Asgard: The Home of the Norse Gods
Among the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology, two are written about more often and in more detail than any others.
The first of these is Midgard, the observable world of humankind. The other is Asgard, the land of the Aesir gods.
Ruled by Odin and inhabited by gods and the bravest of the dead, Asgard was described as very similar to a human kingdom or city. It was encircled by strong fortifications, accessible by a closely-guarded bridge, and contained the same halls, fields, and forests that were found in the human world.
Asgard, however, was a human settlement on a grand scale. Its halls had hundreds of rooms, its lands were expansive, and magical power embued the world.
Despite its powerful inhabitants, however, Asgard was a place that would have been very familiar to most people. Despite its enormity and magic, it was closely linked with the world of ordinary men and women.
In Norse mythology, there were Nine Worlds.
Two of these, Niflheim and Muspelheim, were primordial realms. They came into being naturally at the beginning of time.
From these worlds came the building blocks for the rest of the universe. Niflheim’s ice and Muspelheim’s fires combined to create everything else, including life.
The first living things, a giant named Ymir and a cow called Auðumla, lived in the void of Ginnungagap.
Midgard, the world of men, was created after Odin and his brothers killed Ymir. Its building is detailed in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, in which the new gods craft the world from the giant’s body.
No such detailed creation legend is given for the other worlds of Norse cosmology. In fact, while the Nine Worlds are often referred to, there is no definitive list of the worlds included or what races lived on each.
Asgard, the home of the Aesir gods, is generally thought of as one of the Nine Worlds, however. Along with Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir, it was one of the homelands of the Norse pantheon.
Many stories in Norse mythology are set in Asgard. It is second only to Midgard in the number of legends and characters that originated there.
Despite this, relatively little is known about the world.
In legends, Asgard is often depicted as being very similar to Midgard. While the gods’ home is likely more beautiful and grand than that of mortal men, its geography, buildings, wildlife, and plant life are often the same as those of Midgard.
Travel between most of the Nine Worlds required extraordinary magic.
For example, Odin was only able to visit Hel, Underworld often thought to be part of Niflheim, because his horse Sleipnir had the ability to travel between realms. Even then, it was a perilous journey that took over a week to complete.
The average man, therefore, had no chance of leaving Midgard in life. Even for the gods, most worlds were inaccessible.
A special connection, however, was made between Midgard and Asgard.
The two worlds were connected by the Bifrost, a rainbow bridge that arched down to the world of men from the homeland of the gods.
Whenever the gods wished to reach Midgard, the rainbow bridge allowed them to travel with ease. According to some poems, they went down the bridge every day to reach their meeting place by one of the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
That did not mean, however, that humans could travel the bridge as easily.
Men could often see the Bifrost on Midgard, but it was impossible to find where it came down. The great bridge existed for the benefit of the gods, not their human subjects.
Even other deities could not travel to the world of humans as easily as the Aesir. Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir, had no such direct connection to Midgard and had to rely on the crossing in Asgard to visit the world of men.
To make sure no unwanted visitors found their way to Asgard via the Bifrost bridge, it was guarded by one of the gods. Heimdall watched the top of the bridge to make sure that Asgard was never assaulted from this convenient connection to Midgard.
Heimdall’s watch was not the only thing that protected the homeland of the Aesir.
The world gardr in Old Norse referred to a wall or enclosure. Like Midgard, the land of the gods was protected by a solid fortification.
Asgard’s walls, in fact, provided the basis for one of the most famous myths set in that world.
According to legend, Asgard’s fortifications were once less solid than they were in later times. When the Aesir and Vanir fought one another in early history, the walls were badly damaged.
When the war was over, the gods hired a mason to rebuild the walls so that they were better than before. They were surprised, however, when the man arrived with no assistants and only a single horse.
The builder claimed that he could build the walls to the gods’ specifications in a single year without any additional help. If he completed the job within these constraints, he requested to marry Freyja as payment.
Freyja, of course, refused the condition. Loki, however, reassured her.
The task, he said, would be absolutely impossible. An entire team of builders would be unable to complete the work in just a year, let alone a single man with one horse.
When he lost, however, a year’s worth of work would still be completed. Whatever work the builder did manage to do in a year would have no price to the gods if he lost the wager.
So the gods agreed to let the builder prove his worth. They soon realized that this was a terrible mistake.
The man and his horse both worked tirelessly, carrying far more weight and working more hours than seemed possible. Over the months, the walls of Asgard steadily rose until the gods began to wonder if they would lose their wager after all.
As the builder’s deadline grew closer, the Aesir were almost certain that he would finish the job in time. Freyja raged and demanded that, since he had talked them into accepting the bet, Loki needed to find a way out of it.
And the same evening, when the builder drove out after stone with his horse Svadilfare, a mare suddenly ran out of the woods to the horse and began to neigh at him. The steed, knowing what sort of horse this was, grew excited, burst the reins asunder and ran after the mare, but she ran from him into the woods. The builder hurried after them with all his might, and wanted to catch the steed, but these horses kept running all night, and thus the time was lost, and at dawn the work had not made the usual progress.
-Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Gylfaginning (trans Anderson)
At the end of the last day, just a few stones remained to be placed. Because the workman had not finished the task entirely, he lost both his prize and the wages of a year’s labor.
When the gods said this, the builder showed his true form. He was really a jotunn, or giant, named Gangleri who had disguised himself as a simple laborer to trick the gods into giving up the beautiful Freyja.
The Aesir killed the giant for his deceit. Freyja was safe and Asgard’s walls had been built at no cost to its inhabitants.
Loki did not emerge from the forest for several months. Eventually, he reappeared with an eight-legged foal named Sleipnir, the offspring of his mare form and the giant’s unnaturally powerful horse.
Like Midgard, Asgard was thought to be a large and varied place.
Unlike the Greek gods, who shared a single mountain, the Norse gods were not necessarily close neighbors. They had an entire world to build their grand halls and establish their own lands.
Thus, at least a dozen realms existed within Asgard’s walls. These were often given names and descriptions that were similar to human dwellings, but on a grand scale fit for the gods.
The specific areas of Asgard included:
- Valhalla – The massive hall with over 500 rooms is probably the most famous in Norse mythology as the home of the Einherjar, the fallen warriors who were chosen to serve Odin after death. It was a place of endless feasts and fighting that was build of shields and spears.
- Hlidskjalf – This referred to both Odin’s palace and his throne there. From Hlidskjalf, the chief of the gods could see into all realms.
- Bilskirnir – Thor’s hall was described in one source as the grandest in all of Asgard. According to some legends, it was another 500-room hall that was within the larger structure of Valhalla, while others placed it in Thrudheim.
- Thrudheim – This was the land of Thor and, presumably, contained the hall of Bilskirnir.
- Folkvangr – Freyja’s field was where half of those who died in combat went after death. Although some sources claimed that she chose her warriors before Odin, Folkvangr was never as well-documented as Valhalla.
- Breidablik – The home of Baldur was said to be so bright and pre that no unclean or evil thing could exist there.
- Himinbjorg – Heimdall’s home is usually interpreted as being on the border of Asgard, near the Bifrost, to allow him to watch over the bridge.
Like human rulers, each god appeared to have their own realm within the larger world of Asgard. Within these holdings, they had great homes with hundreds of rooms.
Asgard was connected to Midgard by the rainbow bridge and in its structure. Of all the Nine Worlds, it was the one that appeared to be most like that of mankind.
The two worlds would also share the same fate. Just as Midgard was the only world with a detailed creation story, the worlds of men and the Aesir gods would be the only ones with a full story of destruction.
Ragnarok, the final battle between the gods and their enemies, was one of the most central themes of Norse mythology. Many myths were part of the constant movement toward destruction at Ragnarok.
At Ragnarok, the armies of Muspelheim and Niflheim would swarm over Midgard, destroying everything around them. Lead by Loki and his monstrous children, they would kill every living thing on Earth.
Loki’s ally in this battle would be Surt, the leader of Muspelheim’s fire giants. Wherever they went, they would leave a trail of burned destruction in their wake.
As Ragnarok began, Surt would lead his army across the Bifrost. As they approached, Heimdall would blow his horn and signal the official beginning of the gods’ last battle.
According to the Prose Edda, the Bifrost would crack under the weight of the giants. The final battle would take place on Midgard, which would be destroyed by their flames and the destruction of Loki’s terrible children.
The story seems to have some contradictions, however.
It says that Heimdall and Surt would fight and kill one another on the Bifrost, meaning that it was not completely destroyed when the fire giants marched across it.
And, while Heimdall and Surt’s view of the battlefield makes it clear that Ragnarok would take place on Earth, Asgard would be destroyed as well.
There are several rationalizations for how they may have been explained.
A few historians believe that Asgard was part of, or at least adjacent to, Midgard. While usually depicted as entirely separate, physical proximity would explain how Asgard was destroyed by a battle on Midgard.
Another is that, although the texts do not make it clear, the battle could have spread to Asgard. While the surviving poems detail the battle that took place on Midgard, parallels fights elsewhere could have resulted in more than one world being lost.
A third explanation is that Midgard and Asgard were so closely linked that one could not continue to exist after the destruction of the other. Asgard fell not because of the giants’ actions there, but because of a magical or spiritual affinity with its counterpart.
While Midgard and Asgard are the only worlds specifically mentioned in accounts of Ragnarok, it is implied that other worlds would be destroyed as well. The surviving Vanir gods, for example, are shown after the war joining with their counterparts in the remains of Asgard.
According to the poets, the great walls of Asgard and all the dwellings within it would be reduced to almost nothing. Baldur and Hod are shown in one poem digging through the remains of the land to find the game pieces they played with when they were younger.
Midgard and Asgard would share another fate, however. Both would be rebuilt after Ragnarok.
While nothing is said of worlds like Alfheim or Jotunheim, Norse poets claimed that Midgard and Asgard would rise gain.
Burned and flooded, Midgard’s land would eventually reemerge and new plant and animal life would take root. A single surviving human couple, Lif and Lifthrashir, would climb out of Yggdrasil’s branches to repopulate the new world.
After the war, only a few gods would remain. They would reunite in the remains of Asgard’s great halls to rebuild and create a new, unified pantheon in the former home of the Aesir.
While the Norse myths themselves did not say how Asgard was first created, later writers offered their own theories.
During the Christian era, it was common for poets and historians to attempt to rationalize the myths and make them fit into the observable world. This was done by combining history with legend.
When Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda in the 13th century, these legends were not limited to those of his home in Iceland. He included elements of Christianity, Greco-Roman lore, and British thought into the prologue that explained a possible origin for the gods.
According to Sturluson’s prologue, the first gods did not emerge in Ginunngagap. They were born in a location well-known in another mythological tradition.
His lineage of the gods begins with King Priam, the legendary Trojan ruler in Greek mythology. Priam’s daughter married the Ethiopian king who fought for Troy, Memnon.
Their son was Thor, according to the prologue. He was fostered in Thrace and considered it to be his homeland. He eventually killed his foster father and married Sif, who was identified with Sybil.
From there, Sturluson gives a long line of Thracian and European rulers. Finally, Voden, the Anglo-Saxon name for Odin, established his kingdom in Germany.
From there, Odin traveled through Northern Europe, establishing new dynasties as he moved. Baldur’s offspring became the Franks and another son was the first king of the Danes.
When Odin arrived in Sweden he was met by King Gylfi. Gylfi welcomed him as the head of the Aesir, or people of Asia.
This account follows Anglo-Saxon lineages and traditions to connect legendary human kings to the ancestry of the gods. In doing so, it changes the family relationships among the gods themselves and diminishes their power to make them particularly talented and gifted men.
The prologue to the Prose Edda, therefore, claims that the homeland of the Aesir was not another world. It was the city of Troy, but the gods came via Thrace after that city’s destruction.
This put the foundations of Scandinavia and the Germanic cultures on par with that of Rome. Both, according to this legend, had been founded by refugees from Greek mythology’s most infamous war.
In fact, the Prose Edda claims that Odin founded a city in Sweden, Sigtuna, as a Trojan colony. The myth linked the North to Greece not only in a legend, but in culture as well.
After the prologue, however, the Prose Edda seems to contradict all these claims. Sturluson’s later poems give traditional explanations for Norse cosmology and reestablish the more well-known relationships between the gods.
Most scholars believe that this introduction is a product of Sturluson’s era.
While Iceland was not entirely Christianized in the 12th century, the Church was exerting more and more political and social power there. Even pagans took pains to not offend the new religion.
Scholars believe that Sturluson’s prologue was written in the tradition of the Anglo-Saxons, whose homeland had been Christianized well before Iceland, to avoid being condemned by Christians in his own country.
While the legends n the Prose Edda are in keeping with more strictly Norse traditions, the prologue shielded Sturluson from being seen as anti-Christian. The inclusion of Greco-Roman myth, Saxon genealogy, and Christian ideals allowed Sturluson to write pagan stories behind a thin veil of medieval European orthodoxy.
In Norse mythology, Asgard was the homeland of the Aesir gods. It is second only to Midgard, the home of men, in how often it is mentioned and how many stories take place there.
Unlike Midgard, there is no detailed creation legend for Asgard. There are, however, stories of the buildings there.
Like the human world, the land of the gods was surrounded by a thick fortification. The building of this wall was the subject of its own myth, which included the origin of Odin’s magical horse, Sleipnir.
Asgard also had many individual lands within it. The gods had their own holdings and halls within the vast world of Asgard, just as human rulers had their own territories and seats.
Asgard was closely linked to the land of men physically, as well. Bifrost, the rainbow bridge allowed the Aesir to travel to and from Midgard much more quickly than they could travel to any other world.
This link between the two worlds continued in the stories of Ragnarok. Because of the link of the Bifrost bridge, Asgard would be destroyed along with the mortal world, although both would be repopulated and rebuilt by the survivors.