Ragnarök: The Battle of the End of the World in Norse Mythology
As with all religions and mythologies, the Norse one also has its apocalypse, an end to the world in which almost all living beings of the plant die, and this is preceded by a battle: Ragnarök.
In this battle are confronted, once and for all, the two great forces that have been fighting for their supremacy: the Jötunn giants and the Aesir gods. Do you want to know what creatures and gods participate in the battle? What is its outcome? Then, keep reading…
- Read all about Ragnar Lothbrok.
The Race of the Jötunn Giants
Let’s begin by describing one of the two great supernatural forces of Norse mythology, the Jötunn giants, who are exactly the opposite of the Aesir gods and so, they are usually depicted as the evil side.
In spite of this, it must be said that both races coexist and the Jötunn giants often mingle with the Aesir gods, as is the case with Loki. He will have a decisive role in the outcome of the battle of Ragnarök, since he is the father of the wolf and the serpent that fight against the main gods, Odin and Thor.
The Jötunn giants represent the forces of original chaos and the untamed and destructive nature. In fact, the first living being created in the original chaos, Ginnungapgap, is a giant called Ymir. From his armpit and his two feet were born the ancestors of the race known as the ice giants, who inhabit the Niflheim or the World of Mist.
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The representation of gods as a force of nature and original chaos will become very important to the meaning of Ragnarök (which will be later explained). They are usually depicted as having a monstrous appearance: with claws, fangs and several deformities, and being of a larger size than men and gods.
In fact, although most of them have an anthropomorphic form, sometimes they are born with an animal body, as is the case of the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jörmungandr, who will certainly have a decisive role in Ragnarök.
The giants live in the land of Jötunheimr, where their centre of power is placed in the stronghold of Utgard, but when they travel to other worlds, they prefer to live in caves and dark places. Although they do not have the gods’ intelligence (except for the wicked and traitor Loki), they are attributed a superhuman strength.
The Race of the Gods
Norse mythology has two races of gods: the Vanir and the Aesir. The Vanir gods are found in the legends about the origins of the world, and they are related to fecundity, wealth and unity. After the Indo-European invasions, the Scandinavian mythology added the Aesir gods, who dedicate themselves to war and power. The main mythological text, “Völuspá”, narrates the fight between the Vanir and the Aesir gods, in which the latter seize the power and some Vanir gods change sides, like Njord, the god of the sea.
The Aesir gods live in Asgard, where the Valaskjálf Hall is placed, in which the god Odin lives, who also dwells in Valhalla, the realm where the souls of the warriors and heroes go. Odin is the most important god of the Aesir race, although the pantheon is great and there are other important gods, like Thor, Tyr, Frigg and Baldr.
They are represented as having human features and superior intelligence to that of their enemies, the Jötunn giants, although their strength is more limited. For this reason, many times they have to use weapons with magical powers forged by dwarves, like Thor’s hammer (Mjölnir) or Odin’s spear (Gungnir).
The Norse mythology gives the Aesir gods an essential role in the creation of the world, as it narrates that in Odin’s victory over the Ymir giant appeared the elements of nature (from the skull was created the celestial vault, from the bones, the mountains, from the blood, the rivers and seas) and later on, the gods gave life to two trees to create the people.
What is Ragnarök?
In Old Norse, it comes from the words “ragna” and “rook” (which means doomed destiny). “Völuspá” describes in one of its tragic stanzas the creation and the destruction of the world. In these verses is mentioned a rupture in the world of the Aesir gods caused by Loki’s betrayal, which will trigger the war of the end of the world.
In fact, Ragnarök is described as a parallelism of the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse, with the crowing of tree roosters to announce it (instead of the woe trumpets) and signs like the last winter of Fimbulvetr, which with great snowfalls and icy winds will announce the beginning of Ragnarök when the wolf and the serpent will extinguish the Sun and the Moon.
In the shadows, a war is waged between the gods and the giants that is actually a struggle between nature and culture, between the primitivism endowed with strength and the civilisation endowed with reason.
As a preceding event of the war, what becomes more relevant is the legend of Loki. This giant adopted by Odin is presented in the sacred texts as the origin of all evil, as a trickster god who, endowed with great cunning, is able to deceive and plot in order to create evil.
Moreover, Loki joins the giantess Angrboda to give life to the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jörmungandr, two monsters that will have an important role in the battle against Odin and Thor. When his children are banished (or kidnapped, like the wolf Fenrir that is bound to three rocks with large chains), Loki takes revenge by killing Thor’s son.
All these quarrels lead to Ragnarök, which starts when the wolf Fenrir manages to free himself from the chains and advances on Asgard destroying everything in his wake. “Unfettered will fare the Fenris Wolf / and ravaged the realm of men,” is warned in an epic poem.
The Outcome of Ragnarök
This is a violet war waged between the most important gods and giants. At the beginning of the battle is described how the wolf Fenrir advances on Asgard destroying everything in his path, and how the warriors, heroes and gods come out of the 540 gates of Valhalla at Odin’s call.
They all fight against the giants and their forces, but the two great spotlights are focused on the battle between Odin, the god of wisdom, war and death, and the wolf Fenrir, and between Thor, the god of thunder and storm, and the world serpent Jörmungandr. The fate of Ragnarök depends on these two fights.
Although it is described asa fight between good and evil, the setting is the apocalypse and so, after Ragnarök, there will be almost no one alive in the world. The wolf Fenrir manages to swallow Odin with his great jaws, but he is avenged by his son Vidar, who kills the beast. Thor inflicts a deadly wound on the serpent Jörmungandr but is poisoned by it just moments before its death, and Thor dies after taking some steps backwards.
Other unforgettable fights are those of the Garmr, Hel’s hound, and Tyr, which results in the death of the god of law and glory, but who manages to kill the giant before he dies. Loki confronts Heimdallr in a clash like that of two-star flares that consume each other and both end up turned into ashes.
In the battle of the end of the world, there are also valkyries, women warriors chosen by Odin in Valhalla, and berserkers, the frightening Vikings that fight bare-chested and covered with bear furs, who confront the dead and the giants. In the last blaze of Surtr, the giant of fire, the upheaval is consumed and everything burns up.
After Ragnarök, it is described as a period of silence and stillness,which precedes hope. The texts narrate the appearance of the survivors, Vidar and Vali, who will find the golden tablets where all the knowledge is engraved and they will revive the race of the gods. Thor’s children also survive, and Baldr and Hoder return from Hel.
The ultimate idea of Ragnarök is, therefore, transcendence through transformation, history as a cycle and death as a renewal.
Ragnarök in Cinema and the Thor Series
In the issue of the comic book Civil War (from Marvel comic books) that appeared in July 2006, there is a supervillain called Ragnarok, who is actually a cyborg cloned to the image and likeness of Thor and has the same powers, but he uses them for evil purposes. He became a regular character in the Dark Avengers series.
However, the original phenomenon of Ragnarök becomes more relevant in Marvel’s blockbuster Thor: Ragnarök, which is actually the third part of the series about the god Thor (starring Chris Hemsworth). The film was released in October 2017 and many hastily suggested that it is the best of the trilogy.
Apart from showing a good amount of adventure and humour, and impressive special effects, the film deals with the phenomenon of Ragnarök through its plot: Thor, who is without his hammer and at the other side of the Universe, starts a race against time to return to Asgard and stop Ragnarök, the war of the end of the world, with which the beautiful and feared Hela (Cate Blanchett) seeks to rule the world.