You may have read that this weekend is supposed to mark the coming of Ragnarok, the violent "Viking Apocalypse" prophesied in Old Norse poetry. But the mythical apocalypse that inspired Game of Thrones' long winter isn't actually on the books—and may refer to events that happened centuries ago.
It was just a little over a year ago that we were talking about the Maya non-apocalypse, and now it's the vikings turn to kind of, sort of predict the world's end. Stories are swirling around the Internet that February 22nd marks the "predicted" date of Ragnarok, which will coincide with this weekend's Jorvik Viking Festival. But don't stock up on wolf-repellent just yet; this isn't the end of the world.
What is Ragnarok?
Ragnarok is an event that is referenced in a handful of poems in the Poetic Edda and in Gylfaginning, a book from the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems that were collected in the 13th century (but in some cases composed centuries earlier) and it informs much of our current knowledge about Norse mythology. The Prose Edda is another compilation of Old Norse poems, likely written out by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, also in the 13th century. Gylfaginning is the second book in the Prose Edda (following the Prologue), and it focuses on the creation and destruction of the world in Norse mythology, quoting heavily from works in the Poetic Edda. Various stone carvings dating from the 10th and 11th centuries also depict images believed to be scenes from Ragnarok, notably Odin, the Allfather of the gods, being devoured by the wolf Fenrir, son of the trickster god Loki.
Both the Völuspá (a poem from the Poetic Edda in which a seeress relates the lore of the giants and gods and goes on to predict the gods destruction) and the Gylfaginning discuss at length the final battle between the gods of Asgard (the Æsir) and the Jötnar (giants), joined by the monstrous children of Loki and the Eldjötnar (fire giants). Although the two poems contradict each other in places, several events overlap: Jörmungandr, the serpent that surrounds the world (and is another child of Loki) will cause the seas to quake; Fenrir swallows Odin whole but is then immediately slain by Odin's son Víðarr; the god Thor manages to kill Jörmungandrm, but is fatally poisoned by the serpent and dies after walking a mere nine steps away. In the Gylfaginning, Loki and the Æsir Heimdallr battle and kill one another.
Ragnarok sees the destruction of the world and the heavens; the jötunn Sutr, who guards the fiery realm Muspelheim, burns the mortal world (Midgard) and Asgard. However, Ragnarok isn't just the end of the world; it's also a time of renewal. A new, fertile earth is supposed to rise from the seas and a field called Iðavöllr stands in Asgard's place, and the Asgardian survivors of Ragnarok, joined by the dead gods Baldr and Höðr, will gather there, will gather there. Thus, the cycle of the cosmos begins anew.
Winter is (Not) Coming
The final battle of the gods and giants doesn't come unannounced, however. Vafþrúðnismál, the third poem in the Poetic Edda, references a "Fimbulvetr" (also termed Fimbulwinter) a "mighty winter" that is linked to Ragnarok. According to the Gylfaginning, Ragnarok will be preceded by three successive winters, in which snow blows from all directions, with no summer between them. It is a time not just of cold and starvation but of violence; wars will rage, family members will kill each other "for greed's sake," and siblings will commit incest with one another. After that, a wolf will swallow the sun. According to both works, only two humans survive the events of Ragnarok: Líf and Lífthrasir, who will repopulate the new world.
It's possible that the idea of the pre-apocalyptic Fimbulvetr was inspired by real-life climate events. In an article in Antiquity, Bo Gräslund and Neil Price link the myth to the long winter that began in 536. They note that the Gylfaginning refers to very specific weather conditions and duration—three years of winter, the sun being useless, snow drifting in from all directions—and that there is some evidence that material culture described in the poem comes from the mid-sixth century. That years-long winter of long ago may have such a profound mark on the psyche of the Nordic culture that it became a marker of the apocalypse.
Why is this weekend supposed to be Ragnarok?
Because the organizers of the Jorvik Viking Festival say so. In fact, all of the announcements of Ragnarok coming out of the festival have been playful rather than dire. In November, the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England, announced that a figure had blown what they called the Gjallerhorn, the mythical horn of Heimdallr, signaling a 100-day countdown to Ragnarok. When I inquired as to what makes this year the year of Ragnarok, the organization pointed me to their "Signs of Ragnarok" page. Aside from blowing of the Gjallerhorn (which the Centre itself organized), they analogized the movements of the serpent Jörmungandr to the oarfish that recently beached themselves in California and the Fimbulvetr to the mistaken predictions of the coming ice age. It just so happens that these "predictions" of Ragnorak place its start date during the Viking Centre's annual celebration of the viking feast of Jolablot this weekend. In interviews about the coming Ragnarok, it's clear that the organizers aren't terribly attached to the idea of the apocalypse, noting that Jolablot celebrates the start of spring, which, like Ragnarok, is a time of renewal.
Image from the Jorvik Viking Festival.
It's all a cheeky—and rather successful—marketing campaign for the Jorvik Viking Festival. But even though the world isn't about to end, we can still use this invented Ragnarok as an excuse to feast like vikings and celebrate the coming transition in the Northern Hemisphere from the snows of winter to the fertile fields of spring.