Vikings were very superstitious and convinced higher powers guided their lives. Norse gods and goddesses, mysterious animals, and supernatural creatures played an important role in the lives of the Vikings. Special signs could be interpreted as advice on warfare or where the ships should sail.
A scene from the last phase of Ragnarök, after Surtr has engulfed the world with fire by Emil Doepler, 1905.
One event Vikings feared most was Ragnarök, the Doom of the Gods. According to Norse mythology, Ragnarök is the coming destruction of the world. It is also the final battle between the Jotuns and Aesirs. From the Eddas, two 13th-century Icelandic manuscripts recognized as the main sources of Norse mythology and Skaldic poetry, we learn the world will “be destroyed by fire and water, with steam and flames reaching high heavens.”
Only two humans will survive this horrible apocalypse, and they will inhabit a new world.
Vikings’ Fear Of Climate Change
“When the Vikings were battling and spreading out into unknown territories, there was also a deep fear of Ragnarok coming to pass. Ragnarok was said to be the end of the world and only Odin was capable of knowing whether it was the true end or not. For those who could not believe the world would survive the great battle, Ragnarok was something to be feared. This would have greatly affected the lives of the Vikings, who were constantly waiting for the end to come.”
Being convinced Ragnarök can happen at any time also explains why Vikings feared climate change, as the famous Rökstone reveals.
he Giant with the Flaming Sword (1909) by John Charles Dollman.
Three universities in Sweden have re-examined the legendary rune stone and discovered the “inscription offers evidence Vikings erected the stone fearing a repeat of a previous cold climate crisis in Scandinavia.
It was previously thought the giant rune stone was erected as a memorial to a dead son.”
Volcanic Eruption In Iceland Was A Sign Of Ragnarök
While investigating the Surtshellir Cave in Iceland, scientists found fascinating evidence of how Vikings attempted to prevent Ragnarök.
Surtshellir lava cave in Western Iceland.
The Icelandic cave is named after the giant Surtr, the Dark One who, according to Norse mythology, was present at the world’s creation and would destroy it after the battle of Ragnarök.
“Late in the 9th century AD, Viking Age settlers colonized Iceland unaware that they were settling one of the world’s most geologically active land masses. Sitting atop the Iceland plume, a volcanic hot spot carrying magma up from the mantle, and straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is home to 30 active volcanic systems that have erupted at least 205 times since the first Norse settlers arrived.”
Shortly after the first Viking settlement was created in Iceland, people witnessed a major volcanic eruption. The explosion covered about 90 square miles of fertile land in volcanic rock, and according to scientists, this was probably the first major volcanic eruption witnessed by people in northern Europe since the end of the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years prior.
“The impacts of this eruption must have been unsettling, posing existential challenges for Iceland’s newly arrived settlers.”
To the Vikings, the eruption was a bad omen and a sign of Ragnarök.
Archaeologists have found evidence the Vikings entered the newly formed cave soon after the lava cooled. Inside the cave, they built a boat-shaped structure and created seven piles of ritual offerings consisting of domestic animal bones such as sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and pigs.
Inside Surtshellir cave scientists found a boat structure and ritual offerings. Image credit: Brown University
These activities and offerings were an attempt to postpone Doomsday.
“Our analyses indicate that these activities continued, perhaps as annual sacrificial rituals, for at least 60 [to] 80 years until Iceland converted to Christianity,” says Kevin P. Smith, deputy director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University. “And the objects left behind in the cave imply that they were conducted by members of Iceland’s elite.”
The cave became associated with the evil Norse flame giant Surtr. It was said that when a terrible sound was heard from Heimdall’s Giallar-horn, one knew Ragnarök had begun. Sagas tell frost-giants and Surtr would combine to destroy the world.
“Surt from the south comes
With flickering flame;
Shines from his sword
The Val-god’s sun.
The stony hills are dashed together,
The giantesses totter;
Men tread the path of Hel,
And heaven is cloven.” Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.)
It is worth mentioning that Bertha Philpotts argued in 1905 “that the specific beliefs about the end of the world incorporated within the Prose and Poetic Eddas were not brought to Iceland from Scandinavia by its Norse settlers but were, instead, framed in Iceland by the colonists’ first encounters with, and responses to, volcanism.
She noted that Surtr’s name was undocumented elsewhere in Scandinavia and in Iceland was exclusively associated with Surtshellir, a massive cave in western Iceland’s Hallmundarhraun lava field.”
It implies a strong connection between the name Surtr, Ragnarök, the Eddas, and Iceland, worthy of further study for those interested in the subject.