And sisters’ sons shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men each other spare.
Just as Indian mythology knows the Kali Yuga and Hesiod and Ovid write of an “Iron Age”, Germanic mythology also contains an account of a time of conflict and decline that brought the end and destruction of the world as we know it. This process is vividly described in one of the most important texts of the Poetic Edda, the Völuspá.
At the beginning of Ragnarök (fate of the gods) the Fimbulwinter arrives (The Great Winter), which lies on earth for three years without summer coming. The sun darkens and snow falls on the earth from all directions. The Fimbulwinter – the term Vargavinter (wolf winter) has also been preserved in Swedish – is followed by what is described in the Völuspá as the “Age of the Wolf” (vargöld: wolf-age): The moral pillars of human society collapse, family members and clans turn against each other and countless wars ravage the earth. The Roman poet Titus Maccius Plautus wrote in his comedy Asinaria “lupus est homo homini” – “man is a wolf to man” – this is exactly the meaning of the term “wolf-age” in this context. The Old Norse “vargr” not only carries the obvious meaning “wolf”, it was also used to denote outlaws and evildoers or literally the “strangler”.
Those who complete the destiny of the gods also have wolfish support: In the underworld, Garm breaks free from his chains in the Gnipa-Cave, and the terrible Fenriswolf – a child of the cunning Loki – escapes from his chains. Together with the giants, the Midgardsnake and the powers of Hel’s realm of the dead they storm the worlds before the gods and the fallen human heroes allied with them face their eternal foes in a the final battle. The sun and moon, who have been driving across the heavens in their chariots since their creation, are likewise overtaken and devoured by their pursuers, the wolves Mani and Hati.
The Ragnarök ends with a final cataclysm: the fire giant Surt ignites the world tree Yggdrasil, the main gods Odin, Thor, Freyr, Tyr and Heimdall fall in battle with their bitter enemies whom are also slain and the world finally sinks into the floods from which it – as if by a miracle – will rise again in young green when the time has come:
Now do I see the earth anew
Rise all green from the waves again;
The cataracts fall, and the eagle flies,
And fish he catches beneath the cliffs.
The gods in Ithavoll meet together,
Of the terrible girdler of earth they talk,
And the mighty past they call to mind,
And the ancient runes of the Ruler of Gods.
In wondrous beauty once again
Shall the golden tables stand mid the grass,
Which the gods had owned in the days of old,
Then fields unsowed bear ripened fruit,
All ills grow better, and Baldr comes back;
Baldr and Hoth dwell in Hropt’s battle-hall,
And the mighty gods: would you know yet more?
About the author
Postmodern skald, looking for echoes of the eternal gods in germanic myth and poetry.
1 thought on “The Age of the Wolf and Ragnarök – The end of the world in Norse mythology”
I regularly dream that all this has happened, and we have been born in a world reborn. Is this cycle fated to continue? Are the gods born anew as well as the earth, or are we here without them for one, final cycle before the dark?