In Teutonic mythology the gods who ordered the world would not live and rule for an eternity. The old creation would pass away and a new one would take its place. The time of this great upheaval is recounted in a poem of the Eddas called the Völuspa. The Icelandic term used for this period of destruction is Ragnarök (“the end of the gods”); but the Germanic term Götterdämmerung (“twilight of the gods”) has become the most familiar owing to the influence of Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Before the rise of the portents that presaged the catastrophe, the supreme gods of the Teutonic pantheon, collectively known as the Aesir, ruled over a golden age. They were mostly gods of warfare and order, who lived in the palace of Valhalla in the realm of Asgard, the abode of the gods. There was also a secondary race of gods known as the Vanir, who were more peace loving than the Aesir and were guardians of the prosperity of the world.
But as time went on, the Aesir would be overwhelmed by their own darker passions. Because they succumbed to them, the Aesir would themselves be responsible for the loosening of the bonds of order and faith that maintained the world. They cheated the giant who constructed for them Valhalla, their home in Asgard; they tortured one of the Vanir, the goddess Gullveig, desirous to possess her golden riches. Because of this cruelty, war arose between the Aesir and the Vanir, which was quelled only with an exchange of hostages. But these events merely foreshadowed the approaching doom. From now on, the warrior maidens, the Valkyries, engage in continuous battle.
The gods had always been alert to the dangers that might approach from their ancient enemies, the giants. For this reason they had appointed the god Heimdall to watch the sky for any threat and give a signal with a blast of his trumpet; it was said that this god, ever alert to danger, could hear the grass grow. But now the Aesir began to have disturbing dreams. We relate the story of Baldar in the Comparative Myth reading entitled “Loki, the Teutonic Divine Trickster.” It is the death of Baldar, the most beautiful and beloved of the Aesir, and the subsequent binding of Loki and his escape, that accelerate the omens of the slaughter that is to come.
Fenrir, a monstrous wolf and the offspring of Loki himself, Fenrir, breaks the chain that has bound him and swallows the sun. The world is engulfed in a winter that lasts for three years. The World Serpent, which had lain quiescent since its combat with Thor, the great god and protector of mankind, now stirs from its slumber in the sea, begins to disturb the primordial ocean, and rises to threaten the world with flood and poison. From the realm of Muspellheim, the region of the fire-giants, Surt sails, borne by the rising tide, with a host of giants. A ship comes from the north, captained by Loki. The world of men erupts with violence. When the cohort led by Surt begins his trek across the bridge, Bifröst, which separates Midgard, the world of men, from Asgard, the world of the gods, the bridge is consumed in fire. At the sound from Heimdall’s trumpet, Odin leads his forces out to offer combat. On the field of Vigrid, Odin confronts the great wolf Fenrir, whose jaws stretch from heaven to earth, and is immediately swallowed. Odin is the first to fall victim to the slaughter. Odin’s own son, Vidar, will avenge his father’s death, killing Fenrir by forcing his jaws open and stabbing his sword in the wolf’s gaping maw. Thor takes the field to battle a second time the World Serpent. Thor will crush the head of the serpent with his hammer, but in the conflict the serpent has released such a great cloud of venomous fumes that Thor himself succumbs. The god Tyr, a war-god and guardian of the order of the world, faces Garm, the hound of the Underworld, and Heimdall faces his long-standing enemy Loki; all are killed.
Frey (Freyr), son of one of the Vanir and a giantess, himself one of the hostages exchanged to settle the dispute between the Vanir and the Aesir, will do battle with the fire-giant Surt; Frey, however, will be destroyed by Surt, who wields the wondrous sword that Frey had lost in an earlier tale. Surt will cause the earth and the heavens to burn in a fiery conflagration. The earth, now a desiccated and lifeless mass, will sink beneath the waters. Only the World Tree, though shaken in the cataclysm, survives.
But a new creation is at hand. From the waters a new earth, pristine and verdant as at the beginning of time, and a new sun, child of the sun swallowed by the wolf Fenrir, arise. A new order of gods, untouched by the violent passions of the old Aesir, as well as some of the children of the Aesir who managed to survive, begin to reorder the new world. And there emerges from their protection within the world tree a man and a woman, Lif and Lifthrasir, to beget a new race of human beings.