Twilight of the Gods?
In those days, the earth will be plunged into an endless winter. Humankind will lose all respect for virtue, and brother's hand will be against brother. The pursuing wolf will finally swallow the sun and the moon. The Gods will prepare to make their last stand against the forces of darkness and destruction, knowing all the while that they are doomed to failure; that the old earth will die.
Ragnarok has come at last.
This is a powerful, dramatic picture that has made a great impression on all sorts of people, and inspired many works of art. But is it true?
Let me make clear, at the outset, that this will be a meaningless discussion to anyone who views the Gods as 'archetypes' or as creations of human perception. If this is the case, then one could say anything about them, and who could challenge it? I am assuming here that the Gods are real - that they live now, and that it is a meaningful statement to say that at some point they will die.
So, given that assumption - is it true that the Gods (or most of them) will die, and this present earth be destroyed, at the coming of Ragnarok?
If we take literally the language in which Ragnarok is described, it seems we are talking about a cosmic (or at least world-wide) event, so the Germanic or Scandinavian peoples would not be the only ones affected by this. It is not very plausible to me that a special revelation of this kind would be reserved only for one people group. The fact that the Earth will be destroyed and the Gods doomed to death would be, to put it mildly, useful information for any human. So, let's start by looking at what other Pagan or Heathen religions and cultures say about the Twilight of the Gods.
Do the Celts, those close cousins of the Germanic peoples, have such a concept? Not as far as we can see, from the surviving fragments of their lore (set down, let us note, mainly by Christians - as is also true of the bulk of the surviving lore of the North). The only possible equivalent is, in the Book of Invasions that chronicles the ages of Ireland, the yielding of the Tuatha de Danann (i.e., the Gods) before the coming of the Milesians (considered pretty much identical with the Celts themselves). It's true that this represents a diminishing of the gods, rather than their utter destruction, but there is a similar flavor to it-note, for instance, that the gods are said to have retreated into the hills or burial mounds, as shadows of their former selves. (1)
I must note, however, that I know of no evidence that the pagan Irish believed in any such story. This tale is very likely part and parcel of a Christian campaign to dethrone and degrade the gods (they are never referred to as such in the Book of Invasions-as far as we know they are just another race of people, who happen to have some special treasures or magical powers-similar, in fact, to the way in which Snorri Sturluson tried to explain away the Gods in the Ynglinga Saga).
What about other Pagan European cultures? To the classical civilizations, Greece and Rome, perhaps the most important characteristics of the Gods and Goddesses was that they are immortal. As Sappho said, "Death is an evil; we have the gods' word for it; they too would die if death were a good thing." (2) The classical peoples did not predict an end of the world, as far as I am aware, and if they had, then certainly the Gods would have been expected to survive it-as indeed, they predated the current earth as well.
What about India, which is home to the only widely practiced, continuously surviving pagan religion in the world? Well, there are the stories of the Yugas or ages of the world. The end of one age, and the beginning of another, may well be marked by widespread destruction, and by special actions by the Gods and Goddesses. Indeed, the Yugas themselves are measured in terms of the incarnations of Vishnu, the Preserver, who arrives at the end of an age to save the world from whatever great peril it confronts. But do the Gods die at the end of an age? Of course not. They transcend all ages, and are there to usher in the next one.
On the other hand, looking at stories of the gods and of the world's beginning, we do find some close parallels across the Indo-European family. Think of Tacitus stating (of the Germans) 'Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship'. (3) I used to consider this an example of mere cultural imperialism, but over the years have come to the conclusion that the Romans had some justification for the comparisons they drew. They recognized their own gods in those that other people worshipped, even if they had different names and, to some extent, different attributes.
Then again, the Gods and Goddesses are widely seen, across different cultures, as belonging to one or more families or clans (such as the Aesir and the Vanir), and also closely interacting with divine or semi-divine beings from another kindred (such as the jotuns, or etins). The Titans in Greek myth are in many ways similar to the jotuns; and here too, there is a story from the beginnings of creation about a battle between the gods and these beings. The Asura of India represent, perhaps, a still closer parallel - godlike beings who fight with the gods, periodically attempting to wrest control of the earth from them, but also can be individually helpful or benign, even joining with the gods in some cases. This is similar to the cases of certain jotuns who themselves become accepted as members of the Gods' family.
The creation of the earth (Midgard) from the giant Ymir's body also finds echoes elsewhere. In India, the sky is said to be made from Brahma's skull, and poets in Greece said the earth was the body of Zeus, and his eyes the sun and the moon. (4)
Also, in most accounts of the world's youth, one or more great floods are chronicled (in the Northern stories this is explained as a consequence of the death of the great primordial giant Ymir). In Greek myth, Deucalion and Phyrra were the survivors of the flood. It is worth noting that this particular event is remembered across the world. The Middle East has it (Utnapishtim's flood mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh). China has it. Various Native American peoples depict the world as beginning with a great flood, or being covered with water.
So across the Indo-European family (at least), there is much agreement on how things are, and how they came to be. But as far as how they will end, only the Northern peoples have the story of the world's destruction-except for…the Middle Eastern monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; which all offer different versions of Apocalypse.
So, is it possible that the concept of the end of the world came into Heathenism via Christian sources?
One thing that must be noted is that any mention of Ragnarok is from fairly late sources. As far as I know, no surviving manuscript (even the Codex Regius, in which the earliest version of the Voluspa is found), dates from prior to the ninth century C.E. Certainly, at the point these manuscripts were written, Christianity was known in the North. That is not to say that a Christian deliberately modified the manuscript to introduce foreign elements into the Voluspa-my understanding is that most scholars believe this to be unlikely. But Heathens as well were aware of Christianity and its attempts to make inroads into the North. The concept of Ragnarok might have developed among Heathens under Christian influence.
One possibility is that Ragnarok was the result of a Christian missionary effort, which certainly was under way in the Germanies, at least, in the eighth century (5). What follows is speculative and I have no direct evidence for it, so the reader may take this for what it's worth.
Christian missionaries in contemporary times, when bringing their message to cultures that have had no prior exposure to Christianity, seek to interpret the Christian mythos in terms that people in the culture can immediately understand. Nowadays these are usually 'primitive' or traditional tribal societies in Third World settings. The missionaries will learn the local language, and study the local myths with a view to how they can best introduce Christian concepts. For example, in one culture where there was a tradition of 'peace children' being exchanged to end hostilities between warring tribes, the missionaries told the people that Christ is a supernatural version of such a child, offered by his father, the Christian God, to make peace between him and humanity. (6)
It would seem that the earlier missionaries followed a similar strategy. One need look no further than the Apostle Paul preaching on Mars Hill. Looking around, he seized on the concept of the Unknown God, who was honored by the Athenians not as an enigmatic Supreme Power, but so as not to exclude from their worship any gods they did not yet know about. Paul first asserted that the Christian god was this god they were 'already' worshipping, but without knowledge; soon after came the proclamation that this god alone was real, and all the others merely idols or worse, demons.
What if the roots of the Ragnarok myth lie in such a sophisticated co-option of traditional lore? Consider what concepts the Christians would be trying to introduce to the Northern heathen world. Surely that God the Father exists; that he has a son who is sent to redeem and rule over humankind; and that they have a great enemy, Satan, who is the active agent of evil in the world.
In the Ragnarok story or 'arc' (borrowing the terminology of X Files' Chris Carter), we have Odin as the father, Baldur as his son - who dies and returns again to govern a new heaven and earth - and Loki (with Surt) acting the part of Satan. (In Loki's case, there is perhaps even a closer fit with Judas, since he betrays Balder to his death.)
It is said that in the case of the missionary efforts to the Germanies, women especially were recruited-presumably because of the respect they had in the Northern cultures, and indeed at least one of these missionary women is mentioned as being consulted by princes and nobles (5). It seems possible that these religious women, if they gained respect, might be accorded some of the status of volvas or seeresses. Could it even be from the prophecy of such a 'seeress' that the version of Ragnarok in the Voluspa was originally drawn? Of course, it could just be that these new stories were introduced into the culture, and gradually spread and were accepted by folk who had no direct contact with Christian proselytizers at all.
Again, I cannot prove any of this, but I think it is far from impossible.
There is another possibility - that Raganarok was in fact added to the lore during the Viking Age, but as a true foreseeing; and that it refers, not to the physical end of the world, but to the conquering of the heathen faith by Christianity. (7) There is some appeal to this theory. There are stories associated with the conversion that remind one of the cry in Greece of 'Great Pan is dead'; stories of Thor or Loki being seen for one last time, disappearing beneath the waves of the sea and proclaming the victory of Christ.
Of course, if this is the meaning of Ragnarok, we know that the Gods did not in fact die; like General MacArthur's old soldier, they just faded away - for a time. Or seemed to-the veil was really over our own eyes all the while.
If Ragnarok is not true, or does not mean the ultimate doom of the gods and the world, one important consequence is the redemption (so to speak) of Loki. All the stories portraying him as actually evil, rather than a trickster whose slyness works frequently in constructive ways, are in the 'arc' of Ragnarok and the events leading up to it. So without Ragnarok, Loki's character is much more consistent.
There is some evidence that the story of Ragnarok was not completely accepted even in the Viking Age. Snorri in the Prose Edda mentions that people told alternate versions of the story of Thor fishing for the Midgard Serpent, in which Thor actually killed the serpent. (8) Since the Serpent is supposed to kill Thor in the generally accepted version of the final battle, this presents a problem. Who, then, would be Thor's bane according to these alternate story-tellers? My guess is: no one.
Wherever the concept of Ragnarok originated, I think the truth is that the gods will not die. At the end of this Age there may well be a great battle, against which Odin musters his warriors in Valhall. But if so, the gods-and those of us fighting on their side-will win. Beyond any belief of humankind, the gods who created the earth live now, and ever will.
©2007 Oak Hedge
1. Davidson, p. 19, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Syracuse University Press, 1988.
2. Barnard (trans), #87, Sappho, University of California Press 1958,
3. Tacitus, Germania.
4. Grimm, p. 570, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. II, Dover Publications 2004.
5. Herbert, pp. 43-45, Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens, Anglo-Saxon Books 1997.
6. Richardson, Eternity In Their Hearts. The author was a missionary in Papua/New Guinea. I do not have a copy of this books on hand currently, so cannot give exact page references. Basically the thesis is that all cultures have traditions that constitute an intimation or foreshadowing of the Christian Gospel, and the author advocates finding and exploiting these to introduce the 'good news'.
7. The first time I saw this possibility mentioned, it was on a Heathen kindred's web site; unfortunately I don't remember the name of the site, so I cannot give proper credit.
8. Sturluson, p.47, Edda, Everyman 1995.