Obviously, the director James Cameron was a fan of all things Viking as this tree seems ripped out of the pages of Norse mythology, bearing a striking resemblance to Yggdrasil, the cosmic world tree.

Center of the universes

Whilst we moderns may arrogantly believe, with all our science and technological achievements, we have (almost) unlocked the secrets of the universe, the fact is we still know surprisingly little. 

Take, for instance, the question of how many universes there are. The simple answer is we don't know. Maybe there is one, and maybe there are many.

People in Viking societies, however, didn't lay awake at night pondering this question. They already knew the answer, and that answer was nine. 

We, humans, resided in but one, Midgard, of these nine universes, which included Asgard (where half of the Norse gods resided), Alfheim (home of the elves), Jotunheim (giants),  Muspelheim (chaos and fire here), Nidavellir (dwarves), Helheim (land of the dead), Niflheim (ice and mist) and Vanaheim (where the other half of the Norse gods resided).

Connecting all these different universes, right in the literal and metaphorical center of the Norse cosmos, was Yggdrasil, a giant sacred tree. 

It is often referred to as a "Tree of Life" or "World Tree" as this gigantic ash tree connected all the different universes of Norse cosmology. 

It was often portrayed as having three levels with its roots stretching deep into the Norse underworld (Helheim – to be chewed on by a giant dragon), a trunk reserved for the world of humans (Midgard) while its branches and leaves stretched far above to the heavens (Asgard).

Part of the Norse creation story

The concept of a sacred tree is not unique to Norse mythology. Many cultures, civilizations, and peoples, down through the ages, have made the reverence of a sacred tree the basis of religions, myths, and legends. 

Aside from Yggdrasil, some famous sacred trees include the Bodhi Tree that the Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment under, the shinboku of Japan, and the importance of oak trees in current Celtic nations. 

For many people in Western cultures, the "Tree of Knowledge" is perhaps the most famous tree playing a prominent part in the story of creation in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.

People in Viking societies, like other cultures, had origin stories to try and explain the creation of the universe(s), and Yggdrasil was part of this creation story. 

Looking at the Norse sagas, they spoke of a time before time, when there was only an eternal dark void and Yggdrasil. There is no mention of when or who forged this mighty tree, but it seems to have grown out of the misty, ethereal void of Ginnugagap.

In Norse lore, Yggdrasil is associated with three magical wells. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Magical wells and magical creatures

Yggdrasil also has an association with three magical wells that spring from it. The well of wisdom – called Mimir's well – is said to be located at its roots. 

Having gained the wisdom and knowledge of the magical runes, Odin, the big Norse chief God, was said to have heard whisperings of an uncertain and perilous future in the leaves of Yggdrasil. 

Odin knew that amongst the roots of the sacred tree was a well, protected by a giant being, Mimir, who drank from it day and night. Odin then dons a disguise to travel to the well but, when confronted by Mimir, transforms back into his normal state. 

Though he is allowed to drink from the well, Mimir explains that Odin must pay a high price for this privilege. Odin dismissively told Mimir to name the price, which was the loss of an eye. 

Odin was said to have gulped long and deep from the well and saw more prophecies and future events. It was said he saw more with one eye than he had ever seen with two.

Aside from Mimir's well, there are two others associated with Yggdrasil. One deals with fate and is situated deep beneath its roots. This well is protected by Norns, who are mythical female creatures associated with fate and destiny. 

The other well is associated with knowledge and is guarded by giants. An unnamed eagle resides on the top of Yggdrasil, in its branches, the constant enemy of Nidhogg, whilst a squirrel, Ratatoskr, is said to scurry up and down, acting as a sort of an animal messenger between the two mortal enemies.

Reverence of a tree

Though people from Viking societies were not alone in the reverence of a sacred, giant tree, Yggdrasil cements its place in Norse mythology as a cosmic link between all nine realms. 

It was also said to have a role to play in the cataclysmic events of Ragnarök, where, during the fiery destruction of much of the Norse cosmos, its branches were said to shake violently, causing widespread damage to all of the nine realms it connects.

Given that people from Viking societies were so reliant on wood – ash and elm were the preferred materials to fashion all those Viking boats and ships as well as cabins, huts, and houses – it should be no surprise the Norse reverence for a tree. 

In an era where we are witnessing firsthand the unintended side effects of the destruction of our natural environment, we should, perhaps, start to revere trees a little more. 

Whilst there is no modern Yggdrasil that is at the center of our universe in a literal way, perhaps placing one in a metaphorical sense would serve us, and future generations, well.

For more on how Yggdrasil and other elements of Norse mythology continue to inspire us today, visit the BBC website here.

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