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Jörmungandr: The World-Coiling Midgard Serpent of Norse Mythology

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Of all the gods, giants, beasts, and spirits that stalked the Viking mental landscape, Jörmungandr – the world-coiling serpent – remains one of the most renowned.  Jörmungandr is also known as the Midgard Serpent because he was a sea monster so large that he wrapped all the way around Midgard (the world of humans).  When this gigantic beast stirs, storms, earthquakes, and tidal waves erupt.  Jörmungandr lies in the depths of the sea, encircling the earth, holding his own tail in his mouth, waiting for the day of Ragnarok.  It is said that when the serpent releases his tail and begins his attack, Ragnarok – the 'final' dark day for the gods – will begin. 

 

Jörmungandr’s Back Story

While there are a number of different dragons (Old Norse: Dreki) mentioned in Norse mythology, Jörmungandr is the most famous of them all and is regarded as one of the most awe-inspiring forces in nature. However, he makes only rare, brief appearances in the surviving Viking narratives before his starring role in their prophecies of doom.  This shows just how much fear and awe the sea-faring Vikings held for this personification of the power of the deep. 

Jörmungandr’s beginnings might not have looked so ominous at first.  He was a son of Loki, the shape shifting god of mischief, cunning, betrayal, and trouble.  Loki had an adulterous affair with Angrboða, the fearsome witch and giantess (Jötunn or “devourer”) that lived in the Iron Wood. She also bore Loki two other children: Fenrir (the wolf of nightmares) and Hel (the lady of the dead). Side note: Loki also fathered other children including Sleipnir (Odin's 8-legged flying horse) by shape shifting into a mare and mating with a stalion named Svaðilfari.

But while this unholy trio was still young, Odin and the gods found them. Odin is the wisest god of all the Viking pantheon, but even he is subject to fate. On that fateful meeting, Odin and the gods did not kill Loki's cursed children but tried to set them aside somewhere where they could not cause harm. So, they sent Hel to the world of the dead. Fenrir, they tried to keep as a pet (unscuccessfully). And the shining, slinking serpent, Jörmungandr was thrown into the sea by Odin. Jörmungandr grew and grew until he encircled the entire earth, eventually meeting up again with his own tail. 

 

Thor Fishes for the Midgard Serpent

Odin may have been the king of the gods, but for the many Vikings, Thor was typically the favorite. Thor was the mighty god of thunder. He was called "the warder of the earth" and the “friend of humans,” a protector god who was always fair, faithful, and fearless. Indeed, Thor was the opposite of Loki, though they had originally been great friends. One of the most famous stories of Thor is how he went fishing for Jörmungandr.

The skalds do not always say why Thor was looking for Jörmungandr. The Prose Edda suggests Thor was hoping for a rematch against the serpent.  The giant, Utgard-Loki, used magic to make Thor think he was trying to lift a house cat while he was really trying to drag Jörmungandr from the sea.  Thor had only pulled one of that "cat's" paws off the floor, after all. So he may have realized that the vast power of Jörmungandr was a perfect challenge for the god’s own prodigious strength and valor.  Or it may have been that Thor knew that he and Jörmungandr were fated to fight to the death on the last day, and Thor – not the most patient of gods – did not see the point in waiting. 

Whatever the case may be, Thor ended up fishing with Hymir, an anti-social giant of great size and strength himself, who (in some versions of the tale) was also the estranged father of the god Tyr.  Hymir rowed his boat far out to sea and immediately caught a brace of whales with his few casts of the line. 

The rough giant boasted to Thor, but the god was carefully baiting his own hook with a head of an ox. Thor cast his line hard, letting the line and bait sink into the deep.  It was not long until something bit. Thor had hooked the big one.

Hymir recoiled in terror as Jörmungandr rose out of the water.  The horrifying sea dragon struck at Thor, but Thor kept pulling until – in one version of the tale – the god's feet broke through the bottom of the boat (as depicted on the Swedish runestone seen to the right).  The ocean churned with tidal waves, and the sky turned black.  Thor didn't back down, but as he aimed Mjolnir at the monster's head, the desperate Hymir cut his line.

Jörmungandr sank back into the depths.  His time had not yet come.  According to the Prose Edda, Thor was so angry that Hymir had deprived him of his prize that he knocked the giant overboard.  Hymir, though, may have just saved the god’s life. 

Jörmungandr and Thor at Ragnarok

The Eddic poem Vǫluspá and other sources all agree Jörmungandr is fated to fight Thor at the end of days.  At Ragnarok, the greatest battle ever to be fought, Thor will hammer through walls of giants until he finds Jörmungandr.  Thor, the Son of Earth, will battle the lord of the seas.  Thor will rain down thunder and lightning as he brings Mjolnir down on the creature’s head again and again.  But Jörmungandr is not only the biggest of all serpents - he is also poisonous.  Thor will kill Jörmungandr, but the god will take nine steps before falling dead from the dragon’s venom.

World-coiling Serpents and Tail-chewing Dragons in Other Cultures

Jörmungandr is not the only world-coiling serpent across the thousands of years and hundreds of cultures that color the human imagination.  In fact, the image of a tail-swallowing dragon can be found worldwide and throughout history.  This symbol of the circular snake is called the ouroboros. The earliest known ouroboros depiction is from the grave of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (“King Tut”) from the 13th century B.C.  Since that time, similar images have shown up in ancient Chinese, Persian, Hindu, Greek, and even Mesoamerican sites and artifacts.  The ouroboros was also prominently featured in the language of mysticism amongst the Gnostics, Hermetic, and alchemists throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

In most of these settings, the ouroboros signifies time – depicting the living, breathing cycle of ages that have no real beginning and no real end.  In Roman sources, the ouroboros symbolized the god Saturn (the Greek Kronos or Cronus, from where we get words like chronology and chronometer).  Saturn/Kronos was a god of time.  He was considered by the Greco-Romans to be especially savage and terrifying. He was lord of the Titans – spirits of elemental chaos that were something like the giants (Jötnar) of Viking lore.  In all this imagery, the ouroboros represents the endless cycles of creation and destruction.  In fact, many scholars believe that our mathematical symbol for eternity – the sideways figure eight (∞) – is a shorthand adaptation of the ouroboros symbol.

 

Conclusion

Norse lore is distinct and cannot be viewed as just a continuation of other world mythologies.  The ouroboros symbol of a tail-chewing snake is far more innocuous than Jörmungandr - a massive, terrifying, evil beast that Vikings truly believed writhed in the waves waiting to destroy the world and slay the divine protector of humankind.  However, there are interesting parallels beyond the obvious morphology.   Jörmungandr contents himself to sink his poisonous fangs into his own tail while he waits for the end of the world.  In many versions of the Ragnarok story, after the world ends, it begins anew.  Both good and evil will arise from the ashes of our world, and the cycle (presumably) will repeat itself.  Experts in the human mind, such as Carl Jung, would point out that the Vikings did not need contact with other traditions to arrive at much the same story. Instead, these are universal human thoughts and fears rendered into images we can better understand.

 

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References

  1. The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
  2. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Brodeur, A. G. (translator). Retrieved from http://www.redicecreations.com/files/The-Prose-Edda.pdf. Published 1916, Accessed November 3, 2017.
  3. Rodgers, D.G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. USA. 2018
  4. Guiley, R. E. The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy. Visionary Living Inc. USA. 2006.
  5. Bekhad, J. The Ancient Symbol that Spanned Millennia. BBC Culture. December 4, 2017.

 

Image Sources: Wikipedia

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