What Snorri's Edda really says about the Home of the Gods

Also see: In Search of Iðavöllr

Today we think of Asgard, the home of the gods, as a celestial city located in heaven. And frankly, we have no reason to doubt it considering Heathen poets like Egil Skallagrimson in his poem Sonatorrek speaks of Valhalla as being upp í Goðheim, “up in the home of the Gods”. In the modern belief, Bifrost the rainbow bridge connects heaven and earth, so that the gods can travel down to earth at will. This premise is emphasized in popular accounts of Norse mythology such as Marvel’s Thor movies. But is it correct? People will often cite passages from Snorri’s Edda to prove this “fact”. However, if you follow the internal logic of Snorri’s Edda, you can only draw the conclusion that Asgard is an earthly city, inhabited by human beings. 

 In the Prologue, Snorri begins with a Christian history of the world beginning from the Creation ex nihlo by God, then tells the tale of Noah and the Ark, and the tower of Babel. He explains how men strayed from worship of the one true god, and started to worship the earth and created things. With Biblical history as his backdrop, Snorri then gives the “real” history of the Aesir:
Gylfaginning, Prologue (Formáli) 3: Near the center of the world where what we call Turkey lies, was built the most famous of all palaces and halls - Troy by name. That town was built on a much larger scale than others then in existence and in many ways with greater skill, so lavishly was it equipped. There were twelve kingdoms with one over-king, and each kingdom contained many peoples. In the citadel were twelve chieftains and these excelled other men then living in every human fashion. ...One of the kings was called Múnón or Mennón. He married a daughter of the chief king Priam (of Troy) who was called Tróáin, and they had a son named Trór - we call him Thór. ...(after several generations)... he had a son named Vóden whom we call Odin; ... His wife was called Frígída, whom we call Frigg.

Troy, Western Turkey. Around 1200 BC
Archaeology Illustrated © Balage Balogh
 Gylfaginning Prologue (Formáli) 4. Odin, and also his wife, had the gift of prophecy, and by means of this magic art he discovered that his name would be famous in the northern part of the world ... For this reason he decided to set out on a journey from Turkey. He was accompanied by a great host of old and young, .... Through whatever lands they went such glorious exploits were related of them that they were looked on as gods rather than men. They did not halt on their journey until they came to the north of the country now called Germany. 
Gylfaginning Prologue (Formáli) 5. Thereafter Odin went north to what is now called Sweden. ... The plains and natural resources of life in Sweden struck Odin as being favorable and he chose there for himself a townsite now called Sigtuna. There he appointed chieftains after the pattern of Troy.

Once Odin establishes his new home, built on the pattern of his old home, a local Swedish king comes calling. He walks there:

Gylfaginning 2: King Gylfi was a wise man and skilled in magic; he was much troubled that the Æsir-people were so cunning that all things went according to their will. ... He set out on his way to Ásgard, going secretly, and- clad himself in the likeness of an old man, ...When he came into the town, he saw there a hall so high that he could not easily make out the top of it.”
Gylfaginning 3: "Who is foremost, or oldest, of all the gods?" Hárr answered: "He is called in our speech Allfather, but in the Elder Ásgard he had twelve names."

So for the first time in the text we realize there are two Asgards, an older one and a newer one. In the context of the story thus far, Snorri can only be speaking of Troy in Turkland (the Elder Asgard) and Sigtuna in Sweden (New Asgard). This is the Elder Asgard (i.e. Troy in Turkey) located at the center of the Classical world. All of this is part of the Roman Catholic worldview, which is a combination of Biblical history melded with the history of the now-Christian Roman Empire. Snorri did not invent it. A generation before him in Denmark, the historian Saxo Grammaticus identified Asgard as Constantinople in Turkey. This was NOT an effort to hide his work from Christian censorship, it was the official Christian version of history at the time. Snorri and Saxo merely were grafting the Norse gods into it as ancient kings, as others before them had done.

 Now Snorri begins to retell the Norse myths as the tales of a juggler, but he doesn’t deviate from the premise that Asgard is a city on earth. Near the end of the Norse creation story, mirrored from Voluspa and Vafthrudnismal, retold as a tall tale, Snorri informs us that after creating mankind, Odin built a city in the midst of Midgard, just as he had previously described in his opening: 

 Gylfaginning 9: When the sons of Borr were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and took up the trees and shaped men of them: ... the male was called Askr, and the female Embla, and of them was mankind begotten, which received a dwelling-place under Midgard. Next they (the Sons of Borr) made for themselves in the middle of the world a city which is called Ásgard; men call it Troy. There dwelt the gods and their kindred. ....   that kindred which we call the races of the Æsir, that have peopled the Elder Ásgard, and those kingdoms which pertain to it; and that is a divine race. 
 Gylfaginning 14: "What did Allfather then do when Ásgard was made?" Hárr answered: "In the beginning he established rulers, and bade them ordain fates with him, and give counsel concerning the planning of the town; that was in the place which is called Ida-field, in the midst of the town. It was their first work to make that court in which their twelve seats stand, and another, the high-seat which Allfather himself has. That house is the best-made of any on earth. ...   That house is the best-made of any on earth, and the greatest; without and within, it is all like one piece of gold; men call it Gladsheim. They made also a second hall: that was a shrine which the goddesses had, and it was a very fair house; men call it Vingólf. 

 In Elder Asgard (Troy in Turkey) the gods establish a court consisting of 12 judges. Here Snorri locates the Ida-plains (Ithavoll), a name he has taken from Voluspa, the only place it appears. Only Snorri places the Ida-plains in Asgard. He tells us that Gladsheim is one of the surrounding plots. Grimnismal 8 informs us that Gladsheim is the place where “gold-bright Valhall rises peacefully, seen from afar”. Snorri tells us that it “is the best-made of any ON EARTH.”  To him, Valhall is a hall in the earthly city of Troy.

 In this context, Snorri informs us about Bifrost and where it leads: 

 Gylfaginning 13: Then said Gangleri: "What is the way to heaven from earth?" Then Hárr answered, and laughed aloud: "Now, that is not wisely asked; has it not been told thee, that the gods made a bridge from earth, to heaven, called Bifröst? Thou must have seen it; it may be that ye call it rainbow.' 
 Gylfaginning 15: XV. Then said Gangleri: "Where is the chief centre or holy place of the gods?" Hárr answered: 'That is at the Ash of Yggdrasill; there the gods must give judgment everyday." ...   The third root of the Ash stands in heaven; and under that root is the well which is very holy, that is called the Well of Urdr; there the gods hold their tribunal. Each day the Æsir ride thither up over Bifröst, which is also called the Æsir's Bridge. 
 Gylfaginning 17: "Thou knowest many tidings to tell of the heaven. What chief abodes are there more than at Urdr's Well?" Hárr said: "Many places are there, and glorious. That which is called Álfheimr is one, where dwell the peoples called Light-Elves; ...Then there is also in that place the abode called Breidablik [Baldur’s home] ...There, too, is the one called Glitnir [Forseti’s hall] ...There is also the abode called Himinbjörg [Heimdall’s hall]; it stands at heaven's end by the bridge-head, in the place where Bifröst joins heaven. Another great abode is there, which is named Valaskjálf; Odin possesses that dwelling; ...and in this hall is the Hlidskjálf, the high-seat so called. Whenever Allfather sits in that seat, he surveys all lands. 

 So besides their court on Earth, the Aesir establish a second court in the heavens near Urd’s well. This place is said to be “holy”. The concept appears to be based on the real-world Thing, where people gathered annually, some after long travel, and set up temporsary shelters for the duration of the Thing. The Aesir have departed from their homes in Asgard, ridden “upward” over the rainbow and now arrive at Urd’s well in the heavens. Here, we find a few additional place-names taken from Grimnismal. We find the home of the Alfar, as well as halls of Baldur and his son Forseti who are known as excellent judges, as well as Heimdall’s home, which is explicitly said to be in heaven, which distinguishes them from Asgard, whish Snorri said is located on earth. Odin establishes a watchtower with a highseat, from which he can spy over the whole world. It is not his home, however, as he rides here daily on Sleipnir, and presumably returns home to Asgard on earth every day, according to Snorri who paraphrases and cites his source for this information. 

 Gylfaginning 15: The third root of the Ash stands in heaven; and under that root is the well which is very holy, that is called the Well of Urdr; there the gods hold their tribunal. Each day the Æsir ride thither up over Bifröst, which is also called the Æsir's Bridge. These are the names of the Æsir's steeds: Sleipnir is best, which Odin has; he has eight feet. The second is Gladr, the third Gyllir, the fourth Glenr, the fifth Skeidbrimir, the sixth Silfrintoppr, the seventh Sinir, the eighth Gisl, the ninth Falhófnir, the tenth. Gulltoppr, the eleventh Léttfeti. Baldr's horse was burnt with him; and Thor walks to the judgment. 


The Gods Cross Bifrost by Giovanni Caselli 1978

Clearly this information is taken directly from Grimnismal 29-30 which state that the gods ride “every day” “to sit in judgement” by Urd’s well. In Snorri’s way of thinking, in which the gods are human beings, this is a ride “up” over the rainbow, from earth into the heavens. It is a ride from the Classical city of Troy (or its parallel city, Sigtuna in Sweden) into heaven. As evidence of this, Snorri returns to the same topic at the end of Gylfaginning, just as Voluspa does: 

 Gylfaginning 53: "In that time the earth shall emerge out of the sea, and shall then be green and fair; then shall the fruits of it be brought forth unsown. Vídarr and Váli shall be living, inasmuch as neither sea nor the fire of Surtr shall have harmed them; and they shall dwell at Ida-Plain, where Ásgard was before.” 

 So there you have it, when the “earth’ rises up out of the sea, after Ragnarok, Vidar and Vali will inhabit the Ida-plain (Ithavoll), where Asgard once stood. In Snorri’s text Asgard is an earthly city, either Troy in Turkland, or its copy in Sweden, and the Idavellir (Ithavoll) are earthly fields. Snorri is consistent on this point throughout his Edda. 

 But can this really be what the heathen skalds who composed Grimnismal 29 and 30 really meant? Did they mean to say that human “gods” lived on earth and rode into the heavens daily to hold court near a holy well, near a tree with roots on three different planes? Did the heathen skalds who composed Voluspa and their audience really believe that the Idavellir which existed at the beginning and return at the end of time, were found on earth? If they believed that Asgard was in heaven (and I believe they did), why would the gods need Bifrost to ride to another part of heaven to hold a court, when they had one in Asgard? And if Asgard and Urd’s well are both located in heaven, how can Bifrost still connect heaven and earth? 

 Snorri himself consistently informs us that it is all an illusion, and means nothing, to the very end: 

 Gylfaginning 54: Thereupon Gangleri heard great noises on every side of him; and then, when he had looked about him more, lo, he stood out of doors on a level plain, and saw no hall there and no castle. Then he went his way forth and came home into his kingdom, and told those tidings which he had seen and heard; and after him each man told these tales to the other ... to the end that when long ages should have passed away, men should not doubt thereof. ...There Thor was so named, .. and to him are ascribed those mighty works which Hector wrought in Troy. But this is the belief of men: that the Turks told of Ulysses, and called him Loki, for the Turks were his greatest foes. 


 So what are we to make of all this? Who’s right here? The original heathen sources, or Snorri Sturluson’s explanations of them more than 200 years after the Christian-conversation of his homeland? It’s pretty obvious that the popular books and the scholarship for the last 300 years have taken Snorri’s word as accurate, even if they do not follow him and place Asgard on earth. ‘But that’s just a Christian invention’, they’ll say, ‘we all know Asgard is in heaven’ and then just arbitrarily put it back there, without considering the consequences to the rest of Snorri’s text. By doing this, scholars have broken the internal logic of Snorri’s tale, and further confused the entire matter. The theory of local variations and local versions of the religion grew out of this premise to explain the obvious contradictions that arise from the modern approach. Instead, we should be asking: If Asgard is not on earth, is Urd’s well really in heaven, and are Yggdrassil’s roots really scattered across three different planes??? When considered together, independently from Snorri’s Edda, the Eddic poems tell a different story. 

 William P. Reaves, author of Odin's Wife (2018)

In Search of Iðavöllr

Yggdrassil and the Nine Worlds