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A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Because of their tendency to tear up my tulips, eat my Christmas lights, and bore into the side of my dwelling, squirrels are not my favorite animal. But the indignities which I bear from these bushy-tailed arboreal rodents are nothing compared to the animosity roused by Ratatoskr, the squirrel of Norse mythology who dwells on the trunk of Yggdrasil, the universe tree (which is described in this previous post).

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At the apex of Yggdrasil is perched the mighty eagle Hræsvelgr who causes the winds to blow through the world by flapping his wings. At the base of the tree, curled around the roots is Níðhöggr, the underworld dragon who eats away at the roots of Yggdrasil and thus undermines all of creation. Compared to giant eagles and chthonic dragons, squirrels are low-status monsters, yet Ratatoskr managed to stir up plenty of trouble. He would run up and down the tree between the dragon and the eagle telling each creature gossip about the other. At first, Ratatoskr made up slanders to tell the two monsters, but, in no time, the two haughty beings really were cursing each other (which made Ratatoskr even happier). To quote IO9, “Ratatosk has no grand scheme, and the eagle and the dragon aren’t prophesied to fight or do anything. Ratatosk is spending his free time perpetuating an animosity for no reason whatsoever.” As though this were not bad enough, the irrepressible squirrel is also reputed to gnaw at the great tree itself.

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (source unknown)

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (Art by Daniel Lieske http://daniellieske.com )

The Vikings regarded gossip as a low and churlish form of skullduggery reserved for thralls, slaves, churls and other such hoi-polloi. It seems appropriate that the embodiment of gossip and slander in their mythology was an annoying chattering squirrel.

The pre-Christian people of Scandinavia believed in a magical universe of great complexity.  They conceived of the cosmos as an immense ash tree, Yggdrasil.  Not only did the tree’s great roots wind beneath this world and hold it up; the roots tapped into other realms of existence beyond human reach—perhaps beyond the influence or full understanding of the gods themselves.  One root of Yggdrasil tapped into Muspellheim, the realm of fire and heat (home of the hungry fire god who waits to come forth and destroy all existence), while another great root wound down into Nidavellir–the enigmatic realm of the dwarves who scheme and build and fight.  One root was in Svartálfaheim, the even more enigmatic realm of the dark elves where unknown evil races carry on a mystery existence.  The deepest root of Yggrasil was believed to reach down into Niflheim, the frozen realm of the dead, where Hvergelmir, an eternally cold fountain, nourished the entire tree.  Niflheim was the land of primordial cold—the first place to exist (and the last place which will be left as the universe fades and dies).

This illustration should clarify things (sorry it's not in English).

Niflheim was also the Norse underworld (although, as the first paragraph indicates, there were many different underworlds and otherworlds in Norse cosmology). Niflheim which means “Land of Mist” was the frozen land of the damned and the unhappy dead, where non-heroic souls were slated to spend eternity.  Those who died of sickness old age, or common injury were destined to go to the great grim hall of Hel, the death goddess of the Norse pantheon and the ruler of Niflheim (who deserves her own post).  Truly destitute, evil, or abject spirits washed up on Nastrond, the haunted shore, where they would wonder through the dreadful cold, tormented by defeated frost giants and great ice monsters.

The fountain Hvergelmir was the very deepest part of Niflheim.  This fountain was believed to be the original point of creation of all things—the oldest part of the universe from whence all things initially came and to whence all things must eventually return far beyond Ragnarök, after the final destruction of all possible existences.  The frost giant Ymir’s body was composed of water which came from Hvergelmir (and the universe was made out of Ymir’s body after Odin, Vili, and , slew him and cut him apart).  Just above Hvergelmir, the giant serpent Níðhöggr gnawed unceasingly on Yggrdrasil’s roots in the hopes of someday bringing down the entire tree (Yggrasil was constantly threatened by dragons, giants, deer, rot and all other manner of danger).  Hvergelmir was guarded by Ivaldi and his sons, dark warriors charged with defending Hel’s realm against the frost giants.  But neither Ivaldi, nor his sons, nor Hel herself and her legions of damned could do anything about the fearsome Níðhöggr slowly eating away at the fundamental roots of existence.

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