Myth vs. Culture: Ragnarok

The existence of what is popularly regarded as the, ahem, “Germanic Heaven”, namely Valhalla (Hall of the Slain), is intimately linked in the late Norse-Icelandic Eddas to the great cosmological event of “Ragnarok” (the Dimming of the Gods); in which, as the story goes, the enemies of the Tivar — the shining ones, gods, heroes, sages; cognate to Sanskrit Deva, related to the Latin divus and hence Modern English divine, deity, etc. —  whelm against the divine order, overthrow it and destroy the gods themselves in one last epic battle.

It is a thing peculiar to Germanic myth … the notion that the gods die. Mind you, we are not really talking about *Germanic* myth. Very little of our native mythology/s survives … though Germanic myth most certainly does exist outside of the Eddas. And this is what we ARE talking about regarding the Ragnarok myth, and most specifically of the notion that our gods are mortal; the Norse-Icelandic Eddas, which are themselves representative of one branch of late Viking Age North Germanic culture … born out of the very age in which our native beliefs were under assault by the Church and coming to the end of (that phase of) their historical existence. It betrays a deep pessimism, specifically regarding the nature of the divine, that is uncharacteristic of Indo-European culture in general, and general attitudes found within the elder Germanic culture in specific.

As early as Cornelius Tacitus (1st century C.E.) we read, “The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship.” (Germania)

While we have due cause to take the observations Tacitus recorded in his Germania with a dose of salt, we would be foolish to dismiss them all together. In the above Tacitus relates in clear terms the fundamental Germanic view of the divine, as express in the Old English word wih (Old Norse – ve, Gothic – weihs), which stems from a root meaning “separate, set apart”. In it’s various forms, the ancestors used it to denote the altar, sacred idols, the hallowing power of the gods, and even the nature of the gods themselves.

As a reference to the (fundamental) nature of the divine, the word wih denotes that they are something beyond human categories and thought and conception … as ineffable to us as our own human nature is to our canine companions. Rudolph Otto’s terms “numinous” and most especially “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (the great/humbling yet fascinating mystery (of the divine)) strike right to the heart of the sense of wih.

And so, in a culture where it was believed that once you stripped the layers of culture away from a god, you encountered a being that was “wholly other”, by what pretension could a mortal human determine such a being’s fate, ie. it dies at Ragnarok?

Indeed, the most damning evidence of Germanic “ignorance” (honesty?) regarding the fate of the gods, is found within the Ragnarok myth itself, in the opening act of which the Bifrost Bridge, that links Heaven and Earth, God and Man, is destroyed. And of course, with the destruction of that link, all of the cultural forms of the gods, deprived of their “wih-essence” begin to wither and droop, to dim in the minds of men, until they have been emptied of the very force of divine awe that originally inspired them. And while this is indeed a fairly accurate description of what has happened in the history of Germanicism, it is indeed the heights of hubris to make any assumptions about the fate of the Vear themselves; which, really, is tantamount to losing one’s connection on a phone call and then declaring that whoever was on the other end must, as a result, be dead!

This is where we get into that other pan-Germanic quality of divinity; namely holiness … which is a word that is firmly rooted in the Germanic languages, and is even found in tandem with the word wih … for all that they are dichotomous in meaning. In fact, holiness (whole, healthy, integrated) is the temporal product of wih. In the context that I am using it here, it is that part of the gods that has “come down” to exist in a relationship with us and find expression in human culture and our beliefs regarding the nature of the divine. Remember, the Tremendous Mystery is not only terrifying, but also irresistibly fascinating, and thus inevitably prone to expression within culture. Hence, the divine origins of culture itself.

Here one might note the early Germanic idols that Tacitus reported didn’t exist, but which archaeology has indeed found evidence of; they are indeed not rendered in any kind of sharply human likeness after the manner of the Graeco-Romans, and not for a lack of technical skill in wood-carving. Such figures, where bogs have wondrously preserved them, are always at best only vaguely human, and deal more in accentuating natural detail in the medium rather than imposing detail upon it. Wih-holy.


If any part of the divine is subject to destruction it is this “holy aspect”, the human aspect. But that much and no more. The Vear shall always remain, to re-assert and express themselves within the manifold forms of human culture, time and again, eternally … which I suppose is the ultimate message of the Ragnarok myth itself with it’s “generation of new gods”; though I would imagine that Hinduism has a more accurate notion of how that all works, with it’s eternal cosmological cycle of coming into being/going out of being with an Indra, et al. present and accounted for in each cycle.

And so, it seems pretty plain to me that whatever the true value of the Ragnarok myth, this notion of the “death of the gods” simply doesn’t stand up and is next to entirely unsupportable within the context of Germanic culture; though admittedly there is room for discussion on fine points (eg. wih vs. halig).

It should always be remembered that the myths of old arose within a certain cultural paradigm that informed the meaning of those myths. They cannot be studied in exclusion to the culture they existed in without losing their native value as an expression of that culture. And ultimately, culture has far more to teach us about the worldview and ways of worship of our Germanic ancestors than does myth … which, taken at face value, is just “old stories”.


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