Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ragnarök

In Norse mythology, Ragnarök (fate of the gods[1]) is the battle at the end of the world. It would supposedly be waged between the gods (the Æsir, led by Odin) and their aggressors (the fire giants, the Jotuns and various monsters, led by Loki). Not only will some of the gods, giants, and monsters perish in this apocalyptic conflagration, but almost everything in the universe will be torn asunder.

In Viking warrior societies, dying in battle is admirable. This is carried over into the worship of a pantheon in which the gods themselves will one day be overthrown at Ragnarök. Exactly what will happen, who will fight whom, and the fates of the participants in this battle are well known to the Norse peoples from their own sagas and skaldic poetry. The Völuspá (Prophecy of the völva (sybil)), the first lay of the Poetic Edda, dating from about 1000 AD, spans the history of the gods, from the beginning of time to Ragnarök, in 65 stanzas. The Prose Edda, written two centuries later by Snorri Sturluson, describes in detail what would take place before, during, and even after the battle.

What is unique about Ragnarök as an eschatological myth is its emphasis on the idea that the gods already know through prophecy what is going to happen: when the event will occur, who will be slain by whom, and so forth. They even realize that they are powerless to prevent Ragnarök. But they will still bravely and defiantly face their bleak destiny. This is thought by many scholars to represent the ordered world (the Æsir) eventually succumbing the unavoidable forces of chaos and entropy (the Giants). This is similar to the representation of the monsterous children of Uranus in Greek mythology as the primordeal forces of chaos.

The word Ragnarök is derived from the Old Norse word Ragnarök, which consists of two parts: ragna is the genitive plural of regin ("gods" or "ruling powers"), while rök means "fate", etymologically related to English "reach". Also spelled Ragnarøkkr, Ragnarøk.

Prelude

Below are the main events that signify the approach of Ragnarök:

  1. the birth of three most evil and powerful creatures, the offspring of Loki and Angerboda, namely Jörmungandr, Fenrir and Hel, and the gods' action to confine them;
  2. the death of Baldr, and the binding of Loki.
  3. Fimbulwinter

Portents

Ragnarök will be preceded by the Fimbulwinter, the winter of winters. Three successive winters will follow each other with no summer in between. As a result, conflicts and feuds will break out, and all morality will disappear.

The wolf Skoll and his brother Hati will finally devour Sol (the Sun) and her brother Mani (the Moon) respectively, after a perpetual chase. The stars will vanish from the sky, plunging the earth into darkness.

The earth will shudder, so violently that trees will be uprooted, and mountains will fall, and every bond and fetter will snap and sever, freeing Loki and his son Fenrir. This terrible wolf's slavering mouth will gape wide open, so wide that his lower jaw scrapes against the ground and his upper jaw presses against the sky. He will gape even more widely if there is room. Flames will dance in his eye and leap from his nostrils.

Eggther, watchman of the Jotuns, will sit on his grave mound and strum his harp, smiling grimly. The red cock Fjalar will crow to the giants and the golden cock Gullinkambi will crow to the gods. A third cock[2], rust red, will raise the dead in Hel.

Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent, will rise from the deep ocean bed to proceed towards the land, twisting and writhing in fury on his way, causing the seas to rear up and lash against the land. With every breath, the serpent will spew venom, staining the earth and the sky in poison.

From the east, the army of Jotuns, led by Hrym, will leave their home in Jotunheim and sail the grisly ship Naglfar (made from the nails of dead men), which will be set free by the tsunami and flooding caused by Jörmungandr, towards the battlefield of Vigrid (Óskópnir).

From the north, a second ship will set sail towards Vigrid, with Loki, now unbound, as the helmsman, and Hel, with all those from her realm by the same name, as the deadweight.

The world will be in uproar, the air will quake with booms, blares and echoes. Amid this turmoil, the fire giants of Muspelheim, led by Surtr, will advance from the south and tear apart the sky itself as they too, close in on Vigrid, leaving everything in their path going up in flames. As they ride over Bifröst, the rainbow bridge will crack and break behind them. Garm, the hellhound bound in front of Gnipahellir, will also get free. He will join the fire giants in their way towards Vigrid.

So all the Jotuns and all the inmates of Hel, Fenrir, Jörmungandr, Garm, Hel, Surtr and the blazing sons of Muspelheim, will gather on Vigrid. They will all but fill that plain that stretches one hundred and twenty leagues in every direction.

Meanwhile, Heimdall, being the first of the gods to see the enemies approaching, will blow his Giallar horn, sounding such a blast that it will be heard throughout the nine worlds. All the Gods will wake and at once meet in council. Then Odin will mount Sleipnir and gallop to Mímir's spring and consult Mímir on his own and his people's behalf.

Then, Yggdrasil, the world tree (the Milky Way being its upper branches), will shake from root to summit. Everything in earth and heaven and Hel will quiver. All Æsir and Einherjar will don their battle dresses. This vast host (432,000 Einherjar - 800 from each of Valhalla's 540 gates) will march towards Vigrid and Odin will ride at their head, wearing a golden helmet and a shining corselet, brandishing Gungnir.

The final battle

Odin is devoured by Fenrir.
Enlarge
Odin is devoured by Fenrir.

Odin will make straight for Fenrir; and Thor, right beside him, will be unable to help because Jörmungand, his old enemy, will at once attack him. Freyr will fight the fire giant Surtr, but will become the first of all gods to lose as he has given his own good sword to his servant Skírnir. It will still be a long struggle though, before Freyr will succumb. Tyr will battle Garm and both will slay the other. Likewise, Heimdall will fight Loki and neither will survive the evenly matched encounter. Thor will kill Jörmungandr with his hammer Mjollnir, but only be able to stagger back nine steps before falling dead himself, poisoned by the venom that Jörmungandr spews over him. Odin will fight with his mighty spear Gungnir against Fenrir but will finally be eaten by the wolf after a long battle. To avenge his father, Vidar will immediately come forward and place one foot on the wolf's lower jaw. On this foot he will be wearing the shoe which he has been making since the beginning of time; it consists of the strips of leather which men pare off at the toes and heels of their shoes. With one hand he will grasp the wolf's upper jaw and tear its throat asunder, killing it at last.

Then, Surtr will burn all Nine worlds with fire. Death will come to all manner of things. Fumes will reek and flames will burst, scorching the sky with fire. The earth will sink into the sea.

Aftermath

Barley will ripen in fields that were never sown. The meadow Idavoll, in the now-destroyed Asgard, will have been spared. The sun will reappear as Sol before being swallowed by Skoll, who will give birth to a daughter as fair as she herself. This maiden daughter will pursue her mother's road in the new sky.

A few gods will survive the ordeal: Odin's brother Vili, Odin's sons Vidar and Váli, Thor's sons Móði and Magni, who will inherit their father's magic hammer Mjollnir, and Hœnir, who will hold the staff and foretell what is to come. Baldr and his brother Höðr, who dies prior to Ragnarök, will come up from Hel and dwell in Odin's former hall, Valhalla, in the heavens. Meeting at Idavoll, these gods will sit down together, discuss their hidden lore, and talk over many things that had happened, including the evil of Jörmungandr and Fenrir. In the waving grass, they will find the golden chessboards that the Æsir used to own, and gaze at them in wonder. (None of the goddesses were mentioned in various accounts of the aftermath of Ragnarök, but there are assumptions that Frigg, Freya and the other goddesses will survive.)

Two humans will also escape the destruction of the world by hiding themselves deep within Yggdrasil—some say Hodmimir's Wood— where Surtr's sword cannot destroy. They will be called Lif and Lifthrasir. Emerging from their shelter, they will live on morning dew and will repopulate the human world. They will worship their new pantheon of gods, led by Baldr.

There will still be many halls to house the souls of the dead. According to the 'Prose Edda', another heaven exists south of and above Asgard, called Andlang, and a third heaven further above that, called Vidblain; and these places will offer protection while Surtr's fire burns the world. According to both 'Eddas', after Ragnarök, the best place of all will be Gimli, a building fairer than the sun, roofed with gold, in the heaven. There, the gods will live at peace with themselves and each other. There will be Brimir, a hall on Okolnir ("never cold"), where plenty of good drink will be served. And there will be Sindri, an excellent hall made wholly of red gold, on Nidafjoll ("dark mountains"). The souls of the good and virtuous will live in these halls.

The Prose Edda also mentions another hall called Náströnd ("corpse strand"). That place in the underworld will be as vile as it is vast: no sunlight will reach it; all its doors will face north; its walls and roof will be made of wattled snakes, with their heads facing inward, spewing so much poison that it runs in rivers in the hall. Here, oath breakers, murderers, and philanderers will wade through those rivers forever.

And, in the worst place of all, Hvergelmir, Níðhöggr, also a survivor of Ragnarök, will bedevil the bodies of the dead, sucking blood from them.

After all, in this new world, wickedness and misery no longer exist and gods and men will live together in peace and harmony. The descendants of Lif and Lifthrasir will inhabit Midgard.

Common misconceptions

One should recognize that Ragnarök is not a moral conflict between dualistic notions of good and evil like the Christian notion of Armageddon, but rather the result of extended, intricate conflict between the Aesir gods and those allied with the giants. These two events also differ in that after Ragnarök, both sides are ultimately eviscerated, making way for a cyclic rebirth - whereas in the Book of Revelation, God is clearly victorious over the forces of Satan.

Modern popular culture

Main article: Ragnarök in popular culture

References to Ragnarök appear irregularly in modern popular culture, usually in the form of an apocalyptic scenario or as a synonym for a doomsday-like event.

(Via Wikipedia.)

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