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So both before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and up until Thor: The Dark World, I always thought the Nine Realms were more akin to parallel dimensions than anything else.

However, in The Dark World,

during the final battle, Mjollnir gets lost and keeps having to change direction as Thor and Malekith fall through portals between realms. At one point, the hammer makes a right angle and starts heading out into space, fairly definitively showing that at least that one realm is accessible solely through space travel.1

So if they are all accessible through space, what constitutes a realm? Why only nine, given the expanse of the Marvel universe? Is it because those planets are near each other, or situated on some cosmic Yggdrasil, or something else entirely?

1The Bifrost itself never really qualified to me as proof, because of its magical/technological nature. The directionality could just be a requirement to access a specific location within Asgard, like how Loki's secret passage was off in the distance.

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3 Answers

It's a yes and no answer, as the other user postulated. At various times, they've been portrayed as different dimensions, and as aspects of the same dimension. All are related to the tree Yggdrasil.

The tree is central to Norse mythology, and is depicted as having three roots.

Marvel iteration

Each of the roots connects to a different level of realms.

  1. First root (Asgard) - Consists of Vanaheim, Alfheim, Nidavellir. Valhalla is also depicted as being on this level.
  2. Second root (Midgard) - Earthling level, Midgard and Jotenheim. From the maps linked, it shows that Midgard is reached via the Bifrost bridge, while Jotenheim is a separate ring (Much like Saturns rings), that is actually connected to the root.
  3. Third root - Hel/Niffleheim - Lands of the dead. Hel is the land of the dead, and Niffleheim is the frozen land of the dishonored dead. The images are not clear as to if the root holds both, or just lands on Niffleheim.
  4. Other realms - Svartalfheim/Muspelheim - These realms appear to only be connected by interdimensional passageways - Svartalfheim appears only connected to Midgard, although possibly to Asgard/Hel. Svartalfheim is home to the dark elves, while Muspelheim is home to demons.

Muspelheim and Jotunheim both appear connected to Asgard through passageways, as does Hel/Niffleheim and Hel/Asgard.

Norse Mythology

If you look at the poetic Eddas from the original, they mention both six and nine worlds. The poetic edda mentions nine, connected by the "Glorious world tree that unites them." It lists six of them as

  1. Menn - Humans
  2. Vanir - Gods
  3. Jotnar - Giants
  4. Nair - Dead
  5. Aesir - Gods
  6. Alfar - Elves

The dark elves are stated as having their own world apart from the rest, and then the two primordial realms of ice and fire. However, there has never really been a precise mapping. For example, Odin sent Hel to rule a region of Niffleheim, where the Marvel depicts them as two separate areas. The poetic edda also personifies the nine worlds as having nine giantesses, one for each realm.

Map #1 - Marvel representationMarvel representation

Map #2 - Modernized/enhanced fan interpretation of the Marvel mapModernized color map

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Too Long, Didn't Read

The Nine Realms aren't situated solely in SPACE. From our perspective, Midgard is the entire reality of three dimensional (four if you count time) space-time we inhabit. Asgard and its assorted realms are not in the same dimensional space, maybe not even in the same universe as Earth (Midgard). Any action which gives that impression is just that, an impression, having nothing to do with fact.

  • Thor's stories are supposed to be epic and beyond understanding, the very nature of their godlike lifestyle means what we are seeing in movies is supposed to be our limited conception of what has happened, as if it were being told by a storyteller who didn't speak your language well, or your language lacked the words necessary to describe what was happening.

Think of Thor as a Journey into Mystery (#83)

This answer cannot be quantitatively answered because neither the suppositions of the canon Marvel Universe, nor the original epic myths are being fully supported or explained in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In my opinion, nor should they be.

  • What I mean by quantitatively answered is using a method of direction or distance that would satisfy a human scientist.

  • The Nine Realms are portrayed in a nebulous fashion INTENTIONALLY, to prevent questions such as "where is Asgard, and can I fly my spaceship to it?"

  • If I had to guess, I would say NO, you can't get there from here, no matter that it appears to be in a particular nebula in a particular star cluster on a map. There would still be the question of dimensional barriers to breach after reaching said nebula.

What you see is not necessarily what is happening

  • In Journey into Mystery, the original publication from which Thor was developed the Asgardians were considered to be godlike in their nature, their bodies and minds more advanced than Humans by an order of magnitude.

  • Their science and technology were as magic to human beings. This means what we see the Asgardians doing is filtered through our perception of what they are doing. It does not necessarily mean that is what's happening.

For example:

  • It is implied (but not confirmed by any scientist of repute) that the Bifrost is a magical-technical version of an Einstein-Rosen bridge generator, both a powerful means of interdimensional/inter-stellar travel and a handy means of wiping out anyone the Asgardians decide they don't like, capable of devastating their society instead. (But this is only the movie representation, the canon comics, as well as the epic tales, never designated the Rainbow bridge as a weapon.)

  • The whole intention of the Thor mythos was to present a world beyond human comprehension. This was Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's intent from the beginning. A world where godlike powers define everyday existence and their ability to travel to the Nine Realms was across a bridge made of rainbows using science like magic and magic-like science.

  • So when we are shown travel between worlds, we are lead to believe Bifrost is one way to travel, interdimensional ships are another and random holes or portals scattered through multiple space times, act as tunnels to different universes, acting as back doors, allowing entities who have the means and the knowlege to move from one Realm to another. THIS IS MEANT TO BE ACCEPTED AS IF IT WERE AS NATURAL TO THE ASGARDIANS AS BREATHING.

  • Not all Asgardians can travel between worlds, only the powerful or knowledgeable such as Odin using his powerful understanding of reality, Loki with his mastery of magic, and Thor using his Odin-imbued hammer have any chance of moving easily between the worlds, even though most Asgardians know it is possible, they have no interest in visiting Earth. Asgard is supposedly riddled with portals between it and other realms, so creatures can wander from one to another. (See below: Asgardian "supercontinent")

Asgard is honeycombed with portals to the other parts of the Nine Worlds, making the worlds (with the exception of Earth) sometimes seem like they are on a contiguous plain; indeed, early cartographers of Asgard mapped it this way. The only permanent portal to Earth, Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, has recently been shattered, severing Asgard's connection with Earth and making passage between realms difficult.

  • To the Asgardians, it is as if Humans from the North American continent were to time travel to pre-Agricultural Earth to watch nomadic Man. Interesting for a day, maybe two and then its time to go home to the modern conveniences they have grown accustomed to.

In summary, attempting to map the Marvel Cinematic Universe should be exactly as it appears, impossible, beyond human comprehension, requiring technology on the order of the Asgardians, and other dwellers of the Nine Realms with the magic or tech to do so. This may include Thanos, the Collector, using the Infinity Gems/Stones, Thor and Loki using enchantments given to them by Odin.

Apocrypha

  • Early maps of Asgard showed the portals that connected its different realms as a single contiguous map with the Rainbow Bridge being the only permanent portal to Earth.

  • The Asgardian "supercontinent" was really a multi-dimensional land mass connected by portals allowing Asgardians (and visitors from other realms) to visit each other.

  • Epic tales described the relationships between the realms as able to be walked and groups met, waged war, treated and traded. Young Thor and Loki adventured in all of these places traveling solely by horse (and portal)

enter image description here

In recent canon Thor comics, Asgard has existed as a portal directly floating over the United States at one point. (The Asgard portion of the above show "dimensional continent" was about the size of the United States.)

  • The distance between the two realms collapsed until Asgard appeared to be visibly present in the sky. Asgard the city-planetoid was moved from Asgard-space to be co-tangent with Earth in Midgard-space.

  • Asgard was later destroyed and rebuilt by the Avengers and surviving gods. It was dubbed Asgardia and is still currently in Midgard-Space. Odin is in exile in Asgard-Space.

enter image description here

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Yes? and No? Both?

I'm mainly posting just so I can see other people's responses but I think it is a little from both columns. I think traditionally, in both the myths and in the comics, the other realms are parallel dimensions and yet Thor can usually fly through space (or ride his chariot or a "space" ship) to get to them. That fits pretty well with the Kirbyesque, New Gods "we're kinda god-like aliens and not actually divine beings" thing they've really embraced in the films. But then again, the world tree is everywhere, but it's also kind of a big nebula that connects everything and it's also in a room in Asgard and AND each realm is actually visible in that tree so there's still a lot of mystical ambiguity involved.

Mostly though, having them actually be in space somewhere means the dark elves can fly between them in their ships (and gives us the funny Mjollnir stuff). My question is: it must not take very long to travel between the realms in the vastness of space because Malekith sure gets around in the movie (maybe the coming Convergence shortens distances or ancient God ships are really fast) but if you can just hop in a ship and travel between realms, why do you need the Bifrost and why couldn't Thor get back to Earth whenever he wanted?

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This sounds like a comment and not an answer –  DVK Nov 11 '13 at 22:17
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