Muspell (Old Norse: Múspell; Old High German: Mūspilli; Old Saxon: Mūdspelli, Mūtspelli) is a common Germanic envisioning of the end times. In Norse mythology, Muspell is merely an element of the end times, the end itself being called Ragnarök. In the Continental Germanic mythology of the Germans and Saxons, however, Muspell referred to the end of the world itself.
The Old Norse Múspell appears in the 13th-century Prose Edda written by Snorri Sturluson, where it is of uncertain meaning. Muspelheim (Múspellsheimr, literally "home of Múspell") is the world of fire, at odds with Niflheim, the world of ice. Muspelheim is one of the first of the 9 worlds under Yggdrasil, guarded by the Fire-Giant (eldjötnar) Surtr (black, cf. English “swarthy”), who wields a flaming sword and protects the gates of Muspelheim. In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturlson recounts the creation myth, in which the sparks from the giant Surtr’s sword melt the ice from Niflheim, and the steam in the Gunnungagap forms the giant Ymir (Aurgelmir), and from Ymir’s body, the first humans are born.
Muspell is also mentioned in the Prose Edda as the element which is central to the final battle against the Gods. During Ragnarök (the final fate of the gods), the Fire-Giants (eldjötnar), called the "sons of Múspell" (Múspellz synir or Múspells megir) or "people of Múspell" (Múspellz lȳðir), will break the Bifröst bridge, thus heralding the beginning of Ragnarök. The giant Surtr will then lead his army of eldjötnar to storm Asgard, and set fire to Yggdrasil, the world tree. In Surtr's fury, he will strike and kill the God Freyr with his flaming sword.
The word Muspilli is used in a 9th-century Old High German epic poem of the same name to mean the end of the world as described in Christian theology. The Christian understanding of Muspell speaks of flames which fall from the heavens and demolish the world. The words Mūdspelli and Mūtspelli are used in the same way in the 9th-century Old Saxon poem Heliand. Similar to the Eddic version of Muspell, the Germans and Saxons use the term Muspilli or Mudspelli to describe the end of the world in an apocalyptic volcanic enigma. Because of the re-occurrence of these similar terms, and their similar meanings, there is an ongoing scholarly dispute about the origin of Muspell.
Many scholars debate the etymology of the words Múspell, Mūspilli, Mūdspelli and Mūtspelli.These similar terms all occur in various ancient texts, all belonging to separate races and religions. Muspell is spoken of in the Scandinavian Völuspá, the Icelandic prophecy of the creation and end of the world. The Muspilli is a Christian Old High German poem, which similarly speaks of the end of mankind. And, in Saxon Heliand literature, the Mūdspelli or Mūtspelli is a fire which penetrates the dark night, and destroys the earth. The connection between these comparable words in similar texts regarding the end of the world is a highly debated subject by etymologists. However, there are two prevalent theories concerning the origin of these words. An older theory suggests that it is common among all Teutonic races, and is the ancient Heathen (Eddic) term for the fiery end of the world. Another theory suggests that it is purely Germanic origin, and was indirectly or directly spread to the Northerners. The etymology of Muspell remains a subject of dispute among linguists and scholars, and its origin remains unknown.
There is also deliberation concerning the ambiguity of these terms. Although Muspell, Muspilli, Mūdspelli and Mūtspelli all deal with the end of the earth through fire, their true meanings remain unknown. Some scholars speculate that Muspell refers to the leader of the eldjötnar who marches the sons of Muspell into battle during Ragnarok. Others believe that Muspell refers to the sons of Muspell (Múspellz synir or Múspells megir) which inhabit Muspelheim. Many other scholars speculate that Muspell is not the leader of the fire giants, or giants, but Muspell is simply another term or abbreviation for Muspelheim, the fiery world which is central to both the creation and destruction of mankind. Several scholars believe that the meaning of Muspell may have changed, because Mūspilli, Mūdspelli and Mūtspelli, which stem from Pre-Christian theology, refer to it as the end of the world in flames. However, the Heathen understanding of Muspell refers to it as an element within the world’s destructive end (Ragnarok)instead of the end of the world itself.
Viktor Rydberg's Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Vol. II,Part 1: Indo-European Mythology (1993),
and Part 2: Germanic Mythology (2004).Translated and Annotated by William P. Reaves
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. 1993, p. 222-224.