R is for Ragnarøk

Ragnarok (Old Norse Ragnarök, “The Doom of the Gods”) is the name the pre-Christian Norse gave to the end of their mythical cycle, during which the cosmos is destroyed and is subsequently re-created. “Ragnarok” is something of a play on words; an alternate form, which sounds almost identical when spoken, is Ragnarøkkr, “The Twilight of the Gods.”

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Whether it is The Doom of the Gods or The Twilight of the Gods, the gods knew it was their destiny. As much as they worked to change it, when the first sign appeared, Baldur’s death, they knew Ragnarok was coming.

Odin gathered as many warriors as he could in Valhalla, to strengthen his army against the giants. But he knew even that would not prevent their destiny. The best outcome would be the destruction of the giants so that they could not return, even if it meant the destruction of the gods at the same time.

The occupants of Midgard, humans, also played a role in the coming of Ragnarok. They abandoned their traditional ways and kinship bonds and fell onto wayward paths.

The weather changed. Three years of winters passed without summers intervening.

At last, Fenrir and his father Loki, both of whom had been bound by the gods in attempts to prevent the destruction of Asgard, broke free of their bindings and joined with the giants as they moved to attack. Heimdall saw the giants coming and sounded the alarm with Gjallarhorn.

The fire giant, Surt, attacked with a sword of fire and set everything in flames. Surt killed Freyr, who did not have the protection of his sword because he had given it to his servant, Skirnir, for his assistance in obtaining the hand of Freyr’s wife, Gerd. In the battle, Freyr also kills Surt, just as Heimdall and Loki kill one another.

Jormungand, another of Loki’s offspring, attacked Thor, who was able to strike the serpent with his hammer, Mjollnir, and crush his skull before the serpent could unleash his venom on the earth. But Thor could only step back nine steps before the serpent blew his venom which killed Thor.

Fenrir ran with his jaws wide open so that he devoured everything in his path between the land and the sky. Fenrir killed both Odin and Tyr, though he was killed by Odin’s son, Vidar, about whom little is known except for his role in Ragnarok and that he survived along with his brother Vali, and Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni.

At the end of the battle, the cosmos collapsed, returning to Ginnungagap.

But all did not remain dark and void. The earth returned from the seas, Baldur returned from the dead, two new humans, Lif and Lifthrasir, awoke in the newly green world, and the gods returned to take up their old lives.

Ragnarok destroyed the cosmos. Ragnarok made the way for a new cosmos to arise. The cycle continues. As do all cycles. Day becomes night which becomes day again. The full moon wanes to the new moon which waxes to become full again. Spring becomes summer which becomes autumn which becomes winter which becomes spring again. Seeds sprout and grow plants, plants blossom and grow more seeds, plants die and the seeds fall to the earth to be planted and sprout again. Birth leads to life which leads to death which leads to rebirth.

Life is cyclical, always leading to a new starting point. It is not a straight line connecting two opposing points.

Image credit: By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) – The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Sæmund’s Edda. Edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908) Page 276. Digitized by the Internet Archive and available from https://archive.org/details/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft This image was made from the JPEG 2000 image of the relevant page via image processing (crop, rotate, color-levels, mode) with the GIMP by User:Haukurth. The image processing is probably not eligible for copyright but in case it is User:Haukurth releases his modified version into the public domain. Public Domain, Link

Advertisements

D is for Draupnir

Sindri then set another piece of gold on the fire as Brokkr worked the bellows. The fly bit Brokkr on the neck, and Sindri drew out a magnificent ring, Draupnir (“Dripper”[1]). From this ring, every ninth night, fall eight new golden rings of equal weight.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Draupnir, one of six magnificent gifts, is part of the story of how Thor got his hammer. And there’s plenty of deception involved.

Once again, a key player is Loki, the mischievous trickster. He is never satisfied with what he has, always on the lookout for more.

Loki cuts the hair of the goddess Sif.

One day he cut off the golden hair of Sif, Thor’s wife. Thor was not pleased and threatened Loki with breaking all his bones. But Loki pleaded for his life, promising that he could get the dwarves, master craftsmen, to replace Sif’s hair. Thor agreed, and Loki headed for Svartálfaheimr, the home of the Black Elves.

Loki was able to convince the sons of the dwarf, Ivaldi, to create a more beautiful head of hair for Sif than she had had before. But that’s not all they did. They also created two more gifts, Skidbladnir, a ship that could be folded up and put into a pocket, and Gungnir, the mightiest of swords.

“The third gift — an enormous hammer” by Elmer Boyd Smith. The dwarven Sons of Ivaldi forge the hammer Mjolnir for the god Thor while Loki watches on. On the table before them sits their other creations: the multiplying ring Draupnir, the boar Gullinbursti, the ship Skíðblaðnir, the spear Gungnir, and golden hair for the goddess Sif.

You’d think Loki would be pleased that he would return from Svartalfaheimr with more than he promised, but then that just wouldn’t be like Loki. Instead of returning with the replacement hair for Sif, the ship that always found favorable winds, and the mightiest of swords, he thought he’d like to remain with the dwarves, out of Thor’s sight, and able to cause more mischief. He came up with a bet for two dwarf brothers, Brokkr and Sindri, a challenge that they could not match the craftsmanship of Ivaldi’s sons by coming up with three more magnificent items. If they failed, Loki said they could have his head.

Brokkr and Sindri accepted the challenge. In his attempt to foil the two, Loki, a shape shifter, transformed himself into a fly and bit each of the dwarves as they worked to create Gullinbursti, a living boar with golden hair, who gave off light in the dark and could run better than any horse, even through water or air, and Draupnir, the magnificent ring.

Since his first efforts to foil the dwarves with his fly bites had failed, this third time, as Sindri set out to create a hammer for Thor, Loki bit him on the eyelid so that blood dripped into Sindri’s eyes. Sindri pulled out the hammer, Mjollnir, perfect in every way except that its handle was short.

Loki removed the six gifts and headed back to Asgard where he gave the replacement of Sif’s hair and the hammer, Mjollnir, to Thor; the ring, Draupnir, and the spear, Gungnir, to Odin; and the boar, Gullinburst, and the ship, Skidbladnir, to Freyr.

Brokkr and Sindri also traveled to Asgard, assured that their gifts would be accepted in spite of Mjollnir’s flaw. The gods agreed that Loki owed Brokkr and Sindri for their work. When the dwarves approached to take his head, Loki objected, saying he had agreed they could have his head, but not his neck, and removing his head would injure the neck. The dwarves therefore contented themselves with sewing Loki’s mouth shut. [2]

While this tale explains the origin of tools and gifts in the possession of the gods, I think the real lesson concerns Loki, the sometimes charming and sometimes devious trickster.

The trickster is an archetype in many early cultures. The spider, Anansi, in the Caribbean and West Africa, the coyote spirit and Kokopelli in Native American and First Nations traditions, leprechauns in Irish culture; the list goes on.

As frustrating as it is to decide whether to like or dislike Loki and other trickster beings, I appreciate the lessons they provide, that the world and all the people in it cannot be divided neatly into the good and the bad. There is a little of both in all of us.

The tales remind me of an interview I watched with Dustin Hoffman in which he described how he felt about playing villains. To paraphrase, he said no one, even a villain, thinks of themselves as a bad person. So playing a villain just means playing a person who thinks he is a good person but who got caught doing something bad.

I’m sure Loki would agree.

What happened to Draupnir? Odin placed it on the funeral pyre for his son, Baldur–one treasure to accompany another.

Reference to Draupnir can be found in the Poetic Eddas, stanzas 21 and 22 of Skrinismol, The Ballad of Skirnir.

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 65.

[2] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Skáldskaparmál 43.

Image credits: By Willy Pogany – Uploaded to the English language Wikipedia in August 2008 by Bloodofox (log), Public Domain, Link

By Elmer Boyd Smith (1860 – 1943) – Page 88 of Brown, Abbie Farwell (1902). “In the Days of Giants: A Book of Norse Tales” Illustrations by E. Boyd Smith. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Public Domain, Link