Yggdrasil and the Nidhogg – Norse myths



Dear Parishioner,
I am fond, as you know, of finding spiritual parallels to the various birds and beasts to be found in the monastery garden. Today the squirrels were busy chasing each other up and down a big fir tree, which, of course, is mythically, exactly what they are meant to do. In the old Norse stories the squirrels run up and down the evergreen tree of life, Yggdrasil, carrying gossip from the great eagle that sits at the top down to the fearsome Nidhogg that eternally gnaws away at the roots of the tree. Now, strange as I am, these observations didn’t come to me of their own accord. I’ve been reading a marvelous book, Yggdrasil and the Cross of the North by Ronald Murphy S.J., which describes how medieval craftsmen used the old myths of the north to explain the role of Christ and the cross. They filled their churches with carvings of the tree which sustains life even as living creatures constantly eat away at it. They could see in Yggdrasil that other tree we always have in our churches, the tree of the Cross, the tree which is about death, but which is the source also of life. Indeed, with its great piers soaring up to the wooden roof, the Abbey church could be seen as a veritable forest, whose trees protect us as we approach the Cross.

I don’t mean to say by this that the Norse myths are an equivalent of the Christian mystery, yggdrasil__tree_of_life_by_alayna-d5ujj5xbut that the first Christians in the north found in those familiar stories a way of talking about Jesus. We, on the other hand, can talk about God in Church language, but outside we lack the words to say what we mean, and if we keep on like that then even our Sunday words start to lose their power. So we need to consciously turn to the outside and look for Christ at work in all our world. Meanwhile, we can learn a bit from the old myths if we can see in them not only a cosmology but also a description of the human heart. We all carry the tale telling squirrels in us and there’s a bit of the Nidhogg in us all, willfully causing harm and denying life. It’s not that we are bad people, far from it, but if we don’t look squarely at these things, how we may end up.