Well, this is going to be a short one.
This busy squirrel has a whopping 6 lines dedicated to him in the Icelandic eddas, and even they don’t completely agree with one another. This throws open the door to speculation, which is appropriate given Ratatoskr’s job.
The two 13th century Icelandic eddas, our most comprehensive source for Germanic and Norse mythology, describe a “World Tree” called Yggdrasil that connects 9 different realms of gods and mortals. At the very top perches an eagle with a hawk sat between its eyes, and at the bottom, there’s a wyrm-dragon known as Nithhogg who likes to gnaw on its roots. Ratatoskr’s job is to run up and down Yggdrasil delivering messages to both of them – amazingly without being eaten – but the nature of his news is up for debate.
The Poetic Edda, although the later of the two texts, is a collection of older stories and in Grimnismol (The Ballad of Grimnir) says the squirrel delivers the eagle’s words, seemingly one way:
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.
The Prose Edda, however, assembled by powerful 13th century chief, poet and historian Snorri Sturulson, goes a bit further and explains in Gylfaginning (Here Begins the Beguiling of Gylfi) he runs back and forth with gossip and trash-talk:
The squirrel called Ratatöskr runs up and down the length of the Ash, bearing envious words between the eagle and Nídhöggr
This is also echoed in Donald McKenzie’s 1912 retelling, as well as Neil Gaiman’s famous 2017 iteration. Not everyone is convinced, however.
Frederic T. Wood, for example, says this wasn’t suggested in the Poetic Edda, and that Ratatoskr was probably a blabbermouth rather than an intentional stirrer. Something obviously did get lost in translation, because an illustrated version of the edda from 17th century Iceland shows Ratatoskr as green with a large unicorn horn and absolutely no explanation.
This isn’t exactly out of this world, especially when his name is often translated as “bore tooth”, and there is no hard and fast original version. Although the Vikings did engrave on stone, wood and bone, they couldn’t exactly fit a novel onto them, so the stories we have today were recorded later by Christians or other people outside their culture.
Regardless of his spotty mythological record, Ratatoskr has found his way into many a video game, book and TV series, mostly as an annoyance or trouble-maker. Richard W. Thorington Jr. and Katy Ferrell blame his irritating ways on the European squirrel’s penchant for an offensive-sounding warning shriek, and if you’re from the UK, you know how much havoc grey squirrels can cause. Either way, Ratatoskr’s original intentions may have been lost, which is poetic justice if he really was as sneaky as his tale.
What? Squirrel that delivered messages up and down the World Tree, Yggdrasil
Where? See above, on the trunk of Yggdrasil in Norse mythology.
How big? No idea, presumably squirrel size, but there’s no sense of scale for the creatures on the World Tree
Probable motto: Guess what I heard!
Just to prove I’m not fibbing (about the mythology, anyway!)
Barnett, David. 2018. “Norse mythology is enjoying an unlikely renaissance in popular culture“. The Independent.
Bellows, Henry Adams. 1936. [Translator.] “The Poetic Edda: Grimnismol“. Sacredtexts.com.
Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist. 1912.
Chester, Sharon. 2016. “The Arctic Guide: Wildlife of the Far North“. Princeton University Press.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Edda“. Britannica.com.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Old Norse language“. Britannica.com.
Enoch, Jonny. 2017. “Squirrel! Fuzzy messengers from the ancient underworld? The little-known archetype in mythology“. Ancient Origins.net.
Gaiman, Neil. 2017. “Norse mythology“. Bloomsbury.
Hannett, Lisa. 2017. “The politics of retelling Norse mythology“. The Atlantic.
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. 1976. “The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild“. Little, Brown and Company.
Mackenzie, Donald. 1912. “Teutonic myth and legend“. Sacredtexts.com.
“The Poetic Edda: A Study Guide“. No date. Germanic Mythology.com
Sturulson, Snorri. [Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur]. . “Gylfaginning“. Sacredtexts.com.
“The World-Tree in Literature“. No date. The World-Tree Project.
“Yggdrasill“. No date. New World Encyclopedia.
Featured image credit: “Ratatoskr“, by Shan Ahmed.