In the works of Snorri Sturluson, a Christian writer, the Æsir are the proto-Germanic people and Asgard is their homeland.
Asgard in the Poetic Edda
The Poetic Edda contains only a few scattered references to Asgard. There it is the home of the gods. However, the Völuspá, the first poem of the work, mentions many of the features and characters of Asgard portrayed by Snorri, such as Yggdrasil and Idavoll.
In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson presents two different concepts of Asgard:
In the Prologue, Snorri describes his own de-paganized idea of Asgard. As-gard, he conjectures, is the home of the Aesir (singular Ás) in As-ia, making an etymological connection between the three "As-"; that is, the Aesir were "men of Asia", not gods, but the speakers of the original Germanic language, who moved from Asia to the northwest, and mated with the peoples who were already there. That theory from the 1200s foreshadows the 20th century discovery of indo-european migration from the east.
But Snorri elaborates further: Asgard is a land that is more fertile than any other, blessed also with a great abundance of gold and jewels. Correspondingly, the Aesir excelled all other people in strength, beauty, and talent. This theory is not necessarily ethnocentrism and the start of the Aryan myth; Snorri may only have been trying to explain how the Aesir became divine in legend.
Snorri goes so far as to reveal the location of Asgard. It is Troy, the center of the earth. About it were 12 kingdoms and 12 chiefs. One of them, Múnón, married Priam's daughter, Tróán, and had by her a son, Trór, to be pronounced Thor in Old Norse. The latter was raised in Thrace. At age 12 he was whiter than ivory, had hair lighter than gold, and could lift 10 bear skins at once. He explored far and wide. His son, Odin, led a migration to the northern lands, where they took wives and had many children, populating the entire north with Aesir. One of the sons of Odin was Yngvi, founder of the Ynglingar, an early royal family of Sweden.
In the next chapter, The Deluding of Gylfi, Snorri presents the mythological version of Asgard.
Gylfi, a king of Sweden before the Aesir, travels to Asgard and finds there a large hall (Valhalla). For a source of Valhalla, Snorri cites Thjodolf of Hvin. Within are three officials, whom Gylfi in the guise of Gangleri is allowed to question about the Asgard and the Aesir. A revelation of the ancient myths follows, but at the end the palace and the people disappear in a clap of thunder and Gylfi finds himself alone on the plain, having been deluded.
In Gylfi's vision, the sons of Buri's son, Bor, who were Odin, Vili and Vé, constructed the universe and put Midgard in it as a residence for the first human couple, Ask and Embla, whom they created from driftwood trees.
The sons of Bor then constructed Asgard (to be identified with Troy, Snorri insists) as a home for the Aesir, who were divinities. Odin is identified as the all-father.
Asgard is conceived as being on the earth. A rainbow bridge, Bifröst, connects it to heaven. In Asgard also is a temple for the 12 gods, Gladsheim, and another for the 12 goddesses, Vingólf. The plain of Idavoll is the center of Asgard. Interestingly enough, Idavöll means "the plain of Ida", which also is the plain on which Troy is located, Ida being a mountain nearby. Some translators use Ida. If the effect is intentional, then Idavöll must be Snorri's invention, but that information is not known. The gods hold court there every day at the Well of Urd, beneath an ash tree, Yggdrasil, debating the fates of men and gods. The more immediate destinies of men are assigned by the Norns.
Odin's residence is in Asgard is Valhalla, to which he takes those slain in battle, the Einherjar. Snorri quips: "There is a huge crowd there, and there will be many more still ....They amuse themselves every day by fighting each other and then going to drink in the big hall."
By the time of the Ynglinga Saga, Snorri had developed his concept of Asgard further, although the differences might be accounted for by his sources. In the initial stanzas of the poem Asagarth is the capital of Asaland, a section of Asia to the east of the Tana-kvísl or Vana-Kvísl (An innovation by Snorri?) river (kvísl is "fork"), which Snorri explains is the Tanais, or Don River, flowing into the Black Sea. The river divides "Sweden the Great", a concession to the Vikings' exaggerated land claims. It is never called that prior to the Vikings.
The river lands are occupied by the Vanir and are called Vanaland or Vanaheim. It is unclear what people Snorri thinks the Vanes are, whether the Slavic Venedi or the east Germanic Vandals, who had been in that region at that time for well over 1000 years. He does not say; however, the Germanic names of the characters, such as Njord, Frey and Vanlandi, indicate he had the Vandals in mind.
Odin is the chief of Asagarth. From there he conducts and dispatches military expeditions to all parts of the world. He has the virtue of never losing a battle. When he is away, his two brothers, Vili and Vé, rule Asaland from Asagarth.
On the border of Sweden the Great is a mountain range running from northeast to southwest. South of it are the lands of the Turks, where Odin had possessions; thus, the mountains must be the Caucasus Mountains. On the north are the unihabitable fells, which must be the tundra/taiga country. Apparently the Vikings did not encounter the Urals or the Uralics of the region. Snorri evidences no knowledge of them.
There also is no mention of Troy, which was not far from Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire and militarily beyond the reach of the Vikings. Troy cannot have been Asagarth, Snorri realizes, the reason being that the Aesir in Asaland were unsettled by the military activities of the Romans; that is, of the Byzantine Empire.
As a result, Odin led a section of the Aesir to the northwest, looking for new lands in which to settle. They used the Viking route up the Don and Volga rivers, through Garðaríki, Viking Russia. From there, they went to Saxland (Germany) and to the lands of Gylfi in Scandinavia. That historical story, of course, is mainly fantastical. The Germanics were in Germany and Scandinavia during the earliest mention of them in Roman writings, long before the Romans had even conquered Italy. To what extent Snorri's presentation is poetic creation only remains unclear.
Demoted from his position as all-father, or king of the gods, Odin becomes a great sorcerer in the Ynglinga Saga. He can shape-shift, speaks only in verse, and lies so well that everything he says seems true. He strikes enemies blind and deaf but when his own men fight they go berserk and cannot be harmed. He has a ship that can be rolled up like a tablecloth when not used, he relies on two talking ravens to gather intelligence, and he consults the talking head of a dwarf for prophecy (he carries it around long since detached from its body).
As a man, however, Odin is faced with the necessity to die. He is cremated and his possessions are burned with him so that he can ascend to - where? If Asgard is an earthly place, not there. Snorri says at first it is Valhalla and then adds: "The Swedes now believed that he had gone to the old Asagarth and would live there forever." Finally Snorri resorts to Heaven, even though nothing in Christianity advocates cremation and certainly the burning of possessions avails the Christian nothing.
- Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla
- Snorri Sturluson. Prose Edda.
- The Prose Edda, translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, at sacred-texts.com.