Most cultures or religions over the ages have foretold the end of the world in one form or another. Some believed there would be a definitive termination of everything (linear cosmology), while others saw the world as simply part of a celestial cycle of life (cyclic cosmology), where death and rebirth was the natural order. Terms such as “End of Days”, “Apocalypse” and “Armageddon” are used to describe this, but the equivalent in Old Norse is Ragnarök or Ragnarøkkr which translate as “Doom of the Gods” and “Twilight of the Gods” respectively.
The Ragnarok prophecy appears in the Eddas, and details the bloody and brutal manner in which this life-cycle will draw to a close. Both on Earth (Miðgarðr) and Asgard (Asgarðr – home of the gods), traditions and kinship will have been discarded, oaths will count for little, and whoring and murder will be rife. Odin (Oðinn) will prepare for Ragnarok by training the Einherjar – his army of warriors who died in glorious battle – but knows they cannot escape their fate. Three things are said to herald the Doom of the Gods: Odin’s son Balder (Baldr) will be killed and sent to the underworld, Hel; Midgard will experience frequent winters until the time of the Great Winter (Fimbulvetr) where the world will be seized by cold and darkness; three roosters will crow to signal the beginning of the conflict, one in Asgard, one in Hel, and one in Jotunheim (Jötunheimr – home of the giants).
Breaking free of the chains in which he was bound for his role in Balder’s death, Loki the Trickster will raise an army of the dead in Hel and march on Asgard, joined by the Jotnar (giants). The monstrous wolf Fenrir will also escape his imprisonment to seek his revenge on the gods, while Jormungand (Jörmungandr) – the enormous serpent that surrounds Midgard – will slither from the cosmic sea. In the south, the fire giants will ride forth from Muspelheim (Múspellsheimr – home of primordial fire), led by Surt (Surtr) and burn the land as they go. It will cause all of Yggdrasil (the world-tree) to shudder violently, and when the alarm is sounded in Asgard, Odin will command his people to ready themselves for battle.
The gods and the Einherjar will meet the invaders on the field of Vigrid (Vígríðr) and fight valiantly, but their opponents will be equal to them. Loki and Heimdall (Heimdallr) will slay one another, as will Thor (Þor) and Jormungand, while Fenrir will eat Odin whole, only to be avenged by another of the latter’s sons, Vidar (Viðarr). Frey (Freyr) will engage Surt but fail, and the fire giants will set the Nine Worlds ablaze, causing the sun to turn black and Midgard to sink into the cosmic sea.
Sometime after Ragnarok has ended, Midgard will emerge once more, fertile and plentiful, and the sun will return to the sky. It will be repopulated by the two human survivors, Lif and Lifthrasir (Lífþrasir), who hid in Yggdrasil and whose tale reflects the Norse creation myth. Balder will be resurrected and meet with the few gods who have remained in Asgard to establish a new and happy existence for themselves at Idavoll (Iðavöllr). Thus the cycle of life will begin again.