What is Ragnarök in Norse Mythology?
Ragnarök was the doom of the Germanic gods. After a terrible winter lasting three years, a final battle would be fought between the gods and the frost giants on the Vigrid Plain. On the side of Odin and the gods were ranged the “glorious dead” who had fallen in battle and were taken to live in Valhalla (Hall of the Heroic Dead); while with the fire god Loki and the frost giants fought the “unworthy dead” from Hel (the Germanic netherworld), plus the fearsome wolf Fenrir and the sea monster Jörmungandr.
The end of days and the destruction of the world is a very common theme in several religions and mythologies, often involving a period of civilization sliding into chaos before an apocalyptic event.
Some ideas of the end times are based on the end of linear history with irrevocable changes, whereas others are based on cycles, reoccurring periods of creation and destruction. Norse mythology, while some believe it to be cyclical as well, seems to be based around a single catastrophic event followed by a rebirth of the world.
Ragnarök is one of the most important events within Norse mythology, although, that doesn’t exactly mean we know everything about what the Norse peoples believed.
This article will go over what is meant to occur during Ragnarök as well as the build-up and aftermath.
Ragnarök, meaning, the doom of the gods; twilight of the gods; or more generally, the final destiny of the gods, is an event revolving around the gods rather than mankind.
Not that the decline of civilization isn’t an aspect of Ragnarök, but it’s largely about the inevitable fate of the gods, Odin‘s attempts to change his fate and their deaths.
Odin is a principal figure in the tale of Ragnarök and he determines to both know and change the future that leads him to a wise woman. This seer discussed past, present and future with Odin, taunting him with her knowledge, and it’s from this discussion that we learned what must happen during Ragnarök.
Odin, fearing the coming death and destruction that would befall him and his family of gods, would go on to relentlessly pursue knowledge in the hopes of changing his fate. In the end, however, despite personal sacrifice and a continual pursuit, Odin was helpless against the tides of fate.
What Caused Ragnarök to Occur?
The build-up to Ragnarök revolves around the fate of Balder, beloved son of Odin. This tale was more fully explored in my article, discussing Loki, but I’ll summarize here.
Balder, the most loved of the Gods began to have ominous and dark dreams. He began to worry. Discussing these dreams with the other gods, they too began to worry and so Odin went to ask another wise woman what these dreams meant—going to hell and raising her from the dead.
Dreams were often taken very seriously in Norse culture and Odin feared the worst. The seer confirmed his fears, saying that hell was being prepared for Balder’s arrival.
After attempting to get more info from the seer, Odin returns to Asgard and the gods fret at the news. Frigg, Odin’s wife, goes to everything in the cosmos and asks each thing to swear an oath not to harm Balder. After doing so the gods amuse themselves by throwing weapons at Balder and watching them bounce off him harmlessly.
Loki, the god of trickery, grows spiteful and jealous at the display and goes to Frigg in disguise asking her if there was anything she didn’t get an oath from. Frigg admits that she didn’t ask the mistletoe, thinking it was too small and too innocent to hurt anything.
Loki goes off to find some mistletoe and returns to the gathering. He approaches Hodr, Balder’s blind brother and convinces him to throw the mistletoe at his brother. The mistletoe pierces Balder, killing him instantly and the god’s weep.
The goddess Hel agrees to return Balder to Asgard if everything in the cosmos weeps for him, but Loki in disguise says that Hel can keep what she has. The gods track Loki down and bind him in a cave, but Odin knows that this sequence of events heralds the beginning of Ragnarök.
The Preparation of Ragnarök
Even though Odin spent a great deal of time effort and sacrifice to try and change the future, he also planned for the coming battle. Among the warriors on Midgard, those that died bravely in combat and are chosen by the Valkyries, servants of Odin, are taken to Valhalla.
Here they enjoy a warrior’s paradise, fighting every day and feasting every night. They repeat this routine keeping themselves combat-ready until the day of Ragnarök when they will form the army of the gods to fight against the Jötnar army.
The Start of Ragnarök
Ragnarök will first come with extreme winter, lasting for three seasons, during which mankind will turn on one another. Brothers will fight and kill each other, and the world will be a hard place to live in, where no man has mercy on another.
There will be an axe age, a sword age, a storm and a wolf age This period of harsh winter is followed by a time of even harsher winter when the Sun and Moon will be devoured and the stars in the sky will wink out of existence.
Finally, a massive earthquake will shake the cosmos, breaking all bonds and shackles. Fenrir, the dread wolf and doom of Odin will break free and his brother, the Midgard serpent, will rise out of the ocean around Midgard poisoning the sea and sky as he does so.
Loki will be freed from his bonds as well. He will stand at the bow of the ship of the dead, Naglfar, made from the untrimmed nails of the dead. Travelling with him will be the forces of the Jötnar and all the enemies of the gods will gather on a great field, 100 miles in every direction.
Also travelling there is Surtr, a fiery figure carrying a sword brighter than the Sun, followed by the sons of Múspell, called fire giants.
Surtr and his followers will break the Rainbow Bridge that connects Asgard in Midgard and Heimdallr (or the Watcher) will blow his horn to awaken the gods.
The Battle of Ragnarök
Yggdrasil will shake and tremble as the gods in the Einherjar prepare for the great battle. As the Einherjar charge to fight the Jötnar, the gods will face off against their greatest foes—Odin against the wolf Fenrir, Thor against the Midgard serpent, Freyr against Surtr, and Heimdallr against Loki.
Odin will quickly fall to Fenrir, being devoured by the massive wolf, but his son Vidar will immediately step in to avenge his father. Vidar will step on the lower jaw of Fenrir with his massive boot made from the discarded trimmings of people’s shoes and will tear his mouth apart killing the great wolf.
Thor will duel against the massive Midgard serpent while in a rage, slaying the snake with his hammer, but not before the serpent manages to poison him. The Midgard serpent venom is so potent that the Mighty Thor will only manage to take nine steps before dropping dead.
The god Freyr was once in possession of a magical sword that was capable of fighting on its own. Freyr gave the sword away when he got married, and without it, he will stand little chance of fighting the Great Fire giant.
Heimdallr and Loki will be the death of one another as Surtr covers the world in flames and the raging inferno rises high enough to scorch the heavens.
Death and destruction will consume the cosmos and the great void will reign once again as it did in the beginning.
What Happened After Ragnarök
This will not be the end, however. The earth will rise out of the great sea, flush with green grass, flowing waterfalls and birds in the sky. Balder will be freed from his tragedy and will return along with his brother Hodr.
They will gather on a field along with the sons of Thor and other Aesir gods that survived the devastation. They will discuss Ragnarök and the wisdom of Odin. They will also discover the golden game pieces lying in the field that the gods used to play with, in the earliest days.
In Addition to these gods, two humans will have survived the destruction and will repopulate the earth.
Odin’s two surviving sons will rebuild Asgard, and Thor’s sons will inherit his mighty hammer, Mjolnir. All will be merry, and this world will be even greater than the previous cosmos.
However, the seer telling Odin of this coming future ends the discussion with a final vision. She says that the dark dragon Nidhogg (Níðhöggr) will come flying down from the dark mountains, bearing corpses in his wings. Whether this means Nidhogg will survive Ragnarök or has some other meaning, is unclear.
The Depiction of Ragnarök — In Conclusion
This depiction of Ragnarök comes from our two main sources of information on Norse mythology, which were unfortunately written after the spread of Christianity in the Norse regions. The concept of the end times in the afterlife is a pivotal part of religion. So, it’s unknown exactly How much influence Christian beliefs had on these writings?
Well, I’ve described all the events of Ragnarök is happening sometime in the future, Christian missionaries likely used the concept of Ragnarök to convert people to a new belief.
By saying that Ragnarök had already occurred and mixing in elements of the Christian creation narrative, they could more easily change people’s way of thinking.
There is another manuscript that mentions the arrival of a powerful, mighty figure that rules over everything. The influence of Christianity is certainly something to consider in our understanding of Norse beliefs and academics continue to debate over what exactly the Norse peoples believed.
Regardless of your thoughts on Ragnarök and the destruction and rebirth of the world, however, It’s undeniably a vivid and beautiful depiction of the end times.
Image Sources: BaviPower.