Monday, May 15, 2023

Heimdall, the World Tree, and All of Us

A voice from long ago sounds in my head, colored blue with memory and longing.
Laying on my back
In the newly mown grass
Rain is coming down
But I know the clouds will pass
The clouds will indeed pass. The sun will fall below the horizon and cede the darkening sky to night and to its own cousin stars across the cosmos.

As the night moves, one star will not. It will remain fixed, showing the way northward. Between dusk and dawn, the other stars will spin around it in concentric circles of light. In long-exposure photographs, these circles around the pole star look like rings of an ancient tree.

“Photograph of the Stars in their Diurnal Motion round the Pole”
from In the High Heavens by Sir Robert S. Ball (1910)

The earth rotates around an axis drawn from the south pole, through the planet, out the north pole, and up to the pole star. With a bit of imagination, diagrams of this world axis show a trunk with roots in the earth and the pole star at the top of the leader.

Old Icelandic poetry tells us of the mighty measuring tree. The growth and life of this tree parallel the growth and life of this world, and none know where to find the beginning point of its roots.

The poetry’s great unnamed prophetess tells the god Odin of her ancient memories of nine giant women of the tree under the ground. The giant prophetess Hyndla tells the goddess Freyja of a mighty one born long ago to nine giant women at the edge of the earth. The god Heimdall himself speaks of being born of nine sisters who are his nine mothers.

Heimdall makes his home atop Himinbjörg, the “mountain of heaven.” From that vantage point, he sees and hears all that happens on the earth. As the great watchman of the world, he needs less sleep than a bird does.

One way to translate Heimdall’s name is “world tree.” It’s a translation that makes sense of these multiple elusive allusions.

The connection of trees to personhood is fundamental in Norse mythology. The gods create the first humans from two trees and name them Ash and Elm. At the other end of the time cycle, two humans named Life and Life-Eager survive the cataclysm of Ragnarök by hiding within the World Tree. Both at the beginning and at the end of mythic time, human life emerges from trees.

If the nine giant women of the tree under the ground are the nine mothers of Heimdall, then they are the roots from which the tree grows at the edge of the earth and stands atop the mountain of heaven. This poetic imagery is reflected in the scientific diagram of the axis that begins at the south pole, runs through the earth, then bursts out of the top of the world to grow up to the pole star in the heavens.

The World Tree branches out over our world, the world watched over by Heimdall as guardian. In this way, he-as-tree functions as the world’s warden tree, echoing on a cosmic scale the northern European belief in a homestead’s greatest tree as watcher over the generations of inhabitants. As the earthly tree sees far and wide from its high vantage point, as the earthly tree never sleeps in its unceasing watchfulness, so does Heimdall as the World Tree.

If we accept that the Old Icelandic poem Rígsþula (“List of Ríg”) is indeed about Heimdall and follow tradition by linking it to the opening of the great prophecy, then he is the father of all the tribes and all the classes of humanity. Not just Icelanders. Not just northern Europeans. All of us.

The World Tree isn’t the Scandinavia Tree or the White People Tree. It’s the tree of the entire world with roots deep inside the planet and branches that spread over and connect all living beings.

Under growing branches, not set in stone

In the second episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson presents a powerful vision of the Tree of Life that illustrates the interconnectedness of all that live on earth. As if to underscore the imagery of the Norse myths, he makes a particular point of showing the similarities of an oak tree’s DNA with his own. “This tree and me,” he says, “we’re long-lost cousins.”

“The Oak and the Reed” by Gustave Doré from The Fables of La Fountaine (1867)

The film Dark Universe, also narrated by Tyson, presents visualizations of the dark matter flowing throughout the universe that look like the cells of a tree or of a human being. Everything that is, is intrinsically connected. The macroscopic mirrors the microscopic, as the World Tree is an enlargement of the warden tree and Heimdall-as-tree magnifies humans-as-trees.

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, when we’re still weighted down with translations of the Eddas by baby boomer academics who resolutely translate terms for families, kindreds, and generations as “race,” it’s good to remember that the poems and myths tell us of all humanity being descended from and watched over by Heimdall-as-World-Tree. We can counter the racialist baggage that living scholars still carry forward from 19th-century scholarship by refreshing ourselves in the well of myth.

No, the corpus of Norse mythology is not some pure and beautiful lore of warm hugs. It is also not the corpus of “white religion” that so many practitioners of modern paganism today make it out to be, whether they overtly promote racist ideology or more carefully couch their language in terms of ancestry, heritage, and rhetoric referring to Vikings and Germanic tribes as “our glorious forefathers.”

In the ancient poetry and mythology, the World Tree grows from roots deep in the earth and watches over the entire world, and we humans are made from trees. In modern scientific theory, the world axis sprouts from roots in the earth below to reach up to the stars above, the cell-like structures of dark matter hold the cosmos together, and we are related to trees at a genetic level. There is no fundamental conflict between embracing the myths in our hearts and following the science with our minds.

There is also no fundamental conflict between loving Norse mythology and celebrating the diversity of the human family. We are all related to each other, and we all live together beneath the branches of the World Tree – whether conceived as spiritual symbol, mystical manifestation, or astronomical actuality.

It is indeed possible to have a theology of today that seeks inspiration from the old tales. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we can embrace the poetry and mythology without falling into the quicksand of fundamentalism or promoting the tired old racialism of outdated scholarship.

Ásatrú and Heathenry are extremely young new religious movements. There’s no reason to assume that our theology is so set in stone that it cannot engage with the complex lives we lead now, or that it’s impossible to both honor the old worldviews and be true to our own diverse experiences and the scientific teachings of today. A lot of work is still to be done by those open to possibility and growth.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

1 comment:

Tyrfing's Lament said...

Excellent and thoughtful post. It's clear the tree as an idea is tied to all people, spiritual and religious groups from across time and earth include trees in their mythology.

So glad to have found this blog. Appreciate the deep insight! Hail!

Next Post Previous Post Home