Heimdall: History and Mythology of the Norse Guardian God

HeimdallSource: HeimdallPower

Heimdall (or Heimdallr in Old Norse) is often portrayed as ever-keen guardian of Asgard, the stronghold of the Æsir tribe of Norse gods. Also referred to as the shining god (or the most effulgent among Norse deities), his attribute of keenness is rather unparalleled among the Æsir. This, in turn, fits into the mythical narrative of how Heimdall maintains his eternal vigilance over the entry to Asgard – where he steadfastly guards Bifrost, the burning ‘rainbow bridge’ that connects the realm of gods to Midgard (earthly domain), the realm of humans.

Depictions of Heimdall –

Heimdall
Source: YouTube

As already mentioned, the most ‘shining and whitest’ of Norse gods, Heimdall is often represented with his horn Gjallarhorn (‘Resounding Horn’), which is put to use when intruders approach the home of the Æsir tribe of gods and can be heard in all of the worlds. As Poetic Edda, a compilation of poems dating from circa 1000 – 1300 AD, mentions

Heimdallr is the name of one: he is called White God. He is great and holy; nine maids, all sisters, bore him for a son. He is also called Hallinskídi [“Ram”] and Gullintanni [“Golden-teeth”]; his teeth were of gold and his horse is called Gold-Top. He dwells in the place called Himinbjörg [“Heaven-fells”], hard by Bifröst: he is the warder of the gods, and sits there by heaven’s end to guard the bridge from the Hill-Giants [Jotun]. He needs less sleep than a bird; he sees equally well night and day a hundred leagues from him, and hears how grass grows on the earth or wool on sheep, and everything that has a louder sound. He has that trumpet which is called Gjallar-Horn, and its blast is heard throughout all worlds. Heimdallr’s sword is called Head.

In essence, Heimdall is portrayed as drinking his fine mead, living in a dwelling called Himinbjörg (‘heaven castle’ or ‘sky cliff’), and keeping his vigilance over the passage to the stronghold of the gods. In some sources (like the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning), Heimdall also possesses Gulltoppr, a golden maned horse of the gods.

Origins and History of Heimdall –

Heimdall
An engraving of the Gosforth Cross possibly showing Fenrir and Heimdall. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The historical origins and etymology of Heimdall are still mired in mystery, and the scope is made even vaguer with only a few surviving archaeological records of the god’s representation. One of these oft-discussed historical objects includes the Gosforth Cross, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon cross of Northrumbian origins that curiously exhibits both Christian and pagan Norse motifs. Pertaining to the latter, the cross does have a panel that probably depicts Heimdall holding a horn and a sword while standing defiantly before two open-mouthed beasts.

Talking of horns, Heimdall also bears the moniker of Hallinskídi or ‘Ram’ (as mentioned earlier), while his sword has often been likened to a ‘Head’, the offense-oriented part of the ram’s physiology – thereby creating a speculative association of the Norse guardian god with the animal. Another interesting hypothesis put forth by the late French comparative philologist Georges Dumézil pertains to how Heimdall was possibly ‘made’ to fit into the narrative of a ‘framing deity’ – an entity (found in literary works) that helps in defining the pantheon and cosmos of the mythology. This conjecture alludes to the rather abstruse lineage of Heimdall as a deity, which does suggest the possibility of the character being an origin point in itself as opposed to having set origins in the narrative.

To that end, one of the plausible theories refers to how Heimdallr was considered in ancient Nordic circles to be the father of humankind, as mentioned in the Old Norse poem Völuspá. Other scholars have hypothesized that Heimdall, in his wandering Rígr persona, was historically perceived by the Norse tribes as being responsible for creating the hierarchy and classes among men – like thrall (serf), karl (free peasant), and jarl (noble), as referred to in the poem Rígsþula. Now, in terms of literary history, we should understand that the Norse gods and legends probably have one of the vaguest of origins, with their primary lore borrowed from a patchwork of oral traditions and local tales that were conceived in both pre-Christian ancient Germania and early medieval Scandinavia.

Lineage and Myths of Heimdall –

“Rig in Great-grandfather’s Cottage” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the Norse myths, Heimdall is said to be the son of ‘collectively’ nine maiden sisters known as the Nine Undines, or the Nine Waves, while his father is often mentioned as being Odin himself, the leader of the Æsir. Now according to few scholars, these nine maidens possibly represent the nine powerful yet capricious daughters of Aegir, the Norse sea god. As an article from Mythology.net describes

The nine sisters were known to be both beautiful and terrible. Their names represent the various powers of the ocean. The two oldest sisters are twins, Duva, the Hidden One, and Kolga, the Cold One. The next sister is Blodughadda, the red haired and bloodthirsty sister. Her name represents red sea foam. Next comes Bara, which means foam fleck, signifying the moment that a wave hits the shore. Bylgja meaning billow, or breaker, is next, followed by Hrǫnn, or welling wave, and her twin Hefring, rising wave. Finally are Unn, frothing wave, and the youngest Himinglava, transparent wave.

The father of Heimdall is Odin, chief of the Aesir tribe. Legend has it, that the love between the nine maiden sisters was like no other. Their alliance was resolute. Therefore, when one of them chose to lay with Odin, against the wishes of their father Aegir (the god of the sea), the other eight sisters stood by her to cover up her defiance.

In the poem Heimdalargaldr, Heimdall himself says that he was born of nine sisters: – “Offspring of nine mothers am I, of nine sisters am I the son”. However, other researchers disagree with the notion that Heimdall’s mothers were the daughters of Aegir, given the lack of literary evidence found in the ancient and medieval sources. But one thing most academics concur is the mythical role of Heimdall in the impending Ragnarök – where he will valiantly make his stand on the field of Vígríðr and sound the dire call of Gjallarhorn to signal the arrival of the giants and monsters. And in the consequent confrontations, Loki and Heimdall are foretold to slay one another.

Another myth related to Heimdall pertains to the aforementioned Rígr persona, who is presented as a wise and powerful wanderer entity in the poem Rígsþula. This wanderer, being Heimdall in guise, spends time with couples, gives them advice, and makes the wives pregnant to deliver his future scions. One of these scions, in turn, grows up as a notable warrior and takes up the mantle of Rígr, thereby continuing the tradition of knowledge endowment to the succeeding generations of humans.

Attributes –

Keenness was seen as an integral aspect of Heimdall, so much so that the myths make it clear how the Norse god had the ability to see for hundreds of miles through night and day, and this was complemented by his hearing prowess that could detect grass growing on the ground and wool growing on sheep. Pertaining to the latter attribute, one particular Old Norse poem mentions that Heimdall’s hljóð is buried underneath the Yggdrasil, the mighty tree at the center of the cosmos. As Norse-Mythology.org states

A notoriously enigmatic verse in one Old Norse poem states that Heimdall’s hljóð is hidden beneath the world tree Yggdrasil and is somehow associated with the eye that Odin sacrificed. The word hljóð has a wide variety of meanings, and could equally plausibly refer to Gjallarhorn, Heimdall’s hearing in an abstract sense, or his hearing represented in concrete form as an ear. Did Heimdall sacrifice one of his ears for some great reward, much like Odin did with one of his eyes? We simply don’t know.

Beyond his superlative aptitude for seeing and hearing, Heimdall, befitting his status as a guardian of Asgard, also had the power of foreknowledge. In a sense, the guardian god looked out for invaders not only on the physical plane but also on the plane of time, thereby alluding to his accepted fate during the rigors of Ragnarök.

Featured Image Source: HeimdallPower (link here).

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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.