Jörmungandr: The Misunderstood Midgard Serpent of Norse Mythology
Jörmungandr, the world serpent, was an integral part of Norse mythology. Throughout history, he has been portrayed as a key villain in Norse mythology and arch nemesis of Thor, the god of thunder. However modern historians take a rather different approach, painting the venomous serpent in a more sympathetic light. Rather than a villain, they say he can be read as a force of nature and a necessary agent of transformation. So who understood Jörmungandr better? The Norse who feared him or the historians who study him today?
Jormungandr on a runestone in Sweden. ( Lars Gieger / Adobe Stock)
The Tragic Origin of Jörmungandr
Much like Greek mythology , Norse mythology evolved much over the years. The importance of certain characters would wax and wane, and people would tell different versions of established tales. Most early Norse tales were spread by word of mouth rather than written down, adding to the confusion. Jörmungandr is one of the oldest entities in Norse mythology, and for the most part his portrayal is pretty consistent, with a handful of variations.
We find the origin of Jörmungandr in chapter 34 of the Gylfaginnig (a 13th-century text that recounts the Norse creation mythology). Jormungandr’s father was Loki, the trickster god. His mother was a jotunn (giant) from Jotunheimen called Angrboða. In addition to Jörmungandr, the couple had Fenrir, a giant wolf, and Hel, the goddess of the Norse underworld.
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Jörmungandr (the Midgard Serpent) gets fished by an ox head, from the 17th century Icelandic manuscript . (Public Domain )
The birth of the three children was not exactly warmly welcomed by the other gods. The jotunn were historically antagonistic towards the gods and mankind, and Loki had his own, often complicated history with the other gods. When the gods learned that Loki’s children were being raised by a jotunn in Jotunheim, they were understandably concerned.
Odin then received a prophecy that the three would grow up to become a challenge to the power of the gods. Although they were little more than babies, he ordered them separated from their mother. Odin flung Jörmungandr into the sea, confined Hel to Niflheim, the land of the dead, and bound Fenrir to a rock on an island.
Jörmungandr continued to grow while living in the sea. Before long, he had grown to such a size that he encircled Midgard (Earth) and clamped down on his own tail, forming an ouroboros, the depiction of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. It was believed that if Jörmungandr ever released his tail, it would be the beginning of the end for the gods.
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Ouroboros drawing from a late medieval Byzantine Greek alchemical manuscript ( Public Domain )
Jörmungandr in Norse Mythology
Although a key player in Norse mythology, Jörmungandr only appeared in three main myths besides his above origin story. He was always depicted as an antagonist to Thor, the god of thunder. The two were always portrayed as hating each other, and their mythologies were tightly entwined. Quite why they shared such an antagonistic relationship was never fully explained.
Jörmungandr the Overweight Cat
It is only after he encircled the earth that Jörmungandr started to have run-ins with Thor. Their first clash happened at the stronghold of Utgarda-Loki, the home of a giant. The story essentially revolved around Thor having a particularly bad day.
The tale began with Thor traveling with his human servant, Thjalfi, and his adopted brother, Loki. They encountered a giant named Skrymir, who offered to travel with them and carry their food bag. However, when they agreed, he tied the drawstring of the bag so tightly that not even the mighty Thor could open it.
Skrymir carrying the belongings of Thor and companions ( Public Domain )
This threw Thor into a rage (not uncommon for Thor), so he attacked the giant with his hammer while he slept. Each time, Skrymir simply woke up and mocked Thor, asking if a leaf had fallen on his head while he was sleeping. Growing bored of his games, the giant left the troupe to go on their way.
The three soon arrived at the stronghold of a giant named Utgarda-Loki. Tired and hungry, they asked the giant lord for an act of hospitality. In return, he mocked them for being puny and said they must prove their worth in several trials if they wished to stay.
The first trial was an eating contest between Loki and one of Utgarda’s retinue, Logi. While Loki managed to eat all the meat in front of him, Logi won by eating not only the meat, but the bones too, and even the trough in which his meat was served.
The second trial was a foot race between Thjalfi and another courtier called Hugi. Again, it was a poor showing for Team Thor; his human servant lost the foot race three times in a row.
Finally, it was Thor’s turn, and knowing his strengths he opted for a drinking competition that he was sure to win. He lost. However much he tried to drink, he could not empty his drinking horn. Mocking Thor for being a weakling, Utgarda-Loki offered Thor a second task; he must simply lift the giant’s fat, gray cat. As much as he tried, Thor could barely lift the cat's foot off the ground.
Finally, Utgarda-Loki offered one last mission. Thor must wrestle an old woman named Elli. Once again, Thor was humiliated and easily wrestled to the ground. To thank them for the entertainment, the giant allowed them to stay the night anyway.
The next morning, Utgarda-Loki revealed it had been a trick. He had in fact been the giant Skrymir, and had used magic to trick Thor. Every time Thor thought he had been striking the sleeping giant, he had actually been leveling mountains with his mighty blows.
The ruse had continued within the stronghold. Logi had been a magical wildfire that had burnt up the trough and the food within it. The fleet-footed Hugi, on the other hand, had been thought itself which no one can outrun.
The drinking horn Thor used had its base in the sea, so no matter how much he drank, there was always more. Thor had drunk so much that he had lowered the sea level, creating the first tides. The old woman Elli had been old age itself, something that no one can best.
Most pertinently here, the fat cat had been Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent, a being so large no one had a hope of lifting it. Thor was enraged at Utgarda-Loki’s deception and moved to attack the trickster, but the giant and his castle vanished. Some historians believe this myth was the source of Thor’s hatred toward the great serpent. Unable to focus his anger on the giant who made a fool of him, Thor instead focused his anger on Jörmungandr.
Loki’s Twisted Family: Hel, Fenrir and Jörmungandr. The figure in the background is presumably Angrboða. Painting by Emil Doepler circa 1905. ( Public Domain )
Thor Goes Fishing for Trouble
Jörmungandr played a much bigger part in the second myth he appeared in. The myth appeared both in the Husdrapa and the Prose Edda . The story begins with Thor going on an innocent fishing trip with his friend, the giant Hymir.
Hymir refused to lend Thor any bait, so Thor beheads the largest of Hymir’s ox and uses the head as bait. Hymir rows out to his favorite fishing spot, and the two are successful. They soon catch two whales and several large fish. Hymir is more than happy with their haul, and he tells Thor they should quit while they are ahead and go home. Thor in turn reveals the real reason he agreed to go fishing; he wants to catch Jörmungandr.
At first Hymir refused, but Thor took control of the boat by force and went further out to sea. It did not take long for Jörmungandr to take the bait, and Thor soon had him hooked. Thor dragged Jörmungandr from the sea, and reached for his hammer while wrestling with him, so that he might strike the serpent dead. The whole time Jörmungandr spewed poison from his mouth.
With the two wrestling, the boat came close to capsizing. Hymir, afraid Thor was going to get them both killed, decided to cut Thor’s line, allowing Jörmungandr to escape. There are then two different endings to the tale. It is sometimes said that Thor was enraged by his friend’s betrayal and struck the giant dead with his hammer. Other versions end with Thor simply throwing Hymir overboard, his ultimate fate left unclear.
Earlier versions of the story have a completely different ending. In these early versions, Thor is successful and strikes Jörmungandr dead with a single hammer blow to the head. Since Norse mythology ends with Jörmungandr playing a major role at the end of the world it appears this earlier version of the tale fell out of favor.
Jörmungandr and Ragnarök
At the beginning of Norse mythology, the Norns (the fates) decreed that at the end of time Ragnarök would occur. They told Odin that Ragnarök would be a mighty battle where the gods were fated to die, and that there was no stopping it. Odin and the other gods accepted this, but it did not stop Odin from attempting to delay Ragnarök by locking Loki’s three children, including Jormungandr, away.
When the time comes, Ragnarök will begin with a breakdown of human relationships and traditions. Next will be endless winters with no summers. It was said that Jörmungandr will finally release his tail, causing great unrest in the seas. Jörmungandr will thrash onto the land, bringing flooding to Midgard and filling the air with his poison.
A scene from Ragnarök of the battle between Thor and Jormungandr, by Emil Doepler, circa 1905 ( Public Domain )
Next, Fenrir will break his chains and rampage through all nine realms, bringing death and destruction. Fenrir’s son Sköll will swallow the sun, and his other son Hati will devour the moon, leaving only darkness. Finally, Hel will grant Loki (who never forgave the gods for what they did to his children) an army of the dead and a giant ship.
The Ragnarök predictions continue with Loki’s army joined by Surtr and the other fire giants, and together the forces of change will march to the battlefield at Vigrid. It is here that Jörmungandr and Thor will meet for the final time. In this final battle, Thor will manage to kill Jörmungandr, but in doing so, be killed himself. Jormungandr will manage to poison Thor, so that after taking nine steps away from Jörmungandr’s corpse he falls dead. Ragnarök will end with the gods and their enemies all dead. Surtr will ignite the World Fire, destroying all nine realms. Ultimately, however, the forces of order will succeed and from the ashes, a new world emerges.
Reading the role Jörmungandr plays in Ragnarok, you could be forgiven for thinking Jörmungandr is a villain, and that is certainly how the tales tend to portray him. However, in reality, Jörmungandr and his siblings are agents of transformation. They serve as necessary evils, acting as catalysts so that the old order can be destroyed and something new can come in its place.
They are also victims whose only crime was being born. At an early age, they were separated from their mother just because Odin feared they were omens of Ragnarök. Then, despite never doing anything to hurt Thor, Thor took it upon himself to track down and kill Jörmungandr.
The story of Jörmungandr and Ragnarök is really one about the inevitability of change. Odin attempted to delay the coming of Ragnarök by locking away Loki’s children, but it is futile. The imprisonment of Jörmungandr represents the futility of wrestling with powers out of your control. Change was coming for the Norse gods whether they liked it or not.
It may seem strange to us to have a religion that revolves around the gods you worship being defeated and destroyed. But the ending of Jörmungandr’s story is a happy one. He may fall, but he takes his old nemesis, Thor, with him. In helping to destroy the old world, Jörmungandr ensures a new, perhaps better world can take its place.
Top image: Left: An illustration of Thor fishing with the jotunn Hymir, where Thor catches Jörmungandr (From an 18th century Icelandic manuscript / Public Domain ). Right: Thor battling the Midgard Serpent, painting by Henry Fuseli, 1788 ( Public Domain )
By Robbie Mitchell
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