Hello loves! I’m so excited to announce that today is the day when the first full-length episode of my new podcast drops! I decided to start at the beginning, and take us all the way through the nine realms of Yggdrasil.
Because not everyone is an audio fan, I’ve decided to include transcripts of episodes here on the website.
Hello, and welcome to the Heathen’s Journey Podcast. I’m your host, Abbie Plouff, and I’m so glad you’re here. This is the show where I explore inclusive heathenry as a queer woman. We will be talking about traditional witchcraft, runes, folklore, and so much more. Join us, won’t you? As we journey to the ends of the nine realms and back.
This is the first episode, so of course I’m going to take some extra time to get situated, talk through my own vision for this podcast, and give you some of my own personal background. Grab a cup of tea (or mead – skol!), and settle in.
We’ll be learning about heathenry from ancient times through the Viking era up until the present day, and then find ways to make these folk traditions more applicable to life in our modern world. From liberated views on gender and sexuality all the way down to cyber-runes, there’s a lot we can do to make our Norse practices resonate more deeply. But, as one history nerd to other history nerds, I do believe it’s important to understand where we’ve come from in order to know where we want to go. This podcast will be a way for me to share my explorations of the Nine Realms with you, as well as to highlight and share the work that others are doing in this field.
I practice what I call a mixture of modern heathenry and traditional witchcraft. I refuse to call myself Asatru, for a couple of reasons. First, there are a hell of a lot of white supremacists in the Asatru movement, and it’s difficult to differentiate yourself from them if you go by that term. That’s really too bad, because in the Norse “Asatru” literally means “those who follow the Aesir.” So if you work with Odin, Thor, Frigga, or any of the other Aesir, then you do fall under that umbrella.
Heathenry is much broader than working with the Aesir, and it involves a ton of Norse and Germanic folk practices that don’t center around deity worship. I tend to work with my ancestral guides far more than I work with the Gods themselves, though I do feel their presence in my daily life. I also work with Freyja as one of my primary deities, and she is a Vanir living among the Aesir. (We’ll talk more about that later – I promise!)
You might hear heathens refer to Asatru derisively as “Wiccatru,” which I bristle at a bit. The term is intended to reflect the Wiccanization of a lot of heathen practices in the 60s and 70s, and some pure Norse reconstructionist pagans take major issue with how Wicca has infiltrated Asatru. To which I say: religions grow and change, and that’s ok! But it’s important to understand the ways they grow and change. It will help you have the deepest relationship possible with your faith, to think about it from many angles and to think critically.
Long story short: I refer to myself as a Heathen in order to distance myself from far-right white supremacist Asatruar, and because the term better fits my own practice.
I also refer to myself as a Traditional Witch. Those two words together can mean a lot of different things. So here’s what *I* mean when I say I’m a Traditional Witch.
Traditional Witchcraft is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of non-Wiccan practices of witchcraft inspired by folklore. The four main focuses of traditional witchcraft are: the use of magic, connection with the land, folkloric reconstruction of traditional witchcraft, and working with spirits in the physical realm and the Pagan Otherworlds. Most of the traditional witches that I know come from a background of Celtic and British magic, but there is such a delicious area of overlap between Traditional Witchcraft and Heathenry that I will continue to bring it forward.
As you will get to know from listening to this podcast, I love folklore. I love history. I love weird stories and magic that are hyper-local. The podcast that first got me listening to podcasts is Lore by Aaron Mahnke. There are so many things we can learn from folklore, if we only know where to look. Folklore explains how our ancestors lived – it explains what they were afraid of, what they hoped for, what their spiritual landscape was.
This whole episode is about getting to know the lay of the land. The basics. We are defining our terms, defining what the rest of this podcast will be about, and also getting to know the landscape of the Heathen’s Journey.
What better place to start, then, than a deep dive into the Nine Realms of the Norse world?
One of the major aspects of the Traditional Witchcraft movement is a belief in the Pagan Otherworlds. This is the place where a lot of the spirits reside. To go there is to go on a psychic journey both into yourself and into the spirit landscape.
The Pagan Otherworlds can be very different, based on who you are. They mimic the landscapes of your dreams. We, as humans, can’t necessarily comprehend the spirit world – it’s not for us. So our minds create images to make sense of what’s going on when we’re in the Pagan Otherworlds. If you come from a particular cultural background, you may have inherited a view of the Otherworlds.
In Heathenry, we have the Nine Realms of Yggdrasil. Muspelheim, Niflheim, Helheim, Midgard, Svartalfheim, Midgard, Jotunheim, Ljosalfheim, Vanaheim, Asgard. These are the nine worlds you can travel to through the World Tree itself.
Yggdrasil acts as an axis mundi. You may have heard that term before, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you what it means. The Axis Mundi is a semi-spiritual term for the center of the earth, or, the axis on which the earth turns. It is also considered to be a sacred place, where heaven and earth are connected. There are many other cultural examples of the Axis Mundi – Mecca in Islam being chief among them – but for the Norse, the world centered around Yggdrasil.
This is not a specific place, but rather a spiritual one. Yggdrasil itself was considered the gateway to the other realms. If you wanted to speak with the gods, you would consider meditating on the world tree, climbing its branches up to Asgard. If you wanted to consult your ancestors, you would climb down the roots to get to Helheim.
Three of the realms are considered “low” realms, three “higher” realms, and three “middle” realms. Don’t get confused with these terms – there isn’t necessarily a hierarchy to these realms. It’s more a physical location. For example, Helheim is considered a “lower realm” because it is located within the roots of Yggdrasil. This makes sense: it’s the realm of the dead, who are buried beneath our feet, hence it’s a “lower” realm. The land of the elves – Alfheim – is considered a “higher” realm, because the elves themselves are creatures of the air. They float around the branches of Yggdrasil.
In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturlulson describes all of the worlds as being in the roots of Yggdrasil. However, most of the Heathens I know tend to think about the worlds being outside the tree itself. It helps us to conceptualize the actual journey that we make as we go between the worlds. It also helps us to keep the world contained. If all nine realms are within the roots of the worldtree, what’s above the soil? A worthwhile question, but one that I won’t go into too much just yet.
The first of the worlds I want to explore is also the one we know the best: Midgard. This is the realm where we live. It is known as the “realm of man” in Norse mythology, and contains the magnificent forests, fields, oceans, mountains, all of the living creatures we know, and all of the amazing places we can go as our physical selves.
This might sound boring – like a place that you don’t quite want to start. Why do we have to conceive of a world for humanity? What is so special about Midgard that we need to go there in our spirit journeys?
Diana Paxson refers to Midgard as the spiritual side of our everyday realm. Seeing Midgard for what it is means seeing an inherent spirituality in the things all around you. It’s tapping into Animism, or the understanding that “inanimate” objects, as well as the living things around you, have souls of their own. Tapping into Midgard energy helps us to see things more clearly in our everyday reality, as well as show respect for the other living and non-living things in our environment.
Niflheim is known as the land of mists. It was present at the Norse creation – the world of ice that clashed with the world of fire. It lies to the North, and consists of ice, glaciers, hail, and all things frozen. It is also where water begins to move, and is known in Snorri’s Prose Edda as the place where all rivers emerge from the ice. This place, where the rivers come from, is known as the Seething. I will talk more about this later, but Seething is also then connected to women’s/femme/nonbinary magical traditions, the seidrwork. At the base of the Seething is a great well, known as Hvergelmir. It is adjacent to the Hell-gates, or the gates into the other realms of the underworld.
Muspelheim, home of divine fire, is the other creative force of the nine realms. When the fire and ice met at the beginning of time, and from their meeting came the other realms. Not much is known of Muspelheim, though fire demons and beings live here. Surt rides out of the Muspelheim and kills Frey in the battle of Ragnarok. Both Niflheim and Muspelheim are known as chaotic worlds, places that humans fear to travel.
The last of the Underworlds is Helheim. This is the place of our ancestors, of the dead. Not all ancestors end up in Helheim – there are several different homes for the dead in Norse tradition. Helheim is where the dead end up who did not die in battle. The question of where souls go after they pass on in the Norse tradition is an interesting one. It depends greatly on your actions in life, if you were pledged to a specific god or goddess (this is fairly rare), if you were a warrior, and many other questions. The Norse also believe in a threefold soul, and different aspects of your soul may go to different halls or Otherlands. There are even multiple landscapes within Helheim – a particularly cold and desolate part of Helheim is Niflhel.
Hel is not necessarily evil, despite how the term applies to Christianity. Perhaps if you are relegated to the doldroms of Niflhel it is a terrible experience. However, we know that there are always plants growing in Hel even when it’s winter in Midgard. Hella accepts all dead, and has a place for everyone. Paxson warns against going to Helheim before you are ready, as its peace and quiet are tempting. You may want to stay there.
I will do several episodes on the different concepts of death and dying in Norse mind – so don’t worry, we will return to the depths of Hel together.
Moving up the trunk of Yggdrasil and back into the light, there are two realms adjacent to Midgard that we need to discuss: Jotunheim and Ljosalfheim.
Jotunheim is the realm of the giants. The gods travel here a lot in the Norse myth cycle, so we have many glimpses into Jotunheim. This is a mystical place of mountains and mist. This world is truly massive, a mirror to our world but on a gigantic scale. This world sprang up when the Jotnar and Etins needed a home to call their own. They floated on a river of Ymir’s blood to Jotunheim, and have resided there ever since. You can see Jotunheim as you descend down the world tree into the underworld realms, but it seems to move around. Patricia M. Lafayllve says it’s best to consider Jotunheim somewhere “over there” – over the next mountain, beyond the bounds of what we know of as Midgard.
Ljosalfheim is a realm that is less well known outside of heathen circles. This is where the “light elves” live. You can think of them as being similar to fae. They are connected to specific places, and sometimes given duties as landvaettir. Folk traditions in Scandinavia are particularly interested in appeasing the Ljosalf and Landvaettir, and were some of the folk traditions it was most difficult to get people to stop practicing. This is where you see people leaving out gifts of honey, milk, and trinkets. The realm of Ljosalfheim is very close to ours, so close that it’s only really a slip away. This is the home of Frey, the realm given to him by the Aesir. He is the benign ruler of this place. Snorri describes the Light Elves as fairest of all beings to look upon. Ljosalfheim hosts the Gimle, the home of righteous human souls after Ragnarok. For now, the Light Elves are keeping it safe.
Swartalfheim is another realm of the elves, or as we know them, the dwarves. These are the “dark elves” of Norse mythology. They do not look like the light elves, and they are extremely cranky in nature. They are dark elves because they live in the darker parts of the earth, in the mounds and under the mountains, in the shadowy depths of the forest. They are very small, though they were born of the maggots that feasted on Ymir’s body. Not much is known of Swartalfheim, though we do know that it is a place of great wealth. The dwarves are master craftsmen, the makers of Freyja’s Brisingamen and the gifts to the gods – including Thor’s hammer.
The two realms of the elves pose an interesting problem to the modern heathen. In particular, I bristle at the idea of the “light” and “dark” dualism that lends itself to racism. I don’t want to see a value judgement between the “light” elves being “good” and the “dark” elves being “bad.” Some heathens interpret Light Elves as being concerned with beauty and intellect, and Dark Elves being concerned with material wellbeing and the unconscious. Dark Elves can also be given offerings near burial mounds, and there is some cultural evidence that both types of elves are transformed spirits of the dead and ancestors. It just depends on the personality of that ancestor and their role.
The concept of elves and their relationship to the ancestors will also be another podcast episode – there is so much to go into here and not much time left!
We are climbing into the upper branches of Yggdrasil now, and find ourselves at the gates of Vanaheim.
The Vanir are another race of gods. They are known as magic-wielders, more nature-spirit than human. They aren’t terribly concerned about what happens in Midgard, seeming to spend more of their time with the elves. This is potentially why Ljosalfheim was given to Freyr, but I’ll get a bit more into that later. Diana Paxson writes about the Vanir as more introspective beings, those who are more concerned with intellect and liminal spaces than the Aesir.
Finally, the last of the nine worlds we visit is the realm of Asgard. We cross the rainbow bridge, greet Heimdall on our way in, and we have reached the realm of the gods. Each of the gods and goddesses have their own hall. We’ve heard of Valhalla, but there are numerous other halls. There are some plains in Asgard, including Vigrid, the final plain where Ragnarok will rage.
You will have your own experience of Asgard. It is through journeying to Asgard that you can speak with the gods and learn from them on their own terms. When you leave offerings for the gods, imagine that you are leaving them at the door to their halls. Visualizing their homes will help you connect with them, and therefore help with trancework.
Ultimately, you will have your own experience with each of the nine realms. They are places that you may want to travel to, through meditatioin and visualization, through trance-work. It’s not enough for me to tell you that they exist – you have to go find out for yourself!
It’s time for the first ever sponsor break of the podcast. After we come back, I’ll talk about a practical exercise for getting in touch with Yggdrasil.
I will leave you with a practical lesson each episode. Today, we’ll be talking about how to connect with Yggdrasil.
Make sure you’re in a quiet space, with your journal. Take several deep, calming breaths in, and out. In, and out.
Now, think about all the trees you come across in your daily life. Is there a certain tree that you absolutely adore? Is there one that you go back to consistently for meditation or guidance? This could be your personal Axis Mundi.
This doesn’t need to be a tree in your yard (a lot of people I know don’t even have yards). It can be a tree in the park close to your home, a tree on your walk to work, a tree out in the wilds somewhere. The most important thing is that you will be able to physically go to the tree fairly often. This means that it’s not a great idea to choose a tree that is in another city, or perhaps on a friends’ property.
Once you have chosen a tree to represent your Yggdrasil, it’s time to connect with that tree. Think of something that would be a good offering. You could choose to bring a ribbon or other piece of cloth to tie on the branches of the tree, or perhaps an offering of food, water, or other libation. Prepare the offering, grab your journal or book of shadows, and go to the tree. Sit under its branches, and meditate. Think about the nine realms. Begin to map them out in your mind’s eye, connecting with each of the nine realms in meditation.
Later, you will be able to come back to this tree. If you have any astral journeying you want to do, you can come to this tree and do it. Sometimes, when you really get to know the tree, you will be able to call its spirit into your home when you are doing your own journeying. You can even envision this tree and connect with it while you’re traveling.
But first, you will need to get to know the tree. Bring it offerings of water consistently. Speak to it. Get to know it. Treat it like you would someone you want to get to know – with respect, and with kindness. Learn more about the species of tree that it belongs to. Perhaps there’s some interesting folklore you can tie in to your own meditations. I would love to hear how this goes, please feel free to email me, or tweet at me about your experiences.
Until next time, stay wyrd, heathens.
Sources for this Episode:
“The Prose Edda” by Snorri Sturluson
“A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru” by Patricia M. Lafaylllve
“Taking Up the Runes” by Diana Paxson
“Beings of Yggdrasil” by Jordain Cheng-Kinnander