Innangard and Utangard

In Norse mythology and religion, geographical spaces and psychological states are often classified as being either innangard (pronounced “INN-ann-guard”; Old Norse innangarðr, “within the enclosure”) or utangard (pronounced “OOT-ann-guard”; Old Norse útangarðr, “beyond the enclosure”). A place or a state of mind is innangard if it’s orderly, civilized, and law-abiding. If, on the other hand, it’s chaotic, wild, and anarchic, it’s utangard. Pre-Christian Germanic society had an overwhelming preference for the innangard, but this preference was by no means an absolute one; it was recognized that the utangard had its place as well, as long as it could be kept in check.

Society, Geography, and Cosmology

In medieval Iceland, as in other Germanic societies where the influence of Christianity was still nominal or nonexistent, the distinction between the innangard and the utangard was mapped onto a number of social/political/economic/religious customs. For example, the fences that enclosed farms had a cosmological/magical purpose that was inseparable from their more immediate, practical purpose: they were not only there to keep livestock inside the enclosure, but also to keep trolls, giants, and other hostile denizens of the wilderness out.[1] Fences marked a boundary between two different states of being.

Law served much the same purpose. Medieval Icelanders referred to their society as “our law” (Old Norse vár lög), a phrase which shows that they thought of “law” and “society” as two ways of expressing the same thing. Law was a psychological enclosure that separated the social from the antisocial, the innangard from the utangard. This is why the punishment for especially heinous crimes was outlawry, whereby a person lost all of his or her civil rights and could be killed on sight without any legal repercussions. Through the crime, the outlaw had demonstrated that he or she was an utangard being rather than an innangard one, and since the criminal was beyond society’s control, he or she was accordingly stripped of society’s protection. The very words related to outlawry demonstrate this transition from being a civilized person to a wild one: outlawry was called “going into the forest” (Old Norse skóggangr), and the outlaw was called a “man of the forest” (Old Norse skógarmaðr). Fittingly, outlaws often chose to flee as far from human habitations as possible, for obvious reasons.[2]

The distinction between the innangard and the utangard was also mapped onto the Germanic spiritual cosmology. Three of the Nine Worlds have the suffix -gard in their name, and all three of these are quintessentially innangard or utangard places: Midgard, Asgard, and Utgard, another name for Jotunheim. The first two are innangard worlds – Midgard, literally “the middle enclosure,” is the world of human civilization, the realm of fields and fences, which is at least partially modeled on Asgard, “the enclosure of the Aesir gods.” These two realms must constantly defend themselves from attacks by the giants, the lawless residents of Jotunheim/Utgard. (“Utgard,” in fact, is simply another version of the word “utangard.”)

Positive Aspects of the Utangard

But the utangard was not seen as being entirely destructive and negative. In fact, at times, men and women would deliberately venture into the utangard for a particular constructive purpose. For example, the process of initiation into a warband (a particular kind of military society) involved spending time alone in the wilderness and overcoming a situation fraught with extreme vulnerability. If the warband had a totem animal, the candidate would likely have been expected to learn the ways of that animal during this time, achieving a state of semi-unification with the animal, and, by extension, with the warband itself. The new member of the warband gained strength and understanding from these trials, and, paradoxically, would then use these chaotic and antisocial abilities and urges for the service of his society.[3]

Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that Odin, the patron god of such elite warriors, has a giant for a mother and is therefore half-giant himself. Despite being the chief of the Aesir, Odin has several extremely utangard characteristics, including tendencies toward adopting female gender roles in certain situations, a fondness for seeking out the giants to acquire the immense wisdom they possess, a reputation for being a capricious and disloyal trickster, and, at times, more concern for his own personal development and power than the well-being of those close to him. These traits, of course, did not stop the heathen Germanic peoples from worshiping him fervently, and, for people of a certain temperament, even emulating him.

More generally, the relationship between the Aesir and the giants is a highly ambivalent one. Even Thor, who is renowned for his ruthless protection of Asgard and Midgard from the ill-will of the giants, is himself three-fourths giant.

As Henning Kure has shown in his analysis of the Norse creation narrative, the utangard was seen as being a matchless source of raw power that could be channeled and directed into constructive, innangard pursuits. In the same way that the scream is the origin of all speech, order can only be fashioned out of primal chaos, and is therefore dependent upon it for its continued existence.[4]

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.

The Viking Spirit Daniel McCoy


[1] Hastrup, Kirsten. 1985. Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: an Anthropological Analysis of Structure and Change. p. 143.

[2] Ibid. p. 136-139.

[3] Kershaw, Kris. 2000. The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Männerbünde.

[4] Kure, Henning. 2003. In the Beginning Was the Scream: Conceptual Thought in the Old Norse Myth of Creation. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference. Edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer. p. 311-319.

The Ultimate Online Guide to Norse Mythology and Religion