• Thorkild Ramskou


Ragnarok, Viking, Sigurd, Grane, Vidar, Interpretation of pictures, tolkning af billeder, mythical figures



In the majority of cases the art of the Viking Period is purely ornamental. More rarely, however, it is representative, though this does not imply that type-representations as we understand the term today were produced. Instead the artist preferred to picture scenes and actions from the myths of the gods and the heroic legends, in such a way that the pictures recalled for the beholder the events recorded in the text illustrated. If the beholder did not know the text he would accordingly be unable to interpret the picture.

A typical example is the Sigurd carving at Ramsundberget (1). Here a whole series of actions is to be seen: Sigurd slaying Fafner, Grane talking to the birds, Sigurd roasting Fafner's heart and putting his finger in his mouth, and finally the headless figure of the smith, Regin, identified by the tools of his trade. Only the initiated can interpret this "strip-series". The same epic is also illustrated, though in simpler form, on the Tandberg stone from Ringerike (2): the Lind dragon pierced by the sword.

Ragnarok, too, the conception held by the Vikings of the end of the world, is illustrated. Our knowledge of Ragnarok is gained mainly from the poems in the Older Edda (3). The prophecy of Vølven, Grimner before King Geirrød, Loki's abuse and Odin at the abode of Vaftrudner are the most important, and to these should be added Gylfaginning before Snorre (4). The dramatic climax is the death of Odin; he is devoured by the Fenris wolf, but avenged by his son Vidar, who treads upon the lower jaw of the wolf and tears its jaws asunder, causing the death of the monster. The heavenly bodies are quenched, and the earth sinks into the sea.

But the earth rises up again, green and pleasant to look upon, with fields which yield harvest without sowing. In this new and better world a new race of men is born; and among the few of the gods who survived the catastrophe is Vidar, the god who was active in extirpating the last traces of evil, personified in the Fenris wolf.

The death of Odin and the vengeance of Vidar are among the scenes which gave the Vikings inspiration. We know of four pictorial representations which can with reasonable probability be interpreted as the avenging Vidar. Three are from the British Isles. The representation on the Gosforth cross (5) has admittedly been the object of various interpretations (6), but the most probable would appear to be that it represents Vidar (7). Thorwald's cross on the Isle of Man (8) has similarly been the object of some discussion, but here too the interpretation, Vidar's vengeance, is the most reasonable (9). The same is true of the carving in Skibwith Church in Yorkshire (10). The fourth representation is found on a Swedish rune-stone from Ledberg (11).

Odin's death is also represented, on one of the harness terrets from Mammen. Among its ornamentation we see a representation of the Fenris wolf swallowing Odin. These five Ragnarok scenes all date from the final phase of the Viking Period. An important question, however, is: how far back in time have similar conceptions of the end of the world been current? The epics of the Edda give us no information on this point, as they were first written down in Iceland in the 12th and 13th Centuries (12). The question could perhaps be answered if we could discover among the art of the Vikings other pictures or scenes, hitherto disregarded, which refer to what we know of Ragnarok. Though even if this search be successful interpretation will be handicapped by the same uncertainty as has already been discussed. We are moving in a region where emotions played a role equally important as - or perhaps even more important than - exact representation, which we must therefore do without. It does, however, appear that the scene we seek can in fact be found, on the bowl-shaped brooches which occur frequently in the 9th Century A. D. (13). In the four smaller end sections we find the desired scene, an animal swallowing an apparently human figure; this is therefore not a decorative feature but the representation of an event which, if it is to be brought at all into relationship with the surviving literature, can only be interpreted as the Fenris wolf engaged in swallowing Odin.

If this explanation can be accepted, then the mythical figures of the central fields, two in each field in symmetrical opposition, can only be interpreted as Vidar, the god who roots out the last remnants of evil from the old world; the lump in fro'nt of his legs may then be understood as his large shoe. This interpretation takes the myth of Ragnarok all the way back to the 9th Century.

That Vidar is allotted the most prominent position on the brooch is not surprising. He is in fact a much more important god than Odin, whom we see at the moment of his destruction. Vidar is one of the gods who is to create a new and better world, a type of saviour so to speak.

The reason why the thoughts of men should, at the beginning of the Viking Period, have particularly busied themselves with the end of the world is another story, which would require deeper research into the movements of the time. It should, though, be remembered that this was a period of unrest and large-scale changes. The Viking raids and the formation of the large overseas armies must have affected almost every household. No wonder, then, if at home the mothers longed for a better and more peaceful world where evil and destruction, the Fenris wolf, were found no more, and where lived Balder the Good and Vidar the Destroyer of Evil.

Thorkild Ramskou





Ramskou, T. (1953). Ragnarok. Kuml, 3(3), 182–192. Hentet fra https://tidsskrift.dk/kuml/article/view/97123