Ragnarök was the twilight of the Norse Gods, a "wind age, an axe age, a sword age, a wolf age." It remains the largest and most descriptive vision of a myth that was conceived by any civilization or culture.
A Vision of the End
The idea of fate constantly infuses Norse mythology, the concept that destiny is immutable. This concept culminated in Ragnarök, the coming destruction of the world whose inevitability echoes through the majority of Norse myths. So precisely was it preordained that the details of what would occur were already known by all, and the gods prepared for it on a daily basis. However, although Ragnarök implied universal chaos, annihilation would not be total. For even at the end of existence lies a glimmer of hope for humanity.
The word Ragnarök is a compound: the first element, ragna, means "organizing powers" and was commonly used to refer to the gods or their actions. The second term, rok, translates roughly to "fate" or "destiny." Thus the word as a whole meant the Fate or the Destiny of the Gods. The second element became confused, however, quite early in the study of Germanic mythology, with the term rokkr, meaning twilight, which gave rise to the conclusive opera in the classical work Gotterdammerung, "The Twilight of the Gods."
The True Apocalypse
Although it was to bring about their destruction, the gods could not begin to halt the onset of Ragnarok. It had to come to pass as was prophesied, and all they could do was to display stoic bravery in the face of certain destruction. To the Norse people, fate was a simple fact of life, a product of living, something that could not, in any fashion, be either altered or avoided, and could only be confronted with an absence of fear. Even death, the ultimate end, was already decreed and was to be dealt encountered with brave acceptance. To laugh in the face of death was one of the greatest achievements that a Norse warrior could perform, and one that would earn him a location amongst the greatest of the Norsemen.
Ragnarök was depicted in the Eddas in imagery that, much like Norse creation myths, seem to have been influenced by the natural phenomena of Iceland. The world was to be destroyed by fire and water, with steam and flames rising to the skies, a vision that could very well have been enforced by the volcanic activities of the island.
Descriptions of prominent incidents involving volcanoes bear a staggering resemblance to the sequence of events that are to occur during Ragnarök: mountains are shaken by earthquakes, the sun vanishes due to the great clouds of smoke, and ash, flames and steam abound in the sky. Melting ice can cause floods of water to run alongside rivers of burning lava. The long, cold, and dark Icelandic winter must also have contributed to the vision of Ragnarök's terrifying summer-less years.
The Beginning of the End
The historian Snorri Sturluson describes the events of Ragnarök in impressive detail. First, he claims, fierce battles will rage throughout the world for three years, and, motivated by an intense greed, brothers will murder one another in cold blood. No mercy will be shown and the ties of kinship will not even prevent fathers from slaughtering their sons.
A terrible winter, known as Fimbulvetr will prevail throughout the nine realms and snow will drift from all directions as great frosts cover the land. Biting winds will be constant and the sun will fail to shine. Three such winters will follow consecutively , with no interlude of summer. The wolf who chases the sun eternally across the sky will finally catch and swallow it. A second wolf will then capture the moon, and that will be equally disastrous.
There will be a massive earthquake, and trees will be uprooted, mountains crash to the ground, fetters shattered and wild beasts be unleashed. At the same time, both the wolf Fenrir and Loki will be loosened from their bonds. The Midgard serpent will fly into a giant rage and make its way to the shore, causing the ocean to surge over the land.
The ship Naglfar constructed from the nail clippings of the dead, will float loose from its moorings. (It was important in the Viking culture that no individual should die with untrimmed nails, for those who did contributed significantly to the construction of this ship, and both gods and mortals hoped to defer its completion for the greatest duration possible.)
Fenrir will advance with his mouth gaping so wide that his upper jaw will rest against the sky and his lower jaw against the earth, and would stretch even wider if there was room. Flames will leap from his eyes and nostrils. To one side of him will be Miðgarðsormr, which will salivate so much lethal poison that it will bespatter the sky and the sea. Amidst all of this turmoil the sky will open and from it will ride the sons of Múspellsheimr. Surtr, who has been stationed throughout time at the frontier of Muspelheim, will ride at the front of the group, brandishing his flaming blade, which will outshine the sun. Everything around him will be burned in his deathly wake. As Muspelheim's sons ride over Bifröst into Ásgarðr the bridge will crumble under their weight. They will advance to Vígríðr, a plain spanning 100 leagues in every direction where the last battle will take place. Fenrir will slowly make his way to that location, accompanied by the Midgard serpent, Loki and the frost-giants.
The Final Battle
As Heimdallr the watchman observes the onset of the final conflict, he will stand and blow with might on his horn Gjallarhorn in order to awaken all of the gods. They will then hold counsel with the Nornir one last time. Óðinn will ride to Mímir's well and consult the giant on his own and his people's behalf. The ash Yggdrasill will shake, and nothing on any of the nine realms will be without fear. The Æsir will don their armor and take up their weapons, and they, and the heroic dead, the Einherjar, will advance toward Vigrid.
Óðinn will ride in front wearing a golden helmet and a beautifully ornate mail-coat, bravely bearing Gungnir, his mighty spear. He will choose as his foe the wolf Fenrir. Þórr will advance at his side but will be unable to assist him in his struggle, for he will be locked in combat with the Midgard serpent. Freyr will battle with Surtr for a great length of time, but will eventually succumb because his good sword has been given away to Skírnir, who secured for him Gerðr as a wife.
The snarling hound Garmr, a creature of pure evil, will break free of its bonds. It will battle shortly with Týr, god of war, they will struggle until they both are dead. Meanwhile, Thor will vanquish the Midgard serpent, but will retreat merely nine paces before he is mortally wounded by it caustic venom. Fenrir will swallow Óðinn whole, killing him instantly, but Óðinn's son Víðarr will immediately avenge his father, wearing a shoe that has long been prepared for this moment. Throughout time, material for this shoe has been collected from the pieces of waste leather remaining when mortals repair or construct shoes. Anyone wishing to assist the Aesir in their time of need must ensure that they throw these pieces away rather than keep them for later usage. Vidar was to place the foot with the sacred shoe over the wolf's lower jaw and, grasping his lower jaw, tear Fenrir apart.
Loki will battle with Heimdallr, and they both shall fall. After their deaths, Surtr will fling fire over the whole Earth so that it burns. Flame, smoke, and steam will shoot up to the firmament. The sky will blacken and the stars will disappear. The Earth will sink deeply into the engulfing sea.
When at last the fire has died and the seas have subsided, the Earth, now grown fair and fertile, will rise, once more, from the sea. Crops will sprout unsown and harvests will be abundant. Óðinn's sons, Víðarr and Váli, as well as Thor's sons Magni and Móði, who will have possession of their father's hammer, Mjöllnir, will survive the chaos. Baldr and Höðr and rise from Niflheimr, and they will all sit in the grass where Ásgarðr had once been and discuss what occurred in former times. These young gods will dominate the world anew and will tell one another tales of their forefathers and of Fenrir and the Midgard serpent.
The sun will also have begotten a daughter, no less fair than herself, just prior to being swallowed by the wolf, and the daughter will follow the path of her mother, wending her life-giving way across the sky until the end of time. The human world will be repopulated by two individuals, Lif and Lifthrasir, who will have remained hidden in the ash tree Yggdrasill throughout Ragnarök.
Thus the end will contain a fragment of a new beginning, and the eternal cycle of life will begin again.