Asgard, and specifically Valhalla, was reserved for those who died in battler; most people who died in other ways went to the realm of Hel.
Asgard, like most everywhere in Norse cosmology, was fated to fall during Ragnarok, along with nearly all of the gods who called it home.
One of Norse mythology’s Nine Realms, Asgard was the home of the Aesir gods and a resting place for the dead. The mighty king Odin held court in Asgard. There, in the great halls of Valhalla, he was joined by Thor, Heimdall, and other Norse gods, as well as the souls of half of all warriors who died in battle. The other half went to Fólkvangr, a nearby meadow ruled by the goddess Freya. Asgard was connected to Midgard, the realm of humanity, via the Bifrost, a rainbow bridge guarded by Heimdall.
As the home of the gods, Asgard was the preeminent realm in Norse mythology—a place of unearthly size, grandeur and beauty. It came as close to civilized perfection as was possible in the realms. Asgard was not the focal point of Norse cosmology, however. For all its majesty, Asgard was but one realm upon the world tree Yggdrasil, and as such was entirely dependent on it for structure and vitality.
The term “Asgard” (Old Norse: Ásgarðr) was derived from two words: the Old Norse āss, meaning “god” (usually referring to members of the Aesir tribe), and garðr, meaning “enclosure,” “garden,” or “yard.” The latter indicated a certain isolation from the outside world, which is fitting, as Asgard was largely closed off from the other realms. An apt translation of Asgard would be the “enclosure of the (Aesir) gods.”1
Asgard’s early history was related in the Gylfaginning, part of the Prose Edda, a compilation of Norse tales gathered by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. In the Gylfaginning, a Swedish king named Gylfi traveled to a place he thought was Asgard (the gods deceived him into believing this), where he was questioned about the history of the gods. Using the name Gangleri, Gylfi’s answers made up the core of the book.
According to Gangleri’s account, the existence of Asgard was unquestioned in Norse thought—it simply existed, as did the other Nine Realms, on the great world tree. Its history was informed by the doings of the Aesir, and especially those of the all-father Odin. In the early days, Odin brought law and order to the golden realm of Asgard; afterwards, he ordered the building of a town and two stout halls. Built in the field of Gladsheim, Vahalla was one of these halls, and would become a great gathering place for the gods. Sturluson’s work described Odin’s efforts in great detail:
In the beginning he established rulers, and bade them ordain fates with him, and give counsel concerning the planning of the town; that was in the place which is called Ida-field, in the midst of the town. It was their first work to make that court in which their twelve seats stand, and another, the high-seat which Allfather himself has. That house is the best-made of any on earth, and the greatest; without and within, it is all like one piece of gold; men call it Gladsheim. They made also a second hall: that was a shrine which the goddesses had, and it was a very fair house; men call it Vingólf. Next they fashioned a house, wherein they placed a forge, and made besides a hammer, tongs, and anvil, and by means of these, all other tools. After this they smithied metal and stone and wood, and wrought so abundantly that metal which is called gold, that they had all their household ware and all dishes of gold.2
#From the Aesir-Vanir War to Ragnarök
According to some traditions, Asgard was destroyed in the Aesir-Vanir War, a contest that pitted the two tribes against each other. Though the Aesir ultimately won the contest, their majestic realm was left in ruins.3
To resurrect its fallen halls, the gods employed a giant to build a mighty fortress. The giant’s promises were great—he would complete the new hall by the first day of summer—but so were his demands, as he wished to claim the goddess Freya as his wife. The gods reluctantly agreed. When the giant’s work was nearing completion, however, they devised a scheme that would allow them to keep Freya. The trickster Loki took the lead, transforming himself into a mare in heat. In doing so, he distracted the giant’s horse, which had been indispensable to his labor. Without his horse, the giant could not possibly complete the task. The enraged giant attacked the treacherous gods, but was quickly struck down by the mighty Thor.4
The Norse understood that all things must eventually fall. In time, even majestic Asgard would come to ruin. The citadel of the gods was fated to fall during Ragnarök, the sequence of events prophesied to bring about the end of the world and all existence. During Ragnarök, Surt with his flaming sword would lead the fire giants in a march on Asgard, bringing a terrible retinue of jötunn to its gates:
Surt fares from the south with the scourge of branches,
The sun of the battle-gods shone from his sword;
The crags are sundered, the giant-women sink,
The dead throng Hel-way, and heaven is cloven.5
The gods would meet them upon the fields of Vigrid, where all would be destroyed in an epic battle. Asgard would sink into oblivion, and the void would encompass all that once was.
More hopeful visions of the future held that the world would begin anew in this wake of such destruction. However, such prophecies did not specify if Asgard itself would be remade. As such, the realm’s ultimate fate remains unclear.
Asgard has maintained a lively and persistent presence in popular culture, largely thanks to Marvel’s Thor comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In the MCU films, Asgard appeared as a mythical realm floating in space. This version of the region was beautifully rendered, with a great palace (Valhalla) dominating a cityscape set in a lush valley and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This onscreen iteration of Asgard was eventually destroyed by Surt, a fire giant with a flaming sword. With their home in ruins, the Asgardians fled across the universe and eventually created a “New Asgard” in Norway.
Asgard has lent its name to many other fantasy worlds. It appeared as a city in the world of Conan the Barbarian, as a race of beings in the Stargate series, and as an Outer Plane in Dungeons and Dragons. The realm’s name has also been adopted by a German brewery (Asgaard), as well as several bands. The name has even been used to refer to a natural gas formation in Norway.
Asgard appears frequently in geographic nomenclature. Among those places named for the fabled realm are:
Asgard Peak (Valhalla Range, British Columbia, Canada)
Mount Asgard (Baffin Island, Canada)
The Asgard Range (Antarctica)
The Asgard Pass (Cascades, Washington state)