What Ragnarok Tells Us about the Norse Cosmos


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

Consider the implication of the story of Ragnarok for the structure of the Norse cosmos. For one thing, there is one act of burning—initiated by the evil figure of Surt—that scorches and melts every inhabited realm, with no implication that any part of it survives intact. This means that the Norse realms are all part of one contiguous world or ‘planet’, and not on separate planets.

Illustration depicting the chariot of the sun being chased by wolves
The sun and the moon are sometimes humanized in Norse mythology. They are constantly chased by wolves and, at Ragnarok, they are finally caught and swallowed. (Image: W. G. Collingwood/Public domain)

The Role of the Sky

There is also the striking subordination of the heavens to the earth. It is the burning of the earth, and of the tree Yggdrasil, that scorches the sky—the heavens are near enough to the earth, in other words, and apparently, in this geocentric universe, there is no conception of ‘outer space’ as such. The heavenly bodies also play a surprisingly minor role in the Norse mythos altogether.

Illustration of Surt holding his flaming sword
Surt’s flaming sword sets the inhabited realm on fire which leaves us to conclude that in the Norse cosmos there are no separate ‘planets’. (Image: John Charles Dollman/Public domain)

In fact, it is difficult to tell what the Norse thought of the sky in mythic terms. In both the versions of the creation story and the Ragnarok story recorded in the Eddas, the heavens play only a secondary role. The names of only three stars are recorded. One unidentified pair of stars is analogized to a pair of eyes, and one star is said to be a glowing frostbitten toe.

Throwing a Man’s Toe into the Sky

In the story of the witch trying to heal Thor’s injured head, he told her that he had carried her husband across a river in a basket, but the man’s toe had frozen and Thor had thrown it into the sky where it became a star. The name of the man with the unfortunate toe was Aurvandil, so Thor gave the star the name of Aurvandil’s Toe.

By the way, the cognate, or linguistically equivalent, name is known from Old English, where one bright star is named Earendel. J. R. R. Tolkien borrowed this name in its Old English form for the name of an elf associated with the bright stars formed from mystical jewels known as the Silmarillion in his work of the same name.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse MythologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Are the Heavenly Bodies Animate Objects?

Snorri attempted to reconcile many contradictory older sources and seems especially uncertain when he talks about the sky. He speaks of the moon and sun both as inanimate lights (created in the beginning by the Aesir gods from sparks taken out of Muspell) and as persons (one named Sun who pulls the sun in a chariot, and one named Moon who pulls the moon in a chariot).

The ancient poems of the Poetic Edda do occasionally speak of the heavenly bodies in vaguely humanized terms—the anti-god Riddle-Weaver in the poem Vafthruthnismal says the sun will have a ‘daughter’ after Ragnarok, for example. But neither the sun nor the moon is ever a speaking character in a preserved myth, and no god or goddess is particularly associated with either.

Illustration of the norse cosmos
The Ragnarok story can help us uncover the structure of the Norse cosmos. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Most likely, then, when Snorri personifies the sun and moon, he is exaggerating the instances in the older poems where vaguely personal terms are used for them. The most evocative, and most consistent myth of the sun and moon is just that they are each followed by a wolf who occasionally swallows each and causes an eclipse. In a typical example of ‘dream logic’, it is not even explained how eclipses then end.

Now whether this low importance of heavenly bodies reflects the true situation in pre-Christian Norse mythology, or simply the paucity of surviving star-lore, is hard to say for certain. But the fact that the stars, the sun, and the moon never play more than a passing role in these myths suggests that they were not much more than a passing thought for the culture that told them.

The Wolves Will Finally Catch Their Prey 

Always, while the gods live, the wolf called Hati, or ‘Hate’, is just a whisker’s length behind the moon, slavering on it in its awful hunger, and the one called Skoll, or ‘Skulker’, is never more than seven inches from the midday sun. 

At Ragnarok, as the gods die, the wolves will finally swallow their quarry for good, and plunge the survivors in our singed world into inky blackness. Everything left in the world will be set aflame. The flames will reach so high that the bowl of the sky itself will not be left unscorched.

Common Questions about What Ragnarok Tells Us about the Norse Cosmos

Q: In the Norse cosmos, why is one of the stars called Aurvandil’s Toe?

Once, Thor had carried a man across a river in a basket, but the man’s toe was frozen. When Thor threw the frostbitten toe into the sky, it became a star. Thor named the star after the manAurvandil.

Q: Are the sun and moon animate objects in Norse mythology?

Different sources tell us discrepant accounts of the nature of the sun and the moon in the Norse cosmos. Some ancient poems in the Poetic Edda speak of the heavenly bodies in humanized terms, such as when it’s said that the sun will have a daughter. On the other hand, the sun and moon have no speaking roles and no god or goddess is usually associated with them.

Q: Why do eclipses happen according to Norse mythology?

In the structure of the Norse cosmos, two wolves are always chasing the sun and the moon. When they swallow them, eclipses happen. But there is no explanation as to how they reappear after being swallowed. At Ragnarok, the wolves swallow these heavenly objects for good and the world plunges into darkness and everything is set aflame.

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