If you’re reading this, congratulations. I’m writing this on a foul December night with the wind and rain hammering the windows, and according to some Mayan fortune teller several thousand years ago running out of space on his calendar, the world due to end tomorrow.
I think it’s actually the second time this year that the end of the world has been prophesied, so I’m not going to lose a great deal of sleep over it and have taken the time to buy a few presents for loved ones, even taking into account the outside chance that none of us will be here by the time you’re reading this. That shows you just how confident I am that the Mayans were wrong.
So with the major Christian festival of the year upon us, let’s delve a little into what came before, and their ideas of the end of days. Like almost everything in the Norse sagas and mythology, it gets pretty bloody and happy endings clearly weren’t the fashion back then. At the centre of everything is Yggdrasil, the tree under which the Æsir, the Norse gods, held their meetings. The Norsemen had a reverence for trees that modern man has sadly lost, almost certainly to our cost. Wood and leather were the plastic of the time, the ubiquitous materials that every thing useful was made from. There was iron and bronze, but metal was expensive and only used for essential tools, swords, cooking pots and the like.
The chief of the gods, Odin, saw Yggdrasil as the noblest tree and one of the Eddas describes the ancient tree as having three roots spreading variously down to Hel*, under the mountain dwellings of the terrible frost giants, and under us petty humans. According to another of the Eddas, Yggdrasil has three roots that lie among the Æsir, another with the frost giants and a third reaching down to Hel. It’s accepted that when Yggdrasil dies, then Ragnarök isn’t far away.
Ragnarök isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but for the Norsemen it was the end of the world as they knew it, and they didn’t expect an easy time of it. As Yggdrasil shudders and groans, all the old enemies come forth, including Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent, Fenris the wolf, frost giants and fire giants advance on the Æsir and the black giant Surtr comes from the south with his sword brighter than the sun to fight and kill Freyr. Odin falls to Fenris before being avenged by his son Vidarr, and even hammer-wielding thunder god Thor gives up the ghost, but only after the superlative feat of killing the Midgard serpent that had been huge enough to encircle the entire world, its tail in its teeth.
On top of this there are mountains cracking open, the sky splitting apart and general tumult, as envisaged by a people who lived in the shadows of glaciers and in the case of Icelanders, on the slopes of active volcanoes.
These days it doesn’t seem to likely to be quite like that. We still foresee the end of the world, although the Norsemen envisaged a flood on top of all this, and the world appearing renewed from the eventually receding waters.
But maybe they knew something we don’t. These last few years we have seen weather that hardly has a precedent. Hurricane Katrina and its siblings have battered the US and anyone looking at the little ports and harbours of the English coast built a century ago can see they weren’t made to withstand the winters we see now, and Iceland’s volcanoes have been spitting angrily as the big one, Katla, is already a good few years overdue a decent blast. You thought Eyjafjallajökull interrupting air travel around the northern hemisphere was dramatic? Just wait until Katla blows off. It seems to erupt at around 80-year intervals and the last one was in 1918.
Maybe there’s a clue in the trees. Twenty years ago a disease affecting ash trees was identified in Poland and it has gradually spread across Europe and Scandinavia, and was identified in Britain and Ireland only this year. Yggdrasil was the tree of life, and appears to have been an ash tree, and Chalara Fraxinea is killing off ash trees across Europe to the point that ash is a becoming rarity across much of the continent, much as the mighty elms were killed off in the 1970s.
So on that cheerful note, I’ll wish you all a happy Yuletide, and if you do one thing in 2013, plant a tree somewhere. It doesn’t have to be an ash, just plant a tree. You know it makes sense. It may yet help to put off Ragnarök and keep the frost giants at bay.
*Incidentally, I’ve been to Hel. It’s just outside Trondheim in Northern Norway and as it’s mountainous terrain, there isn’t a lot of flat space to build an airport. So Trondheim’s airport is at Hel and anyone who has visited Trondheim by air can safely claim to have been to Hel and back. The noodles at the airport restaurant were pretty hellishly good, by the way…