Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

Page: 171

The Terrors of the Underworld

At the same time, Hel, the goddess of death, crept through a crevice in the earth out of her underground home, closely followed by the Hel-hound Garm, the malefactors of her cheerless realm, and the dragon Nidhug, which flew over the battlefield bearing corpses upon his wings.

As soon as he landed, Loki welcomed these reinforcements with joy, and placing himself at their head he marched with them to the fight.

Suddenly the skies were rent asunder, and through the fiery breach rode Surtr with his flaming sword, followed by his sons; and as they rode over the bridge Bifröst, with intent to storm Asgard, the glorious arch sank with a crash beneath their horses’ tread.

“Down thro’ the fields of air,

With glittering armour fair,

In battle order bright,

They sped while seething flame

From rapid hoofstrokes came.

Leading his gleaming band, rode Surtur,

’Mid the red ranks of raging fire.”

Valhalla (J. C. Jones).

The gods knew full well that their end was now near, [334]and that their weakness and lack of foresight placed them under great disadvantages; for Odin had but one eye, Tyr but one hand, and Frey nothing but a stag’s horn wherewith to defend himself, instead of his invincible sword. Nevertheless, the Æsir did not show any signs of despair, but, like true battle-gods of the North, they donned their richest attire, and gaily rode to the battlefield, determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible.

Odin and Fenris

Odin and Fenris

Dorothy Hardy

While they were mustering their forces, Odin once more rode down to the Urdar fountain, where, under the toppling Yggdrasil, the Norns sat with veiled faces and obstinately silent, their web lying torn at their feet. Once more the father of the gods whispered a mysterious communication to Mimir, after which he remounted Sleipnir and rejoined the waiting host.

The Great Battle

The combatants were now assembled on Vigrid’s broad plain. On one side were ranged the stern, calm faces of the Æsir, Vanas, and Einheriar; while on the other were gathered the motley host of Surtr, the grim frost giants, the pale army of Hel, and Loki and his dread followers, Garm, Fenris, and Iörmungandr, the two latter belching forth fire and smoke, and exhaling clouds of noxious, deathly vapours, which filled all heaven and earth with their poisonous breath.

“The years roll on,

The generations pass, the ages grow,

And bring us nearer to the final day

When from the south shall march the fiery band

And cross the bridge of heaven, with Lok for guide,

And Fenris at his heel with broken chain;

While from the east the giant Rymer steers

His ship, and the great serpent makes to land;

And all are marshall’d in one flaming square

Against the Gods, upon the plains of Heaven.”

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold). [335]

All the pent-up antagonism of ages was now let loose in a torrent of hate, each member of the opposing hosts fighting with grim determination, as did our ancestors of old, hand to hand and face to face. With a mighty shock, heard above the roar of battle which filled the universe, Odin and the Fenris wolf came into impetuous contact, while Thor attacked the Midgard snake, and Tyr came to grips with the dog Garm. Frey closed with Surtr, Heimdall with Loki, whom he had defeated once before, and the remainder of the gods and all the Einheriar engaged foes equally worthy of their courage. But, in spite of their daily preparation in the heavenly city, Valhalla’s host was doomed to succumb, and Odin was amongst the first of the shining ones to be slain. Not even the high courage and mighty attributes of Allfather could withstand the tide of evil as personified in the Fenris wolf. At each succeeding moment of the struggle its colossal size assumed greater proportions, until finally its wide-open jaws embraced all the space between heaven and earth, and the foul monster rushed furiously upon the father of gods and engulphed him bodily within its horrid maw.

“Fenrir shall with impious tooth

Slay the sire of rolling years:

Vithar shall avenge his fall,

And, struggling with the shaggy wolf,

Shall cleave his cold and gory jaws.”

Vafthrudni’s-mal (W. Taylor’s tr.).

None of the gods could lend Allfather a helping hand at that critical moment, for it was a time of sore trial to all. Frey put forth heroic efforts, but Surtr’s flashing sword now dealt him a death-stroke. In his struggle with the arch-enemy, Loki, Heimdall fared better, but his final conquest was dearly bought, for he, too, fell dead. The struggle between Tyr and Garm [336]had the same tragic end, and Thor, after a most terrible encounter with the Midgard snake, and after slaying him with a stroke from Miölnir, staggered back nine paces, and was drowned in the flood of venom which poured from the dying monster’s jaws.

Odin’s son goes

With the monster to fight;

Midgard’s Veor in his rage

Will slay the worm;

Nine feet will go

Fiörgyn’s son,

Bowed by the serpent

Who feared no foe.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Vidar now came rushing from a distant part of the plain to avenge the death of his mighty sire, and the doom foretold fell upon Fenris, whose lower jaw now felt the impress of that shoe which had been reserved for this day. At the same moment Vidar seized the monster’s upper jaw with his hands, and with one terrible wrench tore him asunder.

The Devouring Fire

The other gods who took part in the fray, and all the Einheriar having now perished, Surtr suddenly flung his fiery brands over heaven, earth, and the nine kingdoms of Hel. The raging flames enveloped the massive stem of the world ash Yggdrasil, and reached the golden palaces of the gods, which were utterly consumed. The vegetation upon earth was likewise destroyed, and the fervent heat made all the waters seethe and boil.

“Fire’s breath assails

The all-nourishing tree,

Towering fire plays

Against heaven itself.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.). [337]

The great conflagration raged fiercely until everything was consumed, when the earth, blackened and scarred, slowly sank beneath the boiling waves of the sea. Ragnarok had indeed come; the world tragedy was over, the divine actors were slain, and chaos seemed to have resumed its former sway. But as in a play, after the principals are slain and the curtain has fallen, the audience still looks for the favourites to appear and make their bow, so the ancient Northern races fancied that, all evil having perished in Surtr’s flames, from the general ruin goodness would rise, to resume its sway over the earth, and that some of the gods would return to dwell in heaven for ever.

“All evil

Dies there an endless death, while goodness riseth

From that great world-fire, purified at last,

To a life far higher, better, nobler than the past.

Viking Tales of the North (R. B. Anderson).


Our ancestors believed fully in regeneration, and held that after a certain space of time the earth, purged by fire and purified by its immersion in the sea, rose again in all its pristine beauty and was illumined by the sun, whose chariot was driven by a daughter of Sol, born before the wolf had devoured her mother. The new orb of day was not imperfect, as the first sun had been, and its rays were no longer so ardent that a shield had to be placed between it and the earth. These more beneficent rays soon caused the earth to renew its green mantle, and to bring forth flowers and fruit in abundance. Two human beings, a woman, Lif, and a man, Lifthrasir, now emerged from the depths of Hodmimir’s (Mimir’s) forest, whence they had fled for refuge when Surtr set fire to the world. They had sunk into peaceful slumber there, unconscious of the destruction around them, and [338]had remained, nurtured by the morning dew, until it was safe for them to wander out once more, when they took possession of the regenerated earth, which their descendants were to people and over which they were to have full sway.

“We shall see emerge

From the bright Ocean at our feet an earth

More fresh, more verdant than the last, with fruits

Self-springing, and a seed of man preserved,

Who then shall live in peace, as then in war.”

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

A New Heaven