Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Many of the religions of the ancient world are rich in stories of what has happened, and what does happen, but few foretell what will happen. The lore of the Norsemen, however, details exactly what will happen. As well as the story of the Creation of the World, it tells us of its ultimate destruction, and the fate of men, gods and creatures alike. Throughout the stories of Norse Mythology, friendships have gradually been forged, and feuds simmered, and enemies made. An ancient prophecy revealed how things would end. It is to this showdown that we turn this week. This is Ragnarök, or the Götterdämmerung – The Twilight of the Gods.

                             “ Trembles Yggdrasill’s towering ash
                                The Old Tree wails… ”
                                        - THE COMING OF THE END

The Fall of the Aesir
Illustration by Carl Ehrenberg
There will come a time in the Nine Worlds when order will be shaken. The Aesir will sit deep in council on Asgard’s golden plains, the dwarves shall groan at the walls of the mountain, all Jötunheim shall roar, as the fury of the Giants shall boil over. In the realm of Men on Midgard, for three Winters snow shall fall without Summer. This shall be the Fimbulwinter, and Envy and Greed will grip the world of Men. Brother shall slay brother, and many of their sister’s sons will lie slain on the field of ruinous war. The bonds which fuse father and son will be shattered as readily as the shields of the fallen. Long ago shall seem the age when Midgard was verdant green, for a fell wind of chill shall blast it for three years, and thick will be the blizzards. Then cometh the sign that will herald the beginning of the end. Since the beginning of the world (click here), the Sun and her sister the Moon have been chased across the skies by the dire wolves Sköll and Hati, fated one day to be their prey. Now, at the Twilight, their time has come. Sköll will at last seize the Sun in his jaws, and despair will fall upon the realm of men, and Hati will close his jaws upon the Moon, and the stars will vanish from the skies.

Loki's Chains are Broken
Illustration by Ernst Hermann Walther
His rage at his humiliation too terrible to behold, Loki, the deceiver who was bound (click here), will shatter his bonds and declare open war upon the Aesir, and soon upon him shall follow his foul brood. The ground will quake as the World Tree groans, the mountains will be thrown down and trees torn up, and all chains will be broken. The mighty wolf Fenrir, who the Aesir once bound (click here), lying for millennia in wait, shall break free of his bonds and a world of pain shall he unleash upon they who dared restrain him. The Ocean will erupt in fury, and towering waves shall break upon the land, for the Midgard Serpent, Jörmungandr himself in his wrath will heave his vast form from the depths of the Sea. Fenrir will roar as he advances upon the Aesir, and the roof of his mouth will scrape the Heavens, and the root the Earth. Jörmungandr will spit venom into the skies, and the Nine Worlds will be awash. From the dark forests all evil creatures will leave the shadows. Deep in the inferno of Múspell, the Fire Giants will stir. Greatest among them, the mighty Surtr will charge forth, leading the fiery vanguard against the gods, his sword of purest fire more radiant than the Sun. Hel will open her gates, and Loki her father will lead the accursed dead from Niflheim in revolution. The terrible dragon, Nidhogg, will at last bite through the roots of the World Tree, and Garm the hound of Hel, no longer sated by human blood alone will utter a hideous roar that will sound throughout the Nine Worlds, as the demonic beast thirsts for the blood of gods. Jötunheim will spit forth the Giants to march on the Aesir. All Loki’s deplorable entourage shall ascend the worlds, and reach the rainbow bridge, Bifrost, ultimate revenge within their minds.

High above, Heimdall, the vigilant watchman of the gods, alone of the Aesir will see the approaching Doom (click here). Taking the mighty horn Gjäll, he shall blast with all his might the final alarm to the gods, to oppose the roar of Garm. The Aesir will then be made aware of the Death which now lies at their Gates, and each shall ready for the final war. Odin, King of the Gods, will lead them, resplendent in magnificent gold and his mighty spear Gungnir. Close behind will follow Thor the Thunderer, Tyr the brave, Freyr the fair and every last god in Asgard. The doors of Valhalla will be thrown asunder, and the Einherjar, the great champions of men who fell in battle, handpicked by the Valkyries (click here) will march forth to fight alongside the gods. To the field Vígrídr shall both sides march, and there shall begin the final battle of the gods:

                         “ Surtr fares from southward with switch-eating flame;
                            On his sword shimmers the Sun of the War-gods;
                            The rocks are falling, and the fiends are reeling,
                            Heroes tread Hel-way, Heaven is cloven… ”

                                     - RAGNARÖK BEGINS

Odin and Fenrir
Painting by Emil Doepler
The towering din will make the cosmos quake, as both sides hurl themselves against the other. Odin, atop Sleipnir, Lord of Horses, will ride against Fenrir, bane of the Aesir, with great valour. Alongside him shall charge his mighty son, Thor the Thunderer. But the wolf is a power beyond any of them, and the King of the Gods sees his folly, recalling that ancient prophecy of his doom. Thor sees his father will be in trouble, but to no avail, for his nemesis, Jörmungandr, will lash out at him, and god and serpent will be locked in war. The fair god Freyr will oppose the infernal Surtr, and will fight will unequalled valour. Great will be his bravery, but greater still the arms of Surtr. With a strike of pure fire will the ashen Giant fell the god, and the first of the Aesir will crumple to the ground. The monstrous hound Garm will then be unleashed, and none will stand before his dreadful visage save brave Tyr, who lost his hand to the jaws of Fenrir (click here). Their fight will shudder the field and shake the spirits of all, and when the dust will clear, both will fall, each the bane of the other.

Jörmungandr and Thor
Painting by Emil Doepler
Seeing his friends dying around him, the Thunderer redoubles his rage, taking up the mighty Hammer Mjöllnir. The World Serpent, once defied by Thor (click here), lashes out, more mighty a foe than ever the Thunderer has faced. A terrible realisation comes over Thor, as he sees that all his trials and his wars have lead to this. Bellowing in fury, the Thunderer brings down Mjöllnir one final time, for a mightier strike than ever before. The Hammer will slay Jörmungandr, terror of the seas, but No! The Serpent’s fang will pierce his arm. Nine paces will the victorious god stride before succumbing to the fiery poison, and Thor too will collapse to the Earth to die. King Odin, Lord of the Aesir, distraught by the death of his great son, will hurl himself anew at Fenrir, but alas in vain. For the mightiest of wolves will swallow him whole, and the wisest of the Aesir will be gone. His beloved Frigg will then mourn. It will be then that Vidar, youngest of Odin’s sons, will find his courage at last. “With one hand he shall seize the Wolf’s upper jaw and tear his gullet asunder”, and Fenrir will crumble to the Earth, dead. Heimdall, vigilant watchman of the gods, who always suspected the treachery of Loki, faces down the Deceiver on Vígrídr’s burning plain. The valour of Heimdall will break upon the dark rage of Loki, his betrayal at last laid bare. Loki shall pierce the watchman’s side, but not before his foe’s mighty sword crashes down upon his crown, and both shall fall to die. The greatest champions on both sides lie dying, and in that moment Surtr will swing his flaming sword hither and thither, and all-consuming fire will burn all the world:

                           “ The Sun shall be darkened, Earth sinks in the Sea,
                              Glide from the Heaven, the glittering stars;
                              Smoke-reek rages, and reddening fire,
                              The high heat licks against Heaven itself. ”

                                           - THE DESTRUCTION OF THE NINE WORLDS

Now man will be judged. They who have broken oaths, and murderers and their kind will wade in the rivers of Jörmungandr’s lethal poison, and great will be their screams. The World will be overturned in fire and crumble into the Sea. The Cosmos as it is known will end. But hope will emerge.

                           “ Unsown then the fields will grow,
                              Evil be amended;
                              Baldr is coming… ”

                                    - THE NEW WORLD

The New World
Painting by Emil Doepler
There will come a time when the Earth will be born anew from beneath the Ocean, and it shall be green and fair, and abundant will be the fruits of Heaven. Vidar and Váli, the sons of Odin shall survive, for neither the fires of Surtr nor the power of the Sea shall claim them. Where once there stood Asgard in the days of the Aesir there will stand the plains of splendour, called Ida, and they shall reside there. To there shall come also Módi and Magni, the sons of Thor, and they shall find waiting there Mjöllnir, ready to serve new masters. Released now from the bonds below the Earth, he shall come to rule them, Baldr the fair, restored to glorious life. With him shall be Höðr his brother, redeemed of Loki’s taint, and he shall sit with his brother and the sons of Odin and Thor on the gentle grass and hold speech. They shall find the golden chess pieces of the Aesir, and they shall speak of the end of the last Age. It will be revealed that before the Fimbulwinter, a woman and a man, Lif and Lifþrasir sought shelter in the wood of an ancient tree, Hoddmímis Holt. Emerging from their sanctuary, the morning dew shall sustain them, and the human race will be born anew. The goddess Sól, lady of the Sun swallowed by Sköll, will bequeath to the World a daughter as beautiful as she, and she will take up the mantle of her mother, and her rays will bathe all the world in a radiant glow.

                                            “ She a hall see standing,
                                               Brighter than the Sun,
                                               With gold bedecked,
                                               There shall good people,
                                               Household build,
                                               And in a long time,
                                               Happiness enjoy… ”

                                                  - THE BEGINNING

United Kingdom

The Prose Edda:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(Contains many of the original tales of Norse Mythology, written a thousand years ago)

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(The heroic poetry of the Norsemen, written a thousand years ago)

United States

The Prose Edda:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(Contains many of the original tales of Norse Mythology, written a thousand years ago)

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(The heroic poetry of the Norsemen, written a thousand years ago)

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


There is a fine balance between self confidence and pride, and closer still to vanity, that ancient sin. But their are many forms of pride, from those that empower to those that destroy. Here is the story of one young man whose vanity earned the wrath of many, the pity of some and the ruin of one.

Painting by Benczúr Gyula
A long time ago, in the Boeotian realm of Thespiae, a boy was born to the River God Cephissus and the Naiad Liriope. Even in infancy the other nymphs, Dryads and Naiads and Oreads, of the mountain vales and forest glades could see majesty in the young boy's form. Such a sight to behold as baby became boy! His fair mother cared deeply for her boy, and sought out the legendary seer, Tiresias (the very same soothsayer who revealed the truth to Oedipus - for this story please click here), '"fam'd far and near for knowing things to come", for comfort as to his fate. Liriope asked the prophet if her son would enjoy a long life, or was doomed to a short one. Seeing the gift of beauty the gods had empowered the boy with beyond all other mortals, the wise sage replied "If e'er he knows himself he surely dies". "Long liv'd the dubious mother in suspence, 'till time unriddled all the prophet's sense". So the boy grew older yet, and his handsome visage stronger yet. Narcissus was the name his mother had given him, and all who set eyes upon him were stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of him. His sixteenth year began, and the list of maids who had declared their adoration for him swelled greater yet, each confession another brick in his tower of pride, each doomed to fail.

Painting by Alexandre Cabanel
Then, one day as Narcissus hunted in the forest glades, one of the Oreads, the mountain nymphs, caught sight of him for the first time. Echo was her name, and this moment would forever haunt her destiny. Poor Echo was a cursed being. For it was the sport of Zeus the Thunderer and King of the Gods to make merry with the many nymphs of the world in secret, when Hera his wife's gaze would be averted. Many times would she have caught her husband in the act were it not for stories Echo would tell her, to delay her coming. The time came one day when the deception was laid bare before the fearsome Queen of Olympus, and the roots of the mountains shivered before her fury. "That tongue, for this thy crime, which could so many subtle tales produce, shall be hereafter but of little use". Forever would the nymph be cursed, unable to speak except the words used by others. It is from Echo's name that the aural effect today takes its name. Now Echo clapped her eyes upon the perfect youth stalking the undergrowth. Young Echo was overjoyed to see Narcissus for once alone, for usually he was trailed by a vast entourage of sycophants. But, with tears of frustration, she was unable to speak and put her feelings into words.

Long did she follow him through the woods, desperate to open her heart to Narcissus. Then, at last Narcissus is aware of her presence. Turning to see her, he laughed at her pitiable obsession, and bid her turn away. Crushed by his words, the tearful Echo took to melancholic days in solitary caves, shady glades of the woods and other dark places of despair. But the vengeful goddess Nemesis was angered by Narcissus, and wove her plans of retribution:

                           " There stands a fountain in a darksome wood,
                              Nor stain'd with falling leaves nor rising mud;
                              Untroubled by the breath of winds it rests,
                              Unsully'd by the touch of men or beasts;
                              Hogh bow'rs of shady trees above it grow,
                              And rising grass and cheerful greens below... "
                                        - THE FOREST CLEARING

So fair Narcissus, weary from his long hunt, came to the forest clearing. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he knelt at the side of a crystal pool of cool water. As he bent down to splash water on his heated face, a new kind of warmth flooded through him, as he saw a being of astonishing beauty before him. Such a handsome youth, the very image of the Olympians! Sparkling eyes, hair that Apollo himself would be loath to show. So Narcissus was consumed by the fire that was his own, though he knew not who the perfect being was in truth.

Narcissus Transfixed
Painting by Caravaggio
Long did Narcissus lie there, staring into the pool, thinking not of sleep or food, as his body wasted away, entranced by the passion afire within the calm ripples. To the trees of the glade Narcissus cries, languishing for he cannot ever reach his beloved, cruelly separated as they are by the surface of the pool. "When my arms I stretch, he stretches his. His eye with pleasure on my face he keeps, he smiles my smiles, and when I weep he weeps. When e'er I speak, his moving lips appear to utter something, which I cannot hear". Then the hammer blow falls, when fair Narcissus sees the truth laid bare. "It is myself I see! The happy delusion is a part of me!" A terrible sorrow gripped the proud youth for the vanity of his desire. So totally entranced was he with his own image, he did declare "I wish him absent whom I most desire, and now I faint with grief; my fate draws nigh; in all the pride of blooming youth I die. Death will the sorrows of my heart relieve!" So Narcissus turned back to the pool, as his warm tears splashed upon the surface. Now the image is but ripples and flashes, and the boy's sorrow grows "whither dost thou fly?" he laments. The Autumn began to fade, and the glorious features began to dwindle in Narcissus's form. All those things which made him desired slipped away, but there was one nearby the pool who stood there still. For Echo could not bare to leave his side, and her tears for Narcissus flowed:

                           " She saw him in his present misery,
                              Whom, spight of all her wrongs, she griev'd to see.
                              She answer'd sadly to his moan,
                              Sigh'd back his sighs, and groan'd to ev'ry groan:
                              'Ah youth! belov'd in vain,' Narcissus cries;
                              'Ah youth! belov'd in vain,' the nymph replies.
                              'Farewell', says he; the parting sound scarce fell
                              From his faint lips, but she reply'd, 'farewell'.
                              Then on th' wholesome earth he gasping lies,
                              'Till death shuts up those self admiring eyes... "
                                          - THE FATE OF NARCISSUS

So Narcissus breathed his last, transfixed forever by his own reflection, and ever after one who possesses such vanity has been known as Narcissistic. Echo's heart was broken. Out of respect for her the other Naiads and Dryads sought to gather the boy's remains, but upon reaching the shore of the pool, found not bones and flesh there. In his place stood a stalk of verdant green, crowned with golden blossoms, that most majestic plant which now bears his name...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A series of poems of Classical Mythology, written by an erudite Roman)

United States

Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A series of poems of Classical Mythology, written by an erudite Roman)