Asgard was the home of the mighty Norse gods, from where they watched over the other eight realms and administered justice. It was also the final resting place of the dead and where Odin, King of the Gods, held court. Asgard played an essential part in the Norse stories and is still prevalent in some popular culture today. Many of us know of Asgard from the Marvel Universe, but how did the Norse people really think about the realm of the Gods?
What Was Asgard? Who Lived There and How?
Asgard was part of a complex system of beliefs held by Scandinavian and Germanic people. The general mythological tradition in which the ideas of Asgard can be placed is thought to have developed in about 1000 BC where it took the form of religious and material culture. It is thought this belief system lasted until the Christianization of these areas between around 900 and 1200 AD.
According to this ideology, there were three tribes of deities, the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. Asgard was the home of the Aesir gods. The distinction between the Aesir and Vanir depends on at what point in their long history you look at them. There are tales of their wars but also of their harmony when they are said to have made peace and inter-married.
Perhaps the easiest way to differentiate between them are their spheres of influence. Whilst the Aesir and Vanir were both tribes of gods, the Jotun were giants. The Aesir represented war and conquest, whereas the Vanir embodied fertility and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, were seen as the villains, a malefic race who, despite being acknowledged as wise, presented the primary threat to the Aesir and the Vanir.
These gods did not all live together and each had its own separate realm. The Aesir had Asgard, the Vanir had Vanaheim, and the Jotun had Jotunhiem. Asgard was where the Aesir dwelled, where their homes or palaces were.
Asgard also served a number of functions. Not only was it where Odin held court, but it was also where the great halls of Valhalla were located. It was here that half the souls of all those who died in battle would end up in the afterlife, while the other half went to the goddess Freya in Folkvangr, not far away.
Asgard was connected to the human world (Midgard) via the Bifrost (or “shimmering path”). This was a rainbow bridge which had been constructed by the gods and was guarded by the god Heimdall.
Illustration of Yggdrasil, the sacred world tree of Norse mythology said to support the universe, from the English translation of Prose Edda, an Old Norse textbook. ( Public domain )
The Many Realms of Norse Mythology
Asgard was not alone. There were eight other realms, all of which were located on the world tree or Yggdrasil. These realms were made up of Asgard and Vanaheim (homes of the Aesir and Vanir gods), Jotunheim (the realm of the giants), Midgard (the realm of mortals), Niflheim (the realm of ice, fog and mist), Alfhiem (the realm of the light elves), Nidavellir (the realm of dwarves), Muspelhiem (the realm of the fire giants and demons) and finally Helheim (the realm of the dishonorable dead).
All these realms were supported by Yggdrasil with Asgard at the top of the branches, Midgard about halfway up and surrounded by an impassable sea and the underworld (Niflheim and Helheim) at the bottom, among its roots.
Whilst Asgard was the realm of the gods and the place from which they controlled the universe, it should not be conflated with the idea of a Christian heaven. It is perhaps more beneficial to consider Asgard as like the Greek Mount Olympus . That is, as the residence of the gods with feasting halls where warriors were sent, rather than a Heaven.
Asgard was the home of the mighty Norse gods, as well as the location of Valhalla, seen here, where Odin held court. Source: Public domain
Asgard in Norse Mythology
Asgard featured heavily in Norse mythology , and it often featured when the exploits of the Aesir gods were mentioned. Their homes in Asgard are often likened to the castles or feasting halls of mortal royalty. The realm is mentioned by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson who wrote his Prose Edda in the 13th century.
In his poem Gylfaginning Sturluson tells the story of a Swedish king named Gylfi who travelled in pursuit of knowledge. He eventually found himself in what he believed to be Asgard. What had happened, however, was that the gods had tricked him into believing that was where he was. He was then questioned by the gods about their history.
It is Gylfi’s answers to these questions which make up the book. According to what follows, Asgard simply existed, unquestioned in Norse thought, as was the case with the other realms on the world tree. It was said that the realm began when Odin brought law and order. He then ordered the construction of buildings. This gave way to a town and two stout halls. The halls of Valhalla were then constructed in the field of Gladsheim. Sturluson records Odin’s work in a lot of detail and recounts step by step what the God did.
Asgard is also described within a poem named Grimnismol, in the Poetic Edda . This is summarized and expanded upon by Sturluson in his Prose Edda . Sturluson writes:
“There is also in that place [Asgard] the abode called Breidablik, and there is not in heaven a fairer dwelling. There, too, is the one called Glitnir, whose walls, and all its posts and pillars, are of red gold, but its roof of silver. There is also the abode called Himinbjörg; it stands at heaven’s end by the bridge-head, in the place where Bifröst joins heaven. Another great abode is there, which is named Valaskjálf; Odin possesses that dwelling; the gods made it and thatched it with sheer silver, and in this hall is the Hlidskjálf, the high-seat so called. Whenever Allfather sits in that seat, he surveys all lands.” (Sturluson, Gylfaginning)
Sturluson also mentions the Bifrost in his poem Gylfaginning:
“Has it not been told thee, that the gods made a bridge from earth, to heaven, called Bifröst? Thou must have seen it; it may be that ye call it rainbow. It is of three colors, and very strong, and made with cunning and with more magic art than other works of craftsmanship.” (Sturluson, Gylfaginning)
Whilst this passage illustrates the importance of the gods’ involvement in the construction of the bridge, another important factor in the construction of the bridge was fear – fear of invasion.
For example, in the Prose Edda , when talking about the red band of the rainbow on the bridge, Sturluson states “that which thou seest to be red in the bow is burning fire; the Hill-Giants might go up to heaven, if passage on Bifröst were open to all those who would cross.” For the Aesir gods, the threat of an invasion by the Jotun giants was a constant and very real threat. It was a fear of this threat that compelled the Aesir to build a giant wall around their city. This myth is one of the most famous that involves Asgard and is detailed below.
Valhalla, located in the realm of Asgard, as depicted by Max Brückner. ( Public domain )
The Destruction of Asgard
In some records, it states that Asgard was destroyed in a war between the Aesir and Vanir. The former was ultimately victorious, but their realm was left in ruins due to the fighting. In order to rebuild and protect their beautiful home from future invasions, the gods enlisted the help of a giant.
This giant agreed to help rebuild the mighty realm and encircle the city with a wall by the first day of summer if he could claim the beautiful goddess Freya as his wife. The gods were reluctant but could see no other way to rebuild their home and so agreed the the deal.
However, they devised a scheme in order to save Freya from this fate. The mischievous god Loki was enlisted. He transformed himself into a mare and distracted the giant’s horse. Because of the back-breaking nature of his work, the horse had been vital to the giant’s work, and without it, he was lost.
Completely unable to complete his work, the giant was furious and sought out the gods. He came to them with violence, but he was quickly struck down by Thor. The gods were eventually able to finish rebuilding without the giant because he had already done so much, and Freya was saved.
The real and final destruction of Asgard came with Ragnarök. Ragnarök was the prophesied end of the world in Norse mythology and not even the gods were safe. It was said that the giant Surt would lead the fire giants in a march against the world tree.
The gods would fight the fire giants on the fields of Vigrid, but would all be destroyed. Asgard would then sink into oblivion and a void would take all that was once there. Some prophesied that the world would then begin anew from that void, but they do not mention if that world would include a renewed Asgard.
Asgard burning in a scene from the last phase of Ragnarök. ( Public domain )
What Does Asgard Mean?
It seems that the name Asgard comes from two Old Norse words. The first is āss which meant God, and the second is garðr which meant enclosure or garden. A good translation would be “enclosure of the (Aesir) gods” because Asgard was effectively shut off from the outside world.
It can also be said that the “-gard” part of Asgard’s name can be linked to the ancient Germanic distinction between innangard and utangard. Innangard roughly translates as “inside the fence” and characterized the orderly and law-abiding. Utangard, on the other hand, translates as “beyond the fence” and characterized the chaotic and wild.
These principles could be applied to both the real world and the human psyche. Thoughts could be innangard or utangard as well as places and things. It, therefore, seems to apply to Asgard which can be seen as the model of innangard, whereas a place like Jotunheim (the realm of the giants) is the image of utangard.
Similarly, Midgard (the realm of humans) can be translated to “middle enclosure.” The name suggests it exists somewhere in the middle, not quite innangard like Asgard but not as utangard as Jotunheim.
To conclude, it is evident that Asgard occupied an important place in Norse mythology . It features in many of the myths about the Aesir gods and holds a crucial place on the world tree. Furthermore, by examining the physical make-up of the city itself we can learn much about the gods themselves. For example, the fortification of the city walls and of the Bifrost demonstrates their fear of the giants.
The city has retained a place in popular culture as it has been a visual spectacle in many of the Marvel Thor comics and films. It is from these modern re-interpretations of these mythological spaces that many of us gain our preliminary understandings of these ancient concepts.
Top image: Depiction of Valhalla, where Odin held court at Asgard, from the 1878 staging by Hermann Burghart of Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner. ( Public domain )
By Molly Dowdeswell