By Amanda Class
(Originally published Lughnasa 1995)
World Trees appear in many mythologies, the Cabala of the Hebrews and the Saxon Irminsul being two examples. The trees are cosmic maps of the Otherworlds our ancestors recognised. They are also called Trees of Life - all life, not just human. The more familiar "wheel of the year" showing the elements and compass points is a flat diagram of earth. World trees must be thought of in 3-D. The tree is a living cosmic axis with its roots in the Underworld, linking with the trunk on the soil of our Earth and its branches in the air of the Otherworld of spirit. These three levels or planes of existance are found in the Celtic system and are the reason that three was a magickal number. Yggdrasil of the Northern Tradition also recognises these three levels but divides them into nine worlds or fruits of the tree. Nine is also an important magickal number. The maypole, the besom and the staff all represent Yggdrasil and proper use of these enables travel between the worlds.
Yggdrasil grew from Ginnungagap, the cosmic void before creation. Other names for the tree in the Northern Tradition are Laeradr, which may come from "Hleradr" meaning "giver of protection" and Mimameidr meaning "Mimir's Tree". Mimir was a wise giant, one of the world's first beings. Later the tree becomes associated with Odin. The name Yggdrasil means "Ygg's Horse", Ygg ("Terrible One") being an aspect of Odin. It is also called "Odin's Gallows Steed", this referring to Odin's shamanic ordeal which enabled him to discover the power of the Runes. This is described in the poem Havamal: "I know that I hung on the windy tree, the nights all nine .... I looked below. I took up the runes - screaming I fell back from there". Odin did not invent the Runes but he learned their secrets, some of which he taught to humanity. He may not have been the first to make this discovery as there is a reference in the myths to Freya teaching Odin Runelore.
The significance of the horse in the name Yggdrasil is interesting as the horse is the favourite shamanic animal for travel between the worlds. There are other creatures associated with the tree. Niddhogr ("the one striking full of hatred") is a dragon or worm who, with a group of snakes, gnaws at the roots, symbolising chaos. A squirrel called Ratatosk scurries up and down the tree relaying insults between the dragon and the eagle at the top who creates the wind by flapping his wings. Between his brows stands a falcon; this may symbolise the union of male and female. Four harts and a stag graze on the leaves and from the stag's antlers water drips into a spring which feeds all the rivers of the world. The bark is eaten by a goat called Heidrun, whose udders produce an endless supply of mead. Bees are fed from the dew that falls from the tree.
The damage caused by the animals is repaired by the Norns, three goddesses who give to each of us a destiny to fulfill or to fight against. The three represent the past, present and future. The Norns repair and care for the tree, watering its roots and putting clay on its trunk. Beneath the tree are three springs, Urd's Well (Urd is one of the Norns), Mimir's Well (where the eye that Odin sacrificed, in exchange for a draught of the sacred Mead of Knowledge from Heimdall's horn, is hidden) and Hvergelmir, the bubbling cauldron where Niddhogr lives.
Yggdrasil is commonly described as an ash tree. This is unlikely as, in the mythology, it is always referred to as an evergreen. A more likely candidate is the evergreen yew tree. Nigel Pennick suggests that an old name for the yew, needle ash, is the source of this confusion. There may also be a clue in the name Yggdrasil. Schroder interprets this as yew pillar (yggia from igwja = yew, and drasil from dher = support). To the Celts the yew was the tree of death and resurrection which ties in with the Hebrew Tree of Life and the general theme of these trees.
The yew contains an alkaloid poison called taxine, a shamanistic drug and a suitable choice to aid Odin's sacrifice. The toxin induces a near-death state enabling the soul to leave the body. With our modern, weaker, constitutions it is foolish to experiment with yew without proper training of the body and the right knowledge to prepare the potion. Very few have the skill and even then it would be dangerous - so don't be tempted to try to imitate Odin! Meditating near a yew tree in hot weather can produce trance as yew gives off a toxic vapour. This is also risky without an experienced helper to watch over and move you in case of an overdose. Yew's deadly poison also explains the Gallows and Terrible references derived from the name Yggdrasil
Several symbols are used in magick to indicate Yggdrasil. The Celtic Triskele of three loops is also found in the Northern Tradition. It shows the view looking down from above the tree so that the three roots are clearly seen and it also shows the three levels. The rune Algiz is the most widely used symbol. This is also called a goosefoot, a very ancient representation of the goddess, tracing the line between her closed legs topped with the v-shape of her vulva. This and the fact that the Norns are guardians of the tree leads to the theory that Yggdrasil, the universe, if it has a gender, is probably female. Modern science also supports this idea as it teaches that sex is determined by two genes, the X and the Y chromosomes. A woman's sex chromosome is XX, a man's XY. At conception every foetus is female - XX. For a boy to develop one X gene must mutate to a Y gene.
The yew is one of the longest lived trees. Most species of tree live decades, some like the oak take centuries to grow and die; recently yews have been acknowledged as capable of surviving for thousands of years. A Scottish yew tree at Fortingale in Perthshire is estimated to be 2,000 years old. More ancient ones exist in other countries. Each tree can produce many trunks, some specimens have over a hundred. Each trunk grows from the inside, its core endlessly dividing as the bark forms then sloughs off. This unusual property and the evergreen leaves fit well with our Eternal World Tree. A yew is alive in the human sense in that it "bleeds" a red-colourd resin; this may well be the dew described in the myths as falling from Yggdrasil. Yew blood is a potent magickal substance.
The lore of our mystical Yggdrasil is deep and strong. It guides us through worlds, seen and unseen and charts our way between them.