“ Investigations into Germanic Mythology ” - by VIKTOR RYDBERG

Translated and Annotated by William P. Reaves © 2010 All Rights Reserved

The grove is called after its ruler and guardian, Mimir's or Treasure-Mimir's grove (Mímis holt - Uppsala Codex of Gylfaginning 53; Hoddmímis holt - Vafþrúðnismál 45, Gylfaginning 53). 7

Gylfaginning describes the destruction of the world and its regeneration, and then relates how the earth, rising out of the sea, is furnished with human inhabitants.

"During the conflagration (í Surtarloga) two persons are concealed in Treasure-Mimir's grove. Their names are Lif (Líf) and Leifthrasir(Leifþrasir), and they feed on the morning dews. From them come so great an offspring that all the world is peopled."

In support of its statement, Gylfaginning quotes Vafþrúðnismál 44, 45. This poem makes Odin and the giant Vafthrudnir (Vafþrúðnir) put questions to each other, and among others Odin asks this question:

Fjöld eg fór,  
fjöld eg freistaðag,
fjöld eg reynda regin:  
Hvað lifir manna,
þá er inn mæra líður 
fimbulvetur með firum?  

“Much I have travelled, much I have tried, much I have tested the powers. What living persons, shall still live when the famous fimbul-winter has been in the world? “

Vafthrudnir answers:

Líf og Leifþrasir,
en þau leynast munu 
í holti Hoddmímis. 
þau sér að mat hafa,
en þaðan af aldir alast. 

“ Lif and Leifthrasir (are still living); they are concealed in Hodd-Mimir's grove. Morning dews they will have for nourishment, Fromthem are born (new) races.”


Gylfaginning says that the two human beings, Lif and Leifthrasir, who become the progenitors of the races that are to people the earth after Ragnarok, are concealed during the conflagration of the world in Hodd-Mimir's grove. This is, beyond doubt, in accordance with mythic views. But mythologists, who have not paid sufficient attention to what Gylfaginning's source (Vafþrúðnismál) has to say on the subject, have from the above expression drawn a conclusion which implies a complete misunderstanding of the traditions in regard to Hodd-Mimir's grove and the human pair therein concealed. They have assumed that Lif and Leifthrasir are, like all other people living at that time, inhabitants of the surface of the earth at the time when the conflagration of the world begins. They have explained Mimir's grove to mean the world-tree, and argued that, when Surt'sflames destroy all other mortals, this one human pair have succeeded in climbing upon some particular branch of the world-tree, where they were protected from the destructive element. There they were supposed to live on morning dews until the end of Ragnarok, and until they could come down from their hiding-place in Yggdrasil upon the earth which has risen from the sea, and there become the progenitors of a more happy human race.

According to this interpretation, Yggdrasil was a tree whose trunk and branches could be grasped by human hands, and one or more mornings, with attendant morning dews, are assumed to have come and gone, while fire and flames enveloped all creation, and after the sun had been swallowed by the wolf and the stars had fallen from the heavens (Gylfaginning 51; Völuspá 58)! And with this terrible catastrophe before their eyes, Lif and Leifthrasir are supposed to sit in perfect unconcern, eating the morning dews! 

For the scientific reputation of mythical inquiry, it were well if that sort of investigations were avoided when they are not made necessary by the sources themselves. 

If sufficient attention had been paid to the above-cited evidence furnished by Vafþrúðnismál in this question, the misunderstanding might have been avoided, and the statement of Gylfaginning would not have been interpreted to mean that Lif and Leifthrasir inhabited Mimir's grove only during Ragnarok. For Vafþrúðnismál plainly states that this human pair are in perfect security in Mimir's grove, while a long and terrible winter, a fimbul-winter, visits the earth and destroys its inhabitants. Not until after the end of this winter do giants and gods collect their forces for a decisive conflict on Vigrid's plains; and when this conflict is ended, then comes the conflagration of the world, and after it the regeneration. Concerning the length of the fimbul-winter, Gylfaginning 51 claims that it continued for three years "without any intervening summer."

Consequently, Lif and Leifthrasir must have had their secure place of refuge in Mimir's grove during the fimbul-winter, which precedes Ragnarok. And, accordingly, the idea that they were there only during Ragnarok, and all the strange conjectures based thereon, are unfounded. They continue to remain there while the winter rages, and during all the episodes which characterize the progress of the world towards ruin, and, finally, also, as Gylfaginning reports, during the conflagration and regeneration of the world. 

Thus it is explained why the myth finds it of importance to inform us how Lif and Leifthrasir support themselves during their stay in Mimir's grove. It would not have occurred to the myth to present and answer this question had not the sojourn of the human pair in the grove continued for some length of time. Their food is the morning dew. The morning dew from Yggdrasil was, according to the mythology, a sweet and wonderful nourishment, and in the popular traditions of the Germanic middle age, the dew of the morning retained its reputation for having strange, nourishing qualities. According to the myth, it evaporates from the world-tree, which stands, ever green and blooming, over Urd's and Mimir's sacred fountains, and drops from there "in dales" (Völuspá 19, 28; Gylfaginning 16). And as the world-tree is sprinkled and gets its lifegiving sap from these fountains, then it follows that the liquid of its morning dew is substantially the same as that of the subterranean fountains, which contain the elixir of life, wisdom, and poesy (cp. Nos. 72, 82, and elsewhere).

At what time, Mimir's grove was opened as an asylum for Lif and Leifthrasir, whether this happened during or shortly before the fimbul-winter, or perchance long before it, on this point there is not a word in the passages quoted from Vafþrúðnismál. But by the following investigation, the problem shall be solved.

The Germanic mythology has not looked upon the regeneration of the world as a new creation. The life which in time's morning developed out of chaos is not destroyed by Surt's flames, but rescues itself, purified, for the coming age of the world. The worldtreesurvives the conflagration, for it defies both edge and fire (Fjölsvinnsmál, 20, 21- fellir-at hann eldur né járn).1 The Ida-plains are not annihilated. After Ragnarok, as in the beginning of time, they are the scene of the assemblings of the gods (Völuspá 7- Hittust æsirá Iðavelli ; Völuspá 61- Finnast æsir á Iðavelli). Vanaheim is not affected by the destruction, for Njörd shall in aldar rök2 (Vafþrúðnismál 39) return there "to wise Vanir ." Odin's dwellings of victory remain, and are inhabited after the regeneration by Baldur and Hodur (Völuspá 63 Búa þeir Baldur og Höður Hropts sigtóftir). The new sun is the daughter of the old one, and was born before Ragnarok, which she passes through unscathed (Vafþrúðnismál 46-47). The ocean does not disappear in Ragnarok, for the present earth sinks beneath its surface (Völuspá 58- sígur fold í mar), and the new earth after regeneration rises from its deep (Völuspá 60 - jörð úrægi). Gods survive (Völuspá 61, 63, 64 - æsir, Höður og Baldur, Hænir); Vafþrúðnismál 51 -Víðar og Váli, Móði og Magni; cp. Gylfaginning 53). Human beings survive, for Lif and Leifthrasir are destined to become the connecting link between the present human race and the better race which is to spring therefrom. Animals and plants survive - though the animals and plants on the surface of the earth perish; but the earth risen from the sea was decorated with green, and there is not the slightest reference to a new act of creation to produce the green vegetation. Its cascades contain living beings, and over them flies the eagle in search of his prey (Völuspá 60; see further, No. 55). A work of art from antiquity is also preserved in the new world. The game of tafl, with which the gods played in their youth while they were yet free from care, is found again amid the grass on the new earth (Völuspá 8 - Tefldu í túni; Völuspá 62 - gullnar töflur í grasi finnast; see further, No. 55).

If the regeneration had been conceived as a new creation, a wholly new beginning of life, then the human race of the new era would also have started from a new creation of a human pair. The myth about Lif and Leifthrasir would then have been unnecessary and superfluous. But the fundamental idea is that the life of the new era is to be a continuation of the present life purified and developed to perfection, and from the standpoint of this fundamental idea Lif and Leifthrasir are necessary.

The idea of improvement and perfection is most clearly held forth in regard to both the physical and spiritual condition of the future world. All that is weak and evil shall be redeemed (böls mun allsbatna - Völuspá 63). In that perfection of nature, the fields unsown by men shall yield their harvests. To secure the restored world against 1 The following passages from Old Norse in this paragraph and similar references from here on out are not found in Rydberg's work, and were added by Eysteinn Björnsson on his website "Viktor Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology" at http://www.hi.is/~eybjorn/ugm/ugm0.html upon which the current version of the English text is based. 2 "the doom of men," i.e.Ragnarok. relapse into the faults of the former, the myth applies radical measures - so radical, that the Asa majesty himself, Valfather, must retire from the scene, in order that his son, the perfectly blameless Baldur, may be the center in the assembly of the chosen gods. But the mythology would fail in its purpose if it did not apply equally radical measures in the choice and care of the human beings who are to perpetuate our race after Ragnarok; for if the progenitors have within them the seed of corruption, it will be developed in their descendants.

Has the mythology forgotten to meet this logical claim? The demand is no greater than that which is made in reference to every product of the imagination of whatever age. I do not mean to say that a logical claim made on the mythology, or that a conclusion which may logically be drawn from the premises of the mythology, is to be considered as evidence that the claim has actually been met by the mythology, and that the mythology itself has been developed into its logical conclusion. I simply want to point out what the claim is, and in the next place I desire to investigate whether there is evidence that the claim has been honored. 

From the standpoint that there must be a logical harmony in the mythological system, it is necessary:

1. That Lif and Leifthrasir when they enter their asylum, Mimir's grove, are physically and spiritually uncorrupted persons.

2. That during their stay in Mimir's grove they are protected against: 

        (a) Spiritual degradation.

        (b) Physical degradation.

        (c) Against everything threatening their very existence. 

So far as the last point (2c) is concerned, we know already from Vafþrúðnismál that the place of refuge they received in the vicinity of those fountains, which, with never-failing veins, nourish the life of the world-tree, is approached neither by the frost of the fimbul-winter nor by the flames of Ragnarok. This claim is, therefore, met completely.

In regard to the second point (2b), the above-cited mythic traditions have preserved from the days of heathendom the memory of a grove in the subterranean domain of Gudmund-Mimir, set aside for living men, not for the dead, and protected against sickness, aging, and death. Thus this claim is met also. 

As to the third point (2a), all we know at present is that there, in the lower world, is found an enclosed place, the very one which death cannot enter, and from which even those mortals are banished by divine command who are admitted to the holy fountains and treasure chambers of the lower world, and who have been permitted to see the regions of bliss and places of punishment there. Therefore, it would appear that all contact between those who dwell there and those who take part in the events of our world is cut off. The realms of Mimir and the lower world have, according to the sagas - and, as we shall see later, according to the myths themselves - now and then been opened to bold adventurers, who have seen their wonders, looked at their remarkable fountains, their plains for the amusement of the shades of heroes, and their places of punishment of the wicked. But there is one place which has been inaccessible to them, a field proclaimed inviolable by divine command (Gorm's saga, Saxo Hist., Book 8), a place surrounded by a wall, which can be entered only by such beings as can pass through the smallest crevices (Hadding's saga).3 But that this difficulty of entrance also was meant to exclude the moral evil, by which the mankind of our age is stained, is not expressly stated.

Thus we have yet to look and see whether the original documents from the heathen times contain any statements which can shed light on this subject. In regard to the point (1), the question it contains as to whether the mythology conceived Lif and Leifthrasir as physically and morally undefiled at the time when they entered Mimir's grove, can only be solved if we, in the old records, can find evidence that a wise, foreseeing power opened Mimir's grove as an asylum for them, at a time when mankind as a whole had not yet become the prey of physical and moral misery. But in that very primeval age in which time most of the events of mythology are supposed to have happened, creation had already become the victim of corruption. There was a time when the life of the gods was happiness and the joy of youthful activity; the condition of the world did not cause them anxiety, and, free from care, they amused themselves with the wonderful game of tafl (Völuspá 8 - Tefldu í túni, teitir voru). But the golden age ended in physical and moral catastrophes. The air was mixed with treacherous evil; Freyja, the goddess of fertility and fecundity, was treacherously delivered into the hands of the frost giants; on the earth the sorceress Heid (Heiður) strutted about teaching the secrets of black magic, which was hostile to the gods and hurtful to man (Völuspá 22). The first great war broke out in the world (Völuspá 21, 24, 26). The effects of this are felt down through the historical ages even to Ragnarok. The corruption of nature culminates in the fimbul-winter of the last days; the corruption of mankind has its climax in "the axe- and knife-ages." The separation of Lif and Leifthrasir from their race and confinement in Mimir's grove must have occurred before the above catastrophes in time's beginning, if there is to be a guarantee that the human race of the new world is not to inherit and develop the defects and weaknesses of the present historical generations.