You can watch the video about this subject in here: Yggdrasil the Axis Mundi
It was common in ancient civilizations the belief in an axis mundi, a central point around which the world existed, a connection between the heavens and the earth, the source of all life and also a connection between different reality planes. The very thing connecting the realms of the divine; the sky, the earth and the infernal. Infernal not in a Christian sense, related to Hell, because pre-Christian or pre-Abrahamic religions had not the concept of an infernal realm for punishment; infernal rather in a sense of an inferior realm, underworld, just like the world above is called supernal (celestial).
To the Scandinavians and other Germanic peoples, this axis mundi was Yggdrasil, the world tree. Now, we have to take in mind, that the oldest documentations we have about Yggdrasil, are from the X century, and we have to be careful with this, because this was already a period in northern Europe when paganism was coming to an end, and since the IX century Christianity was already a force to be reckoned with in the north. And such polytheistic accounts were registered by Christians who perhaps had lost the true meaning of the pagan folklore, because they wrote such accounts many years after the conversion of the countries, and also, the Norse beliefs at this time had already a lot of influence from the new religion – Christianity.
Speaking of this, let’s take a closer look into two of the most important sources to understand Norse mythology – The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda – which date from the XIII century. The Poetic Edda is a combination of poems that date far back before the coming of Christianity, but from oral tradition, and there’s no telling how much these poems have changed with time. The Poetic Edda is the medieval version of such accounts. And the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson, is a manual of Skaldic poetry using periphrases or metaphors of mythological references. Snorri Sturluson turned to folklore, to poems contained in the Poetic Edda and other poems which survived in oral tradition to create this work. This work by Snorri Surluson is a synthesized and simplified view of the Norse mythology, in contradiction with other sources and influenced by Christianity since Christianity was the official religion in Iceland in Snorri Sturluson’s time for two hundred years already. But about these sources I think it’s best to write another article, so let’s go back to the subject.
We shall stick with the version we know from Yggdrasil, being the world tree. The term “Yggdrasil” comes from two elements: Yggr, which is one of the names for the god Odin, meaning “terrible” as in Odin being The Terrible/The Fearful/The Dreadful. And the term drasill, which refers to “the one who walks” something, “the one who rides” something, and it’s also a poetic term for a mount, a horse. So, as you might rightfully guess, Yggdrasil is Odin’s mount, vehicle, or horse. Meaning that this deity used the World Tree to travel between worlds; he uses this cosmic axis to journey into different worlds. But the term drasill can also be connected with the gallows, or hanging as a form of execution, which was compared, for some reason, with the horse. For example the XI century poem Háleygjatal, from Eyvindr Finnson, which refers to Sigarr’s horse (a legendary Scandinavian king) as also being his gallows. This gives us the connection of Yggdrasil being the very thing Odin used to hang himself, kill himself, in order to be able to free himself to pursue the knowledge he so deeply wished for. We can see in here an old shamanic tradition of freeing the spirit from the body to reach the world of the spirits and gain knowledge, and communicate with the spirits and gods.
There might be another possible explanation for the name “Yggdrasil”. It’s also referred as askr Yggdrasil, or “The ash-tree Yggdrasil”, meaning that Yggdrasil is an ash-tree, which might mean that this was the tree where Odin strapped his horse or where Odin tied a rope to hang himself. Well, after all, poets play with multiple meanings and what might seem to us a tree, it might be a metaphor for something else.
This interpretation leads us again to a shamanic comprehension in how to reach the world of the spirits, through a symbolic but painful death, perhaps a ceremony around a great pillar, symbolizing the centre of the world, and maybe that pillar being made from the trunk of an ashtree, being a tree with magical properties and with a symbolical meaning to our ancestors that go far back since they began to have their first spiritual thoughts. Charlemagne, for instance, in the VIII century destroyed the great symbol of the Saxon faith. It was called Irminsul, and we still don’t know if it was a tree, or a great pillar, or some sort of idol. It was something big and vertical, possibly the remnant of this tradition of an axis mundi. So maybe Irminsul for the Saxons might have been what Yggdrasil was to the Scandinavians, “a great pillar”, a symbol of their faith and the connection between all living things from our world and the world of the spirits. The remnants of a spiritual shamanic tradition.
This world tree isn’t just the symbol of the shamanic techniques used to reach the world of the spirits, or a symbol of the very connection between worlds. Yggdrasil is also the symbol of that which gives life. In the poem Grímnismál, deer eat from the foliage of Yggdrasil, a great eagle lives on top of it, on the very bottom Nídhöggr gnaws upon its roots and that’s where snakes also live, and a squirrel named Ratatoskr goes up and down the tree delivering messages between the eagle and the great serpent. This shows the amount of life a tree can give, it is the home of living creatures of the forest, a shelter and also the source of food.
Another point, is that in the poem Voluspá, it is said that Yggdrasil is an evergreen tree, which is odd because the ash-tree is a kind of deciduous tree. But the Norns water the tree from the well Urðarbrunnr, supposedly magical waters that also give life, it’s the Well of Destiny and it keeps Yggdrasil healthy and evergreen. And finally, as it is written in the poem Gylfaginning, three gods created the first humans from the bark of trees, one of those humans was a man named Ask, which means Ash-tree, making the ash-tree once again the source and creation of life, invoking the beliefs passed on by oral tradition, from a past far beyond memory, when our ancestors were much more attached to the natural world than we are today, unfortunately. But they already understood the importance of nature as the source of all life and as a means of communication with the spiritual and the divine.