Painting of Ragnarok by the Dresden Art Nouveau painter Otto Gussman on the ceiling of the Burschenschaftsdenkmal in Eisenach, a memorial for the Franco-German war of 1870-71, completed in 1902.

Ragnarök: Fire, Fate, Fracture, and Flood

Ragnarök: it is my responsibility as a mythology enthusiast* to inform you that this word translates as “final destiny of the gods” or “judgment of the powers” but that Ragnarøkkr, “Twilight of the Gods”, used in Lokasenna and by Snorri in the Prose Edda, is incorrect, or at least a late addition to the mythology based on the fact that the two words are homonyms. And it certainly doesn’t mean “the end of all things” or the end of the world or anything like that. Even though there’s a lot of death and destruction. “Twilight” sounds cool, though, and works well as the title of an opera, so it sort of works out.

* See Simek, Lindow, etc.

We humans seem to have a peculiar fascination with eschatology. We want to know what happens at the end of the book. Who does the hero “end up” with? What happens when we die? The stuff before that is just filler, apparently, and everything finds meaning when we get where we’re going.

For the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, even the gods died. And they went out fighting, and all the major gods not only died, they took out one of the major giant villains, too: Thor kills the Midgard Serpent, Heimdall defeats Loki, Freyr slays Surt, the list goes on (see below). The Norse never gave up, never gave in, and fought because it was necessary and noble.

Cover to Ragnarõk #1 by Walter Simonson and Laura Martin, 2014
Cover to Ragnarõk #1 by Walter Simonson and Laura Martin, 2014

There’s more that you can learn about the world-view of these peoples, though, from the tale of Ragnarök. The gods aren’t just a northern flavor of tragic hero. In Voluspa, the poem I’ve excerpted for you below, Odin is acquiring information of the cosmos from a seeress, someone who has special knowledge of time and space. As the story goes, what you are reading in Voluspa is a prophecy that was given to Odin thousands of years ago, and has been passed down ever since, and one day all these events will actually occur. The gods will fall in battle, knowing that each of them is doomed. They will do it because they accept their fate, and willingly face it, fearlessly, when the time comes. If you have ever known a Scandinavian, you are likely aware that this worldview has persisted even a thousand years since the Old Way fell out of favor in the north. Sometimes bad things are destined to happen, but you face them anyway, and move forward however you can.

There’s one more important feature of Ragnarök that you might overlook if you weren’t watching closely – your favorite gods die, the world as we know it dies, but enough gods and living things survive to start over. After the Fimbulwinter and Surt’s cleansing flames and the world sinking underwater… we start over. Odin’s sons Vidarr and Vali, Thor’s sons Modi and Magni, Baldr, Hodr, and Hoenir (presumably some Asynjur, the goddesses, are around there somewhere, too), rebuild the forces of life and order. A new pair of humans, Lif and Lifthrasir, are the father and mother of all the humans who follow.

After Ragnarok by Emil Doepler, ca. 1905
After Ragnarok by Emil Doepler, ca. 1905

Just like spring follows winter, just like children are born and grow to adulthood to replace their parents, so Ragnarök is less the end of the world, and more a metaphor for the cycle of life. We see this cycle everywhere we turn. Not only in living things – stars are born, eventually run out of fuel, and explode, re-forming into new stars. Civilizations rise and fall and new ones replace them.

Ragnarök is a story, telling us how the gods relate to each other, and to the giants, who are the forces of chaos. And we also are reminded that all things end, and there are always new beginnings, that we are always able to rebuild after any kind of death, metaphorical or literal. Doom comes to us all, even the gods and the monsters. Wisdom lies in embracing fate, and moving forward through any circumstance.

surtur_earth-616Or something like that. There’s a dude with a big flaming sword, and that’s pretty cool. Freyr fights Surt the fire giant even though he gave his sword to his servant Skirnir and has no weapon other than his wits and perhaps an antler. If you fight a dude with a big flaming sword, I recommend better armaments.

From Voluspa:

44. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

45. 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.

46. Fast move the sons | of Mim, and fate
Is heard in the note | of the Gjallarhorn;
Loud blows Heimdall, | the horn is aloft,
In fear quake all | who on Hel-roads are.

47. Yggdrasil shakes, | and shiver on high
The ancient limbs, | and the giant is loose;
To the head of Mim | does Othin give heed,
But the kinsman of Surt | shall slay him soon.

48. How fare the gods? | how fare the elves?
All Jotunheim groans, | the gods are at council;
Loud roar the dwarfs | by the doors of stone,
The masters of the rocks: | would you know yet more?

49. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

50. From the east comes Hrym | with shield held high;
In giant-wrath | does the serpent writhe;
O’er the waves he twists, | and the tawny eagle
Gnaws corpses screaming; | Naglfar is loose.

51. O’er the sea from the north | there sails a ship
With the people of Hel, | at the helm stands Loki;
After the wolf | do wild men follow,
And with them the brother | of Byleist goes.

52. Surt fares from the south | with the scourge of branches,
The sun of the battle-gods | shone from his sword;
The crags are sundered, | the giant-women sink,
The dead throng Hel-way, | and heaven is cloven.

53. Now comes to Hlin | yet another hurt,
When Othin fares | to fight with the wolf,
And Beli’s fair slayer | seeks out Surt,
For there must fall | the joy of Frigg.

54. Then comes Sigfather’s | mighty son,
Vithar, to fight | with the foaming wolf;
In the giant’s son | does he thrust his sword
Full to the heart: | his father is avenged.

55. Hither there comes | the son of Hlothyn,
The bright snake gapes | to heaven above;
. . . . . . . . . .
Against the serpent | goes Othin’s son.

56. In anger smites | the warder of earth,–
Forth from their homes | must all men flee;-
Nine paces fares | the son of Fjorgyn,
And, slain by the serpent, | fearless he sinks.

57. 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.

58. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

59. Now do I see | the earth anew
Rise all green | from the waves again;
The cataracts fall, | and the eagle flies,
And fish he catches | beneath the cliffs.

60. The gods in Ithavoll | meet together,
Of the terrible girdler | of earth they talk,
And the mighty past | they call to mind,
And the ancient runes | of the Ruler of Gods.

61. In wondrous beauty | once again
Shall the golden tables | stand mid the grass,
Which the gods had owned | in the days of old,
. . . . . . . . . .

62. Then fields unsowed | bear ripened fruit,
All ills grow better, | and Baldr comes back;
Baldr and Hoth dwell | in Hropt’s battle-hall,
And the mighty gods: | would you know yet more?

63. Then Hönir wins | the prophetic wand,
. . . . . . . . . .
And the sons of the brothers | of Tveggi abide
In Vindheim now: | would you know yet more?

64. More fair than the sun, | a hall I see,
Roofed with gold, | on Gimle it stands;
There shall the righteous | rulers dwell,
And happiness ever | there shall they have.

65. There comes on high, | all power to hold,
A mighty lord, | all lands he rules.
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .

66. From below the dragon | dark comes forth,
Nithhogg flying | from Nithafjoll;
The bodies of men on | his wings he bears,
The serpent bright: | but now must I sink.

4 comments on “Ragnarök: Fire, Fate, Fracture, and Flood

  1. […] Ragnarok is on my mind a great deal lately. Obviously the trailers for Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok continue to entertain, but the summer in the southern US is particularly oppressive this year, and the global temperatures this year have remained alarmingly warm. Feels like Surt’s striking up the anvil for the end times. […]


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