By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
There is an intriguing parallel to the prophecy of Ragnarok in a much more Christianized, but still Germanic-language, milieu. A fragment of a poem is preserved in Old High German in a manuscript dated to the 800s AD. This poem describes, ostensibly, the apocalypse of Christian Revelation, but does so, in one striking passage, in terms that are highly similar to the prophecy of Ragnarok.
Christian Apocalypse or a Description of Ragnarok?
Then the mountains will be consumed in fire,
and not a single tree
will stand any longer on earth,
the rivers will run dry,
the seas will go dry,
the sky will be swallowed by flame,
the moon will fall,
Midgard will burn,
not a stone will stand.
The Judgment Day comes to land,
it comes to humankind,
comes with fire,
and no kinsman will help
any other kinsman before Muspilli.
This is Judgment Day, but the vocabulary resembles that of Voluspa more than Revelation. It is Midgard, after all, that will burn. And the word Muspilli is never found anywhere else in Old High German but resembles nothing so much as the name of the fiery realm Muspell in the chaos before the Norse cosmos was made.
So though this fragment of an old German poem (usually called Muspilli after its famous mysterious word) used Christian vocabulary, too, somewhere in the back of the poet’s mind was the vocabulary of different beliefs, which looked similar to those of the related Norse-speaking culture.
Which One Inspired the Other?
The occurrence of very Ragnarok-like language and images in this German poem is a strong indication that the idea of Ragnarok is very old in the culture of Germanic-language speakers, going back to at least the first centuries AD. At that early date, Norse, English, and German would have been one language community.
By extension, this is a strong indication that Ragnarok isn’t just a Norse expropriation of the Christian apocalypse, in spite of the superficial similarities. Now, the Norse were certainly in constant contact with Christian peoples by the 800s, and the composition of the poem Voluspa was probably in the late 900s. There is potential for Christian influence on the story of the Ragnarok catastrophe, if not for Christian inspiration for that apocalypse.
While elements common to many world religions’ endtimes are present in both the Ragnarok prophecy and the end prophesied within the Christian Book of Revelation—particularly in the elemental nature of the destruction—there is no telltale agreement of detail specific enough to suggest that Ragnarok is a reworking of a Christian story. The picture on the puzzle is pretty different, even if a few of the pieces of the puzzle look similar.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Are We to Blame?
An important distinction is between the moral universes of the two apocalypses. The tone of the Book of Revelation is moralizing—we read constant reminders that it is our fault that these things are coming to pass. And yet while Revelation foretells horrors, ultimately, the good and faithful will survive them and partake in their heavenly reward.
Ragnarok seems amoral, and simply inevitable—nothing can be done to forestall it, but seemingly nothing that we do will hasten it, either. In Ragnarok, the good suffer, and the wicked finally get the upper hand before everything burns and melts. Then in the world reborn from the ashes, good and evil, both continue—again, unlike the ultimately more affirming Revelation.
The prophecy of Ragnarok does foretell a better world after the horrific destruction of this one, but the good and faithful don’t live to see it. They are simply washed away with the world they inhabited.
In spirit, the Christian apocalypse is a moral event, infused with judgments about a sinful humanity. Ragnarok is simply an inevitable, chaotic end, that murders, freezes, or melts everyone and everything. It’s a violent timer going off when it’s programmed to, the cosmic equivalent to the death day portioned out at birth to each individual human being.
The Prophecy of Ragnarok Is Inevitable
But, it is appropriate to note certain commonalities between Ragnarok and Revelation nonetheless. A trumpet or horn will be blown by a guardian figure—Heimdall or Gabriel—to announce the event. And these final catastrophes are among the most elemental events in each belief system.
We have noted before how much more the Norse myths build on conflicts between personalities than between gods with elemental powers of fire, storm, sea, et cetera. But Ragnarok brings those same personalities, those same gods, face to face with just such elemental powers, and sees them subjugated by those impersonal forces.
Surt’s flame, the drowning of the earth at the end, the earthquakes that rock the great tree Yggdrasil—the Norse gods seem nearly powerless against the might of the elements when the end comes. But here, too, note the contrast: At no point in the Christian Revelation is God out of control, and at no point does He face His personal end.
But the Norse gods are completely out of control during their apocalypse, as soon as Heimdall has blown his horn and signaled that the end is near. In Revelation, the Christian God signals that time is up for His wayward creation. But the Norse gods are as much created as creators—they were preceded in the cosmos by their enemies, and by impersonal zones of fire and water—and at Ragnarok, time is up for them.
Common Questions about the Prophecy of Ragnarok and the Apocalypse of Christian Revelation
The prophecy of Ragnarok uses a very similar vocabulary to the poem Muspilli. Words such as Midgard and Muspilli are examples. Muspilli strangely resembles the fiery realm Muspell in Norse mythology.
The prophecy of Ragnarok pictures a world being destroyed that has nothing to do with the actions of its inhabitants and nothing they could do will stop it. It is, in a sense, amoral. On the other hand, the Christian apocalypse is especially concerned with the morality of the world’s inhabitants.
In the prophecy of Ragnarok, the Norse gods are not in control of the situation while God is completely in control in the Christian apocalypse. Unlike the Norse gods, He won’t be destroyed by the world and He’s also not taken by surprise when Ragnarok arrives.