In Norse mythology, Ragnarök ("fate
of the gods")
is the battle
at the end of the world. It would be waged between the gods
led by Odin)
and their aggressors (the jötnar, along with Loki and his monstrous
children). Not only will some of the gods, giants, and monsters perish in
this apocalyptic conflagration, but almost everything in the universe
will be torn asunder.
In Viking warrior societies, dying in battle is admirable.
This is carried over into the worship of a pantheon in which the gods themselves will
one day be overthrown at Ragnarök. Exactly what will happen, who will
fight whom, and the fates of the participants in this battle are well known
to the Norse
peoples from their own sagas and skaldic poetry. The Völuspá
— prophecy of the völva (sybil), the first lay of the Poetic
Edda, dating from about 1000 AD — spans the history of the gods, from
the beginning of time to Ragnarök, in 65 stanzas.
The Prose Edda, written two centuries later by Snorri Sturluson, describes in detail what would
take place before, during, and even after the battle.
What is unique about Ragnarök as an eschatological
myth is its emphasis on the idea that the gods already know through prophecy
what is going to happen: when the event will occur, who will be slain by
whom, and so forth. They even realize that they are powerless to prevent Ragnarök.
But they will still bravely and defiantly face their bleak
This is thought by many scholars to represent the ordered world (the Æsir)
eventually succumbing to the unavoidable forces of chaos and entropy (the
Giants). This is similar to the representation of the monstrous children
of Uranus in Greek mythology as the primordial
forces of chaos.
Old Norse Ragnarök is a compound of ragna,
plural of regin ("gods" or "ruling powers"), and rök "fate"
(etymologically related to English "reach"). Other spellings include Ragnarøkkr,
Ragnarøk, Ragnarok (the modern Norwegian form).
The main events that signify the approach of Ragnarök:
- The birth of three beings — the offspring of Loki and Angerboda,
namely Jörmungandr, Fenrir
and Hel and the gods' subsequent actions to confine
- The death of Baldr and the
binding of Loki;
- The arrival of Fimbulwinter.
Ragnarök will be preceded by the Fimbulwinter,
the winter of winters. Three successive winters will follow each other with
in between. As a result, conflicts and feuds will break out, and all morality
The wolf Skoll and his brother Hati will finally
devour Sol (the Sun) and her brother Mani
(the Moon) respectively, after a perpetual chase. The stars will vanish from
the sky, plunging the earth into darkness.
The earth will shudder, so violently that trees will
be uprooted, and mountains will fall, and every bond and fetter will snap
and sever, freeing Loki, the God of Mischief, and his ferocious son Fenrir. This
terrible wolf's slavering mouth will gape wide open, so wide that his lower
jaw scrapes against the ground and his upper jaw presses against the sky.
He will gape even more widely if there is room. Flames will dance in his eye
and leap from his nostrils.
Eggther, watchman of the Jotuns, will sit on his grave
mound and strum his harp, smiling grimly. The red cock Fjalar will
crow to the giants and the golden cock Gullinkambi
will crow to the gods. A third cock,
rust red, will raise the dead in Hel.
Jörmungandr, the Midgard
serpent, Loki's other monstrous offspring,
will rise from the deep ocean bed to proceed towards the land, twisting and
writhing in fury on his way, causing the seas to rear up and lash against
the land. With every breath, the serpent will spew venom, staining the earth and the sky in poison.
From the east, the army of Jotuns, led by Hrym, will leave
their home in Jotunheim and sail the grisly ship Naglfar (made
from the nails of dead men), which will be set free by the tsunami and flooding
caused by Jörmungandr, towards the battlefield of Vigrid (Óskópnir).
From the north, a second ship will set sail towards Vigrid,
with Loki, now
unbound, as the helmsman, and Hel, with all those from her realm by the same
name, as the deadweight.
The world will be in uproar, the air will quake with
booms, blares and echoes. Amid this turmoil, the fire giants of Muspelheim,
led by Surtr, will advance from the south and tear apart the sky itself
as they too, close in on Vigrid. Surtr will brandish a fierce fire sword,
the Sword of Revenge, that consumes everything in his path with flames. As
Surtr and the others ride over Bifröst,
the rainbow bridge will crack and break behind them. Garm, the hellhound
bound in front of Gnipahellir, will also get free. He will join the
fire giants on their march.
So all the Jotuns and all the inmates of Hel,
Fenrir, Jörmungandr, Garm, Surtr and the blazing sons of Muspelheim, will gather on
Vigrid. They will all but fill that plain that stretches
one hundred and twenty leagues in every direction.
being the first of the gods to see the enemies approaching, will blow his
Giallar horn, sounding such a blast that will be
heard throughout the nine worlds. All the Gods will wake and at once meet
in council. Odin will then mount Sleipnir
and gallop to Mímir's spring and consult Mímir on his own
and his people's behalf.
the world tree, will shake from root to summit. Everything on the earth, in
the heavens, and Hel will quiver. All Æsir and Einherjar
will don their battle dresses. This vast host (432,000 Einherjar - 800 from
each of Valhalla's
540 gates) will march towards Vigrid and Odin will ride at their head, wearing
a golden helmet and a shining corselet, brandishing Gungnir.
The final battle
Odin is devoured by Fenrir.
Odin will make straight for Fenrir; and
Thor, right beside him, will be unable to help because
Jörmungandr, his old enemy, will at once attack
will fight the fire giant Surtr, but will become the first of all gods to lose as
he has given his own good sword to his servant Skírnir.
It will still be a long struggle though, before Freyr will succumb.
will battle Garm
and both will slay the other. Likewise, Heimdall
will fight Loki
and neither will survive the evenly matched encounter. Thor will kill
Jörmungandr with his hammer Mjollnir,
but only be able to stagger back nine steps before falling dead himself, poisoned
by the venom that Jörmungandr spews over him. Odin will fight
with his mighty spear Gungnir against Fenrir but
will finally be eaten by the wolf after a long battle. To avenge his father,
Vidar will immediately come forward and place one foot
on the wolf's lower jaw. On this foot he will be wearing the shoe which he
has been making since the beginning of time; it consists of the strips of
leather which men pare off at the toes and heels of their shoes. With one
hand he will grasp the wolf's upper jaw and tear its throat asunder, killing
it at last.
Then, brandishing the Sword of Revenge, Surtr will burn
all Nine worlds with fire and he himself will be consumed by his own destruction.
Death will come to all manner of things. Fumes will reek and flames will burst,
scorching the sky with fire. The earth will sink into the sea.
Barley will ripen in fields that were never sown. The
in the now-destroyed Asgard, will have been spared. The sun will reappear as
Sol before being swallowed by Skoll, who will
give birth to a daughter as fair as she herself. This maiden daughter will
pursue her mother's road in the new sky.
A few gods will survive the ordeal: Odin's brother Vili, Odin's sons
Vidar and Váli, Thor's sons Móði and Magni, who will inherit their
father's magic hammer Mjollnir, and Hœnir, who
will hold the staff and foretell what is to come. Baldr and his
brother Höðr, who dies prior to Ragnarök, will come
up from Hel and dwell in Odin's former hall, Valhalla, in the heavens. Meeting
at Idavoll, these gods will sit down together, discuss their hidden lore,
and talk over many things that had happened, including the events surrounding
the final rise of Jörmungandr and Fenrir. In the waving grass, they will
find the golden chessboards that the Æsir used to own, and gaze at
them in wonder. (None of the goddesses were mentioned in various accounts
of the aftermath of Ragnarök, but there are assumptions that Frigg, Freyja and
some of the other goddesses will survive.)
Two humans will also escape the destruction of the world
by hiding themselves deep within Yggdrasil (some say Hodmimir's Wood) where Surtr's sword cannot destroy.
They will be called Lif and Lifthrasir. Emerging from their shelter,
they will live on morning dew and will repopulate the human world. They will
worship their new pantheon of gods, led by Baldr.
There will still be many halls to house the souls of
the dead. According to the 'Prose Edda', another heaven exists south of and
above Asgard, called Andlang, and a third heaven further above that, called
Vidblain; and these places will offer protection while
Surtr's fire burns the world. According to both 'Eddas', after Ragnarök,
the best place of all will be Gimli,
a building fairer than the sun, roofed with gold, in the heaven. There, the
gods will live at peace with themselves and each other. There will be Brimir, a hall
on Okolnir ("never cold"), where plenty of good drinks will be served. And
there will be Sindri, an excellent hall made wholly
of red gold, on Nidafjoll ("dark mountains"). The souls
of the good and virtuous will live in these halls.
The Prose Edda also mentions another hall called
("corpse strand"). That place in the underworld will be vast: no sunlight
will reach it; all its doors will face north; its walls and roof will be made
of wattled snakes, with their heads facing inward, spewing so much poison
that it runs in rivers in the hall. Here, oath breakers, murderers and philanderers
will wade through those rivers forever.
Hvergelmir, and Níðhöggr, also a survivor of Ragnarök,
will bedevil the bodies of the dead, sucking blood from them.
In this new world, misery will no longer exist and gods
and men will live together in peace and harmony. The descendants of Lif and
Lifthrasir will inhabit Midgard.
One should recognize that Ragnarök is not a moral
conflict between dualistic notions of good and evil like the Christian notion
but rather the result of extended, intricate conflict between the Æsir
gods and those allied with the giants. These two events also differ in that
after Ragnarök, both sides are ultimately eviscerated, making way for
a cyclic rebirth - whereas in the Book of Revelation, God is clearly victorious
over the forces of Satan.
Modern popular culture
- References to Ragnarök appear irregularly in
modern popular culture, usually in the form of an apocalyptic scenario or
as a synonym for a doomsday-like event.