Opinion: The World Tree and the State of Affairs

The Old Norse poem Grímnismál (“Sayings of the Masked One”), preserved in the thirteenth-century Codex Regius (“king’s book”), is narrated by the god Odin as he sits between two fires and expounds a trove of mythological lore in what John Lindow has called an “ecstatic wisdom performance.”

Arrested by his own protégé, the usurper king Geirröd, the disguised Odin is held in the hot spot until he performs his mystical speech act on the ninth night – a length of time parallel to his self-hanging on the World Tree in order to gain knowledge of the runes. While his nights on the tree result in the god winning otherworldly wisdom, his time between the fires results in the deity dispensing it.

Llanstephan Castle by Moonlight, with a Kiln in the Foreground by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) [Public Domain]

Odin speaks of the gods and their homesteads, Valhalla and its inhabitants, various mythological beings and locations, the origin of the world, his own many names, and related topics.

Ursula Dronke translates and comments on the poem in The Poetic Edda, Volume III: Mythological Poems II (Oxford University Press, 2011). Although she rather idiosyncratically claims that the poem is a Christian one meant to tie a bow on the old paganism and celebrate the arrival of the new monotheism, she does provide interesting section titles for the various parts of the work.

When Odin recites five verses about the World Tree, Dronke names the interlude “The state of affairs.” This brief passage does indeed present a view of things as they are, and it is one that can be read in pagan context – without any need to claim its intention is to “herald the new era” of Christianity.

This handful of verses focuses on the World Tree and some of those who dwell around it. As with so much of the poetic corpus of Norse mythology that has been adopted as lore by the new religious movement of Ásatrú, we can read this section of the poem both in mythological and modern context.

Three beneath the World Tree

The first verse of this passage (verse 31 in Dronke’s translation) tells of what lies beneath the roots of aski Yggdrasils (“ash [tree] of the horse of the terrible [Odin]”):

Three roots rest
on three roads
from under Yggdrasill’s Ash.
Hel dwells under one,
under the second the frost ogres,
under the third the men of mankind.

We, the people, are down here under the massive roots of the World Tree. In this vision, we are not at the center of creation. We are not even at the center of attention.

For those raised in Abrahamic religious traditions, this non-anthropocentric theology may seem surprising. Within the old lore of today’s Ásatrú, however, the theme of our insignificance does not only appear here. In the great Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), humanity seems a small footnote to the grand cosmogony of the Powers. A pair of us are made from trees early in the mythic timeline, as if we are mere sprouts beneath the roots of the greet cosmic tree, and we have little presence in the seeress’s vision of past, present, and future after that.

Our neighbor beneath the roots, on our same plane of existence, is Hel. The half-corpse daughter of Loki presides over one of the realms of the dead – a land inhabited by the regular dead, the everyday dead, not the glorious battle-dead who ascend to the halls of Odin and Freyja. It is only a leap over to the next root of the World Tree for us to tread the road to Hel, to move from the land of the living to that of the dead. In the twinkling of an eye that is the entirety of a human life, death is never far away.

The other neighbors on our lower level are the hrímþursar, the frost ogres. Unlike the gods, goddesses, and land spirits, these mythic figures are not ones with whom we can build mutual relationships of reciprocal gifting. They are the unreasoning harms that rise against us from the natural world – avalanches and earthquakes, wildfires and floods. Again, we are reminded that this life we lead is uncertain, that we are surrounded by baleful forces. The deities may drop down to walk among us, but harm and death are our omnipresent companions.

Squirrel as messenger

The next verse introduces a chattering squirrel:

Auger’s Tusk the squirrel is called,
who must scurry along
Yggdrasill’s Ash.
The eagle’s messages
he must transmit from above
and inform Malice Striker underground.

Ratatoskr (“auger’s tusk”) scampers from the place of the unnamed eagle at the top of the World Tree to the lair of the serpent Níðhöggr (“malice striker”) beneath the roots. What messages he carries from the eagle to the serpent are not here mentioned, but the 13th-century Icelandic antiquarian Snorri Sturluson – either expanding upon the verse from his knowledge of oral tradition or simply making up details – writes (in Anthony Faulkes’ translation of the Edda) that the squirrel “runs up and down through the ash and carries malicious messages between the eagle and Nidhogg.”

Back in the 1960s, Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson discussed this verse and suggested that the squirrel represents the human mystic who travels between the earthly and the divine: “The shaman, like the squirrel, can act as a link between them, for man, if he fully realizes the possibilities of his dual nature, can partake of both earth and heaven.” This pretty passage doesn’t quite work, though, since the human “shaman” brings messages from the otherworld back to our plane, while the squirrel takes messages from the eagle above us to the serpent below us, completely bypassing us mortals along the way.

Although Snorri makes the squirrel a gossip who carries nasty scuttlebutt between the eagle and the serpent, this verse that is his source tells of the squirrel only as a messenger who carries the eagle’s orð (“words,” without negative or positive connotation) down to the serpent. Are they threats of consequences for misbehavior? The serpent is up to no good beneath the roots, and the eagle seems to be aware of the situation – as the hearer of the poem likewise becomes.

Maybe the eagle represents the divine that peers down and sees the forces that threaten the World Tree, that uses the chattering little rodent to send warnings to harmful forces below. If we follow Davidson’s idea that the squirrel represents some sort of religious specialist, perhaps he is the priest or prophet who receives the messages of the gods and curses the bringers of evil.

Stags and worms

Other animals are around the tree, as the next two verses explain:

There are also four stags
who from their proper sweet pasture
perpetually nibble with straining neck:
Dead One and Dawdling One,
Downy Beach and Door Stubborn.

More worms are a-bed
beneath Yggdrasill’s Ash
than any dimwit dunce may dream of:
Soil Worm and Heath Worm
—they are sons of Grave Wolf—
Grey Back and Grave Digger,
Twister and Killer—
I think they will for ever
erode the twigs of the tree.

Although the names of the stags do not all have theologically transparent meanings, the import of the verse is clear – this quartet continually nip off the green leaves of the tree and threaten its ongoing health and growth. The stags are living beings that – while not actively malicious, for they stand upon “their proper sweet pasture” – endanger the future of the world even as they simply go about their daily quest for nourishment and life. Life lives upon life, of course, but natural resources are neither infinite nor immune to harm. Whether dead, dawdling, downy, or stubborn, the stags show no concern for the consequences of their actions.

The Broken Bough by Frederick Henry Henshaw (1807-1891) [Public Domain]

Below their hooves, beneath the roots, countless worms with largely and patently dreadful names cause harm to the tree. More actively malevolent than the peckish stags and far greater in number, the worms endlessly work towards the tree’s deterioration. While there’s a sense of somewhat benign ignorance about Downy Beach and Door Stubborn, Killer and Grave Digger seem intent on destruction without reason.

As Alfred Pennyworth once said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

As above, so below

This section of the poem concludes with a summary of the threats to the health of the World Tree:

Yggdrasill’s Ash
endures adversity
more than men know.
A stag nibbles it above,
yet at its side it is rotting—
Malice Striker undermines it from beneath.

What does this all tell us? One way of reading these verses about attacks from all sides is that they express an understanding that life is constantly under assault, that death is always just around the corner, and that to live is to be part of a constant struggle against the forces of darkness.

What are these forces of darkness? Surely, they include the ogres, those dangerous forces of the natural world that cannot be bargained with as they destroy lives and communities. They also include the malicious serpent and horde of worms that blight the freshness and growth of living things with decay and rot.

How do we modern humans fit into this picture? Maybe we are most like the stags, heedless of consequences as we endlessly consume the finite natural resources of the world while pooping out plastic and paving over the rich brown soil with dead gray cement. In our ignorance, whether naïve or willful, we embody the observation made by Pogo Possum on Earth Day of 1971: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

There is hope, though. The squirrel of the poem (if not of Snorri) brings the messages from above to below. These messages are, perhaps, warnings to cease and desist. They may be notices that it is not too late to reconsider our actions and change course.

Although the warnings are sent to the worms, we can strive to intercept them and shout them from the rooftops. We now need less of Davidson’s shaman and more of the one who is truly prophetic – in the sense of speaking truth to power from a spiritual standpoint.

The state of affairs

A spiritual standpoint does not necessarily need to be clothed in religious garb. In his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Ballantine Books, 1994), Carl Sagan penned a profoundly prophetic passage inspired by a high-resolution photograph taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from the Sun, as it was leaving our solar system – a photograph in which our planet appears as a bright little pixel within a ray of scattered sunlight.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

A dozen years ago, I wrote “Stephen Hawking: The Myths and the Critics,” one of the first pieces posted on The Norse Mythology Blog. It was in response to a media kerfuffle over the English physicist writing that

the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists… It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.

Answering the commercial media writers who vented their spleens at what they saw as “tiresome atheism” from an “unserious” person (!), I wrote that “[m]odern physics may be incompatible with the Christian creation myth, but it works nicely with the Norse one.”

I’d argue along the same lines here. Sagan’s eloquent writing addresses a sense of smallness similar to that projected by Grímnismál’s non-centering of humanity. His insistence that we humans are alone with each other is another way of expressing the poem’s feeling that we are down here below the cosmic roots, a tiny community on “a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” Surrounding our little planet is an unthinkably enormous void that will freeze us as easily as any frost ogre.

Whether we are oblivious chewers like the stags or knowing destroyers like the worms, the harm we do to the world and to each other is powerfully put forth by Sagan. He acts as the squirrel, bearing a message of warning from the heights of the cosmic axis downward – from Voyager’s camera to the screens on which we read his words today. Unlike the squirrel of the poem, who scampers past us on his way to speak with the serpent, Sagan directs his message squarely at humanity – but we must be ready to hear it.

Here is the state of affairs in which we find ourselves. We can choose to nibble mindlessly like the stags, devour diabolically like the worms, or both hear and speak the warning carried by the squirrel.

We can speak out from our unique perspectives – be they Ásatrú, Wiccan, or any other tradition – and move the window of public discourse towards the positive. We can take direct action against the scourges of our society, be they the pushing of powerful weapons of war onto our streets or the prying of powerful politicians into our bedrooms. We can vote for candidates who have track records of combating climate change, and we can relentlessly pressure them to deliver on their promises once they are in office.

Here beneath the root of the World Tree, we ourselves are the ones who must act “to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”


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