Ragnarök

In Norse religion, Ragnarök is a series of future events, including a great battle, foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors. Ragnarök is an important event in the Norse mythology, and has been the subject of scholarly discourse and theory throughout the history of Germanic studies.

The event is attested primarily in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In the Prose Edda, and in a single poem in the Poetic Edda, the event is referred to as Ragnarök or Ragnarøkkr (Old Norse “Fate of the Gods” and “Twilight of the Gods” respectively), a usage popularised by 19th-century composer Richard Wagner with the title of the last of his Der Ring des Nibelungen operas, Götterdämmerung (1876).

Ragnarök
The north portal of the 11th-century Urnes stave church has been interpreted as containing depictions of snakes and dragons that represent Ragnarök.

The Old Norse compound ragnarok has a long history of interpretation. Its first element, ragna, is unproblematic, being the genitive plural of regin (n. pl.) “the ruling powers, gods”. The second element is more problematic, as it occurs in two variants, -rök and -røkkr. Writing in the early 20th century, philologist Geir Zoëga treats the two forms as two separate compounds, glossing ragnarök as “the doom or destruction of the gods” and ragnarøkkr as “the twilight of the gods”.

The plural noun rök, has several meanings, including “development, origin, cause, relation, fate.” The word ragnarök as a whole is then usually interpreted as the “final destiny of the gods.”

The singular form ragnarøk(k)r is found in a stanza of the Poetic Edda poem Lokasenna, and in the Prose Edda. The noun røk(k)r means “twilight” (from a verb røkkva “to grow dark”), suggesting a translation “twilight of the gods”. This reading was widely considered a result of folk etymology, or a learned reinterpretation, of the original term due to the merger of /ǫ/ and /ø/ in Old Icelandic after ca. 1200 (nevertheless giving rise to the calque Götterdämmerung “Twilight of the Gods” in the German reception of Norse religion). However, Haraldur Bernharðsson in a 2007 paper suggested that the singular form -røkr “twilight” (from a Proto-Germanic *rekwa) might have been the original reading. Haraldur argues that the words ragnarök and ragnarøkkr are closely related, etymologically and semantically, and suggests a meaning of “renewal of the divine powers.”

Other terms used to refer to the events surrounding Ragnarök in the Poetic Edda include aldar rök (aldar means age, “end of an age”) from a stanza of Vafþrúðnismál, tíva rök from two stanzas of Vafþrúðnismál, þá er regin deyja (“when the gods die”) from Vafþrúðnismál, unz um rjúfask regin (“when the gods will be destroyed”) from Vafþrúðnismál, Lokasenna, and Sigrdrífumál, aldar rof (“destruction of the age”) from Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, regin þrjóta (“end of the gods”) from Hyndluljóð, and, in the Prose Edda, þá er Muspellz-synir herja (“when the sons of Muspell move into battle”) can be found in chapters 18 and 36 of Gylfaginning.

In Old English and Middle English the term Crack of Doom was used, which then was transferred to the Christian Day of Judgement.

Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda contains various references to Ragnarök:

Völuspá

In the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, references to Ragnarök begin from stanza 40 until 58, with the rest of the poem describing the aftermath. In the poem, a völva recites information to Odin. In stanza 41, the völva says:

Old Norse:

Fylliz fiǫrvi
feigra manna,
rýðr ragna siǫt
rauðom dreyra.
Svǫrt verða sólskin
of sumor eptir,
veðr ǫll válynd
Vitoð ér enn, eða hvat?
English:

It sates itself on the life-blood
of fated men,
paints red the powers’ homes
with crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
in the summers that follow,
weathers all treacherous.
Do you still seek to know? And what?

The völva then describes three roosters crowing: In stanza 42, the jötunn herdsman Eggthér sits on a mound and cheerfully plays his harp while the crimson rooster Fjalar (Old Norse “hider, deceiver”) crows in the forest Gálgviðr. The golden rooster Gullinkambi crows to the Æsir in Valhalla, and the third, unnamed soot-red rooster crows in the halls of the underworld location of Hel in stanza 43.

fter these stanzas, the völva further relates that the hound Garmr produces deep howls in front of the cave of Gnipahellir. Garmr’s bindings break and he runs free. The völva describes the state of humanity:

Brœðr muno beriaz
ok at bǫnom verða[z]
muno systrungar
sifiom spilla.
Hart er í heimi,
hórdómr mikill
—skeggǫld, skálmǫld
—skildir ro klofnir—
vindǫld, vargǫld—
áðr verǫld steypiz.
Mun engi maðr
ǫðrom þyrma.
Brothers will fight
and kill each other,
sisters’ children
will defile kinship.
It is harsh in the world,
whoredom rife
—an axe age, a sword age
—shields are riven—
a wind age, a wolf age—
before the world goes headlong.
No man will have
mercy on another.

The “sons of Mím” are described as being “at play”, though this reference is not further explained in surviving sources. Heimdall raises the Gjallarhorn into the air and blows deeply into it, and Odin converses with Mím’s head. The world tree Yggdrasil shudders and groans. The jötunn Hrym comes from the east, his shield before him. The Midgard serpent Jörmungandr furiously writhes, causing waves to crash. “The eagle shrieks, pale-beaked he tears the corpse,” and the ship Naglfar breaks free thanks to the waves made by Jormungandr and sets sail from the east. The fire jötnar inhabitants of Muspelheim come forth.

The völva continues that Jötunheimr, the land of the jötnar, is aroar, and that the Æsir are in council. The dwarfs groan by their stone doors. Surtr advances from the south, his sword brighter than the sun. Rocky cliffs open and the jötnar women sink.

The gods then do battle with the invaders: Odin is swallowed whole and alive fighting the wolf Fenrir, causing his wife Frigg her second great sorrow (the first being the death of her son, the god Baldr). Odin’s son Víðarr avenges his father by rending Fenrir’s jaws apart and stabbing it in the heart with his spear, thus killing the wolf. The serpent Jörmungandr opens its gaping maw, yawning widely in the air, and is met in combat by Thor. Thor, also a son of Odin and described here as protector of the earth, furiously fights the serpent, defeating it, but Thor is only able to take nine steps afterward before collapsing. The god Freyr fights Surtr and loses. After this, people flee their homes, and the sun becomes black while the earth sinks into the sea, the stars vanish, steam rises, and flames touch the heavens.

The völva sees the earth reappearing from the water, and an eagle over a waterfall hunting fish on a mountain. The surviving Æsir meet together at the field of Iðavöllr. They discuss Jörmungandr, great events of the past, and the runic alphabet. In stanza 61, in the grass, they find the golden game pieces that the gods are described as having once happily enjoyed playing games with long ago (attested earlier in the same poem). The reemerged fields grow without needing to be sown. The gods Höðr and Baldr return from Hel and live happily together.

The völva says that the god Hœnir chooses wooden slips for divination, and that the sons of two brothers will widely inhabit the windy world. She sees a hall thatched with gold in Gimlé, where nobility will live and spend their lives pleasurably. Stanzas 65, found in the Hauksbók version of the poem, refers to a “powerful, mighty one” that “rules over everything” and who will arrive from above at the court of the gods (Old Norse regindómr). In stanza 66, the völva ends her account with a description of the dragon Níðhöggr, corpses in his jaws, flying through the air. The völva then “sinks down.” It is unclear if stanza 66 indicates that the völva is referring to the present time or if this is an element of the post-Ragnarök world.

Ragnarök
Battle of the Doomed Gods (by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1882)
Ragnarök
The twilight of the gods (by Willy Pogany, 1920)

Vafþrúðnismál

Ragnarök
An illustration of Víðarr stabbing Fenrir while holding his jaws apart (1908) by W. G. Collingwood, inspired by the Gosforth Cross
Ragnarök
Fenrir and Odin (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

The Vanir god Njörðr is mentioned in relation to Ragnarök in stanza 39 of the poem Vafþrúðnismál. In the poem, Odin, disguised as Gagnráðr faces off with the wise jötunn Vafþrúðnir in a battle of wits. Vafþrúðnismál references Njörðr’s status as a hostage during the earlier Æsir–Vanir War, and that he will “come back home among the wise Vanir” at “the doom of men.”

In stanza 44, Odin poses the question to Vafþrúðnir as to who of mankind will survive the “famous” Fimbulwinter (“Mighty Winter”). Vafþrúðnir responds in stanza 45 that those survivors will be Líf and Lífþrasir, and that they will hide in the forest of Hoddmímis holt, that they will consume the morning dew, and will produce generations of offspring. In stanza 46, Odin asks what sun will come into the sky after Fenrir has consumed the sun that exists. Vafþrúðnir responds that Sól will bear a daughter before Fenrir assails her, and that after Ragnarök this daughter will continue her mother’s path.

In stanza 51, Vafþrúðnir states that, after Surtr’s flames have been sated, Odin’s sons Víðarr and Váli will live in the temples of the gods, and that Thor’s sons Móði and Magni will possess the hammer Mjolnir. In stanza 52, the disguised Odin asks the jötunn about Odin’s own fate. Vafþrúðnir responds that “the wolf” will consume Odin, and that Víðarr will avenge him by sundering its cold jaws in battle. Odin ends the duel with one final question: what did Odin say to his son before preparing his funeral pyre? With this, Vafþrúðnir realizes that he is dealing with none other than Odin, whom he refers to as “the wisest of beings,” adding that Odin alone could know this. Odin’s message has been interpreted as a promise of resurrection to Baldr after Ragnarök.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana II

Ragnarök is briefly referenced in stanza 40 of the poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana II. Here, the valkyrie Sigrún‘s unnamed maid is passing the deceased hero Helgi Hundingsbane‘s burial mound. Helgi is there with a retinue of men, surprising the maid. The maid asks if she is witnessing a delusion since she sees dead men riding, or if Ragnarök has occurred. In stanza 41, Helgi responds that it is neither.

Prose Edda

Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda quotes heavily from Völuspá and elaborates extensively in prose on the information there, though some of this information conflicts with that provided in Völuspá.

Gylfaginning chapters 26 and 34

Ragnarök
Loki breaks free at the onset of Ragnarök (by Ernst H. Walther, 1897)
Loki breaks free at the onset of Ragnarök (by Ernst H. Walther, 1897)

In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, various references are made to Ragnarök. Ragnarök is first mentioned in chapter 26, where the throned figure of High, king of the hall, tells Gangleri (King Gylfi in disguise) some basic information about the goddess Iðunn, including that her apples will keep the gods young until Ragnarök.

In chapter 34, High describes the binding of the wolf Fenrir by the gods, causing the god Týr to lose his right hand, and that Fenrir remains there until Ragnarök. Gangleri asks High why, since the gods could only expect destruction from Fenrir, they did not simply kill Fenrir once he was bound. High responds that “the gods hold their sacred places and sanctuaries in such respect that they chose not to defile them with the wolf’s blood, even though the prophecies foretold that he would be the death of Odin.”

As a consequence of his role in the death of the god Baldr, Loki (described as father of Fenrir) is bound on top of three stones with the internal organs of his son Narfi (which are turned into iron) in three places. There, venom drops onto his face periodically from a snake placed by the jötunn Skaði, and when his wife Sigyn empties the bucket she is using to collect the dripping venom, the pain he experiences causes convulsions, resulting in earthquakes. Loki is further described as being bound this way until the onset of Ragnarök.

Gylfaginning chapter 51

 

High relates that the great serpent Jörmungandr, also described as a child of Loki in the same source, will breach land as the sea violently swells onto it. The ship Naglfar, described in the Prose Edda as being made from the human nails of the dead, is released from its mooring, and sets sail on the surging sea, steered by a jötunn named Hrym. At the same time, Fenrir, eyes and nostrils spraying flames, charges forward with his mouth wide open, his upper jaw reaching to the heavens, his lower jaw touching the earth. At Fenrir’s side, Jörmungandr sprays venom throughout the air and the sea.

During all of this, the sky splits into two. From the split, the “sons of Muspell” ride forth. Surtr rides first, surrounded by flames, his sword brighter than the sun. High says that “Muspell’s sons” will ride across Bifröst, described in Gylfaginning as a rainbow bridge, and that the bridge will then break. The sons of Muspell (and their shining battle troop) advance to the field of Vígríðr, described as an expanse that reaches “a hundred leagues in each direction,” where Fenrir, Jörmungandr, Loki (followed by “Hel’s own”), and Hrym (accompanied by all frost jötnar) join them. While this occurs, Heimdallr stands and blows the Gjallarhorn with all his might. The gods awaken at the sound, and they meet. Odin rides to Mímisbrunnr in search of counsel from Mímir. Yggdrasil shakes, and everything, everywhere fears.

Ragnarök
A scene from the last phase of Ragnarök, after Surtr has engulfed the world with fire (by Emil Doepler, 1905)

High relates that the Æsir and the Einherjar dress for war and head to the field. Odin, wearing a gold helmet and an intricate coat of mail, carries his spear Gungnir and rides before them. Odin advances against Fenrir, while Thor moves at his side, though Thor is unable to assist Odin because he has engaged Jörmungandr in combat. According to High, Freyr fiercely fights with Surtr, but Freyr falls because he lacks the sword he once gave to his messenger, Skírnir. The hound Garmr (described here as the “worst of monsters”) breaks free from his bonds in front of Gnipahellir, and fights the god Týr, resulting in both of their deaths.

Thor kills Jörmungandr, yet is poisoned by the serpent, and manages to walk nine steps before falling to the earth dead. Fenrir swallows Odin, though immediately afterward his son Víðarr kicks his foot into Fenrir’s lower jaw, grips Fenrir’s upper jaw, and rips apart Fenrir’s mouth, killing Fenrir. Loki fights Heimdallr, and the two kill one another. Surtr covers the earth in fire, causing the entire world to burn. High quotes stanzas 46 to 47 of Völuspá, and additionally stanza 18 of Vafþrúðnismál (the latter relating information about the battlefield Vígríðr).

Gylfaginning chapters 52 and 53

Ragnarök
The new world that rises after Ragnarök, as described in Völuspá (depiction by Emil Doepler)

At the beginning of chapter 52, Gangleri asks “what will be after heaven and earth and the whole world are burned? All the gods will be dead, together with the Einherjar and the whole of mankind. Didn’t you say earlier that each person will live in some world throughout all ages?”

The figure of Third, seated on the highest throne in the hall, responds that there will be many good places to live, but also many bad ones. Third states that the best place to be is Gimlé in the heavens, where a place exists called Okolnir that houses a hall called Brimir—where one can find plenty to drink. Third describes a hall made of red gold located in Niðafjöll called Sindri, where “good and virtuous men will live.” Third further relates an unnamed hall in Náströnd, the beaches of the dead, that he describes as a large repugnant hall facing north that is built from the spines of snakes, and resembles “a house with walls woven from branches;” the heads of the snakes face the inside of the house and spew so much venom that rivers of it flow throughout the hall, in which oath breakers and murderers must wade. Third here quotes Völuspá stanzas 38 to 39, with the insertion of original prose stating that the worst place of all to be is in Hvergelmir, followed by a quote from Völuspá to highlight that the dragon Níðhöggr harasses the corpses of the dead there.

Chapter 53 begins with Gangleri asking if any of the gods will survive, and if there will be anything left of the earth or the sky. High responds that the earth will appear once more from the sea, beautiful and green, where self-sown crops grow. The field Iðavöllr exists where Asgard once was, and, there, untouched by Surtr’s flames, Víðarr and Váli reside. Now possessing their father’s hammer Mjölnir, Thor’s sons Móði and Magni will meet them there, and, coming from Hel, Baldr and Höðr also arrive. Together, they all sit and recount memories, later finding the gold game pieces the Æsir once owned. Völuspá stanza 51 is then quoted.

Ragnarök
A depiction of Líf and Lífthrasir (by Lorenz Frølich, 1895)

High reveals that two humans, Líf and Lífþrasir, will have also survived the destruction by hiding in the wood Hoddmímis holt. These two survivors consume the morning dew for sustenance, and from their descendants the world will be repopulated. Vafþrúðnismál stanza 45 is then quoted. The personified sun, Sól, will have a daughter at least as beautiful as she, and this daughter will follow the same path as her mother. Vafþrúðnismál stanza 47 is quoted, and so ends the foretelling of Ragnarök in Gylfaginning.