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Ragnarok, the twilight of the Gods — On the Mythology of the Eddas

Ragnarok — the twilight of the Gods

At last the time draws near when the existing universe must perish and the gods must succumb before higher powers. This period is called in the ancient myths the [109} Dissolution or Destin? (rok) of the gods or rulers (ragna, genitive plural of regin); a later form is ragnarøkkr, the Darkness of the Gods. The gods themselves have foreknowledge of its coming, which is foreshadowed by many signs. Evil and violence increase. The Æsir's cock with the golden comb (Gullinkambi) crows to waken the Heroes of Odin's retinue; the dun cock in Hel's keeping crows likewise; so also crows the red cock Fjalar in the world of the Giants; and Garm bays vehemently outside the rocky fastness of Gnipa. For the space of three years the earth is filled with strife and wickedness; brother kills brother for gain's sake, and the son spares not his own father. Then come three other years, like one long winter; everywhere the snow drifts into heaps, the sun yields no warmth, and biting winds blow from all quarters. That winter is known as Fimbul Winter (the Great Winter). The wolf Skoll swallows the sun, and Hati or Manigarm swallows the moon so that the heavens and the air are sprayed with blood. The stars are quenched. The earth and all the mountains tremble; trees are uprooted; all bonds are burst asunder. Both Loki and the Fenris Wolf shake off their shackles. The Midgard Serpent, seeking to reach dry land, swims with such turbulent force that the seas wash over their banks. Now the ship Naglfar once more floats on the flood. The ship is made from dead men's nails, and therefore the nails of all that die should be trimmed before their burial, to the end that Naglfar may be the sooner finished. Loki steers the ship, and the crews of Hell follow him. The Giant Rym comes [110} out from the east, and with him all the Rime-Thursar. The Fenris Wolf rushes forth with gaping maw; his upper jaw touches the heavens, his nether jaw the earth; he would gape still more if there were more room. His eyes are lit with flame. The Midgard Serpent, keeping pace with the Wolf, spews venom over sky and sea. Amidst all the din and clamor the heavens are cleft open, and the Sons of Muspell ride forth from the south with Surt in the van, fires burning before him and behind him. His sword shines brighter than the sun. As they ride out over the bridge Bifrost, it breaks asunder beneath their feet. One and all, the Sons of Muspell, the Fenris Wolf, the Midgard Serpent, Loki, Rym, and all the Rime-Thursar direct their course toward the fields of Vigrid, which measure a hundred miles each way. The Sons of Muspell muster their hosts for battle, and the radiance of their levies gleams far and wide.

Meanwhile, on the part of the Æsir, Heimdal rises to his feet and sounds the Gjallar-Horn with all his might in order to rouse the gods. They meet in assembly and take counsel together. Odin rides to Mimir's Well to seek guidance there. The ash Yggdrasil trembles, and all things in heaven and earth are seized with dread. Æsir and Heroes don their panoplies and march on the fields of Vigrid. Foremost rides Odin, girt with his golden helmet and magnificent byrnie; brandishing his spear Gungnir, he presses on against the Fenris Wolf. At his side walks Thor; but as he soon finds himself in mortal conflict with the Midgard Serpent, he can give no aid [111} to Odin. Frey joins battle with Surt, and Tyr with the dog Garm, who also has broken from his fetters. Heimdal fights against Loki.

Thor in the end kills the Midgard Serpent but is himself able to walk only nine steps after the struggle is over; then he sinks to the ground dead, borne down by the venom spewed over him by the Serpent. The Wolf swallows Odin, and so the god lives no more; but Vidar at once steps into the breach, thrusts one of his feet into the nether jaw of the Wolf, grasps the upper jaw with his hand, and thus tears open the Wolf's throat; his foot is shod with a heavy shoe made from all the slivers of leather that men have cut from their boots at the toe or the heel; consequently men should always cast such patches aside in order that they may serve the uses of the Æsir. [1] Frey falls at the hands of Surt, no longer having at his need the good blade he once gave to Skirnir. Tyr and Garm, and likewise Loki and Heimdal, kill each other.

Thereupon Surt hurls fire broadcast over the whole earth and all things perish. The wild, warlike order passes and a new life begins.

Out of the sea there rises a new earth, green and fair, whose fields bear their increase without the sowing of seed. The sun has borne a daughter as beautiful as herself, and the daughter now guides the course of the sun in her mother's stead. All evil is passed and gone. On the plains of Ida assemble those Æsir who did not fall in the last great battle: Vidar, Vali, and the sons of [112} Thor — Modi and Magni. There resort also Balder and Hod, now returned out of Hell, and there comes Hænir out of Vanaheim. Once again the Æsir make their dwelling on the plains of Ida, where Asgard stood before; in the grass they find scattered the ancient gold chessmen of the gods, and thus they recall to memory the old days and speak together of the vanished past. Now that Thor's battles are done, Modi and Magni fall heir to Mjollnir. Nor are all among mankind dead. Lif and Lifthrasir have saved themselves from the fires of Surt at a place called Hoddmimir's Holt, where they find subsistence in the dews of the morning; from these two spring forth a new race of men. At Gimle stands a hall thatched with gold and brighter than the sun. There a righteous generation shall dwell, in joys that never end. "Then shall come from above the Mighty One, he who governs all things."

  1. Thus runs the story in Snorri's Edda; according to the Voluspá, Vidar kills the Wolf by means of his sword.

On Ragnarok — The twilight of the Gods

Page 112, line 17 — "The Mighty One from above" is mentioned in only a single strophe of the Voluspá (according to many scholars, a later addition to the poem) and in one passage in the so-called Shorter Voluspá (inserted in the Hyndluljóð) which clearly presupposes the strophe in the Voluspá. The last mentioned passage runs as follows: "Then comes another, still more mighty; him I dare not mention by name; few now can look farther into the future than this, that Odin shall meet the Wolf." This notion of a god governing all things may very well go back to later pagan times, when Christian influences had begun to make themselves felt. As harmonizing with this view is probably to be understood what is told of several Icelanders: they believed only in the one god who had created the sun and the earth. Thus we read of Thorkel Mani, a grandson of the Icelandic pioneer Ingolf: when he was about to die, he caused himself to be carried out into the sunlight and there gave himself into the keeping of the god who had created the sun; he had also lived a righteous life, like that of the best of Christians. And Thorstein says of his father Ingemund, after the father has been murdered (Vatnsdœla Saga chapter 23): "He shall have his reward [be avenged] by him who has made the sun and all the earth, whoever he may be."

The account here given of Ragnarok and the regenerated universe follows in the main the narrative of Snorri. His story is built on still extant Eddic poems. The chief source is the Voluspá, but Snorri has used also — and indeed expressly cited — the Vafþrúðnismál and the Grímnismál. In addition he has relied on popular beliefs (Naglfar; Vidar's shoe) which came to him through oral tradition. These sources Snorri has subjected to a [327} process of revision. In certain points his narrative conflicts with the Eddic poems, for example in his mention of Manigarm (see note to p. 4). It is more significant, however, that Snorri refers to a place of punishment for evil men in the new world (the hall on the Strand of Corpses; cf. p. 38). This reference must be charged to Snorri alone. His source is the Voluspá; but there the place of punishment is mentioned before Ragnarok, and in general the description of the regenerated universe in this poem is devoted to presenting a state of eternal felicity which is to be enjoyed not only by the new race of gods but also by the offspring of Lif and Lifthrasir (the indications in the Vafþrúðnismál point in the same direction). There shall be a remedy for all evil, declares the Voluspá; for Balder shall return from Hell.

Snorri's Edda must therefore be regarded as a secondary source so far as it has a bearing in explaining the pagan ideas about Ragnarok. An investigation of this question must be based on the three Eddic poems referred to by Snorri, and in addition on various other sources: hints in several other Eddic poems (Lokasenna, the fettered Wolf, see p. 90; Fáfnismál, the battle on the fields of Vigrid [here called the island Óskópnir, that is, "the not yet created"]; etc.); Skaldic poems (Eiríksmál, cf. note to p. 49, Egil Skallagrimsson's Sonatorrek, Hákonarmál, and others); visible memorials (the Gosforth Cross in Cumberland [Vidar]; Runic crosses in Man, and the like).

All of these sources Axel Olrik has made use of in his exhaustive work, Om Ragnarok (Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed 1902). Very properly Olrik assigns to the Voluspá a distinctive position determined by the very nature of the whole poem. Voluspá, one of the grandest of the Eddic poems, gives a summary view of the whole history of the universe and of the gods, from the first beginnings of things even to far intimations of the sequels to Ragnarok. The verses are put into the mouth of a sibyl or prophetess. She admonishes "all holy kindreds" to give ear while she recites to the Val-Father what has long since befallen and what is to befall in the future. She unfolds vision upon vision, a moving panorama of the origin of the universe, of the creation of the world, of the first epoch of the Æsir, of their golden age, of the great corruption (p. 49), of Balder's death, and of Loki's punishment, and finally of Ragnarok, of the ruin of one universe and the establishment of another. Certain motives appear — especially in the case of the Voluspá (from the very last [328} period of paganism) — which seem to be of Christian origin: the corruption of mankind (?), the Gjallar-Horn as a harbinger of Ragnarok, the darkening of the sun and the falling of the stars, the universal fires, the home of the blessed (on Gimle, see below), the coming of the "Mighty One" (see, however, the beginning of this note). Other Ragnarok-motives are also of Christian origin, according to Axel Olrik, but well known in the Viking age: Loki's release (on Loki = the Devil, see note to p. 25), the hosts of Muspell (see below), possibly also the return of Balder. Finally Olrik has elucidated the connections of the pagan motives outside the North: the swallowing of the sun by sun-wolves (very widespread), the Fimbul Winter (corresponding to something of the kind among the Persians), the sinking of the earth into the sea (Celtic also), the new race of the gods (Celtic), mankind surviving the winter (cf. Persian parallels). Of special significance is the circumstance that the fettered monster released at the last day can be traced to a centre of radiation in the south-east, in the Caucasus, where may be found a multitude of legends relating to giants or beasts held in bonds; in these regions earthquakes are numerous, wherein seems to lie a natural explanation of notions like those which in the North attached themselves to the figure of Loki. A continuation and conclusion for the article cited has been presented by Olrik in Ragnarokforestillingernes udspring (=Danske studier 1913).

The word Muspell is found in old German poetry dating from the earliest Christian times; here the term (mûspilli, mûd-, mûtspelli) is used with reference to the end of the world or a day of doom. The exact meaning is much debated. On the popular beliefs connected with the idea of Naglfar, the nail-ship, see K. Krohn, Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen XII, 1912, p. 154 ff., 317 ff. Rym (Hrymr) no doubt has something to do with the adjective hrumr, "decrepit." The name thus suggests the inclusion of the whole number of Giants, even to those infirm with age. — Surt (connected with svartr) indicates a Giant blackened with fire. In Iceland he has been localized in a mighty subterranean cavern or corridor called Surtshellir, in the county of Myra. Vigrid is the plain where men "ride to battle (víg)"; on another name for it, see above. Lif (the woman's name) means "life" and Lifthrasir (certainly a more correct form than Leif-), "he who holds fast to life." Hoddmimir means "Mimir of the treasure." — Gimle probably may be rendered "gem-lee" (hlé), according to Bugge [329} (Studier I, p. 416 f.) formed as a name for the heavenly Jerusalem, whose "light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal" (Rev. 21. 11).

On the mythology of the Eddas

We may with some justice speak of a system of divinity or a mythology of the Eddas; but this does not mean the same as the actual religion of our forefathers, their systems of belief and worship As to the worship of the gods, we have scattered items of information in ancient written records, of which an account will follow, p 267 ff. Besides, the appendix will contain a summary of the knowledge supplied by Norwegian place names as to the worship of the gods in pagan times. [1] Of the actual belief in the gods, of the fundamental [113} mental forces supporting pagan religious feeling, it is much more difficult to give a searching analysis, since, the materials for an exposition of this character are most various and of a kind which, in the present state of scholarly investigation, would require a series of critical studies at first hand. So far as this phase of the religion of our fathers is concerned, we must rest content with the indications furnished in the foregoing division of the book, on the "Myths of the Gods, or the Mythology Proper." [2] Express emphasis, however, must be laid, on the fact that the particular form assumed by the myths of the gods depends to a great extent on the literary vehicle — be it poem or prose narrative verging on folk tale — by means of which it has been delivered to us.

With reference to both worship and creed it would be necessary, by reason of the nature and the chronological distribution of the sources, to take up the discussion on an historical basis; but a history of Northern religions is still to be written. [3] Such a work cannot be written until some further progress has been made in clearing the ground by separating out the relatively late Christian elements, a task begun by Sophus Bugge in his Studier over de nordiske Gude- og Helte-Sagns [114} Oprindelse (1881-89), and during the present generation carried forward principally by Axel Olrik [4] and Kaarle Krohn (Skandinavisk mytologi, Helsingfors 1922). In the works named, the comparative study of folklore takes a conspicuous place; especially have Finnish borrowings from the Northern peoples proved to have great significance. [5] Much also remains to be done toward a true estimation of the value of Norse literature as source material. The situation in this respect, however, is such that it is possible — and defensible from the standpoint of the history of religion — to attempt an exposition of what may be termed the Norse mythology. The fact is that our principal sources, the poems relating to the gods in the Poetic Edda, together with a group of skaldic poems, present a closely correlated unity as to content, period, and surroundings; [6] under such a unified aspect Snorri viewed the religious poetry from the close of the pagan era, principally the tenth century, and on it he built his consecutive presentation in the Gylfaginning, the first section of his Edda. It is of great importance that we keep clearly in mind the position occupied [115} by the two Eddas in the intellectual life of the Norse race. [7]

Now that we have given an orderly view of the mythology of our forefathers, some mention should be made of the chief sources from which the account has been drawn. These are, as often pointed out, the two Eddas. One of the two, Snorri's Edda, dates back no farther than the thirteenth century. It is a learned work intended as a handbook for skalds, wherein they might find easy access to the ancient mythology forming a basis for the poetic phraseology of the time; in the course of our discussion occasional examples have been given of skaldic kennings based on the myths of the gods. Snorri thus had the task of collecting and re-telling all of the myths known to his day; and it is clear that his sources were of three kinds: various poems preserved in the Poetic Edda, other poetry and skaldic verses, and finally nonmetrical tales that had run current in popular tradition. But since his work was begun several centuries after the pagan faith had died out, there is reason to believe that the myths of the last class especially had not come down in their original form. At any rate, there is no certainty in the matter. And inasmuch as Snorri was not content with re-telling the individual myths, but also in great measure gave them a systematic arrangement of his own, his personal interpretation of the vague myths must have influenced his treatment of the whole. [116}

The second principal source of our knowledge of the ancient mythology is the collection of poems known as the Poetic Edda. These poems no doubt possess greater authority for the purpose than Snorri's Edda; but even they do not come from a period when the ancient faith flourished in its fullest energy. They belong to the Viking Age, to an era during which the Northern peoples maintained the liveliest relations with the outside world; and during those last centuries of paganism — as also in earlier times, when communication with nations of a superior cultivation was by no means slight — the Northern races surely received impulses from without which must have affected various elements in their mythology. [8] Great care must therefore be exercised in seeking ancient native material in the myths of the Eddas. The warlike spirit which marked the Viking Age (a spirit which was by no means wanting in the preceding period) doubtless was very influential in making the mythology of the Eddas take on the coloring of a religion for warriors. It is only the fallen warrior who is received into the company of the Heroes in Valhalla, and not even death itself puts an end to the life of battle; the war-god Odin is of all gods the king, in comparison with whom the other gods take subordinate rank. Moreover, the evidence of the sagas goes to show that the Viking Age was an era of intellectual ferment during which many men gave up their faith in the deities of old, and put their trust in their own right arms instead; a rational movement of this type must have had a strong influence [117} on the poetic elaborations of the mythology which sprang up during this period. The gods of paganism are without exception created in the image of man; and the Norse Asa-religion is to so great a degree an expression of the Viking Age that it may well be regarded as bearing in significant particulars the plain impress of the period.

To discover, in the next place, to what extent the religion of our forefathers may be primitive and domestic in origin, recourse must perhaps be had especially to indications lying outside the range of the Eddic mythology itself. Place names and cult reminiscences surviving in later folk custom and folk beliefs provide a great deal of information. [9] To a less degree, literary sources other than those purely Norse, are of value. [10] One of the most important of these sources is the chapter in Tacitus's Germania containing the account of the worship of Nerthus (Njord); this passage gives us, when compared with other later materials, [11] glimpses of a distant past when culture divinities had the foremost place in public worship The worship of these gods maintained itself till paganism was extinct, and even then had force enough to perpetuate itself in newer popular customs; but these gods had only a slight attraction for the poets of the Edda. [12] Another important source is Adam of Bremen's account (The History of the Bishops of [118} Hamburg> IV, 26-27) of the gods of the temple at Uppsala in the eleventh century, probably based on the description of an eyewitness, Sven Ulvsson: "In this temple the people bow down before the images of three gods so arranged that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the centre, on one side of him Wodan (Odin), and on the other side Fricco (Frey). Thor governs the air and rules over thunder and lightning, wind and rain, fair weather and harvests. The second, Wodan, that is, the raging one, makes war and gives men courage in the face of the enemy. The third is Fricco, who grants peace and delight to mortals; his image sometimes is represented with a large phallus. Wodan they present armed, as we are accustomed to present Mars. To Thor, on the other hand, wielding a sceptre, they give the appearance of Jupiter. They also worship gods whose origin was human, men who for their mighty deeds have been immortalized. All of the gods have their several priests, who make offerings on behalf of the people. In case of threatening pestilence or famine, sacrifices are offered to Thor; in case of impending war, to Wodan; when weddings are to be celebrated, . . . sacrifice is made to Fricco. The common sacrificial festival of all the Swedes together is held each ninth year in Uppsala."

This passage shows how the worship of the Swedes differed from that which has been delivered to us through the tradition of the Eddas. Great interest attaches to the circumstance that Thor here is definitely represented as the god of fruitfulness. [13] For the [119} rest, literature outside of the Norse domains supplies only the sparsest references to faith and worship The surviving evidences are for the most part limited to a mere recital of the names of the various divinities; one of the very few exceptions is to be found in the myth about Wodan, Frea, and the origin of the name of the Longobards. [14]

  1. This appendix on Norwegian place names, pp 210-44 of the original, is omitted in the present translation. —Translator's note.
  2. In general, reference may be made to V. Grønbech, Vor folkeæt i oldtiden (Our Race in Antiquity), particularly vol. III (Hellighed og helligdom: Holiness and Sanctuary) and vol. IV (Menneskelivet og guderne: Human Life and the Gods), Copenhagen, 1912; cf. the same author's Religionsskiftet i Norden (The Change of Religion in the Northern Countries), Copenhagen, 1913.
  3. Cf., however, Karl Helm, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte I, Heidelberg, 1913, of which up to the present time only the period down to the "Roman era" has been published.
  4. Cf. note to p 112.
  5. Cf. J. Fritzner, Lappernes Hedenskab og Trolddomskunst sammenholdt med andre Folks, især Nordmændenes Tro og Overtro, in [Norsk] Historisk Tidsskrift IV, 1877, p 135 ff.; Axel Olrik, Nordisk og lappisk gudsdyrkelse in Danske studier 1905, p 39 ff.; Wolf von Unwerth, Untersuchungen über Totenkult und Odinnverehrung bei Nordgermanen and Lappen (Germanistische Abhandlungen 37), Breslau, 1911; Kaarle Krohn, Skandinavisk mytologi. Cf. the literature cited in the notes to p 16, p 25, line 7 p 86.
  6. Cf. A. Olrik, Eddamytologien (Nordisk tidsskrift 1917, p 81 ff.).
  7. Cf. Finnur Jónsson, Den oldnorske og oldislandske litteraturs historie, 2nd ed., vol. I, 1920 (on the literary history of the Eddic poems).
  8. See notes to p 7; top 25, line 7; to p 86; and to p 112.
  9. Cf. Gudmund Schütte, Hjemligt Hedenskab i almenfattelig Fremstilling, Copenhagen 1919.
  10. Cf. pp ix-xii.
  11. See note to p 16.
  12. See, however, p 17; and Skírnismál
  13. Cf. p.12 and note to p 65.
  14. See note to p 27.


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