From early Christian fears of zombie Nero to the ever-misunderstood Maya, there have been countless end-of-the-world myths throughout human history. Few, however, come close to being as iconic and renowned as that of the Vikings – the epic battle and eventual destruction of the Earth which they called Ragnarök.
But while you may know the name as that of a fairly inoffensive Marvel movie, the word originally translated as something closer to “doom of the Gods” – and if anything, that’s selling the narrative short. While the Aztecs pictured the world ending during an eclipse, and the Romans were busy not even thinking much about it at all, the Vikings envisioned an End of Days of truly George RR Martin-ian proportions, complete with a civilization-ending winter, wolves and snakes consuming the earth and sky, and an invasion of the planet by gods and chaos entities.
So what exactly did our Scandinavian forebears think would happen at the End of Days?
And – how can we put this: what on Earth was going through their heads when they thought it up?
What happens during Ragnarök?
Let’s face it: you can hardly accuse the Vikings of lacking imagination. Ragnarök, according to tradition, begins with a huge and terrible Winter, longer and colder than any normal season and driving humanity to the point of starvation and murder.
“Brothers will fight and kill each other; sisters’ children will defile kinship,” describes Völuspá, a prophetic poem from the 10th century recorded in the Poetic Edda.
“It [will be] harsh in the world, whoredom rife – an axe age, a sword age – shields are riven – a wind age, a wolf age – before the world goes headlong,” it continues. “No man will have mercy on another.”
After close to a year of this frigid dystopia, things get even worse. The sun and moon will both be eaten by wolves – an event the Eddas somewhat understatedly point out will be “a severe loss […] for mankind” – and stars will fall to the Earth; mountains will crumble and earthquakes will shake trees out of the very ground itself.
Next, it’s time for the gigantic sea snake Jörmungandr to finally realize it’s been chewing on its own tail all this time and spit it out, causing a huge tsunami-like flooding as the serpent rises up out of its watery lair. It will advance across the land, spitting poison into the air and sea, and join forces with Fenrir the wolf – a terrifying, half-god monster who “opens his enormous mouth; the lower jaw reaches to the earth, and the upper one to heaven,” while “fire flashes from his eyes and nostrils.”
With the flooding comes Naglfar, the ship made from the fingernails and toenails of the dead, carrying an army of chaos giants and captained by Loki – and, let’s be clear: this is not the loveable Marvel anti-hero played by Tom Hiddleston, but the murderous, shapeshifting, half-troll trickster god, hell (or Hel) bent on killing his divine brethren in order to bring about the apocalypse.
We’re not finished yet. Seeing all these invading forces overrun the Earth, the Norse gods will split open the sky and march down the Bifrost – that’s the rainbow bridge connecting Asgard to Midgard that you may remember from those Marvel movies we just told you to forget about.
Fighting alongside the slain warriors from Valhalla, Odin and the rest of the Æsir will confront the forces of chaos: Odin, “with his golden helm and resplendent cuirass, and his spear called Gungnir,” will take on Fenrir; Thor faces down Jörmungandr, and Heimdall will fight Loki. With only a few exceptions, every single one will die.
“Frey encounters Surtur, and terrible blows are exchanged ere Frey falls,” the Eddas detail. “That day the dog Garm, who had been chained in the Gnipa cave, breaks loose. He is the most fearful monster of all, and attacks Tyr, and they kill each other."
“Thor gains great renown for killing the Midgard serpent, but at the same time, recoiling nine paces, falls dead upon the spot suffocated by the floods of venom which the dying serpent vomits forth upon him. The wolf swallows Odin, but at that instant Vidar advances, and setting his foot on the monster's lower jaw, seizes the other with his hand, and thus tears and rends him till he dies.”
Finally, “Loki and Heimdall fight, and mutually kill each other,” the Eddas record. “After this, [the fire giant] Surtur darts fire and flame over the earth, and the whole universe is consumed.”
So, what the heck is all that about?
Clearly, the Vikings were a bit… intense. But what could have inspired such a momentous End Times myth?
One interesting theory comes from Hilda Ellis Davidson, a pioneering folklorist who specialized in Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Old Norse religion at the University of Cambridge. She suggested that certain elements of the Ragnarök myth – the sun turning black, steam rising into the skies, flames touching the heavens, that kind of thing – may have been inspired by the many volcanoes that dot the Icelandic landscape.
“Certainly when one reads accounts of some of the outstanding eruptions in Iceland in fairly recent times, in particular that of Skaptar Yokul in 1783, the suggestion […] appears worthy of consideration,” she wrote in her 1990 book Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.
This eruption “was the same as in Völuspá,” she explained: “first earthquake tremors shook the mountains, then the sun was darkened by clouds of smoke and ashes, then came blazing flames, with smoke and steam, while the melting ice caused serious flooding by water as well as by burning lava; if we add a tidal wave from the sea to this series of catastrophes, the situation is very close to that in the poem.”
At its core, Davidson argued, Ragnarök is a pretty standard Apocalypse myth: a vast battle between order and chaos; the last stand and overthrow of the gods; and finally, the destruction of the Earth. But the details that made it so distinctive may well have come from the strange and unique surroundings of these northernmost Scandinavian wilds: “This vivid picture of creation and destruction was surely most likely to emerge in Iceland itself, where the result of the interaction of cold and heat was constantly before the eyes, and where Hekla erupts on an average every thirty-five years,” she wrote. “The poet of Völuspá could well have been inspired by such a terrible scene as that which took place in 1783, and at many other periods of Iceland's history.”
An astronomical explanation?
Meanwhile, some think the inspiration for Ragnarök may lie further from home. In 2018, Norse mythology and literature expert Johnni Langer set forth a new analysis suggesting that some of the most iconic aspects of the Viking Apocalypse myth may have been influenced by astronomical events.
“Our basic hypothesis is that various astronomical phenomena which occurred during in the eighth and ninth centuries (total eclipses of the sun and passages of comets, both related to the constellation of Wolf's Jaw – the Hyades) … [prompted] the [Vikings’] eschatological fears, impelling [them] to create a large amount apocalyptic images close of the year 1000 AD,” Langer wrote.
“We identified thirteen celestial phenomena (comet passages and total eclipses of the Sun) that may have been collected in the construction of the Ragnarök image among the ancient Norsemen.”
Is the theory compelling? Definitely. But convincing? Let’s just say that other experts had reservations about this extra-terrestrial end-times idea.
“A convincing astronomical explanation of Ragnarök would be of interest,” Texas State University astronomer Donald Olson, known as the “Celestial Sleuth” for his work in so-called “forensic astronomy,” told Ars Technica back when the theory was first published.
But for a few reasons, Langer failed to find one, he argued. Throughout his analysis, Langer admits no primary Scandinavian sources for his theories, instead relying on German and English observations; on top of that, Olsen pointed out, there were a few basic factual mistakes in the data and interpretations. “Errors like these reduce the confidence that Langer has made a significant breakthrough with his astronomical analysis,” Olsen said.
Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing suggestion – and, hey: if all else fails, there’s still another explanation suggested by Davidson back in 1990.
“The picture of Ragnarök might indeed be viewed as a great and terrifying image of a mental breakdown, or as the complete disintegration of the mind in death,” she wrote.
“The sinking of earth into the sea, the triumph of cold, fire, and darkness, the breaking loose of monsters long held in check- such images lie deep in men's minds, and we can understand their long survival,” she pointed out. “It is this which gives the picture [of Ragnarök ] such unmistakable power.”