What Is Ragnarok in Norse Mythology?

By employing apocalyptic modes from a Norse perspective, Ragnarok combines two of the hottest pop culture obsessions of recent years within a single narrative.

So it’s no wonder the idea has elicited increasing interest of late. But, by some accounts, Ragnarok doesn’t mark the end of the world.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the twilight of the gods – the end not just of the gods but of all life in the cosmos.

At Ragnarok, the Norse gods will fight the forces of chaos and lose.

However, some versions describe it as a new beginning in which new gods and humans will replace existing ones.

This article will explain the events leading up to Ragnarok, describe both versions of the outcome of the battle between the agents of order and chaos, and explain the ethical and emotional significance of the story for the Norse. 

Also, see What Did the Frist Giants Do to Odin? to learn more.

Ragnarok: The Twilight of the Gods

Ragnarok is the Norse version of the apocalypse. It describes the events leading up to the destruction of the gods and, with them, the entire cosmos after an ultimate battle against the agents of order and chaos. [1] 

In some versions, the end unfolds as a new beginning. Either way, a little stage setting is necessary to appreciate the narrative properly.

The Players and Worlds of Norse Mythology

The Norse cosmos is made up of many different worlds populated by fantastic creatures, such as: 

  • Gods 
  • Dwarves
  • Giants
  • Men

Several of these actors play a leading role in the events of Ragnarok, an event spanning across worlds, and there are varied strands of backstory culminating in its violent end. 

The Nine Worlds of the Norse Cosmos

The Norse world included nine realms populated by different beings. They were:

  • Old Norse Ásgardr – Æsir Gods reside here
  • Vanaheimr – the land of Vanir gods and goddesses
  • Midgard – world of humans
  • Jötunheimr – the land where giants live
  • Old Norse Niflheimr – the Norse underworld
  • Muspell – the world of the fire giants
  • Álfheimr – the elf dwelling place
  • Svartalfheim – the dark elf dwelling place
  • Myrkheim – land of the dwarf

Norse Gods: Agents of Order

Starring roles on behalf of the forces of order were played by the leading Æsir deities Odin and Thor.

Also fighting at Odin’s side would be the Einherjar – the army of fallen Norse warriors who had been preparing for this day in Valhalla since their deaths on the battlefield.

Of the Vanir gods and goddesses, only Freyr – who was held captive by the Æsir in the lead-up to war – would take part.

The Æsir would also be joined by Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost Bridge, which connected Asgard and Midgard.

The Critical Role Played by the God Loki

Unleashing the forces of chaos at Ragnarok would be another Æsir god – Loki. [3] 

A trickster and shapeshifter, Loki had been punished by the Æsir for a lengthy career of mischief by being bound to a stone with the entrails of his son, Narfi.

At Ragnarok, he would break his bonds and lead an army of giants against the Æsir.

Two of his surviving progeny would also have prominent roles to play: 

  • The giant wolf, Fenrir
  • The Midgard serpent, Jörmungandr 

The Beginning of the End

Ragnarok would be preceded by a three-year-long winter. It would ravage the earth and lay waste to crops. Men would starve and set upon each other, unleashing anarchy in the world.

If that weren’t terrifying enough, the wolves Skoll and Hati would catch the sun and moon and extinguish the stars, plunging the world into perpetual darkness.

The earth would tremble violently, shaking mountains and felling trees. 

Finally, Loki and his offspring would be released into the world. The wolf Fenrir would escape his imprisonment, and Jörmungandr would emerge from the sea.

The sky would open, and the fire giants of Muspelheim would join them.

The land would flood, and a ship made of the nails of dead humans – the Naglfar – would emerge loaded with an army of giants.

According to some versions of the tale, the army of giants would be led by Loki himself. Others posit that the leader of the giants would be the frost giant Hrymr. [4] 

Together, these agents of chaos would head to the battlefield of Vígríðr to take on Odin and his army.

The Last Battle

The battle would begin as soon as Heimdall blew the Gjallarhorn, and, for the Æsir, things would go devastatingly. 

Fenrir would kill Odin, and the leader of the fire giants, Surtr, would slay the Vanir goddess Freyr. Loki and Heimdall, and Jörmungandr and Thor, would kill each other.

The carnage on the battlefield would also extend across the entire world. Surtr would set it afire with flames reaching up to heaven. 

In one version of the myths, this is how things end: pretty bleakly. 

The Underlying Worldview of Norse Mythology  

However, such a perspective is more illustrative of contemporary attitudes than the Norse view.

After all, the chance to fight at Odin’s side in a battle destined to be lost was the highest aspiration for any Norse warrior.

For the Norse, the destined and unavoidable obliteration of the world was no different than the inevitable death of every human. It did not negate the virtues they held so dear. 

Regardless of the certainty of death and the world’s destruction at Ragnarok, a Norse person had to be courageous, loyal, and honorable.

Failure to live up to these values was the real failure, not death or destruction, which were unavoidable.

An Alternative Outcome

Other versions of the myth suggest that a few gods would survive and that the world would be renewed after the fire. These gods include:

  • Baldur
  • Hodr
  • Vali
  • Modi
  • Magni

A man and a woman – Lif and Lifthrasir – would then emerge to repopulate a lush new world. 

Thus, things would begin anew, with order restored. This version presents a more hopeful narrative, offering redemption and renewal instead of nihilism.

Author Daniel McCoy argues that the nihilistic version is older and more faithful to the pagan Norse religion.

According to him, the more hopeful, later reworking of the narrative owes a debt to the Christian worldview of the authors who crafted it centuries after the Norse. [5]


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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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