Ragnarök, or “Twilight of the Gods,” is one of the most well-known stories from the Norse tradition. J.R.R Tolkien famously based much of The Lord of the Rings on ideas culled from the Eddas, and so the Norse are at least indirectly responsible for some of fantasy’s most cherished stories and most horrifying clichés.
The modern view of Norse religion is itself influenced by Christianity, for though the religion pre-dated the spread of Christianity into Scandinavia, none of it was written down until Snorri Sturluson, a Christian, compiled them in the Eddas in the thirteenth century (Brodeur xi), so it is sometimes impossible to know what is indigenous and what imported.
One of the most striking differences between Norse and other western traditions is the relative powerlessness of their gods and goddesses in the face of the greater machinations of fate; Odin, the leader of the gods, knows of the events to come and even makes failed attempts to stop them. Ragnarök is preceded by three bitterly cold winters and then earthquakes, which cause a flood. Humans die by the multitudes (Bierlein 247).
Loki, who was once a trickster god but is now just plain evil, breaks free from his prison and leads the armies of the jötnar (giants) in an invasion of the gods’ citadel, Asgard. Fenris the wolf and Jörmungand the world serpent, both Loki’s children, break free of their own bonds and join in the battle, where they kill Odin and Thor, respectively (Lindow 254). Loki and another god, Heimdall, kill each other, and the fire demon Surt takes his flaming sword and sets everything on fire. The worlds descend into flame, leaving only Yggdrasil, the world tree.
A new world arises from the ashes, and the new gods Vídar and Váli, Magni and Módi, and Baldr and Höd emerge from their shelter in Yggdrasil (Bierlein 247-248). They move into the new world, armed with old cultural artifacts (Thor’s hammer, for instance) but without the old enemies, the jötnar (Lindow 42).
In a later and transparently-modified version, the destruction of the world is presided over by “Alfadur…the great and only eternal God, the God behind the gods,” who “with his own hands…fashion[s] a new earth” (Bierlein 248). Before the adjustment, though, no creator god presided over the transformation; the gods of wisdom and strength died just like everyone else.