A few notes on Terminology
In order to avoid any confusion, it may be necessary to clear up some easily confused uses of the word "edda" and its variations. The word itself is generally translated as "poetics," and it can be used in several different ways. When used as an adjective, eddic refers to a specific style of Norse poetry. When underlined, the word will be referring to either Snorri Sturluson's book The Prose Edda or a specific, published translation of the Poetic Edda. When italicized, it will be referring to a specific collection of poems known as The Poetic Edda. When capitalized, Edda will be used in a generic sense, referring to either the Prose Edda or Poetic Edda.
Several times in this paper it will be necessary to quote the various poems found in the Poetic Edda. The title of the poem will be in italics, and the number in parentheses with be the verse number.
Brother will fight brother and be his slayer,
brother and sister will violate the bonds of kinship;
hard it is in the world, there is much adultery,
axe-age, sword-age, shields are cleft asunder,
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world plunges headlong;
no man will spare another.(1)
These words come from the ancient Norse poem known as Volupsa, or The Seeress' Prophecy. The poem begins with a dialogue between a dead prophetess and the god Odin. She begins by recanting the creation of the world, describing the triumph of the gods over the giants. Eventually, her words turn more cryptic as she tells of a horrible future, the doom of the gods. This is the final battle between good and evil, where all will be destroyed and reborn into a new age of peace. This is Ragnarok.
There are two major accounts of Ragnarok, but references to the battle and some of its events are scattered throughout the Eddas and sagas. Any practical study of the Norse eschatology must begin with a survey of The Seeress' Prophecy and Snorri's account in The Prose Edda. The Seeress' Prophecy is the older of the two. Scholarship places its composition around sometime between the tenth and eleventh century CE. However, it was probably passed on orally for hundreds of years prior to that. Exactly why it was written down will be discussed later. The Prose Edda is the younger of the two, having been written sometime in the 1200's by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson.
What follows is a combined account of the final battle. Both Eddas, prose and poetic, place the murder of Baldr as the catalyst that causes Ragnarok to commence. As punishment for this deed, Loki is captured by the gods and bound with the entrails of his son.(2) To further torment the trickster god, the giantess Skaldi places a serpent above him to drip venom on his face. But the day will come when Loki breaks his chains and leads an army of giants and monsters against the gods. The sun goddess will be devoured by a huge wolf, plunging the Earth into a terrible winter. Here is where the words of verse 45 come to pass, as the world plunges into a winter of the soul with murder and adultery becoming common place. As the world is torn by war, the watchman god Heimdall blows the Giallar-horn. Additionally, a rooster in Hel and a rooster in Valhalla cry out together. Before the battle, Odin consults the head of Mim.(3) According to Snorri, the battle takes place on the large plain called Vigrid. Here all the gods with meet their doom.(4) Surt, who was a catalyst in the creation of the world, destroys the world with flame. But the world is not at end. The earth rises a new out of the oceans, green and fertile as ever. The children of the gods return to rule this new world, and Baldr will make amends with his slayer. Two humans will also have survived the destruction. Lif and Lifthrasir(5) will return to re-people the earth. And according to The Seeress Prophecy (65):
Then the powerful, mighty one, he who rules over
will come from above, to the judgment-place of the
Some scholars have suggested this powerful one to be the Christian God or Jesus Christ, but, as will be discussed later, that may not be the case.(6) Even more puzzling is the last verse of The Seeress' Prophecy:
There comes the dark dragon flying,
the shining serpent, up from Dark-of-moon Hills;
Nidhogg flies over the plain, in his wings
he carries corpses; now she must sink down.(7)
Does this mean there will be evil in the new world, or has Odin's visit with the seeress ended, placing him back in the past?
It is not unusual for a myth to have some relation to the current social order, and Ragnarok as no exception. No one knows for certain when The Seeress' Prophecy was written down, so exactly which social order Ragnarok applies to is unclear! In her translation of the Eddas, Carolyne Larrington suggests the poem was written in the later part of the tenth century, "when the pagan religion was beginning to be superseded by Christianity."(8) By these lines, some scholars would be quick to write off Ragnarok as foretelling the impending triumph of Christianity over paganism. Such thinkers often cite verses from two separate poems when discussing this issue. As previously mentioned, verse 65 of The Seeress' Prophecy makes reference to a distant, powerful being replacing the gods as rulers. Another eddic poem known as the Song of Hyndla also makes a reference to Ragnarok and this mysterious power. This poem focuses on the goddess Freyja helping her worshipper Ottar claim his family's inheritance. To do this, she changes him into a boar and rides off to a giantess to named Hyndla to ask about Ottar's ancestry. Once the giantess finishes naming Ottar's family line, she breaks into a discourse on the creation-destruction themes of The Seeress' Prophecy.(9) Her words climax in verses 42-44:
The ocean stirs up storms against heaven itself,
washes over the land, and the air yields;
from there come snow and biting winds;
then it is decreed that the gods come to their end.
One was born greater than all,
he was empowered with the strength of heaven and earth;
he is said to be the wealthiest of princes,
closely related to all the families.
Then will come another, even mightier,
though I do not dare to name his name;
few can now see further than when
Odin has to meet the wolf.(10)
The only problem that arises when trying to fit these passages into a discussion of Ragnarok is exactly why the Song of Hyndla would even make reference to this event! The poem shifts into the Short Seeress' Prophecy without any reason and goes out of it just as quickly. The next verse reads:
Give some memory ale to my boar,
so that he can hold fast to all these words
from this conversation on the third morning,
when he and Angantyr reckon up their lineage.(11)
Freyja doesn't respond to the giantess' words at all. So either Freyja isn't worried about Ragnarok or possibly the poem was edited and the writer failed to come up with a response for the goddess! Quite simply, the Ragnarok discourse in the Song of Hyndla doesn't fit. The only reasonable explanation is that the poem had to have been re-worked at a later date. Hyndla doesn't supply any new information on Ragnarok like other poems do; it just re-tells the tale in a short, sloppy manner. Most likely, this re-working was done by a Christian editor with some antagonism towards the old ways. The poem also makes no reference to the restoration, only the destruction. This is another sign to indicate possible Christian re-working.
Verse 65 of The Seeress' Prophecy is just as problematic. Since there appear to be a couple of lines missing, there can be no way of telling if the poem may have been edited as well. However, H R Ellis Davidson doesn't believe Ragnarok to be simply a poem telling of the triumph of Christianity over paganism, because "if this were the deliberate intention of the poet, surely he would have been more explicit."(12) In addition, Snorri doesn't mention this mysterious being in his Prose Edda. While he had no hatred towards the mythology of the past, he certainly didn't want people to go back to the old ways. In the later part of his Prose Edda, Snorri speaks for himself,(13) stating "Christians, however, must not believe in pagan gods or that these tales are true in any other way."(14) Surely, if this mysterious being was to be understood as the Christian God, Snorri probably would have mentioned it! Therefore, if the references to a single, all-powerful god in the Poetic Eddas are in fact referring to the Christian God, then the editing may have done after Snorri's death, and some of the eddic poems may have been written down much later than scholars believe.
In addition to relating the end of the world to the current social order (paganism vs. Christianity), Ragnarok has religious interpretations as well. The fate of three of the gods in particular have theological interpretations relevant to their roles in the religion of the North: Baldr, Tyr, and Thor.
The end times are ushered in by Hodr's slaying of Baldr. Baldr possibly knew of his fate, for in another Eddic poem, Baldr's Dreams, Odin rides to Hel to ask a dead prophetess why his son is having nightmares. On his way he meets a dog:
Bloody it was on the front of its chest
and long it barked at the father of magic;
on rode Odin, the road resounded,
he approached the high hall of Hel.(15)
The bloody dog is symbolic of the murdered Baldr, and its barking is perhaps a warning to the god of his fate at Ragnarok.(16) The spirit which Odin talks to tells him of the murderer and that his son Vali will avenge Baldr. The poem goes no further, for after Odin asks a rather enigmatic question, the spirit realizes Odin's true identity and refuses to talk anymore.(17) The murder foreshadows the words of Seeress' Prophecy (45) with it's foretelling of violence between brothers. Baldr was said to be the kindest and wisest of gods, loved by all. Odin even goes so far as to say Baldr's home Breidablik is the "land where I know there are the fewest evil plots."(18) Hodr represents ignorance and blindness, forces which can bring down the most benevolent of souls when guided by trickery (Loki).
The seeress also speaks of widespread violence and the collapse of social order. This perhaps is foretelling of the defeat of Tyr, one of the Norse gods of justice.(19) Little is known about Tyr, but he is known to be the god who bound the Fenris wolf by sacrificing his right hand. As a god of social justice, Tyr presided over the thing, or tribal council. At this meeting, people would come from all across the land to bring lawsuits to court or settle disputes through legal action or ritual combat. The wide scale war of which the prophetess speaks could be a sign of social order's disintegration, which end with the slaying of its protector by a beast of the underworld.(20) Tyr was also associated with oaths, and any oath sworn upon his weapon-the sword-could never be broken. Davidson notes that it was common to compare oaths to the world's end. She writes this practice may "seem to indicate familiarity with the imagery of the destruction of earth, sky, and sea and return to chaos. While there may be verbal echoes from one poet in the work of another, the image itself appears to be a basic one, going back to pre-Christian tradition."(21)
Finally, there is the symbolism of Thor's defeat by the Midgard Serpent. This event appears to be the last battle before the world is destroyed by Surt. In retrospect, it is the world's last hope to avoid total destruction. Thor is the protector of Earth and was perhaps the most beloved of the gods. People often turned to him for help against flood, storm, and calamity. He is also famous for his epic battles against the giants; the celestial warrior who defends humanity from the powers of primordial chaos. In the end, he meets his defeat by the Midgard Serpent, the watery powers of chaos that forever encircle the world.
Ragnarok is a death-rebirth cycle, not unlike the eschatology found in other religions. It brings together many of the values the Norsemen held dear. They were warriors, so it is no surprise their world begins with war and ends with war. They admired bravery, and as shown by their gods they believed everyone should be able to meet destiny with courage. The gods know what awaits them when the Giallar-horn sounds, but they do not run or falter. They stand up and press on, knowing that their children will rise again to restore the world which they created. Although it has been seen as foretelling the defeat of paganism at the hands of Christianity, it is not. It may be referring to a time that has not yet happened, but is yet to come:
This magnificent cosmological vision, which expresses both poetic and karmic justice, does not, however, end with a Christian otherworldly millennial scenario; rather, it concludes with a return of earth-based polytheism. Since this pagan revival has not yet happened on a large scale ... it cannot be that the prophecies of the Eddas refer only to the coming of Christianity. Rather, they may reach forward in time to the twentieth century, or even beyond.(22)
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of the Viking Age. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996
---. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998
Metzner, Ralph. The Well of Remembrance. Boston: Shambhala Press, 1994
The Poetic Edda. Trans. Carolyne Larrington. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996
Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Trans. Jean Young. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954.
1The Seeress' Prophecy (45)
2The identity of this son is not entirely clear. Snorri claims the son is named Nari or Narfi (Prose Edda 85) and his other son Vali is transformed into a wolf. However, The Seeress' Prophecy states the son's name to be Vali (34). To further add to the confusion, The prose at the end of the Eddic poem Loki's Quarrel states it was Nari whose entrails were used and Narfi was changed into a wolf. Since Snorri appears to have some understanding of the poetic Eddas, he probably didn't mix up the sources. Most likely, there were multiple traditions regarding the fate of Loki's sons.
3Mim, or Mimir, was a wise giant sent by the Aesir to the Vanir after their truce. Mimir offended the Vanir, so they cut off his head and sent it to Odin. He was said to have preserved it and consulted it for wisdom.
4Oddly enough, The Seeress' Prophecy only records the fates of Odin and Thor. Snorri tells what happens to the rest of the gods. It is not known why the rest of the gods are missing from the poetic account.
5Literally, "Life (male)" and "Lifebringer (female)."
6However, the original text may have been damaged because some translations note a break in the text here. Also, if the poem would have switched to a two line verse, it would have thrown off the metre considerably (something that Norse poets generally tried to avoid)!
7The Seeress' Prophecy (66)
8The Poetic Edda, Trans. Carolyne Larrington, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3.
9Verses 29-44 of this poem are known as the Short Prophecy of the Seeress (Voluspa in skamma).
10Song of Hyndla (42-44)
11Song of Hyndla (45)
12H R Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), 203.
13In a full translation of the Prose Edda, this quote would have been found in the third section of the book: "The Account of Metres." This section deals with the various kennings (poetic devices), many of which have to do with stories concerning the gods. Snorri is believed to be defending himself from opponents who believed he was teaching the pagan religion to young poets. I had to borrow this quote from the book's introduction because the translation I used only goes up to the second section of the book.
14Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Trans. Jean Young (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1954), 10.
15Baldr's Dreams (3)
16As a side note, Odin is notorious in the eddic poems for questioning various beings on the events of Ragnarok and what happens after. The spirit of the prophetess in Baldr's Dreams realizes this at the end of the poem, implying that Odin is probably the only Norse god to do this. Why he questions others is debated upon. Some say he is trying to uncover his own fate. Others believe he is making sure his son will return once he is gone.
17Odin asks "who are those girls who weep for love / and who throw up to the sky the corners of their head-dresses? (12)" Possibly, he could be referring to other spirits he is seeing in Hel (perhaps mourners) or even the Norns. Scholars have yet to come up with a satisfactory explanation to this question.
18Grimnir's Sayings (12)
19There is another Norse god associated with justice named Forseti. His fate at Ragnarok is never mentioned.
20According to Snorri, Tyr fights Garm. Little is known about Garm except that he is a hound that guards the gates of Hel.
21H R Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe (Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1988), 189.
22Ralph Metzner, The Well of Remembrance (Boston, Shambhala Press, 1994), 248.
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