Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve either seen the trailers or at least heard of the movie Thor: Ragnarok, which is about to take over your local movie theater. And unless you’re surprisingly familiar with Norse mythology, you may have found yourself wondering exactly what “Ragnarok” is. Well fear not – we’re here to tell you.
Almost every major religion talks about the end of times in one form or another. This is a moment sometime in the future when everything that exists, or has ever existed, will disappear in a sort of cataclysmic event. Christianity and Islam have Judgment Day, Judaism has Acharit hayamim, Buddhism has the Sermon of the Seven Suns, Hinduism has the Story of Avatars and the Man on the Horse, the Aztecs believed in the Five Suns, and the Norsemen had Ragnarok. Of course, with more and more people no longer believing in religion, it would seem that we’re finally safe from these “end of the world” scenarios, right? Well, not exactly.
Even science, the “thing” that has arguably taken the place of religion in many of these people’s minds, points to the end of the universe sometime in the (far) future. So, it seems that both religion and science have some common ground after all, although in this case we’re not sure we should be high-fiving about it. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Let’s take a look at what the Vikings believed the “end of times” to be, and the events that would herald in Ragnarok, or “twilight of the gods.”
10. What did the “Viking world” look like?
Even though it’s fun to read about Norse mythology, we have to accept the fact that we’ll probably never fully understand it. Not just because we don’t know all the “facts” and details about it, but because we weren’t there; we’re not part of that world. Society has changed beyond recognition since the time of the Vikings, and the values and ideals that go with it are not the same. Not really, anyway. We have to accept the fact that, while we perceive the Viking mythology, or any other mythology for that matter, as nothing more than mere stories, for most of the Norsemen back then this was reality. These stories were as real to them as the swords and axes in their hands, the endless forests of the world, and the “monsters” that lived within them.
The Vikings, as part of a larger group of Germanic peoples who came to Europe long ago, believed that the universe was divided into Nine Worlds, each inhabited by a race of beings. While humans lived in Midgard, one of the Nine Worlds, the gods, giants, elves, dwarves, and the dead lived in the others. The other worlds, though invisible in the “real” world, had their representations in Midgard. Jotunheim for example, the world of giants, was represented by the wilderness. Asgard, home of the gods, was represented by the sky, and Helheim, the land of the dead, by the underground. All of these worlds were supported onto the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The tree was a common theme found throughout the entire Germanic world and represented a means of traveling between the nine worlds. Its name translates to “the ash tree of the horse of Yggr.” And Yggr was a byname of Odin’s which itself translates to “The Terrible One.” Odin would often ride his horse Sleipnir on Yggdrasil, visiting these places.
And here’s where the Germanic mythology gets really interesting. This world tree, which sits at the center of the cosmos, grows from the Well of Urd. The word Urd translates to “destiny.” And the water in this well is what nourishes and keeps Yggdrasil and all the worlds on it alive. The most intriguing part here, and key to understanding Ragnarok, is between the Well of Urd and Yggdrasil. As the water travels up the tree, nourishing it, it then falls back into the well in the form of dew. This water cycle is associated with time and how those people perceived it. The Vikings didn’t believe that Ragnarok was an actual “end of times” but rather a rebirth of the world. What’s more, it shows that the actions of everyone in the present affect the past, thus changing the present again in an endless and ever-changing cycle of destruction and rebirth.
9. What is Ragnarok, really?
Ragnarok was the moment when the world came to an end in the Norse mythology. It literally translates to “The Doom of the Gods” or “The Twilight of the Gods.” But even if these two phrases sound almost the same, they are not synonymous. While the first one is a straightforward explanation, hinting at an actual end, the second one has a more in-depth meaning. Many scholars throughout the centuries have tried to link the Viking Ragnarok with the Christian Apocalypse. But as we’ve seen above, this was not the case. Unlike the Christian way of thinking where time is linear, Norsemen saw the world in cycles. Ragnarok isn’t an actual “doom” but rather a reboot where the world is renewed and takes on the shape dictated by the actions and decisions of all the living things the last time around, but at the same time still being part of the present. Complicated, we know!
And since the Viking world was cyclical, this isn’t the first or the last Ragnarok, but rather an endless cycle of destruction and creation; the two faces of the same coin, as it were. The Norsemen observed these endless cycles everywhere in nature – in the seasons, in day and night, the life and death of every living being – and came to the conclusion that these are just smaller cycles within bigger ones. This particular worldview isn’t something that science today necessarily excludes, and is backed by the cyclic universe theory. It is, nevertheless, important to note that since the Vikings did not see time in its linear form as we do today, they didn’t have a concept of an actual “future.”
Similar to the Fates of ancient Greece, which controlled the thread of all life and time, the Norsemen had the Norns. And like the Fates, the Norns were far more powerful than even the gods themselves. But unlike their Greek counterparts, the Norns’ power wasn’t absolute. They were the ones who “carved” the initial destinies of everything and everyone into the bark of Yggdrasil, but each living being had the power to change their destiny to a certain degree. But even with this limited power, the proverbial “what shall be” was still written down and there were known signs that would herald the coming of Ragnarok.
8. The First Sign of Ragnarok
Like with every other “doomsday” event, there are signs that mark the start of Ragnarok. These prophecies had long been foretold to the Vikings, and one of them had already happened. This was the death of their beloved god Baldur at the hands of Loki. Baldur was the son of Odin and the goddess Frigg. In a sense, Baldur personified all things beautiful in life, when they are at their most powerful. His death, however, signified the end of this period, just as summer turns to autumn and then winter, coming ever closer to the event known as Ragnarok. In an ironic twist of fate, before his death, Baldur had some ominous dreams prophesizing his demise. In order to somehow thwart this unfortunate turn of events, his mother Frigg obtained protections from every one and every thing so they could not harm Baldur. Everything with the exception of the mistletoe.
Hearing of this, Loki devised a plan to have Baldur killed. While the other gods were amusing themselves by throwing anything that they could get their hands on at Baldur and seeing their projectiles bounce off of him to no effect, Loki went and made a spear out of mistletoe. He then gave it to the blind and somewhat gullible god Hodr, telling him to join in the fun. With the help of Loki, Hodr threw the spear at Baldur, killing him on the spot. Hermod, Baldur’s brother, was then sent to the goddess of the underworld, Hel, in order to plead for his brother’s return. She told him that if everything in the Nine Worlds will mourn the passing of Baldur, she would return him. While messengers were spreading this news all over, telling them of what had happened, Loki disguised himself as the giantess Tokk and told the messengers, “Let Hel hold what she has!” So, maybe if Baldur didn’t have those prophetic dreams in the first place, none of this would have happened.
7. Odin’s Chosen – The Einherjar
The Einherjar, or literally “those who fight alone,” were Odin’s elite, chosen to fight alongside him when the time inevitably came. Even though the gods knew about their own unfortunate end, they still diligently prepared for Ragnarok. Every Viking who fell in battle would be taken by Valkyries to Valhalla in the Underworld where they would await the “end of days.” This is something what each true Viking hoped to achieve during his lifetime – to die honorably in battle and stand beside his valiant comrades and their mighty god Odin in the final battle against the giants.
It is possible that not all Viking warriors who died in battle joined Odin in Valhalla, and only the bravest and those who were considered to be “elite” ended up there. The rest might have been sent to Freya’s Hall, Folkvang, or “the field of warriors.” This theory is still debated today by scholars, but both places could actually refer the same thing. But because of the lack of viable sources, we might never know for sure.
Nevertheless, while in Valhalla, the warriors would engage in battle all day with each other to sharpen their skills, but every evening their wounds would miraculously heal. And after every battle, they would dine in the mighty halls of Valhalla, eating the meat of Saehrimnir, a boar that came back to life every time it was butchered, and drinking the mead from the udder of the goat Heidrun, all the while being waited on by the Valkyries. But even though these valiant warriors would undoubtedly show their prowess in battle during Ragnarok, they would inevitably suffer the same fate as their mighty gods and the entire cosmos alongside them.
6. Fimbulwinter and the Other Ominous Signs
Baldur’s death, mentioned above, was only the first sign that Ragnarok was drawing near. The others had not yet come to pass. The second sign was to present itself in the form of a severe winter, which would last for three continuous years without any summers in between. Known as the Fimbulvetr or Fimbulwinter (The Great Winter), this would be a period of incredible hardships for everyone living in Midgard. Over these three years, no crops would grow, all food would be depleted, and the entire Earth would descend into chaos. Brother would fight brother, all morals and principles would fade away, and there would be wars without end. Next, there would be two wolves, or possibly the terrifying Fenrir himself, which would swallow the Sun and the Moon, as well as all the stars with them, plunging the world into complete darkness.
In the meantime, three beautiful red roosters would announce the coming of Ragnarok to the rest of the worlds. One of these roosters, Fjalar – or the “All knower” – would call upon the giants. Gullinkambi would announce the start of Ragnarok in Asgard, warning the gods. And in Hel, a third rooster would call upon the dead, telling them that the war had started. When the giant army lead by Loki started crossing Bifrost, the rainbow bridge which connects Asgard with Midgard, the ever-watchful guardian of the god’s stronghold, Heimdall, would blow on Gjallarhorn (Resounding Horn), calling both the gods and the Einherjar into action. The two armies would meet on the fields of Vigrid, the place where the battle to end all battles will take place.
5. Freyr and Surt
In the events of Ragnarok, many of the gods as well as the giants will be killed. Two equally matched combatants in this apocalyptic battle will be Freyr, the god of fertility, wealth, bountiful harvests, and peace, against Surt, the leader of the fire giants. Surt, meaning “Black” due of his charred look, comes from Muspelheim, one of the Nine Worlds, and home of the fire giants. Surt wields a terrible fire sword, which will burn the entire world before it sinks beneath the waves. This giant is associated with the volcanic fire of the underworld and is regarded for his power of destruction. Given Iceland’s volcanic heritage, it is no surprise that Surt is seen as one of the major antagonists during Ragnarok.
Freyr, on the other hand, “the foremost of the gods” and “hated by none” has his home in Alfheim, the world of the elves. Though whether he’s the ruler of the elves or their patron god is unknown, given the scarcity of information we have about this particular world. Freyr belongs to the Vanir tribe of gods, as opposed to the Aesir tribe to which Odin, Thor, Tyr, Loki, Baldur, and Heimdall (among others) belong. But even so, Freyr was held in high regard by the Vikings, being a frequent recipient of sacrifices as well as honored during marriages or annual harvests. The abundance he provided was symbolized by the boar, and his virility and fertility by his erect phallus. During the events of Ragnarok, Freyr and Surt kill each other in an epic battle right before the whole cosmos is destroyed.
4. Odin, Fenrir and Vidar
Without a doubt, Odin, the chief of the Aesir tribe and ruler of Asgard, is one of the most complex and intriguing characters in the whole Norse pantheon. He is the patron of both rulers and outcasts. He’s also the giver of wisdom, but with little regard for fairness, justice and the law. He was praised for his honor, prestige, and nobility, all the while being hated for his trickeries. He is, in a sense, the god of extremes, as well as everything in between; a sort of divine “gray area.” He symbolizes the force that animates all life, giving it the power to flourish and overcome stagnation. His name translates to “Master of Ecstasy.” Unlike monotheistic religions where the god is all-knowing and all-powerful, the polytheistic deities are nothing of the sort. And Odin is a manifestation of this imperfection and its strive toward betterment at whatever the cost. In any case, during Ragnarok, he is killed in battle by Fenrir (“He Who Dwells in the Marshes”), the terrifying wolf and son of Loki.
Before the events of Ragnarok, Fenrir, while still a pup and growing up in Asgard, was tricked by the gods into being permanently chained up in order to not wreak havoc onto the Nine Worlds. With the help of the dwarves, the gods made a chain imbued with magical powers which would be strong enough to keep him bound. But in the process, the god Tyr lost his hand to Fenrir. A sword was also placed within his mouth to keep it pried open. With the coming of Ragnarok, however, Fenrir breaks free, eating everything in the cosmos and killing Odin in the process. In order to avenge his father’s death, Vidar, one of Odin’s youngest sons, kills Fenrir. By making use of a magically imbued shoe (yes, seriously), Vidar is able to pry open Fenrir’s jaw and with the use of his sword, slash the wolf’s mouth into pieces, killing him. Although sometimes called “the silent god,” Vidar was said to be among the most powerful gods, second only to his mighty brother Thor. Vidar is also one of the few gods who managed to survive Ragnarok.
3. Loki and Heimdall
In the great battle of Ragnarok, Heimdall and Loki meet and inevitably kill each other. Heimdall, as we’ve seen before, is the guardian of Asgard and the one who announces the start of Ragnarok. In the Old Norse poetry, Heimdall is seen as the father of all humankind and the one who established the hierarchical structure in the Viking society. He is the son of Odin and nine mothers whose names are not known. He is forever vigilant, living in Himinbjörg (“Sky Cliffs”), right on top of the rainbow bridge. He needs little to no sleep and has keen eyesight, able to see for hundreds of miles, both at night and during the day. His hearing is equally as good, being able to listen to the grass grow.
In contrast to Heimdall’s resolute duty and determination is Loki, the god of mischief. Though he is considered as one of the Aesir, Loki is the son of the giant Fárbauti (“Cruel Striker”) and his mother, Laufey, who’s possibly a giantess, a goddess, or even something else entirely. Loki is also the father of the wolf Fenrir, the sea serpent Jormungand, the goddess of the underworld Hel, and the mother to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. His character is almost as contradicting as Odin’s, being sometimes playful and helpful to the gods, but also malicious and vengeful.
Depending on the situation, Loki is found to help the gods, but also the giants. He’s not necessarily evil, but not good either. Loki is always interested in amusing himself at the expense of others and is always looking for his own self-preservation. He inevitably ends up sharing Fenrir’s fate by being tied up inside a cave for his many misdeeds. A venomous serpent is placed above his head, from whose mouth venom continuously drips on Loki. His devoted wife, Sigyn, sits by him with a bowl in hand and catches the venom. But when the bowl is full, she has to leave her husband’s side and discard it, at which point Loki contorts in agony, creating earthquakes. With the coming of Ragnarok, he is freed and takes the side of the giants in the final battle.
2. Thor and Jormungand
Another pair that will meet their ends at the hands of each other during Ragnarok are Thor and Jormungand, or “Great Beast.” And this will not the first time these two almost came into conflict with each other. While on a fishing expedition, Thor tried to lure the giant serpent Jormungand out of the depths. But once its head was out of the water, the giant Hymir cut the line in fear of Ragnarok starting then and there. Nevertheless, their chance to battle came with actual Ragnarok. Jormungand was one of Loki’s sons, and the giant serpent lived at the bottom of the ocean and encircled the entirety of Midgard underneath the waves. He was often attributed as the cause of earthquakes across the Germanic world.
His nemesis, Thor, was the son of Odin, the guardian of Asgard and the most powerful of the gods. He stood for the warrior class, and most common Vikings tried to emulate his bravery and strength. This reverence for him by the common classes in Norse society can also be seen in the strained and uneasy relationship between Thor and his father Odin, who appealed more to the elite, the outcasts, and the wise men. Thor came to prominence during the Norse Bronze Age alongside blacksmithing. His name stands for “Thunder” while his famous hammer, Mjöllnir, means “Lightning.” Thor is also known to wear a magical belt of incredible power, which undoubtedly helped make him the strongest of the gods.
1. The World Reborn
In the aftermath of Ragnarok, most of the gods and giants will kill each other. All humans are now gone, with the exception of Lif (“Life”) and Liftraser (“The One Striving after Life”), who found refuge in Hoddmimir’s forest, and who will repopulate the new world. As Ragnarok was drawing to an end, Midgard plunged into the ocean, only to resurface green and fertile once more. Similarly, the creation myth also started with two humans, Ask and Embla, who inhabited Midgard in the beginning. The few remaining gods, Vidar, Vali and Honir, among others, go on and inhabit Idavoll, a green garden in Asgard which remained unaffected. Modi and Magni, Thor’s surviving sons, will inherit their father’s hammer. Baldur also returned from Helheim after Ragnarok.
Nevertheless, there will also be a horrible place in the world called Nastrond (“Shore of Corpses”). It will be facing north towards the freezing and screaming winds and its walls will be made of snakes that pour their venom into the river running through the hall. This will be the new underworld and the home of the fierce dragon Nidhug (“Malice Striker”), who will gnaw on the bodies of all the thieves and murderers that end up there.
So yes, we’re smelling a Thor: Ragnarok sequel, too.