What, When, and Why?
©2003 Ingeborg S. Nordén
The article below is based on an e-mail exchange between me and Eric Wodening, who originally posted two questions about Ragnarok to the ASHmail list earlier this year.
Do I believe in Ragnarok?
Not in all its literal, monsters-and-broken-rainbows detail. But yes, I believe in a breakdown of the cosmos which will lead to a final battle, then a destruction and re-creation. I believe that only a few deities will survive this process, and that the process itself is essentially amoral--not a punishment for human failings or a separation of the "saved" from the "lost" (that kind of dualism is alien to Heathenry in the first place). To that extent I could be said to believe in Ragnarok.
Unlike some scholars and/or Heathens, I emphatically disagree with theories that the Ragnarok story hides some social or natural symbolism:
1. It is NOT an
allegory about social or political conditions in Europe at the time Völuspá was recorded. If a Norseman wanted to compose a
poem about a current war or political event, he might use a kenning or two; yet
he would never representall the human forces
involved as supernatural beings, or claim that events on a local scale affected
the whole universe. Turning the Roman Church into Fenrir, or human foreigners
into the Sons of Muspell who burn "heaven and earth", is much too far-fetched
even by the metaphorical standards Norsemen accepted. If political allegories
were a widely attested sub-genre of Germanic poetry, I might think otherwise;
yet no hard evidence exists which would favor that interpretation of the
2. It is NOT a
description of the Christian Armageddon in Heathen garb. If this were so, more
than two human beings would survive the final battle. The "afterlife
halls" in the end, however, would be limited to two with a single
being ruling each one. Their inhabitants would be segregated by faith, not
deeds or origin. Yet Völuspá mentions separate
halls for gods, dwarves, and giants in the new world in addition to those set
aside for human souls. No descendants of the original pantheon would survive to
inherit their parents' places, nor would any monster be able to fly up from
below to cause further problems as Nidhogg is said to after the new world
3. It is NOT a myth about seasonal cycles (see my article on Yule symbolism for more details). The changes described at Ragnarok are too widespread and too varied for this interpretation to make sense: Both heat and cold cause destruction over a short time span, something unheard-of in other cultures' seasonal stories. The entire cosmos is destroyed and reshaped--not just croplands or other areas which would change dramatically over a year. Most of the pantheon dies in one battle, rather than a few deities who could symbolize natural forces. Finally, Völuspá never even implies that the final battle takes place in a specific season.
Do I believe that Ragnarok has already taken place?
I would answer "Certainly not," because most deities who have revealed themselves to the Heathen community are among the casualties at Ragnarok, according to the lore. Furthermore, the universe as we know it is still physically intact. Please try not to misunderstand; I am hardly so literal-minded that I expect a giant wolf and a sea serpent to cause worldwide chaos. I am not so ignorant or anti-scientific that I believe a rainbow might shatter under the weight of giants, or that stars might hurtle out of the sky. Yet if the world has not yet been physically destroyed and re-created, and the pantheon known to most Heathens has shown no signs of being killed off, the lore offers enough evidence to conclude that Ragnarok has not taken place yet.