The Story of the Midgard Serpent: A Mythological Tailspin
In Teutonic mythology the Middle Earth was wrapped round by the Midgard Serpent. Above this the gods built their mansions in the sky. Yet, curiously, in the lower world there lived all those people who had ceased to live.
This lower residence was alive with the undead. But it was not viewed as a place of punishment, as was later consigned by the Christian conversion of Hell.
The Germanic word was, in fact, Hel. It was the name of a goddess, a sovereign of the underworld. Fittingly, her face was half white, half black (yin/yang). In ancient Scandinavia, the goddess Hel was the daughter of Loki, the great trickster. Later on, in Christian mythology, Loki morphed into Satan or Lucifer. Hel, the Teutonic goddess, was thus a blood relation of the Devil.
Loki's brood; daughter Hel, Fenrir the Wolf and Jörmungandr the Serpent. ( Public domain )
All this gets very complicated —perhaps even funny when you consider that our term, earthbound is a reference to the belief that Midgard Serpent binds the Earth and holds it together. We are "bound to believe" then that an uncommonly common snake holds the whole ball of wax called earth in an embrace that lasts forever.
Midgard Serpent wooden carving. (Patrick Johanneson/ Flickr)
The coils of Midgard Serpent were believed to be just like the serpentine tail of the black cat. All in all, these intertwined myths are a potpourri of old belief systems going far back in time. They are greatly and sinuously entangled. And they represent the collective unconscious of the human race. In truth, these tales stretch so far back that we've lost track of where they begin and end.
- The Bird and the Serpent: From the Neolithic Goddesses to Ancient Chinese Symbols of Nobility and Benevolence
- Slithering Through the Stories of Ancient Snake Deities: Serpent Gods of Ancient Mythology
- Australian Aborigine Creation Stories: Rainbow Serpent and Emus in the Stars
Ouroboros eats its own tail. ( Public Domain )
Spawning Modern Myths
Here is proof that the older the tale, the more deeply rooted the belief. We heard an unusual story the other day that illustrates this truism. A two-year-old girl was admiring a bird of paradise bush in front of her house in Florida. The girl stepped so close to the palm tree that she was almost within the fold of its fronds. Meanwhile her mother went inside the house to answer the phone. When she came back to her daughter moments later, a ghastly sight confronted her.
The child was encircled in the coils of a huge black indigo snake. The hysterical mother screamed for help and some neighbors came running. One of the men had a machete. After the snake was pried off the girl and killed, the man measured it. Head to tail, the dead snake was eight feet in length and about four inches thick. Although the little girl was unhurt, her family was deep in shock. More so than the child.
Indigo Snake ( Public Domain )
Husband and wife dug up the bird of paradise bush, pulled it out by the roots and burned it. This was a biblical purge of deviltry, they believed. However, well below the root system of the bush, the husband found a hundred or more baby indigo snakes.
We have to wonder -- is this story remotely true? Or is it a fable of the human imagination?
Whatever parts are true, much of the tale comes from the ancient logbook of biblical mythology.
Actually, the whole thing is a modern medieval allegory. But there is little to make of it as herpetology. There aren't any actual cases that we know of where an indigo snake ever twined around a child. Or watched over a nest like a domestic fowl.
Like most cold blooded reptiles, indigo snakes have a "lay and leave" policy. Moreover they do not victimize prey they cannot swallow. Finally, their meal is mostly rats. This explains what the snake was doing there in the first place -- looking for something small and furry to eat.
As a folklorist I find such tales not only amazing but true-to-life, if only because the participants believe them -- and shape them -- to their will. Our greatest myths only seem to be true. Whereas our truest lies only seem to be false. It is a very mixed bag, the human mind, full of dark superstition and wary contradiction.
Some favored beliefs of humanity never really go away. There is always a bit of Adam and Eve in the human conversation and not too far off, an apple-mouthed serpent with a tail that goes round the earth. In any case, I personally salute Midgard -- still round and around, so to say, after so many thousands of years.