Ragnarok and Reincarnation in Norse Mythology

  1. The End of the World
    1. Before the End: Fimbulwinter
    2. The Great Battle
    3. Rebirth and Reincarnation
  2. Rebirth in Germanic Mythology

Rebirth is a fascinating concept that is usually associated with the religious beliefs of Asia and not with ancient European Mythology. But surprisingly, there are some mentions of reincarnation in Western Myth and Legend. Could this be an indication of an underlying Indo-European connection and a widespread belief among the Proto-Indo-Europeans? To find out, ironically, we will have to start at the end of all things in Norse Mythology.

The End of the World

Ragnarok describes the end of the world as we know it, culminating in the epic clash between Gods and Giants and the subsequent destruction of heaven and earth. Other than in popular belief, Giants in Germanic legends are not just humongous humanoids but vicious monsters like Jormungandr, the enormous snake that wraps around the entire world and Fenrir, the giant wolf that bit off Tyr’s hand.

Tyr’s hand being bitten off, from a 18th century Icelandic manuscript.

In this article, we will be taking a closer look at the most popular of the Norse myths and examine whether the rebirth of the world after Ragnarok can be connected to other Indo-European beliefs, such as reincarnation in Hinduism and Buddhism. Firstly, a chronological account of the events of Ragnarok will be given, after which further mentions of rebirth in Germanic mythology will be examined and lastly a conclusion will be drawn.

Before the End: Fimbulwinter

Brothers will struggle and slaughter each other, and sisters’ sons spoil kinship’s bonds. It’s hard on earth: great whoredom; axe-age, blade-age, shields are split; wind-age, wolf-age, before the world crumbles: no one shall spare another.

Orchard, Andy. The Elder Edda (Penguin Classics) (p. 11). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
By Jakub T. Jankiewicz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71430251

Leading up to Ragnarok are three subsequent winters in which the lands are ravaged by desperate wars for survival, brother against brother, the time of the axe and the blade, and the splitting of shields. Following the devastating wars are another three winters without summers, known as Fimbulwinter, covering the earth’s surface in ice and snow, the wind-age, leading to even further death and destruction. The hungry wolves which were chasing the sun and moon through the eons catch up with and devour them and all stars fall from the skies, and thus the wolf-age has begun. Yggdrasil, the great world tree that connects the nine worlds of Norse mythology is shaken by the arrival of the fire giants from Muspellheim, led by Surtr, the mightiest among them with his flaming sword, splitting the heavens asunder and causing earthquakes across all realms. These lead to the breaking of Fenrir’s bonds and give rise to catastrophic floods, with which Jormungandr and Naglfar, the ship made of the finger- and toenails of the dead, approach. Upon the deck of Naglfar stands Loki, Fenrir’s father, with his troops of frost giants to lead the assault against the gods.

Loki, from a 18th century Icelandic manuscript.

The Great Battle

Heimdall will blow his horn to warn the Aesir and so begins the fight for the fate of the world. Odin takes on Fenrir and falls, but is avenged by Vidar who rips the great wolf’s jaws apart. Thor slays the Midgard serpent but falls to his knees after he’s taken nine steps, succumbing to the snake’s deadly venom. Tyr fights the Helhound Garmr, but both are killed in the struggle, and such is the fate of Heimdall and Loki, dying at each other’s hand. Freyr takes on Surtr butvjs overcome and Surtr sets the world ablaze, sealing its fate. And thus the world is ended the same way it was born, in the fires of Muspellheim.

Drawing depicting the gods and the giants fighting, from right to left Thor and the world serpent, Odin and Fenrir, Freyr and Surtr.

Rebirth and Reincarnation

Or so it seems. Astonishingly, the world rises again from its ashes and is reborn, more beautiful than it was before, and so is Baldr, the god who was killed by his blind brother Hodr prior to the events of Ragnarok, due to the scheming of Loki. Together with Vidar and Vale and the sons of Thor, the brothers become the gods of the new world. Two humans seem to have survived the fire of Surtr as well, and it is them that will repopulate the earth. The sun’s daughter takes her place in the daylight skies and thanks to her light the new world is said to be evergreen and crops grow by themselves, without having to be sawn.

The world after it was reborn.

Rebirth in Germanic Mythology

The legend of Ragnarok is perhaps the most well-known of the Icelandic sagas, although the term “Ragnarok” for the end of the world has not yet gained the same popularity as the Greek “Apocalypse” or the Semitic “Armageddon” in the western world. Other than the day of final judgment, however, this version of the apocalyptic myth does not postulate the end of all things, but rather a new, better beginning. Could it be that the universe in Norse mythology is cyclic, meaning it is constantly being reborn and destroyed again, such as in Indian cosmology, instead of linear, as in the Semitic Religions?

Another similarity between Scandinavian an Indian myth to be mentioned here is the rebirth of Baldr, which is reminiscent of the popular belief in Reincarnation among Hindus and Buddhists, although it has been argued that this may be a later invention, influenced by the arrival of Christianity in Iceland and the conversion of its people to this new faith, mirroring the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even if this was the case, there are other examples of reincarnation in Norse and Germanic mythology. According to Wikipedia, the etymology for the modern German word “Enkel” is “little grandfather” from Old High German eninchilî”, suggesting that men are reborn in their son’s male offspring.

There was a belief in olden days that people were reborn, though nowadays that is reckoned an old wives’ tale.

Orchard, Andy. The Elder Edda (Penguin Classics) (p. 145). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Furthermore, this quote from the Edda suggests, that in the distant past people believed in reincarnation. The Edda was written in the 13th century AD, with some of it’s contents believed to be based on much earlier oral traditions, so this could be referring to customs and beliefs which had died out centuries earlier. In the second century AD the Roman writer Apius mentioned the following, referring to the Suebian warriors of Ariovist in the first century BC:

the Teutons had no fear of death because they hoped to be reborn.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebirth_in_Germanic_paganism, 25/06/2020

Wolfgang Golther in his book confirms that “the Germans believed in reincarnation in the sense of a soul reappearing in the body of a newborn” (cf. Golther Germanische Mythologie: Vollständige Ausgabe (German Edition) . marixverlag. Kindle Edition.), also quoting Appian. He furthermore mentions that in the Sigurd’s Saga (the Norse version of the German Nibelung Saga) Hogni wishes that Brynhild shall never be reborn.

Conclusively, there seems to be a fair amount of evidence to support that reincarnation was among the beliefs of the early Scandinavians and the ancient Germanic peoples, although it may have not been at its core. Thus it remains a tempting theory, given that reincarnation plays such a key role in Indian mythology, that reincarnation was part of Proto-Indo-European beliefs, although further comparison with other Indo-European myths and legends will be necessary to yield more conclusive results.

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