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--Beowulf, line 75, available online
(Modern English translation: many a tribe over middle earth)
and in the poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn:
Tha middungeard moncynnæs uard,--Caedmon’s Hymn, original and translation both given in The Earliest English Poems, 1991
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)
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--Beowulf, line 576, available online
(Modern English translation: under heaven’s vault)
efne swa of hefene hadre scineth--Beowulf, line 1571-2, available online
(Modern English translation: a clearness such as the candle of heaven sheds in the sky)
heofonrices weard--Caedmon’s Hymn, original and translation both given in The Earliest English Poems, 1991
(Modern English translation: keeper of the kingdom of heaven)
heofon to hrofe
(Modern English translation: heaven as a roof)
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--Nine Herbs Charm, Lacnunga 80, translated in Pollington 2000
While he was hanging, holy in the heavens
He set them and sent them into the seven worlds
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--Prose Edda, 4
First was that world in the southern region which is called Muspellheim
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