The Myth Of Asgard Explained

Thanks in part to the Marvel comics and movies, more and more people know that the golden realm that houses (or, well, housed, after the events of 2017's "Thor: Ragnarok") heroic gods and goddesses such as Thor, Odin, and Sif, as well as the modestly less heroic Loki, is known as Asgard, the realm eternal. In the Norse cosmology, however, Asgard is just one of the Nine Realms that hang upon the world tree Yggdrasil. So what is it that makes Asgard so special?

If you've ever wondered how Asgard came to be and how it will come to not be anymore, or had questions like whether the Asgardians are the only gods or even just what Norse heaven is like, hop on over the shimmering rainbow bridge, give a hello to Heimdall, pass through the gates built by a cheated giant, and read on to learn all about this city of the gods for yourself.

What even is an Asgard?

Asgard is the home of the Norse sky gods, and in that sense its name is surprisingly literal. As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, the name Asgard (or Ásgarðr in Old Norse) is a combination of the Old Norse words āss (yes, get your giggles out), meaning "god," and garðr, meaning "enclosure" or "garden." So, yeah, it's literally just the garden of the gods. But specifically it's home to the Aesir, or the sky gods, whose name is just the plural of āss. It is probably for this reason that most modern English adaptations of Norse myth tend to stick to saying "Aesir" in the plural. The other major tribe of Norse gods, mentioned far less often in surviving texts, are the Vanir, who are less mighty sky warriors and more magical fertility deities.

The -gard element of the name, meaning "enclosure," is of course related to the English words garden and yard, but also the Latin word hortus (meaning "garden," as in "horticulture"), and the Russian suffix -grad (meaning "city," as in Stalingrad and Leningrad). Less immediately obvious related words in English include gird, girth, and girdle (as they all have to do with surrounding or enclosing something); and carol, choir, chorale, and chorus (because the original Greek chorus was a group that danced in a circle). Imagine if Asgard actually meant "dancing circle of the gods." It's clearly etymologically possible.

Just one realm of nine

While Christian cosmology posits the existence of Earth, heaven, and hell, and Greco-Roman mythology also centers around three realms –- Earth, Olympus, and the underworld –- Norse mythology talks about there being a total of nine realms. As Mythopedia explains, the Nine Realms all hang on the branches of the world tree Yggdrasil, an enormous ash tree that serves as the skeletal frame at the center of the cosmos. These realms are all distinct in character and location, but it is extremely possible to travel between them, with many myths centering around gods traveling from one realm to another.

The other realms include Vanaheim, home of the Vanir gods; Jotunheim, home of the frost giants; Midgard, where humans live; Alfheim, home of the elves; Nidavellir, home of the dwarves, which may or may not be the same as Svartalfheim, home of the dark elves; Muspelheim, realm of flame and the fire demon Surtur; and Niflheim, the land of mist and snow, which might contain or might be separate from Hel, the land of the dead.

While the specific locations of the Nine Realms around Yggdrasil are not made clear, a story called "Gylfaginning" ("The Deluding of Gylfi") says that the world tree stands on three roots which pass through three realms: Asgard, Jotunheim, and Niflheim, suggesting a position of importance for those three realms in particular.

Why -gard and not -heim?

Looking at a list of the Nine Realms, you may well ask yourself why it is that Asgard, realm of the sky gods, and Midgard, realm of humans, end in -gard, while the homes of the giants, dwarves, elves, fire demons, and the misty dead all end in -heim. Is there some real distinction, or is it just a matter of spicing up your cosmology with some variety in the place names? Norse Mythology for Smart People contends that there is a definite reason for the difference, namely that Germanic peoples (such as the Norse) had an important societal conception of the innangard –- i.e., things literally "inside the fence" –- and the utangard –- things "outside the fence." The innangard is civilized and orderly, while the utangard is chaotic and wild.

Asgard, as the walled city of the high gods, is the ultimate exemplar of the civilized, while the assorted -heims are simply the homelands of various races ("heim" meaning "home") who have not reached the level of civility of the gods of Asgard. The humans of Midgard ("middle enclosure") are, as the name implies, somewhere in the middle between the supremely organized high gods of Asgard and the unruly and chaotic frost giants of Jotunheim, though the fact that human civilization is walled off (as the -gard signifies) means that humans are closer to god than giant, theoretically.

Asgard's rainbow bridge

The realm of Asgard is a large one made up of several significant areas and halls, most of which are dedicated to specific gods. It is, fittingly as the home of the sky gods, in the sky –- at least, like, spiritually, if not literally and physically in the sky –- placing it at least metaphorically above the humans of Midgard. But that's not to say the two realms weren't connected. One of the most famous parts of Asgard is the Bifrost, the shimmering rainbow bridge that connects the sky realm to Earth. As Mythopedia explains, the bridge is guarded by the god Heimdall, who could see and hear everything and always stands vigilant against threats to his home, and whose job is to blow the mighty Gjallarhorn in case invading armies approach.

The "Gylfaginning" describes the Bifrost as "of three colors, and very strong, and made with cunning and with more magic art than other works of craftsmanship." While it might seem strange to modern eyes to see a rainbow described as three colors (presumably Norse children didn't learn about Roy G. Biv), the red of the bridge served a specific purpose: It was a magic flame meant to prevent any frost giants from being able to cross into Asgard. Without the rainbow bridge, the Aesir would have to wade through perilous and uncharted waters to travel along the world tree.

The hall of the slain

Perhaps the most famous area of the realm of Asgard is Valhalla, the glorious hall of the valorous dead. According to the Encyclopedia Mythica, Valhalla literally means "hall of the slain," and it is the gathering place of the souls of those who fell bravely in battle. The hall belongs to Odin, the king of the Aesir, and he uses it as a gathering place for the souls of warriors known as the einherjar, the bravest of warriors chosen by Odin's valkyries to form an army to rage against the forces of darkness in the end times known as Ragnarök.

The hall is enormous, with 540 doors, each large enough for 800 warriors to pass through at one time. Its roof is plated with shields and its rafters made of spears, while the vast benches within the hall are strewn with warriors' breastplates. Inside, the einherjar spend the day feasting and drinking mead served by valkyries in between bouts of fighting in preparation for their final battle. Odin himself joins in with the feasting warriors but eats no food, only partaking of wine. The mead the einherjar drink comes from the udders of a magical goat, and an eagle flies overhead at all times, hopefully not pooping in their magic goat mead. The goat Heiðrún can only produce that much mead by grazing on the leaves of Læraðr, one of multiple magic trees that grow around Valhalla.

The field of the other slain

Not everyone who dies goes to Valhalla, however. According to Mythopedia, the vast majority of people go to Hel, the cold and unfeeling realm ruled by the cold and unfeeling goddess of the same name. Valhalla is reserved only for those who fall in battle, and even then, only half of slain warriors go to Odin's golden hall. The other half find themselves in another area of Asgard known as Folkvangr, which is the domain of the goddess Freya, who despite being one of the Vanir lives in Asgard, as does her brother Freyr. Folkvangr –- or "the field of the people" -– is, as the name suggests, not only the place of eternal rest for the warriors who didn't make the cut for Valhalla (possibly the distinction is between officers and regular soldiers, per Ancient Origins), but also for some who died of other causes. Unlike Valhalla, it may house the souls of women.

Freya's hall within the field of Folkvangr is known as Sessrumnir, which is often described as a sprawling hall (as the Encyclopedia Mythica says, the name means "seat-roomy"), but some sources indicate that it may have actually been a large ship sitting in a meadow. This description likely mirrored actual Norse burial practices, in which burial mounds were constructed in the shape of ships in the middle of fields.

Other regions of Asgard

Besides the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard to Earth and the two realms of the dead, the sky kingdom of the gods has a number of other discrete sections as well, most of which are dedicated to specific gods. The poem "Grimnismol" ("The Ballad of Grimnir") gives a pretty detailed description of the topography of the home of the gods, breaking it down into 12 main realms. As the Encyclopedia Mythica says, Þrúðheimr is the home of Thor, though elsewhere it is called Þrúðvangr, and is where Thor's mighty hall Bilskírnir, the largest house in all creation, can be found. Thor's brother Balder lives in Breiðablik, the most beautiful dwelling in heaven, where nothing unclean can be found. The guardian of the Bifrost, Heimdall, lives in Himinbjörg, which is located right by the bridge itself. Odin's high watchtower Hliðskjálf can be found in the realm of Valaskjálf, the shelf of the slain.

The meeting hall of the Aesir is called Glaðsheimr and is made entirely of gold, with 12 seats for the gods inside, plus a high throne for the Allfather Odin. The hall Vingólf was the corresponding gathering place for the goddesses of Asgard. The other realms serve as homes for lesser-known gods including the archer-god Ull, the half-giantess Skaði, the god of justice Forseti, the sea god Njörðr, and Odin's son Víðarr.

How Asgard came to be

According to Mythopedia, at the beginning of time the Nine Realms had not yet come into being. Instead, Muspelheim, the realm of fire, and Niflheim, the realm of ice, were separated by an enormous cosmic void known as the Ginnungagap. Eventually, however, the fires of Muspelheim spread their heat across the emptiness of space and began to melt the ice of Niflheim. The resultant steam formed into the first giant, Ymir, and a cosmic cow that nursed him. The cow herself fed on the salty blocks of ice and frost, unknowingly licking free Buri, the first of the Aesir and the grandfather of Odin. Odin and his brothers grew up to slay Ymir and built the rest of the realms from his body to fill the Ginnungagap, with the mountains made of his bones, the oceans made of his blood, the sky from his skull, and so on.

As the Encyclopedia Mythic explains, after finishing the creation of Midgard, Odin turned his sights to creating a home for the Aesir, and so created a city on the plain of Iðavöllr, where Odin built the great halls Glaðsheimr and Vingólf to be the meeting places for the gods. The great golden city was subsequently broken up into the 12 regions for the various gods and goddesses. It's not all buildings, though: Asgard is also home to the magic gold-leafed tree (or grove) Glasir.

The war that rocked Asgard

As mentioned above, the Aesir were not the only gods in the Norse cosmology. The realm of Vanaheim was the home to the Vanir, who were earthier fertility gods compared to the lofty warrior gods of Asgard. And like any two groups of powerful figures with completely different world views, they of course came into conflict with each other. As Norse Mythology for Smart People explains, the Aesir-Vanir War began when the Vanir goddess Freya came to Asgard offering her magical services. The Aesir were so impressed –- and later enraged -– by Freya's great abilities that they tried to kill her, burning her three times and failing each time, as the goddess continually rose from the ashes.

This violent course of action led to a war between the Aesir and the Vanir in which the sky gods battled with weapons and strength and the fertility gods fought with magic. Each side gained the upper hand at various points, but in the course of battle, Asgard was destroyed. Eventually a truce was reached between the two realms and the pantheons were united. This accord was confirmed by some of the Vanir -– including Freya and her brother Freyr –- coming to live in Asgard, while some Aesir -– Hoenir and Mimir –- went to Vanaheim. The gods all also spat into a cauldron and made a man from the spit, but that's another story.

How Asgard got its walls

Following the destruction of Asgard in the Aesir-Vanir War, the gods decided to rebuild their home realm as a mighty fortress with an impenetrable wall. As the Encyclopedia Mythica relates, a nameless giant happened by and offered to do exactly that. He promised that he could build walls that would keep out the giants and other enemies of the gods, and that he could do it by the first day of summer. In exchange, however, he asked for a hefty fee: the goddess Freya, as well as the sun and the moon. The gods reluctantly agreed but warned that he would get no payment if he was not completely, 100% done by that time. The builder consented to these terms, and he and his horse (who does get a name, Svaðilfari) got to work.

The builder and his horse worked day and night hauling stones until, as winter drew near, the builder had crafted an impenetrable defense. Three days before summer, the gods worried they would have to actually pay him. But crafty Loki shape-shifted into a sexy horse and seduced the builder's stallion. Without his horse, the builder couldn't finish in time, and his contract was void. When the giant got angry about being cheated, the gods called Thor, who burst his skull "into small crumbs." Anyway, Horse-Loki got pregnant and gave birth to Odin's magic eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.

The end and new beginning of Asgard

The Aesir-Vanir War would not be the last time Asgard would be destroyed, however. As even the most casual fans of Norse mythology know, eventually even the gods will fall in the apocalyptic event known as Ragnarök. According to Mythopedia, not even the much-vaunted realm of the gods will be immune to the destruction at the end of the world. The prophecy of Ragnarök says that the fire giant Surtr will lead a host of flaming giants out of Muspelheim against Asgard with his fiery sword, brighter than the sun. Surtr and his army will ride out of a split in the sky across the bridge Bifrost, shattering the Earth-heaven rainbow connection as they ride past, making it nearly impossible for Thor to traverse the world tree. The gods and the hordes of Muspelheim will meet on the fields of Vígríðr, a giant plain that stretches 100 leagues in each direction, where the final confrontation will take place and everything, including Asgard, will be destroyed, leaving nothing but the yawning void from which creation was spawned.

However, not literally all will be lost. As the Encyclopedia Mythica explains, the gods Víðarr and Váli will survive the end times untouched by the fires of Surtr and dwell in the field of Iðavöllr, where they will be joined by Thor's sons Móði and Magni, now in possession of Thor's hammer, as well as a few other survivors.

Terrestrial Asgards

The major source of much of Norse mythology is Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic writer and Christian who composed and compiled the collection of tales known as the "Prose Edda." Snorri, not believing in the Norse gods themselves, often included details trying to explain that the stories of the gods were actually about powerful kings and wizards of the distant past. As the Encyclopedia Mythica says, Snorri claimed that the shining city of Asgard was actually a hyped-up version of the ancient city of Troy. This, uh, is almost certainly not the case, but that's not to say that there haven't been a number of places that have tried to make Norse heaven a place on Earth.

As Mythopedia points out, there are several places named after the legendary city of the Aesir, including Asgard Peak in British Columbia in Canada, fittingly part of the Valhalla Range (though it seems Valhalla should be part of Asgard and not vice versa, but whatever); Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, in a different part of Canada; the Asgard Range in Antarctica, which is basically as far from Canada as you can get; and the Aasgard Pass (yes, with two A's) in the Cascades in Washington State, which is basically as close to Canada as you can get, so who knows what's up with Canada and Asgard.