Viking Symbolism: Yggrasil
Ever wake up from a bender feeling wiser than the day before? Does that wisdom often come with pain? Chances are, like Odin before you, you may have had an encounter with the great ash tree Yggrasil.
Yggdrasil is a symbol rooted deeply in the minds of humanity. Nearly every culture has some sort of tree of life or tree of wisdom, something that pierces through time and space, something that grants immortality or other boons to those that seek it. Usually, there is a test or trial that the seeker must go through before being permitted access to the tree. A great price must be paid for a goal to be achieved.
It’s no mistake that Yggdrasil is an ash, either. Ash trees have long been regarded as a tree of wisdom in Western European folklore. It is the tree from which the great Welsh hero, Gwyddion, cut his famous wand, the tree that witches get their brooms from, and three of the five sacred trees to the Irish Celts were said to be ash. Most metal, perhaps, is the fact that ash trees tend to draw a lot of lightning. Wisdom can often come in a flash and then leave those it hits changed or even burned ever after.
Yggdrasil is no different. This tree pierces through all of the Nine Worlds, holding them together sort of like a big staple. This idea has roots in Eurasian shamanic tradition dating back millennia, way before the Norse myths came into prevalence. In that sense, the symbol of Yggdrasil is one of our oldest symbols and is legitimately a part of the human psyche. And that’s pretty fuckin’ metal.
One of the most famous encounters with Yggrasil in the Norse canon is when Odin details how he learned the runes. This is recounted in the Hávamál, a poem from the Codex Regius. This verse is attributed to Odin himself but it has been handled and rewritten many times throughout the centuries by various skalds.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
Odin hangs himself upside down from the ash tree to gain wisdom and is pierced by a spear. Sound familiar? This symbol is comparable to that of Christ’s crucifixion in Christian lore, as well as the Hanged Man in Tarot. It’s a popular image of self-sacrifice with the intention of achieving a particular goal. Yggdrasil plays a special role in almost all contemporary forms of Norse mythology. For example, in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods (which is soon to be a TV show), it plays a major role in helping the main character, Shadow, accomplish his goals after he, too, sacrifices himself for several days.
If you’re looking for a symbol that denotes wisdom and the strenuous and painful path someone must take to get it, look no further than Yggdrasil. This is the perfect sign to engrave on the horn or tankard of a recent graduate, or even just a friend or family member who is known to spout wisdom in their cups.