The Pre-Viking Legend of Ragnarök

The Old Norse Classic Myth of the End of the World

Thor and the Dwarves, 1878
Thor and the Dwarves, 1878, painted by Richard Doyle (1824-1883). Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Ragnarök or Ragnarok, which in Old Norse means either Destiny or Dissolution (rök) of the Gods or Rulers (ragna), is a pre-Viking mythic tale of the end (and rebirth) of the world. A later form of the word Ragnarok is Ragnarokkr, which means Darkness or Twilight of the Gods.

The story of Ragnarök is found in several medieval Norse sources, and it is summarized in the Gylfaginning (the Tricking of Gylfi) manuscript, part of the 13th century Prose Edda written by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson.

Another story in the Prose Edda is the Seeress' Prophecy or Völuspa, and it too likely dates to the pre-Viking era.

Based on the form of the words, paleo-linguists believe that this famous poem predates the Viking era by two to three centuries, and may have been written as early as the 6th century C.E. The earliest surviving copy was written on vellum — prepared animal skin used as writing paper — in the 11th century.

The Tale

Ragnarök begins with roosters crowing a warning to the nine worlds of the Norse. The cock with the golden comb in Aesir wakens Odin's heroes; the dun cock wakens Helheim, the Norse underworld; and the red cock Fjalar crows in Jotunheim, the world of the giants. The great hellhound Garm bays outside of the cavern at the mouth of Helheim called Gripa. For three years, the world is filled with strife and wickedness: brother battles brother for gain's sake and sons attack their fathers.

That period is followed by what must be one of the most frightening end-of-the-world scenarios ever written because it is so plausible. In Ragnarok, Fimbulvetr or Fimbul Winter (the Great Winter) comes, and for three years, the Norse humans and gods see no summer, spring, or fall.

Fimbul Winter's Fury

Ragnarök recounts how the twos sons of Fenris the Wolf begin the long winter.

Sköll swallows the sun and Hati swallows the moon and the heavens and air are sprayed with blood. The stars are quenched, the earth and mountains tremble, and trees are uprooted. Fenris and his father, the trickster god Loki, both of whom had been bound to the earth by the Aesir, shake off their bonds and prepare for battle.

The Midgard (Mithgarth) sea serpent Jörmungandr, seeking to reach dry land, swims with such force that the seas grow turbulent and wash over their banks. The ship Naglfar once more floats on the flood, its boards made from dead men's fingernails. Loki steers the ship which is manned by a crew from Hel. The ice giant Rym comes from the east and with him all the Rime-Thursar.

The snow drifts in from all directions, there are great frosts and keen winds, the sun does no good and there is no summer for three years in a row.

Preparing for Battle

Among the din and clamor of the gods and men rising to battle, the heavens are cleft open, and the fire giants of Muspell ride forth from the south Muspelheim led by Surtr. All these forces head towards the fields of Vigrid. In Aesir, the watchman Heimdall rises to his feet and sounds the Gjallar-Horn to rouse the gods and announce the final battle of Ragnarök.

When the deciding moment draws near, the world-tree Yggdrasil trembles although it still remains standing. All in Hel's kingdom take fright, the dwarfs groan in the mountains, and there is a crashing in Jotunheim. The heroes of Aesir arm themselves and march upon Vigrid.

The Gods Battle

In the third year of the Great Winter, the gods battle one another to the death of both combatants. Odin fights the great wolf Fenrir who opens his jaws wide and is cracked. Heimdall fights Loki and the Norse god of weather and fertility Freyr battles Surtr; the one-handed warrior god Tyr fights with the Hel hound Garm. The bridge of Aesir falls under the horses' hooves and heaven is on fire.

The last incident in the great battle is when the Norse thunder god Thor fights the Midgard serpent. He slays the serpent by crushing its head with his hammer, afterward, Thor can only totter nine steps before he too falls dead of the serpent's poison.

Before dying himself, the fire giant Surtr hurls fire to scorch the earth.

Regeneration

In Ragnarök, the end of the gods and earth is not everlasting. The newborn earth rises from the sea once more, green and glorious. The sun bears a new daughter as beautiful as herself and she now guides the course of the sun in her mother's stead. All evil is passed and gone.

On the Plains of Ida, those who did not fall in the last great battle gather: Vidar, Vali and the sons of Thor, Modi, and Magni. The beloved hero Baldur and his twin Hodr return from Helheim, and where Asgard once stood are scattered the ancient gold chessmen of the gods. The two humans Lif (Life) and Lifthrasir (she who springs from life) were spared Surtr's fire at Hoddmimir's Holt, and together they bring forth a new race of men, a righteous generation.

Interpretations

The Ragnarok story is probably most often discussed as it relates to the Viking diaspora, to which it potentially gave meaning. Beginning in the late 8th century, the restless young men of Scandinavia left the region and colonized and conquered much of Europe, even reaching North America by 1000. Why they left has been a matter of scholarly conjecture for decades; Ragnarok may be a mythical underpinning to that diaspora.

In her recent treatment of Ragnarok, novelist A.S. Byatt suggests that the happy ending was added to the grim story of the end of the world during the Christianization period: the Vikings adopted Christianity beginning in the late 10th century.

She's not alone in this assumption. Byatt based her interpretations in Ragnarok: The End of the Gods on the discussions of other scholars.

Ragnarök as a Folk Memory of Environmental Disaster

But with the core story confidently dated to the later Iron Age between 550–1000 C.E., archaeologists Graslund and Price (2012) have suggested that Fimbulwinter was a real event. In the 6th century CE, a volcanic eruption left a thick, persistent dry fog in the air throughout Asia Minor and Europe that suppressed and shortened the summer seasons for several years. The episode known as the Dust Veil of 536 is documented in the literature and in physical evidence such as tree rings throughout Scandinavia and in many other places in the world.

Evidence suggests that Scandinavia may have borne the brunt of the Dust Veil effects; in some regions, 75–90 percent of its villages were abandoned. Graslund and Price suggest that Ragnarok's Great Winter is a folk memory of that event, and the final scenes when the sun, earth, gods, and humans are resurrected in a paradisiacal new world may be a reference to what must have seemed the miraculous end of the catastrophe.

The highly recommended website "Norse Mythology for Smart People" contains the entire Ragnarok myth.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Pre-Viking Legend of Ragnarök." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/ragnaroek-norse-myth-4150300. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, October 2). The Pre-Viking Legend of Ragnarök. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ragnaroek-norse-myth-4150300 Hirst, K. Kris. "The Pre-Viking Legend of Ragnarök." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ragnaroek-norse-myth-4150300 (accessed November 25, 2017).