H is for Heimdallr

Heimdall (pronounced “HAME-doll;” Old Norse Heimdallr, whose meaning/etymology is unknown[1]) is one of the Aesir gods and the ever-vigilant guardian of the gods’ stronghold, Asgard.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Alphabetical order may not be the most sensible way to introduce the characters, settings, and action of Norse mythology, but there is an opportunity for synchronicity to raise its head.

Yesterdays’ post, G is for Ginnungagap, and the previous day’s, F is for Freyr, introduced giants and the fear of the end of the cosmos they evoked among the gods. Remember, giants in Norse mythology are not just oversized beings. They are devourers, destroyers, worthy of being feared.

This is a good bit of introduction for Heimdall since the only aspect of this son of Odin that seems uncontested is that his role is to keep watch and to alert the other gods when giants approach Asgard.

Heimdall doesn’t get many mentions in the Poetic Edda, and even those he gets are often by reference to his role as watchman of the gods rather than by name. His home is Himinbjörg which sits at the top of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard (the land of humans) to Asgard (the land of gods). Heimdall’s responsibility is to be continuously watching and listening in order that he can use his horn, Gjallarhorn, to warn the gods of the arrival of the giants which marks the beginning of Ragnarok. Luckily, he needs little sleep, his sight is so good that he can see for hundreds of miles both day and night, and his excellent hearing allows him to hear grass growing on the ground and wool growing on the backs of sheep.[2]

One annotator of the Poetic Edda poem, Rigsthula, suggests that Rig is a name Heimdall takes while he traveled, though how he could both travel and serve as watchman for the gods is problematic. Later scholars believe Rig is Odin, not Heimdall, but I’ve included it in the list of references below because there is very little else in the Poetic Edda that references Heimdall.

In the poem, Rig stops at various locations where he impregnates the wives and from those pregnancies come all classes of humans: the thralls (slaves), peasants, and warriors.

Heimdall plays an important role at the end of the cosmos. I can’t help but think there were more tales of him that have been lost between the years of the mythic stories being passed on in the strictly oral tradition and their being collected in written form. More likely, once the stories were written down, the oral tradition faded because those who knew the stories were convinced writing them down would preserve them. But the written copies were lost, damaged, or discarded as unimportant once Christianity was adopted.

How much more have we lost when we began writing things down instead of remembering and telling them to others? Are we running the same risk again through converting everything that is written or drawn on paper into digital form, confident that the transformation will preserve the physical items forever?

From the Poetic Edda, stanzas 1, 27, 46, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; stanzas 13, 30, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; stanza 28, Skirnismol, The Ballad of Skirnir; stanzas 47 and 48, Lokasenna, Loki’s Wrangling; stanza 14,  Thrymskvitha, The Lay of Thrym; the entire poem, Rigsthula, The Song of Rig; stanzas 30, 37, 39-40,  Hyndluljoth, The Poem of Hyndla;

[1] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p. 153.
[2] Daniel McCoy, Norse Mythology for Smart People, Heimdall.

Image credit: By Nils AsplundOwn work, Vogler, 2010-10-14, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

4 responses to “H is for Heimdallr”

  1. This A to Z has given me insight into the Marvel movies involving Thor. It explains some of the characters. The original series of Star Trek used the term Thrall, and I figured out what that meant but here it is confirmed.

  2. […] Asgard, home of the gods. For this reason, the gods take every precaution, including stationing Heimdall at the Bifrost rainbow bridge to warn the gods when the giants are […]

  3. […] and flew back to Asgard to tell Thor and the other gods what he learned. When Loki was finished, Heimdall–not Loki–suggested that Thor should disguise himself as Freya and go to Jotunheim to […]

  4. […] of Asgard, broke free of their bindings and joined with the giants as they moved to attack. Heimdall saw the giants coming and sounded the alarm with […]

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