Cosmology

 

Cosmology is a ‘world view’ of the cosmos or the totality of existence, including the non-physical realms we cannot see or touch as well as those we can. Different religions have different understandings of the various non-physical realms that make up the cosmos. Christianity identifies three main realms; heaven, earth and hell.  Put simplistically, earth is the world we inhabit; the world of material form. Heaven lies 'above' us and is where our spiritual journey leads us towards God. Hell lies below us and is the place ‘bad’ people go, although there is no real clear view exactly what Hell is and what happens there. Many mainstream Christians also believe in a sort of 'halfway house' between heaven and earth called Purgatory. This is where souls go that are not ready for heaven, but which have advanced in this life and so should not go to hell.  Purgatory is a place where we can continue our spiritual development until we are ready to enter heaven.

 

It should be pointed out that this cosmology is not shared by all Christians.  Some Protestants believe that the human soul simply goes to sleep upon earthly death and will be woken at the time of judgement.  Eternal life is here in this world, the New Jerusalem - glorified by Christ.  Indeed, this view is arguably closer to that of the Bible.

 

Germanic mythology may on the surface seem quite different to Christian cosmology, but in many respects it is quite similar to most people’s beliefs and actually complements it. This is because the more common view of an afterlife in Heaven or Hell has more to do with cultural continuity of our pre-Christian past over the conversion period. A greater understanding of these beliefs will therefore help the English or Germanic folk Christian to better understand our native world view on these things and deepen our understanding of them.

 

This said, Norse and Germanic cosmology is complex. Although having much in common, they are not entirely the same. Norse cosmology continued to develop after the Germanic world, and especially the Anglo Saxon world, was Christianised. We do not know as much about what our pre-Christian Anglo Saxon ancestors believed and so we are drawn to the Norse tradition to fill in gaps. Where we do fill in these gaps, we cannot be absolutely certain that this is how our Anglo Saxon ancestors saw things. However, we can build a picture that is pretty good and which allows the folk Christian to learn from the wisdom of our pre-Christian ancestors, but must always remember that myth portrays deep wisdom in stories that are not meant to be taken as being literally true.  

 

 

Norse mythology speaks of nine worlds, grouped into three realms of upper, middle and lower worlds. The cosmos itself is expressed mythically as a giant tree, the Irminsul or Yggdrasil. The upper world is situated at the top of the tree in its upper branches. The middle realm is in its middle and lower branches and is connected to the upper world by a 'bridge' called Bifrost. The lower world, or Hel, is located below the tree’s roots. The Irminsul has three roots which extend into three wells, the waters of which are drawn from the realm of Hel and which nourish the Irminsul. 

 

There is evidence that the Anglo Saxons and other Germanic tribes saw the cosmos in terms of three realms of the Irminsul and it is interesting that they correspond broadly with our Christian world view of Heaven, Earth and Hell. However, it is unlikely that they saw the cosmos in terms of the same nine worlds as did the Norse. The Anglo Saxon ‘Nine Herb’s Charm’ refers to seven realms. In particular, it thought that the Norse realm of Jotunheim (land of the Giants) was developed relatively late on, possibly with the discovery of Iceland, and that this was not part of the Anglo Saxon world-view. For this reason it is not included below. For similar reasons, no land of the Dwarfs is shown either, although some see these as the same as the Deorc ^lfe. Some scholars also believe that the Anglo Saxons did not include Muspelheim in their cosmology either. However, given that this is one of the two primal realms representing fire and ice fundamental to our creation stories, it seems most unlikely that they were not aware of it. For this reason, it is included below, but as part of the lower because we see the lower realms as being the primal worlds. 

 

 The Upper World

Traditionally this is simply known in Old English as Heofenrice, the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. The word suggests a safe place or 'haven'. It is possible that the Anglo-Saxons called it by this name even before Christian times. Heofenrice is the highest spiritual plane, to which we all aspire in our quest for wholeness and eventual fulfilment in the unity of God. It is the place of ultimate understanding and knowledge.  

 

Esageard or Asgard

 

Esegeard is the realm of the Ese or Aesir ruled over by Woden (Odin). Waelhaela (Valhalla), the place of the brave (or valiant) and is located within Esegeard. This is where the ‘Einherjer’, who die in battle, go in the afterlife. Esegeard is set at the highest point of the Irminsul and is the highest level of perfection and thought. It can be reached by mortal men only through death by those who live an honourable and loyal life and always put the tribe first before anything or anyone else. It can be reached by the Gods via the rainbow bridge that is guarded by Hama (Heimdal). At the time of the Ragnarok, Hama will blow his horn to warn the Gods.

 

Neorxnawang

Neorxnawang is a specifically Old English term which does not appear in Norse mythology and which is accordingly less well known. It is similar to the Hellenic concept of Elysium and was used to translate the Christian concept of ‘paradise’ in Anglo-Saxon literature. It is believed to have referred to a mythological ‘heavenly meadow’, or shining fields, a place of continual renewal and rejuvination with little work or worry. It is the closest realm to our folk understanding of heaven as a land of eternal bliss and beauty.

 

^lfham

This is the realm of the Light ^lfe or Elfs, beautiful creatures of nature and fertility, who embody goodness and intelligence. ^lfham represents the higher spiritual form of all that is good, pure and holy. Traditional Norse mythology identifies separate realms of ^lfham and Vanaheim, which is the realm of the Wanes or Vanir.  However, there is no record of any separate realm of Vanaheim in the Anglo Saxon literature and, in practice, they may be the same place.

 

The Middle World (Middangeard)

This includes our own world of Middangeard, the land of physical form as we experience it. As well as representing the physical world, whether this be the planet we live on, or the physical universe as a whole, Middengeard has a more specific meaning of an idealised, rural, England. Tolkein captured this perfectly with his description of the ‘Shire’ – an idealised rural England within his mythical Middle Earth.

 

The Lower or Primal World

According to Snorri, the underworld lies deep in the roots of the Irminsul. It is made up of Hel and the land of Niflheim (Nifelham) which lies at the lowest reaches of Hel. However, Snorri only gives us part of the picture. A deeper understanding has emerged through reconstructionist scholarship and comparison with surviving religions that derive from the same Indo – European tradition as our own pre-Christian tradition. We should also see the lower world as the Primal world, the world of beginnings. It is for this reason, that I include Muspelham here as this is the primal realm of fire. I also include the land of the Deorc or Black Elfs in this realm. These are evil creatures similar to demons in the Christian tradition. They are the opposite of the Light Elfs of the Upper World, but distorted versions of them. Tolkein depicted them as Orcs. 

 

Hel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pre-Christian Germanic concept of Hel is, at least on the face of it, different to the medieval Christian idea of a place of eternal fire, demons and pitch forks.

 

The word itself means to hide or conceal and is related to the word hole. Barrows and the underworld have a special place within the Old English world view. In this, it is actually quite similar to the original Judeao-Christian concept of ‘Sheol’ (the Pit) and the Greek ‘Hades’ which were underworlds of darkness and shades. Later on, Judaism developed the concept of a place of fire where the wicked are punished for their sins.  Their name for this place (Gehinnom) referred to a real location in ancient Israel, the 'Valley of Hinnom', which lies to the south-west of Jerusalem.  Its Greek form, Gehenna, is the one commonly used in the New Testament.  Infact, this place was the location of child sacrifices by fire to Baal in the 7th Century BC and would have had an association with evil and torture to Jewish priests. It is for these reasons that the Christian concept of Hell differs from our pre-Christian mythology.

 

However, our mythology presents a more sophisticated view of Hel than simply an underworld. It is not a bad place of torment and damnation of the Gehenna. Rather, it is a realm for souls which are not refined enough to ascend to Neorxnawang, where they undergo a period of healing and regeneration. Hel is a complex place with different levels and landscapes, ranging from the dark and dismal to the light and shining. The word 'Hel' is also related to words such as 'light', 'brightness' and ‘healing’, cognate with 'hael', meaning 'whole' or 'holy'. Christ descended into Hel to raise the dead into Heaven.           

 

It is also the primal world from which our inert bodies received the gift of life from the Gods.  It is the realm from which we are born into the middle realm of form. Hel is also seen in mythology as the 'source' of the Multiverse, the place where the seed of the Irminsul was nurtured and grew. The Irminsul is nourished by three roots, which draw from three wells each of which are fed from the realm of Hel. Urd’s (Wyrd’s) well is where the Gods hold their Counsel and is the place of judgement and decision making. It is also where our destiny is shaped. Mimir's well is the source of eternal wisdom, the well that Woden drank from to receive the Runes. Hevergelmere is the source of life itself, alongside of which Woden, Will and Weoh (or Odin, Hoenir and Loður) 'found' the first humans in a primal state (expressed mythologically as trees) and breathed into them the gifts of life.

 

Within the realm of Hel, lie the two primal lands of fire (Muspelham) and Ice (Nifolham) in which dwell the Fire and Ice Giants. These are great primal beings that signify the coming together of primal fire and ice to create the cosmos. They represent forces of chaos and violent change, out of which our world was born. It is these forces that the Gods came together to control and defeat. 

 

Muspelham

This is the land of primal fire, the dwelling place of Surt and the Fire Giants. The name probably means something along the lines of ‘wreakers of the world’ or ‘end of the world through fire’ and refers to a story in the Eddas that the Fire Giants will break the bifrost bridge signalling the start of the Ragnarok and end of the world.

Muspelham corresponds most closely with the Christian concept of Hel and is referred to as such in some conversion era literature such as the Heliand.

 

 

Nifolhám or Wyrmgeard

 

Nifolham (Niflheim) means the ‘land of mist or darkness’ and is the lowest level of Hel. It is the realm of primal ice and cold and the opposite of Muspelham, the realm of fire. It contains the frozen river of Elivágar and the well of Hvergelmir, from which come all the rivers.  It is inhabited by the Frost Giants.

In Anglo Saxon literature, it was referred to as Wyrmgeard or Wyrmsele (Serpenthall), where the serpent Nidhogg chews on the roots of Yggdrasil, hoping to one day destroy it. It is a symbol of destruction, desolation and decay.

 

 

Deorc ^lfeham

 

This is the home of the Deorc or Black ^lfe (Elfs). It is a dismal and bleak place of jealousy and greed, where dark and sinister spirits thrive.

 

 

 

 

go back to our creation myth and the cosmos