Germanic Myths of Proto-Indo-European Origin. ( 1)
– The World-Tree.

The Norroena SocietyInfluential Authors Lore Research Sedian TraditionGermanic Myths of Proto-Indo-European Origin. ( 1)
– The World-Tree.



Germanic Myths of Proto-Indo-European Origin. ( 1)
– The World-Tree.


Viktor Rydberg’s Investigations into Germanic Mythology Volume II Part 1:

Indo-European Mythology Translated and Annotated by William P. Reaves © 2010 All Rights Reserved I.

Germanic Myths of Proto-Indo-European Origin.

– The World-Tree –

5) The Rigveda passage mentioned above (X, 129, 4) says that when warmth made its power felt in the primal waters, it brought forth the spirit’s original seed. One finds that the concept of the origin of the life of the spirit takes its form from the organic world. Life develops from a seed found in the primal waters fructified by warmth. Is this concept merely a whim of the bard himself, a poetic image used for the occasion, or does it occur in other hymns of the Rigveda and bear the characteristics of one espoused among the Indian bards and sacrificial priests? The latter is the case.

The myth of a seed, born in the beginning in the warm primal waters, is found in other hymns and was preserved into the Brahmanic era where it, although changed by time, was transformed into the myth of Brahma’s birth. It is this Vedic myth about Hiranyagarbha, the golden seed in Chaos, that forms the basis of the later myth about Brahma, who in Chaos deposits a shining embryo from which he himself and with him the world comes forth. 

The difference between the Vedic concepts and the Brahmanic is that in the former the seed becomes the world-tree, the oldest Indo-European symbol of the universe, while in the latter it becomes a world-egg in which Brahma himself develops and of whose shell he forms the heavens and the earth. Rigveda X, 82, 5-7: “Which was the original seed that was begotten in the water, further back (in time) than the gods lived—the seed, in which all the gods were produced? It was the seed in which all the gods were united, that the water received, the primeval seed that lay alone on the unborn’snavel and in which all the world rests.” Rigveda X, 121, 1: The first born is Hiranyagarbha (the golden seed); v. 7: “when came the great water, which contained all fertility within it, then the gods came to life, from it alone (namely Hiranyagarbha).” 

The idea of the organic world residing inside a seed and developing from it was inevitably united with the idea that the world had grown out of a seed into an enormous, allbearing, all-overshadowing, all-fostering and nourishing tree. There are strong reasons to assume that the development of language gave the imagination the first basis to shape this ingenious and beautiful myth. From the Indo-European root word bhu, “to be,” “to become” has specifically formed bháman, which at the same time means “life, being and growth” and which returns in Sanskrit in the meaning “life, beings, and the existing world.” Here, the expressions for growth and world have sprung from the same root.

May I also point out that the Greek hylä on one hand has the meanings “growing tree,” “felled tree,” “timber,” “wood,” and on the other hand the related meaning “substance,” “matter,” from which the physical world is built. Thus, one of Rigveda’s bards can ask: “of which wood, of which tree” is the world created. Rigv. X, 81, 4: “Which is the wood, which is the tree whereby earth and heaven are constructed? Ye wise, search in your souls thereafter, on what stood he, who created the worlds!”

6) The world-tree, “the tree of life,” grows, according to the Rigveda verse cited above, in the midst of the space that the world occupies. This seed lies, as we see, “on the unborn’s navel.” From there, it shot up, and from there its stem rose vertically through space. Rigv. I, 24, 7: “In the bottomless, Varuna the king with holy power placed the tree’s stem upright; downward, its rays (roots) are directed. Among us (mankind), they must be unseen.”10 Varuna, which many philologists consider to be the same word as Ούρανς, 11 means “the the vault of heaven over our heads, but of the space that in all directions —below and enveloper” and is the divine personification of the heavens, not only in its later meaning of above, under the earth and over the earth— surrounds Creation and also exists between earth and the subterranean worlds, which also have their heavens (see below).

In Germanic mythology, himmel (heaven) has the same extensive meaning. Thus it becomes clear that, to distinguish them from other heavens, the heaven above our heads was called upper heaven (upphiminn, ûfhimil, upheofon). Also by degrees, Varuna especially came to be interpreted as a god of heaven present in the underworld, while during the Brahmanic period he was exclusively regarded as a god of the underworld, the king of the realm of death. It is thus in the “bottomless” underworld space and into its midst that the Vedic worldtree extends its roots. From there, it grows both upward and downward, in the same degree as Creation is arranged and completed, in order to bear the worlds on its green branches.12 In all points, this idea also belongs to Germanic cosmology. The world-tree, Yggdrasil, in the beginning of time, had lain as a seed fyr mold neðan (Völuspá 2).13 The Tree has three roots, which shoot down in three directions (Grímnismál 31). Its middlemost root stands over Mimir’s well which is located “where Ginnungagap once was” (þarer forðum var Ginnungagap, Gylfaginning 15),14 that is to say, inthe middle of the primeval space, with Niflheim on one side and the warm region on the other. 7) The Vedic world-tree’s roots are likened to radiance or rays. Alfred Ludwig, translator of the Rigveda, who in the previously cited passage recognizes a description of the world-tree, has observed this seemingly strange similarity in his commentary.15 The Norse description of Yggdrasil explains and confirms the expression.

Gylfaginning has preserved a tradition according to which everything that comes into Urd’s well, therefore even the roots of Yggdrasil extending downward, has the whitest color, “like the membrane inside an eggshell,‖ and Saxo (see Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Vol. I, no. 49) likens the world-tree’s roots to silver. An Iranian document says that the whole tree was white (see below).16 8) 

The Vedic world-tree bears fruit. The Maruts, a distinct division of the Rigvedic mythology’s elves, its wind-elves, beautiful gold-forging youths who travel forth within the aircleansing storms, shake down its mature fruit (Rigv. V, 54, 6, 12). The Germanic world-tree also bears fruits, aldin (Fjölsvinnsmál 22). The purpose of the fruits shaken down by the Maruts is made clear by places such as Rigv. II, 41, 15; V, 58, 4; I, 23, 8. 17 There the Maruts are described as assisting in childbirth. The embryo that one of the artisans of nature, Tvashtar or Vibhvan, formed in the mother’s womb, is brought into daylight with the Maruts‘ assistance. In Germanic mythology, the fruits of the world-tree have the same purpose. Fjölsvinnsmál 22: Útaf hans aldni skal á eld bera fyr kelisjúkar konur; utar hverfa þessþær innar skýli; sá er hann með mönnum mjötuður.18

(Compare Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Vol. I, nos. 95 and 35.) 9) Once the world-order and the world itself were depicted in the form of an enormous tree, it is so natural that the imagination would place birds in its crown symbolizing one or another of the ideas applicable to the life of the world, that one could reasonably expect such a thing in Vedic as well as in Germanic mythology. 

A Vedic mystery-hymn (Rigv. I, 164) that is a chain of metaphors and circumlocutions speaks of two birds, “united friends,” in the world-tree’s crown who celebrate their share of immortality and unceasingly praise “the holy assemblies” (of divine powers). “They say that sweet is the fruit in the tree’s top—the tree on which all honey-eating birds go to sleep and wake; but the fruit will never be attained by those that know no father.” In verse 11, the birds are called eagles.19 High in the world-tree’s crown the Norse skalds have placed the gold-glittering cock Viðófnir (Fjölsvinnsmál 24), an eagle (Grímnismál 32, Gylfaginning 16) and a hawk, Veðrfölnir, sitting between the eagle’s eyes (Gylfaginning 16). In addition to birds, four-footed animals are also found: four harts (Grímnismál33), a squirrel and the goat Heidrun (Grímnismál 25).

Many of these animals are demonstrably symbolic, like Dain and Dvalin (who represent death and slumber), Eikthrynir (who represents the water reservoir high up in the world-tree, see Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Vol. I, no. 36) and Heidrun (who represents the mead, pressed from the world-tree’s leaves, and drunk by the Einherjar in Valhall.) 

The skald of the Rigveda hymn allows cows to suck milk out of “the beautiful bird‘s” head and, clad in the “form of the established district of the birds (the world-tree),” they drink water with their feet.20 By these “cows,” earthly trees are obviously meant, earthly vegetation that drink the juices of the world-tree with their feet (roots). “Foot-drinker” is a Vedic epithet for tree. Of the world-tree’s origin, the same skald sings: “Who has seen him that was first born? Who has seen how the one without bones supports the one with bones (i.e. how the empty space bears the world-tree that has branches)?”21 While the Rigveda bard lets honey-eating birds go to sleep and wake in the world-tree, Norse mythology tells us that a dew which “falls into dales” from the world-tree, is “that which men call honeydew and from which bees find nourishment.” (Gylfaginning 16). 

The lowest branches of the Vedic world-tree spread themselves, like Yggdrasil’s, over the fields of bliss in the underworld that belong to King Yama’s realm. King Yama is a being of divine birth, who walked death’s path first and subsequently found the way to the fields of bliss (Rigv. X, 14). There “in the beautifully praised tree, in which Yama drinks together with the gods, there, as the kind master of the house, he cares for our ancient forefathers.” (Rigv. X, 135, 1). 

Yggdrasil’s lowest branches shade Urd’s well where the gods judge and Mimir’s realm where Baldur, the ásmegir, and the blessed dead have their abodes, where the mead of the underworld is their drink and the morning dew their ambrosia (See Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Vol. I, no. 52). In two Rigveda hymns, X, 81 and X, 82, the world-tree personified is celebrated under the name “the All-worker” (viçvakarman).

The All-worker is said to be the water’s first embryo that which was born in the beginning, a reference to the golden-seed spoken of above which is the water’s first embryo, and the bard inquires upon what he who supports the worlds stands. The world-tree is also personified in Rigv. X, 121, which celebrates the golden seed. For the bards, the world-tree represents an unknown god, the god Who?(Ka), whose arms are the four points of the compass and who overshadows the snow-capped mountains and the ocean. He is “the vast, by which the heavens remain secure and the earth steadfast, and who standing in the midst of creation, from there measures space.” When one considers that the world-tree is a symbol of the ordered universe and that even the divine powers lie hidden in its golden seed, one already sees how close this bard, when he thus personifies it, stands to the pantheism that later develops during the Brahmanic period and which receives a kind of dogmatic stamp.22 10) 

The myth of the world-tree is the same for the Iranian and the Rigveda Aryans. They possessed it fully formed while they still were a single people, and the information that the Iranian documents leave us concerning it complement that which is reported in Rigveda. The Iranian world-tree is called Gaokerena and Homa. The latter designation, when applied to a tree, can best be translated as mead-tree (see below). It grew up out of the middle of the underworld sea Vourukasha (“the broad-beached”) and occupies the center of the created world.23 It is white in color (Pahlavi Vendidad XX); as is its mead-juice.

What the Rigveda and Norse mythology relate about the color of its roots is applicable to the entire tree and its juice and fits well with the common conception that the world-tree, in the form of a tree, is colorless and invisible to mortal eyes. It is alone in its class. “I, Ahuramazda, bring forth healing herbs in many myriads and of its kind only Gaokerena, Homa is white.” (Pahlavi Vendidad XX).

A hundred thousand kinds of plants have arisen from the world-tree’s seed and it bears all types of fruits simultaneously.24 Its juice is white mead–juice, the heavenly type of Homa-juice, which grants immortality to him who receives it. (Compare the birds in the Vedic world-tree that eat of its fruits and with another bird placed there that celebrates his share of immortality). For this reason, the dead, when they enter into new life should receive a drink of the world-tree’s sap. 

The myth of the world-tree’s immortalizing mead is rediscovered in Germanic mythology. From the mead that is pressed out of the world-tree’s leaves and is symbolized by the milk of the goat, Heidrun, that grazes on the world-tree, the Einherjar in Valhall gather the strength of immortal life. The ásmegir, Lif and Lifthrasir, survive on Yggdrasil’s morning dew during the ages of the world.25 Baldur, when he descends into the underworld, is greeted there with the drink of “clear strengths.” 26 In the underworld, the blessed dead receive a new and higher life through the same “clear strengths” collected from the well, out of which the worldtree sucks its life’s juices. (See Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Vol. I, no. 72).27

11) The Iranian world-tree is threatened by enemies, as is the Germanic, and in the Iranian myth, as in the Germanic, it is the tree’s roots that are vulnerable to constant attack. The greatest and the worst monster that Ahriman, “the demons’ demon,” created is a lizard-shaped poisonous dragon that is found “in the water’s abyss” by the foot of the tree and during the course of centuries unceasingly seeks to attack its roots, which nevertheless are defended by fish-shaped beings that Ahuramazda created.28.

From time to time another demon, Apaosha, in the form of a black horse comes down into Vourukasha to diminish the water and cause the tree to wither.29.

UIn Germanic mythology, it is the dragon Nidhögg, hostile to life, and besides him other monsters that attack Yggdrasil’s roots, among them one Móinn, whose name also designates a horse (Grímnismál34, 35; Snorra Edda II, 487, 571). 30.

Among the Iranians, as among the Germanic and the Rigveda Indo-Europeans, the world-tree had significance for the production of new human generations. Above its crown, Gaokerena-Homa, which stands with its roots in the source-sea Vourukasha, has a heavenly reservoir, Anhita, whose fluid cleanses man’s seed and woman’s womb, as it pours through the tree’s branches, and makes them fertile with fresh, well-formed embryos, and provides milk to their newborn, (Frawardin Yasht I, 4-8). 31.

The Islamic writer Shahrastani tells of a Persian tradition that obviously stands in connection with this. God, says the tradition, placed the religion’s founder Zarathustra’s soul inside a tree that he allowed to grow up to heaven’s highest heights. The juice of this tree contains sperm that Zarathustra’s father received to drink, after which Zarathustra became a fetus inside his mother. —Another Persian tradition also says that the mead-juice in the world-tree gave origin to him. A Norse tale related in Völsungasaga 2 says that a queen could not bear children until she ate an apple that Frigg sent her from Valhall, over which the world-tree of course spreads its fruit-laden branches (Fjölsvinnsmál 22).

-Viktor Rydberg translated by William P Reeves


10 Griffith: ―Varuna, King, of hallowed might, sustaineth erect the Tree’s stem in the baseless region. Its rays, whose root is high above, stream downward. Deep may they sink within us, and be hidden.‖

11.Uranos. James Darmesteter confirms this view in Ormazd et Ahriman, p. 53.

12. As Carla O‘Harris has pointed out, the concept of the world-tree survives in Hindu literature as the Asvattha, with its roots in the heavens. Atharvaveda V, 4, 3 and XIX, 39, 6 observe: ―The Asvattha-tree is the seat of the gods in the third heaven from here.‖ From it, the gods obtain amrita (ambrosia). [Maurice Bloomfield tr.]. Bhagavad Gita, ch. 15 says: ―With roots above, branches below, the Asvattha is said to be indestructible; its leaves are the hymns; he who knows this knows the Vedas. Below and above spread its branches, …its form is not perceived here, neither its end nor its origin nor its existence.‖ [Sri Swami Sivananda tr.] The 13th century poet, Jnaneshwar, who wrote an extensive commentary on Bhagavad Gita, describes it in great detail: ―It is not like other trees …even if its base is burnt or cut with an axe, it does not get destroyed. …Whatever things exist in this world are pervaded by this tree. …This tree has become top-rooted because of Brahman …This pure Brahman is the top root of this tree….It is the seed of the world tree, the source of mundane existence. …It is here and beyond, in front and behind, it sees everything but is itself invisible. …It exists in full consciousness of itself. …The barks of the tree get peeled off by the stormy winds at the time of world-dissolution, but they appear in tufts at the beginning of an epoch.‖[M. R. Yardi tr.]

13. ―beneath the earth.‖

14 . All manuscripts actually read: þar sem forðum var Ginnungagap [Ginnungap, Codex Regius]. The meaning is essentially the same, however.

15 ―It is not improbable that here we have an analogue to the tree of life.‖ (III, p. 83)

16. This may explain why the Tree is invisible to human eyes. In Völuspá 19, the Norns are said to drench the tree with ausinn hvítaauri, “water blended with white mud.” This is supported by Gylfaginning 16, which says: “the Norns, who dwell by Urd’s well, take water from the well each day, and with it the mud that lies around the well, and pour it over the tree, so that its branches may not rot or decay. This water is so holy that all things which come into contact with it turn as white as the membrane called skjall that covers the inside of an eggshell.” The word skjall is also used of a semi-transparent membrane, stretched over a frame, and used as a window (instead of glass). Snorri may have meant to imply that the Tree is similarly transparent. This further explains two terms for “Mimir‘s Tree” (Mímameiður) found in the poem Fjölsvinnsmál: Veðurglasir (v.24) and Aurglasir (v.28). In Skáldskaparmál 42, Snorri identifies Glasir (“glassy”) as a golden grove growing outside of Asgard. Like Mímameiður, Glasir may be understood as a name for Yggdrasil. Of Veðurglasir, scholar Björn M. Ólsen concludes: “This name seems to be a name of that part of Mímameiður, which rises above the earth, and is afflicted by the weather and the winds.” Since aur means “mud, soil, clay,” Aurglasir would then designate the subterranean part of the Tree. [I am indebted to Eysteinn Björnsson for this lucid observation].

17. The first and the last passage cited here invoke the Maruts, as pūsa-rātayah. Pushan is said to be their gift. (Abel Bergaigne, La Religion Vedique, II, 383). The second passage speaks of the Marutsbringing a ruler, and possibly warriors, “fashioned by a master’s hand,” to the people. 

18. This entire verse is difficult and ambiguous. Neither the syntax nor the meaning can be established with certainty: “Its fruit shall on the fire be laid, for laboring women; out then will pass what would in remain, so it is a creator (i.e. “kindling”) of mankind. [Benjamin Thorpe tr.]; or “Its fruit is taken and laid upon a fire for women in labour; out then will come that which they carry inside, thus it metes out fate among men.‖ [Eysteinn Björnsson tr.]. The first part of the verse is usually interpreted as referring to a cure for women with uterine problems. The syntax of lines 4- 5 is difficult, but the meaning seems to be that something within is forced outside. The meaning of the word kelisjúkar is uncertain. If Sophus Bugge’s interpretation, “womb-sick” is correct, it may be a synonym of jóðsjúkar “child-sick,” i.e. “in labor.” Bugge’s reading killisjúkar is supported by the Gothic kilþei, “womb.” Therefore, this may refer to an illness expelled by the body, but the final line makes that interpretation unlikely. It says that the Tree “metes out fate among men,” mjötuður, cp. Metod (see below). Rydberg suggests that its apples formed the embryos of human beings, their seeds as it were. These were conveyed into the womb and there, upon a creative “fire” (á eld), transformed into human embryos. The womb protects the unborn child (innar skýli) until its birth (utar hverfa). The Tree can be said to “mete out fate among men,” if men are literally born from it.

19. The reference to v. 11 is erroneous. The birds are mentioned in verses 7 and 20. Nowhere in the hymn is the kind of bird indicated. The idea that they are eagles likely originated with Bergaigne; see La Religion Vedique, Vol. III, Part IV, pp. 10-17 [V. Paranjpe tr.].

20. Rigv. I, 164, 7. 

21. Rigv. I, 164, 4.

22. [Rydberg’s footnote]: In our Old Norse poetry, there is a place where the world-tree is personified, namely as Mjötuðr, “Destiny,” “Measurer.” In the Low German evangelic poem Heliand the same word is used in the form Metod for God, and Metod is also employed thus in Old English sermons. What is only a sporadic expression without consequence in the Norse poetry becomes the same creative thought in the Indian mythology, during its later Brahmanic period. 

23. Bundehesh, ch. 18, 1. 

24. Bundehesh, ch. 18, 9. 

25. See Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Vol. I, no. 53. 

26. skírar veigar, Baldurs Draumar 7. 

27. [Rydberg’s footnote]: Perhaps Grímnismál 33 alludes to this when the bard allows Dain and Dvalin (symbols of death and sleep) to feed on Yggdrasil’s shoots.

28. Bundehesh, ch. 18, 2-6. 

29. See Khorda Avesta, Yasht 8: Tishtar Yasht; Bundehesh 7, 3-6. 

30. Although not found in modern editions of Snorri’s Edda, Anthony Faulkes confirms Móinn as the name of a horse in Edda Snorra Sturluson I-III, Hafniæ [SnE 1848-87 II, 487], which seems to have followed the U manuscript, Codex Upsalensis. See Anthony Faulkes’ Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Skáldskaparmál 2: Glossary and Index of Names, 1998, p. 492. 

31. Mahommed al-Shahrastani (1076 or 1086-1153), Arab theologian, whose chief work is the Kitab al-Milal wa’lNilal, an account of religious and philosophical sects.

Comments (1)

  1. You seem to forget that in Norse mythology males are said to come from the Ash Tree and Females from the Elm tree or more specificaly the First man came from the Ash tree and the First woman from the Elm tree. The Cultures you are referencing are not carbon copies of each other. And while there are significant similarities there are also significant differences.

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