Ragnarök in Norse Mythology: Meaning, Summary, & Cause

Ragnarök in Norse mythology | Ragnarök refers to the downfall of the gods in Norse mythology

A number of stories and accounts in Norse mythology foretell of a time when the world will sink beneath the oceans and the sun will abandon the world. Pent up magma in all the mountains of the world will erupt, spewing massive amounts of toxic plumes into the sky. Those events are just the tip of the iceberg of how things will go down during Ragnarök, a series of cataclysmic events that will climax with the deaths of many Norse gods.

In the article below, World History Edu explores the meaning, origin story, and ultimate outcome of Ragnarök.

Ragnarök: Quick Facts

Also known as: Ragnarøkkr, Aldar rök (“end of an era”)

Meaning: Twilight of the Gods, Demise of the World, Fate of the Gods, Doom of the gods

Deaths: Odin, Thor, Loki, Freyr, Heimdallr, and many other Norse gods

Outcome: The demise of the gods and the birth of a new age

The meaning of the word Ragnarök

The word Ragnarök in Old Norse means “Twilight of the Gods” or “Fate of the Gods”

“Ragna”, the first part of the word in Ragnarök, is said to evoke a meaning of power or a celestial being. “rok” or “røkkr”, the second part means fate or destiny. Together, those two parts basically translate to “destruction of the gods” or “fate of the gods”.

In Vafþrúðnismál, the third poem of Poetic Edda, the terms þá er regin deyja (“when the gods die”) and  Aldar rök (“end of an era”) were used. Similarly in Lokasenna, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the term unz um rjúfask regin (“when the gods will be destroyed”) was used.

In Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, the first poem Gylfaginning, bears similar accounts as the ones in the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá .

Summary

The term Ragnarök in Norse mythology simply refers to the demise of number of powerful Norse gods, including the god of thunder Thor, the all-father god Odin, Freyr, Tyr, and Loki.

Norse myths foretell of a series of events and disasters that bring about the destruction of the world so that a new world and a new age of gods could begin.

Ragnarök pits the gods against the forces of chaos and evil as both sides wrestle for dominance. It then ends with the loss of many lives, including the lives of many Aesir gods.

Ragnarök talks about the demise of the world as we know it, including the deaths of many Norse gods and heroes | Image by George Wright (1908)

Major events of Ragnarök

The following are some of the major events and battles that occur during Ragnarök in Norse mythology.

Crowing of three roosters

In the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, Ragnarök begins when three roosters crow. This was revealed to the all-father god Odin by völva, a female seer.

The first rooster – Fjalar – crows in Gálgviðr, the forest in Jötunheimr (land of the  jötnar or giants). The second rooster, a golden rooster known as Gullinkambi, will crow loudly to the Aesir gods in Valhalla. Finally, the third rooster, an unamed rooster, is expected to crow in the halls of the underworld (Hel).

The hellhound Garmr breaks free

Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts

The hound Garmr – guardian of the gate to the underworld (Hel) – signals the onset of Ragnarök with his very deep howls in front of the cave of Gnapahellir (also known as the home of Garmr). Described as a blood-stained hound, Garmr was chained at the gates of Hel. However, it is prophesied that he will break free from his bondage when Ragnarök begins.

Heimdallr blows his horn

Norse God Heimdallr blows horn Gjallarhorn in an 1895 illustration by Lorenz Frølich

Known in Norse mythology as the guardian of Asgard, the god Heimdallr (“shining God”) spent all his life being on the lookout for the start of Ragnarök . The Himinbjorg dweller is said to have such an amazing hearing and eyesight that he could hear a pin drop anywhere in the nine realms. This ability of his will prove very useful when the forces of evil begin to breech the Bifrost, a rainbow bridge that connects Earth to Asgard.

Heimdallr will raise his horn, the Gjallarhorn, into the air and blow with all his might. The sound of his horn will be heard throughout Asgard, alerting the gods of the start of Ragnarök.

The trickster god Loki

Loki

Ragnarok in Norse mythology | Loki breaks free at the onset of Ragnarök | Image by Ernst H. Walther (1897)

Following the murder of Baldur by Loki, the gods bound Loki with the intestines of his son Narfi. The gods then placed venomous snakes above Loki’s head. Every time the venom dripped on the trickster god’s head, he writhed in pain. It is foretold that Loki will remain bound until the beginning of Ragnarök, at which point he will break free.

Loki will join his children – Jörmungandr, Fenrir, and Hel – and wage war against the Aesir gods. He will duel with Heimdallr. Both gods are fated to kill each other in the battle.

Read more: Major Myths about Loki, the god of mischief

The mighty wolf Fenrir breaks free

In Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda, the mighty wolf Fenrir is said to have bitten of the god Týr’s right hand. A son of the trickster god Loki, Fenrir was such a fierce creature. He was bound by the Aesir gods; however, he destined to break free from his bondage at the onset of Ragnarök. It was also prophesied that Fenrir wreek unimaginable havoc before killing Odin during Ragnarök.

So the question that begs to be answered is: Why didn’t the gods kill Fenrir in spite of those damning prophesies? According to the myths, the gods refused to slay Fenrir because they did not to desecrate the sanctuary that held Fenrir.

Other events that take place at the onset of Ragnarök

The following are some other events that happen at the beginning of Ragnarök:

  • The all-father and one-eyed raven god Odin will seek counsel from the head of Mim (or Mimir), the figure most known for his vast knowledge and wisdom.
  • The world-tree Yggdrasil will groan and shudder.
  • The Jotnar (giants) will be led by Hrymr from the east. According to the Poetic Edda, the giant will bring a great number of Jotnar to the field of Vígríðror Óskópnir, where the æsir (gods)and will battle the giants for dominance.

The first sign of Ragnarok and the ensuing natural disasters

According to the Gylgaginning in the Prose Edda, fimbulwinter will blanket the entire world. Fimbulwinter refers to the three very bitter winters that come with no respite.

In an explanation to Gangleri, the disguised version of Scandinavian king Gylfi, a figure known as High, king of the hall, tells of great battles that will break out all around the world. High also foretells of the disintegration of the social order as greed and carnage become the order of the day. He noted that brothers will kill brothers, fathers and sons will move apart, and the wolf will swallow the sun (Sól). Similarly, the wolf’s brother will swallow the moon (Mani).

In addition to the disappearance of the sun and the moon, the stars in the sky will vanish, mountains will tremble violently, and trees will be uprooted from the ground.

A female seer (völva) describing how Ragnarök will pan out

Events that transpire during Ragnarök

Both the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda mention a great deal of catastrophes that occur during Ragnarök. Some examples of those calamitous events are as follows:

  • The Midgard serpent Jormungandr will writhe in so much pain and anger that it causes massive waves across the world. Jormungandr is gargantuan serpent who is said to have the ability to wrap himself all around the world.
  • The ship Naglfar – a very famous ship made from the human toe nails and finger nails – will break free due to the waves made by Jormungandr. It will then set sail to the east.
  • A number of eagles will shriek noisily before going around tearing the corpse of the dead.
  • Fire jotnar in Muspelheim will emerge. They will be led by a giant called Surtr. Holding a sword that is said to glow even brighter than the sun, Surtr will then emerge with his legion of giants from the east.
  • The land of the jotnar will ready themselves to battle against the gods.
  • Dwarfs will groan, and the jotnar women will sink as cliffs open up.

Battle between Norse gods and the forces of evil

According to High, Fenrir and his brother Jormungandr will rain upon the earth destruction never seen before. The later will breach the land, consuming the earth. The mighty serpent will also shoot his venom into the sea and the air.

The sky will split into two, bringing forth the sons of Muspell (creatures that dwell in Muspelheim). The inhabitants of the fiery Muspelheim are known as the destroyers of world or the wreck of the world. They will breach the Bifröst, a rainbow bridge that connects Midgard (Earth) and Asgard (the home of the gods). After destroying the bridge, they will make their way to the field of Vígríðr, where Loki and his children – Jörmungandr, Fenrir, and Hel – will then join them in waging a fierce war against the gods.

With regard to the Norse gods, they will be supported by einherjar, brave soldiers that dine and drink in the halls of Valhalla. The gods will don a gold helmet and be armed to the teeth. The chief of the gods Odin will wield his powerful spear Gungnir and lead the gods to battle.

Odin versus Fenrir

Odin will charge into battle with his powerful spear Gungnir, fighting against the wolf Fenrir | Image: Fenrir and Odin (by Lorenz Frølich, 1895)

Odin, leader the Aesir gods, will take on the fierce wolf Fenrir in the field of battle. In spite of Odin’s hard-fought efforts, he is bested out by the wolf Fenrir who swallows him. The death of Odin saddens Odin’s wife Frigg, the goddess of marriage and prophecy. His death is said to be Frigg’s second great sorrow, after the death of her son Baldur.

In spite of Odin’s demise, the gods continue to fight gallantly against the giants and demons. Odin’s oldest son Thor was unable to aid his father as he was busy fighting the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr.

The task of avenging the death of Odin fell to a different son of Odin, Víðarr who rips apart the jaw of the Fenrir and then stabs it in the heart. Fenrir dies.

An illustration of Víðarr stabbing Fenrir while holding his jaws apart (by W. G. Collingwood, inspired by the Gosforth Cross, 1908)

Thor versus Jörmungandr

Thor, the god of thunder, wields his hammer Mjolnir and seeks out Jörmungandr. Thor’s bravery helps save the world from further carnage inflicted by the serpent. After a ferocious fight, Thor is able to slay Jörmungandr; however, the thunder god’s win comes at huge price: his life. Thor dies after taking nine steps.

13th-century Prose Edda (written by Icelandic poet and lawmaker Snorri Sturluson) was inspired by the Völuspá  | Image: The Midgard serpent Jörmungandr confronts the god Thor in an illustration (1905) by Emil Doepler.

Freyr fights Surtr

The prophecy in the myth states that Surtr (“the swarthy one”) will emerge with a shining sword in a background of flames. It’s foretold in both the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda that Surtr will lead his giants against the Æsir (gods). He will take on the god Freyr, god of fertility and fair weather.

Surtr will have an edge over Freyr as the Norse god doesn’t have his very powerful sword (“the good sword”). And so, Freyr dies. Following the death of Freyr, further tragedy befalls the earth. The sun and stars vanish from the sky completely. The earth also sinks beneath the oceans. Surtr then covers the earth in fire which in turn causes the sky to turn red.

Ragnarök in Norse mythology |The battle between Surtr and Freyr at Ragnarök, illustration (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

Týr versus Garmr

Týr, the Norse god who lost his right hand to the wolf Fenrir, is most famous for being the god of war in Norse mythology. During Ragnarök, Týr  will face off with Garmr, the hellhound from Hel (Underworld). After a very intense fight, Týr and Garmr end up killing each other.

Loki takes on Heimdallr

The god of mischief Loki will battle against the god Heimdallr. Loki and Heimdallr are said to have had always had a very frosty relationship. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the two gods dueled each other to the death during Ragnarök. In the end, they kill one another.

Due to the frosty relationship he had with Loki, Heimdallr was also known as “Loki’s enemy” or “wrangler with Loki”.

Aftermath of Ragnarök

The battle between the gods and the forces of evil resulted in the deaths of many major Norse gods. According to the prophecy, when the dust all settles, the earth will rise again, rising from the depths of the sea.

Human survivors

The resurfaced earth will come with very fertile lands, allowing for the new generation of beings to grow and repopulate the world.

According to Vafþrúðnir, only two human beings – Lif and Lifprassir – will survive Ragnarok. While chaos engulfed the world, Lif and Lifprassir will hide in the forest and survive the long winters of Fimbulvetr. They are said to survive in a place called Hoddmimis holt. The task of repopulating the world will fall on the shoulders of those two.

A depiction of Líf (“Life”) and Lifthrasis (“Vitality”) (by Lorenz Frølich, 1895)

Norse gods that survive

The gods that survived meet at Iðavöllr at Gimlé , the most beautiful place in Asgard, even more beautiful than the sun.

In a battle of wits between Odin and the wise jötunn Vafþrúðnir, it was revealed that Njörðr – father of Freyr and Freyja – will come following the end of Ragnarök. He will live with the remaining survivors.

The blind god Höðr and Baldur (“the shining one”) return from Hel. Baldur, the god of light who was killed by Loki, will rise from the dead and guide the few gods and humans that survived into a golden age again

According to the prophecy, Odin’s sons Víðarr and Váli will live in the temples of the gods. After the death of Thor, his hammer Mjolnir will pass on to his sons Móði and Magni.

Origin story of Ragnarök

Much of what we know about Ragnarök in Norse mythology comes from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, a 13th-century compilation of Norse myths from traditional sources. For example, the Poetic Edda poems Völuspá and Vafþrúðnismál have references to Ragnarök. In the former, a female seer (völva) tells Odin that Ragnarök will result in the sun turning black as well extreme weather conditions that will envelop the world.

Völuspá

Late 10th-century Icelandic poem Völuspá is also known as “Sibyl’s Prophecy”. | Odin and the female seer Völva (1895) by Lorenz Frølich.

Inspiration

Most likely, Ragnarök was derived from our innate fear of a cataclysmic world-ending events | Image: Battle of the Doomed Gods (by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1882)

Its true inspiration perhaps came from a real life natural disaster like a volcanic eruption which shot massive amounts of ash into the sky, blanketing the land with toxic and poisonous gasses. Such a disaster would have plunged the place into a dark, cruel winter.

More Ragnarök Facts

The god Odin battles the wolf Fenrir while other Norse deities and their combatants fight in the background on the field Vígríðr in an illustration (1905) by Emil Doepler

Historians and mythologists often credit German composer and polemicist Richard Wagner for popularizing the usage of the word Ragnarök, especially in Götterdämmerung (1876), which means “Twilight of the Gods”, one of the four epic music dramas in Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Born in Leipzig in the 19th century, Wagner was famed for being the director and conductor of many critically acclaimed operas and musical dramas.

The Vafþrúðnismál calls Ragnarok as the “Mighty Winter” (Fimbulwinter)

Volcanic eruptions on Iceland – inspired – similar to the natural disasters that Völuspá makes mention about – the figure of Surtr

In some versions, earth sinks and rises again. In the end, only two humans – Líf (“Life”) and Lifthrasis (“Vitality”) – survive. The survivors emerge from the world tree and repopulate the world.

Throughout Ragnarök (“Twilight of the gods”), the world tree Yggdrasil will remain intact.

Shortly before Fenrir could kill the sun (Sól), the sun is said to have given birth to a daughter who went on to follow in her mother’s footsteps riding through the sky on a daily basis.

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