One of the most popular Norse gods thanks to his excellent portrayal by Idris Elba in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Heimdall was the watchman or the gods, and it was his job to sound the alarm on his horn if the enemies of the gods tried to gain entry to Asgard over the rainbow bridge.
But the Heimdall that we meet in Norse mythology was much more than just a sentry. He may have created social order among men, sacrificed an ear for great power, and probably enjoyed a drink as much as the other Norse gods.
What do we actually know about the Heimdall of myth?
Who is Heimdall?
The meaning of the name Heimdall in Old Norse is unclear, but it may be “he who illuminates the world”. This may be a reference to Heimdall as shining in some way, as he is often described as the “brightest” or “whitest” of the Aesir gods.
He is also variously known as Rigr, Hallinskidi, Hullntanni, which means “one with the golden teeth”, and Vindler or Vindhler, which means “protector against the wind of the sea”.
Heimdall was yet another son of Odin, though he is said to have had nine mothers. When Heimdall brags about this, he does not say who is mothers are. But it has been suggested that they were the nine daughters of the sea giant Aegir, also known as the Nine Urdines or the Nine Waves.
Heimdall Traits and Symbols
It may be Heimdall’s extraordinary parentage that explains why he had so many special traits.
Heimdall requires less sleep than a bird, and can see for over 100 leagues either at day or night, so in light or darkness. His hearing is also so good that he can hear the grass growing in the meadows and wool growing on sheep. He may also have had some powers of foresight.
It is possible that Heimdall gained his excellent hearing by making a sacrifice, just as Odin gained wisdom from the Well of Mim that sits at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil by sacrificing an eye.
In one surviving passage, it is said that Heimdall’s hljod is hidden beneath Yggdrasil. The term hljod can variously be translated as Heimdall’s horn, hearing, or ear.
Heimdall also possessed the horn Gjallarhorn, which means “ringing horn”, that can be heard throughout the Norse cosmos when he sounds it.
Heimdall had a horse with a golden mane called Gulltoppr, which he rode to the funeral of his brother Balder after he was killed by the machinations of Loki.
Heimdall is also associated with the ram, though the significance of this association has not been preserved.
Heimdall the Guardian of Asgard
Heimdall’s function among the gods was to act as the guardian of Asgard. It was his job to look out over the Bifrost bridge and sound the alert when Asgard’s enemies approach.
His excellent sight and hearing would seem to make him the perfect candidate for the role.
But while this was his responsibility, Heimdall does not seem to have been an ever-vigilant sentry, like he appears in the Marvel movies.
Rather, he dwelled in a stronghold called Himinbjork, which means sky cliffs. It was placed where the Bifrost Bridge, the burning rainbow bridge that connects Asgard to Midgard, the world of men, meets the sky.
He is actually described as drinking delicious mead in his stronghold, no doubt keeping an ear out for any sign of trouble.
Heimdall the Counsellor
Heimdall is also known to have participated in the other activities of the gods. For example, when the giant Thrym stole Thor’s hammer, and the gods met to decide what to do, it was Heimdall who suggested that Thor dress up as a woman and pretend to be Freya in order to regain the hammer.
The giant stole the hammer, and Loki when to investigate. Thrym told Loki that he would only return the hammer if the beautiful goddess Freya agreed to marry him. Freya, the goddess of love and beauty who was often coveted by giants and other characters in Norse mythology, of course, refused.
Heimdall suggested that Thor dress himself up as a bride and use the necklace Brinsgamen that Freya always uses to pretend to be the goddess and trick his way into the giant’s home. Thor did this, accompanied by Loki. And while Thor’s enormous appetite almost gave him away, he did trick Thrym into marrying him.
When Thrym revealed Mjolnir in order to use it to sanctify the wedding – another purpose which the hammer served – Thor seized his hammer and killed all of the giants in the great hall (except Loki of course).
Father of Social Order
Heimdall may also have been the founder of the social order of Norse society. According to one story, he traveled throughout the world of men, spending three nights each with three couples.
The first was a serf couple, the second a farmer couple, and the third a warrior couple. Nine months after his visits, each couple gave birth to a son, who would perpetuate the position of their parents in society.
Heimdall later returned, using the name Rigr, and taught the son of the warrior the secrets of the runes, gave him a name, and claimed him as his own son. He instructed the boy to strike out and get his own land, which he did. The boy then went on to have his own children, and the social order was solidified.
Heimdall at Ragnarok
According to the Ragnarok prophecy, which predicts what will happen when the world ends, it is Heimdall who will sound his horn to alert the gods and their allies that the giants and the dead are making their way across the Bifrost Bridge to Asgard.
In the battle that will follow, many of the gods will die. Odin at the hands, or rather jaws, of Fenrir, the great wolf that is a son of Loki, who will then be killed by one of Odin’s other sons. Thor and the Midgard Serpent Jormungandr, another son of Loki, will fight one another to the death.
Heimdall himself will fight to the death with Loki, with the two eventually killing one another. This may be the culmination of an ongoing feud between the two. According to one story, Heimdall and Loki once fought in seal shape over possession of Freya’s necklace Bringsamen, with Heimdall retrieving the necklace and returning it to the goddess.
So, Heimdall will perish as part of Ragnarok like the other Norse gods, and the cosmos will sink into the void as all things end.
Heimdall in Myth and Cinema
So how do you think the Heimdall of Norse mythology compares to the Heimdall that we meet in the Marvel cinematic universe?
While both are watchmen of the gods, Marvel’s Heimdall seems largely to have been relegated to the role of a sentry, while in mythology, he seems to have quite a bit more to do.
What do you think of Heimdall?