What child has not clung to his or her bedcovers at hearing the terrible words, "Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!"? Anticipation turns to joyous fear when Jack, the hero of the cloudy adventure, races the ogre down the beanstalk before he furiously applies his mother's axe to the gargantuan stem and thereby kills his enormous rival. As much as this fairy tale is enjoyed by millions, few people realize that the unmistakably English ogre has its roots in old Scandinavia. Once a few facts are uncovered, however, the Nordic origins of the man-eating giant can be easily traced.
We must start our journey with nothing less than the early viking's view of the universe. The ancient Norse believed that the universe consisted of nine realms: Vanaheim (land of the Vanir gods), Asgard (land of the Aesir gods), Alfheim (land of the light elves), Nidavellir (land of the dwarfs), Svartalfheim (land of the dark elves), Jotunheim (land of the giants), Niflheim (land of the dead), Muspelheim (land of fire), and Midgard (land of men, or "Middle Earth")
All of these worlds combined make up the branches, trunk, and roots of an enormous tree, known as Yggdrasil. The tree's name has significant meaning in our understanding of the origin of ogrish fables, but to understand this meaning we must first study how Odin, the ruler of the Nordic pantheon, obtained his powers.
As is common for many gods of ancient mythology, Odin was known by many titles and many names. He is best known to modern readers as the Nordic "All Father" in his role as the ruler of the gods. However, he was also the Nordic god of death. He earned the right to this title indirectly because he and his fellow gods desperately needed to know how to defend themselves from their enemies the Jotuns. The Jotuns were enormously powerful giants who existed long before the gods were born, and who were waging a terrible war with the creators of man. Unfortunately, the gods were losing.
Since Odin was the pantheon's leader, he traveled to the three Norns to learn what was needed to save his people. The Norns were even more ancient than the Jotuns, and consequently had gained tremendous wisdom and knowledge through the ages. It was they who wove the fate of every living thing into the tapestry of time, including that of the gods. The three wise women instructed Odin that to learn the knowledge he sought, he must pluck out one eye, hang himself upside down from the world tree, and allow himself to be pierced by a spear. At the end of this time, the Norns would allow him to drink from the well of Urd which they guarded and whose magical waters nourished the world tree. Lacking any other viable course of action, Odin agreed to this great self-sacrifice. Since the dark Nordic mythology does not grant immortality to even the gods, Odin quickly died.
During the nine days that his body hung lifeless, Odin's spirit traversed all nine worlds riding an eight-legged horse, named Sleipner, who could pass through any barrier. Odin saw and learned much. After nine days, the Norns wet Odin's lips with the magical waters as promised and his life was restored. His ordeal taught Odin the use of runes and magic and endowed him with the talent of prophecy. Sorrowfully, Odin now knew that the gods were fated to die in the battle of Ragnarok, the final conflict between the giants and the gods. Even though Odin understood the futility of their struggle, he also knew that the time of their downfall was not yet ordained. Since then, Odin has focused all of his considerable abilities toward staving off the inevitable cataclysm.
This tale provides us the context we need to understand the world tree's name "Yggdrasil." As the only being to have experienced death and resurrection, Odin earned his title of "Yggr," Lord of Death. "Drasil" is a Nordic term that has the dual meanings of both "gallows" and "horse."
Without the ancient fable just discussed, this dual meaning cannot be resolved. However, its meaning is quite clear in the context of the myth: "Yggdrasil" is both the gallows upon which Odin hung himself, and the mount that he rode on his journey through the nine worlds.
Given this information, we can now see how Odin was later incorporated into Christian doctrine during later Roman occupation. Since Odin was also the Nordic "Lord of Winds," he was associated directly with the Christian devil, who, among other things, was known as the Prince of Air.
Given that human sacrifices were made to Odin up until the 10th century A.D. (by hanging them upside-down from gallows in a fashion similar to Odin's own self-sacrifice), associating Odin with Satan was not difficult. Consequently, Odin was depicted as a devil leading the hosts of the dead through the skies mounted on cloud-colored (light grey) horses. Of course, in the ever-changing winds of human belief, this altered perspective of the ancient "All Father" did not itself persist unfazed. In fact, it branched into two entirely separate lines of folklore.
The first branch started in Germany, where the sky-riding demon of the dead was blended with attributes of Cernunnos, the Celtic god of death, eventually devolving into the tales of the Wild Huntsman. This black figure, who is often described as having antlers branching from his head, rides through the dark forests at night on either a pale horse or a black buck. Accompanied by a pack of hell hounds, Wotan hunts the souls of men. It is said that anyone who sees the hunt will join it, either as prey or predator. Even the hounds have an obvious origin in ancient Nordic mythology as wolves that were said to accompany Odin. Reports of the black huntsman sounding his horn and mercilessly running down anyone caught in the forest after sundown persisted into the modern age.
When these legends were imported into the British Isles, however, the cloud-riding Wotan who hunted men for sport was transformed into a cloud-dwelling giant with a taste for human flesh. His death-lord title, "Yggr" survived, after a fashion, but was altered to give birth to the term "ogre." To this day, the story of Jack and the Beanstalk uses the word "ogre" when speaking of the cloud-dwelling giant. Eventually, of course, "ogre" came to be used for any man-eating monster, but it is still most commonly applied to cannibalistic giants.
Tracing the circuitous history of the "All Father" illustrates how the most revered deity of old Scandinavia underwent a slow metamorphosis into a blood-thirsty beast. Considering Odin's noble origins, the venerable god would have undoubtedly preferred the glorious finality of Ragnarok to the slow death eventually imposed by folklore's relentless grinder.