Some end times scenarios are important not because of their modern adherents, but because of their pop-culture relevance. With the Norse mythos’s return to people’s minds via the Thor and Avengers movies of recent memory, and the sheer cinematic splendor of the Nordic eschaton, let us examine how the pagans of Scandinavia imagined the world would end: Ragnarok.
The Nordic end times begin with the intrusion into the world of frost giants and fire giants, beings of elemental might who are the Nordic gods’ principal antagonists. Their arrival and challenge to the Nordic gods shortly precedes a spate of earthquakes and tsunamis induced by the waking of the Midgard serpent, one of three massive primordial beasts imprisoned by the gods earlier in the mythos. The other two, the dinosaur-sized wolf Fenrir and the dragon Níðhöggr, soon make their presence known as well, the latter by attacking the world-tree Ygdrassil that holds up the cosmos.
That’s…a lot more cinematic than “St. Patrick’s Day in Mordor” and “river of diseased metal,” but not quite “rabid sword child horde”-level priceless yet. So far, so good.
The great beasts and eventually the trickster god Loki take the giants’ side in the ensuing world-spanning war, during which a who’s-who of Nordic mythological figures achieve one Pyrrhic victory after another. Notably, Thor defeats the Midgard serpent, a snake the size of the Equator, but succumbs to its venom after nine steps and falls over dead. Many other gods fall before the kings of the giants, Thrym and Surtr, and Odin himself is swallowed by Fenrir. In some versions, Fenrir eats the sun.
Picture that. Picture the giant wolf Fenrir rearing up and just…eating the sun. Reminding the reader that all depictions of Fenrir give it the bulk of a triceratops, at most, seems cruel compared to the visual majesty of the god-slaying wolf, awash in the blood of its previous victims and surrounded by armies of elemental giants, rearing up and tearing the sun out of the sky. Course, if Fenrir is the size of the average solar system instead, it’s easier to see why an entire pantheon of warrior deities had to fight it and mostly lose.
The giants smile as the surviving gods can only watch and finish off Fenrir and Nidhogg before the giant-instigated eruption of storms and volcanoes destroys the now-sunless world. The joke is on them, though, as the gods simply wait out the null and watch the world rebirth itself shortly thereafter, sans giants and star-eating wolves. They then lay claim to the new expanse.
The world immolates itself into nothing, and the gods that just spent the last 50 Edda verses dying all over the countryside just…wait. And win.
There’s an excitably fun aspect to this particular story. It tells of the destruction of the world almost like it’s a natural event, or an invasion from across the next strait, instead of a cosmic judgment for people’s behavior, and thus leaves room for some awesome visuals that have made it onto dozens of heavy-metal album covers. It’s a story tailor-made for a series of superhero movies, or for what were surely the best ongoing campfire tales in the world.
And then they go and ruin it by having the most awesomely combative pantheon there ever was just…sit in front of a “World Loading” progress bar for a bit. Crap, people. This is not the denouement we were promised! I suppose it was because of this that the Eddas never once mention ordinary mortals, even as victims of the giants. “You mean all of that was a complete and utter waste of time, because you were just going to hit the Refresh button afterward?” is not an easy conversation to have, even for deities.