Norse mythology is brimming with interesting characters, who continue to capture our imaginations. One such character is Heimdall, the mysterious guardian of Asgard, and watchman of the Aesir tribe of Norse gods.
From his home, Himinbjörg, or Heaven Fells, situated at the entrance to Asgard, Heimdall sits on the edge of heaven, keeping watch. The sentinel was the guard and protector of the mythical rainbow bridge called the Bifrost. This bridge connects Asgard with the human realm, Midgard.
In his role as the watchman, Heimdall does not waver. He was said to possess many impressive abilities, including keen senses and impressive fighting skills.
The protector is forever watching for signs of danger or the beginning of the Norse apocalypse known as Ragnorak. Heimdall is the herald of the Norse apocalypse.
Who is Heimdall?
In Norse mythology, Heimdall was a god who was associated with the protection of Asgard, the realm of the gods. He was said to be the son of nine mothers, who were all daughters of the sea god, Aegir. The guardian of Asgard was a highly-skilled warrior and was known for his many impressive abilities.
Born at the beginning of time, Heimdall is a member of the Aesir tribe of gods found within the Norse Pantheon. There are three tribes found within the pantheon, the Aseir who were skilled warriors. The second group was the Vanir who were gods and goddesses of fertility, wealth, and love. Thirdly, there was a race of giants called Jotuns.
The watchman of Asgard, Heimdall may have at one time belonged to the Vanir tribe of gods, as did several of the Aesir. Either way, the watchman whose fortress was situated on the Bifrost, diligently watched over the world.
One of Heimdall’s most notable abilities was his keen senses. He was said to be able to hear the grass grow and see for hundreds of miles. This made him an excellent guardian, as he was able to detect the approach of any potential threats to Asgard.
In addition to his sharp senses, Heimdall was also an accomplished fighter. He was known to wield the sword Hofud, which was said to be so sharp that it could cut through anything.
Etymology of Heimdall
The etymology of Heimdall, or Heimdallr in Old Norse, is unclear, but there is a belief that his name is derived from one of the goddess Freyja’s names, Mardöll.
Heimdall translated, means ‘radiant world’ which corresponds to the hypothesis that his name is derived from the ‘one who illuminates the world.’ This is perhaps why the sentinel is sometimes referred to as the ‘shining god.’
Heimdall is not the only name the guardian of the Bifrost is known by. In addition to Heimdall, he is known as Hallinskidi, meaning ram or the horned, Vindlér, meaning the turner, and Rig. Additionally, he was sometimes called Gullintanni, meaning ‘the one with the golden teeth.’
What is Heimdall the God Of?
Heimdall is the Norse god of foresight, keen eyesight, and hearing. In addition to being the god of foresight and keen senses, Heimdall was believed to be the one to introduce a class system to human beings.
Furthermore, some scholars interpret a line from the first Stanza of the Völuspá (a poem in the Poetic Edda) to mean that Heimdall was the father of mankind. The poem references Heimdall’s sons, both high and low, leading us to believe the poem speaks of the human race.
The intriguing deity is also associated with rams, as one of his names would suggest. The reason for this association has been lost to history.
What Powers Does Heimdall Have?
According to Norse mythology, Heimdall needs less sleep than a bird and can see as well at night as he can during the day. In the Prose Edda, Heimdall’s hearing is so sensitive, he can hear the sound of the wool growing on a sheep and of the grass growing.
The shining protector of the Bifrost had in his possession a fine sword, called Hofud, which translates to, man-head. Mythological weapons have all kinds of strange names (by modern standards), and man-head is up there with the best of them.
Scholars believe the name of Heimdall’s sword further connects him with the ram, as their weapon is on top of their heads.
What Does Heimdall Look Like?
In the Old Norse text, the Poetic Edda, Heimdall is described as being the whitest of the gods, while possessing gold teeth. In the Prose Edda, Sturluson describes Heimdall as the white god, and he is often referred to as being the ‘whitest god.’
In an Old Norse context, whiteness is not referring to Heimdall’s race, but rather his beauty. Calling Heimdall the white god could also be a reference to his birth, as he is believed by some to have been born to nine mothers who personified the waves. The whitness in this context would be referring to the foamy white tip of a wave.
Some scholars think that the reference to the protector of Asgard possessing gold teeth likens his teeth to that of an older ram.
He is often depicted in art and literature, typically as a powerful warrior standing guard at the entrance to Asgard. In some cases, he is shown holding his sword Hofud, and his horn, ready to defend the realm of the Norse gods against any threats.
Heimdall in Norse Mythology
What we know about the important deity, we have gleaned through the scraps of history. Very few texts have survived that mention the mythical watchman. Fragments of myths about Heimdall have been pieced together to formulate our understanding of the mighty sentinel.
The keenly sensed watchman of Asgard is mentioned in the Prose Edda and six poems of the Poetic Edda. The Prose Edda was compiled by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, serving as more of a textbook of mythology. In addition, Heimdall is mentioned in Skaldic poetry and the Heimskringla.
Further mention of the guardian of Asgard in the Poetic Edda, which is a collection of 31 old Norse Poems, the authors of which are unknown. It is from these two medieval sources that much of our knowledge of Norse mythology is based. Heimdall is mentioned in both texts.
Heimdall’s Role in Mythology
Heimdall’s most important role in Norse mythology was as the guardian of the rainbow bridge. This bridge connected Asgard to Midgard, the realm of humans, and Heimdall was tasked with protecting it from any who would seek to harm the gods. He was said to stand guard at the end of the bridge, ever-vigilant and ready to defend against any threats.
Heimdall is the guardian of Asgard. His role is to protect Asgard from attacks, usually orchestrated by the Jotuns. As the watchman, it is Heimdall’s role to alert the Aesir gods of impending danger by sounding his magical horn, called the Gjallarhorn.
This horn was said to be so loud that it could be heard throughout all of the nine realms. Heimdall was to sound this horn to announce the arrival of Ragnarok, the final battle between the gods and the giants.
The ever-diligent watchman is said to live in an impressive fortress that sits on top of the Bifrost. The fortress is called Himinbjörg, which translates to sky cliffs. Here, Heimdalls is said by Odin to drink fine mead. From his home, the protector of Asgard is said to perch on the edge of the heavens, looking down to see what is happening in the realms.
Along with his extremely sharp sword, Hofud, Heimdall was described as riding a horse called Gulltoppr. Heimdall rides in his stead when he attends the god Baldr’s funeral.
Despite his fearsome reputation and powerful abilities, Heimdall was also known to be a fair and just god. He was said to be wise and rational, and he was often called upon to settle disputes among the gods. In many ways, Heimdall was seen as a representation of order and stability in the often chaotic world of Norse mythology.
The Sacrifice of Heimdall
Similar to Odin’s sacrifice, Heimdall is said to have given a body part to better himself. The protector of the Bifrost sacrificed one of his ears to the well beneath the World Tree, called Yggdrasil, to gain more super special superhuman senses. This is similar to the story of when Odin sacrificed his eye to the wise water deity Mímir who lived in the well below the tree.
According to myth, Heimdall’s ear was kept below the roots of the sacred cosmic tree, Yggdrasil. Under the cosmic tree, water from Odin’s sacrificed eye would stream onto Heimdall’s ear.
The texts mention Heimdalls hljóð, which translates to many different things, including ear, and horn. Therefore some interpretations of the myth make it Heimdalls Gjallarhorn that is hidden beneath the tree, not his ear. If the horn is indeed hidden beneath Ygdrassil then perhaps it is only used when the Jotun cross the Bifrost. We simply can not be sure.
Heimdall’s Family Tree
Heimdall is the son of the Nine Mothers of Heimdallr. According to the Prose Edda, the Nine Mothers are nine sisters. Not much else is known about the Nine Mothers.
Some scholars believe Heimdall’s nine mothers represent the waves, with them seemingly representing the nine daughters of the sea god Aegir. It is possible his mother’s names were Foamer, Yelper, Griper, Sand-stewr, She-wolf, Fury, Iron-sword, and Sorrow Flood.
Despite ancient sources connecting Heimdalls nine mothers with the sea, some believe they belonged to the race of giants, known as Jotuns.
There is some debate about who exactly Heimdall’s father is. Most believe that Heimdall’s father was the chief of the Aesir gods, Odin.
It is mentioned that when Heimdall procreated with several human couples, creating the human classes he fathered a son. Heimdall taught this son runes and guided him. The son became a great warrior and leader. One of his sons became so skilled, he was given the name Rig, as he shared the knowledge of the runes with Heimdall.
Heimdall and Loki
The trickster god Loki, and Heimdall have a complicated relationship. They are fated to die fighting one another during the apocalyptic final battle of Ragnarok. The pair have a strained relationship before this, however.
It is clear from the surviving texts that mention the interactions between Loki and Heimdall, that the pair were constantly at odds.
One poem, Húsdrápa found in Snorri Sturrelson’s Poetic Edda, describes how Loki and Heimdall once fought each other in the form of seals.
Heimdall in Húsdrápa
In the poem, Húsdrápa, a fight erupts between the two over a missing necklace. The necklace, called Brisingamen, belonged to the goddess Freyja. The goddess turned to Heimdall for help in retrieving the necklace, which had been stolen by Loki.
Heimdall and Freyja eventually find the necklace in the possession of Loki, who had taken the form of a seal. Heimdall too transformed into a seal, and the two fought on the Singasteinn which is believed to be a rocky skerry, or island.
Heimdall in Lokasenna
Many of the stories about Heimdall have been lost, but we get another glimpse of his tense relationship with Loki in a poem in the Poetic Edda, Lokasenna. In the poem, Loki is engaging in a contest of insults known as flyting at a feast where many of the Norse gods are present.
Throughout the feast, Heimdall becomes irritated with Loki, calling the trickster drunk and witless. The guardian of the Bifrost asks Loki why he will not stop speaking, which does not amuse Loki in the slightest.
Loki responds cuttingly to Heimdall, telling him to stop speaking, and that Heimdall was fated to have a ‘hateful life.’ Loki wishes for the guardian of Asgard to always have a muddy back, or a stiff back depending on the translation. Both translations of the insult wish Heimdall strife in his role as a watchman.
Heimdall and the Gift of Foresight
Another surviving text where Heimdall makes an appearance deals with the disappearance of Thor’s hammer. In Thrymskvitha The god of thunder’s hammer (Mjölnir) is stolen by a Jotun. The Jotun would only give Thor’s hammer back if the gods gave him the goddess Freyja.
The gods gather to discuss the situation and hatch a plan to retrieve the hammer, a plan that thankfully did not include exchanging the goddess for Mjölnir. The wise sentry attends the meeting and reveals he has seen how Thor will get his weapon back.
The handsome god, Heimdall tells Thor that to retrieve Mjölnir from the Jotun who hid it, he should disguise himself as a bride. The poem describes Thor’s disguise in detail:
‘Bind we on Thor the bridal veil, Let him bear the mighty Brisings’ necklace; Keys around him let there rattle, And down to his knees hang woman’s dress; With gems full broad upon his breast, And a pretty cap to crown his head.’
The ruse works, Thor manages to pass as a beautiful goddess and so Thor gets his weapon back, all thanks to Heimdall’s gift of foresight.
Heimdall as the Creator Of Human Classes
The Poetic Edda contains the most information about the deity who watched over Asgard. In particular, the poem Rígsþula describes Heimdall as being the creator of the human class system. Ancient Nordic society was divided into three distinct social classes.
At the bottom of the societal hierarchy were the Serfs, who were peasants, often farmers. The second group was that of the Commoners. This group consisted of normal people who did not belong to the aristocracy. Finally, at the top of the hierarchy were the noblemen, who were who belonged to the land-owning aristocracy.
The poem describes how Heimdall (given the name Rig here), once went on a journey. The god wandered along a seashore and walked through the middle of roads meeting couples along the way.
The wise god Rig first came across an older couple, called Ai and Edda. The couple offered the god a meal of heavy bread and calf broth, after which the god slept between them for three nights. Nine months later, the ugly-faced Thrall (meaning slave) was born.
The next couple, Afi and Ama are more presentable than the first, signaling a higher social status. Heimdall (Rig) repeats the process with the new couple, and nine months later Karl (freeman) is born. Thus creating the second class of men, commoners.
The third couples Heimdall meets are Fathir and Mothir (Father and Mother). This couple is clearly of a higher stature as they are dressed in good quality clothing and are not tanned from working in the sun.
From his union with the couple, Jarl (nobleman) is born and wrapped in silk.
The Problematic Myth
The issue with labeling Heimdall as the creator of the classes is that in the poem, Rig is described as being old, but mighty, wise, and strong, which hints that perhaps Rig was Odin, Chief god of the Aesir, and not the most handsome watchman, Heimdall.
Further evidence does however point to Heimdall being the creator of the classes, as in the poem Grímnismál, it is said he ‘rules over all men”. Additionally, in the Old Norse creation myth, found in the poem Völuspá, humans are described as being the greater and lesser children of Heimdall.
Heimdall and Ragnarok
The mighty protector of the Bifrost and guardian of Asgard is also the herald of the apocalypse. In the Norse creation myth, it is not just the creation of the cosmos that is described, but also its destruction. This end of days is referred to as Ragnarok, which translates to ‘twilight of the gods.’
Ragnarok does not only involve the destruction of the nine realms and the entire Norse cosmos, but also the demise of the Norse gods. This cataclysmic event begins with the sound of Heimdall’s resounding horn, Gjallarhorn.
From the crack created in the sky dome, terrifying fire giants will emerge. Led by Surt, they storm the Bifrost, destroying it as they advance. It is at this point the sound of Heimdall’s Gjallarhorn rings out through the nine realms, signifying their dreadful fate is upon them.
When the Aseir gods hear Heimdall’s horn, they know that the Jotun will cross the burning rainbow bridge, and enter Asgard. It is not just the giants that attack Asgard and the Aesir, as they are joined by Loki, who betrays the Aesir, and by various mythical beasts.
The Aesir gods led by Odin battle with the giants and beasts on the battlefield known as Vigrid. It is during this final apocalyptic battle that Heimdall will meet his fate. The unwavering sentinel of Asgard battles his adversary, the Norse god who betrayed the Aesir, Loki.
The two will be the end of each other, dying at each other’s hands. After the fall of Heimdall, the world burns and sinks into the sea.