They knew it was going to happen, they just didn’t quite get the details right…

Ragnarok, the end of the gods in Norse Mythology, is an incredibly bleak concept when you compare it to most modern religions. The final showdown between good and evil in apocalyptic Biblical texts shares many common themes and qualities with Ragnarok, though why this is so is something of a debate. The major difference between the two is that unlike the ultimate victory of good in the Bible, the gods of Asgard fail to prevent the end of the world as foretold by the seeress that Odin visits in the poem, Voluspa. Though they fail and most of the major figures are slain in the final battle with the monstrous minions of chaos, some later versions of the story end on a note of hope. The giants and their allies win the battle, the world is eventually submerged in water and darkness settles upon the world, but two humans survive in a forest and produce many offspring. The sun is devoured by Skoll, one of Fenrir’s sons, but she produces a daughter who takes her place and warms the world again after the Fimbulvetr, the devastatingly long winter that precedes and then accompanies the end times.

Some interpretations of the story include a Christ-like resurrection of the god Balder, the most beautiful and kind-hearted god in the Norse pantheon, after the end though this is certainly an interpretation made by Christian scholars.

However, the primary source for attestations of Ragnarok is the poem Voluspa and that particular version contains the most grim telling of the story, wherein the gods and the world are simply destroyed. It ends with the mighty dragon Nidhoggr flying through the air with corpses in his jaws before the volva ends her prophecy. Not a very nice or uplifting ending, but probably the one that the Norse people knew before the coming of Christianity.

It is somewhat amusing to see that the end of the Norse gods was caused, not by monstrous beings and chaotic warfare, but by the coming of a new religion and the story of a peaceful shepherd. Followers of the Old Way resisted the coming of Christianity with ferocity for quite some time and the Vikings were a terror for churches and Christians throughout Europe during the Viking Age. During much of this time, from the 8th to the 12th centuries, Christians worked to convert the Norse people, sometimes by force and sometimes through proselytism, but faced an uphill battle trying to convey the full extent of their religious beliefs to Scandinavian peoples. The Norse religion and mythologies were part of an entire way of life for communities living in these regions. Their spiritual traditions and beliefs often went hand in hand with concepts of law, property, warfare, and familial bonds that were called into question by the coming of this new religion. Many of the ideas found in Christian religion were completely foreign to the Norse people and though certain areas converted to Christianity in name, they still held on to many of their old beliefs. It took generations for the full extent of Christian religion to be accepted by the Scandinavians.

Ironically, though it is Christianity that ended up replacing the Norse religion, it is also thanks to Christian scholars (in particular, Snori Sturluson) that so much of it has been preserved. Though some of the materials have been influenced by the Christian viewpoint when recording them, we have been fortunate to be able to piece together and learn so much about this robust and interesting religion and its mythologies from them and from archaeological sources.

As such, Christianity ended up being a primary player in both the death and resurrection of the Norse myths!