by Daniel Viorica
The Birth of Ragnarök
The sun turns black, the earth sinks below the sea,
no bright star now shines from the heavens;
flames leap the length of the World Tree,
fire strikes against the very sky.
— The Völuspá (trans. Terry)
Most English speakers today are familiar with the concept of Ragnarök. It’s the Norse apocalypse. The world goes up in flame, even the gods fight and meet their doom. It’s appeared in any number of pop-cultural products, from the Thor films to World of Warcraft. But even those relatively familiar with the concept of Ragnarök are less familiar with its origins in the written record—the Völuspá, an Old Norse poem, dated at or soon after the Viking Age.
What is this poem? How can we make sense of it? And why should we care? The Völuspá is notoriously obscure. Our aim in this exhibition will be to introduce the poem for a non-specialist audience. We will place it in the cultural context of the Viking Age and make sense of some of its more difficult elements, using as guides the Völuspá‘s more notable entrances to 20th- and 21st-century English-speaking culture.
This exhibition is broken into five sections. In the first, we’ll introduce the current state of Völuspá scholarship and make a first foray into material analysis by inquiring as to the identity of the Völuspá‘s titular speaker. In the second, we’ll use Thor: Ragnarok as a touchstone for investigating how the vikings1 may have conceptualized their deities. In the third, Seamus Heaney’s “North” will help us envision the settlement of Iceland, and in the fourth the works of J.R.R. Tolkien will give us a window into the ‘other beliefs’ of the Völuspá, including incurrent Christianity and other strange beings of the earth. Finally, we’ll move away from contextual information and return to the poem as a poem, focusing the construction of its verse. We’ll even make a Völuspá—or part of one—for our own.
In the end, we hope to elucidate not only the entanglements present within the Völuspá itself, but also the ways in which the poem is entangled with the world we live in today.
- What makes the Völuspá difficult?
Sidebar 1: the Völuspá and Iceland
- Building a Cast of Characters
Sidebar 2: The Appropriation of Ragnarök
- Conflict and Unity: A Völuspá of the Icelandic Settlement
Sidebar 3: Using Science to Place the Völuspá
- Other Beliefs in the Völuspá: Christianity & Strange Beings of the Land
Sidebar 4: Snorri Sturluson
- Coda: Making a Völuspá
1 For this section of the website, the capitalization of “viking” is lowercase when referring to the inhabitants of Scandinavia and Iceland during the Early Middle Ages. “Viking” is capitalized in the contexts of “the Viking Age” or “Viking Studies.”