The cosmology of Norse mythology – the arrangement of places in which the action occurs, you could say – is extremely different from the cosmology of monotheistic religions, with their simplistic and moralistic Heaven-Earth-Hell structure, and that of modern materialism, wherein the visible, tangible world of everyday experience is believed to be the only aspect of reality worth considering (or, in stronger formulations, the only reality there is, period).
Instead, the Norse cosmology shares much in common with the cosmologies of other northern Eurasian shamanic traditions. In the center of the cosmos is the trunk of the great world-tree Yggdrasil, which rises out of the murky, mysterious Well of Urd. The tree holds within its branches and roots the Nine Worlds, the homelands of the various kinds of invisible beings who populate the “other sides” of the cosmos, as well as humankind and what might be called “natural elements.” While the surviving period sources never explicitly list the homelands that comprise the Nine Worlds, the list can be tentatively reconstructed as follows:
- Midgard, the home of humanity and human civilization
- Niflheim, the primordial world of ice
- Muspelheim, the primordial world of fire
Other than the Nine Worlds, there are a few other locations that feature prominently in Norse mythology that are worthy of our consideration here:
- Ginnungagap, the anti-cosmic void that exists prior to the cyclical creation of the cosmos and after its destruction
- Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard and Midgard
It’s important to note that, with the exception of Midgard, these are all invisible, intangible places, worlds that exist within and beneath the physical world and overlap with it at various times and in various places, but can’t be absolutely identified with any particular physical location. The pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples didn’t believe there was a single, literal center of the world at which an impossibly enormous tree grows out of an impossibly deep well; rather, the image of the well and the tree expressed for them the invisible meaning of particular visible phenomena. The Norse cosmology therefore presents a psychogeography or spiritual classification system rather than a set of literal descriptions of the physical world.
Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.