When we look at the subject of cosmologies, we are found wanting with respect to our Old English ancestors. How many worlds did they know? So, as it were, it often falls upon us to look at other Indo-European cosmologies, in order to try to make sense of the worlds. However, when we do this, we need to be sure to ask ourselves, “Does this make sense?” It is not enough to merely “copy and paste” the beliefs of other Indo-European peoples onto our own. We must believe this, too. We must understand it, as well as know it! With that being said, let us take a brief look at what we have to work with.
Of course, it makes sense to start with the people who practiced the customs that have inspired us, right? We, unfortunately, don’t have much. Not much was written in the old Futhorc, and literacy wasn’t a big “to do” until the conversion to Christianity. Not that I think that made them less intelligent, because that means you had to be able to absorb more information. This was of course, done orally. Knowledge was spread by word of mouth. You had to learn and remember, since you didn’t have a book around to look stuff up.
That being said, a bit here and there survived conversion and some folks wrote a bit of the old knowledge down. Albeit unintentionally, (Just ask the spirit of Bede! I wonder what he’d think of the Heathen calendars some of us have been making thanks to him…) these Christian boys may well have left us some hints and clues about the Old Ways. One such instance is the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’. In it, while trying to rid the poor victim of “Flying Venom”, caused by elven spears, the charm mentions seven worlds, in line 39:
In Old English:
“(Ƿoden) sette and sænde, on seofon worulde”
In Modern English:
“He (Woden) brought (them) and sent (them) into the seven worlds”
Seven worlds? No one can say for sure what that means. Some would say that it’s the planets, as perceived by ancient peoples, who counted the Sun and Moon amongst them. That gives us the Sun, Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It numbers seven, and so that is a fair guess. However, here’s the catch to that: The planets, amongst the people we know of to have named the planets, as far as the Indo-Europeans are concerned, the Greeks and Romans, who, in turn, got the idea from Babylonians, before that, Sumerians, named the planets after some of their gods. Another problem with that is that, according to ‘The Laws of King Cnut’, in its section on “Heathenism” (obviously translated) states this:
“We earnestly forbid every heathenism: heathenism is, that men worship idols; that is, that they worship heathen gods, and the sun or the moon, fire or rivers, water-wells or stones, or forest trees of any kind; or love witchcraft, or promote morth-work in any wise.”
In other words, what I’m trying to say is that the only sources for planet namings that we have come to us from the Near East, through the Greeks and Romans. Other than the Sun and Moon, the planets, from the naked eye, look like stars. Though the Sun is obviously a star as well, it is, of course, the only one that looks like something other than a small glimmer in the sky. Though I believe the Anglo-Saxons knew there was a difference between stars and planets, by their movement, most likely, I’m not convinced that these are the seven worlds the Nine Herbs Charm was talking about. Thus, we are looking at seven worlds, seven realms. In some way. Let’s see what we get from looking at other Indo-European peoples.
Here, we have more details. The highest realm, Mount Olympus, abode of the Greek gods, of course, the Earth, and the Underworld, ruled by the god Hades. Though, if you look at the Underworld, many destinations are given as possibilities. Some of which are hard to imagine as under the Earth, such as Elysium. However, three key points are: An above world, Olympus. Then there is world in which we live, of course. Lastly, the Underworld, with its different places within, practically differing realms , themselves.
However, we’re actually looking at, not counting the division of the Underworld, at four realms, and not three. The first being the heavens, which are, of course, the top of Olympus, and abode to the Olympian gods. Second, the seas, which are, of course the domain of Poseidon. Third, the Underworld, the domain of Hades. Lastly, the Earth, which is affected, and connected to all three in some way. In this case, I’d like to refer to Emily Lyle’s view, which is found in her book ‘Ten Gods: A New Approach to Defining the Mythological Structures of the Indo-Europeans’, where she discusses this at greater length. I don’t really see this as much of an opposition to Dumezil’s tripartite mindset, but more of a supplement and further breakdown. (I know that it’s kind of expensive, the book, but the PDF that references it in this discussion, thus giving the necessary info is titled ‘On Indo-European Cosmic Structure’ by John Shaw, and it’s free.)
The Norse cosmological view has fallen out of favor with some Anglo-Saxon Heathens, but, is there good reason for this? Or, better asked: Are other Indo-European cosmologies, and other Indo-European answers to questions always, or even often better than what we know of the Norse? Could we really say that, looking at the time span between the conversions of the English and the Scandinavians, that the English in their Heathenry was any closer to the Greeks, Romans, or Vedic peoples than people who were closer in language and culture? I do not think that is the case.
However, the belief that language and a bit of time is all that separated them is a nonsensical answer as well. So, we should look to Norse sources in a fashion that employs common sense, and filling in gaps, as opposed to a wholesale copying of their lore. Filling in gaps is fine, and I’m honestly in the middle when it comes to those more eager to shy away from Norse sources, and those who very eagerly embrace them.
Looking at the cosmologic structure offered by our Norse friends, it is often said they thought of nine realms, as opposed to three, four, or seven. Though, to be fair, the most listed at once is six worlds/realms, as opposed to nine, which is done in the Alvíssmál. In this case, the synopsis of the worlds listed are Midgard, Asgard, Alfheim, Vanaheim, Jötunheim, and Helheim. In other tales Niflheim, Muspellheim, and Svartalfheim are added, making nine. That’s quite a lot, and only later Hindu cosmologies add more than that. However, it is my opinion that these needn’t be taken literally, and there may not have been a reason for them to have been in the first place. However, it is not a question for me to answer, and is a subject for Norse Heathens to discuss.
Making A Working Model
So, after our brief little exploration there, you might be wondering how a working model might go. After all, we aren’t the only folks that have an idea of how this might be done. In fact, this isn’t even the dominant model in Fyrnsidu. So, out of respect for them, this comes from the custom of Þunresfolc Heorþ. This is a product of study, and intuition. I am making an effort to consider both equally. If we look at all three sources, there is a little that can be pulled from each. We get the number seven from the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’. It is possible to make sense of seven worlds if it is kept in mind that they aren’t quite separate like literal planets, they often overlap and could, in some cases, be thought of as lands, in a sense. The Old English language does give us a wealth of words to use to describe these places. Old English “ham” is said to not quite be cognate to Old Norse “-heim”, this being potentially the case if “-ham” doesn’t mean “world”. I’m not quite convinced that it does.
If that is not the case, then what suffix can be used? I’m going to, in those particular words, use something more simple, like “land” which is more open ended and vague. Some of these “worlds” overlap, and it seems to paint a better picture to use “lands”, which will be more fluid. So, for a more refined Þunresfoc Heorþ cosmology, along with an “axis mundi” that goes well with it, so here goes…
The great pillar, borrowed in name from Old Saxon “Irminsul”. Whether it’s perceived as a pillar or a tree is of little consequence, there are Germanic, as well as other Indo-European sources that could go either way. Personally, I’ve always been fond of perceiving Eormensyl as a tree. Donar’s Oak from the Old Saxons, and the old name of a place in Essex, Thurstable, in Old English, “Thunrestapol” meaning “Thunor’s Pillar”. This fits neatly with Thunor cult (wink), however, the interpretation of this pillar is likely something that varied from tribe to tribe, region to region.
From the Mists
Mist, of course, forms when heated droplets of water rapidly cool. Elementary science, right? So, I actually have to give credit to that part of the Norse creation myth. I think in literal formation, the fire and ice motif work really well. Where I differ from the Eddic interpretation, is that I don’t think that this equates to two whole realms. I think this combination represents a type of creation, and are present throughout the worlds, thus they could not be contained in mere realms, they are just too big. Their product, steam, mist, however, might be more easily seen. As it is harder to see heat or cold. From the mists spring life, and perhaps the worlds. Mist has the obvious hazy appeal to it that is reflective of the uncertainty of origins. This primal mist is at the bottom of Eormensyl. So, we have what holds the realms, and what may have made them. Let’s learn about the realms, lands, worlds themselves.
Easy enough, the word Hell has existed in Germanic tongues since well before English or Christianity. It is likely a resting place for the dead, or at least one of them. It is, of course, under the Earth, Middangeard, and would be known for being dark and damp, most likely, as the underground normally is. Though such a place seems ideal in many cases for a place of rest. I’m not sure about reincarnation, but if that is something that happens to people, this would be the place for it to happen. The word “Hell” comes from words meaning “to cover or conceal”. In this instance, it’s pretty clear that burying the dead conceals them. An argument for a womb in which life springs, or is reborn is a case that could be made, even though I am not interested in making it.
This is one that often gets neglected, and I think that is unfortunate. Something has to be at the roots or base of the pillar, and wyrms are a perfect candidate for that. To me, this one is rather logical. Those who Hell rejects, be it Hellgods, or simply Hell’s residents, may find themselves cast out here. If there are outlaws in life, I do not see why particularly bad people would be accepted into the company of everyone else. This is where the Helldraca from the Þunresfolc myth ‘Thunor and the Helldraca’ lives. So, be it a reasonable historic base, or a naïve hope for justice for those who do terrible things, Wyrmsele is at the roots of Eormensyl.
That which exists between the Upper and Lower Realms is clearly the Middle Realm. Here is where man lives, and the beings of the living world are. Be they Man, Beast, Elf, Thyrse, or Éoten. The Middle Realm is acted upon by the Upper and Lower Realms. It is influenced by both.
Éotengeard and Útangeard sound close for good reason, they’re relatively close in nature, and the Éotengeard is certainly, without a doubt, Útangeard. This is where Éotens dwell in numbers. The places where man either cannot, or often do not live. Volcanoes, glaciers, great deserts, all hold powerful Éotens. These are all places that Éotens rule. These are forces kept at bay by the gods. A literal world of its own? Maybe not. For all intents and purposes, however, it practically is.
The places that are Ælflands are those places that are not quite places we live, but places we are often near, or may pass through. The woods is a great example, elves can also be found in the sea, and mountains. It is also said that they are found near burial mounds, and could even be spirits of the dead. We may traverse or hike in woods, we may sail on the sea, go through a mountain pass, or visit a burial mound. However, these are not places most people would choose to live. These places can be dangerous, just like elves, but are navigable if you are careful. These environments all reflect the nature of Elves, and so it is this that leads me to believe that they live there.
This is the center of the worlds for us. The safety (supposed to be) of our tribe, kin, and society. This is where man lives, and is affected, because of its central location, possibly, by almost all of the other realms. It is our home. Towns, villages, cities, and probably the countryside where man has control over the land. Where man lives and truly reigns, it is Middangeard.
Above World (Heofon)
The Upper Realm, Heofon, like Hell, is a word that is older than English and Christianity (So let’s take them back, eh?) and can be traced back to Proto Germanic. This is, generally speaking, the home of the high gods. Home of the celestial, as opposed to the chthonic. Birthplace of law and sacred. This is the place of the not only the gods, but perhaps of some dead.
This one is looked at a little controversially, admittedly. However, Neorxnawang, the “Heavenly Meadow” or “Land of No Work” is not at all a foreign concept to Indo-European peoples. It is seen in Greek mythology in the Elysian Fields. It is also mentioned in the accounts of Ibn Fadlan on his visit in the lands of the Rus Vikings. Mag Mell, “land of delight” is found in Irish lore. I’m not sure if, like Elysium, there is a metric of deeds that must be seen as worthy to get in, and I’m not much interested in speculating on that matter. Considering that there were two different methods for treating the dead, burial and cremation, it is but a guess of mine that whether or not someone rests in Heofon or Hell, could be based on how their body was treated after death. As Stephen Pollington puts it in ‘Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England’ (page 446, first couple of sentences in the section ‘Ancestors in the Earth’)
“The two places for the dead were the horizontal – the inhumed in their graves – and the vertical – the cremated who escape the material world through funeral fire. This corresponds to the two views of the afterlife: either a journey to another plane, or a sleep in the earth.”
Though I honestly perceive this to be more a matter of multiples than a single place, much as many different cities make up Middangeard, this is where the high gods live. From here, they may make their way down Eormensyl, and some wage war on Éotens, they may be out searching for knowledge, wandering, or who knows what! They’re gods, so they go and do as they choose, with whatever limitations they have. Here, the gods live in their respective dwellings amongst the company they choose, whom, or whatever they may be. Basically, the celestial gods dwell here.
The seven worlds: Hell, Wyrmsele, Éotengeard, Ælflands, Middangeard, Neorxnawang, Ésageard (Ésaburhs)
Seven worlds are spoken of in the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’, and this is what I believe those seven worlds to be. At the most base level, three realms are present. This also doesn’t quite touch on liminal spaces, such as the seas. These are, in my opinion, bridges, of a type between worlds, in the cosmological sense. Oceans lead to, and are likely part of the Underworld, themselves. Admittedly, I live in a landlocked area, and so those of you who live by the sea might have other and better answers. Lakes and rivers are easily seen as between Middangeard and Hell, at least to me. In this, I did my best to paint this out in a way that makes sense to me. It is the worlds as I understand them.
There’s no way for us to completely know these answers. However, customs and myths, at least partially exist to explain these things to us. So, I’ve taken a look at my past understanding of cosmology, and modified where appropriate. If any of it is of use to the reader, feel free to use it. This came from a combination of research and reflection, culminating in understanding. It is that, which is what I believe to be the way it should be. Thank you for reading.