The event that rings loudest in Norse mythology is Ragnarok, which means “twilight of the gods”. This event has not yet happened, but there is a widely known prophecy that records what will happen.
Loki will lead an army of jotun (giants), the dishonest dead, and other enemies of the Aesir gods against Asgard. Loki will also be joined by Surtr, a fire giant who will be trapped in Muspelheim, the land of fire, until this time.
Fenrir wolf will devour Odin before being killed by Odin’s son Vidarr. Thor will destroy the mighty serpent Jormungandr, but the snake will expel so much venom onto Thor that the god will also die. Freyr will fight to the death with Surtr, the two killing one another. Loki will fight to the death with Heimdall, and Garm, the guard dog of Helheim, will fight to the death with Tyr.
These great battles will cause so much destruction that the world itself will be destroyed and sink back into the waters of chaos. It is debatable whether this is the absolute end of the world or if the world will re-emerge and some of the gods survive to rebuild it. Read more about this element of the Ragnarok prophecy here.
But what accounts of the prophecy agree on is that many omens will herald the final coming of Ragnarok. Also, that the gods, giants, and the dead will be informed that Ragnarok is nigh by three roosters: Gullinkambi, Fjalar, and an unnamed soot red rooster.
Causes of Ragnarok
The events that will put Ragnarok in motion appear to have already occurred. The stories of Norse mythology suggest that it begins with the death of Balder, one of the sons of Odin, which Loki orchestrated. This broke the truce agreement that existed between the Aesir gods and the trickster giant. They no longer accepted him among them and imprisoned the giant.
The gods captured Loki and took him to a deserted cave. They also took his two sons, with the Aesir goddess Sigyn, Narfi and Vali. Vali was turned into a wolf, and losing his mind, tore his brother Narfi apart. Narfi’s entrails were then used to bind Loki. A venomous snake was placed over his head to painfully drip venom onto Loki’s skin. His Wife Sigyn stays at his side and catches the venom in a bowl to spare him pain. But she must sometimes leave to empty her bowl, during which time Loki suffers, and his agony causes earthquakes.
Before this, the gods had also dealt with Loki’s other three children with the giantess Angrboda. They considered this union monstrous and their offspring terrible and so placed each somewhere in the world where they could do the least harm.
Loki’s son, the wolf Fenrir, was chained up on a deserted island. A great sword was lodged in his jaws to stop his snarling. This causes him to drool constantly, creating a river called “expectation”. Loki’s other son Jormungandr, a serpent, was thrown into the waters surrounding Midgard. There he grew to such an enormous size that he can encircle the whole world and hold his tail in his mouth.
Loki’s daughter Hel, who was born half-living and half-dead, was sent to Niflheim to oversee the underworld there, which became known as Helheim. While her power there is absolute, she is banished.
Through these acts, the gods created fierce enemies who will come to destroy them at Ragnarok.
Omens of Ragnarok
When Ragnarok finally comes, there will be unmistakable omens that the disaster is beginning. Firstly, Midgard will suffer a terrible winter known as Fimbulwinter. It will last the span of three winters with no summers in between and will be the coldest and bitterest ever experienced. This will cause famine and conflict among men, which will cause them to abandon their morals. Father will kill son, and brother will kill brother.
The sun and moon will also disappear from the sky. The great wolves Skoll and Hati have been chasing them for an eternity, and they will finally catch and devour them, plunging the world into darkness.
The great dragon Nidhogg who lives at the base of Yggdrasil, will become restless and start to gnaw on the tree’s roots, causing it great pain. This will cause the tree to shudder, encouraging Jormungandr to emerge from the waters surrounding Midgard. The movement of his enormous body will create earthquakes across the world.
These happenings, and the arrival of Ragnarok, will be reported to the gods, giants, and the dead by three roosters: Gillinkambi, Fjalar, and an unnamed rooster.
The name Gullinkambi means golden comb in old Norse, and this probably indicates that Gullinkambi is a majestic golden rooster. He either lives in Valhalla or will seek Odin out in his hall, where he gathers worthy dead warriors.
When Odin hears the news, he will travel to Niflheim to consult his wise friend Mimir. He will then return to Asgard and rally his army of dead warriors. They will await a signal from Heimdall, who will blow his horn Gjallarhorn when he sees the enemy approaching.
Fjalar is the name of the rooster who will warn the giants. Specifically, he will make his revelation to a giant herder called Eggther, who lives in the Galgdridr and is playing his harp at the moment the bird arrives. These are the woods that separate Midgard and Jotunheim and are also sometimes called the Ironwood. Angrboda is reported to live here, and Eggther is described as belonging to a giantess. This may be Angrboda, and Fjalar’s message may be meant for her.
The name Fjalar means deceiver in old Norse, and the rooster is not the only character in Norse mythology to receive the name.
One of the dwarves that killed the being Kvasir to use his blood to make the Mead of Poetry is also called Fjalar.
The giant Suttungr, who takes the mead from the dwarves as recompense for the fact that they killed his father, is also sometimes called Fjalar. Odin stole the mead from him after seducing his daughter Gunnlod. Odin transformed into a bird to fly the mead back to Asgard, and this Fjalar also transformed into an eagle to pursue him, but he was killed by fire when he tried to pass into Asgard.
In early versions of the story of Thor traveling to Jotunheim and the hall of Utgard Loki, the giant that Thor and his companions encounter on their way, and try to kill, is also called Fjalar. But in the most well-known version of this story by Snorri Sturluson, he is called Skrymir. In this case, Fjalar does not seem to be a proper name but a reference to the deceitful characters of the giant.
It is unclear why this particular harbinger of Ragnarok is considered deceitful.
The Red Rooster
The name of the third rooster is not recorded, but he goes to Helheim to bring news of Ragnarok. This matters to Hel and some of her dead because, according to the prophecy, Ragnarok will shake the ship Naglfar, made from the toenails and fingernails of the dead, will be shaken free from its moorings at Ragnarok.
Hel will be joined by her father Loki, and together the pair will sail the ship, along with the unworthy dead, to Asgard to confront the gods.
Interestingly, the Vikings cut the nails of their dead short so that they could not be used to augment this ship.
Why the Roosters?
It is unclear why the roosters are required to spread the news of Ragnarok, when the preceding omens, such as the disappearance of the sun and the world tree itself shaking, feel like they would be observed throughout the cosmos.
Roosters cross when they sense danger, making them appropriate messengers. Roosters were also among the animals sacrificed during general rites among the German and the Norse people, so perhaps they have a role to play in the funeral of the gods.