all nine realms at the same time. Instead, the nine realms were destroyed by the general rot and decay accumulated in the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil over the centuries. Essentially, Norse mythology had a relatively correct intuitive understanding of the principles of entropy in that they believe that the victory of chaos over order is inevitable.

Even though all nine realms and the world tree Yggdrasil all get destroyed, however, that doesn’t mean that everyone dies during Ragnarok or that the world won’t go on. Several of Odin’s and Thor’s children did in fact survive Ragnarok – these are Thor’s sons Móði and Magni carrying Mjolnir with them, and Odin’s two sons and vengeance gods – Vidar and Vali. In some versions of the myth, the twin gods Höðr and Baldr also survive Ragnarok.

The myths that mention these survivors go on to describe them walking on the scorched earth of the nine realms, observing the slow regrowth of the plant life. This indicates something we know from other Norse myths too – that there is a cyclical nature to the Nordic worldview.

Simply put, the Norse people believed that after Ragnarok the Norse creation myth will repeat itself and the nine realms will form once again. How these few survivors factor into it, however, is not clear.

Perhaps they get frozen in Niflheim’s ice so later one of them can be uncovered as the new incarnation of Buri?

In Conclusion

The nine Norse realms are simultaneously straightforward as well as fascinating and convoluted. Some are much less known than others, thanks to the scarcity of written records and the many mistakes among them. This almost makes the nine realms even more interesting, as it leaves room for speculation.

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Yordan Zhelyazkov
Yordan Zhelyazkov

Yordan Zhelyazkov is a published fantasy author and an experienced copywriter. While he has degrees in both Creative Writing and Marketing, much of his research and work are focused on history and mythology. He’s been working in the field for years and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Mesoamerican, Japanese mythology, and others.