The Vikings operated in a pre-modern society where life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short." 

Life was incredibly cheap due to a lack of proper sanitation, healthcare, medical knowledge, and a proliferation of violence with limited societal security. 

Given that death was an everyday occurrence, you can forgive people in Viking societies for having a gloomy and pessimistic outlook. 

Nowhere was this more evident than in the rich myths and legends surrounding the end of times, Ragnarök

In their worldview, the world did not simply end with a whimper; it was marked by a series of cataclysmic events that included battles and natural disasters, leading to the death of many Norse gods as well as the submersion of the world in water and fire.

From death came rebirth and renewal. Ragnarök saw the release of the bestial wolf Fenrir, the gigantic Midgard Serpent rising from the sea, a ship made of fingernails carrying ghastly ghouls, and, most memorable of all, the emergence of Surtr, the fire giant. 

Known as the land of fire giants, Muspelheim is depicted in Norse legends as a blazing, inferno-like world, where Surtr and his kin reign amidst flames and scorching heat. Photo: The Viking Herald

Muspelheim, the land of fire giants 

The rich tapestry of Norse mythology is full of mythical beings, deities, and creatures. 

The jötnar (the best English translation is "giants") are some of these fantastical Norse creations associated with nature, the wilderness, and the primal forces of chaos. 

They come in various forms, sizes, and categories. One of the most destructive of these jötnar categories is the fire giants who reside in Muspelheim

This realm, one of the nine realms inherent in the Norse mythical and cosmological worldview, is characterized by intense heat and fire and inhabited only by fire jötnar. 

The importance of this realm can be traced back to the Norse creation myth, whereby flames and fire from Muspelheim spread across the great void, Ginnungagap, to interact with the ice and cold of Niflheim

This caused a great spark in a very Norse version of the Big Bang, a spark that was the creation of life, at least according to people in Viking societies. 

Surtr, the fire giant, reigns as the undisputed ruler of this realm and plays a pivotal role in Ragnarök. His legendary actions during these events are immortalized in one of the great works of the Norse literary canon. 

The Prose Edda vividly portrays Surtr, a central figure in Ragnarök, brandishing a fiery sword, an emblem of the catastrophic end that Norse legends prophesied. Photo: The Viking Herald

Wielding a fiery sword 

One of the most memorable events in Ragnarök involves Surtr. 

As foretold in the Prose Edda, compiled by the 13th-century Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson, the events of Ragnarök are minutely explained with large doses of high drama and flowery prose. 

One notable event features Surtr, who stands out among the myriad of mythical beings, ghouls, and creatures. 

These entities emerge to engage in a grand battle against many of the Æsir, the divine beings belonging to one of the Norse pantheons. 

During this final battle, the fire giants from Muspelheim are said to venture out of their realm and attack Asgard, home of the Norse gods. 

Surtr, being recognized as the leader of these fire giants, wields a mighty flame sword and battles to the death with Freyr. 

No further detail about the battle is mentioned, but this duel is seen as Surtr avenging the death of Beli, a giant killed by Freyr. 

This concept of avenging a fallen comrade's death was seen as important in the mythological world as it was in Viking societies. 

Sadly, Sturluson leaves us in the dark as to the outcome of this battle. 

Did Surtr avenge the death of his gigantic comrade, or did Freyr, the god of fertility, good weather, and peace, manage to fell the fiery giant? We will never know. 

There are, however, several mentions of Surtr in later parts of the Prose Edda

None reveal his fate but merely state that he stands guard at the entrance to Muspelheim, wielding his fiery sword. 

His final mention, in the events of Ragnarök, occurs when Norse gods Loki and Heimdall fight each other to the death – mutually killing one another – then Surtr will "fling fire over the earth and burn the entire world." 

This lives up to the apocalyptic prophecy of the world being consumed by fire. 

The Surtshellir cave, associated with the legendary fire giant Surtr from Norse mythology, is not only a significant geological landmark as one of Iceland's longest lava tubes but also a site of historical importance, first thoroughly documented in 1750. Photo: Dave Bunnell / Under Earth Images (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Archeological record 

In the past two decades, archeological evidence pointing to the worship of Surtr has been discovered in Iceland. 

Excavations of an Icelandic cave, mentioned in the Book of Settlements, have shown that ritual acts – involving the slaughter of sheep and oxen – took place sometime in the second half of the 10th century. 

The discovery of bones, coupled with references in the Book of Settlements to '"Surt's Cave" (the cave's name), has led historians to believe in the worship of Surtr. 

It is thought that the ritualistic slaughter of these animals was performed to appease the fire giant. 

This finding suggests that the archeological community may have uncovered the first evidence of a cult dedicated to Surtr, buried deep within this Icelandic cave. 

In Norse legend, the liberation of Fenrir from his bonds is a crucial event that initiates Ragnarök, setting off a chain of cataclysmic events leading to both the destruction and the renewal of the world. Photo: The Viking Herald

More than just a literary legacy 

It is not often that a Norse mythological being leaves a legacy, especially here in the 21st century. 

However, though Surtr is not revered (or feared) anymore, the fire giant is still very much remembered in contemporary society. 

A natural satellite of the planet Saturn (itself named after another god, the Roman god of agriculture) is named Surtur, after the fiery guardian of Muspelheim.

Back across the universe here on Planet Earth, Surtr also appears in the recent Hollywood blockbuster movie Thor: Ragnarök

This movie, which is based on Norse sagas but takes great liberties and artistic license with them, showcases some of the events and battles that occur between Thor, his fellow gods, and their adversaries in what is based upon some of the final apocalyptic battles at the end of the world.

For more information on the events of Ragnarök and a recent runic discovery, visit Forbes here

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