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Thor’s Day Alert #29: Ragnarok, part one

Happy Thor’s Day, everybody!

If it’s true that all good things come to an end, it’s especially true in Norse mythology. The good news? While some things end with a whimper, Norse myth ends with a bang. A bang called Ragnarok.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a prophecied time in which the Norse gods meet their doom in a cataclysmic battle against their age-old foes, the giants. If you’ve ever heard the term “Twilight of the Gods”, it refers to the age of Ragnarok. In popular culture, Ragnarok is often casually (some might say mistakenly) used as a name for the final battle itself. But Ragnarok is an age or era — a myth cycle marking the end of the world.

In Thor’s Day Alert #14 I wrote about the Fimbulvetr age, literally the terrible winter which presages Ragnarok. For your enjoyment, here’s what follows that passage and brings us to the meat of the Ragnarok story as told in the Prose Edda and translated by Jean I. Young:

‘Then will occur what will seem a great piece of news, the wolf will swallow the sun and that will seem a great disaster to men. Then another wolf will seize the moon and that one too will do great harm. The stars will disappear from heaven. Then this will come to pass, the whole surface of the earth will tremble so [violently] that trees will be uprooted from the ground, mountains will crash down, and all fetters and bonds will be snapped and severed. The wolf Fenrir will get loose then. The sea will lash against the land because the Midgard Serpent is writhing in giant fury trying to come ashore.

‘At that time, too, the ship known as Naglfar will become free. It is made of dead men’s nails, so it is worth warning you that, if anyone dies with his nails uncut, he will greatly increase the material for that ship which both gods and men devoutly hope will take a long time building. In this tidal wave, however, Naglfar will be launched. The name of the giant steering Naglfar is Hrym. The wolf Fenrir will advance with wide open mouth, his upper jaw against the sky, his lower on the earth (he would gape more widely still if there were room) and his eyes and nostrils will blaze with fire. The Midgard Serpent will blow so much poison that the whole sky and sea will be spattered with it; he is most terrible and will be on the other side of the wolf.

‘In this din the sky will be rent asunder and the sons of Muspell ride forth from it. Surt will ride first and with him fire blazing both before and behind. He has a very good sword and it shines more brightly than the sun. When they ride over Bifrost, however — as has been said before — that bridge will break. The sons of Muspell will push forward to the plain called Vigrid and the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent will go there too. Loki and Hrym with all the frost giants will also be there by then, and all the family of Hel will accompany Loki. The sons of Muspell, however, will form a host in themselves and that a very bright one. The plain Vigrid is a hundred and twenty leagues in every direction.

‘When these things are happening, Heimdall will stand up and blow a great blast on the horn Gjoll and awaken all the gods and they will hold an assembly. Then Odin will ride to Mimir’s spring and ask Mimir’s advice for himself and his company. The ash Yggdrasil will tremble and nothing in heaven or earth will be free from fear. The Aesir and all the Einherjar will arm themselves and press forward on to the plain. Odin will ride first in a helmet of gold and a beautiful coat of mail and with his spear Gungnir, and he will make for the wolf Fenrir. Thor will advance at his side but will be unable to help him, because he will have his hands full fighting the Midgard Serpent. Frey will fight against Surt and it will be a hard conflict before Frey falls; the loss of the good sword that he gave to Skirnir will bring about his death. Then the hound Garm, which was bound in front of Gnipahellir, will also get free; he is the worst sort of monster. He will batlle with Tyr and each will kill the other.

Thor will slay the Midgard Serpent but stagger back only nine paces before he falls down dead, on account of the poison blown on him by the serpent. The wolf will swallow Odin and that will be his death. Immediately afterwards, however, Vidar will stride forward and place one foot on the lower jaw of the wolf. On this foot he will be wearing the shoe which has been in the making since the beginning of time; it consists of the strips of leather men pare off at the toes and heels of their shoes, and for this reason people who want to help the Aesir must throw away these strips. Vidar will take the wolf’s upper jaw in one hand and tear his throat asunder and that will be the wolf’s death. Loki will battle with Heimdall and each will kill the other. Thereupon Surt will fling fire over the earth and burn up the whole world.

That’s all for today. I’ll continue the Ragnarok tale in my next Thor’s Day post on July 30. (Don’t forget to stop by for the next Tuesday Althing on July 28.) The next section contains actual skaldic verse, so you won’t want to miss it!

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4 responses

  1. dpf'smom

    The ragnarok writings make me think of Revelations–end-day prophecy I guess. Were the Revelations authors of the middle east influenced at some point or was apocolyptic writing a common genre? Your expertise is amazing to me.

    July 20, 2009 at 3:55 pm

  2. Spoken like a true mom! (What’s up, Ma?) No expertise here — just kinda reporting and relating.

    I don’t know much about influences on Revelations or apocryphal writing in general, but I seem to remember that fire and flood and the destruction of the world are elements not unique to Christianity and Norse heathenism. Of interest, though, is that Iranian mythology shares certain elements with the Ragnarok myth: a terrible winter and the belief that fingernail trimmings should be looked after lest they be put to use by evil forces.

    July 20, 2009 at 6:39 pm

  3. Pingback: Thor’s Day Alert #30: Ragnarok, part two « STORM OF THE NORTH

  4. Pingback: Thor’s Day Alert #31: Ragnarok, part three « STORM OF THE NORTH

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