By August Hunt
In the Old Norse poem “Voluspa”, which tells of the Ragnarok of Doom of the Powers that is, essentially, the end of the world, we learn that the gods reside (strophe 7) at a place called Idavollr. Later, following the universal destruction of the last battle, gods and men reappear in a new Idavollr (strophe 57), itself situated somewhere on a new earth that rises out of the sea.
At first Idavollr – which has been subject to various etymologies – would appear to be merely a mythological construct. However, as Rudolf Simek mentions in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Idavollr would appear to correspond perfectly to Idisiaviso, the name of a historical battle site located somewhere between Hameln and Minden on the Weser River in Germany. This was the place were the famous Cheruscan chieftain Arminius suffered a major defeat when fighting the Roman army under Germanicus. This defeat was part of Germanicus’s avenging of Arminius’s annihilation of the three Roman legions of Varus in the Teutoburg Forest (now believed to be in the vicinity of Kalkriese).
The identification of Idavollr with Idisiaviso reminds us very much of the Christian notion that a New Jerusalem would descend from the heavens onto the mountain of Zion after this faith’s eschatological vision unfolds. According to the Revelation of St. John, part of the Christian world destruction involves a battle at Armageddon, i.e. Har Meggido, a real city that had been the site of some major battles in the Old Testament. Because the place was well-known to Biblical audiences as a center of strife, it was symbolically selected as the location of the final conflict between the forces of good and evil.
Is there an Armageddon in the Old Norse escahatology? Well, as a matter of fact, yes, there is: it is called variously the plain of Vigridr or the island of Oskopnir. But do either or both of these battlefields represent an actual real-world location, as is the case with Armageddon in the Christian tradition? Or are they merely mythological constructs, as Idavollr was once thought to be?
Oskopnir is not a real place-name. Instead, it would appear to be a result of learned invention or even philosophical speculation. The-nir of this word is a fairly standard Old Icelandic suffix. Oskop- has been related, properly I think, to Old Icelandic word meaning something like “unmade”. Various translators of the Eddas have suggested as much, although I think they make a mistake is describing the place itself as that which is unmade, unshapen, uncreated, etc. Instead, we should see in the word something akin to “[the place of] unmaking”. In other words, Oskopnir is the antithesis of Creation, the place where the world is, literally, unmade during the paroxysms that attend the final battle. Oskopnir is referred to as an island most likely because the Norse had a fondness for the holmgangr or “island-going”, a description of the sacred and legal procedure to be followed during a duel. And Surt’s presence on the island may point to an active volcanic island. It may be that the plain Vigrdir is on the island or we may be dealing with two separate strains of eschatological development. In one, the battle was on an island and in another, it was on a plain.
Are we any better off with Vigridr in the sense of finding a real-world location for the last battle? First, the name itself is not without its difficulties. You will find it in Simek and Orchard, respectively, with the sense of “place on which battle surges” or “battle-surge”. Through a private communication with Professor Doctor Doctor Simek, I’ve learned that the ‘surge’ definition is an extrapolation from ridr, ‘to sway, swing’ (see both the Cleasby-Vigfusson and Zoega Old Icelandic dictionaries). More literally, Simek would render Vigridr as ‘a plain where the battle sways back and forth’. Orchard took his “surge” definition from Simek
Another problem with Vigridr is the plain’s size. We are told the plain stretches 100 leagues (read ‘120’ for the German long-hundred) in every direction. This is 360 miles in every direction, making for a total of 129,600 square miles or 335,662 square kilometers. So Vigridr is a huge plain, and its scale would once again point to this place as a mythological construct.
I would reluctantly conclude that Vigridr is merely a generic name for a place of battle and/or a poetic kenning for such.