Thor and the Midgard Serpent, Emil Doepler painting.

Slithering Through the Stories of Ancient Snake Deities: Serpent Gods of Ancient Mythology

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Serpent and their symbols are found in the myths and legends of countless cultures around the world. These animals often have a negative connotation, but not always. There are even cases of snake deities ruling over important aspects of ancient religions.

Jormugandr – the Child of Loki and a Giantess

In Norse mythology, Loki’s secret marriage with the giantess Angrboða resulted in three children: the goddess Hel, the Fenris wolf, and the Midgard serpent Jormugandr. Loki kept the existence of his children secret for as long as possible, but they grew so big and so quickly that they could no longer stay hidden in the cave where they had been born.

Eventually, Odin saw Loki’s offspring while sitting on the magic throne Hlidskialf and he feared their power. Odin wanted to get rid of the possible threats, so he gave Hel dominion over Helheim and power over all the dead (except the chosen slain) and he cast Jormugandr into the great sea. There the serpent grew larger and larger, until he encircled Midgard like an Ouroboros biting its own tail. In “Valhalla”, J. C. Jones illustrates the scene in the following manner:

“Into mid-ocean’s dark depths hurled,
Grown with each day to giant size,
The serpent soon inclosed the world,
With tail in mouth, in circle-wise;
Held harmless still
By Odin’s will.”

Thor and the Midgard Serpent

One day, Thor and Tyr went to visit the giant Hymir. When the host watched Thor devour two huge oxen for dinner, he concluded that he would have to go fishing the next day. Thor decided to accompany his host and provide a helping hand, but he was asked to secure his own bait. Therefore, the thunder god slew Himinbrioter (“the heaven breaker”), his host’s largest ox. He chopped off the ox’s head, put it in the boat and began rowing.

As they were going further and further out to sea, the giant told Thor that they had long passed the usual fishing ground, but the god paid no attention to him. Hymir pointed out that they might be in danger should they come across the great Midgard Serpent far out at sea. Thor ignored him and kept rowing until he figured they had to be right above the great snake.

"Thor in Hymir's boat battling the Midgard Serpent" (1788) by Henry Fuseli.

"Thor in Hymir's boat battling the Midgard Serpent" (1788) by Henry Fuseli. ( Public Domain )

Thor purposely aimed for Jormugandr when he baited his hook with the head of the ox. While the thunder god was busy with his hook, the giant fished two whales which he imagined would suffice for breakfast. Then, Thor once again ignored the suggestion of his host to return while he waited a little longer for Jormugandr to take the bait. The giant did not like the idea, but he had to comply. Soon, Thor felt a jerk and pulled as hard as he could.

A terrible storm started out of nowhere and, judging by the resistance of his prey, Thor understood that he had caught the Midgard Serpent. Trying to get Jormugandr out of the water, Thor’s braced feet went through the boat and, finally, after a lot of struggling, the head of the Midgard Serpent appeared at the surface. Thor took his hammer and got ready to hit the snake, but the terrified giant cut the fishing line in order to prevent the boat from sinking.

Jormugandr dropped back to the bottom of the sea, while the angry Thor dealt Hymir a blow with his hammer for making him lose his prey. The blow knocked the giant overboard and he had to swim ashore and wait for Thor to bring the boat with the two whales back to the beach. Once they met, they took the whales and the boat and returned home to eat.

This story is one of the most loved mythological episodes by Norsemen and there are numerous artistic depictions of it.

The Hindu Nagas

In Hindu mythology, snakes have a high status. Snake gods are known as the nagas. These deities appeared in the form of large snakes or as half human and half snake. “Naga” is usually the male term, while the female version of the word is “nagi”. In symbolism, the snake represents rebirth, death, and mortality because of its shedding of its skin and thus being symbolically reborn.

Comments

I think there is an unintended typo in the article - I have never heard of snakes being symbols of mortality, but rather symbols of Immortality, due to their shedding of their skin and seeming renewal/youthening.
(If you have ever seen a snake before and after it sheds its skin, it really does look like it went from crone to maid!)

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