In Norse mythology, Ragnarök (typically spelt Ragnarǫk in the handwritten scripts) is a series of future events, including a great battle foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and reborn gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors. Ragnarök is an important event in the Norse canon, and has been the subject of scholarly discourse and theory.
The event is attested primarily in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In the Prose Edda, and a single poem in the Poetic Edda, the event is referred to as Ragnarök or Ragnarøkkr (Old Norse “Fate of the Gods” or “Twilight of the Gods” respectively), a usage popularized by 19th century composer Richard Wagner with the title of the last of his Der Ring des Nibelungen operas, Götterdämmerung.
The Poetic Edda contains various references to Ragnarök:
The völva describes three roosters crowing: In stanza 42, the jötunn herdsman Eggthér sits on a mound and cheerfully plays his harp while the crimson rooster Fjalar (Old Norse “hider, deceiver”) crows in the forest Gálgviðr.
The golden rooster Gullinkambi crows to the Æsir in Valhalla, and the third, unnamed soot-red rooster crows in the halls of the underworld location of Hel in stanza 43.
The völva describes the state of humanity:
Brothers will fight
and kill each other,
will defile kinship.
It is harsh in the world,
—an axe age, a sword age
—shields are riven—
a wind age, a wolf age—
before the world goes headlong.
No man will have
mercy on another.
The “sons of Mím” are described as being “at play”, though this reference is not further explained in surviving sources. Heimdall holds the Gjallarhorn into the air and blows deeply into it, and Odin converses with Mím’s head. The world tree Yggdrasil shudders and groans. The jötunn Hrym comes from the east, his shield before him. The Midgard serpent Jörmungandr furiously writhes, causing waves to crash. “The eagle shrieks, pale-beaked he tears the corpse,” and the ship Naglfar breaks free thanks to the waves made by Jormungandr and sets sail from the east. The fire jötnar inhabitants of Muspelheim come forth.
The völva continues that Jötunheimr, the land of the jötnar, is aroar, and that the Æsir are in council. The dwarves groan by their stone doors. Surtr advances from the south, his sword brighter than the sun. Rocky cliffs open and the jötnar women sink. People walk the road to Hel and heavens split apart.
The gods then do battle with the invaders: Odin is swallowed whole and alive fighting the wolf Fenrir, causing his wife Frigg her second great sorrow (the first being the death of her son, the god Baldr). The god Freyr fights Surtr and loses. Odin’s son Víðarr avenges his father by rending Fenrir’s jaws apart and stabbing it in the heart with his spear, thus killing the wolf. The serpent Jörmungandr opens its gaping maw, yawning widely in the air, and is met in combat by Thor. Thor, also a son of Odin and described here as protector of the earth, furiously fights the serpent, defeating it, but Thor is only able to take nine steps afterward before collapsing. After this, people flee their homes, and the sun becomes black while the earth sinks into the sea, the stars vanish, steam rises, and flames touch the heavens.
The völva sees the earth reappearing from the water, and an eagle over a waterfall hunting fish on a mountain. The surviving Æsir meet together at the field of Iðavöllr. They discuss Jörmungandr, great events of the past, and the runic alphabet. In stanza 61, in the grass, they find the golden game pieces that the gods are described as having once happily enjoyed playing games with long ago (attested earlier in the same poem). The reemerged fields grow without needing to be sown. The gods Höðr and Baldr return to Hel and live happily together.
The völva says that the god Hœnir chooses wooden slips for the purpose of prophecy, and that the sons of two brothers will widely inhabit the windy world. She sees a hall thatched with gold in Gimlé, where nobility will live and spend their lives pleasurably.
Stanzas 65, found in the Hauksbók version of the poem, refers to a “powerful, mighty one” that “rules over everything” and who will arrive from above at the court of the gods (Old Norse regindómr), which has been interpreted as a Christian reference added to the poem.
In stanza 66, the völva ends her account with a description of the dragon Níðhöggr, corpses in his jaws, flying through the air. The völva then “sinks down.” It is unclear if stanza 66 indicates that the völva is referring to the present time or if this is an element of the post-Ragnarök world.
In stanza 44, Odin poses the question to Vafþrúðnir as to who of mankind will survive the “famous” Fimbulvetr (“Mighty Winter”). Vafþrúðnir responds in stanza 45 that those survivors will be Líf and Lífþrasir, and that they will hide in the forest of Hoddmímis holt, that they will consume the morning dew, and will produce generations of offspring.
In stanza 46, Odin asks what sun will come into the sky after Fenrir has consumed the sun that exists. Vafþrúðnir responds that Sól will bear a daughter before Fenrir assails her, and that after Ragnarök this daughter will continue her mother’s path.
In stanza 51, Vafþrúðnir states that, after Surtr’s flames have been sated, Odin’s sons Víðarr and Váli will live in the temples of the gods, and that Thor’s sons Móði and Magni will possess the hammer Mjolnir.
In stanza 52, the disguised Odin asks the jötunn about Odin’s own fate. Vafþrúðnir responds that “the wolf” will consume Odin, and that Víðarr will avenge him by sundering its cold jaws in battle. Odin ends the duel with one final question: what did Odin say to his son before preparing his funeral pyre? With this, Vafþrúðnir realizes that he is dealing with none other than Odin, whom he refers to as “the wisest of beings,” adding that Odin alone could know this. Odin’s message has been interpreted as a promise of resurrection to Baldr after Ragnarök.
Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda quotes heavily from Völuspá and elaborates extensively in prose on the information there, though some of this information conflicts with that provided in Völuspá.
Gylfaginning chapters 26 and 34
In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, various references are made to Ragnarök. Ragnarök is first mentioned in chapter 26, where the throned figure of High, king of the hall, tells Gangleri (King Gylfi in disguise) some basic information about the goddess Iðunn, including that her apples will keep the gods young until Ragnarök.
Gylfaginning chapter 51
Chapter 51 provides a detailed account of Ragnarök interspersed with various quotes from Völuspá, while chapters 52 and 53 describe the aftermath of these events. In Chapter 51, High states the first sign of Ragnarök will be Fimbulvetr, during which time three winters will arrive without a summer, and the sun will be useless. High details that, prior to these winters, three earlier winters will have occurred, marked with great battles throughout the world. During this time, greed will cause brothers to kill brothers, and fathers and sons will suffer from the collapse of kinship bonds. High then quotes stanza 45 of Völuspá. Next, High describes that the wolf will first swallow the sun, and then his brother the moon, and mankind will consider the occurrence as a great disaster resulting in much ruin. The stars will disappear. The earth and mountains will shake so violently that the trees will come loose from the soil, the mountains will topple, and all restraints will break, causing Fenrir to break free from his bonds.
High relates that the great serpent Jörmungandr, also described as a child of Loki in the same source, will breach land as the sea violently swells onto it. The ship Naglfar, described in the Prose Edda as being made from the human nails of the dead, is released from its mooring, and sets sail on the surging sea, steered by a jötunn named Hrym. At the same time, Fenrir, eyes and nostrils spraying flames, charges forward with his mouth wide open, his upper jaw reaching to the heavens, his lower jaw touching the earth. At Fenrir’s side, Jörmungandr sprays venom throughout the air and the sea.
During all of this, the sky splits into two. From the split, the “sons of Muspell” ride forth. Surtr rides first, surrounded by flames, his sword brighter than the sun. High says that “Muspell’s sons” will ride across Bifröst, described in Gylfaginning as a rainbow bridge, and that the bridge will then break. The sons of Muspell (and their shining battle troop) advance to the field of Vígríðr, described as an expanse that reaches “a hundred leagues in each direction,” where Fenrir, Jörmungandr, Loki (followed by “Hel’s own”), and Hrym (accompanied by all frost jötnar) join them. While this occurs, Heimdallr stands and blows the Gjallarhorn with all his might. The gods awaken at the sound, and they meet. Odin rides to Mímir’s Well in search of counsel from Mímir. Yggdrasil shakes, and everything, everywhere fears.
According to High, Freyr fiercely fights with Surtr, but Freyr falls because he lacks the sword he once gave to his messenger.
Surtr covers the earth in fire, causing the entire world to burn. High quotes stanzas 46 to 47 of Völuspá, and additionally stanza 18 of Vafþrúðnismál (the latter relating information about the battlefield Vígríðr).
Gylfaginning chapters 52 and 53
At the beginning of chapter 52, Gangleri asks “what will be after heaven and earth and the whole world are burned? All the gods will be dead, together with the Einherjar and the whole of mankind. Didn’t you say earlier that each person will live in some world throughout all ages?”
The figure of Third, seated on the highest throne in the hall, responds that there will be many good places to live, but also many bad ones.
Third states that the best place to be is Gimlé in the heavens, where a place exists called Okolnir that houses a hall called Brimir—where one can find plenty to drink.
Third describes a hall made of red gold located in Niðafjöll called Sindri, where “good and virtuous men will live.” Third further relates an unnamed hall in Náströnd, the beaches of the dead, that he describes as a large repugnant hall facing north that is built from the spines of snakes, and resembles “a house with walls woven from branches;” the heads of the snakes face the inside of the house and spew so much venom that rivers of it flow throughout the hall, in which those that break oaths and murderers must wade.
Third here quotes Völuspá stanzas 38 to 39, with the insertion of original prose stating that the worst place of all to be is in Hvergelmir, followed by a quote from Völuspá to highlight that the dragon Níðhöggr harasses the corpses of the dead there.
Chapter 53 begins with Gangleri asking if any of the gods will survive, and if there will be anything left of the earth or the sky. High responds that the earth will appear once more from the sea, beautiful and green, where self-sown crops grow. The field Iðavöllr exists where Asgard once was, and, there, untouched by Surtr’s flames, Víðarr and Váli reside. Now possessing their father’s hammer Mjolnir, Thor’s sons Móði and Magni will meet them there, and, coming from Hel, Baldr and Höðr also arrive. Together, they all sit and recount memories, later finding the gold game pieces the Æsir once owned. Völuspá stanza 51 is then quoted.
High reveals that two humans, Líf and Lífþrasir, will have also survived the destruction by hiding in the wood Hoddmímis holt. These two survivors consume the morning dew for sustenance, and from their descendants the world will be repopulated.
Vafþrúðnismál stanza 45 is then quoted. The personified sun, Sól, will have a daughter at least as beautiful as she, and this daughter will follow the same path as her mother.
Vafþrúðnismál stanza 47 is quoted, and so ends the foretelling of Ragnarök in Gylfaginning.
Muspille, Heliand, and Christianity
Theories have been proposed about the relation to Ragnarök and the 9th century Old High German epic poem Muspilli about the Christian Last Judgment, where the word Muspille appears, and the 9th century Old Saxon epic poem Heliand about the life of Christ, where various other forms of the word appear. In both sources, the word is used to signify the end of the world through fire. Old Norse forms of the term also appear throughout accounts of Ragnarök, where the world is also consumed in flames, and, though various theories exist about the meaning and origins of the term, its etymology has not been solved.
Parallels have been pointed out between the Ragnarök of the Norse pagans and the beliefs of other related Indo-European peoples. Subsequently, theories have been put forth that Ragnarök represents a later evolution of a Proto-Indo-European belief along with other cultures descending from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. These parallels include comparisons of a cosmic winter motif between the Norse Fimbulwinter, the Iranian Bundahishn and Yima. Víðarr’s stride has been compared to the Vedic god Vishnu in that both have a “cosmic stride” with a special shoe used to tear apart a beastly wolf.
Larger patterns have also been drawn between “final battle” events in Indo-European cultures, including the occurrence of a blind or semi-blind figure in “final battle” themes, and figures appearing suddenly with surprising skills.
Parallels have been pointed out between a poem spoken by a jötunn found in the 13th century þáttr Bergbúa þáttr (“the tale of the mountain dweller”). In the tale, Thórd and his servant get lost while traveling to church in winter, and so take shelter for the night within a cave. Inside the cave they hear noises, witness a pair of immense burning eyes, and then the being with burning eyes recites a poem of 12 stanzas. The poem the being recites contains references to Norse mythology (including a mention of Thor) and also prophecies (including that “mountains will tumble, the earth will move, men will be scoured by hot water and burned by fire”). Surtr’s fire receives a mention in stanza 10. John Lindow says that the poem may describe “a mix of the destruction of the race of giants and of humans, as in Ragnarök” but that “many of the predictions of disruption on earth could also fit the volcanic activity that is so common in Iceland.”