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“Bringer of Doom” can feel like an exaggeration for a squirrel and Ratatoskr is indeed a minor character in Norse mythology. However, the red squirrel’s role is surprisingly significant as he’s one of the more important inhabitants of Yggdrassil, the World Tree which connects the Nine Norse Realms.
Who is Ratatoskr?
Ratatoskr, or Drill-tooth as is the literal meaning of his name, is a pointy-eared red squirrel in Norse myths. It’s one of the many animals and beasts that live in the cosmic World Tree Yggdrassil and it’s also one of the most active ones.
What is Ratatoskr’s Role in Yggdrassil?
On the surface, Ratatoskr’s job on the World Tree is simple – to relay information between the inhabitants of the tree. Most of all, Ratatoskr is supposed to carry out the communication between a mighty and wise eagle that sits atop Yggdrassil and guards it, and the evil dragon Nidhoggr who lays in Yggdrassil’s roots and constantly gnaws on them.
According to many accounts, however, Ratatoskr is doing a fairly bad job and is constantly creating misinformation between the two beasts. Ratatoskr would even insert insults where there were none, further inflaming the bad relations between the eagle and the dragon. The two powerful enemies would even fight sometimes due to Ratatoskr’s misinformation and further damage Yggdrassil in the process.
Ratatoskr would also damage the World Tree himself at times as any squirrel would. Using his “drill teeth”, Ratatoskr’s damage would be relatively insingnificant but over a period of thousands of years would also contribute to the overall decay of the World Tree and thus help bring Ragnarok upon the gods of Asgard.
Ratatoskr and Rati
While the toskr part of Ratatoskr’s name is clearly identified as meaning tooth or tusk, the rata part is sometimes the subject of debate. Some scholars think that it’s actually related to the Old English world ræt or rat but most subscribe to a different theory.
According to them, rata is actually related to Rati – the magical drill used by Odin in the Skáldskaparmál tale in Prose Edda by the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson. There, Odin uses Rati in his quest to obtain the Mead of poetry, also known as Mead of Suttungr or Poetic Mead.
The mead is made out of the blood of the wisest man who ever lived and Odin is after it because of his ever-lasting thirst for knowledge and wisdom. The mead is kept in a fortress inside a mountain, however, so Odin has to use the Rati magic drill to create a hole inside the mountain.
After that, the All-Father transformed into a serpent, got inside the mountain through the hole, drank the mead, transformed himself into an eagle, and flew to Asgard (which is located atop of Yggdrassil), and shared the mead with the rest of the Asgardian gods.
The parallels between Odin’s story and Ratatoskr’s entire existence are quite obvious, hence why most scholars agree his name is best translated as Drill-tooth.
Ratatoskr and Heimdall
Another popular theory and association is that Ratatoskr represents Heimdall, the Asgardian watcher god. Heimdall is known for his incredibly keen eyesight and hearing, as well as his golden teeth. And while Heimdall is not a messenger god – that honor goes to Hermóðr – Heimdall is supposed to warn the other Asgardian gods of any coming danger.
In that way, Heimdall and Ratatoskr can be seen as similar, and the emphasis on their teeth is also curious. If this is intentional, then Ratatoskr’s negative contribution to the damage on Yggdrassill is likely accidental and just a function of time – fate is inevitable in Norse mythology after all.
The similarities between Heimdall and Ratatoskr are few and sparse, however, so this theory may be inaccurate.
Symbolism of Ratatoskr
Depending on the interpretation, Ratatoskr can be ascribed two meanings:
- A simple messenger, constantly traveling between the “good” eagle atop Yggdrassil and the “evil” dragon Nidhoggr in the tree’s roots. As such, Ratatoskr can be viewed as a morally neutral character and as a way to personify the passing of time on Yggdrassil. The misinformation often created by Ratatoskr can be viewed as an effect of the “telephone game” but may also be mischief on the squirrel’s part.
- A mischievous actor who actively contributes to the worsening of the relations between Nidhoggr and the eagle. And, as the name Drill-tooth suggests, Ratatoskr may also have his share of the responsibility for damaging Yggdrassil over time.
Whether malevolent, just mischievous, or morally neutral, it’s undeniable that Ratatoskr contributes to the decay of Yggdrassil over time and helps cause Ragnarok.
Importance of Ratatoskr in Modern Culture
It may seem surprising but Ratatoskr – or some variations of the name such as Toski or Rata – has been featured in modern culture more often than some of the most significant Norse deities. Most of these appearances are as side characters and in video games but that doesn’t detract from the rising popularity of this character.
Some popular examples include the 2018 video game God of War, the popular MOBA game Smite, the 2010 game Young Thor where Ratatoskr was a villain and an ally to the goddess of death Hel.
There’s also the 2020 video game Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the trading card game Magic: The Gathering, as well as the Marvel comic book series The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl where Ratatoskr is both an evil female squirrel god and, at one time, an ally against an army of frost giants.
Ratatoskr is not a major character in Norse mythology, but his role is important and indispensable. Like almost all Norse characters, he plays a part in the events leading to Ragnarok, showing that even the smallest side characters can have an impact on major events.