Unlike other visions of the end of the world, what they called Ragnarök, foretold the destruction not only of the physical world but also the death of many of their revered gods.
Twilight of the gods
Given that the Vikings often brought near-apocalyptic destruction to many cultures, communities, and civilizations throughout Europe in the early medieval period, it is fascinating to understand that they themselves were steeped in apocalypticism.
For adherents of what later historians have dubbed the "Old Norse religion" (but the Norse would call forn sið, the "Old Custom"), the end of the world was not only talked about but also widely celebrated.
The origins of the meaning behind the term Ragnarök are the source of an ongoing academic debate, but the mainstream consensus flows from the Poetic Edda, a 12th-century CE collection of Norse poems chronicled by Icelandic author, historian, and politician Snorri Sturluson.
A series of events that would include a huge battle that would see numerous Norse Gods die (among them Freyja, Heimdall, Thor, Loki, and even Odin himself), followed by a series of natural disasters that would climax with the human world being swamped by a deluge.
After this submersion, new life would spring from just two human survivors, along with some of the gods. Sturluson chose the Old Norse word Ragnarök meaning "Twilight of the Gods," to describe this apocalyptic vision of hell.
The giant wolf Fenrir was just one of the many monsters that invade the gods' realm during Ragnarök. Illustration: Hatteviden / Shutterstock
Mortal combat for the gods, the world submerged in water, and a golden thatched hall
Our modern picture of Ragnarök stems mostly from the Poetic Edda. One of the most famous parts of the Edda is a poem that tells the story of the creation, and destruction, of the Norse universe, supposedly prophesized by a practitioner of seiðr, the Norse magic, Völuspa.
Here, some 18 stanzas describe in vivid detail this bloody end of times:
"Brothers will fight and kill each other... sister's children will defile kinship...it is a harsh world, whoredom is rife...a sword age...a wind age, a wolf age...no man will have mercy on another..."
Whilst humanity is quite literally tearing each other apart, the gods are busy preparing themself too. The crow of three magical roosters – with one of them situated in Hel – causes the god Heimdall to blow the famous Gjallarhorn – a horn that signals the end of time, the beginning of Ragnarök.
An invasion of the gods' realm takes place by a series of beings, including the fire giants from Muspelheim, dwarves, and the wolf, Fenrir.
Amongst the slain gods include Odin, who is devoured whole by Fenrir; Frigg, who dies of a broken heart at the death of her husband; and Thor, who defeats the giant serpent Jörmungandr but ultimately dies of the serpent's venom.
At the end of this fight, the goddess Freyr loses a mortal duel with Sutr, which causes the sun to black out and the earth to sink into the ocean.
Following this doomed battle of the Norse gods, with the universe engulfed in fire and water, the universe anew from the water. The surviving members of the Æsir join two brothers who are said to repopulate the world.
The human survivors will live in a grand thatched hall (albeit one tiled with gold) - Gimlé. One of the more interesting aspects relates to a presumed later addition to the world after Ragnarök, where a supposed "powerful ruler" will descend from somewhere above where the Æsir now reside.
This is presumed to be a Christian reference and may well have been added by a later medieval chronicler, perhaps even Sturluson himself.
Whilst the Völuspa gives us the most vivid details of Ragnarök, many other references are dotted throughout many other sagas, poems, and myths of the Norse canon.
In the clash, Odin is killed by Fenrir. Illustration: The Viking Herald
An artistic inspiration in early medieval times
Many artisans and artists during the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) took inspiration from the cataclysmic events of Ragnarök.
A series of runestones were believed to have been chiseled, on the Isle of Man, sometime in the 11th century CE. One of the most striking is what academics have dubbed "Thorvald's Cross," which shows the depiction of Odin, spear in hand, being devoured by the wolf Fenrir.
Journey northeastward across the Irish Sea, and you will find the English county of Cumbria, once part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
This was, for most of the "Viking Age," a vassal state to the Vikings and part of the famous "Danelaw" area of the British Isles where Viking law was followed. A large stone monument takes pride of place at St. Mary's Church in Gosforth.
This cross, whilst at first glance it may seem a standard Anglo-Saxon piece of art, depicts a crucifixion. Look closely again, and you will realize that this is not the death of Jesus Christ being depicted but some of the events of Ragnarök.
In the Viking "homeland" of Sweden, two runestones have been uncovered showing depictions of Ragnarök.
In Lederberg, Östergötland, a runestone once again depicts Odin losing his epic duel with the wolf Fenrir, believed to have been chiseled in the 11th century CE.
Further south, in Skarpåker, Södermanland, what appears to be a message of grief for a father mourning his lost son is said to contain an allusion to Ragnarök, where humanity will tragically tear itself apart.
Later interpretations and adaptations
Long after the last Viking ship ever sailed or the last skaldic poet was heard, Ragnarök continues to be a source of inspiration for many.
One of the best artistic interpretations of the "Twilight of the Gods" was by the 19th-century CE German composer Richard Wagner.
His cycle of four epic music dramas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is steeped in Norse and Germanic folklore.
The last of this cycle was titled Götterdämmerung - the German translation of "Twilight of the Gods." Yet his interpretation differed from the traditional Norse account given in the Poetic Edda.
Most disturbingly, this was said to be one of Adolf Hitler's favorite operas. Hitler was not only a huge fan of Richard Wagner but was obsessed with Norse and Germanic folklore and legend.
More recent adaptations have seen the events of Ragnarök form the plot of a Norwegian television series and the latest installment of a Marvel superhero movie, Thor.
For more information on the Norwegian television series Ragnarök, Forbes has an article all about it here.
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