Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 18

Central Myths and Legends: Ragnarök

Ragnarök

Though it was debatable whether to include Ragnarök in this chapter, or to place it in Morality, Life & Death and the Practical Enactment of the Mythos in Norse Life20, it is far too crucial to the Norse Tradition to hold back further.

Ragnarök is, in Norse Tradition, a cataclysmic event on the level that would have a devastating effect on all of the nine worlds. Like many mythologies, Ragnarök is prophesied from the beginning. In fact, the gods—even, perhaps especially, Surtr who was sharpening his doom blade before other gods even came into being—are, in one way or another, constantly preparing for this final battle.

As it is prophesized in the Eddas, the pantheon of Norse gods, jötnar, elves, Valkyries and others even knew which way the battle would go, who would die and at whose hands. The main indication that Ragnarök would be imminent was that there would be three winters in a row without summer dividing them. Despite all of this, the beings refused to sit back and let prophecy run its course.

Key Players in Ragnarök: Jörmungandr

Jörmungandr (also Jǫrmungandr or Jormungand) was a giant, four-legged serpent that surrounded the world of Midgard. Often referred to as the Midgard Serpent or the World Serpent, Jörmungandr would play a vital role in the events of Ragnarök.

Jörmungandr was one of the children of Loki by the jötunn Angrboda21, and was of such massive size that it encircled the world of Midgardr entirely. A sea-serpent, Jörmungandr was so large, in fact, that its mouth closed over its own tail. It was said that when Jörmungandr opened its mouth, so would begin Ragnarök.

Jörmungandr was the arch rival of Thor, who, in an attempt to kill the serpent, lowered a fishing line, hooking Jörmungandr. Thor attempted to raise the creature from its depths, but when the jötunn, Hymir, saw the scene, he severed the line in fear that Thor was unwittingly about to call forth Ragnarök.

This wouldn’t be the final conflict between the two, though. During Ragnarök, Jörmungandr would open its mouth, poisoning the sky. During the heat of the battle, Thor would slay the mighty serpent, only to fall dead after taking nine steps, having been poisoned by Jörmungandr.

Key Players in Ragnarök: Fenrir, the Wolf

Fenrir was a great wolf, son of Loki and the jötunn Angrboda. Now, the events of Ragnarok had been foretold, and so the gods were well aware that, unless they could prevent it, Fenrir would come to kill Odin during the final battle.

Although it was also told that Odin’s death would be avenged, the gods set out to change the course of destiny. Sadly, this doesn’t usually work, even in mythology.

What the gods did was to attempt to raise the wolf, themselves, hopefully persuading him to align himself with them at the coming of Ragnarök. This plan changed, though, when the gods witnessed the incredible rate of growth of the mighty creature. Their next gambit was to bind Fenrir, rendering him harmless to Odin and the other gods.

The gods, knowing that Fenrir wouldn’t submit to this measure voluntarily, went to the wolf, telling him that they wanted to play a game—one which would test his strength. Fenrir agreed, and so allowed the gods to chain him up. He quickly burst through the bonds, proud of his might.

The gods tried again, this time, using a heavier chain, but again, Fenrir broke the bonds without much hassle.

It wasn’t until the gods implored the dwarves to create the strongest chains ever created that they had a chance to incapacitate their future foe. The chain was very strong, but was also very light, even soft to the touch. Fenrir, sensing that something was off, said that he would only agree to be bound if one of the gods would place his or her hand in his mouth; thus, if the “game” was, indeed a trick, the gods would pay for their treachery.

As this surely meant that someone was going to lose a hand, the gods were hesitant. Tyr22 (or Týr,) the god of glory, law and justice finally stepped forward, offering his own hand in exchange for the wolf’s trust. Once bound, Fenrir struggled against the chains, but was unable to free himself. He bit the hand from Tyr’s body, but he was already bound, unable to move or free himself.

The Death of Baldur, and the Coming of Ragnarök

Baldur was the son of Odin and his wife Frigg. A god of wholesomeness and light, Baldur was much beloved among the gods.

Little is known of Loki’s motivation, although it is posited that he hated Baldur for his supposed invulnerability (which will be discussed presently,) but what is told in the Tradition is that Loki would have the beloved god killed.

It all started when Baldur had a prophetic dream about some great tragedy which was to befall him. Frightened for his son, Odin swiftly made his way to the land of the dead where dwelled a powerful, but deceased, jötunn seeress named Vafþrúðnir (or Vathruthnir/Vathrudnir.)

Upon Odin’s arrival, he took on a disguise, calling himself Gagnráðr, and woke the seeress. Finding the seeress’s dwelling festooned with decorations, Odin asked Vathruthnir for what purpose the feast was to be held. She immediately responded that Baldur would be arriving soon. This may not have been too shocking a statement, if it weren’t for the fact that the hall was in the land of the dead. The seeress had just confirmed that Odin’s son, Baldur, wasn’t long for the world of the gods of Asgard. The seeress did tell Odin, though, that Baldur would be resurrected after Ragnarök.

Odin returned to Valhalla, his hall within Asgard (much more on that later,) with the news that Baldur was to be killed, Frigg travelled far and wide, making every living thing take an oath that they would not kill or harm Baldur… Everything, that is, except for mistletoe, which the goddess saw as being too innocuous a thing to take such an oath. I think we can see where this is going.

The gods rejoiced in Baldur’s new imperviousness to harm. They even went so far as to entertain themselves by hurling objects at the god, and watching them fall away, leaving Baldur completely unfazed.

Loki, upon seeing this, was overcome with a fit of jealousy. He disguised himself and went before Frigg, asking her if she had actually convinced every living thing to take the oath not to harm her son. Frigg proudly stated that she had, with the exception of mistletoe, as it was too small and pure to hurt anyone. That was the nail in Baldur’s proverbial coffin.

Now armed with the information that mistletoe was the only substance which could possibly cause Baldur harm, Loki collected an amount of it and made a spear from it. He then returned to Asgard, spear in hand, and approached Hod, the blind brother of Baldur.

Although by accident on the part of Hod, the spear was thrust into Baldur’s body, killing him. The gods were shocked. Odin and the jötunn conceived and bore Váli, who grew to full measure within a day of his birth. Once Váli was at full strength, he killed Hod.

Baldur was interned by being set upon a funeral pyre, borne upon a ship. The pyre was set aflame, but Baldur wouldn’t be the only one upon it, as his wife, Nanna threw herself into the flames23.

Loki’s treachery wasn’t over, though. Frigg sent Hermud to try and strike a bargain with Hel to release Baldur from the realm of the dead. Hel, who was joined at the time by a rather morose Baldur, said that if the dead god was so beloved, then every living thing would weep for him, and it was only on the fulfillment of this condition that Hel would agree to return Baldur to Asgard.

The message went out to every creature in all of the worlds, and all wept at the loss of Baldur. All, that is, but Loki, disguised as the jötunn, Thökk (Þökk in the Old Norse.) Having failed, by virtue of Loki’s continued duplicity, Baldur was doomed to remain in Hel, with Hel, until after Ragnarök, when he would be resurrected to rule over all. With Baldur’s death, and the gods’ failure to retrieve him from Hel, the first step in the prophecy of Ragnarök had been fulfilled.

The Binding of Loki, The Final Battle and the Next Beginning

Loki, having finally been discovered for his part in the scheme, fled Asgard. In order to evade his would-be captors, Loki went to the pool at the base of a waterfall and, having turned himself into a salmon, swam within the stream.

As he emerged in order to fashion a net—in order to capture food—by the light of a fire, Odin, though only one-eyed, spotted him in the distance. Loki divined that the Aesir gods were on his trail, and so he leapt back into the water as a salmon, having cast his net into the fire.

Upon finding the fire, and in it, the net, the gods fashioned their own net to catch Loki. He successfully evaded them, time and time again, but was finally caught by Thor as the former leapt from the water, trying to escape.

Now in the gods’ hands, Loki was bound with the entrails of his son, Nari, who had been slain by his other son, Narfi24 who had been transformed into a wolf. The entrails were turned to iron by the gods, but that wasn’t enough punishment for the one who had slain Baldur and, quite literally, brought about the Norse apocalypse. Above his head was hung a venomous snake which dripped poison onto the bound god’s face.

With Loki and Fenrir both bound, the gods enjoyed a moment of relief, but Ragnarök was already on its way.

Three roosters crowed25: One in the forest Gálgviðr, located in Jötunheim, one in Asgard and the last in Hel. Heimdall, keeper of the Gjallarhorn, an instrument whose sole purpose was to announce the onset of Ragnarök, raised the instrument and sounded the alarm. The world tree, Yggdrasil quaked, and Jörmungandr thrashed, his enormity causing enormous waves to rise and crash.

Surtr came from the south, wielding his sword, and the jötnar advanced on Asgard. The Valkyries—whose job it was to select the bravest of the fallen warriors of humanity, one half of which dwell in a state of constant battle in Valhalla, preparing for Ragnarök26—prepared for the onslaught of the jötnar. Meanwhile, the people of Midgard grew ever more destructive toward one another. Perhaps worst of all (with the exception of Surtr’s presence,) Loki and Fenrir broke free of their bonds, the former leading the charge against the Aesirs aboard the ship of the dead. The sky went dark, as the stars disappeared, and Fenrir ran with his lower jaw dragging the ground, his upper jaw above the sky, consuming everything in his path, including the sun and the moon.

The battle was joined, and Odin was almost immediately consumed by Fenrir, as was Tyr. As foretold, Vidar avenged his father’s death by taking the wolf by the jaws and hyper-extending to the point of breakage, finally stabbing the great wolf through the heart.

Freyr and Surtr joined battle with one another, with the bout ending in both of their deaths. Also, Loki met his end at the hands of Heimdall, but not before the former had inflicted a mortal wound upon the latter; thus, they too, killed each other.

Jörmungandr, having released his own tail, rose to Asgard, his mouth open as he unleashed his venom into the air. Thor would kill the serpent, but not before being poisoned himself. He, too, fell dead.

As most of the gods lay dead, the nine worlds sank once more into the water and the nothingness of Ginnungagap reigned once more. Unlike many end-of-times myths, though, the worlds would not be lost forever.

In time, all was recreated with Baldur in charge. All became green and full of life as before. Humanity, which had nearly been eliminated entirely, would be reborn with Lifthrasir and Lif, this time playing the role that Askr and Embla had once played after the first creation of the cosmos. The sun and moon, now the descendants of their predecessors returned to the sky, and all was made new once more.

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