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Definition: Ragnarok from The Macquarie Dictionary

Scandinavian Mythology

the destruction of the gods and all things in a great battle with evil powers.

from World Mythology: Handbook of Norse Mythology

Demise of the gods and of the cosmos at the end of the mythological present.

Although most Viking Age poets and modern scholars use the form above, Snorri Sturluson was among those who used the form “Ragnarøkkr” (Twilight-of-the-gods), which became famous as the title of the last opera, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It will do equally well as a designation of the end of the gods’ day on earth.

The most powerful presentation of Ragnarök is that of the Völuspá poet. Depending on where one believes it begins, this section of the poem takes up as much as the last 30 of the 66 stanzas of the poem in the standard editions. In my view it has certainly begun by stanza 39:

She saw wading there through heavy currents
Men who forswore oaths and murderers,
And the one who seduces another’s beloved;
There Nídhögg sucked
the corpses of the departed,
The wolf tore men apart—would you know more?

Stanzas 40 and 41 refer to the loss of the sun and the moon. In stanzas 42-43 mysterious cocks crow the onset of the end, and in 44, which reappears verbatim as 49 and 58, Garm howls and the wolf runs free. In 45 the bonds of kinship break down:

Brothers will fight and kill each other,
Cousins will destroy kinship.
It is hard in the world, much whoredom,
An ax age, a sword age, shields are split,
A wind age, a wolf age, before the world falls;
No man will spare another.

Heimdall sounds the Gjallarhorn, and the world tree Yggdrasil shudders. Giants leave from the east to attack the land of the gods, and the Midgard serpent thrashes in the deep sea. Loki is seen steering a ship from Giantland in the attack.

Picture stone from Smiss, Gotland, showing warriors fighting and ship, possibly depicting fallen warriors’ voyage to the afterlife.

(The Art Archive/Historiska Museet Stockholm/Dagli Orti)

52. Surt travels from the south with the enemy of twigs [fire],
The sun shines from the swords of the carrion-gods,
Mountains resound, and ogresses roam,
Humans tread the road to Hel, and the sky is riven.
53. Then the second sorrow of Hlín [Frigg] occurs,
When Odin goes to fight with the wolf,
And the killer of Beli [Frey] the bright one, against Surt;
Then Frigg’s joy will perish.

Vídar avenges Odin, but still Thor, the mightiest of the gods, has not taken the field. This he does in stanza 56:

Then comes the great son of Hlódyn [Earth],
Odin’s son goes to fight with the wolf;
Strongly strikes the guardian of Midgard,
All men will redden the earth;
Nine paces goes the son of Fjörgyn [Earth]
Exhausted from the snake, unconquered by enmity.

Stone carving from Lindisfarne, England (ninth century c.e.). The procession of warriors is reminiscent of forces gathering for the final battle of Ragnarök.

(Axel Poignant Archive)

The demise of the gods is followed by the demise of the cosmos they had created. The sun turns black, the earth sinks into the sea, smoke and flames lick the sky itself.

But Ragnarök has two parts, and the second involves rebirth. The earth arises from the sea, and a new generation of gods inhabits it. They have reminiscences of their forebears and some mysterious gaming pieces that link them to what went before. Höd and Baldr are there, reconciled, and Hœnir too has survived the conflagration, for he “chooses lot-sticks,” that is, he performs some sort of ritual activity. According to the Hauksbók redaction of the poem, “the powerful one” then comes, and this looks like a reference to the Christian deity.

This tenth-century cross at Gosforth in Cumbria is the largest surviving piece of sculpture in England from before the Norman conquest. It is interlaced with scenes from the crucifixion of Christ as well as scenes from Ragnarök.

(Axel Poignant Archive)

Snorri paraphrases these verses and adds a few details, of which the most salient is the presence of Odin’s sons Vídar and Váli and Thor’s sons Magni and Módi, who will possess Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir, in the new world that follows Ragnarök. Snorri also, following Vafthrúdnismál, says that humans will survive into the new world, through Líf and Lífthrasir.

Besides Völuspá and Snorri, Ragnarök figures in numerous other sources.

See also Game of the Gods; Líf and Lífthrasir; Nídhögg; Völuspá

References and further reading:
  • The study of Ragnarök cited most often is that of Axel Olrik, Ragnarök: Die Sagen vom Weltuntergang, trans. Wilhelm Ranisch (Berlin and Leipzig: W. de Gruyter, 1922), a German translation of two earlier long works in Danish on the subject. It is extremely erudite and fascinates on every page, but its conclusion, that much of the material entered Scandinavia from the Middle East, no longer seems helpful in understanding the mythology as we have it. A study in English, arguing an ultimate association with ritual, is that of John Stanley Martin, Ragnaro¸k: An Investigation into Old Norse Concepts of the Fate of the Gods, Melbourne Monographs in Germanic Studies, 3 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972).
  • Copyright © 2001 by John Lindow

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