The Master of Mischief, Part V: Ragnarök

Ragnarök: the doom of the Gods and the end of the worlds as Odin created them. But this is no ordinary war. Ragnarök and Fimbulvetr, the three-year winter that precedes the final battle, symbolize the destruction of the natural order of society as the Vikings conceived of it, and the creation of a new society from the remnants of the old.

The Downward Spiral

Throughout the early and middle periods of the mythology, Loki is a friend to the Aesir, or at least he is firmly embedded in their society. The reason for his presence in Asgard is not entirely clear, but as I mentioned in Part II, Prophesy and Fate, some have concluded that Odin probably made Loki his blood brother in an attempt to prevent Ragnarök. Why Loki turns on the Aesir remains a mystery, but the chain of events leading up to the war itself is quite clear.

As the seeress predicted,1 Odin’s beloved son Baldur was killed by his brother Hodr, but according to the Prose Edda, his death is actually Loki’s fault. Loki disguised himself to trick Frigg into telling him what could hurt Baldur, who is apparently impervious to harm. It turns out mistletoe is the only thing in all the worlds that did not promise not to harm Baldur. So, when the men were at their favourite game and assaulting Baldur with stones, axes, and swords, Loki encouraged blind Hodr to join in and gave him a bow and arrow. It was Loki who guided Hodr’s hands, knowing full well that the mistletoe arrow he brought was the only thing that could kill Baldur. However, since Hodr was the one who loosed the arrow, it was Hodr who was executed for murder.

Because Baldur did not die honourably in battle, he ended up in the hands of Hel, who agreed to release him only if all things wept for him. Messengers were sent out, and indeed all things mourned Baldur’s death except an ogress named Thok, who claims Baldur gave her no joy. The Aesir came to believe that this ogress was actually Loki in disguise, but the deal was lost and Baldur remained with Hel.

Sometime later, the Aesir attend Aegir’s feast, which is described at length in the poem “Loki’s Quarrel”. The poem is page after page Loki insulting the Aesir, calling the men cowards and the women whores while the Aesir attempt to placate or silence him. Here, Loki openly admits that he is the reason that Baldur is not there,2 but no one can silence him except Thor, who threatens him until he leaves. Loki is later captured and imprisoned in a grotto where he is tied to the rocks with the guts of his slain son Narfi while a serpent drips caustic poison on him. Loki’s wife, Sigyn, sits beside him, holding a bowl to catch the poison. When she leaves to empty the bowl, the poison drips onto Loki and the agony is so extreme that his writhing causes earthquakes. Somehow, Loki manages to escape and unite―or reunite―with the Jötun forces that he leads to war.

Ice, then Fire

One aspect of the decline of the Aesir that generally gets little discussion is Fimbulvetr (the “Mighty winter”). Personally I’d bet this is because the period takes up so little space in the extant literature. Nonetheless, I believe it is critical for understanding the broader significance of Ragnarök. According to the Prose Edda,

in that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty battles. In that time brothers shall slay each other for greed’s sake, and none shall spare father or son in manslaughter and in incest…3

The most common interpretation of this and other sources seems be that Fimbulvetr consists of three consecutive years of winter, which makes sense when you consider that the Vikings apparently divided the year into two seasons of equal length—summer and winter. If a winter is six months long, then three winters followed by three more winters would signify a timespan of three years.

Imagine the disaster that even a single year of continuous winter would create for any one society, even today. Now imagine the entire world being buried under snow for three years. Transportation would become difficult if not impossible, and the crops that keep both humans and animals fed would run out. Worldwide economies would fail, food and fuel shortages would create widespread panic, and many people would become sick or die from hunger and cold. Clashes over resources would become increasingly common and violent. Society would disintegrate into chaos—think Mad Max in the snow.

Sounds like the Club Med for barbarians, right? Perhaps, but remember that despite their reputation as merciless raiders, most Vikings lived in relatively small, lawful societies in some of the harshest climates in the world. Social cohesion was critical to survival. Family ties and honour were extremely important, but above all, hospitality was key. If a stranger came to your door seeking food and shelter, you offered the best you could give, and you would expect the same from others if you were travelling.

However, when Fimbulvetr sets in, ties of kinship will dissolve. Men will kill those they ought to defend and engage in incest, which is forbidden in Viking societies.4 The principles that hold society together will be forgotten.

Thus, Ragnarök is not a sudden explosion of violence between the Aesir and the Jötnar but rather the inevitable end product of a long and bitter process of societal breakdown. Indeed, in “Vafthrudnir’s Sayings”, Odin tests Vafthrudnir’s knowledge and asks “which humans will survive when the famous Mighty Winter is over among men?”5 The “Mighty Winter” refers to Fimbulvetr, which ends after Ragnarök, but Odin does not refer to the battle itself. While this could simply be poetic licence on the part of the author, it does seem to imply that Fimbulvetr is the real show and Ragnarök is the grand finale.

A New Leaf

Ragnarök is the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of a new world. However, the post-apocalyptic scene is surprisingly idyllic. The landscape seems to be much the same, and the gold “chequers” that the Aesir played with in the meadows of the old world are still there. Nidhogg, the dragon who gnawed on the dead in Helheim, still flies over Idavoll Plain. The human population recovers, and the surviving Aesir (all of whom are direct descendants of Odin) continue to live much as they had before the war. The Jötnar, on the other hand, have been wiped out.

The old regime has been completely destroyed, and yet aspects of it remain. This transformation from the old world to the new parallels the creation of the Nine Worlds by Odin and his brothers, who killed the giant Ymir­—their own ancestor—and constructed the land and sea and sky from his body. In both cases, the destruction of one world provides the building blocks for the next.

Now we can see some logic in the starting point of the mythology, which seems absurd at first glance. Why are a man, a cow, and a giant drifting through space? You could be forgiven for thinking someone had a few horns of mead too many. While we don’t have any extant stories, and perhaps there never were any, it seems a solid bet that the Vikings believed those beings to be the mysterious remnants of a previous world, one that they did not know or care about. What is important is that they knew how their own world came to be and that they understood the order of that world.

Loki as Catalyst

The lives of the Vikings were ruled by cycles. First and foremost were the two seasons, summer and winter, as the climactic extremes played crucial roles in their survival, and they kept close track of the moon’s cycle as well. Life and death were prominent, but death wasn’t necessarily the end of life altogether, as one might go on to Hel or Valhalla, depending on the manner of their death. Vikings married and had children young, and in their smaller communities, politics was often a local concern involving people who knew each other. Change was a constant.

With this in mind, we can see that Loki occupied a dual niche in society, one that was both antithetical to the authority that maintained order and yet beneficial to it. He could be sneaky and devious, but he spoke truth to power. From his mischief came Thor’s hammer and Odin’s horse; from his malice, death and destruction. He was accepted among the Aesir no matter how much trouble he caused and never cast aside for the sake of expediency nor killed to thwart the future foretold by the seeress. Loki was, for better and worse, a force for change.

Thus, Loki’s role in the mythology is incredibly complex. In Part VI: Blood Brother and Nemesis, I will discuss the peculiar relationship between the chieftain of the Aesir and his most unruly companion.

The Series:

  1. “Seeress’ Prophesy” stanza 33, in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press, New York [2014].
  2. The wording of stanza 28 is somewhat ambiguous. In Larrington’s translation he says to Frigg “I brought it about that you will never again see Baldr ride to the halls” so it’s not entirely clear whether Loki is admitting to killing Baldur, to preventing his return from Helheim, or to both. Whatever the case, he is certainly not above rubbing salt in a grieving mother’s wound. [Larrington, Carolyne, transl. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, New York [2014], p. 85.]
  3. Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. transl. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. Oxford University Press, New York [1916], p. 77.
  4. In the myths, when Njord and his twin children Freyja and Freyr join the Aesir as “hostages” to end the Aesir-Vanir war, they are told that incest will not be tolerated. Nonetheless, at Aegir’s feast, Loki claims that Freyja and Freyr were caught mid-coitus by the Aesir and that Njord fathered them with his own sister. [“Loki’s Quarrel” stanzas 32–36, in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press, New York [2014].]
  5. “Vafthrudnir’s Sayings” stanza 44, in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press, New York [2014].

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