I remember yet
the giants of yore,
Who gave me bread
in the days gone by;
Nine worlds I knew,
the nine in the tree,
With mighty roots
beneath the mold
–From The Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows
Coming down off the mountain, I found a clean log to sit on and emptied the pebbles from my boot.
Red Squirrel. Photo by 4028mdk09
A red squirrel appeared and began chattering angrily. I stretched, closed my eyes for a moment, then adjusted the weight distribution in my pack. The squirrel continued to squeak, click and scold. “Will you be quiet!” I shouted finally. “I’m not hurting you!” The squirrel ran away ten feet, turned around, and began haranguing me again.
Yggdrasil, from a 17th century Icelandic manuscript.
There is no mystery as to why the red squirrel Ratatosk, who scurries up and down the world tree Yggdrasil, is believed to carry insults and verbal abuse. Even the ordinary squirrel scampers to the far reaches of tall trees and down again, seemingly to no purpose, scolding furiously. But the ancestors who studied Yggdrasil’s nature did discern a purpose in Ratatosk’s behavior: he carries insults from the Eagle, who lives in the upper reaches of the ash tree, to the underworld of Niflheim (NIV-el-hame) where the giant serpent Nidhogg (NEED-hog) nibbles at the roots. Nidhogg then offers invectives of his own, which Ratatosk brings up to the Eagle.
What kind of a purpose is that?
To understand the genius of Ratatosk’s role, we have to go back to the nature and the purpose of Yggdrasil itself. The world ash actually supports nine worlds, including the world of the gods, Asgard (AHS-guard), the world of the dead, Niflheim, and the world of humans, Midgard. At the base of the three main roots, the Norns, three goddesses of fate and prophecy, water the tree with white water from a magical lake. They nurture the roots by feeding them moistened clay. Nourished in this way, Yggdrasil’s roots, shoots, leaves and trunk could grow unchecked, choking the universe; but Nidhogg and his sibling serpents nibble at the edges of the roots, a nanny-goat eats the sprouting twigs, and four deer munch on the leaves. Ratatosk, whose name means “drill-tooth,” chews the bark of the tree. The worlds, supported by the sacred ash, remain in balance.
Detail of Ratatosk, from the same drawing
So back to the silly Ratatosk, conveying invectives in the ongoing battle between eagle and serpent. Trying to discern a straightforward purpose in Ratatosk’s behavior is a futile task. We need to ask: if Ratatosk were to go away, what would happen in the conflict between the Eagle and Nidhogg? Would they fight each other directly? Neither is bound to their station. Since eagles prey upon snakes, the Eagle would inevitably emerge victorious in such a battle, and the nine worlds, which depend on both the tree and its antagonists in equilibrium, would collapse.
Ultimately, we need to know more about the feud. The Eddas, sacred texts of Germanic lore written several centuries after the Christian conversion, have little to say on this topic. The name of the Eagle is not even given. We only know that the Eagle is “wise” and Nidhogg is “evil.” They are separated by the long trunk of Yggdrasil, with Ratatosk enabling a virtual war between wisdom and evil with words, like the verbal battle between truth and lies.
The gods know that balance is a state that cannot remain indefinitely, and so the worlds we know must someday end and be replaced by something else. The Eddas say that it will be evil, not wisdom, that will gain the upper hand. But either way, the fate of the nine worlds supported by Yggdrasil is sealed. Still it is the duty of the gods, indeed of everyone, to hold off that day as long as possible. And so Ratatosk scurries up and down the sacred ash, transporting and returning the words wisdom and evil tell each other.
Bellows, Henry Adam, trans. The Poetic Edda, 1936. At http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe06.htm.
Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: Aquarian Press, 1986.
Guerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate Books, 1994. Reprint.