Heimdallr as Liminal Deity

Written by Dyami Millarson

Heimdallr is a Vörðr — keep this Old Norse term in mind because it is important for understanding the nature of Heimdallr. A Vörðr is a warden, watchman, guardian, protector. In the Germanic polytheistic-animistic hierarchy, Heimdallr is a higher type of Border Spirit. He guards the boundaries of Asgarth and Mithgarth; He is the gate-keeper of Bifröst, the Divine Bridge. He is akin to a village guard; for he is the protector of the Village of the Gods. Heimdallr is the personification of the walls or borders of Asgarth. He keeps undesirables out of the lands He watches over; He protects Gods and men against the Jötnar, High Spirits of Chaos (compare Dutch Kwelgeest, a Spirit which torments or causes suffering).

Radiance is the natural symbol of Heimdallr; his colour is white. Across Eurasian cultures, this colour evokes positive associations with innocence, purity, virginity, simplicity, cleanliness, and the like. Heimdallr is closely associated with (sun)light and he is called the White God and the whitest of the Gods. This makes sense considering that He is a Týr, one of the Tívar (Sky, Heaven and Light Deities); Heimdallr is considered the most Týr-like due to being the prime example of a White God, Sun God, Lord of Light. As such, He is a God that is hard to classify from the standpoint of Vanic-Asic duality, or one might say duopoly. He is a third type of deity; non-Vanic and non-Asic, but He is nevertheless truly Tyric or Alfish.

So He belongs to what may be called Álfar (in the sense of White Divinity, compare Latin albus meaning ‘white’) or Tívar: White Gods. He is a patron; a Tutelary Spirit of Gods and men. Matrons are, by contrast, called Dísir. Hence Freyja is called Vanadís. In the same vein as Freyja may be seen as a Dís, a female Tutelary Nature Spirit, Heimdallr may be seen as an Álfr, a male Tutelary Nature Spirit. Heimdallr has a special relationship with fate, demonstrated by His prominent role in Ragnarök, the social order of the world, His hljóð being located at the bottom of Yggdrasill, and His wisdom based on foresight which may be considered unusual for a male Deity. Due to the tutelary function that Heimdallr has as well as His close relationship with fate which is somewhat unusual for a male as such qualities are usually ascribed to females (i.e. seeresses) in Germanic religion though males with such abilities are not unheard of, He may be regarded as a highly ranked male counterpart to the Hamingjur, Fylgjur and Nornir.

An attribute of Heimdallr is the Gjallarhorn, a loud-sounding horn which will be used by the aforementioned Týr to signal the beginning of the world’s doom. The first element of the name of the horn is related to the Old Norse verb gjalla, which means ‘scream, cry; make a loud noise.’ The meaning of the name and the function of the object itself remind me of the cocks that will announce the beginning of Ragnarök: Fjalarr, Gullinkambi and the sótrauðr hani, all three of which are mentioned in stanzas 43-44 of the Völuspá. The Poetic Edda uses the preterite gól, which comes from the verb gala, to refer to the sound of the cocks announcing Ragnarök. This is interesting because the verb gala has a similar meaning as gjalla, and it ought to be noted that both verbs are etymologically related through the phonological phenomenon of ablaut; in conclusion, both verbs ultimately come from the same source, namely a noise-related verb. This brings us to the notion that the aforementioned cocks have a Heimdallian function or vice versa: Heimdallr has a cock-like function. Namely, cocks are Vęrðir (plural of the Old Norse term Vörðr) of the farm or village, and it is therefore natural that they will fulfill the role of announcing Ragnarök; as natural it is that Heimdallr will do the same. Based on the symbolism of the cock, Heimdallr is the hani Goða cock of the Gods.

Cocks are very territorial. This is akin to the border-protecting function of Heimdallr; as a watchman, it is in a cock’s nature to guard a territory, and so it is for Heimdallr. Thus, due to his destiny as a Vörðr, Heimdallr is inevitably a Liminal Deity; he is the Deity of the borders or limits of the human and divine realms. He protects what consitutes the garðr of men and the garðr of the Gods; he can be equated with the very essence of what those garðar (plural of garðr) are, and so he represents the basic definition of the Germanic universe. A Vörðr may be translated to Dutch as grensgeest (Border Spirit) or grenspaalgeest (Border Pole Spirit). This may generally be applied to the Roman Deity of that function, namely Terminus or Deus Terminālis. The importance of this deity cannot be ignored; for the socioeconomic foundation of the Roman state depended on it. While Terminus is associated with borders, he is the Deity of Property and Wealth. Without defined borders, there could be no property, and by extension, there could be no Roman Empire. In the same way, there could be no Asgarth and Mithgarth without borders; Heimdallr protects the very essence or definition of those garðar. Within the Heimdallian borders lie the sacred or spiritual lands of the Germanic ancestors. In the Germanic sacred reality, there is essentially a divine kingdom or empire — an eternal kingdom or empire that is fundamentally Germanic by virtue of being ruled over by a Thing or Court of Gods who practise what amounts to a set of quintessentially Germanic customs; the sacred territory which Heimdallr guards dutifully is culturally Germanic owing to the influence from the culturally Germanic Gods and is therefore the home or heimat of Germanic civilisation.

Borders were sacred in ancient times, and border markers were conceived of as being inhabited by spirits, similarly to the modern Icelandic belief in stones being inhabited by Landwights or Landvættir. Anyone who desecrated these borders faced severe punishment in ancient times; likewise, desecrating fences, trespassing into people’s property or illegally crossing national borders is usually not without consequences in modern times as well, which helps us comprehend the enduring significance of borders. It is no wonder; for humans, like animals such as chickens and quail, are territorial beings, and due to fate or the universal order of things, the Ancient Gods share this same primordial — or evolutionary if you will — trait with humans and animals. On account of the socioreligious significance of borders and thresholds or līmitēs and līminēs as they are called in Latin, the Romans performed blood sacrifices at border stones. This must have been no different for the Ancient Germanic peoples, who must have used border markers for Things (meetings) and Blóts (blood sacrifices); comparable to the border stones, where the Romans brought sacrificia or blood sacrifices, is the Germanic Hörgr, a stack of stones, essentially a small shrine where the Germanic people brought blóts or blood sacrifices. A cairn, which is a stack of stones, may be called varði in Old Norse, whence comes the Danish and Norwegian term varde, and it may be called steenmannetje ‘little stone man’ in Dutch and Steinmännchen ‘little stone man’ in German. The Old Norse terms varði ‘cairn’ and Vörðr ‘guardian’ are related to the the verb vęrja ‘defend, keep away,’ suggesting a connection between Heimdallr and cairns in the same manner as there is a connection between Terminus and border stones in Roman religion. Underscoring the importance of border stones, the Romans even had a festival dedicated to their Liminal Deity: Terminālia.

Without borders, the Germanic universe will descend into chaos; once the Jötnar start crossing the borders en masse, it is the end of the world. The liminal function of Heimdallr as ‘peace-keeper’ or ‘order-protector’ makes him comparable to Mārs, the Martial God, whom the Romans worshipped for keeping the peace. The worship of Mārs for peace very much sums up the Roman mentality as expressed in this saying: sī vīs pācem, parā bellum (if you desire peace, prepare for war). One might say the world lives under pāx Heimdalliāna or the Heimdallian peace until Ragnarök. Martial aspects are not alien to Heimdallr, as demonstrated by his role in defeating Loki during Ragnarök. The martial nature of Heimdallr very much makes sense due to his role as Guard of the Gods; his liminal function is thus inherently linked with a martial function. Heimdallr, while being an ever-vigilant warrior who, as a border guard, decides who is allowed to come into his safe spaces or not, must have been strongly linked with the concept of Friðr; he presided over sacred spaces, within the borders of which peace should be kept. Moreover, I should add there are no sacred spaces unless there are defined borders; sacredness as a concept depends on borders. Consequently, Norse concepts such as , Hörgr and Hóf make no sense without Heimdallian protection. It is also stated that in tbe realm of Heimdallr, there are many sacred spaces; this is completely logical, since he represents the very essence of what defines ‘sacred.’

Heimdallr is born from nine sisters. Symbolically, the number nine is important: it signifies that Heimdallr is the Patron Deity of Wholeness, Integrity or one might say Perfection. He protects wholeness/integrity for Gods and men alike; again, he protects the natural order. The connection between whole (Old Norse: heill, Dutch: heel) and holy (Old Norse: heilagr, Gothic: ᚺᚨᛁᛚᚨᚷᛊ hailags) is essential for the Germanic worldview — compare Gothic ᚺᚨᛁᛚᚨᚷᛊ (hailags) ‘holy’ and ᚺᚨᛁᛚᚨᚷᛊ (hails) ‘whole,’ Old Norse heill ‘whole’ and heilagr ‘holy,’ Old English hāliġ ‘holy’ and hāl ‘whole,’ Shire Frisian heilich ‘holy’ and hiel ‘whole,’ Dutch heilig ‘holy’ and heel ‘whole.’ Since what is sacred is whole and sacred spaces are necessarily whole, Heimdallr is the Deity of Sanctity or Holiness; he is the Deity who separates the profane from the sacred, and that is an absolutely essential religious function.

Since the mothers of Heimdallr are nine sisters, they may be identified with the nine wave sisters, the daughters of Ægir and Rán. If this identification is correct, then Heimdallr is connected with the the sea, the symbol of wealth. Njörth is the God of Wealth on account of his connection with the sea. It would make sense for Heimdallr to be connected with the sea through his birth mothers, because through his liminal function, he is necessarily also connected with property, and therefore with cattle, which was the primordial Germanic currency and thus a very important symbol of wealth. The Germanic peoples displayed wealth through cattle, and this was the same for the Ancient Romans; the latter’s word for money, pecūnia, is derived from the term for cattle, pecū, and cattle is semantically related to notions of wealth in old Getmanic languages as well. Due to being connected with borders of all kinds in his role as a Vörðr, Heimdallr must necessarily have been a God of Wealth as well, and this would support the notion of him being related to the daughters of Ægir, the sea. A connection with wealth is no surprise since when a guard guards something, what he guards may be a treasure of some kind; treasures and guards are often linked in folklore.

Given His association with wealth and order (Friðr), it may also be no wonder that He is a Deity of Hierarchy or a Societal Deity. He in the guise of Rigr created the social classes, and human beings are called the sons of Heimdallr. He has thus a very deep relationship with civilisation itself. Due to his relationship with social hierarchy and the association of Him with brightness, it is very attractive to regard Him as a primordial Sun Deity, as already pointed out by identifying Heimdallr as one of the Álfar or Tívar. Ancient civilisations, especially those which were hierarchically structured to a high degree, often worshipped a Sun Deity. Sun worship must also have played a significant role in early Germanic religion. Furthermore, the sacred animal of Heimdallr must be the ram; Heimdallr has a particular association with this animal for sure and as I already noted, he may be brought into connecton with cattle in general. Resulting from the link with the ram, Heimdallr may be compared to the category of horned deities. Interesting within this category is the Egyptian God Amun-Ra, Creator Deity, Deity of the disadvantaged social classes, and Patron Deity of the Egyptian Empire. Heimdallr, as discussed, ticks off comparable functional boxes; he is a Creator Deity, a Deity of the Poor and Wealthy, and he is the Patron of the Germanic Sacred Empire, the Germanic Spiritual Territory or one might say Germānia as the Romans called it.

Amun-Ra, who was one of the most popular Deities of Egyptian religion, was identified by the Greeks with Zeus, and one may also compare Heimdallr to the Gods Othin (earlier: Wōdanaz) and Týr (earlier: Tīwaz), the latter of which is etymologically related with Zeus. Amun-Ra, which is a fusion of Amun and Ra, may be considered a Sun God as well; for through Ra, Amun-Ra is associated with the sun. Amun is a Ram Deity like one may say of Heimdallr. Another Egyptian Ram Deity is Heryshaf, who is also brought into connection with Ra. Heryshaf was born from primordial waters (Dutch: oerwateren, German: Urwasser, Shire Frisian: oerwetters), which is not unlike Heimdallr as we have already seen. Functionally, Heryshaf is a Creator Deity as well as a Deity of Fertility; the former function is a clear parallel with Heimdallr, and by extension of the fact that Heimdallr is seen as the father of mankind like Othin (the Germanic peoples apparently had multiple fathers of mankind), he may also be considered a Fertility Deity. Furthermore, the notion of Heimdallr being a Fertility Deity supports the notion of him as a Ram Deity or Horned Deity; for the ram, being a male sheep, may be regarded as a symbol of virility and therefore male fertility — it is safe to say that Heimdallr falls into the horned deity category as found in Egyptian religion. His attribute being a horn that will be used for inaugurating Ragnarök also supports this thesis. Furthermore, the Gjallarhorn may be compared with the Cornucōpia, the horn of plenty, and the Finnish Sampo, a magical device giving luck and wealth, and the Sámi drum; owing to Heimdallr’s connection with wealth and fertility, it makes sense to draw such a comparison.

The element Himin- in Himinbjörg, the name of the dwelling of Heimdallr, means ‘heaven,’ and shows that Heimdallr is a Celestial Deity; his connection with the skies is relevant to the discussion of Heimdallr as Sun Deity. Heimdallr has a connection with the underworld due to the location of his hljóð, and this fits His role as Liminal Deity; for Liminal Deities may be seen as messengers between worlds, a traverser of realms, essentially fulfilling mediator roles that are traditionally perceived as shamanic. In such a shamanic role, Heimdallr is associated with the beginning and end of humanity; from the dawn of humanity, He oversees the transition to Ragnarök. The Egyptian Ram God Heryshaf may be pictured as a ram; I believe Heimdallr may also have been symbolised in such a manner. The ram is associated with Ariēs, which is etymologically related to the Greek Deity Arēs, of which the Roman equivalent is Mārs, the God of War which I mentioned earlier in this article. Mārs is connected with the ram: a sheep, ram and bull are to be sacrificed to him in what is called a suovetaurilia majora, a major blood sacrifice consisting of three animals. The Germanic peoples, I reckon, must also have considered it proper to sacrifice a ram to Heimdallr. The Germanic peoples were fond of sacrificing particular male animals to Gods, and this is understandable from a practical standpoint, as you would want to keep your female animals and get rid of your excessive male animals. In relation to the fact that Mārs is a Patron Deity of Agriculture, I should mention that Heimdallr may hear the wool of sheep grow and the grass grow, which is oddly specific, and makes me associate him with agriculture; in his function as Celestial Guardian, Heimdallr may naturally have an agricultural function. After all, by protecting the borders, He inevitably protects crops and animals. So, I suppose a connection with agriculture is predetermined by His fate. Thor has a similar protective relationship with agriculture, as He plays an active role in keeping away bad forces, namely the Giants, and the watchful Heimdallr plays a big part in this too.

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