In Norse mythology, Hlidskjalf (or Hliðskjálf) is the magical place or the high seat of the god Odin from where he can see all nine realms.
Hlidskjalf: Ambiguity of the Word’s Origin
The pronunciation of “Hlidskjalf” is “hlith-sky-arlf.” As we see later in the article, there is some ambiguity in precisely what Hlidskjalf means. Several sources suggest it is a dwelling place, while others define it as a kind of throne.
Norse mythology does tell us that Hlidskjalf is inside Valaskjálf (“Shelf of the Slain”). Valaskjálf is exceptionally large and has a roof made of silver.
If we break the word down, the first syllable, “hlið,” means “slope.” Some translations are a little more ambitious, describing its meaning as “mountainside.” The second syllable, “skjálf, “comes from the intransitive verb “skjálfa” (“to shiver” or “to shake).” There is a bay in Iceland called “Skjálfandiflói,” translated as “Shaky Bay.”
“Slope shake” would indicate a mountainous area prone to earthquakes, but that seems unlikely.
Some websites believe “hlið” means “gap” and “skjálf” is “slope” and then somehow define Hlidskjalf as “a high place with an expansive view.” There is no reason provided for how “gap slope” can suddenly take on a completely different meaning.
Of course, it isn’t uncommon in many languages to have open compounds (two words used together to give a new meaning different from either); for example, the English word “moonshine. “
The Importance of Hlidskjalf for Odin
Odin had an obsession with the attainment of wisdom and knowledge. He would go to any lengths to further his education, giving an eye to Mímir in exchange for his sage advice and hanging himself for nine days and nights from the world tree Yggdrasil to discover more about other realms and gain mastery of runes.
He even threw himself on his spear, Gungnir, because he knew his sacrifice would grant him visions and comprehension of magic.
Considering all this, possessing a vantage point from which he could observe the nine realms would be of enormous significance for Odin.
The sheer height of Hlidskjalf symbolizes how powerful Odin is by showing he can look down on the rest of the Old Norse world from his lofty vantage point. This position implies he has more knowledge, wisdom, and insight than anyone else.
In Grímnismál, a section of prose relates how Odin and Frigg were sitting together at Hlidskjalf looking over the nine worlds. They spotted their foster sons Geirröðr and Agnar: Geirröðr was a king who had succeeded his father Hrauthung, while Agnar lived with a giantess in a cave.
Odin and Frigg had brought up the two boys while disguised as a peasant farmer and his wife. Odin had raised Geirröðr, and Frigg had raised Agnar.
Odin had told Geirröðr to trick his brother when the two boys finally returned home. Geirröðr had pushed the boat they had traveled in back out to sea before his brother could leave it. Consequently, Geirröðr had become king of his homeland while Agnar ended up in a cave in Jotunheim.
Odin pointed out that the child he had raised was a wealthy and powerful ruler, while Frigg’s charge was living in a cave with a giantess “begetting children.” Frigg observed that Geirröðr was a terrible host and so mean; he was quite capable of torturing his guests if there were too many and he had to provide food for them all.
Odin disagreed and made a bet with Frigg to prove she was wrong.
Frigg sent her handmaiden Fulla to the halls of King Geirröðr and told her to warn him about an evil wizard that would soon arrive at his castle. She said Geirröðr would know who he was because no dog would dare attack him.
Odin, disguised as Grimnir in a blue cloak, duly appeared and passed by the fierce guard dogs unharmed. Only speaking to say his name, he allowed himself to be captured without resistance.
Geirröðr lived up to Frigg’s prediction and tortured Odin for eight nights, hanging him between two fires to convince him to talk. During this time, Geirröðr’s son Agnar (named after Geirröðr’s brother) appeared, saw the man suspended between the flames, and took pity on him. He allowed him to drink from his horn, disparaging Geirröðr and his treatment of strangers.
The prose switches to poetry as Grimnir provides a discourse on nine realms and his many disguises.
Lord of the Goths
Grimnir then revealed himself as Odin and announced that the only person to show any sympathy for his plight was Agnar. Odin promised Agnar a reward for his actions and predicted he would be Lord of the Goths one day. He foretold of only catastrophe for Geirröðr.
As he saw the man he had tortured was actually the Allfather and king of the gods, Geirröðr quickly attempted to free Odin from the fires but tripped in his haste and impaled himself on his sword.
Odin disappeared, leaving Geirröðr’s son Agnar to succeed his father as ruler.
In Skírnismál, Freyr is in Hlidskjalf when he first sees and falls in love with the beautiful giantess Gerd (or Gerðr) from Jotunnheim.
Snorri Sturluson, the compiler of the Prose Edda, mentions Hlidskjalf on four occasions in the Gylfaginning.
There is one abode called Hlidskjalf, and when Allfather sat in the high seat there, he looked out over the whole world and saw every man’s acts and knew all things which he saw.Hlidskjalf – Germanic Mythology
Using a word like abode indicates that Hlidskjalf is a hall of some kind. However, in a later passage, he describes it differently:
Another great abode is there, which is named Valaskjálf. Odin possesses that dwelling. The gods made it and thatched it with sheer silver, and in this hall is the Hlidskjalf, the so-called high seat. Whenever Allfather sits in that seat, he surveys all lands.Hlidskjalf – Symbol Sage
In the third mention, there is another account of Freyr’s courting of Gerd. Freyr slipped into (or onto!) Hlidskjalf while Odin and Frigg were absent. He looked out across all the nine realms and, while observing Jotunheim, fell in love at first sight with a beautiful giantess called Gerd as she entered the sea giant Gymir’s house.
Lastly, Odin used Hlidskjalf to locate Loki after he tricked Hodr into killing Balder and fled.