“This squirrel is inadequately afraid of humans! Squirrel, I am a threat to you! We are enemies! Please get off my bench!” – John Green
Common knowledge about Norse Mythology is generally limited to the fact that Thor is one of the Avengers, Loki is a bad guy, and Valkyries are the fat ladies that sing at the end of an opera. There aren’t a lot of Vikings around anymore to promote it, and ever since Scandinavia went hardcore socialist, we’ve seen a decline in their trademark raping and pillaging, in favor of modular furniture design and safety-conscious automobiles. Common knowledge about squirrels is that they are basically furry rats. Yes, they are adorable in an amnesiac sort of way, what with their inability to remember where they buried their nuts, but the modern squirrel is not typically considered a manifestation of anything monstrous. Interestingly, much like Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks, if you combine Viking aesthetics with squirrels, you produce a malevolent little rodent called Ratatoskr (“Drill Tooth” in Old Norse) that spends his days spreading malicious gossip and trying to start a fight between the eagle at the top of the World Tree Yggdrasil and the angry Wyrm beneath called Níðhöggr, generally with phrases like, “Did you hear what he said about your mother?” A fascinating correspondence can be found with the squirrel mythologies of the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Wabanaki Native American tribes, in particular a nasty little squirrel called Meeko (sometimes Miko or Mikew), well known as a busybody and a troublemaker with a serious chip on his shoulder.
When similar patterns appear, especially among monsters, a very reasonable human tendency is to look for a common source. One can ask if monsters are analogous solutions to cultural problems. One can posit archetypal forms fundamental to human psychology that result in endless repetition throughout history. Or, the more popular option is of course to assume if say, one sees pyramid-like structures in Egypt and Central America, that a third party (aliens or Atlantis) was involved. This is a spurious assumption. Pyramids are cool. Why not build one? No need for a hyper intelligent consultant to be promulgating philosophies throughout pre-history for a wack-job absolute ruler to build himself an awesome super-structure. The simplest explanation usually suffices. And the explanation for the oddly similar Ratatoskr and Meeko? Certainly one can argue that the accusatory sound of a squirrel chattering at you seems to be universal, and perhaps, widely separated cultures came to the same conclusion i.e. that the squirrels were expostulating angrily, but it seems like a far safer premise would be the simplest. Squirrels are evil. The Norse and the Wabanaki tried to warn us. We would be wise to listen. For at least a thousand years, squirrels have been sowing discord in the human world. They clearly outnumber us. They’re clearly not afraid of us. Old men in parks have been unwittingly supplying them with resources which they are cleverly caching in preparation for the final battle. There is a subtle strategy for world domination in play here. Let’s examine the evidence.
In Norse mythology Yggdrasil was an ash tree. It was supposed to be the great world tree binding together heaven, earth, and hell. It was rooted in hell where a dragon forever gnawed at the roots. Its trunk supported the world and the top reached beyond heaven. It was the tree of life; and it was the tree of knowledge, for Mimer’s well of wisdom sprang from its roots. It was the tree of fate, for beneath it sat the Norns presiding over human destiny. An eagle sat in the top, and the squirrel Ratatoskr ran up and down it, carrying strife. This tree represents fate, time, and space (Harris, 1963, p39-40).
World Tree symbolism is pretty common historically and cross-culturally, generally regarded as a classic representation of Mircea Eliade’s axis mundi (point about which the world turns, center of the world, unifier of heaven, earth, and hell, connector of the sacred and the profane). This is very important stuff if you want to get all alchemical, kabbalistic, practice Samoyed Shamanism, get your Mesoamerican theology on, or align your chakras. At any rate, the World Tree would seem to be a tasteful yet stirring metaphor for the unity of existence. Suffice it to say, as humans are wont to ascribe some sort of cosmic order to things, we often come up with the tree as a good metaphor for interconnectedness. Our uber-squirrel Ratatoskr, long-time resident of Yggdrasil exists to make sure that the world is filled with tension, hatred, and strife as he runs up and down instigating fights specifically between the unnamed eagle at the top of the tree and the dragon Níðhöggr beneath.
Then said Gangleri; What more wonders are there to be said of the Ash? Har says; Much is to be said thereof; an eagle sits in the boughs of the Ash, and he is wise in much; but between his eyne sits the hawk hight Vefrfavlnir; the squirrel hight Ratatoskr runs up and down along the Ash, and bears words of hate betwixt the eagle and NiShavgg, the dragon (Dasent, 1842, p19).
Puzzlingly, while the hawk that sits between the eyes of the eagle has a name (Veðrfölnir), and despite the fact that the eagle is attested to in the Prose and Poetic Eddas of the 13th Century A.D. (preserving older oral and folk traditions), the eagle never actually gets a name. Scholars agree that the eagle was meant to represent wisdom (and disagree whether he is meant to represent Odin). Níðhöggr (Old Norse, “Malice Striker”) is the dragon gnawing at the roots of the World Tree and credited with “sucking the corpses of the dead” and “who flies to the rocks and cliffs of the lower world with the bodies of dead men beneath its wings” (Mackenzie, 1912, p15). Since the World Tree pretty much represents all life, and Níðhöggr was busy snacking on it, the usual interpretation is that he wanted to destroy all life. And did I mention he eats the corpses of the dead? That is usually, for me at least, a clear indicator of monstrously bad manners, if not outright evil. So, Ratatoskr is essentially trying to provoke a hideous creature that is already bent on the destruction of all life. This is not cool. When religious doctrine gets nasty we tend to see the theological disclaimer of “he moves in mysterious ways” applied, and as usual, there are scholars who warn us about to close an examination of the inhabitants of the World Tree. “Most wilder animals, like those that run upon or gnaw the world tree, have their role to play in the cosmic structure, but it is a role distant to men, who know of them but little and that by report. Animals, however, like fowl and horses (and also some other herbivorous animals like the harts in the tree or the cows of the ritual of Nerthus), exist in a relatively close relation to men and can share with men the knowledge that is uniquely that which belongs to animals within the realm of the tree” (Bauschatz, 1982, p46). Of course, squirrel apologists (and dare I say propagandists) have attempted to downplay the significance of Ratatoskr.
In high Romanized 7th century Northumbrian art the Yggdrasill Squirrel was only decorative; at least the many Squirrels on the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses are mere Grape-eaters (Stephens, 1883, p63).
In at least some interpretations of Ratatoskr’s role, he is an informer for the “mead-drinking” foes of the Gods, keeping them apprised of the situation up in the heavens, presumably so they can conduct their nefarious plots more effectively.
In the allegorical Grimnersmal strophe it is “Rate’s tooth” (Ratatoskr) who lets the mead-drinking foe of the gods near the root of the world-tree find out what the eagle in the top of the world-tree (Odin) resolves and carries out in regard to the same treasure (Rydberg, 1907, p596).
Still other interpretations (such as those proposed by fairy tale superstar Jacob Grimm) suggest that there might even have been a measure of harmony in Yggdrasil, were the enmity between the eagle and dragon not continuously fueled by the malicious rumors Ratatoskr endeavors to spread. Also, there are other animals mentioned that live in the World Tree, but they are not credited with actual or allegorical purpose, so even though Ratatoskr is regarded as a minor creature in Norse mythology, it seems that he has an important role to play. On a side note, Grimm suggested that there was some bleed through of conceptions of Yggdrasil into Medieval Christianity, particularly when one regards the symbolism of the cross.
The squirrel Ratatoskr runs up and down, trying to sow discord between the snake and the eagle who is perched aloft. The eagle’s name is not given; he is a bird of great knowledge and sagacity; betwixt his eyes sits a hawk Ved’rfdlnir. The whole conception bears a primitive stamp, but seems very imperfectly unfolded to us. We get some inkling of a feud between snake and eagle, which is kept alive by Ratatoskr; not a word as to the purpose and functions of hawk or stags. Attempts at explaining Yggdrasil I have nothing to do with; at present, before giving my own opinion, I must point out two coincidences very unlike each other. This tree of the Edda has suggested to others before me the tree of the Cross, which in the Middle Ages gave birth to many speculations and legends (Grimm, 1880, p796-797).
A curious interpretation of the etymology of Ratatoskr, in contradiction to the generally accepted translation of “Drill Tooth”, or some variation on “biting” and “tooth”, is the suggestion that the name Ratatoskr meant “Permeating Pouch”, for which I can’t even conceive of an explanation, but for some inexplicable reason sounds more menacing to me.
RATATOSKR, very dt. etym. Rata, according to Grimm, is evidently from the v. rata; M. G. vrnton, to permeate; and he conjectures that the last sylb. may be derived from taska, pl. tijskur; G. tasche, a pocket or pouch; hence peram permeans? The Permeating Pouch’! (Mallet, 1882, p562).
Luckily, serious researchers have devoted time to the psychoanalysis of Ratatoskr, so we may have insights into the psychology of this creepy little tree-climber.
Precocious intellectual development is often evidence of the formation of a pleasure ego which stands in opposition to the integration and assimilation of the normal demands of the id and superego in any kind of fruitful manner. As such it is an intellect devoted to dissension, and accompanied with failure or breakdown of those inhibitions necessary for mature character development. Ratatosk the squirrel, on the world-tree Yggdrasil, in Norse mythology, is a symbolization of such a perverted intellectual development (Veszy-Wagner, 1969, p184)
Apart from armchair analysis of Ratatoskr, we have little understanding from Norse mythology of what might motivate a squirrel to encourage war and strife. Perverted intellectual development might make you less fun at parties, or god forbid, a defense department contractor, but rarely could we credit it with the genesis of super-villany. Fortunately, we can find suggestions of precisely why squirrels are bent on our destruction in the mythology of the North American Wabanaki native Americans (and analogs in many related tribes) – I am speaking of Meeko the squirrel, who reportedly had “the power of becoming a giant monster” (Reade, 1888, p28), and was badly inclined towards humanity from the very beginning, a hate that was exacerbated by a slight mistake in judgment by the God/Culture Hero Glooskap (also referred to as Clote Scarpe, Gluskabe, Gluskabi, Kluscap, Kloskomba, or Gluskab).
He called Meeko, the squirrel. Meeko was greatest of all the beasts. “What would you do if you met a man?” Glooskap asked him. “I would scratch down trees upon him!” barked Meeko. Glooskap frowned, but lifted the squirrel in his arms and gently stroked his back. Meeko grew smaller and smaller, until he was as he is to-day. “Now, what would you do?” Glooskap asked. “I would run up a tree,” cried Meeko (Wilson, 1916, p14).
Apparently, when the animals were originally created, someone had the lack of foresight to make monstrously-sized squirrels, and in a corrective measure, when it rapidly became evident that an enormous squirrel would not be using its powers for good, cooler heads prevailed, and the squirrel was shrunk down to its modern, non-threatening size. And this is where we see the origin of evil squirrels hell bent on our demise. While the squirrel was shrunk, his malign attitude was not, and was in fact magnified, and since he is now rather diminutive, sets about sowing the seeds of destruction the only way he can – starting fights and spreading rumors (just like Ratatoskr).
Long ago, in the days when Clote Scarpe ruled the animals, Meeko was much larger than he is now, large as Mooween the bear. But his temper was so fierce, and his disposition so altogether bad that all the wood folk were threatened with destruction. Meeko killed right and left with the temper of a weasel, who kills from pure lust of blood. So Clote Scarpe, to save the little woods-people, made Meeko smaller—small as he is now. Unfortunately, Clote Scarpe forgot Meeko’s disposition; that remained as big and as bad as before. So now Meeko goes about the woods with a small body and a big temper, barking, scolding, quarreling and, since he cannot destroy in his rage as before, setting other animals by the ears to destroy each other. When you have listened to Meeko’s scolding for a season, and have seen him going from nest to nest after innocent fledglings; or creeping into the den of his big cousin, the beautiful gray squirrel, to kill the young; or driving away his little cousin, the chipmunk, to steal his hoarded nuts; or watching every fight that goes on in the woods, jeering and chuckling above it,—then you begin to understand the Indian legend (Long, 1902, p73-74).
Squirrels have obviously figured out the art of disinformation, and appear to have at least a thousand years of experience at delicate psychological operations, inciting insurrection, spreading lies and innuendo designed to destabilize, and otherwise sowing disorder at every opportunity. They don’t need to eat us, attack us, or otherwise resort to physical violence like the larger species of monster. Not yet, at any rate. As British dramatist Richard Steele observed, “Fire and swords are slow engines of destruction, compared to the tongue of a gossip”.
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Grimm, Jacob, 1785-1863. Teutonic Mythology. London: W. Swan Sonnenschein & Allen, 1880
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Long, William J. Secrets of the Woods. Boston: Ginn & Company, Publishers, 1902.
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Snorri Sturluson, 1179?-1241, and George Webbe Dasent. The Prose: Or Younger Edda Commonly Ascribed to Snorri Sturluson. Stockholm: Norstedt and sons, 1842.
Snorri Sturluson, 1179?-1241, and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. The Prose Edda. New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation; [etc., etc.], 1916.
Stephens, George, 1813-1895. Prof: S. Bugge’s Studies On Northern Mythology Shortly Examined. London: Williams and Norgate, 1883.
Veszy-Wagner, Lilla. “Ratatosk: The role of the perverted intellect”. Psyche: Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und ihre Anwendungen, Vol 23(3), 1969, p184-195.
Wilson, Gilbert Livingstone, 1868-1930. Indian Hero Tales. New York: American Book Company, 1916.
Thanks for a fascinating post.
Great post! You have mastered the balance of engaging and well-informed.