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Published in The Troth's Journal, "Idunna"
Greatly inspired by Vol. V of The Road to Bifrost by Thor and Audrey Sheil, back in print at:
Although the Norse God Heimdallr is not well-known in comparison with some other Germanic Gods and Goddesses, much can be inferred from careful analysis of the surviving sources and their interpretations by scholars in the fields of Germanic culture and comparative religion. This is particularly important in the case of Heimdallr since the poem Heimdallargaldr/Heimdallr’s Spell, although quoted by Snorri Sturluson, has not come down to us. At times, the Icelanders suffered such famines that they ate their vellum (calf-skin) manuscripts. Sadly, that may well have been the fate of any copies of this poem that were written down (Snorri , it is likely knew many of the Eddaic poems by heart).
Heimdallr is known as both an Ás and a Van. His mother(s), who are nine waves of the sea; Gjálp, Greip, Eistla, Eyrgjafa, Úlfrún, Angeyrja, Imðr, Atla, and Járnsaxa (Short Völuspá), collectively bore him. These are desribed by Snorri in Gylfaginning XV as all being sisters, but also may tie in with the nine worlds on Yggdrasil (Boyer, 221-2), or the idea of Heimdallr possibly having nine lives (Turville-Petre, 152). He is said in the lost Eddaic poem Heimdallrgaldr to have been pierced/shot through by the head of a man, presumably with fatal results (Branston, Gods…, 137-8). Heimdallr’s name is of uncertain origin, although a very popular theory is that it is derived from “heimdali”, meaning a ram (uncastrated male sheep) (Boyer, p. 221). Other possibilities include heimr = world plus dallr = brightness (thus connecting him with the poorly-known God or mythological figure Delling (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 291), dalr = bow (i.e. Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, which he wards, or dallur = fruit-bearing tree, thus relating him to Yggdrasil, the World Tree (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 289). Heimdallr could thus also be tied in etymologically with the idea of the pillar or upholder of the world (Boyer, 221).
The identity of his father is uncertain, although Óðinn’s name continually crops up on the short list of suspects (Branston, Lost Gods…, 172). Njörðr is also a possibility, and this makes sense seeing that the nine waves could be daughters of the Sea-Deities Ran and Ægir. Along with his having battled Loki over Brisingamen with both of them in the form of seals, this gives him a recognizable marine aspect. In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, he may well be the same as Háma (Branston, Lost Gods..., 145). Heimdallr’s identity as a Van is very tenuous. It is possible that he is an Ás, but is a seer like the Vanir (Branston, Gods of the North, 138), and that this is why he is described as a Van.
Heimdallr also has a number of heiti, or by-names, although by no means as many as Óðinn, who has over one hundred. Vindhlér, from vinda, meaning to wind, twist, or turn (think of starting a fire with a fire-drill) (Branston, Gods…, 140), Sword-Headed Ás (Ellis Davidson, 173), White God (Ellis Davidson, 29), Rigr (Hence the Eddaic poem Rigsþula), probably from Rí, the Old Irish word for “king,” although rig(g), meaning ram or more specifically imperfectly castrated ram (Branston, Gods…, 141-2) are all by-names for Heimdallr. Still, as is the case with Freyja (“Lady”), we may not have Heimdallr’s real name at all, although “Lóðurr” as beneficent fire may be it. (Branston, Gods…, 137).
Like Germanic Deities in general, Heimdallr is multi-functional with areas of overlap with others of the Pantheon. His most well-known function is that of the watchman or sentry of Ásgarðr (Ellis Davidson, 173 and Turville-Petre, 151). His home is Himminbjorg, the Heavenly Mountain, a reference of his watching over the Nine Worlds from a high vantage point. Other functions or aspects include a sun/solar God, a God with lunar aspects, a Ram-God, and even a woodpecker (!) God (Ellis Davidson, 172-6). The solar aspect is seen in his gold teeth and the gold mane of his horse (Boyer, 221). Without negating the myth of Askr and Embla, Heimdallr is seen as having sired the three classes of Norse society, i.e. thralls, free farmers, and nobles. He did this by sleeping in turn with the wives of the archetypal or founding fathers of each class. (Boyer, 9). His beginning with the thrall-wife and ending with the noblewoman is sometimes seen today as Heimdallr helping humanity to evolve in its capacities (although the thralls and free farmers do not disappear and coexist in an orderly and productive structure with the noble class). My research indicates that there is no record of Heimdallr having a wife (or surely Loki would have taken a jab at her in Lokasenna) or having fathered divine children.
Heimdallr does not fit at all into Dumézil’s three-function analysis of Indo-European mythology, as he fits the priest/sovereign First Function as the watcher over the world, the warrior Second Function in his battle with Loki to retrieve Freyja’s stolen necklace, Brisingamen, and in fighting Loki, to their mutual doom, at Ragnarök (after Heimdallr blows his horn to announce the arrival of that final day of the current cosmic cycle), and the fertility Third Function by his ties with the ram (Boyer, 221-2), not to mention his fathering of humanity, seen as “Heimdallr’s sons,” as he is called in the opening of the Völuspá (Ellis Davidson, 176). Loki and Baldr are also not neatly classifiable within Dumézil’s tripartite structure (Boyer 221-2).
Heimdallr and Loki are connected in a number of ways. Besides their battle over Brisingamen, they kill each other at Ragnarök. Heimdallr can be seen as embodying order, with Loki representing disorder (Boyer, 221). In a similar vein, Heimdallr is useful fire as opposed to Loki as destructive fire (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 293). Heimdallr “is patient, contemplative, and diligent,” while Loki is “loud, manipulative and impetuous.” They embody opposing ideas: Loki rushes in while Heimdallr is willing to set back and observe a given situation before stepping in. The Eddaic poets were aware of this duality and deliberately included it in the myths (Sheil, 63).
Óðinn amd Heimdallr form an interesting duo, although this pairing is based to a considerable extent on speculation. The All-Father sacrificed one of his eyes for wisdom, and it is hidden in Mímir’s well. Heimdallr is said to have hidden his “hljóð” in Mimir’s well. This word has been at times translated as “horn,” but may also be interpreted as “hearing.” In any case, Heimdallr’s “hljóð” is also hidden in Mímir’s well. Perhaps Heimdallr sacrificed an ear and left it in the well (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 294). Perhaps his reward was his preternatural hearing, (which enables him to hear grass growing and hear the wool growing on the backs of sheep, a most useful ability for the warder of Ásgarðr). Týr can in some ways be added here, forming a triad rather than a duo, due to the sacrifice of his hand to bind the Fenris Wolf and thereby delay Ragnarök. However, the analogy is questionable since Týr’s hand is either still in Fenris’ stomach or with all due respect, passed on out of the wolf by the elimination of his body waste.
Heimdallr is such a complex, multi-faceted, and even contradictory God that some scholars, supported by the total lack of theophoric (containing the name of a Deity) place names throughout the Germanic world and of any evidence of his cult i.e. organized religious worship, wonder if he was actually a God people worshipped, or was on the other hand a fictional creation of Snorri Sturluson and the Eddaic poets (Ellis Davidson, 176). He seems rather humorless as a whole, yet on the other hand it is he who came up with the idea of sending Þórr in drag to Jotunheim to retrieve his hammer (Ellis Davidson, 44). On the other hand, the portrait of Heimdallr that emerges from the extant sources is that “of a mysterious, impressive power, with a strong personality of his own” and has a “convincing ring” (Ellis Davidson, 172-6), indicating he probably was a real God of Heathen times.
Heimdallr has parallels both inside and outside of Germanic mythology, especially in the context of Indo-European comparative mythology. In Tacitus’ Germania, the primal being Mannus (“human being”) is said to have fathered the three great divisions of Germanic tribes (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 292), just as Heimdallr sired the three social classes of Germanic society.
In Roman, Iranian, and Vedic/Hindu myths, these correspondences are with Janus, Mithra and Varuna, respectively. The Vedic God of Fire, Agni, can also be compared to Heimdallr as both are associated with horns (Heimdallr’s Gjallarhorn and Agni occasionally depicted as horned. Agni also as Apam Napat has a water aspect which Heimdallr, as previously mentioned, also shares. Like Heimdallr/Rig, Agni also sired human descendants (Branston, Gods, 140-1). Heimdallr’s birth from nine mothers is paralleled in an Irish legend (Ellis Davidson, 130), and even in Welsh myth. This accords with his Gaelic-derived by-name, Rigr. This may or may not indicate direct borrowing (Ellis Davidson, 152-3).
In Christian lore, which is ultimately derived from that of the Jews, who were originally a Semitic-speaking Middle Eastern people, Heimdallr can be compared to the archangel Gabriel, who blows his trumpet for the last judgment, similar to Heimdallr blowing his horn, Gjallarhorn, to announce the arrival of Ragnarökr (Ellis Davidson, 206). Given the origin of Gabriel in non-Indo-European lore, if one of these figures influenced the other, and that is by no means proven, it would be the story of Gabriel influencing that of Heimdallr, and not vice-versa.
The Finnish figure, Väinämöinen is a culture-hero (Heimdallr eventually teaches Runes to his son Kon Ungr) with a sea-associated birth (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 291). Although inhabitants of Scandinavia, the Finnish people speak a non-Indo-European language and thus have a different origin form that of the other Scandinavian peoples. There is a possible connection between Väinämöinen and Heimdallr, given these similar aspects and the close geographical proximity between Finland and the Norse-speaking parts of Scandinavia.
While learning what has come down to us about Heimdallr from pre-Christian times is essential for an accurate understanding of him in modern Heathenism, what separates the Heathen viewpoint from that of Norse/Germanic mythological studies in Academia is that we go one step further and actually use the information to (re)connect with Heimdallr as a living God and work with him in the context of our religion. Nevertheless, most of us believe that Gods, just like we human beings as Heimdallr’s kin, continue to evolve. Thus, the work of modern Heathen individuals and groups with Heimdallr, the experiences they have with him, and the conclusions to which this, along with extant lore, lead them helps our religion to grow and to be relevant and applicable to our needs in a society that is many ways has changed greatly (and often for the better) since the era of the “old-time” Heathens.
My friends Thor and Audrey Sheil have many useful observations on Heimdallr. Think of him as a patient observer who lets the facts reveal themselves rather than make judgments. He is the intelligence-gathering service of Ásgarðr! From this he is able to recognize patterns and possible conclusions. Heimdallr’s “territory” includes air-traffic controllers, radar and sonar operators, intelligence services (such as, in the USA, the FBI and CIA), undercover agents, police stake-outs, wiretappers, fire towers, and lighthouses. Engineers, builders and maintainers are under his aegis, as are sentries and gatekeepers of all sorts (even toll collectors). Watchdogs in a sense partake of Himminbjorg, Heimdallr’s dwelling. In a sense, he controls who may and may not enter Ásgarðr. The screening of potential guests, employees, students, etc. can become more accurate by learning the lessons Heimdallr can teach. These include meditation and contemplation (Sheil, 62-4), which are essential factors in assimilating and wisely using the information we take in every day, as well as tools for good mental health in our hectic and complex times.
Some useful tools and symbols for working with Heimdallr include the colors white, gold, pale blue and red, as well as the metals gold, silver and steel. You may find that “his” wood/trees are oak and yew. The hawk, eagle and horse are associated with him, (the former two for their careful watching from above). The stones lapis and amethyst may be useful both in contacting him and as offerings to him (Sheil, 100).
Heimdallr’s name has been by no means forgotten in our times. “Heimdall” is a band and a song by the band Moondog, as well as a character in the Marvel Comics universe, loosely inspired by the God. It is also the name of a couple of video games, (http://www.amazon.com/Sega-Heimdall/dp/B0009YFN7W and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Etcw_eW6FaE )
Heimdall’s Aett is an 89-cent download of a song by Steinar Lund from the album “The Mystery of the Runes;” see http://tinyurl.com/54nja7
The Heimdall Chronicles are a Firefly (a science fiction TV series) inspired fan fiction comic book. “Heimdall’s” is an information security company in New Zealand (think of watching vigilantly over something). http://www.heimdallfilms.com/ is the URL for Heimdall Films, a “free film & creative company.”
You can “chat” with Heimdall, “a chatbot in the guise of a Norse god of the Vikings” at http://firstname.lastname@example.org/ Drop by for a chat and help him learn to talk better. He’s had very few “visitors,” so I’m sure he’d be glad to hear from you! BTW a runic inscription on the site identifies it as the work of one “Malcolm Reid.”
“HEIMDALL is an expert-system code designed to add quick --- but reasonably detailed examinations of complete HPM Systems” and is at http://home.earthlink.net/~jbenford/HEI.html
www.baka-saru.net/daisuki is a website entitled “Love for Heimdall and Loki” I did not go there because http://www.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site=http://www.baka-saru.net/daisuki/
furnishes the gory details of malicious software associated with the site. Well, with a name like that, what do you expect?!?
On a more positive note, check out Heimdall’s Dobermanns, a UK kennel, at http://www.heimdall.co.uk/ I suspect that the dogs they breed make excellent watchdogs, and the site even includes a good deal of mostly accurate lore on Heimdall!
While the development of Heathen lore is basically an organic thing, as it manifests in modern times it will at times use modern methods. So, to quote my friend Thor Sheil, in a very real way “we are writing tomorrow’s lore!”
I hope that you have enjoyed this article and found it useful. It is the first article that I have written for Idunna in approximately three years, and I hope there will be many more. I can be contacted via email at email@example.com or from my website at http://home.earthlink.net/~jordsvin If you would like to learn more about Heimdall, and share experiences with others of like mind, join the Righeimdall/Heimdallgarth elist at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Righeimdall
Boyer, Régis. La Religion des Anciens Scandinaves. Paris: Payot, Paris, 1981. Good
overall introduction for Francophone students of Heathenism.
Branston, Brian. Gods of the North. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980. Good
overview of the subject. The Introduction and Background sections at the beginning
are an added bonus.
-----. The Lost Gods of England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Slightly dated scholarship but still mostly valid. Very readable and enjoyable and
well-illustrated in black and white. My biggest beef with Branston is that following a
current in the scholarship of the time, he tends to lump all the Goddess together as
“aspects of Mother Nature” (p. 128). One of my all-time personal favorites anyway!
Out of print, but used copies are sometimes available on amazon.com. Interlibrary
loan is also a good source.
Ellis Davidson, H. R. Gods and Myths of the Viking Age. New York: Barnes and
Noble, 1996. Originally published as Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, a less
accurate title. In any case, this book is essential reading for any Heathen, and one of
the first books I would recommend to a beginning student.
Gundarsson, Kveldúlf Hagan, ed. Our Troth, 2nd Edition, vol. 1: History and Lore.
n.p.: BookSurge, 2006. An updating/expansion of the original 1993 edition. The 24-
page bibliography at the end is in itself worth the price of the book! ISBN: 1-4196-
3598-0. Library of Congress Control Number: 2006903620. BookSurge can be
Contacted at (866) 308-6235, http://www.booksurge.com/bookstore.php3, or at
Sheil, Thor and Audrey. The Road to Bifrost Volume V: The Mysteries on Bifrost’s
Path. New York: Trollwise Press, 1991. Finally back in print at
http://www.thortrains.com/bifrost/bookrtb.htm Practical and down-to-earth. The
authors’ real, longstanding, ongoing, and deep relationship with our Gods and
Goddesses shines through on every page. They also express their personal opinions
in very plain English. This monograph has my highest recommendation. I believe
that it should be the first of their monographs that you buy.
Turville-Petre, E. O. G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient
Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Still in print and
something every Heathen who reads English should read more than once. Obscenely
overpriced on amazon.com. I suggest interlibrary loan at your local public library.
Heimdall. Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zum Verständnis der
1941. 298 s. Akad. avh.
This online article is also worth checking out:
Sayers, William. “Irish Perspectives on Heimdallr. http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~alvismal/2heimdal.pdf
last modified 05/04/2010