Ragnarok: When one world ends and another begins

We are living in times of great upheaval where the pandemic has triggered the breakdown of our world as we knew it. Daily events can be described as ‘apocalyptic’ in the true sense of the world, for apocalypse literally means the disclosure or revelation of knowledge. In all areas of life from the political, institutional, social, spiritual, economic and ecological, corruption and inequality are coming to the surface, highlighting the flawed premise of separation on which our world view is based. We are drowning in lies and misinformation that fuel the fires of delusion and deception, but in these uncertain times, one thing is certain. Things are changing and the only choice we have is to embrace the chaos and begin to pick out of the wreckage the pieces worth saving and bring them with us into a new world of our making.

This is not the first time that humans have lived through apocalyptic times and our mythologies are replete with stories of breakdown, and breakthrough, that can serve as valuable navigational tools. None is more pertinent for our current situation than the Norse tale of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, originally told in an Icelandic poem dating back to the late tenth century. Just substitute certain humans into the role of the gods and the parallels are obvious, though the final interpretation will depend on your own viewpoint and perspective.

The word Ragnarok means ‘fatal destiny’, implying that the process of breakdown, though excruciating and often deadly, is also inevitable. The golden age of peace would have lasted if only the gods had kept their passions under control! But they could not. The world order, kept in place by oaths sworn in the presence of the powers of the earth herself, had been disregarded and abused. The gods of the Aesir had tortured the envoy from the Vanir (elder gods) in order to extract her gold, they broke their promise to the giants who had built their celestial dwelling, tricking them out of what they owed. Once they greedily broke their sacred promises, the fabric of their world began to unravel, ushering in an era of perjury, violence and warfare.

The Twilight of the Gods however, was long since predicted, for it was known that one day the giants and all those who had been banished to the subterranean regions would rise and overthrow the established order. Heimdall had been appointed to stand guard day and night by the rainbow bridge at the entrance to Asgard (the dwelling place of the gods). The giant wolf, Fenrir, had been bound in chains to stop him bringing about destruction and war, but the fateful day could only be put off, not averted for good.

Inevitably, it was a combination of factors that brought about Ragnarὄk, but of course the archetype of Trickster had to play a major role. Trickster is he who uses misinformation, manipulation, lies and tricks for his own end, but in so doing hold up to the mirror to us all and reveals those places where the shadow has taken control. In Norse mythology it is Loki who plays this part, and because of his own weakness and need to be everyone’s favourite, he committed a heinous crime.

Balder was the favourite of the gods, the son of Odin and Frigg, and was full of light and radiance. His mother loved him so much that she made everything on earth swear an oath never to harm her beautiful son. But his invincibility and popularity aroused the jealousy of Trickster, and Loki conspired not only to kill Balder but to ensure that the gods did not manage to bring him back from the Underworld through their otherworldly powers. His role in the death of their favourite was discovered and the gods bound him in chains, but this only strengthened his hatred and resolve. Though it would inevitably also bring about his own destruction, he broke his chains and joined the side of the demons and giants who hated the gods of the Aesir and were their sworn enemies.

Meanwhile, the situation on middle earth continued to deteriorate. An ancient giantess birthed a whole host of wolves, one of which chased the sun and swallowed it, bringing on hideous winters, storms, famine, pestilence and warfare. Brother slew brother, children no longer respected the ties of blood. Finally, the wolf Fenrir broke free of his chains, making the whole earth tremble and shaking the World Tree Yggdrasil from its roots to its topmost branches. Mountains crumbled and split and the entrances to the subterranean world of the dwarfs was cut off for good. The serpent Midgard stirred up giant waves from the depths of the oceans and the giants, roused from their place of banishment, arrived in ships from the north and the south. There was no turning back, for the shadow had been unleashed on a world that had long since sought to bury it. Heimdall sounded his horn signalling the beginning of Ragnarὄk, summoning the gods to meet with the armies of the giants on a field near Valhalla. It was to be a battle to the death.

In the midst of the fray was the god Odin with his golden helmet and holding his magical spear, Gungnir. He flew round the field like a hurricane, accompanied by the Valkyries on their dazzling chargers, and made for the wolf Fenrir with his sword raised. Alas, the wolf opened his massive jaws and swallowed the father of the gods! One by one they fell – Thor, Heimdall, Tyr, even Loki, all perished on the battlefield that day. Now that mankind had no protectors, they were driven from their hearths and swept off the face of the earth. Easily, just like that.

Then even the earth began to lose shape. Stars came adrift from the sky and fell into the void. Flames spurted from the fissures of rocks and there was the hissing of steam. All living things including plants were blotted out and the waters rose and boiled, covering over the earth and all traces of the place of the final battle. The world had ended. Ragnarὄk had played itself out.

But, gradually, in the midst of chaos and destruction came renewal. The world began to birth itself afresh and solid land emerged from the waves. Mountains rose up and the waters came under control, forming waterfalls and fountains and fertilising barren land so that the fecund green mantle gradually returned. Crops grew, and some animals returned, even a new sun appeared. And with it a new generation of gods. These gods had already been in existence but never shared in the passion and quarrels of the old gods, not committing perjury or violence or other crimes, and the radiant Balder was reborn. Hoenir, Odin’s faithful companion also survived, and he studied the runes and read the secrets of the future.

A small number of humans started to reappear. They had taken shelter in the branches of Yggdrasil, which the conflagration had been unable to consume. Throughout the apocalypse and days of destruction their only food had been the morning dew, the dew from the leaves of Yggdrasil that had once filled the valley with the memory of yesterday. This precious dew was collected by the Norn called Urd, one of the three sisters who tended the World Tree and wove the web of destiny that controlled life itself. In a daily ritual, she carefully poured the precious dew into her well, the Well of Memory, so that it may be used to grow the flowers of the present and assist them to reach out to the future.

If we carefully tend the World Tree and it’s well, taking nourishment from them both, then we too will return after the chaos has subsided. This time we might bring with us a host of new gods that are both within us and without, both imminent and woven into the fabric of the universe itself. Who do not commit perjury or wage warfare or other crimes, but listen to and uphold the rights of the earth, and in doing serve all life forms, both human and other than human.

References: The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology

Images: ‘Then the awful fight began’ by George Wright

‘Heimdall an der Himmelsbrucke’ by unknown

‘Loki’ by Arthur Rackham