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by Diego Balmaceda

Heimdall, guard and keeper of the Ragnarök

In Norse mythology, Heimdall (from Old Norse Heimdallr, [ˈhɛimˌdɑlːz̠]) is a god who keeps watch for invaders and the onset of Ragnarök from his dwelling Himinbjörg, where the burning rainbow bridge Bifröst meets the sky. He is attested as possessing foreknowledge and keen senses, particularly eyesight and hearing. The god and his possessions are described in enigmatic manners: For example, Heimdall is gold-toothed, 'the head is called his sword', and he is 'the whitest of the gods'.

Heimdall possesses the resounding horn Gjallarhorn and the golden-maned horse Gulltoppr, along with a store of mead at his dwelling. He is the son of the Nine Mothers, and he is said to be the originator of social classes among humanity. Other notable stories include the recovery of Freyja's treasured possession Brísingamen while doing battle in the shape of a seal with Loki. The antagonistic relationship between Heimdall and Loki is notable, as they are foretold to kill one another during the events of Ragnarök. Heimdallr is also known as Rig, Hallinskiði, Gullintanni, and Vindlér or Vindhlér.

Heimdall is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional material; in the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, both written in the 13th century; in the poetry of skalds; and on an Old Norse runic inscription found in England. Two lines of an otherwise lost poem about the god, Heimdalargaldr, survive. Due to the enigmatic nature of these attestations, scholars have produced various theories about the nature of the god, including his relation to sheep, borders, and waves.

Names and etymology

The etymology of the name is obscure, but 'the one who illuminates the world' has been proposed. Heimdallr may be connected to Mardöll, one of Freyja's names. Heimdallr and its variants are usually anglicized as Heimdall (/ˈheɪmdɑːl/; with the nominative -r dropped).

Heimdall is attested as having three other names; Hallinskiði, Gullintanni, and Vindlér or Vindhlér. The name Hallinskiði is obscure, but has resulted in a series of attempts at deciphering it. Gullintanni literally means 'the one with the golden teeth'. Vindlér (or Vindhlér) translates as either 'the one protecting against the wind' or 'wind-sea'. All three have resulted in numerous theories about the god.

Attestations

Saltfleetby spindle whorl inscription

A lead spindle whorl bearing an Old Norse Younger Futhark inscription that mentions Heimdall was discovered in Saltfleetby, England on September 1, 2010. The spindle whorl itself is dated from the year 1000 to 1100 AD. On the inscription, the god Heimdallr is mentioned alongside the god Odin and Þjálfi, a name of one of the god Thor's servants. Regarding the inscription reading, John Hines of Cardiff University comments that there is "quite an essay to be written over the uncertainties of translation and identification here; what are clear, and very important, are the names of two of the Norse gods on the side, Odin and Heimdallr, while Þjalfi (masculine, not the feminine in -a) is the recorded name of a servant of the god Thor."

Poetic Edda

In the Poetic Edda, Heimdall is attested in six poems; Völuspá, Grímnismál, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Rígsþula, and Hrafnagaldr Óðins.

Heimdall is mentioned three times in Völuspá. In the first stanza of the poem, the undead völva reciting the poem calls out for listeners to be silent and refers to the Norse god:

This stanza has led to various scholarly interpretations. The "holy races" have been considered variously as either humanity or the gods. The notion of humanity as "Heimdall's sons" is otherwise unattested and has also resulted in various interpretations. Some scholars have pointed to the prose introduction to the poem Rígsþula, where Heimdall is said to have once gone about people, slept between couples, and so doled out classes among them (see Rígsthula section below).

Later in Völuspá, the völva foresees the events of Ragnarök and the role in which Heimdall and Gjallarhorn will play at its onset; Heimdall will raise his horn and blow loudly. Due to manuscript differences, translations of the stanza vary.

Regarding this stanza, scholar Andy Orchard comments that the name Gjallarhorn may here mean "horn of the river Gjöll" as "Gjöll is the name of one of the rivers of the Underworld, whence much wisdom is held to derive", but notes that in the poem Grímnismál Heimdall is said to drink fine mead in his heavenly home Himinbjörg.[10]

Earlier in the same poem, the völva mentions a scenario involving the hearing or horn. Scholar Paul Schach comments that the stanzas in this section of Völuspá are "all very mysterious and obscure, as it was perhaps meant to be". Schach details that "Heimdallar hljóð has aroused much speculation. Snorri [in the Prose Edda] seems to have confused this word with gjallarhorn, but there is otherwise no attestation of the use of hljóð in the sense of 'horn' in Icelandic. Various scholars have read this as "hearing" rather than "horn".[14]

Scholar Carolyne Larrington comments that if "hearing" rather than "horn" is understood to appear in this stanza, the stanza indicates that Heimdall, like Odin, has left a body part in the well; his ear. Larrington says that "Odin exchanged one of his eyes for wisdom from Mimir, guardian of the well, while Heimdall seems to have forfeited his ear."[15]

In the poem Grímnismál, Odin (disguised as Grímnir), tortured, starved and thirsty, tells the young Agnar of a number of mythological locations. The eighth location he mentions is Himinbjörg, where he says that Heimdall drinks fine mead.

Regarding the above stanza, Henry Adams Bellows comments that "in this stanza the two functions of Heimdall—as father of humanity [ . . . ] and as warder of the gods—seem both to be mentioned, but the second line in the manuscripts is apparently in bad shape, and in the editions it is more or less conjecture".[17]

In the poem Lokasenna, Loki flyts with various gods who have met together to feast. At one point during the exchanges, the god Heimdall says that Loki is drunk and witless, and asks Loki why he won't stop speaking. Loki tells Heimdall to be silent, that he was fated a "hateful life", that Heimdall must always have a muddy back, and that he must serve as watchman of the gods. The goddess Skaði interjects and the flyting continues in turn.[18]

The poem Þrymskviða tells of Thor's loss of his hammer, Mjöllnir, to the jötnar and quest to get it back. At one point in the tale, the gods gather at the thing and debate how to get Thor's hammer back from the jötnar, who demand the beautiful goddess Freyja in return for it. Heimdall advises that they simply dress Thor up as Freyja, during which he is described as hvítastr ása (translations of the phrase vary below) and is said to have foresight like the Vanir, a group of gods.

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