Heathens of Yorkshire
Deity of the Month - Ratatoskr
-By Dan Coultas
Ratatoskr is a squirrel that lives on the trunk of Yggdrasil, the world tree. He runs up and down passing messages between Nidhog, the serpent who gnaws at the roots of the tree, and the eagle who sits at the top and creates the winds. As you can imagine the messages he passes are often quite rude!
He is mentioned in both the poetic and prose Eddas. The poetic Edda states:
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. (Bellows, 1936:97)
A similar description in the prose Edda reads:
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. (Byock, 2005:26).
His name is in old Norse, and there are several interpretations of its meaning. It could be ‘drill tooth’, but it could also be ‘tusk the traveller’, referencing his travelling up and down the world tree.
As Ratatoskr is only a very minor character in the mythology, and there are very few attestations of his actions, very little has been written about him. This is reflected in the Dictionary of Norse Mythology where Simek states that ‘the squirrel probably only represents an embellishing detail to the mythological picture’ (Simek, 2007:261).
Others however believe that his small role does have more significance than a mere embellishment. Gossiping is not a trait which is looked kindly upon in Heathenry. The Havamal states:
Often he speaks who never is still With words that win no faith; The babbling tongue, if a bridle it find not, Oft for itself sings ill. (Bellows 2017:59)
Lindow reflects that ‘in the sagas, a person who helps stir up or keep feuds alive by ferrying words of malice between the participants is seldom one of high status, which may explain the assignment of this role in the mythology to a relatively insignificant animal’ (Lindow, 2001:259). The squirrel also has a rather nasty sounding call when threatened, which could easily be interpreted as malicious words.
Despite his relative obscurity, Ratatoskr does feature in modern popular culture. He is a character in the game Smite, where his role is to stir tensions between characters (Smite Wiki, 2020). In the Marvel Universe under the alias ‘Girl Squirrel’, ‘Ratatoskr began traveling from home to home under the cover of darkness, whispering words of discord into the ears of the sleeping citizens of New York City’ (Marvel Fandom, 2020).
Personally, I find Ratatoskr to be a very interesting character despite his small role. To me, all of the various deities and creatures that live on Yggdrasil represent aspects of the balance of nature. The constant destruction and re-growth. Those that destroy, those that heal. An eco-system relies on all the different organisms that make it up. Sometimes removing a small, seemingly insignificant aspect may have disastrous consequences. The world tree is no different.
Ratatoskr could be considered to be annoying and insignificant, but is we remove him what would happen? If Nidhogg and the eagle had no intermediary would they seek to meet in person, and could this in turn lead to an imbalance in the cycle? In nature this is often the case.
Taking this further, are gossips and stirrers a necessary part of society? Whilst it is not a trait we champion, if nobody fulfilled this role would there be consequences for the balance of society?
Bellows, Henry Adams (Trans.) (1936). The Poetic Edda. Princeton University Press. New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation.
Blackett, Rich (Ed.) (2017). The Hávamál: The Sayings of the High One: Volume 1. Asatru UK.
Byock, Jesse (Trans.) (2005). The Prose Edda. Penguin Classics.
Lindow, John (2001). Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press.
Simek, Rudolf (2007) translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer.