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"The sun turns black, the earth sinks into the sea, the bright stars fall out of the sky. Flames scorch the leaves of Yggdrasil; a great bonfire reaches to the highest clouds."
Vǫluspá, stanza 55

Ragnarok is a prophecied battle where the Asgardian gods of the Norse pantheon will be slain.

Timeline of events

Causes

The mischief of the prankster god Loki was usually tolerated by the gods of Asgard due to his status as blood brother of Odin, and a ruthless cleverness that has saved Asgard several times in the past.[1] This attitude changed when Loki tricked the blind god Hod into killing his brother Balder by handing him a dart made of mistletoe, the only material to which he was vulnerable.[2]

Unable to murder his own blood brother, Odin summoned Loki to a cave with his wife Sigyn and his sons Vali and Narfi. He transformed Vali into a wolf, who set upon and slew Narfi. Next, the gods bound Loki with his own son's entrails, and placed a serpent to drip poison into his wounds. Loki's wife Sigyn remained there to catch the poison, but could not save him from every drop. The people of Midgard say that whenever there is an earthquake, it is Loki thrashing in agony from the serpent's venom.[2]

For this torture, Loki swore vengeance on the Aesir.

Preparation

The Aesir know that Ragnarok will one day come, and spend their time preparing for the battle.

Odin has his valkyries select from the men who die in battle, where they join the ranks of his einherjar at the great hall of Valhalla. There they fight all day and feast all night until Ragnarok comes. Half of all who die in battle, including all women, are taken instead to Freya's hall Sessrumnir.

Secret fortresses of the frost giant Thrym, hidden among the men of Midgard, train and smith weapons day and night to prepare for Ragnarok.

Shortly before Ragnarok, the gods will abandon the people of Midgard to focus on the battle ahead. The brave will seek every opportunity for battle, hoping to be carried by the Valkyries to join Odin's einherjar.[3]

Finally, the serpent Nidhogg will gnaw away the last root of the world tree Yggdrasil, and the tree will fall.[4] Loki will break free of his chains.

Battle

The final battle of Ragnarok will take place on the field called Vigrid. The battle cannot occur until Loki has broken free of his chains. Heimdall will sound the Gjallahorn and alert all the gods to the coming of Ragnarok.

On one side will fight the gods, and on their side the heroic einherjar. All the Aesir shall join this battle, and their leader shall be Odin. The gods will abandon mortals to focus all their efforts on the battle.

Against them will fight Loki and all his children: Jormungandr, the World-Serpent; Fenrir, the wolf; and Hel, queen of the dead, along with her hound Garm. The giants of Muspelheim will join him, led by their lord Surtur. So great is the fire giants' number that the Bifrost bridge between Asgard and Midgard shall collapse under their weight. The frost giants, led by Thrym, shall march against Odin for slaying their progenitor Ymir when the world was made.

The battle may last days, or years—the gods know not when, or for how long the war will last.[3] Surtur shall set the world on fire.

Frey will fight Surtur bare-handed, having given his sword to his shield-man Skirnir. Thor shall face Jormungandr. Tyr shall face the hound Garm, and each shall slay each other.[2]

Loki will steal Heimdall's sword, hoping to avoid his own fate. Heimdall will slay Loki regardless, but will himself die soon after from his wounds. Odin shall be slain by Loki's son, the wolf Fenrir, but Odin's son Vidar will avenge him.[2]

Almost all of the gods shall be killed at Ragnarok, as shall all of the einherjar.[4]

Aftermath and rebirth

The gods of Asgard believe that Ragnarok is not truly the end, but the beginning of a new cycle.

Only six gods will survive to rule the new world. Among them will be Balder, who misses the fight due to being dead; his brother Hod; Thor's son's Modi and Magni, who wield his hammer Mjolnir; and Odin's sons Vali and Vidar. There they shall live in peace at the hall of Gimli in Asgard, the most beautiful building anywhere in the world.

New gods may yet be born to join these new rulers.

The cult of the frost giant Thrym teach that the world will end in Fimbul Winter, and that cold shall triumph in the world after Surtur burns down the world at Ragnarok.

Creative origins

Ragnarok features in several stories of Norse myth.[5]

The primary retelling of the events of Ragnarok is the poem Vǫluspá, in which Odin summons a dead witch or seeress to tell him the prophecy of Ragnarok.[6]

In Lokasenna, Loki is imprisoned not for his role in Balder's death, but for insulting each of the gods at a feast to which he was not invited. Skathi is the one who places the serpent to drip venom into Loki's face. Loki's wife Sigyn catches the venom in a jar or cauldron, but she must periodically leave the cave to empty it.[6]

According to Vafþrúðnismál, a story of lore framed as a riddle contest between Odin and a giant, the valley Vigrith where Ragnarok will be fought was selected as it is one hundred miles long on each side. (In D&D terms, this is wide enough for 52,800 fire giants to fight side by side.) Njorth will return to the Vanir home of Vanaheim at Ragnarok. Fenrir will eat the sun, but the sun shall have a daughter to replace her. Two humans shall survive the great Fimbulwinter and repopulate the world after Ragnarok: Líf and Lífthrasir, who hid in a forest called Hoddmimir's holt and survived on the morning dew.[6]

In Gylfaginning, in the Prose Edda, it is said that Ragnarok will be preceded by Fimbul-winter, a great winter, which three winters shall pass without summer in between. The resulting poverty shall lead to unprecedented conflict among men on Earth. Loki shall arrive in the ship Naglfar, made from the untrimmed toenails of the dead.[7]

These stories have been translated into English in various sources. Free out-of-copyright translations appear at Voluspa.org, including the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda.

References

  1. Legends & Lore (1e) (1985), p.105.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Deities and Demigods (3e) (2002), p.163-202.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Deities and Demigods (3e) (2002), p.165-167.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Legends & Lore (2e) (1990), p.172.
  5. Ragnarok: What the Old Norse Sources Say (2017), Jackson Crawford, Youtube.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 The Poetic Edda, Jackson Crawford translation.
  7. Edda, Snorri Sturlson, Everyman translation.
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