Not too long ago, a friend of mine asked me if I was ready for Ragnarok. I responded with a puzzled look, because I had no idea what he was talking about. He then told me that he had read that “the Germanic calendar” had predicted that Ragnarok would happen on February 22nd, 2014. This evidenced what is perhaps the most bizarre conflation of ancient Germanic spirituality with fundamentalist Christianity since the invention of the “Nine Noble Virtues.” I then proceeded to explain to him what Ragnarok actually is and how the ancient Germanic peoples actually thought of it, and his eyes proceeded to glaze over. I made a joke and changed the subject, and we went back to enjoying our night of drinking.
For a while I contemplated writing something to address this misconception, but decided it wasn’t worthy of a serious response. Since then, however, I’ve seen a startling number of news articles about this supposed “Viking apocalypse,” so I thought it might indeed be worthwhile to go ahead and set the record straight.
Ragnarok is not going to happen on February 22nd, nor on any other date. The wolf Fenrir is not going to assume a physical form and devour everything between the ground and the stars, nor is the fire-giant Surt going to reduce the world to ash with his flaming sword.
There are two basic errors here: first, a lack of understanding of the ancient Germanic view of time, and second, a lack of understanding of the ancient Germanic view of the relationship between matter and spirit, and, by extension, history and myth.
The pre-Christian Germanic peoples, like other animistic and polytheistic peoples, had a cyclical view of time. The idea of a final end of the world only makes sense in a linear view of time, such as the one the modern world has inherited from Christianity.
In the overwhelming majority of interpretations of the Christian tradition, Yahweh created the world at a single, particular moment in the historical past, humanity fell from grace at a single, particular moment in the historical past, Jesus died on the cross at a single, particular moment in the historical past, the reign of Satan on earth will end and Jesus’s reign begin at a single, particular moment in the future, and the world will remain thus for the rest of its existence, having decisively changed from one state of being to another for all time. The “end of the world as we know it” is final, absolute, irrevocable.
From an animistic/polytheistic perspective, however, any “end of the world” is necessarily followed by a rebirth of the world. Germanic mythology amply attests to this. In the primary sources that deal extensively with Ragnarok, these discussions are immediately followed by discussions of the re-creation of the world. One iteration of the cycle ends, and another begins.
In Christianity (at least since the time of Descartes), the spiritual and material worlds are utterly distinct from one another. But in animistic, polytheistic worldviews, the material world is the concrete manifestation of the spiritual world. The invisible, spiritual world is a latent modality of this very world, contextualizing its events and expressing their inner meaning. The cycle of Germanic mythology, as I explain here and in much more detail in my book, is the spiritual model of the cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth that we see repeated all around us at all scales, in the life cycle of any organism, the cycle of the day, the seasons, the moon, the rise and fall of civilizations, etc. All of these particular cycles are expressions of that underlying, universal cycle. Every death, every twilight, every autumn, every waning moon, and every societal collapse points back to and manifests Ragnarok in its own partial way.
It’s important at this point to not walk into the trap of thinking about this too literally. For example, someone once emailed me with a question on this point, and asked how the ancient Germanic peoples would have reacted to the gods being alive at one phase of the cycle and dead at another. “Surely they had to notice the dichotomy,” he wrote. This is precisely the trap of thinking about myth in too literal a way. For the ancient Germanic peoples, there was no such dichotomy. They were never so rationalistic and unimaginative. The gods were simultaneously always alive and always dead, and this didn’t seem to present a problem.
The pagan Germanic peoples were masters of what John Keats called “Negative Capability,” “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” The ultimate truth of the myths was conveyed in moments of ecstatic, visionary insight. They were not reached by the exercise of the numbing, mechanical variety of logic of which the modern world is so sentimentally fond. The myths and the gods were mysteries to be approached with wonder and awe; there were no “mechanisms” in Norse/Germanic mythology and religion.
If this still sounds confusing to you, I understand. We moderns aren’t accustomed to thinking this way anymore. If you’ve read this far and you’re still curious, however, you might want to check out the fuller discussions in the historian of religion Mircea Eliade’s excellent The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History or my own book, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.
So why are some people claiming that Ragnarok is going to happen on February 22nd? From what I’ve gathered from the articles I’ve read, it seems to be a publicity stunt by the Jorvik Viking Festival, a gathering of people who like to dress up in silly costumes that – how conveniently! – runs from February 15th through the 23rd. They point to nothing in the primary sources that gives a date for Ragnarok.
Of course, they don’t do that because they can’t. There is no such date. Ragnarok is happening all around us all the time. This enchanted, god-haunted world, restless and never content with stagnation, is always dying and being reborn.
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