Surely the gods are immortal. Surely their great cosmic struggles which the world has marked and attended for so long could not simply come to an end. These gods have shaped the world, the substance and energy through which divine intelligence expresses itself. They created man in their collective image, and he in turn worshipped them as himself and embroidered his conception of them with the designs of his deepest symbolically cognized longings. Men and gods are mirror-images of one another. It is shattering to envisage their end. Though many have come to disbelieve in the gods, to dismiss them as untutored imaginings, the cosmological explanations these moderns offer in exchange do not satisfy human intuitions. They fail to address the fact of divine intelligence and reduce Man and Nature to the level of purely physical phenomena. Others who do experience the divine within themselves and resonate to its presence in the universe may not wish to populate their consciousness with anthropomorphous immortals, but they still recognize that the divine has many specialized expressions. Perceiving the order that reigns in the universe, they realize the necessity of many-faceted levels of causation. Though they may not call these powers 'gods', such thinkers sustain a sense of their sanctity in the scheme of things, a sanctity bound up with the greater mystery of the whole of manifestation, which the Hindus called the Ashvattha tree, the Norsemen, Yggdrasill. And whether one calls the nodes where the World Tree branches by the names of gods, elements or evolving kingdoms and phyla, the question remains: Is the tree immortal? Is the notion of its death any less disturbing to the materialist who sees his tree in a periodical chart than to the poet who sings of Ragnarok?
Let us follow the poet and imbue the cosmos with divinity. Let us give free reign to the intuitive perceiver who dwells within, mirroring the whole tree while observing its nature. Materialists look at the end of the world as a void of nothingness, but the ancient theists could never conceive of an end except as a prelude to a new beginning. They conceived of the gods struggling on behalf of order, having their day, and then being overrun by the forces of darkness, the chaos-mongers who would bring down the curtain of a cycle. In this view, man struggles for meaning and order in his life and reaches up to the mirrored example of the gods in attempting to place his efforts in a larger framework. He becomes an intimate of the gods, coming to identify with them and love them as immortal aspects of himself, giving meaning and purpose to his individual existence. How, then, must such a one stand in awe and trepidation before the prophecy of the Volva, whose haunted phrases outline the terrible battle which will mark the end of the gods, the end of the known world. And yet, the old Norse accepted the sibyl's words, marked the stages of the gathering contest as they unfolded around them and within them, and readied themselves for their part in the fray.
They imagined, outstretched before them, Vígrid's great battle plain, which, when the time comes, will witness catastrophic duels between the gods and their foes. The gods will be matched against their enemies, and the Einherjar heroes of Valhalla will fight alongside of them, picked for that day through Odin's often suspect intervention. Loki and others had accused the Alfader of frequently awarding victory in battle unjustly, of turning against even his own favourites (like Sigmund). But he did this in order to gather their support at Valhalla and to prepare for Ragnarok, which he knew would come. He gathered them from the battle-fields of Midgard, sending his Valkyries to sweep them up onto their swift flying steeds and deliver them to Gladsheimr, the World of Joy where Valhalla stands. The rafters of that place are said to be fashioned of spear shafts, and the tiles of the roof of shields. The great hall has six hundred and forty doorways, through each of which nine hundred and sixty warriors will march abreast when the final struggle begins. There Odin dwells even now, with his wolves and ravens, upon his all-seeing throne. Though god of war, he will never join in battle himself until Ragnarok begins. Then he will ride Sleipnir, bedecked in a golden helmet and armour. Charging at the head of the Aesirs and the Einherjars, he will make straight for his nemesis, the gigantic wolf Fenrir.
Odin will meet his certain doom despite his foreknowledge of it. His ability to sit upon his throne and look into the past as well as the future could enable him to take measures to avoid such an outcome, and yet he will not do this. Nor did he rely upon his omniscience when he raised the Volva from the dead in order to learn of the world's creation and its impending destruction, though what he learnt from her must already have been largely known to him. Why, then, did he approach her disguised as Vegtam (Knower of the Road) and solicit her prophecy? Why did he question her until she realized who he really was and cried out, "Thou art not Vegtam, thou art Odin and knowest all things. Go home now to Asgard. Thou hast awakened the dead with thy mighty runes, and made her speak with thee. None other will disturb my slumber until Loki is free again and the gods are about to pass away." Perhaps he required her detailed pronouncement as part of a process of expediting destiny. Perhaps the awakening of this prophetess was needed in order to stir the lower worlds in preparation for their role in the coming dissolution.
The vast and sweeping description of the beginning and end of the world in Nordic tradition has been preserved largely in Völuspá, "Song of the Prophetess". Delivered by a Volva who was born before the world began, it is a poem of divine inspiration, the epic lay of the Eddas which has greater scope than all others. In it the seeress addresses men and gods (especially Odin) and tells of primeval chaos, giants, the beginning of the world and men. She describes the age of the youthful and innocent gods, their trials and gradual corruption and, finally, their impending doom in Ragnarok. A lesser cosmological discourse can be found in Vaf-thrudnir, the lay named for the giant who enters into a contest of wits with Odin and tells him of the origin of the earth, heaven, moon, sun, worlds of the dead, life in Valhalla and of Ragnarok. This is a didactic poem in which Odin appears in disguise, as he often does, and it reinforces many of the details mentioned in Völuspá. Also corroborative is the lay commissioned by the widow of Eric Bloodaxe (d. C.E. 954) which describes how a king was received by Odin and the heroes of Valhalla with such a din of rejoicing that one might think Balder was returning after Ragnarok had passed. Odin, it says, took the great warrior's life "because the grey wolf (Fenrir) was glaring at the dwellings of the gods, ready to spring", and Alfader needed his support amongst the Einheijars. The skalds used many kennings referring to the end of the world, often alluding to the wolf or the breaking of Loki's chains. But none of the poems or allusions can match the haunting majesty or logical unity expressed in Völuspá. Other Eddie works depict various popular ideas about manifestation, creation and destruction interwoven with the particularized adventures of the gods, but the wholeness and scope of the overview characterizing Völuspá permit it to be judged as the work of a mystic who possessed a complete cosmological vision and who gave to the world one of its most powerful and penetrating glimpses into the mysteries of being and non-being.
Ragnarok means the 'fate' or 'doom of the gods', the stem rök designating the 'course of events', the 'destiny' in store. Thus, aldar rök is 'the fate of mankind', and the term rök should not be confused with rokkr, which, as used in Ragnarokkr, represents a corruption often translated to mean 'the twilight of the gods'. This powerful threat of fate commences in Nordic cosmology with the coming of the Three Giant Maids, the Norns, whose arrival marks the end of the Golden Age of the gods and the beginning of sequential time. After they appear and station themselves at the Well of Urd, the sorceress Gullveig comes, ushering in the first War in Heaven, followed by the breaching of Asgard's wall and the breaking by the gods of their own moral covenant. Events then succeed one another in an increasingly rapid course towards an inevitable doom, a doom which is yet unfulfilled. The period presaging Ragnarok will be struck with a terrible winter lasting for years, during which the sun will barely give light or warmth. It will be a time which will witness the rejection of moral values in the world of men. Brother will slay brother, harlotry, crime and deceit will abound, and mercy will find no quarter. The sibyl's prophecy describes an axe age, a sword age, a time when shields will be gashed, a wind age and a wolf age. Rivers will flow from Jötun-heim bearing swords and daggers, the brood of the great wolf will prepare to swallow the sun and the moon and plunge the world into darkness, and trees, flowers and grass will die while the earth quakes and mountains fall into an abyss reaching to Hel. It will be a time of great fear and despair, but still mankind will not cease from its evil deeds.
During these rolling years the adversaries of the gods will grow huge, fed by the abundant blood and bones of evil men. Wicked idises will be seen flying through the air, and the earth will begin to shake loose the chains holding Loki, Fenrir and Garm. The sea will begin to overflow the land and the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr will rear up and long for battle. Odin will ride to Mimir's well to receive an answer none will hear, and the Norns will cover their heads while Yggdrasill shakes its leaves and its roots get ready to snap. As the destructive forces gather strength and the World Tree groans, Heimdal will blow a mighty blast on Gjallar-horn, alerting all of Asgard and the denizens below. And even as the echo lingers and courses through the nine worlds, Thrym, the king of the Jötuns, will steer his ship from the East. He will be joined by Loki, who will steer Naglfari, built of the nails of the dead. On board this dreadful vessel, Surtur will swing his fiery sword, accompanied by the Sons of Muspelheim (spelli = 'destruction' in Old Norse) in flaming armour. They will land and mount their horses at a gallop to storm up over the Bifrost bridge, causing it to break behind them as they surge onto the Plains of Vígrid. The Sons of Muspelheim will rush on the gods like flames, and the Einherjars, headed by Freyr, will withstand them. Thor will kill many giants and monsters and Heimdal will more than hold his own. But the moment of destiny will arrive and Odin will seek out Fenrir amongst the combatants. Thor will be unable to help him because Jörmungandr will at this moment attack him, and though the great fighting god will slay the World Serpent, he will in turn be poisoned by its splattering venom. Odin will be devoured by Fenrir, who will pay for this outrage by being torn apart by Vidar (Odin's son). The terrible Surtur will succeed in slaying Freyr, who will be forced to fight without his magic sword. Tyr and Garm will kill one another, as will countless other pairs of foes, until at last the ancient enemies Heimdal and Loki will duel to the death. Theirs will be the final match in that desperate struggle, one presaged many times before when Heimdal, watchfully guarding from the topmost axis of all the worlds, acted as a check against Loki's unholy mischief. Now, fire-wrapped, Surtur will grow taller and taller as he flings a lake of flames over the nine worlds. Yggdrasill will moan and crack, the raging ocean of space will overflow the wreckage, and no life will stir within its black depths.
As the battle draws near, Jörmungandr will set the sea to boil up and pummel the shore as he twists and writhes in fury, working his way onto dry land. While he churns along, his every breath will spew venom, splashing and staining the earth and sky with his poison. He is the cycle drawing in upon itself, time now rushing towards the end, towards the inundation of the dry land of order, differentiation and sequence. His poison represents the accumulated evil of an age, capable of vanquishing even the greatest champion of the gods, whilst the menace of his brother Fenrir represents destruction, the devouring agency of dissolution. As a most dangerous threat, Fenrir is chained up amongst the Aesirs, having exacted the hand of justice (Tyr) as the price for his bonds. When Odin approaches him at Ragnarok, Fenrir's jaw will slaver, whilst his mouth will gape so wide that his lower mandible will scrape the ground and his upper will press against the sky. In order to kill him, Vidar will press his foot upon Fenrir's great lower jaw while wearing a boot fashioned from bits of leather pared from the heels and toes of new shoes made since time began and given by good men in offering to the gods. He will take hold of the wolf's upper jaw and tear him apart, an action suggesting the release of that which he had swallowed (Odin) and a subsequent potential world through the rebirth of divinity. The idea of a god or initiate being swallowed by a dragon, a serpent, a bear, a wolf or some other fearsome animal is very widespread in the world and universally linked to the notion of rebirth into a higher stage of spiritual manifestation. Assuming this is the symbolism intended in the sibyl's prophecy, Ragnarok, though dreadful in detail, ought not to be considered as an approaching final doom or a nihilistic reduction of all life to nothingness, despite the fateful words:
The word 'myth' in English is commonly interpreted as meaning 'a purely fictitious narrative'. But in the German language the notion of mythos suggests 'a symbolic idea with life-renewing force'. Perhaps this more powerful and psychologically affective understanding of the word explains in part how many elements in Nordic and Teutonic mythology in general have been used successfully to galvanize certain political movements in German history. While planning and building the Third Reich, Hitler (who read very few books in his life) pored over two volumes which he always kept with him: one on the archaeology of the Germanic tribes, the other on Nordic gods and heroes. From the time he claimed to have had a vision in 1919, wherein he was "commanded" to "save Germany", he increasingly believed that "we [the Nazis] are not a movement, rather we are a religion". He saw Aryans as being responsible for all creativity in human history and believed that they were locked in mortal conflict with "dark forces" represented by various non-Aryan races. He also borrowed a superficially understood interpretation of Nietszche's idea that total destruction was necessary to enable the birth of a new order, and he came to think that war, not peace, was the aspect of creation which enfolded man's noblest aspirations and prevented the world from sinking into a morass of materialism. But the element which lifted his mixed and monstrous half-baked ideas onto a level where they were capable of focussing and inspiring masses of people was the mythical. Hitler identified with Siegfried and with Lohengrin, the immaculate knight with the wondrously flashing eyes who fights for the rescue of the unjustly defeated. He heard in Wagner's music the rhythms of a great hidden universe, whose pulsations contained "the secret mutual relations connected with the order of the world". Enslaved by this dangerously delusive fascination. Hitler began to envisage himself as Wotan (Odin), the Wild Huntsman, the Wolf who was the Demander of Deaths, fulfilling the ancient myth. He thrilled to the exploits of Parsifal in Wagner's opera of that name, and was profoundly inspired by the scene wherein the German knights bind themselves in a blood-oath never to forgive, but to destroy, all enemies. He followed this ritual quite precisely when he forced his high-ranking officers to swear an oath unto death to himself and the Nazi cause. Many saw Der Führer as "the personification of the eternal myth", the highest synthesis of his race. When his defeat drew closer and he ordered the Götterdämmerung (the Teutonic equivalent of Ragnarok), many threw themselves unquestioningly into the frenzy of destruction demanded by the myth.
The tragic distortion and concretization of great myths that contributed to the horrors of the Second World War engendered a sense of fatalistic urgency which carried people beyond notions of a new order, to embrace destruction itself. Death became the ruling power, the black uniforms and the runic symbol of the SS its harbingers. The 'hero' became the all-devouring wolf, and 'creativity' was reduced to nothing but a tool of destruction, incapable of producing new life. The end of the world became the ultimate goal, echoing an obsession with the notion of doomsday which had thrived for centuries among Germanic-speaking peoples. This tendency can be traced among the Nordic people back to late pagan times. Shortly before Christianity infiltrated into Scandinavia, the emphasis upon the cyclic nature of Ragnarok had begun to shift. Despite the promise in the prophecy of Balder's return, the survival of the offspring of the gods and the description of a new emerging world, the focus upon the doom of the gods had gradually become paramount. The warlike kings and jarls, together with their skalds, increasingly concentrated upon the dark side of the myth. They became more and more fatalistic and perceived the future in terms of an inexorable movement towards a great holocaust in which they, dying bravely on the battlefields of the world, would play a part.
For the late pagan Norsemen, this psychological shift towards nihilism contained a self-fulfilling prophecy with an unexpected twist. Their presentiments of doom took on the character of a struggle to preserve their old way of life and religious beliefs and practices against the onslaughts of a new religion. The Nordic gods began to be attacked by a new mythology which, though preaching the dire consequences of Armageddon and the Last Judgement, offered the powerful idea of resurrection as its central theme. But though one could say that the nihilistic shift of the old Norse represented the psychic loss of an older cyclic perspective as well as a negative anticipation of the end of an age, the fact remains that throughout the greater part of their history they preserved a belief in ever-returning cycles. As one nineteenth century scholar put it: "We find in their most ancient records a clearly expressed faith in the perishableness of all things; and we find this faith at every step that the Norsemen have taken. The origin of this faith we seek in vain; it conceals itself beneath the waters of the primeval fountains of their thoughts and aspirations. They regarded death as but the middle of a long life. They considered it cowardice to spare a life that is to return; they thought it folly to care for a world that must necessarily perish, while they knew that their spirits would be clothed with increased vigour in the other world. Happy were they who lived beneath the polar star, for the greatest fear that man knows, the fear of death, disturbed them not. They rushed cheerfully upon the sword; they entered the battle boldly, for, like their gods who every moment looked forward to the inevitable Ragnarok, they knew that life could be purchased by a heroic death." Given the nobility and courage of vision evidenced by such a collective state of mind, any shift towards nihilism would represent a tragic loss. The question of how and why this should occur, even in the most subtle degree, becomes a most important one, closely related to the crippling spiritual malaise of modern man. Perhaps among the late pagan Norse it did represent a psychic presentiment of the loss of their gods. One wonders, however, why such stalwarts did not possess sufficient determination to shape their own fate while avoiding negativity.
It is very difficult to penetrate the history of human consciousness and discover the answer to this question. It is also difficult to imagine the utter fearlessness involved in the early Norseman's embrace of cyclic reality. So daring does this collective state of mind seem that it is hard to place it anywhere in the modern world. It is an outlook which represents a startlingly simple and fearless translation of philosophy into action, one which forces the individual mind to confront the questions of annihilation, death and spiritual immortality in the most uncompromising fashion. To test the degree of boldness this perspective requires, people might attempt to view Ragnarok individually within themselves as a terrifying psychological process in which subconscious monsters overwhelm the order of the mind, bringing on a complete mental breakdown. If one visits the unfortunate inmates of certain mental institutions, one may come closer than one would wish to glimpsing the dark and frightening void in which souls reside whose minds no longer function to retain a sense of order. The abyss of chaos that surrounds the consciousness of such souls is not pierced with light. It contains no hope of resurrection, nor does it comfort with the promise of rest many imagine will accompany death. If one were able to confront these terrifying conditions and vividly experience in the mind the farthest reaches of meaning and nothingness, the death of everything that the mind clings to as real, and yet retain what men call sanity, then perhaps one might approach a deeper understanding of Ragnarok as it lived in the philosophy and way of life of the Norsemen. And yet they did not study the insane in order to live astraddle the threshold of life and death. The force of their true belief in the gods and in the myth was so great that it gave powerful meaning and structure to their every movement back and forth across that thin dividing line. The vivid picture of Valhalla, the waited-for blast of Heimdal's horn and the great battle between the dual forces of the universe were so richly imprinted upon their imagination that they looked into the dark, yawning chasm of death without trepidation and saw it as a necessary preamble to new life.
The idea of a great eschatological battle is very old and can be traced through many traditions of the world, including the Indo-European, where it finds its most elaborate expression. In the Hindu Vedas and Puranas, the War in Heaven is echoed by the great battle of the Mahabharata. The archetypal roles played by the Vedic celestials Varuna, Mitra (Dharma) and Vayu (Indra) in the greater war are reflected in the characters of Pandu, Vidura (Yudhishthira) and Dhritarashtra in the lesser. In the events leading up to Ragnarok in the Nordic tradition, the part of the blind Hodur is like that of Dhritarashtra, and Balder is an equivalent of Vidura and Yudhishthira. In Ragnarok the gods perish but are reborn through their sons, whilst the Mahabharatan heroes survive and reconcile their differences with Dhritarashtra under the idyllic new reign of Yudhishthira. Both myths substantiate a cyclic view of life and act as blueprints for historical wars as well as wars yet to come. And both are vivid examples of a pre-Vedic mythical ensemble which for thousands of years shaped the world-view of the great roving tribes that populated the Indo-European world. That the early Hindu and later Nordic traditions should have kept the eschatological battle theme so vividly alive in the memory of mankind is itself significant. This suggests an ancient and very powerful link of diffused consciousness and philosophical perspectives between the Indic and Nordic peoples which became diluted amongst the other dispersing tribes who originally shared the waters of the same mythic source.
As the battle is an ancient and widespread theme, so is the idea of the World Tree which, during Ragnarok, will be destroyed. Nidhogg's incessant nibbling upon Yggdrasill's roots will weaken and crack it, but the flames of Surtur will, in the end, consume it. Its central root grows in heaven much like that of the Ashvattha tree, and its peripheral roots and branches provide the basic structure for the nine worlds, whose number signifies the end of a series of single numbers and is associated astrologically with Saturn, the bringer of death and rebirth. When the Ragnarok draws near, Líf and Lifthrasir, the prototypic man and woman, will hide in Hodd-mímir's Wood, a kenning for Yggdrasill. Since the World Tree will be destroyed, this does not seem like a safe refuge, but perhaps they hope to be drawn up along the heavenly root to an invisible point unaffected by the conflagration, to a state of sexless immortality beyond time and space. It is also possible that the story of Líf and Lifthrasir pertains to a lesser deluge cycle, where they 'climb' Yggdrasill in order to escape a world flood rather than a cosmic flood of fire and the celestial sea. The point here is that in the Norse tradition there are, as in the Hindu tradition, smaller cycles of an event occurring within large cycles characterized by their archetype. Ragnarok marks the end and the beginning of a very great cycle which finds its equivalent in the Hindu Puranic description of the dissolution of the world into prakriti.
When he heard the recital of the Ragnarok in Gylfaginning, King Gylfi said, "But what comes after?" It was not possible nor was it natural for him to assume that the awesome end of the world described to him would be a grand finale followed by nothingness. Nor should he have. The Volva's prophetic words formulated the terrible doom in store and went right on to outline a new world:
Before it is swallowed by the offspring of Fenrir, the sun will give birth to the germ of a new sun. Venus will appear and dawn will flush. An electric impulse will enliven the opening waters of space and the sun will begin to rise. In time, a new earth will emerge from the waters and everything will flourish there. The Field of Ida will be the Field of Resurrection, witnessing the recongregation of the gods or, to be more accurate, the next generation of gods. Odin's sons Vidar and Váli will survive Ragnarok, eventually to be joined by Thor's sons Modi and Magni, who will bring their father's mighty hammer with them. Then Balder and Hodur will reappear, united as friends and brothers, and Vili and Vé along with Hoenir, who supplied the first man and woman of the present cycle with wit and movement. They will inhabit divine sanctuaries, including the golden-roofed Gimli, and enjoy a Golden Age during which "the one who rules all will come to his godhead". Converged on the shining plain, they will call up memories and speak of things known only to them. And they will find among the burgeoning forms of the newly developing world the treasures of the Aesirs. In this new world, the sons of the gods will express the powers of their fathers, and Alfader's presence and power shall govern them in all things, but – and this is extremely significant – they will be ignorant of his name. From the new halls that arise, the gods will peacefully and wisely rule, but even so, there will be places of evil, and Nidhogg, who will survive Ragnarok, will once again commence to gnaw upon the roots of the World Tree. Just as she sees the sun producing an offspring, so the entranced Volva sees the dark and cruelly glittering dragon's spawn bearing the imprint of corpses on its wings in that world to be.
Though the sibyl does not describe it in detail, one would assume that the re-emergence of the world will follow a pattern similar to that of the previous cycle. Thus, the great void of Ginnungagap would become charged with a magical force, causing a division of the dark and icy Niflheim and the fiery Muspelheim, home of Surtur. The meeting of these two polar opposites would result in the formation of the primordial giant Ymir, and the melting rime would take the shape of Audhumla, whose milk nourishes him. Licking the salty ice, Audhumla would then carve out the body of Bori, whose son would marry the daughter of a descendant of Ymir and would father Odin, Vili and Vé, or their generational equivalents in the new cycle. Now the new gods would 'kill' the primordial giant and build the world from his parts, giving length and breadth and depth to the growing structure of the World Tree while creating the stage upon which the preserved seed of the human race could once again germinate. Surtur represents a powerful and mysterious force in this scheme, for he is the first being given cosmological definition, and he will be the last to act upon the vestiges of the world at the end of Ragnarok. This is why he is said to sit at the world's end, and it is the sparks flying out of his realm which were used by the gods to make the 'chariot' of the sun and the lights of heaven. That Surtur will lead the fiery forces of dissolution at Ragnarok suggests that he represents the rudimentary essence of fire, a distillation of the fiery sea of akasha which ultimately floods the world. The sparks from his realm forming the vesture of the sun are likewise in an analogous relationship to the akashic source which informs the hidden solar power behind the vesture. Thus he may be identified with the astral fields of a fiery rather than a watery nature, much like the ethereal substance associated in the Vedic scheme with Agni the Devourer and expressed in the subtle robes of Surya.
Surtur and Ymir preceded Odin as this world unfolded. But this does not necessarily place the Alfader in an inferior position to them. One could ask, however, if he is devoured by Fenrir, will he be reborn in some higher cosmic sense? Will he be more than just a vague presence in the world that follows Ragnarok? If one combines the prophetic statement concerning the "one who rules all" who "will come to his godhead" with that which says that the Alfader's presence and power will govern the policies of the new gods who will be, nonetheless, ignorant of his name, a most interesting line of thought emerges. Assuming that Odin is to be 'reborn' when Vidar sunders his devourer, what will be the nature of the greater enlightenment that this represents? Can a god be placed upon a ladder of progressive enlightenment in the sense that the Bodhisattvas or Dhyanis of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions evolve in a spiritual hierarchy? Do gods also evolve? Or is it more a case of withdrawing from the outer expression to the inner? Odin's foreknowledge places him on a level of omniscience not shared by the other Norse gods. His sacrificed eye symbolizes the sun which rises over a cycle of time. His steed is the World Tree ('Ygg's horse'), and he can be likened to the Vedic god Vayu, who whips through its branches in continual communication between the highest heaven and the lower worlds. This is Alfader's progression, one which spans from the above to the below and back again. Like Vayu, he moves as the Great Breath, and when he is swallowed the world ceases to be. When he will breathe forth after Ragnarok, the suggestion is that he will not descend to the degree of involvement that he did in this cycle. The enigmatic reference to the new generation of the gods' ignorance of his name points to this, but their governance by his wisdom and power clearly indicates the primacy of his nature. When he solicited the prophecy of the Volva, he did so not because he lacked the foreknowledge to know what was to come, but because he had to descend into the lower worlds to arouse a preparation for the fate at hand. He did this through the astral matrix of the underworld, represented by the Volva, which would begin to exert an increasing pressure throughout all the worlds in the form of a collective psychic anticipation of cosmic death. This illustrates his intimate involvement in this cycle, but it does not determine his degree of descent in future cycles. His primacy over the gods of all cycles is implied, but like the wind, his greatest potential sweeps the ethereal vastitudes of outer space while a small aspect of himself touches the earth from time to time.
Why is Ragnarok the 'doom of the gods' and not simply the doom of the earth and everything living on it? The Vedas teach that 'immortality' means existence to the end of a kalpa. This includes the 'immortality' of the gods, who perish at the end of universal dissolution. The esoteric philosophy of The Secret Doctrine goes on to say that the gods "perish not, but are re-absorbed" back into the dark womb of space characterizing pralaya. They must die because the world and everything in it, including man, come into being through them. They are the governing powers, and the Norsemen must have recognized that the world's fate was the gods' fate in manifestation, and that the world was the fruit of the gods' immortal seed. Being chief of the gods, when Odin dies there is no longer any need for his 'seed' and so the World Tree dies. Metaphysically, one can trace this from the beginning of manifestation, when the first magical ray in fathomless Ginnungagap resulted in the polarization of akasha (mind) and chaos (matter) or, as the Norsemen recognized them, Muspelheim and the icy Niflheim. This primordial duality of the all-vivifying, fiery intellectual principle and the senseless and shapeless liquid principle generated, through their union, what eventually became the first androgynous deity. This being, combining the three-in-one, was the manifesting Logos or Prajapati, from whom the seven main branches of the World Tree emanated.
In the Vedic scheme, Agni, Vayu and Surya form this triad, producing the seven Logoi of the Ashvattha tree, whilst in the Nordic design Vili and W are assimilated (together with a strong dose of Surtur) into Odin, who represents the node-point of manifesting spiritual consciousness producing the multiplying branches of Yggdrasill. As the vestures of the human spirit were created from the sacred ash, so the spirit itself is traceable to the Logoic root of the tree. When the spiritual life-essence of the root withdraws, the trunk and all its generations of branches must die.
Ragnarok ushers in a period of non-being called in the Hindu philosophy pralaya, the Night of Brahmā, when the sun passes away and Sages abandon the instruments of measure. In rich detail, the Vayu Purana describes the dissolution of the 'forms' of the gods, rishis, manus and celestial spirits. The kalpa draws to its end as a vast conflagration reaches to highest heaven and torrents of water inundate the solar system. Now all is dark and Brahmā sleeps. He has re-entered into his own thought, the germ of all that exists, causing all principles of action to cease their function and manas to become completely dormant. He is absorbed into the slumbering form of the Self-existent Narayana and floats unconsciously upon the waters of space. There is no single Norse equivalent to Brahmā. There is, rather, a composite interaction involving Odin and Ymir which is responsible for the formation of the worlds after the emergence of the primordial duad. But does the central root of Yggdrasill stretch back through all these levels of creation? Is the 'heaven' in which its undecaying expansion takes place beyond the reaches of Ragnarok? The Secret Doctrine calls the tree "the first and holy Son of Kriyasakti", the child of pure spirit which is unalloyed with any earthly element. If this is so, then Ygg (Odin), its parent, must be identified with that pure, multiplying ray which, as the 'parent' of the root of life, can be traced back through descending Logoi to the First Unmanifested Logos, which ever lies beyond creation and destruction.
The Aesirs, who are siblings and offspring of Odin, are like the Dhyan Chohans, who evolve with time and assist him in shaping the world and lending their vestures to developing humanity. Endowed with Odin's gift of the divine spark of spiritual intelligence, mankind experiences manifest and potential existence in varying degrees of self-consciousness through these vestures. The psychological and physical forces operating to preserve what is archetypally a divine order and its organization in cyclic patterns represent the powerful dharma of mighty Thor flowing through human life. This is the Vishnu function, which provides the 'glue' giving meaning and continuity to the world. The intellectual assent which brings to this activity the fire of spiritual self-consciousness is the antaskaranic bridge in man, the ever-watchful Heimdal who stands at the span between heaven and the worlds below. His sword is the human mind, capable of cutting away the crowds of inferior impulses swarming up from below while piercing through to the greater truth that lies above. His eternal vigilance has been humanity's one hope ever since it fell, through Freya and Freyr, into the realm of separative consciousness, where the lower vestures began to dictate terms to the higher. Without this bridge there would be no escaping the ubiquitous net of Loki's inverted condition. There would be no Sigurds struggling to gain freedom from the astral coils of the world, and no souls touched by the poignant sacrifice of Balder's light in the darkness.
This bridge is our connecting link with the eternal. It is the world's connecting link with the gods. This is why, in Ragnarok, Heimdal is the last of the great gods to die, the last line of communication of the immortal with the mortal aspect of man to be cut. This severance completes the death of man just as it completes the death of the gods. But as man's immortal soul will be reborn, so too will the gods come once more into being to recommence their watchfulness and their struggle and decline, leading again to the inevitable end. So the cycles move along, Thor's hammer revolving through untold ages, where battles long forgotten and struggles not yet imagined mark the field with hope and despair. Ragnarok is ever present. Its germ courses through the branches of the nine worlds, through the living gods. It terrifies the feeble of spirit who cling to doomed vestures and frantically populate the darkness of non-being with imitations of life. To the bold of mind it looms as a wonder, a cleansing blast of Gjallarhorn echoing from a world afar.