Ragnarok

It seemed like the 1900’s would never end. I’m not a hundred years old yet, but I was born midway through that century, and remember figuring out how old I would be in 2000. Back then, while we were ducking for cover under our school desks, fearing that the Russians would be sending us a bomb any day, the future was hard to imagine. Thinking about the twenty-first century — well, would we even still be alive? Wouldn’t the world have blown up by then?

Excuse my pessimism; I’m Scandinavian.

In Norse mythology, the world comes to an end. That’s further than the Greeks or Romans got, I think. The myths don’t say exactly when this will happen, but the circumstances are clear. We call it Ragnarok.

The entire world was created from the corpse of a giant, according to my people, and it will end in ice and fire.The Vikings didn’t tell pretty tales. (Example: Beowulf) Monsters, dismemberment, blood and gore — did their children ever sleep?

The fate of our universe, according to Norse mythology, depends on a tree, whose roots are gnawed by a dragon. When the well that feeds the tree dries up and the dragon eventually gnaws through the root, endless winter will follow. Eventually the tree will fall, and the world will catch on fire. The end.

At some point, a happier ending was tacked on, where the world is reborn from the mess that remains after Ragnarok, but we have our doubts about that. We may seem cheerful, but at heart, we are pessimists. That happy ending may have made it easier for some people to sleep at night, thinking that it wasn’t all for nothing, but we know better. We smile because, why not? Either way, the world is going to end.

Some think that 2012 will be the end of the world, as predicted by the Mayans, who must have been almost as pessimistic as the Norse people. It has to do with numbers and calendars. Since these things are pretty arbitrary, I don’t believe it, anymore than I believed that Y2K would cause the world to end at the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999, making it impossible for us to return to school on January 3, so why do any homework over break?

But it’s natural to think about apocalypse. When I was a child, people believed that the atom bomb would destroy us — the Fail-Safe scenario. A few years back, global plague was what we all worried about (Twelve Monkeys; Outbreak). Now it’s global warming, precipitating a new ice age, that people make movies about (The Day After Tomorrow). And zombies (I am Legend).

The people who make these movies have read their mythology. You didn’t think the Mother Tree in Avatar was a new idea, did you? Trees have always been symbolic of life; it makes sense that all life would depend on a really big tree and that in the last days some idiot in a gigantic truck would come and hack it down. In the sixties, environmentalists predicted that pollution would eventually kill all the trees, and that would make the atmosphere vanish, and all life would end. So we all started recycling and drinking herbal tea. The recycling part was a good idea; the herbal tea, not so much.

Making resolutions is a way to control the future, to change the doom and destruction we see ourselves heading towards. Tomorrow we will wake up hopeful, feeling that a new age has begun, and the world won’t end. It probably won’t, even if we don’t all go on diets and give up smoking.

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