Virtually every western religion or mythos has an end of the world story, an episode in which all the evil of the world comes against all the good, and man and god alike often suffer and even die. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all have an end of the world story, and a story of restoration afterwards. Greek mythology and Roman mythology both also contained end of the world stories. The world's end does not set Ragnarok, the Norse version of the world's final days, apart from other belief systemsbut the dark language of this event in this Norse legend, the same tone taken in many of the Norse myths, along with the way in which the world does end, are among several factors that do tend to make Norse mythology appear much more pessimistic than its counterparts.
Norse myths are known for the dark tone of voice, and the constant pointing towards Ragnarok and the destruction of the world. H.A. Guerber, in Myths of the Northern Lands, comments on the unique aspects of Norse mythology by saying: "The most distinctive traits of the Northern mythology are a peculiar grim humor which is found in the religion of no other race, and a dark thread of tragedy which runs through the whole" (5). In this paper I will study the theology of the Norse, and attempt to help shed light on what exactly gives their religion the darker and more pessimistic reputation it holds.
One strategy to bring a stronger sense of understanding to Norse mythology is to understand the culture it comes from and compare it to a more familiar belief system. In the Book of Genesis, there is one God who simply speaks the world into existence. There is a void, and God's mere words fill it, and build it. Man is made from the sand, and woman is made from the rib of man, but with no negative consequences to that man. The Norse explanation of how the world came to be, by contrast, is filled with violence, blood shed, and the beginning of a war that will last through all of time until the final confrontation at Ragnarok.
Ymir, the father of all frost giants, and a being considered inherently evil, exists in the beginning. Bor, one of the earliest gods, gives birth to three sons, including Odin, who would be the king of all gods. The gods declare war on Ymir and slay him. Ymir's blood is so great that it floods, killing all but one of the frost giants, his descendants (Sturluson 9). The time even before this world is formed, is therefore already full of war, violence, and bloodshed. The dark irony of this moment is that Ymir's blood kills his own descendants, a violation (even if unintentional) of the greatest moral code among the Norse people: to protect and avenge their kin. By that statement, the frost giants' are then pledged to war against the gods forever; which means even before the world was formed that eternal war was inevitable.
The myth continues. Bor's sons, Odin still included, take the corpse of Ymir and use it to form the world. His dead flesh made the earth, his blood made the oceans, lakes and rivers, his teeth made the mountains, and they even used his skull to make the sky (Crossley-Holland 122). This is a gruesome and morbid start to existence, one that is not echoed in today's contemporary religious mythologies, many of which base the beginning of the world in the Genesis story. This violence is a pattern that never ceases throughout Norse mythology until the end of Ragnarok.
The world is made, and then the sun and the moon come next. These are gods who run on chariots, and are always chased by wolves who seek to devour them (Guerber 18-19). In Sturluson's Prose Edda, this is mentioned at the beginning, along with the creation of the world as if the creation of the universe was already fated hand-in-hand with the end of the universe (14-15). Many believe everything in Norse mythology, from the creation of the world to every action of Odin to every counter-action of Loki, all points straight at Ragnarok and the final confrontation that all (gods, giants, humans, and all other races) will eventually occur. This notion seems confirmed by the early story of creation, in which the feud between the Aesir and the giants is started, as well as the chasing of the sun and the moon even at creationboth of which will one day be caught and devoured.
The concept of fate was a mainstay of Norse mythology, perhaps more so than in any other. In Norse mythology not only are men slave to fate, but everythingincluding even Odin, the king of all gods, are subject to fate and destiny; and they are powerless to stop it. A great example of this is the story of how Fenrir is bound by the gods, after they brought it up from a pup, not realizing how strong it would grow to be. The gods trick Fenrir into being bound by an unbreakable ribbon, but Tyr loses one of his hands. Fenrir is restrained, and this is a perfect opportunity to slay him, and to save Odin, whom prophecy says will be slain by Fenrir. Yet, as the Prose Edda states:
"So greatly did the gods respect their holy places and places of sanctuary that they did not want to defile them with the wolf's blood even though the prophecies say that he will be the death of Odin (29)."
Because the gods are honor-bound, not even Odin, the leader of all the Aesir, can change his inevitable doom despite the fact that his prophesized slayer is bound right before him and his companions.
If there is any hope at all for the gods, it is in Baldr, the epitome of nobility and perfection. Even this hope can not last. Even in introduction Baldr is spoken of as "Baldr, the blessed god" before the next line immediately predicts his doom. Baldr appears invincible, thanks to the efforts of Frigg, but Loki uses deception to help Baldr's brother, Hoth, slay him. This once again brings about the taboo of one kin member slaying another.
Baldr's death, and Loki's refusal to weep in order to bring him back, the hope Baldr brought fades away. The living embodiment of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, perceived by Christians as sinless and the Messiahbut he is resurrected by god, while Odin has no such powers to return Baldr from Hel back into the world of the living. The hopes of the gods are dashed with Baldr's death, and it is only a matter of time until Ragnarok. As Guerber states: "The Earth could not live happy without Baldr."
Loki is punished, but everything has already been set into motion (if it hadn't been all along, anyhow) and the end is bound to occur. Ragnarok is interesting in that it is preceded by an additional event, that of Fimbulvetr, the three consecutive winters without break. This is a mythos that definitely has its roots from the culture's far northern environment. Three consecutive winters by the Viking standard would have probably ran approximately eighteen months.
This is a time that actually focuses on the end of the world effects on human beings. During the long winter of Fimbulvetr human society will break down. All moral codes will be broken and society will disintegrate completely. The strong Nordic notion of protection of kin is the main value that is especially focused on as one being broken. Seeing as how this standard stood above all others, the thought of that code no longer applying would have terrified the listeners of that prophecy. This teaching is also found in "The Prophecy of the Seeress" which states:
Brothers will battle to bloody end,
And sisters' sons their sib betray;
Woe's in the world, much wantonness;
[axe-age, sword-agesundered and shields
wind-age, wolf-age, ere the world crumbles;]
will the spear of no man spare the other.
That stanza of poetry reads strongly like a dark end of the world story, and yet even in its own admission "ere the world crumbles," tells that the story of Fimbulvetr is not the end of the world, but only a mere prelude. The betrayal of every man against the other and every man and woman against their own kin is not even the end; only the beginning. It is with this dark and violent prelude that all the worlds are led to the final battle of Ragnarok: which was fated since before even the world was made.
Ragnarok is a scene of chaotic violence in which the fate of all races, all beings, is decided. The halls of the dead are emptied, as is the plain of Hel. All who have died, whether honorably or not, are brought back for a violent wall. All creatures and races alive during that time are drawn to the field of battle and will fight, and die. All the gods and giants will appear, and fight, and the far majority of them will die. Every human being except for two (which also means every single human in the culture who listened to this tale) will die. Even those who were raised from Valhara will die again.
The language used to describe Ragnarok in "The Prophecy of the Seeress" is dark and frightening. This general description is clearly show in the following verse:
Neath sea the land sinketh, the sun dimmeth
from the heavens fall the fair bright stars;
gusheth forth steam and gutting fire,
to very heaven soar the hurtling flames.
As Ragnarok ends there is a re-birth hinted at, but even at the end, after the re-birth, the last verse mentioned is of Nithogg, who collects up all the souls that haven't been claimed and drags them to the Norse version of eternal hell. In most modern faiths the last verses about redemption end with redemption, but in the Norse one the new world is still followed by the final terror.
The Norse view of the world is pessimistic, especially in view of other faiths that currently stand on the world stage. In Christianity the Old Testament is a history, and a hint to a time of change arguing for a Messiah that is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the fulfillment of a promise, and after heaven is opened there is an end of the world, but the faithful will not have to endure it, only the unfaithful. The faithful who passed before the time of judgment are in heaven, but heaven is not emptied for the final battle, and those believers alive are taken to heaven before the apocalypse during the rapture. Only those who convert afterwards will see suffering, but then they will go to heaven. At the end there is a new Earth and new heaven, and God rules all benevolently.
In the Norse, everything is bound to the fates, which care neither for gods nor men. In all of Christianity's books, everything leads to Christ, who eventually leads all the followers to a perfect afterlife. In Norse mythology, everything leads to Ragnarok. The harsh climate and life of the Vikings no doubt helped contribute to this depressing mythos, though had the culture had the time to full develop itself out before encountering Christianity it would have been interesting to see how the entire Northern mythos would have ended up resolving itself and if the final battle would have remained so firmly set. The Norse were a people of strong traditions and faith, with a harsh mythology to match the strong stubborn character they needed to survive in the environment and era of their times.
Crossley-Holand, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Guerber, H. A. Myths of Northern Lands. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1970.
The Holy Bible. New International Version. Colorado Springs: International Bible
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
The Poetic Edda. Trans. Lee M. Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing,