All about Surtr: the Greatest Fire Giant of Norse Mythology

Surtr (or Surt, Surtur), leader of the Fire giants of Muspellheim

The giant Surtr with the flaming sword is guardian of the final fire that will burn up the world at Ragnarok.

Surtr, the great Fire Giant of Norse Mythology
Surtr, the great Fire Giant of Norse Mythology with his flaming sword

Fire-giants are the dwellers in the Fire-world Muspellheim who, led by Surt, will come forth to fight the gods at Ragnarock.

Surt’s fire will destroy the world; but until then he sits at the frontier of Muspell,  the region of heat, to defend it, brandishing a flaming sword.

Surtr fiercely wielded his flashing sword, and continually sent forth great showers of sparks, which fell with a hissing sound upon the ice-blocks in the bottom of the abyss, and partly melted them by their heat.

Great Surtur, with his burning sword,
Southward at Muspel's gate kept ward,
And flashes of celestial flame,
Life-giving, from the fire-world came.
Valhalla (J. C. Jenei)


According to Icelandic folklore however, the giant Svart or Svurt dwells in the cave Surtarhellir, a great lava-cave.

Origin of the name

Surtr literally means the swart (meaning dark complexion), swarthy, browned by heat, and is connected with the word svartr (black), yet distinct from it. It was on occasion used as a proper name as well.

As a testimony to the importance of Surtr, a certain resinous charred earth from the Icelandic North is still called Surtarbrandr, while volcanic rock-caves are even called Surtarhellir. It is a mode of naming indicative of a superior being, as when plants are named after gods.

Nowhere in the two Eddas (collection of Norse mythological poems) does Surt appear as a god, but always, like other giants, as an enemy and assailant of the gods.

The role of fire in Norse mythology

Fire plays its part in Eddic cosmogony,  mostly seen in the Muspellheim conception (the Norse Realm of Fire), and in the final conflagration.

Fire was used in Scandinavia as elsewhere to cure diseases. Hence the sayings in the Norse mythological poem Havamal that “fire is the best gift for men” and that “fire cures diseases”.

It may be that Surt was a Volcano-god or a Volcano-demon, originating in lceland. A story in the Landnama-bók collection may be cited in this connection:

Thorir was an old man, his sight dim. One evening he saw a huge, ill-looking man rowing in an iron boat. He came to a house and dug beside it.

During the night fire and lava burst from this place and did great destruction. The huge man in this story was a fire giant of the likes of Surtr.

Another story from Landnama-bók tells how one named Thôrvaldr brought to the cave of the Fire-giant Surtr a song composed about him.

Surt burns down the world

In Norse mythology, there are several variations of the Ragnarock myth.

In one of these variations, the destruction of the world is brought about by fire.

The Norse peom Voluspa tells how Surtr comes from the Southern real of Muspellheim with the “scourge of branches” meaning fire.

In the stanza which describes earth sinking into the sea, it is said that steam rages and the preserver of life, fire, shoots high to Heaven itself.

The fires of Surtr are also mentioned in the poem Vafthrudnismal as occurring at the end of the world.

The possible destruction of the world by fire, or in some cases by the sun, is also spoken of in the Grimnismal.  If it were not for Svalinn, Odin’s giant shield that stands in front of the sun, mountains and seas would be set in flames.

Norse mythology often refers to this final fire, and says that Surt will cast fire and burn the world.

Fire-giants, the sons of Muspell, ride forth with Surt at their head, as fire burns before and after him. From Surt’s sword shines a light brighter than the sun.

As they ride over Bifrost (the bridge that connects Midgard, the realm of men, to Asgard, the realm of the Gods), the bridge breaks down.

In an earlier version, Surt is said to wait for the world’s end at Muspellheim. During the last battle he will go forth and fight, then overcome the gods, even besting Frey in one to one combat.

After the Gods and their warriors are defeatead,  Surtr swings his fiery sword over heaven, earth, and the nine kingdoms of Hel.

The raging flames enveloped the massive stem of the world ash Yggdrasil, and reach the golden palaces of the gods, which are utterly consumed.

The vegetation upon Midgard, the world of men, is likewise destroyed, and the fervent heat makes all the waters seethe and boil.

Fire and heat were sources of life, now they are its destruction.

Surtr and Christian parallels of the Antichrist

Later authors of Norse poems, where Christian, or influenced by Christianity, and introduced muspilli at the end of the world when the earth and all it contains will be consumed by fire.

Old High Germany poetry seems to have interwoven features of Surtr into the Church doctrine about the Antichrist,  which, originally founded on the 11th chapter of Revelation, was afterwards worked out further on Jewish-Christian lines of thought.

Some of the notable similarities include the destruction of the world following a great battle. In Christianity, the forces of destruction are led by the Antichrist, while in Norse mythology they are led by Surtr.

The stories do have some differences however.

Notably, the victory of Surtr and the other giants over the gods is permanent, and bring about a new order to the world of Norse mythology.

In Christian tradition however, the victory of the Antichrist is only fleeting and temporary, with the Antichrist beeing soon overthrown by an even mightier power.

Going back to Norse mythology, Ragnarock brings about a new order which is eerily similar to the Last Judgement and the New Jerusalem of Christianity.

In this new cosmic order, Midgard, the realm of men, is burned and drenched in fire. However, nature somehow survives and a period of regeneration begins anew – this one too led by the younger Aesir, or Norse Gods.

Humans survive as well, and eventually grow to repopulate the Earth and begin a new age.

Viewed in this sense, Ragnarock is not the end of the world, but the purification of the world, with Surtr one of its primary causes.


Resources:

  • The Mythology of All Races – Eddic by John Arnott MacCulloch, Louis Herbert Gray
  • The Norsemen Myths and Legends by Guerber Helene Adeline
  • Asgard and the Norse heroes by Katharine Boult
  • Old Norse stories by Sarah Powers Bradish
  • Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg & Anders Rasmus Bjorn
  • Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm
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