We might easily forget that despite our immense numbers, despite our immense will, despite the sheer force which we may bring to bear when we cooperate with one another, humanity is not alone responsible for our future.
19. An ash I know, | Yggdrasil its name,
With water white | is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews | that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth’s well | does it ever grow. [Voluspa]
Many of our ancestors saw us as part of one group of many, trying to live in peace in a giant ecosystem which was wild, chaotic, and beyond our understanding. Yggdrasil, this ecosystem was called, the great world tree. A mighty ash, host to nine realms, including the realm of the gods, Asgard, the realm of humans, Midgard, and the realm beneath, land of the dead, Niflheim.
31. Three roots there are | that three ways run
‘Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
‘Neath the first lives Hel, | ‘neath the second the frost-giants,
‘Neath the last are the lands of men.
32. Ratatosk is the squirrel | who there shall run
On the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
From above the words | of the eagle he bears,
And tells them to Nithhogg beneath.
33. Four harts there are, | that the highest twigs
Nibble with necks bent back;
Dain and Dvalin, | . . . . . .
Duneyr and Dyrathror.
34. More serpents there are | beneath the ash
Than an unwise ape would think;
Goin and Moin, | Grafvitnir’s sons,
Grabak and Grafvolluth,
Ofnir and Svafnir | shall ever, methinks,
Gnaw at the twigs of the tree.
35. Yggdrasil’s ash | great evil suffers,
Far more than men do know;
The hart bites its top, | its trunk is rotting,
And Nithhogg gnaws beneath. [Grimnismal]
These ancient peoples knew that there was always disaster waiting just beneath the surface of the natural world. Things could go wrong at any time, at the whim of a serpent, at the breath of an eagle. They cultivated a relationship with the natural world, negotiated with their gods, and did everything they knew to live a symbiotic life with Yggdrasil, the life-giving tree of the worlds, to keep from adding to its many woes. And even the best relationship with the gods could only do so much if the gods themselves were caught up in their own battles, against giants, against each other, against the threat of Ragnarok itself.
Our ancestors in Northern Europe treasured the myth of Yggdrasil because it was a simple reminder of how an ecosystem works. You see the rainfall that the tree drinks, you know of the roots of trees, and can sometimes see them. You see the leaves and blooming flowers and plants on trees. Birds, squirrels, and other animals live on and in trees, and insects live under and in trees. Sunlight makes trees grow, but trees also offer shade from the sunlight, and shelter from storms. It’s easy to love trees. We get food from them, we get wood from them, we get peaceful walks through forests and carve jewelry and make weapons from them.
Trees are both symbols of an individual life and a symbol of the entire world.
When Ragnarok comes, the tree that is our world will quake, perhaps because it will be so hollow that the sounds of war cause its trembling. Perhaps because it will be weeping at what its children, the gods, humans, and forces of chaos, are preparing to do to it, and to themselves.
47. Yggdrasil shakes, | and shiver on high
The ancient limbs, | and the giant is loose;
To the head of Mim | does Othin give heed,
But the kinsman of Surt | shall slay him soon.
There’s evidence that the Northern European branch of humanity believed that there was hope even after the great war that killed the gods, and humans, and plunged all the realms into flood and flame. A few gods survived, and humanity starts over with one man and one woman, and we start again. This shows their point of view on life in general: everything is cyclical, there is always a new season to follow this one, and even death will be followed by new life. Just usually someone else’s life.
This point of view can be comforting, particularly when we remember that the tree metaphor can extend beyond the earth itself. We are part of a great cosmic ecosystem whose ebbs and flows, seasons and cycles, are barely comprehensible to us. When life ends here, it will continue in some way, somewhere, quite possibly including in this very solar
system, on Europa or Enceladus.
Remember the world tree. Remember our ancestors, European and otherwise, and the ecosystem they held sacred. While we can’t put off our deaths forever, and we can’t guarantee the survival of our species, perhaps putting a little love back into the tree that gives us life can stay Yggdrasil’s quaking one more day.