28 April, 2010

Old English gods and myths: the worlds

Heaven, earth and hell

The Old English word for earth is middangeard, Middle Earth, (yes, this is where Tolkien got it from). It has cognates in Old Icelandic (Midgard), Old High German (mittigart, mittingart) and Gothic (midjungards) (Branston 1957; Oxford English Dictionary). So the world was conceived as being in the middle of something.

The term occurs in Beowulf:

Manigre mægthe geond thisne middangeard
(Modern English translation: many a tribe over middle earth)
--Beowulf, line 75, available online

and in the poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn:

Tha middungeard moncynnæs uard,
eci dryctin, æfter tiadæ,
firum foldu, frea allmectig
(Modern English translation: Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting shepherd, ordained in the midst as a dwelling place, Almighty Lord, the earth for men)
--Caedmon’s Hymn, original and translation both given in The Earliest English Poems, 1991

Bede gives a Latin translation of Caedmon’s Hymn in his Ecclesiastical History, where he tells us that Caedmon composed it (and much other poetry) at the monastery of Whitby around 680 (Bede, Book IV Ch. 24).

As discussed in an earlier post, the word ‘hell’ also has cognates across various Germanic languages. It shares a root with the word for ‘hole’, and indicated a cold, dark, miserable underworld.

‘Heaven’, Old English ‘heofon’, is cognate with Old Swedish himin, Old Danish himaen, Old Dutch himil and Old High German himil, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Like ‘middangeard’, it occurs in both Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn:

under heofones hwealf
(Modern English translation: under heaven’s vault)
--Beowulf, line 576, available online

efne swa of hefene hadre scineth
rodores candel
(Modern English translation: a clearness such as the candle of heaven sheds in the sky)
--Beowulf, line 1571-2, available online

heofonrices weard
(Modern English translation: keeper of the kingdom of heaven)
heofon to hrofe
(Modern English translation: heaven as a roof)
--Caedmon’s Hymn, original and translation both given in The Earliest English Poems, 1991

These seem clear enough that ‘heaven’ was considered to be in the sky, or the sky itself. The reference to ‘keeper of the kingdom of heaven’ in Caedmon’s Hymn also indicates that heaven was considered to be the realm of the Christian god. While this may be purely a Christian concept, it is also possible that it reflects an earlier pagan world-view, in which the gods inhabited a world above the world of men. This is explicit in Snorri Sturluson’s description of the Norse world view in his Prose Edda, written in thirteenth-century Iceland:

...the gods built a bridge from the earth to the sky and it is called Bifrost. You will have seen it, and possibly you call it the rainbow.
--Prose Edda, 13

This gives us a three-fold division: heaven, the world above; hell, the world below; and earth, the world in the middle. The words for this three-fold division are shared across several Germanic languages, so it appears to be a shared concept. It also has obvious parallels with the Greco-Roman idea of a miserable Underworld inhabited by the dead, the gods living high up on Mount Olympus, and humans living on the earth in the middle.

Worlds within worlds

Within this threefold division, there were other distinct worlds. The Old English Nine Herbs Charm, written down in the tenth-century manuscript Lacnunga, mentions seven worlds, without naming any of them:

The wise lord shaped these plants
While he was hanging, holy in the heavens
He set them and sent them into the seven worlds
--Nine Herbs Charm, Lacnunga 80, translated in Pollington 2000

The Norse poem Voluspa (‘The Sibyl’s Prophecy’) refers to nine worlds:

Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree
--Voluspa, 2, available online

The Prose Edda also refers to nine worlds:

Evil men go to Hel and from there into Niflhel, which is below in the ninth world
--Prose Edda, 3

Hel he threw down into Niflheim and made her ruler over nine worlds
--Prose Edda, 34

However, trying to make a list of the nine worlds quickly becomes confusing:

Evil men go to Hel and from there into Niflhel, which is below in the ninth world
--Prose Edda, 3

Niflheim was made many ages before the earth was created
First was that world in the southern region which is called Muspellheim
--Prose Edda, 4

The world is circular around the edge and surrounding it lies the deep sea. On these ocean coasts the sons of Bor* gave lands to the clans of the giants to live on. But further inland they built a fortress wall around the world […] and called this stronghold Midgard
--Prose Edda, 8

...[the gods] made a stronghold for themselves in the middle of the world, and it was called Asgard
--Prose Edda, 9

There are many magnificent places [in heaven]. One is called Alfheim. The people called the light elves live there, but the dark elves live down below in the earth.

It is said that a second heaven lies to the south and above this heaven. It is called Andlang. Still further up, there is a third heaven called Vidblain. We believe that this region is in heaven but now only the light elves live there.

--Prose Edda, 17

Njord [...] was brought up in Vanaheim, but the Vanir sent him as a hostage to the gods
--Prose Edda, 23

All-father sent Skirnir down to Svartalfheim (World of the Dark Elves), and there he had some dwarfs make the fetter called Gleipnir...
--Prose Edda, 34

Have you lost count yet? I make that: Hel (which might or might not be distinct from Niflhel), Niflheim (which might or might not be distinct from Hel and/or Niflhel), Muspellheim, the land of the giants (Jotunheim), Midgard, Asgard, Alfheim (which might be the same as the third heaven called Vidblain), Svartalfheim (unclear whether the dark elves employed or perhaps had captured some dwarfs, or are the same as dwarfs, or if they share a world with dwarfs), a second heaven called Andlang, Vanaheim. And that’s only one source. The poem Voluspa also mentions a place called Nithavellir, which may be a home for the dwarfs (if they had their own world and were distinct from the dark elves). Depending how you count it, you can get to anything up to a dozen or so. And that doesn’t count the numerous halls and fortresses, like Odin’s hall Valhalla.


The apparent confusion may simply indicate that the exact number of worlds and their position in relation to each other were not important. In a tale about, say, a hero journeying to a perilous land to win a treasure from dangerous supernatural enemies, the question of whether the enemies live in a separate world or in a fortress in a distant and dangerous region of this one may be no more than a minor detail. One storyteller might choose to make it a separate world in order to describe a magical journey or the hero’s supernatural powers; another might set it in the universal ‘far away and long ago’ of story so as to deal with the journey there in a line or two.

The worlds and their inhabitants may also have varied at different times and places, depending on local environment and cultural influences. The Nine Herbs Charm was written down in the tenth century, by which time the English had been Christians for three hundred years, and may have been influenced by classical ideas of the seven planets or the seven days of the week in the Christian calendar. Muspellheim, the land of fire, could be seen as an Icelandic concept in response to the local geology. The Prose Edda mentions worlds for the light elves and dark elves, mentions dwarfs in the world of the dark elves and also has a story about the origin of the dwarfs (Prose Edda 14), but does not name a world for the dwarfs. Did the dwarfs not have a home of their own, or did they share a world with one of the other groups, or were they another name for the dark elves, or did they have a world that happens to have missed being named (perhaps the Nithavellir mentioned in Voluspa), or did this depend on the stories the teller happened to be familiar with? Even if there was a poetic convention about the number of worlds, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there was a definitive list. Indeed, it seems most unlikely that there could be a definitive list, given that the stories and myths were a living oral culture, told and retold over hundreds of years and thousands of miles of distance.

I would say that the threefold division into here (earth), up above (heaven, sky) and down below (hell, the underworld), was important, since the words are shared among several Germanic languages. Within that, the number and relationships of sub-worlds and their inhabitants was probably somewhat fluid. Trying to define a precise number of worlds is probably unnecessarily pedantic and may well be missing the point.

I happen to like the phrase “the nine worlds”, partly because the Nine Herbs Charm is full of references to three, thirty and nine and the seven looks a bit out of place, and partly because the idea of a threefold division of the major threefold division has a pleasing symmetry. So in creating a fictional culture for the Anglian characters in Exile, I picked nine worlds – though I imagine that the different characters would probably come up with different, partly overlapping, lists depending on the stories they happened to be familiar with.


Alexander M (translator). The earliest English poems. Penguin Classics, 1991, ISBN 978-0-140-44594-7.
Beowulf in Old English, available online
Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1973, ISBN 0-14-044268-5.
Branston B. The lost gods of England. Thames and Hudson, 1957. ISBN 0-009-472740-6.
Pollington S. Leechcraft: Early English charms, plantlore and healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000, ISBN 978-1-898281-23-8.
Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturluson. Translated by Jesse Byock. Penguin Classics, 2005, ISBN 978-0-14-044755-2.
Voluspa, translation available online

*The three sons of Bor were the god Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve


Gabriele C. said...

No wonder Wagner mixed his own mythology of the mess. :) He got the Nibelungs which are some sort of subterranean dwarves ruled by Alberich who's a Schwarzalbe (black elf) but who's also called a dwarf several times. The gods live in a castle called Walhall that was created by the giants Fasolt and Fafner - the latter later turns into a dragon and guards the gold Alberich stole from the Nibelungs and which in turn Odin stole from Alberich - and I even left out the Rhinedaughters here ... it's a lot of fun to disentangle those threads and compare them with the Edda.

The German Song of the Nibelungs has nothing to do with dwarves and under-worlds, though, there the name stands for a noble house of Burgundy. It features Alberich and his invisibility cap, though, and the dragon Fafner.

nicola said...

I've done my best to avoid organising my thoughts on A-S notions of the supernatural and otherworldly. (I've been able to get away with it so far because Hild is a child, and not given to pondering systems.)

But one book that tackles elves (etc.) is Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity (Anglo-Saxon Studies) by Alaric Hall (Boydell, 2007) which I discuss here. It's most definitely worth a read.

kevin said...

Hi Carla!

This thing of 'the worlds' is very interesting. Just thought
I'd say hello

Carla said...

Gabriele - indeed, you can mix and match more or less as you like (though I think the main threefold division is fairly stable). Wagner evidently decided that dwarfs and dark elves were interchangeable. In the Edda myth, the giant who builds Asgard's wall is helped by his horse, which of course isn't really a horse (although it falls for Loki); I don't think there's a dragon involved.

The Burgundian Nibelungs must be seriously cheesed off at Wagner turning them into dwarfs :-)

Nicola - I don't think you'd need to organise your thoughts in any detail, since it rather looks as if the original owners weren't that bothered about details :-) You also have the aspect that Hild is (presumably, at some stage) going to start considering the old religion in comparison to Christianity, so you probably don't want to get too hung up on finicky details lest readers have trouble seeing the wood for the trees. The Elves book is terrific, though definitely one for library loan at that price!

Kevin - Hello and welcome! Glad you found the post interesting.

Rick said...

From 1930 until just recently, 'nine worlds' also evoked the Solar System, giving it further resonance.

Speaking of which, what were the early English names of the visible planets, or do we even know? Any pre-christian names and lore may have been lost after conversion. The Church had plenty of classical astronomical knowledge, which figured into the Easter dating issue, etc.

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, that's probably another reason why 'the nine worlds' resonates with me.

Earendel (yes, this is where Tolkien got it from) appears in Old English poetry as a term for a bright star, maybe the morning star. The Norse equivalent is Aurvandil, and there's a story in the Prose Edda about how Thor placed it in the sky. If there was an equivalent Old English story it hasn't come down to us. The name means something like 'bright wanderer', so I'm inclined to interpret Earendel as the Old English name for the morning star, i.e. Venus, which is the brightest of the planets. As usual, there are lots of other theories.

Bernita said...

A lovely post, Carla.
Several of my favourite fantasy writers make use of dwarves, light and dark elves,and more, in their stories.
Maybe mere cultural memory/echo/tradition. Maybe careful research. The survival of the concept is fascinating either way.
Always gives me, as a reader, a sense of veracity, of rightness, whether the hero travels through planets, dimensions, or countries.

Rick said...

Now that you mention Earendel, I recall reading of these associations.

Off topic, but there is one remarkable Tolkien name association that lurks in plain sight, the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo.

Lucy Ann said...

Wow, Carla. What a mine of information you are! When I reviewed Beowulf, the poem, in my blog of June 2007 (lucyannwrites.blogspot.com)I never imagined the depth of interest or intriging cross references. Makes me feel very superficial. I am impressed. Lucy.

Carla said...

Bernita - thank you. Elves in particular have a long history in folklore.

Rick - Gandalf is the name of a dwarf in the list in Voluspa (along with the names of most of Bilbo's companions in The Hobbit). Maybe someone in Italy was a fan :-)

Lucy Ann - thanks for your kind words! Although Beowulf is written in Old English and treated as an Old English poem (which it is), its setting is in southern Scandinavia and it presumably draws on some of the same common heritage as later Norse works like the Prose Edda.