3 Myth of the end
Ragnarök (the doom of the gods) is the Norse end of the world, clearly echoed in the Christian Armageddon. In Norse mythology, Ragnarök culminates in a final battle between gods and the demons and giants, ending in the death of the gods. The world ends in fire and ice.
It’s George RR Martin’s “Winter is Coming”. The saying in Game of Thrones is House Stark’s motto – it is situated in the North of Westeros and often hit hardest by cold winters – but is also a general warning that bad things are going to happen. And Ragnarök is also a popular theme in Scandinavian death metal or Viking Metal, which draws on Norse mythology.
In Ragnarök, the older generation of gods will be destroyed. “There is an inevitability to this,” writes Larrington in her book. “Even the warriors in Valhalla can’t defeat the cosmic forces. After this mythical end the world will rise again. But the question remains, will it be an improvement on the old?” In her retelling of the myth, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, author AS Byatt decides that the world is not coming back, while for writer Neil Gaiman in his book Norse Mythology, there are echoes of Animal Farm. The new generation of gods repeat the same moves, and history repeats itself. Ragnarök is both in the future – and in the past.
4 Myth of the wanderer in search of wisdom
Odin, the father of Thor and creator of the Norse world, is also the god of war, poetry, runes, magic and the dead. But he is not all-knowing, and wanders both the human and divine worlds in search of wisdom. This comes at a price. When he reaches the Well of Urd, he is told that to sip the water of wisdom he must sacrifice an eye.
Odin the wanderer inspired JRR Tolkien’s Gandalf. He also lent his name to Wednesday, from the Old English “wōdnesdæg”, originally from “Woden” (Odin). In the Marvel universe, he is always portrayed with his right eye missing – a wise figure, with a blind spot.
“Odin shapes the way we think about continuing to learn, but at the same time he is seen as a patriarchal force who must ultimately step aside, and we see this dichotomy a lot in contemporary politics,” says Larrington. “At the end of the Norse world, a new generation of gods will come, with new, untested ideas. But there is a sense that these will prevail.”
5 Myths of masculinity
There is a paradox of masculinity in the Norse world. On the one hand, there is the blond-haired athletic Viking hero, adventuring, trading, writing poetry and carving runes, and on the other hand there is the raping, pillaging Berserker, destroying all in his wake.
Some reimaginings have even bestowed Vikings with an almost cuddly quality, as in the 20th-Century children’s books Noggin the Nog, or have parodied them, as in the Terry Jones film Eric the Viking. Probably the prevailing myth, though, is of a heroic, adventurous band of brothers confident of their place in the world.
But it’s a myth that is open to disturbing reinterpretations. “In the [mid]-19th Century, the figure of the adventurous Viking was used to underpin doctrines of Aryan superiority,” says Larrington. “Today the males exercising power over women have their own adoptees in far-right, white groups, who want women to ‘know their place’.” That’s not to dismiss the myth as irrelevant, Larrington argues. The figure of the Viking warrior has always represented a struggle and a need for balance: between heroic rage, personal honour, courage – and openness to love. And that conflict between the idea of traditional male values and men who inhabit a world of women resonates as much now as ever.