Reindeer and the World Tree

September 16, 2016
Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.
Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.


More from my forthcoming book on animal divination:

The stag of Artemis being in fact a reindeer raises questions about the four stags who nibble on the branches of the Germanic world tree, Yggdrasil. This is the tree that holds the nine worlds, three each in the lower, middle, and upper regions. A snake nibbles at the roots of the tree, an eagle claims the high branches, and four deer browse the foliage. These animals create balance by tempering the growth of the ever-growing tree. The deer are identified as stags in the only source that mentions them, the Prose Edda, so this is not a case of a picture being misinterpreted, at least not in modern times. It is curious that reindeer would not be prominent in the mythology of the Norse, when reindeer memory survives as far south as Greece. Another stag, called Eikthyrnyr, lives atop a tree called Laerad in Odin’s upper realm of Valhalla. Eikthyrnyr munches the leaves of Laerad along with a nanny goat named Heidrun. From the udders of Heidrun flow mead. From the antlers of Eikthyrnyr flow the waters that make up the rivers of the worlds. Eikthyrnyr could also be a reindeer doe. Default male bias being the pervasive affliction that it is, assertions of maleness in animal deities must be entertained with skepticism. The presence of so-called stags where we would expect to find reindeer, amid the absence of mention of any does, suggests either naiveté or a patriarchal rewriting of mythology.

The World Tree

July 6, 2012

At the axis of the worlds there is a tree linking the underworld, the word we live in, and the the ethereal realm of gods and fallen heroes. This is Yggdrasil (IGG-draw-sill), the divine ash tree. The serpent Nidhogg (NEED-hog) nibbles at its roots while an eagle nests in its high branches. The eagle and Nidhogg are sworn enemies, and the squirrel Ratatosk scampers up and down the trunk carrying insults from one to another. Four stags nibble at the lower branches, pruning foliage so Yggdrasil does not grow out of control. At the base of the trunk, on the ground, sit the Norns, the sisters Urd (oord), Verdandi (VAIR-dawn-dee) and Skuld (schooled). They water the roots each day from a pool of white water. Urd is the oldest of the sisters, and some even say the other two are aspects of herself. From her name come the words “earth” and “weird,” which originally meant fate. The Norns set the fate of each child at birth, carving the details in runes on a wooden plank. Those who consult the runes address the Norns before each divination.

From Edith Hamilton’s Mythology:

Beside this root was a well of white water, URDA’S WELL, so holy that none might drink of it. The three NORNS guarded it, who “Allot their lives to the sons of men/And assign to them their fate.” The three were URDA (the Past), VERDANDI (the Present), and SKULD (the Future). Here each day the gods came, passing over the quivering rainbow bridge to sit beside the well and pass judgment on the deeds of men.

The Three Witches from Shakespeares Macbeth, by Daniel Gardner, 1775. They were called “the weyard sisters” in the play, an allusion to the Norns. (Weird at that time meant fate.)
Hamilton is conflating Germanic and Greek myth a bit here. The three fates (Moirae) of the Greeks are spinners in charge of past, present and future. The names of the Norns translate closer to “fate,” “being” and “necessity.” Hamilton does not make it explicit that the gods sit at Urd’s well because they need the authority of the Norns to pass judgment.

The god Odin (OH-dinn) is also associated with the ash, because he hung upside down from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights in order to receive the eighteen runes. From a medieval text quoted in D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes:

I hung from a windswept tree,
I hung there for nine days and nights,
I was gashed, pierced with a spear,
I was an offering made to Odin.
Offered, myself to myself,
On that tree which no man knows,
Or where its roots still run.

The wood of the White Ash is very hard, and so it is often used for tool handles, including magical tools. Recall from previous posts that ash is the preferred wood for the witch’s broom handle.

The ash is also important in Celtic magic, and it’s tempting to delve into the copious amount of material on this tree. I am limiting myself to the connection between the ash and the Norns, however. If there’s anything you want to share about the ash, even if it’s not related to Germanic lore, feel free to leave a comment.


Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes.Wellborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. (Reprint) New York: Mentor, 1979.

Littleton, C. Scott (ed). Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2002.