From Creation to Ragnarok
by Margaret Clunies Ross
from Prolonged Echoes, Vol. I, ch, 7, 1994

"It has been argued (Bauschatz 1982,119-54, esp. 140-3) that there was such a thing as a 'Germanic' conception of time which divided it into past and non-past, not into past, present and future. I can find no support for this notion in Old Norse mythological texts."

"It may be, then, that our modern predilection for extended narratives and the sheer difficulty and obscurity of many of the poetic sources of Old Norse myth have not only given undue prominence to myths in which the horizontal axis dominates, but, by considering each in isolation from the others, we have also imbued them with a kind of stasis or fixity as individual texts outside the context of their place in the mythological system overall. Hence the idea has arisen that mythic time is 'reversible', that the global situation of the gods with respect to the giants and other supernatural beings is 'the same' in, for example, the myth of Þórr's (Thor's) fight with the World Serpent, Miðgardsormr, as it is in the myth of the giant Þjazi's abduction of the goddess Iðunn and its consequence. Yet, if one reads the texts in relation to one another, and with an eye for indicators of relative chronology, it soon becomes apparent that the myths of the horizontal axis are as much implicated in the determination of the course of history of the supernatural as are myths whose spatial orientation is largely vertical. Not only that, but a comparison of several poetic texts which adopt a more or less overtly chronological perspective on the events of the world of Old Norse myth offers a fairly coherent assessment of the key events which lead sequentially from one stage of the world’s history to the next and so on to Ragnarok and beyond.”

"A comparison of several Eddic poems which undertake a temporal review of major mythic events gives us access to the broad outline of mythic chronology and the determination of its course by specific acts of supernatural beings. These poems are Völuspá , Vafþrúðnismál, and sections of Fáfnismál and Hyndluljóð. All were known to Snorri Sturluson, who depended on the first two, in particular, for his statements of cosmology and eschatology in Gylfaginning. As often in the study of Old Norse myth, one has to try and avoid circularity of argument in looking beyond Snorri to other versions of myths he presented as a synthesis of several texts that were known to him, texts that often expressed variant versions of the 'same' myth. When we know some of the variants, we can see how he shaped his material, but we will never know how far he regularised his sources in some areas, because we lack independent means of checking. Where we can check, however, the best procedure seems to me to give full weight to variation, bearing in mind the context in which it is found, while at the same time looking for the elements the variants have in common. With this methodology in mind, we can compare what these four poems present as the significant events of the Old Norse mythic world arranged in temporal sequence."

"Without doubt Völuspá offers the fullest and most explicit synthesis of the major events of the Old Norse mythic world from a diachronic perspective, which is probably one of the main reasons why this poem commended itself to Snorri as the foundation for Gylfaginning. Vafþrúðnismál 20-55 offers a view which essentially corroborates Völuspá's version of the sequence of events and their interrelationship though it presents several significant variants of them, as do the few stanzas of Fáfnismál (11-15) and stanzas 29-44 of Hyndluljóð the part of this poem that Snorri apparently knew as Völuspá in skamma ('Shorter Prophecy of the Sibyl', cf. Gylfaginning 10, 17). All four variants of a catechetical form, in which a wise being who associated in some way with the chthonic world gives information, past, present and future to an interlocutor who is either the god or a human being. [4] The catechetical form of these poems is not in itself a narrative one but it implies that the being who imparts information, who is able to understand the temporal and causal relationships that the sequence of events in time meaningful, has a durative overview of them. The information thus retrieved therefore assigns meaning to events in proportion as they lead to other events in a sequence. Their significance is not of the stand alone type."

"The picture that emerges from a comparison of the four Eddic poems is one that divides elapsed time into five distinct periods whose transitions marked by significant events. This is an essentially linear conception of time measured in human terms, though there is evidence of the presence of a cyclic element, which is not nearly as well articulated as the linear concept. The first period is best defined simply as that which takes place in the beginning. Its furthest limit is coterminous with the extent of wise beings who possess information about these early times or with what they have heard happened then (Völuspá 1-2; Vafthrúðnismál 29-35). Scholars have often written of Old Norse myth as if the world of the gods was created out of chaos in the sense of a formless void of primordial matter, and yet the first period does not appear chaotic in these eddic poems. It certainly lacks the direction the gods later imparted to it but the nine worlds and the mysterious tree (presumably the World Ash) of Völuspá 2 are not evidence of formlessness or disorder. Both this poem and Vafþrúðnismál confirm that the earth (jórð) and the heavens above (upphiminn, himinn) did not then exist but that giants were alive and, though the first giant produced others by male parthenogenesis, that their life already possessed the elements of a social structure. Vafþrúðnir speaks in stanza 29 of the birth of Bergelmir in this first age and of two other giants who were Bergelmir's father and grandfather. A recognizable patrilineal descent group at the least existed in these times. The sibyl of Völuspá also mentions that she was brought up long ago amongst the giants, a sign that giant society was organised in such a way as to provide nurture for its young. This, therefore, was not a formless age, either socially or physically."

"The second period of the world's history may be termed the past of active creativity. It is the time when the sons of Burr, those beings Grímnismál 41 calls "the joyous gods" (blíð regin), made heaven and earth out of the body parts of the primeval giant Ymir. The sons of Burr or Borr, as we have seen earlier in discussion of Norse creation myths, are of giant descent on the mother's side but represent a new genetic stock in the patriline. These beings, to whom the texts assign a variety of names meaning 'deity' or 'divine power', fashion and stabilise the components of the natural world: earth, sky, sea, rocks, clouds, and the heavenly bodies, sun, moon and stars or planets. [5] They are able to use their knowledge of the movements of the heavenly bodies to gain control of time itself by dividing it into meaningful units by which to measure the events of their world. So they invented names for times of the day and night and the phases of the moon. [6] It was in this second period of active creativity that the gods made Miðgarðr, the world mankind was to live in, either from Ymir's eyebrows (so Grímnismál 41) or by drawing it up already formed from a primeval ocean (so probably Völuspá 4; cf. Schier 1963). They did not create mankind until late in the second period, however, and, if we are to follow Völuspa's account, the creation of humans formed a bridge between the second and third periods, for it forced the gods to face a problem that the existence of human beings brought into sharper focus, namely, the problem of mortality."

"The threat of death and mortality to the world of gods and humans is presented in these texts in terms of the action of fate, whether that force is represented in personified form or in more abstract ways. Its presence pervades the world in its third chronological phase, which is the mythic present experienced by gods and men. Fáfnismál 11-15 makes it clear that the judgement of the Norns (norna domr 11,1) has power over all humans, even like Sigurðr, and that the operation of fate extends to the gods, whose final battle is mentioned in the following stanzas (Kragerud 1981). Though the texts themselves may sometimes speak of the events of the third phase in the past tense, that is because the thoughts of the wise informants of these are for the most part concentrated on what is to happen towards the end of this period. Thus the sybil of Völuspá's speaks of Baldr's death in the past tense and does not begin to use the present tense until she describes the portents leading up to Ragnarök (stanza 44 following) [7] The speaking voice giantess Hyndla, on the other hand, takes Baldr's death as her temporal point of departure in stanza 29, not only as a point of reference for mythic history but also one for her human hearer, Óttarr heimski. In her account of world history phases one and two are not clearly divided; they involve the mysterious birth of Heimdallr and the growth of his powers as, the antithetical powers of Loki, genitor of all the monsters in the world. As we have seen in Chapter 5, this poem's presentation of Heimdallr makes allusion to the myth of that god's engendering of the world of human society, as told in Rígsþula, so that, even though the first three temporal periods are not clearly differentiated, the sequence of major events still appears intact though the creator figures differ."

"All texts place the growing preoccupation with fate and death in what we might call the mythic present, that is, the period of time in which the gods lived with other kinds of beings, giants, dwarves, elves and humans, in the world they had attempted to maintain in a state of order. This mythic present is the period during which most of the exchanges between god and giants on the horizontal plane take place but it does not constitute a single point in time. Three of our texts (Fáfnismál excluded) indicate that the two most significant events of this period were the incorporation of the Vanir into divine society after the war between them and the Æsir, an event that took place near or at its beginning, and the events leading to the death of Baldr and its consequences, which took place towards the end. Hyndluljóð 29-30 moves straight from the subject of Baldr's death to that of the two Vanir marriages with giantesses. Vafþruðnismál does not mention Baldr but links Njörðr's status as a hostage with the giant Vafþrúðnir's knowledge of the gods' fate (tíva röc 38,2), thus clearly establishing a connection between the
incorporation of the Vanir into divine society and the move towards the period that precedes Ragnarök. For the Vóluspá-poet the Æsir-Vanir war, including the Gullveig story, the pledges of Óðinn's sight and Heimdallr's hearing, activities of the valkyries and the death of Baldr and its aftermath are the events that characterise the mythic present of divine society. The establishment of Valhöll, with its valkyries and einherjar, Óðinn's warriors there, is also an event of the third period, sometimes described, as in Grímnismál 8-10, as an ongoing strategy to prepare for the holocaust of Ragnarök."

"There is no doubt that the events that lead up to and constitute a full-scale attack upon divine society by a group of fire-bearing demons and other monsters under the leadership of a certain Surtr ("Black, Burnt One") occupy the fourth period of the world's history. This is the time that may be termed the near future, for it relates events that are foreseen by the narrators of myth but have not yet occurred. It is marked by a series of events that are often represented as a consequence of activities of the third period. These future happenings are known to the gods through sibylline prophecy, which the deities try to avert or avoid by various stratagems. They are fated nonetheless and will bring about the deaths of most of the gods, affecting humankind as well There is indeed a strong sense of entailment in much Norse myth, a notion that the acts of the gods in periods two and three lead inexorably to their destruction. This becomes a leitmotif in Snorri
Sturluson's Edda, especially in Gylfaginning, but it is found in many poetic texts as well. Snorri used the compound noun ragnarøkkr, "twilight of the divine powers", to refer to all that happened during this period, but the eddic poems which clearly represent the same set of circumstances use the phrase ragna röc, "fate or doom of the divine powers". Modern writers on Old Norse myth tend to refer to these events as Ragnarök or the doom of the gods, and that is the usage adopted here."

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FOOTNOTES:

[4] In Völuspá the sybil reveals that she has been brought up by giants long ago; she is either dead or comatose when Óðinn forces her to speak with him. Vafþrúðnismál is a wisdom contest between Óðin and the wise giant Váfþrúðnir. Fáfnir, who imparts knowledge to the young hero Sigurðr in Fáfnismál after the latter has given him his death wound, is a human turned dragon while, in Hyndluljóð, the goddess Freyja, patroness of a certain Óttarr, has to her protege information about his own genealogy and about cosmic events that will help him in his claim to an inheritance.

[5] According to Völuspá the gods stabilise what has already been created. Vafþrúðnismál and Grimnismál, which subscribe to the Ymir-version of the creation story, have the gods make natural phenomena out of the giant's body parts.