Ragnarök

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Faroese stamp depicting the begining of Ragnarök

In Norse mythology, Ragnarök (meaning "fate of the gods")[1] refers to the eschatological battle that will end the current cosmic order. It will be waged between the Aesir, led by Odin, and the forces of chaos (Loki and his monstrous children, as well as, among others, the Jötnar). Not only will most of the gods, giants, and monsters perish in this apocalyptic conflagration, but almost everything in the universe will be torn asunder.

The specifics of this eschatological conflict (the omens prefiguring it, the individual confrontations, and the fates of the participants) were oft-discussed in Nordic sagas and skaldic poetry.[2] The pertinence of these accounts is was amplified by the central role that martial conflict played in Norse culture and self-identity (discussed below).

What seems eschatologically unique about Ragnarök is the central role of precognition amongst the participants, as the gods (specifically Odin and Frigg) know through prophecy exactly what is going to happen (even such particulars as when the event will occur, who will be slain by whom, and so forth). However, though they realize that they are powerless to prevent Ragnarök, they are still described as facing their bleak destiny with both bravery and defiance.

This unavoidable conflict is thought by many scholars to represent the ordered world (the Æsir) eventually succumbing to the unavoidable forces of chaos and entropy (the giants).[3] This is similar to the representation of the monstrous children of Uranus in Greek mythology and the monstrous creations of Tiamat in the Enuma Elish as the primordial forces of chaos.

Contents

Ragnarök in a Norse Context

The world-sundering battle of Ragnarök belongs to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition, of which the Scandinavian (and particularly Icelandic) sub-groups are best preserved, developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E..[4] The tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might.

Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of primary deities: the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the most significant divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility and wealth.[5] The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir. Over and above these three, there also existed races of secondary supernatural spirits, including the alfár (elves) and the dwarves (craftsmen for the Aesir).[6]

Ragnarök likely holds such an exalted place in Norse mythology because of the Scandinavian/Germanic cultural focus on conflict, warfare and martial valor. On one hand, this perspective supports an oppositional world-view, where the forces of order (represented by the Aesir) must, at some point, violently contend with the forces of chaos. On the other hand, this warlike stance also extended to their cosmological vision, where the best possible afterlife for Viking males was to be selected from the battlefield dead by the Valkyries and ushered off to Odin's hall, Valhalla. Once there, the deceased warriors "were to feast on board and mead, engaging in battle every day and healing miraculously afterward."[7] However, the purpose of this constant struggle was not simply to engage in never-ending conflict. Instead, these human heroes (the einherjar ("lone fighters"))[8] were training to fight alongside the All-Father in the final cataclysm. Thus, the fates of individual human warriors were intimately connected to the ultimate fate of the universe. In both cases, the general tenor of Norse culture can be seen to have intimately colored their eschatological beliefs.

Mythic Accounts

Portents

Given that the events of Ragnarök were foreseen by Odin (in at least two mythic accounts),[9] it is not surprising that the tradition contained descriptions of various portents that would foreshadow the eventual demise of the world-order. Four of the most important include –

  • The birth of three monstrous offspring to Loki and Angrboda (his giantess wife): Jörmungandr (the Midgard Serpent), Fenrir (the supernaturally potent wolf) and Hel (the goddess of the underworld). Commenting on their births, the Gylfaginning states: "But when the gods learned that this kindred was nourished in Jotunheim [(the realm of the Giants)], and when the gods perceived by prophecy that from this kindred great misfortune should befall them; and since it seemed to all that there was great prospect of ill - (first from the mother's blood, and yet worse from the father's) - then Allfather sent gods thither to take the children and bring them to him."[10] Once this foul brood was collected, each was imprisoned (and would remain so until the advent of the end times).
  • The unjust death of Baldr and the binding of Loki: Rather overtly, the Prose Edda notes that, after he is bound under the surface of the earth, the trickster god shall lay "in bonds till the Weird [fate] of the Gods [i.e. Ragnarök]."[11] Likewise, in one of his consultations with the spirit of a sibyl, Odin is informed that Loki's imprisonment will further set the stage for the apocalypse:
"For no one of men | shall seek me more
Till Loki wanders | loose from his bonds,
And to the last strife | the destroyers come."[12]
  • The arrival of Fimbulvetr (Fimbulwinter - the "terrible winter"):[13] While the previous two events occurred in the mythic past, this third will take place sometime in the mythic future. The term refers to a frigid and unending winter, whose dreadful impact will cause human society to collapse:
There shall come that winter which is called the Awful Winter: in that time, snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty battles. In that time brothers shall slay each other for greed's sake, and none shall spare father or son in manslaughter or and in incest; so it says in Völuspá:
Brothers shall strive | and slaughter each other;
Own sisters' children | shall sin together;
Ill days among men, | many a whoredom:
An axe-age, a sword-age | shields shall be cloven;
A wind-age, a wolf-age, | ere the world totters.[14]
  • The subversion of the cosmic order: After the arrival of Fimbulvetr and the resultant demise of human morality, the natural order also becomes disrupted. First, enormous wolves devour the sun and moon, extinguishing the stars and plunging the earth into an impenetrable darkness. Next, "all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent."[15] As described, this massive earthquake looses all bonds, thus freeing Loki and the Fenris wolf - two intractable enemies of the Aesir. Their newfound freedom marks the beginning of the next stage in the cataclysm: the formation of the armies of the Aesir and their multifarious opponents.

The Massing of forces

An illustration of the massed forces of order (the Aesir and Vanir) and chaos (the Jotun, beasts, fire giants, and the souls of the dead).

With preternatural acuity, three separate cocks, belonging to the Aesir, the Jotun, and the dead (in Hel) (respectively), perceive these events and crow blaringly - notifying their respective owners that the end times are near.[16] Meanwhile, Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent, and Loki's other monstrous offspring will rise from the deep ocean bed to proceed towards the land, twisting and writhing in fury on their 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 with poison.[17]

Heeding these portents, the various races of deities and supernatural beings begin to amass at Vigrid (the "Field of Battle" described in the Vafthruthnismol).[18] From the east, the army of Jotuns, led by Hrym, will leave their home in Jotunheim and sail towards the battleground in the grisly ship Naglfar (made from the nails of dead men). From the north, a second ship will also set sail towards Vigrid, with Loki, now unbound, as the helmsman and general of an army of undead soldiers from Hel's domain. Amid this turmoil, the fire Giants of Muspelheim, led by Surtr, will advance from the south, tearing apart the sky itself as they too close in on Vigrid. As this host of malignant beings traverses Bifröst, the rainbow bridge will crack and break behind them. And so Fenrir, Jörmungandr, all the Jotun, the inmates of Hel, and Surtr and the blazing sons of Muspelheim, will gather on Vigrid, all but filling the hundred-league plain.[19]

Meanwhile, Heimdall, the watchman of the Aesir, blows the Gjallarhorn, sounding a blast that will be heard throughout the nine worlds. At this, all the Gods (both Aesir and Vanir) wake and meet in council, after which point they (and their host of human champions (the Einherjar)) will don their battle dress. This vast army of men and gods then marches towards Vigrid, with Odin riding at their head, wearing a golden helmet and a shining hauberk, brandishing Gungnir (his magical spear).[20]

The Final Battle

Once the army of gods reach the charnel fields, the battle begins at once.

Each of the gods immediately squares off with his respective nemesis: Odin faces off with Fenrir; Thor with Jörmungandr; Freyr with the lord of the fire giants, Surtr; Tyr with the dread-wolf Garm; and Heimdall with the malevolent Loki. Freyr is the first to fall, having lent his magical sword to his servant Skírnir. Soon after, Tyr and Garm slay each other.

Though Thor succeeds in killing Jörmungandr with his hammer (Mjollnir), he then succumbs to the serpent's venom and falls dead himself. Odin defends himself valiantly against Fenrir, but is final devoured by his opponent. To avenge his father, Vidar immediately comes forward, places one foot on the wolf's lower jaw and one hand on the wolf's upper jaw, and tears its throat asunder, killing it at last. Finally, Heimdall and Loki both perish as a result of their evenly matched encounter

Then, brandishing his terrible sword, Surtr burns all Nine worlds with fire, destroying himself in the conflagration. 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.

The sun turns black, | earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down | from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam | and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high | about heaven itself.[21]

Aftermath

Faroese stamp depicting the return of Baldur and Hodur

This apocalypse does not mark the end of time, merely the end of the current cosmic era. The lands scoured by Surtr's fire will become tremendously fruitful, allowing barley to ripen in fields that were never sown. A new sun is born in the heavens, lighting these expanses of lush field land.

Further, 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 cast lots and foretell what is to come. Balder and his ill-fated brother Höðr (who both died prior to Ragnarök) will be reborn and meet in Odin's former hall, Valhalla. These surviving 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.[22]

Two humans will also escape the destruction of the world by hiding themselves deep within Yggdrasil, which even Surtr's sword could not destroy. These two survivors (Lif and Lifthrasir) are described in the Vafthruthnismol:

Othin spake:
"Much have I fared, | much have I found,
Much have I got of the gods:
What shall live of mankind | when at last there comes
The mighty winter to men?"
 
Vafthruthnir spake:
"In Hoddmimir's wood | shall hide themselves
Lif and Lifthrasir then;
The morning dews | for meat shall they have,
Such food shall men then find."[23]

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 Balder. In this new world, misery will no longer exist and gods and men will live together in peace and harmony.

Though not mentioned in the Voluspa version of the tale, Snorri's account concludes with an account of the posthumous fate of the combatants (both good and evil):

In that time the good abodes shall be many, and many the ill; then it shall be best to be in Gimlé in Heaven. Moreover, there is plenteous abundance of good drink, for them that esteem that a pleasure, in the hall which is called Brimir: it stands in Ókólnir. That too is a good hail which stands in Nida Fells, made of red gold; its name is Sindri. In these halls shall dwell good men and pure in heart.
On Nástrand is a great hall and evil, and its doors face to the north: it is all woven of serpent-backs like a wattle-house; and all the snake-heads turn into the house and blow venom, so that along the hall run rivers of venom; and they who have broken oaths, and murderers, wade those rivers, even as it says here:
I know a hall standing far from the sun,
In Nástrand: the doors to northward are turned;
Venom-drops fall down from the roof-holes;
That hall is bordered with backs of serpents.
There are doomed to wade the weltering streams
Men that are mansworn, and they that murderers are.
But it is worst in Hvergelmir:
There the cursed snake tears dead men's corpses.[24]

Common misconceptions

One should recognize that Ragnarök is not simply a moral conflict between dualistic notions of good and evil like the Christian notion of Armageddon, but rather it is the result of extended, intricate conflict between the Æsir and those allied with chaos.

In the pagan world view, Ragnarök is merely the end of one expression of creation, and with the death of the old Gods, the opportunity of the birth of a new world.

Inter-religious parallels

Given the enormity of the events described in this account, it is unsurprising that connections have been drawn between them and various other epics and eschatologies. For example, both Dumézil and Eliade note the similarities between the battle at Vigrid (between the Aesir and the forces of chaos (most notably the Jotun)) and the epic conflict at Kurukshetra (between the Pandavas and the Kauravas) detailed in the Mahabharata.[25] Likewise, Christian overtones can be seen in the details of the tale, from Heimdall's horn (and its resonances with the archangel Michael's instrument),[26] to the specific cosmic effects of the end times and the depiction of various heavens found in Snorri's account.[27] While the specific sources for this mythic account are lost in the hermeneutically-opaque mists of time, such similarities, if nothing else, indicate the universality of the themes and concerns discussed in the tale.

Notes

  1. Though earlier sources used the term Ragnarök (as mentioned above), Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda spelled it Ragnarøkr (sometimes "Ragnarøkkr"), which means "Twilight of the Gods." This mistranslation was perpetuated by Richard Wagner, who used it as the title of the Ring Cycle's final opera, "Götterdämmerung," and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose "Twilight of the Idols" was titled in a punning allusion to Wagner's work. See John Lindow. Handbook of Norse mythology. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001. ISBN 1576072177), 254.
  2. The Völuspá—prophecy of the völva (sybil), the first (and arguably most important) lay of the Poetic Edda, dating from about the year 1000 C.E.—spans the history of the old gods, from the beginning of time to Ragnarök, in 65 stanzas. The Prose Edda, put in writing some two centuries later by Snorri Sturluson, describes in detail what takes place before, during, and after the battle. In his introduction to the former text, Bellow notes that, with sufficient study, a modern reader "can begin to understand the effect which this magnificent poem must have produced on those who not only understood but believed it" (Völuspá, 1).
  3. See, for example, Georges Dumézil. Gods of the Ancient Northmen, Edited by Einar Haugen; Introduction by C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 0520020448), 61-64; Mircea Eliade. The Myth of the Eternal Return, Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1954. ISBN 0691017778), 113, 115; Gabriel Turville-Petre. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. ISBN 0837174201), 280-282.
  4. Lindow, 6-8. Though some scholars have argued against the homogenizing effect of grouping these various traditions together under the rubric of “Norse Mythology,” the profoundly exploratory/nomadic nature of Viking society tends to overrule such objections. As Thomas DuBois cogently argues, “[w]hatever else we may say about the various peoples of the North during the Viking Age, then, we cannot claim that they were isolated from or ignorant of their neighbors…. As religion expresses the concerns and experiences of its human adherents, so it changes continually in response to cultural, economic, and environmental factors. Ideas and ideals passed between communities with frequency and regularity, leading to an interdependent and intercultural region with broad commonalities of religion and worldview.” Thomas A. DuBois. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN 0812217144), 27-28.
  5. More specifically, Georges Dumézil, one of the foremost authorities on the Norse tradition and a noted comparitivist, argues quite persuasively that the Aesir / Vanir distinction is a component of a larger triadic division (between ruler gods, warrior gods, and gods of agriculture and commerce) that is echoed among the Indo-European cosmologies (from Vedic India, through ancient Rome and into the Germanic North). Further, he notes that this distinction conforms to patterns of social organization found in all of these societies. See Georges Dumézil's Gods of the Ancient Northmen, (especially xi-xiii, 3-25) for more details.
  6. Lindow, 99-101; 109-110.
  7. DuBois, 80.
  8. Andy Orchard. Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. (London: Cassell; New York: Distributed in the United States by Sterling Pub. Co., 2002. ISBN 0304363855), 96.
  9. The first is his consultation with a deceased seeress, an encounter that comprises the entirety of the Völuspá in The Poetic Edda. The second is the sacrifice of one eye to Mimir, in return for insight into of the ultimate fate of the Aesir (see Turville-Petre, 63; Gylfaginning XV (Brodeur, 27)).
  10. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning XXXIV (Brodeur 42).
  11. Here, the word "Weird" is used in the sense of 'fate' (as in the case of the Weird Sisters). Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning L (Brodeur 77).
  12. "Baldr's Draumar," in the Poetic Edda, translated by Bellows and accessed online at sacred-texts.com. 199-200.
  13. Orchard, 109-110.
  14. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning LI (Brodeur 77-78). In the Bellows translation, the Völuspá verse quoted above reads: "Brothers shall fight | and fell each other, And sisters' sons | shall kinship stain; Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom; Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered, Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men | each other spare." Völuspá, 19-20.
  15. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning LI (Brodeur 78).
  16. The Poetic Edda, VOLUME I. Lays of the Gods. VOLUSPO, The Wise-Woman's Prophecy, Völuspá 42-43, 18-19. sacred-texts.com.
  17. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning LI (Brodeur 78).
  18. In this poem, Odin (in his precognitive wisdom) describes the field as follows: "Vigrith is the field | where in fight shall meet || Surt and the gracious gods; || A hundred miles | each way does it measure. || And so are its boundaries set." Poetic Edda, "Vafthruthnismol" 18, p. 73.
  19. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning LI (Brodeur 78-79). Völuspá 47-52, p. 20-22.
  20. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning LI (Brodeur 79).
  21. Völuspá 57, p. 24.
  22. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning LII (Brodeur 83).
  23. "Vafthruthnismol" (44-45), in the Poetic Edda, accessed online at sacred-texts.com. 80-81. Similar to the Biblical tale of Noah, these two survivors will then be left to repopulate the human world (as mentioned in Turville-Petre, 283).
  24. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning LI (Brodeur 82).
  25. Dumézil, 61-64; Eliade, 113, 115.
  26. "Many readers have found the holy watchman, blowing his horn at the end of the world, alien to Norse heathendom. He is reminiscent of the Archangel Michael, who, according to a Christian legend widespread in the early Middle Ages, will awaken the dead with the blast of his trumpet." Turville-Petre, 154.
  27. Turville-Petre, 145, 282; Orchard, 284-286; DuBois, 80.

References

  • Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much About Mythology. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN 006019460X.
  • DuBois, Thomas A. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN 0812217144.
  • Dumézil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen, Edited by Einar Haugen; Introduction by C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 0520020448.
  • Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return, Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books, 1954. ISBN 0691017778.
  • Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001. ISBN 1576072177.
  • Munch, P. A. Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. In the revision of Magnus Olsen; translated from the Norwegian by Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt. New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation; London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1926.
  • Orchard, Andy. Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell; New York: Distributed in the United States by Sterling Pub. Co., 2002. ISBN 0304363855.
  • Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda, Translated from the Icelandic and with an introduction by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American-Scandinavian foundation, 1916. Available online at http://www.northvegr.org/lore/prose/index.php.
  • Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. ISBN 0837174201.
  • "Völuspá" in The Poetic Edda, Translated and with notes by Henry Adams Bellows. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936. Accessed online at sacred-texts.com.

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