Ratatoskr, Yggdrasil’s Flyting Messaging Service

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Ratatoskr is a squirrel who runs up and down the world tree Yggdrasil to carry messages between Veðrfölnir, perched atop Yggdrasil, and the wyrm Níðhöggr, who dwells beneath one of the three roots of the tree.

Ratatoskr is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson

Veðrfölnir is a hawk sitting between the eyes of an unnamed eagle that is perched on top of the world tree Yggdrasil. 

An illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript shows a hawk, Veðrfölnir, on top of an eagle on top of a tree, Yggdrasil.

Níðhöggr is a dragon/serpent/wyrm who gnaws at a root of the world tree, Yggdrasil.

Níðhǫggr gnaws the roots of Yggdrasill in this illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript.

In the Poetic Edda poem Grímnismál, the god Odin (disguised as Grímnir) says that Ratatoskr runs up and down Yggdrasil bringing messages between the eagle perched atop it and Níðhöggr below it:

Benjamin Thorpe translation:
Ratatösk is the squirrel named, who has run
in Yggdrasil’s ash;
he from above the eagle’s words must carry,
and beneath the Nidhögg repeat.
Henry Adams Bellows translation:
Ratatosk is the squirrel who there shall run
On the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
From above the words of the eagle he bears,
And tells them to Nithhogg beneath.

Ratatoskr is described in the Prose Edda‘s Gylfaginning‘s chapter 16, in which “High” states:

An eagle sits at the top of the ash, and it has knowledge of many things. Between its eyes sits the hawk called Vedrfolnir […]. The squirrel called Ratatosk […] runs up and down the ash. He tells slanderous gossip, provoking the eagle and Nidhogg.

Ratatoskr is described as a red squirrel.

European Red Squirrel

In ancient artwork, he is depicted with extremely long ears, but this could be an artifact of the art style of the time, rather than a meaningful statement about Ratatoskr’s physique. Texts that describe Ratatoskr don’t mention him having any features that set him apart from your typical bright-eyed and bushy-tailed red squirrel.

Ratatoskr is regarded as a troublemaker.

He enjoys fueling spiteful relationships, and he may sometimes add his own embellishments to the messages sent between Veðrfölnir the hawk and Níðhöggr the dragon.

Some scholars believe that Ratatoskr may have higher ambitions than just inflaming the fraught relationship between Veðrfölnir and Níðhöggr. In some interpretations, Ratatoskr is intent on destroying the tree of life. Because he lacks the strength to do much damage to the tree by himself, Ratatoskr manipulates Veðrfölnir and Níðhöggr into attacking the tree, which stands between them and the opportunity to fight each other. Ratatoskr tells Níðhöggr of a particularly vicious comment Veðrfölnir made about him, and Níðhöggr gnaws at the roots of the tree, hoping to cause it to fall and crush Veðrfölnir. Then, Ratatoskr returns to Veðrfölnir with the news that Níðhöggr is gnawing at the tree, in an attempt to do him harm. Veðrfölnir begins to pluck branches from the tree and rain them down on Níðhöggr. With his well-placed accusations, Ratatoskr succeeds at doing great damage to the tree of life. Occasionally, the squirrel might even chip into the effort with his reputed “gnawing teeth.”

Ratatoskr
Ratatoskr, the Gossip Squirrel. European Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Sources:

 by Njord Kane © 2017 Spangenhelm Publishing


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