Armed with his mighty hammer, Thor the god of thunder and lightning watched over and safeguarded the stronghold of Ásgard, the home of the Æsir (one of the two main clans of Norse deities). Whilst the realm of Ásgard is a familiar name to many, thanks in large part to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was one of nine worlds that made up the ancient Norse cosmology.
According to legend, the nine realms surrounded and spread out from the Yggdrasil, a sacred cosmic tree at the centre of the universe. The Yggdrasil grew from the void of Ginnungagap, which was enclosed on one side by the fiery Muspelheim and the other side by the frosty Niflheim.
The flames of Muspelheim began to melt the ice of Niflheim leading to the creation of two entities known as Ymir the giant and Audhumla the cow. These creatures triggered a series of events that saw the birth of Odin, ‘the father of all gods’. Odin killed Ymir and in doing so created the nine realms that came to encompass the Norse cosmology.
The Norse gods were separated into two main groups, the Æsir and the Vanir. The Æsir were considered the main pantheon in Norse mythology and consisted of Odin, the King of the Æsir, Thor, Frigg, Balder, Höðr and Týr. The Vanir, who were often at war with the Æsir, consisted of Njörðr, Freyr, Freya, Gullveig and Nerthus. Although Loki the trickster god was often associated with the gods of the Æsir, he was neither Æsir nor Vanir.
The Vanir had their home in Vanaheim whilst the Æsir settled in Ásgard, a celestial fortified realm surrounded by a great wall and protected by Thor and his famous hammer, the Mjollnir. The gigantic and imperious hall of Valhalla was also located in Ásgard. Odin was said to rule over Valhalla, welcoming half of those who died in battle and feasting with them in the giant hall. The other half went to the heavenly meadow of Fólkvangr, ruled over by the Vanir goddess Freya.
Ásgard was connected to another realm, Midgard, the world of humanity. A rainbow bridge known as the Bifrost joined the two together.
Close by to Ásgard was Alfheim, the realm of the elves. The magical elves were described as ‘more beautiful than the sun’ and were said to have inspired the arts and music. Alfheim was ruled over by the Vanir goddess Freyr and whilst the ancient sources don’t mention much about this realm, one might presume that the presence of the elves made it a bright and sunny place.
Whilst it shares some similarities with the Christian form of hell, the Norse realm of Hel (or Helheim) was a grim, dark and gloomy place located beneath the roots of Yggdrasil, where those not worthy enough of Valhalla went after death. It was ruled over by the fearsome Hel, the daughter of Loki, and was surrounded by a large fence with only one gate. To reach the gate you had to travel down the Helveg, quite literally the ‘road to Hel’.
Jotunheim was the homeland of the giants in Norse mythology known as the Jötnar. One of Thor’s favourite past times was slaying giants, which as you can imagine meant that the god of thunder often found himself in the realm of Jotunheim. The journey wasn’t far as the world sat close to both Ásgard and Midgard. However, unlike the celestial Ásgard, the home of the giants was a cold, frosty and untamed wilderness consisting mostly of rocks, mountains and forests.
Like a Nordic version of Adam and Eve, the human realm of Midgard (Earth) was first populated by a man called Ask and a woman called Embla; all people on Earth descended from this pair. Midgard sat beneath Ásgard but was connected to the home of the Æsir gods via the rainbow bridge. An enormous fence created by the gods protected Midgard. Beyond its walls lay an impassable ocean patrolled by the Jörmungandr, a monstrous sea serpent and another child of Loki.
It was the primordial land of fire and flames that melted the ice of Niflheim and helped bring about the creation of the nine realms. Ruled over by the fire giant Surtr, the burning hot realm was filled with lava and fiery demons. During the catastrophic events of Ragnarök (the famous battle at the end of the world in Norse mythology), Surtr rose out of Muspelheim with his flaming sword and destroyed Ásgard and the gods.
Located deep beneath Midgard was the realm of Nidavellir/Svartalfheim. It was the home of the forge-welding dwarves; skilled craftsmen who created some of the most powerful and famous items in Norse mythology, including Thor’s hammer, the Mjollnir, Odin’s spear, the Gungnir as well as Odin’s magical gold ring known as the Draupnir. The dwarves beavered away in dark torch-lit caves, caverns and mines.
Along with Muspelheim, Niflheim was one of the first lands to appear and border the Ginnungagap. However, Niflheim was a misty land of snow and ice, the exact opposite of the flaming hot Muspelheim. Niflheim was such a cold place that no one was said to live there.
Whilst we know that the Vanir gods called Vanaheim their home, little else is known about the realm. Its location and description remain a mystery. However, the Vanir gods were associated with fertility, nature and magic, so one might presume the world might have been light and fertile. After the Æsir-Vanir War concluded, three gods from Vanaheim (Njörðr, Freyr and Freya) went to live in Ásgard as hostages.