Heimdall is the guardian of the gods, and of their home, Asgard. Why is it then, that the Eddic poem Rígsþula describes him wandering the earth and interacting with humans as if he had nothing else to concern him?
As the guardian god, Heimdall lives at Himinbjorg (Heaven’s Castle) at the end of the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard. The Prose Edda says:
He needs less sleep than a bird. He can see, by night as well as by day, a distance of a hundred leagues. He can also hear the grass growing on the earth and wool on sheep and everything that sounds louder than that. He has a trumpet called Giallarhorn and its blast can be heard in all the worlds. (Faulkes: 25)
His old enemy Loki gives it a different spin, saying that Heimdall cannot leave, in Lokasenna:
48. “Be silent, Heimdall! | in days long since
Was an evil fate for thee fixed;
With back held stiff | must thou ever stand,
As warder of heaven to watch.”
The poem Grimnismal puts a better face on it, but stresses Heimdall’s role as watchman:
13. Himinbjorg is the eighth, | and Heimdall there
O’er men holds sway, it is said;
In his well-built house | does the warder of heaven
The good mead gladly drink.
However, another Eddic poem, Rígsþula, makes Heimdall a much more active god: he travels the world siring three sons who form the three social classes, and spends time mentoring the last, aristocratic, one.
Deserting hIs post?
The poem follows the travels of a god Rígr, identified in a note by the scribe as Heimdall. Mobility is a theme of the poem, so much so that the first verse begins with the god in motion:
1. Men say there went | by ways so green
Of old the god, | the aged and wise,
Mighty and strong | did Rig go striding.
He then goes to visit a couple called Great-Grandmother (Edda) and Great-Grandfather (Ai). They are poor and live a hard life, but they share what they have with the disguised god, and nine months later Edda has a son, Thrall (Slave). He marries and has other servant children.
Rígr repeats this pattern with Grandmother and Grandfather, whose son is named Karl, a smallholder, and Father and Mother, whose son is an aristocrat, Jarl.
When Jarl grows up, Rígr reappears and teaches him:
36. Straight from the grove | came striding Rig,
Rig came striding, | and runes he taught him;
By his name he called him, | as son he claimed him,
And bade him hold | his heritage wide,
His heritage wide, | the ancient homes.
Jarl goes on to make war until he has 18 halls. He then marries, and his son, Kon, learns runes and grows in wisdom:
The right he sought, | and soon he won it,
Rig to be called, | and runes to know.
The poem breaks off as Kon is speaking with some birds who advise him to make war on two Norwegian kings. (Like Sigurd, who is warned by birds that Regin plans to kill him.)
The poem Rígsþula only appears in the Codex Wormianus version of the Prose Edda. As an addition it is doubly frustrating, because first it’s obviously not part of the Prose Edda, leaving the question of why the scribe added it, and second, the last part of the poem is missing, leaving us uncertain as to the poet’s intentions.
As I mentioned above, the scribe made a note to the effect that Rígr is Heimdall, and his role as progenitor of three different men, of different classes, fits with the first verse of the cosmological poem Völuspá:
1. Hearing I ask | from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, | both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, | that well I relate
Old tales I remember | of men long ago.
The seeress, addressing Odin, describes all humans as Heimdall’s children, which suggests that Heimdall and Rígr are indeed the same.
Are you sure Rígr isn’t Odin?
This contrast between Heimdall’s roles has caused some writers to even question whether the Rígr of Rígsþula is Heimdall. The travelling around, using a false name, impregnating women and mentoring young, heroic nobles sounds more like Odin. (The notes to the Bellows translation at Sacred Texts takes this position. Closer to our own time, Rudolf Simek takes the same position.)
However, the prologue of the poem (written by the scribe who included it in his text) identifies Rígr with Heimdall:
They tell in old stories that one of the gods, whose name was Heimdall, went on his way along a certain seashore, and came to a dwelling, where he called himself Rig.
The striking thing about Rígr, however, is that although he does mentor the noble, and the future king, he also hands out advice to all the others he meets along the way. Amory thinks this is a trait specific to Heimdall, since Odin is not so free with his help. (14)
The ninth-century skald Ulf Uggason, in his poem Húsdrapa, called Heimdall “kind of counsel”, which would fit with a role as benefactor. (You could even include his advice-giving to Thor in Thrymskvida, where the narrator makes a point of emphasizing his farsightedness.)
It’s worth bearing in mind that although we’re used to thinking of a Norse pantheon with Odin at the top, and all the rest of the deities living in Asgard, Scandinavian religion was much more diverse than the picture Snorri Sturluson paints in the Prose Edda.
While he (perhaps because he was writing for poets) makes Odin the chief god, it seems that his fellow Icelanders preferred Thor, while the Swedes preferred Freyr, who was the divine ancestor of their kings. There may well have been different traditions about Odin and Heimdall as fathers of humanity.
Heimdall: not always on guard (or is he?)
Another myth about Heimdall also puts him outside Asgard. The actual story is lost to us, but according to Snorri’s summary, Heimdall and Loki fought in the form of seals on the island of Singastein. So presumably Heimdall is able to leave his post without ill effect, at least if something important is at stake. He also attended Baldr’s funeral, and Aegir’s feast (in fact, two, one in the prologue of Skaldskaparmal, and another in the poem Lokasenna.) So it seems that he can get away when he wants to.
It might be worthwhile not to get too fussy about these things. After all, Kvasir dies near the beginning of the cosmic cycle, right after the war between the Aesir and Vanir, but he pops up again after Baldr dies, just in time to figure out how Loki is hiding from the gods.
In Völuspá we’re told that Heimdall’s hearing is buried beneath the world-tree Yggdrasil, just as Odin’s eye is hidden in Mimir’s well. Perhaps it acts as an early warning system.
Protector and Father
My own thought is that since the name Rigr comes from the Irish word for king, rí, perhaps the Rígsþula story shows how the first king went about organizing his kingdom, paving the way for a mortal king, the young Kon ungr. (Meaning Kon the young, whose name is a pun on a word for king, konungr.)
Sayer’s idea of Heimdall as ram (one name for a ram was Heimdali) suggests that he could be both a progenitor and watchman, if we imagine a ram watching over his flock. (His by-names include Vindhler, “Wind-Shelter”, and Hallinskidi “Asymmetrically Horned”, which fit.)
His role as father and guardian would fit with his role as advice-giver, too. I leave you with this thought from Grumpy Lokean Elder, which suggests the difference between Heimdall and Odin, the god of aristocrats and warriors:
…the first stanza of Völuspá, which refers to all listening beings as helgar kindir (holy/hallowed kin/progeny/races, referring here to humankind) and mögu Heimdallar (boys/sons/kindred of Heimdall). They are hallowed by virtue of all being descended from not just a God, but the hvitastr áss, the “whitest”/brightest of the aesir. Meiri ok minni, of greater and lesser importance, shows that status seems to have no bearing on any human’s holiness.
Amory, Frederick 2001: “The Historical Worth of Rígsþula” alvíssmál 10: 3-20. (pdf here)
Andrén, Anders, 2012: “Servants of Thor? The Gotlanders and their gods,” in News from other worlds: Studies in Nordic folklore, mythology and culture in honor of John F. Lindow, ed. by Merrill Kaplan and Timothy R. Tangherlini. Wildcat Canyon Advanced Seminars, Occasional Monographs, 1. Pinehurst Press: 92–100. (Google Books)
Brink, Stefan, 2007: “How uniform was the Old Norse religion?” in Learning and
Understanding in the Old Norse world: Essays in honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. by Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop and Tarrin Wells, Brepols: 105–35. (summary here)
Davidson, H. R. E. 1990: Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin (reprint).
Gunnell, Terry 2015: “Pantheon? What Pantheon? Concepts of a Family of Gods in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions,” Scripta Islandica 66: 55-76. (academica.edu)
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford. (academica.edu)
Orchard, Andy 2002: Cassell’s Dictonary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell Reference.
Sayers, William 1993: “Irish Perpectives on Heimdalr,” alvíssmál 2: 3-30. (pdf here)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
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