Skip to main content

Ragnarök: The end of the world and twilight of the Norse gods

A scene from the last phase of Ragnarök, after Surtr has engulfed the world with fire by Emil Doepler | Public Domain | Wikipedia

In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is the end of days. It's the apocalyptic moment when the entire cosmos, including the gods, will be destroyed. Its meaning in Old Norse couldn't be more apt, literally translating as 'Fate of the Gods'. Norse mythology is made up of several chronological tales and, of course, the story of Ragnarök sits at the very end of these.

For the Norsemen of the Early Middles Ages, which of course included the famous searing warriors known as Vikings, Ragnarök was a prophecy of what was to come, a detailed description of how their world would end. Even the gods in the tale knew the prophecies of Ragnarök but were powerless to change their fate.

Before we launch into the cataclysmic events of Ragnarök, let’s take a quick look at the Norse mythological universe. It was made up of nine worlds, one of which was Ásgard, the home of the Æsir clan of gods. The other pantheon of gods was called the Vanir and they lived in Vanaheim. According to legend, the nine realms surrounded and spread out from the Yggdrasil, a sacred cosmic tree at the centre of the universe.

Of the two main groups of gods, the Æsir had the most recognisable names in today’s modern world. The pantheon consisted of Odin, Thor, Frigg, Balder, Heimdall, Höðr and Týr, whilst the Vanir held Njörðr, Freyr, Freya, Gullveig and Nerthus. Loki, the famous trickster god, was neither Æsir nor Vanir, an important reminder when it comes to understanding Ragnarök. Whilst the gods of the two pantheons were often at arms with each other in Norse mythology, the events of Ragnarök were unrelated to their ongoing feud.

So how will it all end? The prophecy of Ragnarök will be heralded in by several signs. The first being the coming of the Fimbulwinter (‘great winter’) that will see three successive winters ravage the earth, with no summers in between them. The harsh winter will bring endless snow in from every direction making food and resources scarce. Mankind will plummet into a world of conflict as the winter ravages the lands and the scraps of what’s left are fought over tooth and nail. It’s said that it’ll be a time when brothers will kill brothers, fathers will kill sons and the natural bonds of families will be torn apart as the basic need to survive ravages all.

Since the dawn of time, the wolves Skoll and Hati have chased after the sun and moon. During Ragnarök, they finally catch their prey. It causes the skies to darken, the stars to disappear and the earth to violently tremble. Mountains are felled, trees are toppled and amongst the destruction, the wolf Fenrir will be released from his chains. Fenrir is the child of Loki and was placed in bondage by the other gods for he was prophesied to do them great harm.

Another child of Loki will burst forth onto the earth during this time. Jörmungandr, the sea serpent of Midgard (the world of humans), will breach the land as the waters swell onto it. A ship, known as Naglfar, a vessel made of human fingernails and toenails taken from dead men and women, will break free of its mooring. The ship will be filled with an army of giants who can now sail easily over the flooded earth. At its helm will be a frost-giant called Hrymr.

With eyes and nostrils ablaze Fenrir will run loose, opening his mouth so wide that his upper jaw reaches the sky whilst his lower one gouges through the earth. Jörmungandr will spit venom across the land and sea, poisoning everything.

Whilst the two creatures run rampant, the dome of the sky will split open and from the crack fire-giants from the realm of Muspelheim will burst forth. Leading them will be Surtr waving a flaming sword said to be brighter than the sun. The fire-giants will ride across the Bifröst, the rainbow bridge connecting the world of man to Ásgard. As they cross the bridge it will crumble behind them. They’ll then head for the vast expanses of the field of Vígríðr.

Upon the great battlefield Fenrir, Jörmungandr, Hrymr and Loki will join them. Before this, Loki had been chained in a cave by the other gods for the part he played in the death of Balder. The events of Ragnarök will allow Loki to break free of his chains and join the others at Vígríðr to fight the Æsir gods.

Heimdall, the watchman of the gods and guard of the Bifröst bridge, will blow his mighty horn known as the Gjallarhorn. The sound will be heard in all the realms and it’ll awaken the gods who’ll realise the end of the world has come. Yggdrasil will begin to shake as Odin heads beneath it in search of counsel from the wisest of all beings known as Mímir.

Although they are fully aware of the prophecies, Odin and the god’s will gathers arms and head for Vígríðr. Amongst their ranks will be Freyr, a Vanir god held captive by the Æsir after the Æsir-Vanir War. He is the only god of the Vanir clan mentioned by the ancient poems to take part in the fight.

As the battle commences, Odin will ride towards Fenrir whilst Thor will engage with Jörmungandr. From head to toe, Odin will be clad in golden armour whilst wielding his famous spear known as Gungrir. By his side will be the einherjar, chosen men who died in battle and were brought to the great hall of Valhalla to prepare for Ragnarök. Odin and his band of human warriors will clash with Fenrir and fight with such valour the world has never seen before.

However, the prophecies have foretold their downfall and Fenrir will swallow them all including the ‘father of the gods’. His victory will be short-lived as Odin’s son Víðarr exacts revenge for his father’s death by ripping the great wolf‘s mouth apart and stabbing it through the throat, killing him instantly.

The Jörmungandr will prove a worthy adversary to Thor as the pair engage in battle. Thor will smash the snake to pieces with his mighty hammer called the Mjöllnir. However, the victory will also be his last. During the fight, Thor will be poisoned by the serpent’s deadly venom and he’ll stagger just nine steps after slaying the creature before collapsing dead.

The battle will also see the death of Freyr who falls to Surtr and Týr who is killed by Garmr, another wolf of the underworld. The mischievous antics of Loki will end on the battlefield of Vígríðr as he and Heimdall extinguish each other’s lives.

As the blood-soaked battle draws to a close, Surtr will engulf the earth in fire, causing everything to burn. As the land sinks into the sea, the flames will rise to the heavens.

Sometime after, the flames will die down and the earth will reappear from the water. An eagle will hunt for fish over a waterfall cascading from a mountain. The Æsir gods Höðr and Balder, who had previously died and gone to Hel, are resurrected after the events of Ragnarök. It is prophesied that the Vanir god Njörðr, another Æsir hostage after the Æsir-Vanir War, will return ‘home among the wise Vanir’. Odin and Thor’s sons will also survive; the former will reside in the temple of the gods whilst the latter will continue to wield the famous Mjöllnir. So it seems that not all gods will be lost during Ragnarök.

Two humans will survive as well, Líf and Lífþrasir, a man and a woman who hid in a wood called Hoddmímis Holt to escape Ragnarök. After the devastating events are over, they’ll repopulate the new and fertile world they now find themselves in.

The sun will shine again as the daughter of the previous sun takes up the role of her mother. The world is reborn afresh and anew.

For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.