Did the vikings actually believe in ragnarok?

Discussion in 'Norse Mythology' started by Porter Rockwell, Nov 27, 2013.

  1. Porter Rockwell

    Porter Rockwell New Member

    As I understand it, nearly all of the Norse gods (and everything else) died in Ragnarok, and the world essentially was reborn. This leads to a fairly obvious problem. If your average Viking raider actually believed that, then there were no more gods as far as he was concerned. So, how (for example) did the Valkyrie pick up heroes from the battlefield if the gods were dead?

    Just as a suggestion to get things rolling, perhaps the commanding role that Ragnarok has in today's understanding of Norse myths was actually not part of the belief of the Vikings at the time and was a latter day invention by the people who recorded the few records we have. (Mainly the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, which were recorded centuries later by people who may have had ulterior motives.)
  2. Alejandro

    Alejandro Active Member

    But then supposing that the "Norsemen" did in fact believe in the Ragnarök, just like in the mythologies and religions of many other peoples around the world (e.g., the ancient Egyptians and the Maya [there was recently that 2012 scare supposedly based on their beliefs], and also in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, etc), isn't the idea - even now - that the end of the world, or at least of the era/age, has not happened yet? I think that by the time the Vikings were being Christianised they were still living in the expectation of the Ragnarök, and worshipping generally the same gods (or versions of the same deities) that we read about now in the Eddas, anticipating the demise of their deities after human society decayed beyond the point of redemption. In fact it is suspected that the account of the world's end in Hyndluljóð ["Hyndla's Poem"] is a combination, one the one hand, of the belief that Óðinn will one day be chowed by a giant wolf and, on the other hand, of the concept that Christ will eventually rule the world.

    So it seems (to me anyway) that when the Vikings were doing their rounds of raids, the Ragnarök was still yet to come, and over time, if those deities were still in vogue today, I imagine the belief would have simply been tweaked or embellished so that they would still expect the world to end in a gory cataclysmic event, as many people today do believe that it will someday. Or... then again maybe you're right about the whole concept being read back into the belief of the Vikings by later writers.
    Myrddin likes this.
  3. Porter Rockwell

    Porter Rockwell New Member

    Ummmm ... Egyptians and Mayans are kinda "apples and kumquats" in relation to the Norse Ragnarok. While the Egyptians had a lot of their gods killing each other off (and doing really disgusting things at the same time), they all didn't die off. The ones that got worshipped were presumed to still be around. And the Mayan "end of world" belief was far, FAR in the future as far as they were concerned back when they were around. The same for the other religions you mention. My neighborhood dispensationalist keeps predicting that Armageddon is next Wednesday, but it never seems to happen.

    You wrote, "I think that by the time the Vikings were being Christianized they were still living in the expectation of the Ragnarök." But the myths are all written in the past tense, like it already happened! And the accounts are so detailed. They say who killed who, when and how in the form of a history, not a prediction. Perhaps the version of Ragnarök believed by actual Vikings in say, 900 AD, was expected to be in the future. But the version recorded in 1200 or 1300 AD was written as though these events had already occurred.

    Of course, this is all speculation since we have no other primary sources to consult. But it would be totally illogical for an actual 900 AD Viking to believe that Ragnarök had already happened and still behave as though Thor was still around creating thunder and lightning. The Vikings may not have been rocket scientists, but they were a lot smarter than that.

    This brings us down to "Why do we care?" I'm reading (yet another) book about them right now and like every other book I have read, it faithfully reports Ragnarök as a historical event, not a future prediction, in the Norse myths. I think people ought to stop writing books that way. It makes a dramatic story, but if you think twice about it, it doesn't make any sense.
  4. Alejandro

    Alejandro Active Member

    I think it was in some encyclopedia I read, back in the day, about an ancient Egyptian belief that one day all evil would be destroyed and Osiris would arise from the Duat in order to become an eternal Pharaoh of Egypt and the world. That's what I was referring to in comparison to the Ragnarök.
    I'm not saying that every aspect of cosmology, theology and eschatology from Egypt, the Americas and the various religions and mythologies I mentioned is a perfect analogue to the Ragnarök myth. My point was to draw a broad comparison based on the fact that, similarly to the Norsemen, many people the world over in both ancient and modern times have believed, and many still do believe in the concept of a violently stormy end to the world, whether it involves the destruction of entire pantheons or a conflagration of the Earth. So it's not so outlandish to me that, before the Norsemen adopted different religions, they might have believed that a time would come when the universe would be destroyed and recreated.

    My understanding of Norse/Viking culture was that this group of people was so warlike (and maybe a bit fatalistic) because it believed something akin to what we read about in the Eddas and the rest of the Norse mythology corpus regarding the manner of one's death. Die in battle: Go up to Valhalla to train for the Ragnarök. Die of natural causes: Go down to Niflheimr to await Loki's coming to lead you into battle against the gods at the end of time. Maybe I've bought into an oversimplification of their beliefs and am totally wrong about this, but that's the idea I've gotten from most of their mythological literature. Snorri Sturluson is partly to blame for this, since he explains the folk custom of trimming the nails of the dead by writing that the ship Naglfar in which Loki will sail carrying the gods' enemies to the last battle will, for some unexplained reason, be composed entirely of human nails, and the completion of this vessel is one of the prerequisites for the onset of the world's end. For this reason, naturally, "gods and men wish for it to take a long time" before this construction can be finished. The description of the ship's voyage is narrated in the future tense in the Gylfaginning, by the way, and not as though it has already happened.
    Kindly allow me to disagree. Pretty much everything written in that time about the Ragnarök comes from the Gylfaginning, all the events being narrated by Óðinn to King Gylfi of Sweden obviously in future tense because Óðinn is clearly still alive and still king of the Æsir when he's dishing out this info. When he's not talking about the world's destruction he speaks about the gods and explains their different relationships as though they are still around doing their thing. The accounts in the Poetic Edda aren't much different either. They are generally narrated by a character in one of the poems in the collection, most notably the Völva (Prophetess) in the Völuspá, who sees the future in a detailed vision and describes what she sees to the inquiring Óðinn. (Detailed descriptions of the world's destruction, especially from visions, are not unique to this mythology.) The Giant Vafþrúðnir also responds to Óðinn's questions regarding the future end as though it was... well, the future.

    But oh, well, I'm speculating as to whether this affects what the Vikings actually believed as much as you are, since, as you say, these are the only primary sources we have. Also we do know that the Norsemen's beliefs were somewhat more diverse than just what we find in the Eddas. For all we know, a lot of these guys may not have even known about deities named Loki or Þórr or about some place called Valhalla. (The only version of Eddic mythology I've ever come across which describes the Ragnarök as a past event, however, is the Marvel Comics rendition, although granted that it is a radical revision in which the gods survive because the cataclysm is somehow constantly averted, sometimes by the intervention of characters completely unrelated to the original mythology.)
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2013
  5. Myrddin

    Myrddin Well-Known Member

    Stan Lee might just be a little crazy. ;) "I'm starting to think his mind may no longer be in mint condition" (Comic Book Guy, The Simpsons). Things are always messed around with for comics/graphic novels. They're just meant to be fun, right?

    If I remember correctly, Odin traded one of his eyes (maybe the left?) for a sip from the well of wisdom. This enabled him to catch a glimpse of the future and the upcoming Ragnarok. This is quite possibly where a lot of the details for the war-yet-to-come comes from. Assuming Odin is the one to describe it, like Alejandro suggested.

    I am given to understand, though I haven't read a lot on the subject myself, that Ragnarok is a future war, and the gods of the Norsemen are still alive and active (Fenrir still bound in chains, and Loki imprisoned in his cave causing earthquakes when his wife must empty the bowl of snake venom). Neither have yet been released for the fight.

    E. M.
  6. Porter Rockwell

    Porter Rockwell New Member

    First, thanks for your thoughts on this. My original goal was to find out what sort of reaction my speculation would receive from more seasoned students of Norse myths.

    I never doubted that other cultures had a version of universal destruction similar to the Norse version. My question was always timing: That is, whether the Edda's themselves depict Ragnarok as having already taken place or whether it was described as something still to come. Since I don't read Old Norse, I can't determine that answer personally.

    I re-read a couple of the accounts I'm looking at right now (Dougherty's "History of the Norse People" and Padraic Colum's classic "The Children of Odin"). A close reading of Dougherty still seems inconclusive to me. The verb tense could be interpreted either way, but the text never explicitly resolves this question. Column, being a further fictionalization of myths originally written for children, is a poor source for what the myths say but a good source for how they're typically interpreted by our culture today. Column clearly describes Ragnarok as a past event today. And that brings back my primary objection.

    It would seem to me that Ragnarok ought to be treated in a manner similar to the book of Revelations in the Bible: Something that is still going to happen in some indefinite future. If the Edda's say differently (my primary question again), we ought to disregard that part of the Edda's as distortions introduced by the people who wrote them down. Adherents of Ásatrú ought to have equal rights to wear sandwich signs and proclaim "The End is Near" as millennial Christians.

    Any other opinions on this will be gladly received.
    Myrddin likes this.
  7. Porter Rockwell

    Porter Rockwell New Member

    I don't mean to drag this point out, but I was reading Dougherty's "History of the Norse People" again and I'd like to correct the earlier post. Ragnarok IS described in past tense.

    For example ...

    "Odin is said to have whispered to Baldr before the pyre was lit ..."

    That couldn't be anything except past tense.
  8. Caburus

    Caburus Active Member

    According to Norse myth (as they appear in the Eddas), the death of Baldr is in the past, long before Ragnarok takes place in the future.

    Regarding Dougherty - his book takes the viking culture as the historical past, and talks about everything regarding it within the past tense, regardless of how the vikings themselves saw their own world chronologically. Perhaps that is the confusion? For example Dougherty writes "The worlds of Norse mythology were connected by the world tree Yggdrasil which had roots in Jotunheim, Asgard and Niflheim." All this is past tense, whereas in the time of the vikings the belief was that Yggdrasil is connecting the worlds, and has its roots in Jotunheim, Asgard and Niflheim.
    Myrddin likes this.
  9. Myrddin

    Myrddin Well-Known Member

    LOL. I love that. :)

    Agreed. "is said", "whispered", "the pyre was". Definitely past tense. No question. ;)

    Dragging out? No such thing. Not here at least.

    E. M.
  10. Myrddin

    Myrddin Well-Known Member

    Dougherty sounds untrustworthy. If he can't write it appropiately, then what else has he ... "edited"? Who knows? I don't trust authors who can't keep things straight. It just seems to me that one wrong thing can lead to the question "What else here is wrong?" And I don't know, so the only thing I can do then is disregard everything they say. Of course, not all of it is falsified, but only the stuff you already know can be clear on that front.

    Yes, all myths are about how the cultures beleived the world was shaped and formed into its current condition. In this case, of course, the Vikings. Only them, and the stories they believed in, should be talked of in the past tense. That which leads up to, say, the first river or the creation of Yggdrasil. Current conditions should never be past tense - that just confuses things.

    E. M.
  11. Alejandro

    Alejandro Active Member


    Let's not forget about Marvel Thor's co-creator, old Jack Kirby, while we're at it :cool:


    As Caburus has pointed out, even by Norse/Viking times Balder's death is supposed to have been an ancient event, and in fact the idea in the Eddic myths is that one of the reasons that the world is in as much decay as it's in is that the good god Balder - the best, most loved of all beings - is dead. His death, in fact, is the first precursor to the Ragnarök: the beginning of a chain reaction which ends in the universe engulfed in flames. We're supposed to be living in between the time of his death and the great conflagration at the end of time. Part of the reason Óðinn knows as much as he does about the end of the world in the first place has a lot to do with Balder's death. When Balder was still alive he did something very unusual: he had nightmares, which was a bad sign because he was never bothered by any evil in any form, ever, not even in his sleep. His mother Frigg had the same dreams and so his father Óðinn undertook a trip to the Underworld to make an inquiry from the ghost of a dead giant prophetess, the Völva, about this. The ghost revealed to him not only that Balder was fated to die but also described the events of the Ragnarök to him. Óðinn acquired other details regarding the universe's demise in other ways. When he told Frigg what he had learned she did everything in her power to prevent her son's death but it was all in vain and Balder was slain by his own twin brother Höðr through the trickery of Loki.
    This is not referring to the Ragnarök, it's about Balder's funeral, and it seems that Dougherty is referencing Vafþrúðnismál (part of the Poetic Edda), in which the last question a disguised Óðinn asks his gigantic opponent Vafþrúðnir is "What did Óðinn whisper into his son's ears before he burned on the funeral pyre?" At this point Vafþrúðnir realises that he's been in a wisdom contest with Óðinn and replies saying that only his opponent could know the answer to that question since he is the one who spoke to Balder's corpse on the day of the funeral. Other sources describe the funeral, at which Balder's wife Nanna killed herself so that she could be with him in death. They also describe how both Nanna and Höðr, who are also now dead, live together with Balder in Niflheimr, awaiting the Ragnarök, after which they will resurrect to rule the world together with some of the younger gods who survive the last battle. Maybe the confusion from Dougherty's reference is that Balder's death, in a sense, was the beginning of the end of the world? (I can only guess since I haven't yet read that History of the Norse People.)
    As you've rightly observed, the only way for the authors of Norse mythology literature to sensibly depict the Ragnarök as a historical event is if gods like Thor were depicted as summarily dead and gone. But this is actually not even as far as one would have to take it for the story's basic internal logic to work. One would have to expect, within the narrative world of the story, that if the Ragnarök has already happened, not only have most of the old gods died but also that we now live in the peaceful new universe ruled by Balder, Nanna, Höðr and the gods who were fated to survive the last battle. Additionally, it would mean that we are the recent descendants of Líf and Lífþrasir, the only two human survivors of the universal cataclysm and we, the fresh start for the human race, presumably would not be plagued (at least not in the revamp’s earliest years) by the same societal decadence which the previously destroyed population suffered especially nearing the end of that world.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2013
  12. Alejandro

    Alejandro Active Member

    In order to give your question fair treatment it I think that one would have to consider some examples from Viking history as well as from the Norse mythology literature independent of the Eddas. So here's another angle I've arrived at by combining the mythology in the Völsungasaga with the legend which overlaps with history from Nornagests þáttr together with the history in the Heimskringla. All these three works were composed contemporaneously with the Eddas, i.e. within your period of interest: 13th & 14th centuries AD, and the mythological material therein is homologous to the stories in the Eddas. The Völsungasaga commences with Óðinn as an ancestral figure who is eventually encountered by a few different generations of his Völsung descendants. The most famous these descendants is Sigurð, the dragon-slaying prince of the Huns who ends up with the cursed treasure of the dwarf Andvari, which treasure, some time before Sigurð was born, was stolen from the dwarf by the god Loki. The concept of Valhalla, and by extension the Ragnarök, is prevalent in the Völsungasaga.

    Norna-Gest, the hero of Nornagests þáttr, was a Danish warrior who, through both a gift and a curse of the Norns, lived for three hundred years so that he was able to be a contemporary of mythical characters like Sigurð and the huge eight-armed Starkað (who was a friend of Óðinn who was hated by Thor) as well as historical figures like Harald Fairhair (first king of Norway) and his great-grandson Olaf I Tryggvason (the first Christian king of Norway, whose reign ended in 1000 AD). Legend has it that Norna-Gest became a bodyguard of Olaf Tryggvason and died in his court after having been baptised there. So here's my point about the presence of all these characters in these stories:

    • In the Völsungasaga, in the time of Sigurð Dragonslayer, kings and commoners believe in the Ragnarök and worship Óðinn as the ruler of the gods.
    • In the late 900s AD, King Olaf I of Norway, being a Christian, does not acknowledge Óðinn in the same way his predecessors would have. Norna-Gest, who lives at Olaf's court, is so old he remembers a time when he encountered Sigurð Dragonslayer, a sixth-generation descendant of Óðinn. Loki had not even been imprisoned at this point since he had recently been wandering around stealing dwarven treasure. And we know that it's supposed to be many centuries between the imprisonment of Loki and the final battle.
    • According to the Heimskringla, which, like the Prose Edda, was written by Snorri Sturluson, Olaf Tryggvason once spent the night enjoying his conversation with a mysterious one-eyed visitor wearing a broad-brimmed hat. After the king went to sleep the visitor, displeased at the quality of the meat being cooked for Olaf, brought in two thick pieces of beef which were then cooked as he disappeared into the night. When Olaf awoke the next morning he ordered the meat to be thrown away because he ascertained that "This man can be no other than the Óðinn whom the heathens have so long worshipped." And then he added, "But Óðinn shall not deceive us."
    • Conclusion: Between 990 and 1300 AD, even if Olaf and Snorri are Christians and their people no longer expect the Ragnarök to occur, they cannot reasonably describe it as a past event since Óðinn - in some shape or form (even though relegated to the status of "heathen god") - is still walking around on Earth giving old kings meat just for kicks. If Snorri believed the Ragnarök had already happened by this point I imagine he should have felt the need to explain why Óðinn was still around to bother the poor old king. On top of that, if Norna-Gest - who lives at Olaf's court at the age of about 300 - somehow survived the Ragnarök, let's say therefore that the world ended in the middle of his life some 150 years ago. This means that the world burned down, together with its entire population, in the middle of the reign of Harald Fairhair! The absurdities which would have to be explained would be too numerous for us to say that Snorri was a good storyteller. (And I personally think he was pretty good at this storytelling gig, which means I think that he actually does describe the Ragnarök as though it has not happened yet, the same as the composers of the Poetic Edda.)
    I've always assumed (incorrectly? :eek:) that Snorri and the writer of Hyndluljóð were deliberately trying to draw parallels between the concept of the Ragnarök and the eschatological accounts found in the Bible. I haven't read Dougherty or Colum but other writers, who interpret the Eddas as predicting a Ragnarök that has not yet occurred, and who, from what I can tell, do think that the Vikings (certain kingdoms/tribes of them, anyway) did actually believe in the Ragnarök, include:


    John Grant - see his encyclopedia-format book An Introduction to Viking Mythology, from Chartwell Books, Inc. The introduction to his Ragnarök chapter, in an article which comes at the end of the book, reads:

    In this book we have concentrated to exclusion on things that have already happened - or at least have done so according to the Norse myths. However, the mythology encompassed also what was going to happen at some unspecified time in the future, when the gods themselves would die.
    John Lindow - see his book Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, from Oxford University Press (This 1 is from a more academic perspective, with a similar format to Grant's book; and Norse myth and Viking history appear to be this guy's area of expertise.) The Ragnarök article in the book is subtitled "Demise of the gods and of the cosmos at the end of the mythological present."

    Roger Lancelyn Green - see his book Myths of the Norsemen: Retold from the Old Norse Poems and Tales from Puffin Classics (This is a children's book which I think utilises the material from the Eddas and other medieval literature quite masterfully.)
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2013

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