The Viking universe was a complicated one. It was made up of nine different realms. Different realms were home to different races, and each had different themes. Of all the races, humans were the feeblest and in need of protection but also the most beloved of the gods. In Norse mythology, Midgard was the realm where humans resided, its mighty walls protecting us from outside threats. Here’s everything there is to know about the history of mighty Midgard, the protector of mankind.
Midgard’s Place in the Norse Cosmos
Most Viking stories followed the oral tradition, meaning they were spoken stories passed on from person to person, and rarely written down. Unsurprisingly this led to major variations in how these tales were told, much like a game of Chinese whispers.
Today, our main sources for Norse information on Midgard are the Poetic Edda , a collection of stories written in the 1200s but with much earlier origins, and the Prose Edda , another collection used to teach poets the stories.
These sources mention the nine realms that made up Norse cosmology. These were:
- Midgard (the home of humanity)
- Asgard (the home of the Aesir family of gods: Odin and company)
- Vanaheim (the home of a secondary family of the gods, the Vanir)
- Jotunheim (land of the giants)
- Helheim (the afterlife)
- Alfheim (home to the elves)
- Svartalfheim (home to the dark elves)
- Muspell (a realm of fire closely tied to the Norse creation myth)
- Niflheim (a freezing water realm also closely tied to the creation myth)
Midgard’s name suggests that it sat in the center of the Norse cosmos , surrounded by the other eight realms. In this interpretation, Midgard is not so much the Earth itself but the ramparts that protect it from the denizens of the other realms.
Other times the Norse cosmos is represented vertically with Midgard sandwiched between Asgard and Helheim / Niflheim. The three are held together by the tree of life , Yggdrasil. Its branches in Asgard, its base in Midgard, and its roots in Helheim.
Ymir, the “father of Midgard” sucks at the udder of Auðumbla as she licks Búri out of the ice in a painting by Nicolai Abildgaard, 1790. (Nicolai Abildgaard / CC0)
The Creation of Midgard
The first living thing in Norse mythology was the giant, Ymir. Ymir rose from the drops of water which formed when the ice of Niflheim met with the flames of Muspell. Ymir then began to sprout his children from his body, these were the first giants.
The first of the Aesir was formed when the primeval cow, Auoumbla, began licking some rhinestones. From these stones emerged Buri who in turn soon had a son called Borr (it isn’t recorded how). Borr married a Jotunn (giant) called Bestla. Borr and Bestla had three sons Odin, Vili, and Ve.
It was these sons who were responsible for the creation of Midgard. One day they decided to attack and kill Ymir. It was from his body that Midgard was formed. The land itself was shaped from his flesh, his hair made the trees, his bones were the mountains, and his teeth were cliffs. His brains were used to fill the sky with clouds and the oceans were filled with his blood.
According to the story, the Midgard is a disc surrounded by a deep sea. Along the edge of this great sea, the gods granted lands to the giants. To keep the mortals of Midgard safe a great wall was built around it to protect them from the giants. This wall was formed from Ymir’s eyebrows.
Midgard was symbolic of the constant battle between order and chaos. Within the fence of Midgard was “innangard,” which represented everything safe, civilized, and orderly. Outside the fence was “utangard.” Utangard represented everything chaotic and dangerous.
Thor’s fight with the giants over the safety of Midgard by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1872. (Mårten Eskil Winge / Public domain )
Midgard’s Savior, Thor, and Destroyer, the World Serpent
Two more figures from Norse mythology were closely tied to Midgard – Thor, and the world serpent, Jormungandr. The two had an antagonistic relationship, with Thor representing order and Jormungandr chaos.
Thor is often depicted as being strongly connected to humanity. He was frequently seen as the protector of Midgard. In mythology, Thor spent a significant amount of time traveling Midgard with various companions. These myths tend to revolve around Thor having a good time, then getting angry before crushing something / someone with his mighty hammer.
Jormungandr, the world serpent, on the other hand is no protector, he was instead prophesied to be the destroyer of Midgard during Ragnarok. Jormungandr was born to the god Loki and the Jotunn Angrboda. The serpent had two siblings, Fenrir the giant wolf, and Hel, queen of the dead.
It was said that the three siblings would bring about the destruction of everything during Ragnarok. Despite being told by the fates that Ragnarok was inevitable, Odin attempted to delay Ragnarok by separating the three siblings.
Jormunganr was thrown by Odin into the ocean of Midgard. There Jormungandr grew to an enormous size. Once he had grown so large that he encircled Midgard completely the serpent bit its tail, forming an ouroboros (circular serpent eating its own tail).
It was said that when Ragnarok finally came Jormungandr would release his tail and slither onto the land, causing tidal waves that would swallow the earth. He was destined to face off with Thor at the battle site at Vigrid. Here the two would fight to the death, Thor crushing Jormungandr’s skull before succumbing to the serpent’s venom and dying himself.
During Ragnarok, all of existence, including Midgard was destined to be destroyed. From the ashes of Midgard, it was said that a new, perhaps better world would sprout.
Thor fighting the mighty serpent Jormundgandr during a fishing trip with a giant in a painting by Henry Fuseli. (Royal Academy of Arts / Public domain )
In Norse mythology, Midgard represents the balance between the forces of chaos and order. Within its walls everything is safe, and humans live safely. Pounding on the walls are the chaotic Jotunn and the other forces of chaos.
This balance is also represented in the juxtaposition of Thor, protector of Midgard and order, and Jormungandr, agent of chaos. Whilst in most religions we expect the forces of order to succeed this is not the case in Norse mythology.
Thor and Jormungandr are shown to be equal in power, both managing to defeat each other. Rather than the destruction of Midgard at the hands of the siblings being shown to be a bad thing, however, it is shown to be positive. When order and chaos clash and Midgard is destroyed but a new world is created. The cycle continues.
Top image: A large Viking rune stone depicting the Midgard serpent in Trelleborg Sweden. Source: Lars Gieger / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell