Definitions

Ragnarök

Ragnarök

[rahg-nuh-rok]

In Scandinavian mythology, the end of the divine and human worlds. As described in the 10th-century Icelandic poem Völuspá and other sources, Ragnarök will be preceded by cruel winters and moral chaos. Giants and demons will attack the gods, who will face death like heroes. The sun will be darkened, the stars will vanish, and the earth will sink into the sea. Afterward the earth will rise again, the innocent Balder will return from the dead, and the hosts of the just will live in a hall roofed with gold. The h1 of Richard Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) is a German equivalent of Ragnarök.

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In Norse mythology, Ragnarök (Old Norse "Final destiny of the gods") refers to a series of major events, including a great battle foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods Odin, Thor, Freyr, Heimdall, and the jötunn Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterwards, the world resurfaces anew and fertile, the surviving gods meet, and the world is repopulated by two human survivors. Ragnarök is an important event in the Norse canon, and has been the subject of scholarly discourse and theory.

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 a single poem in the Poetic Edda, the event is referred to as Ragnarökr or Ragnarökkr (Old Norse "Twilight of the Gods"), a usage popularized by 19th century composer Richard Wagner with the title of the last of his Der Ring des Nibelungen operas; Götterdämmerung.

Etymology

The Old Norse word "ragnarök" is a compound of two words. The first part is ragna, which is the genitive plural of regin ("gods" or "ruling powers"), from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic term *ragenō. The second part is rök, which has several meanings, such as "development, origin, cause, relation, fate, end". The traditional interpretation is that prior to the merging of /ǫ/ and /ø/ (ca. 1200) the word was rǫk, derived from Proto-Germanic *rakō. The word ragnarök as a whole is then usually interpreted as something like "final destiny of the gods." In 2007, Haraldur Bernharðsson demonstrated that the original form of the second word in the compound is røk, leading to a Proto-Germanic reconstruction of *rekwa and opening up other semantic possibilities.

In stanza 39 of the Poetic Edda poem Lokasenna, and in Snorri's Prose Edda, the form ragnarök(k)r appears, rök(k)r meaning "twilight". It has often been suggested that this indicates a misunderstanding or a learned reinterpretation of the original form ragnarök. Haraldur Bernharðsson argues instead that the words ragnarök and ragnarökkr 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 ("end of the world") from stanza 39 of Vafþrúðnismál, tíva rök from stanzas 38 and 42 of Vafþrúðnismál, þá er regin deyja ("when the gods die") from Vafþrúðnismál stanza 47, unz um rjúfask regin ("when the gods will be destroyed") from Vafþrúðnismál stanza 52, Lokasenna stanza 41, and Sigrdrífumál stanza 19, aldar rof ("destruction of the world") from Helgakviða Hundingsbana II stanza 41, regin þrjóta ("end of the gods") from Hyndluljóð stanza 42, 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.

Attestations

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, after which the aftermath of the events are described for the rest of the poem. In the poem, a Völva recites information to Odin. In stanza 44, 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 Galgvid. 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.

After 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. She states in stanza 45:

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 then mentioned, though this reference is not further explained in surviving sources. Heimdall holds the Gjallarhorn into the air and blows deeply into it, and Odin converses with Mím's head. The world tree Yggdrasil shudders and groans, and the road to Hel is consumed in flames. 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 and sets sail from the east, containing the fire jötunn inhabitants of Muspelheim as Loki steers.

The Völva continues that all of Jötunheimr, the land of the jötunn, groans, and that the Æsir hold an assembly, and that the dwarves howl outside of their stony mountain walls. Leading the fire jötunn, Surtr advances from the south, his bright sword shining. Rocky cliffs open and the giant women sink. People walk the road to Hel and heavens split apart.

The gods then do battle with the invaders: Odin dies fighting the wolf, causing his wife Frigg her second great sorrow (the first being the death of her son, the god Baldr). The god Freyr is described as fighting Surtr. Odin's son Víðarr avenges his father by stabbing Fenrir in the heart, 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 only able to take nine steps afterwards before collapsing. 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 in stanza 9 of the same poem). The reemerged fields grow without needing to be sowed. The gods Höðr and Baldr return from Hel and live happily together in palaces.

The Völva continues that the god Hœnir chooses wooden slips for the purpose of prophecy, 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 whom will arrive from above at the court of the gods (Old Norse regindómr), which has been interpreted as a Christian reference added to the poem. 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.

Vafþrúðnismál

The Vanir god Njörðr is described as being a future survivor of 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" after the events of Ragnarök.

In stanza 44, Odin poses the question to Vafþrúðnir as to who of mankind will survive the "famous" Fimbulvetr ("Mighty Winter"). Vafþrúðnir responds in stanza 45 that those survivors will be Líf and Lífthrasir, 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 stanzas 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 his 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, and that he is doomed. 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

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 that, as the gods could only expect destruction from Fenrir, why the gods didn't 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

Chapter 51 provides a detailed account of Ragnarök interspersed with various quotes from Völuspá, while chapters 52 and 53 describe the aftermath of these events. In Chapter 51, High states the first sign of Ragnarök will be Fimbulvetr, during which time three winters will arrive without a summer, and the sun will be useless. High details that, prior to these winters, three earlier winters will have occurred, marked with great battles throughout the world. During this time, greed will cause brothers to kill brothers, and fathers and sons will suffer from the collapse of kinship bonds. High then quotes stanza 45 of Völuspá. Next, High describes that the wolf will first swallow the sun, and then his brother the moon, and mankind will consider the occurrence as a great disaster resulting in much ruin. The stars will disappear. The earth and mountains will shake so violently that the trees will come loose from the soil, the mountains will topple, and all restraints will break, causing Fenrir to break free from his bonds.

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 states that Muspell's sons will ride across Bifröst, described in the Prose Edda 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 jötunn) 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 then rides to Mímir's Well in search of counsel from Mímir. Yggdrasil shakes, and everything, everywhere fears.

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, Skirnir. The hound Garmr (described here as the "worst of monsters") breaks free from his binds 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, killing Odin, though immediately afterward Odin's 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 is then described as covering the earth in fire, causing the entire world to burn. High then 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

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 virtous 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 those that break oaths 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 Mjolnir, Thor's sons Móði and Magni will meet them there, and, coming from Hel, Baldr and Höðr also arrive. Together, they all sit together and recount memories, later finding the gold game pieces the Æsir once owned. Völuspá stanza 51 is then quoted.

High reveals that two humans have also survived the destruction: Líf and Lífthrasir. 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 description of Ragnarök in Gylfaginning.

Archaeological record

Various objects have been identified as depicting events from Ragnarök.

Thorwald's Cross

Thorwald's Cross, a partially surviving runestone erected at Kirk Andreas on the Isle of Man, depicts a bearded human holding a spear downward at a wolf, his right foot in its mouth, while a large bird sits at his shoulder. Rundata dates it to 940, while Pluskowski dates it to the 11th century. This depiction has been interpreted as Odin, with a raven or eagle at his shoulder, being consumed by Fenrir at Ragnarök. Next to the image is a depiction of a large cross and another image parallel to it that has been described as Christ triumphing over Satan. These combined elements have led to the cross as being described as "syncretic art"; a mixture of pagan and Christian beliefs.

Gosforth Cross

The mid-11th century Gosforth Cross, located in Cumbria, England, has been described as paralleling Thorwald's Cross in that it combines Norse pagan and Christian symbolism in a similar manner, interpreted as a combination of scenes from the Christian Judgement Day and the pagan Ragnarök. The Ragnarök battle is thought to be depicted on the north side. The cross features various figures depicted in Borre style, including a man with a spear facing a monstrous head, one of whose feet is thrust into the beast's forked tongue and on its lower jaw, while the other is placed against its upper jaw, a scene interpreted as Víðarr fighting Fenrir.

Ledberg stone

The 11th century Ledberg stone in Sweden, similarly to Thorwald's Cross, features a figure with his foot at the mouth of a four-legged beast, and this may also be a depiction of Odin being devoured by Fenrir at Ragnarök. Below the beast and the man is a depiction of a legless, helmeted man, with his arms in a prostrate position. The Younger Futhark inscription on the stone bears a commonly seen memorial dedication, but is followed by an encoded runic sequence that has been described as "mysterious", and "an interesting magic formula which is known from all over the ancient Norse world".

Skarpåker stone

On the early 11th century Skarpåker Stone, from Södermanland, Sweden, a father grieving his dead son used the same verse form as in the Poetic Edda in the following engraving:
Iarð skal rifna
ok upphiminn
"Earth shall be riven
and the over-heaven."
Jansson (1987) notes that at the time of the inscription, everyone who read the lines would have thought of Ragnarök and the allusion that the father found fitting as an expression of his grief.

Theories

Muspille, Heliand, and Christianity

Theories have been proposed about the relation to Ragnarök and the 9th century Old High German epic poem Muspilli about the Christian Last Judgment, where the word Muspille appears, and the 9th century Old Saxon epic poem Heliand about the life of Christ, where various other forms of the word appear. In both sources, the word is used to signify the end of the world through fire. Old Norse forms of the term also appear throughout accounts of Ragnarök, where the world is also consumed in flames, and, though various theories exist about the meaning and origins of the term, its etymology has not been solved.

Proto-Indo-European basis

Parallels have been pointed out between the Ragnarök of the Norse pagans and the beliefs of other related Indo-European peoples. Subsequently, theories have been put forth that Ragnarök represents a later evolution of a Proto-Indo-European belief along with other cultures descending from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. These parallels include comparisons of a cosmic winter motif between the Norse Fimbulwinter, the Iranian Bundahishn and Yima. Víðarr's stride has been compared to the Vedic god Vishnu in that both have a "cosmic stride" with a special shoe used to tear apart a beastly wolf. Larger patterns have also been drawn between "final battle" events in Indo-European cultures, including the occurrence of a blind or semi-blind figure in "final battle" themes, and figures appearing suddenly with surprising skills.

Volcanic eruptions

Hilda Ellis Davidson theorizes that the events in Völuspá occurring after the death of the gods (the sun turning black, steam rising, flames touching the heavens, etc.) may be inspired by the volcanic eruptions on Iceland. Records of eruptions on Iceland bear strong similarities to the sequence of events described in Völuspá, especially the eruption at Laki that occurred in 1783. Bertha Phillpotts theorizes that the figure of Surtr was inspired by Icelandic eruptions, and that he was a volcano demon. Surtr's name occurs in some Icelandic place names, among them the lava tube caves Surtshellir, a number of dark caverns in the volcanic central region of Iceland.

Modern influence

Ragnarök has been the subject of a number of artistic depictions and references in modern culture. Some of these depictions include "Ragnarok" (frieze, 1825) by Hermann Ernst Freund, and "Beginn der Götterdämmerung" (charcoal drawing, 1881) by K. Ehrenberg. The event has inspired the creation of two operas: Richard Wagner's 1876 Götterdämmerung and David Bedford's 1983 opera Ragnarok. Ragnarök has had some influence in modern music, including inspiring the name of the Norwegian musical group Ragnarok, and Faroese musical group Týr's conceptual album Ragnarok (2006). The South Korean MMORPG Ragnarok Online (2001) takes its name from the event, and the ongoing manhwa from which it is based; Ragnarok (1995 -).

See also

  • Æsir-Vanir War‎, a war between the tribes of the Æsir and Vanir that results in the unification of the gods also described in Völuspá.

Notes

References

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