The Twilight of the Gods (the tale of fire and ice)

October 25, 2021
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THE Vikings had a constant sense of foreboding, whereby the violent tendencies of their society might destroy the world. The only thing that prevented this from happening was the limited power of their weapons, which — so far — only consisted of things like swords and shields. But the gods, with greater powers, would gradually fall to fighting among themselves in a similar spirt, and this would doom the world as the gods had greater powers. The world would ultimately be destroyed in a great battle called Ragnarök, meaning the fate or twilight of the ruling powers (regin). This was constantly prophesied:

— an axe age, a sword age

— shields are riven —

a wind age, a wolf age —

before the world goes headlong.

No man will have mercy on another.

The power of the gods’ weapons would lead the world and all its cities and castles to be consumed by fire.

Paradoxically, around the same time, there will be a terrible winter called Fimbulvetr or Fimbulwinter lasting for three years, and famine:

Black become the sun’s beams
in the summers that follow,
weathers all treacherous.

Do you still seek to know? And what?

Sea levels also rise and flood the land.

In the end, there are only two human survivors who, like Adam and Eve, gradually repopulate the world. These are Líf (the new Adam) and Lífthrasir (the new Eve), who survive the terrible turn of events by hiding in a forest called Hoddmímis Holt, which does not burn down in the fiery stages of the end of the world and is temperate enough to survive the great winter as well.

In German, the concept of Ragnarök is called Götterdämmerung, which means Twilight of the Gods.

While to us this looks like a prophecy of some of the most serious dangers of our time, such as climate change and nuclear war, it’s thought that in the time of the Vikings, tales like this were actually inspired by a mixture of the Vikings’ concern at their own violent predilections, the general environmental precarity of the northern realm they inhabited, tales of the biblical Flood or something like it (which are culturally widespread), and the still-recent fact of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a traumatic event which was made worse by sharp climatic deterioration in the 500s CE (the possible inspiration for Fimbulwinter): a decline and fall captured in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Ruin which describes sophisticated Roman architecture now abandoned to decay, most probably at Bath in England:

So, Ragnarök’s not really a prophecy at all. It’s just a moral story based on events that had already happened, like many other Viking tales.

Well, let’s hope so, anyway.


The quotations in this chapter are from Ursula Dronke (trans.) The Poetic Edda: Volume II: Mythological Poems, Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 0–19–811181–9, as reproduced on Wikipedia, URLök, accessed 21 October 2021, at pp 19 and 18 of the original work respectively.

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on my website


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