Yggdrasil, the “World Tree,” is one of the most important cultural icons in Norse mythology. The Yggdrasil symbol, therefore, is held in high regard by both ancient Scandinavian and Germanic cultures and is by far the most recognizable ancient symbol in Norse culture.
The Norse people believed that there were many universes in existence. Yggdrasil, or the “World Tree,” was believed to connect these universes and realms with its roots and branches.
While most ancient cultures revered trees, the Norse people took it to a whole new level. The tales of how much they valued this tree can be found in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, where a host of legends and Norse myths are assembled; in all of these stories, Yggdrasil held the same kind of hallowed status.
Let’s take a quick look at why this tree was so important in Nordic culture and what Yggdrasil symbols represented back then and even today.
What Is Yggdrasil?
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is a giant ash tree that was believed to be situated in the center of the Norse universe. The Norse cosmos was believed to have Nine Worlds, and Yggdrasil was believed to be the one thing that connected these worlds and held them in place. This tree is so holy and important to the Norse people.
Yggdrasil, in and of itself, is an odd term. Even though it’s generally accepted as the “World Tree,” several theorized meanings shed more light on how big of a deal this tree was as symbol in Norse mythology.
Odin’s Gallows Theory
Odin’s Gallows is generally accepted to mean Odin’s horse. While this might sound odd, there’s some merit to the argument.
- Ygg(r): One of the many names given to the All-Father (Odin) in Norse mythology. Ygg means terrible.
- Drasil: This term means “horse” when used in the context of trees or gallows.
Since gallows are often referred to as “the horse of the hanged,” we can see how the expert gets to Odin’s gallows. The tree from which Odin hanged himself is believed to be Yggdrasil, hence the theory and name “Odin’s Gallows” or “Horse.
The Odin’s Horse Theory
Some scholars believe the term Yggdrasil means “Odin’s Horse,” but not in the same way as Odin’s Gallows theory. This section of scholars believes that the actual name for this giant of a tree is “ask Yggdrasil.” Ask here stands for “ash tree” in the old Norse language.
This theory states that “ask Yggdrasil” could mean “the World or ash tree to which Odin bound his horse.”
The Yew Pillar Theory
This theory comes from the renowned German philologist F. R. Schröder. He believes that the term “Yggdrasil” comes from igwja or yggia, meaning “yew tree,” which is a common European berry tree species. He theorizes that “Drassil” is from the term “dher,” which means to support, which would give the term “Yggdrasil” the direct translation of “yew pillar.”
The Terror Theory
There’s yet another theory from F. Detter, who theorizes that the name of the World Tree has absolutely nothing to do with Odin at all. He believes that, instead, the term comes from the word “yggr,” which means “terror.”
This theory assumes that “drassil” still has the same meaning as “horse or gallows” from the previous theory. With that thinking, it’s theorized that Yggdrasil would mean “the tree or gallows of terror.” There is, however, one problem with this theory. The gallows or horse meaning is derived from the theory that Odin hanged himself on Yggdrasil.
As the “World Tree,” Yggdrasil, one of the most iconic features of Viking mythology and the Viking age, can be interpreted as a symbol of a wide range of concepts. Here are a few examples of Yggdrasil symbols from Norse culture:
- The interconnectivity of the known universe
- The natural order of everything in the universe
- A pathway to the afterlife
A pathway to other realms (Yggdrasil is believed to be the one common thread that connects all these realms, including the ones that lead to the afterlife, such as Hel and Valhalla.)
To many modern Norse people, Yggdrasil often symbolizes the “Tree of Life.” While this “World Tree” doesn’t exactly fit into the commonplace “Tree of Life” standards, the narrative fits, as it’s this tree that binds the entire universe together in Norse cosmology and holds it in place.
Yggdrasil is so important that there’s absolutely no mention of its destruction during Ragnarok. Most scholars believe that Yggdrasil survives this cataclysmic event and is meant to be the beginning of a new life cycle after this destruction.
Yggdrasil as a Warden Tree
People of Norse culture held trees in high regard, particularly warden trees. These trees were believed to be the people’s guardians and bring them good luck. Warden trees were so revered that they were planted on top of most burial mounts and had guardians assigned to them.
The people who guarded these trees bore surnames like Linnus, Lindelius, and Almén, which were related to the trees. People even buried sacrifices under warden trees on occasion.
Yggdrasil can be considered one of the most iconic Warden trees because of its close resemblance. Warden trees were often elm, linden, or ash.
What Yggdrasil Symbolizes in Modern Culture
In modern culture, Yggdrasil is represented in a wide range of ways, including:
- Wooden carvings
- Bronze doors
Most of these representations can be seen in art galleries and museums.
To many modern believers or admirers of Nordic culture, Yggdrasil represents immortality. The Yggdrasil symbol represents eternal life that can be considered transient. Just like in old Viking culture, it was believed that warriors who died in battle transitioned to Valhalla.
Yggdrasil is quite literally the foundation of all Norse mythology. It’s through this massive tree that all things are connected. In that way, it can be argued that the Yggdrasil symbolizes life itself. That being said, the Yggdrasil symbols can be interpreted depending on what the individual needs them to represent in their lives.