Jormungandr: All About The Midgard Serpent
In the Nordic deities, we find Loki. Son of the giant Farbauti and Laufey, he is the god of malice, illusions and discord. The poem Lokasenna 9 reveals that he and Odin would have made a pact so that Loki integrates the pantheon of the Aesir. The stallion Svadilfari, who was transformed into a mare, gave birth to Sleipnir, the 8-legged horse of the most powerful god.
Loki is also the parent of several spectacular creatures. In chapter 34 of the Gylfanning of Snorri’s Edda, it is said that he will be the father of several monstrous children. The giantess Angrboda is the mother. There are Hel, Jormungandr and Fenrir, all raised in the world of Jotunheim. The prophecies around their birth describe that these children will cause the misfortune of the gods. That is why they will get rid of them, Odin taking care of this mission.
First, there is Hel, whose face is half immersed in the darkness of death. The goddess of the dead is therefore sent by Odin to Niflheim (or Helheim), the realm of the unimportant dead (illness or old age). She will become the guardian and authority of this cold and dark place.
The wolf Fenrir grows so much that only Tyr has the courage to feed him. The Aesir then decide to chain him, first with the Loeding chain, as a challenge. The more solid Dromi model does not manage to contain the wolf either. It is finally the magic link Gleipnir, in the form of a silk ribbon, which will keep him imprisoned.
Jormungandr, the one we are interested in in this article, is considered too dangerous by Odin and the other gods as soon as he is born. The most powerful deity will then seize the snake to throw it into the sea of Midgard, the world of men. At this moment, Jormungandr is only a small snake but he already scares the gods. Chapter 34 of the Gylfanning describes this moment:
“He threw the snake into the deep sea all around the land, but it grew so much that, living in the middle of the sea, it now surrounds all the land and bites its own tail.”
Indeed, it is not because he was thrown into a place he does not know that Jormungandr will not grow. His growth is so impressive that he will surround Midgard.
The representation of the Midgard serpent
The son of the god Loki is also called the Midgard serpent. This comes from his gigantic size, which allows him, according to historical accounts, to surround the world, even managing to bite its tail. This name is also the consequence of his birth, where he was thrown into the sea of the human world by Odin.
The etymology of Jormungandr comes from Old Icelandic. Jormun- represents the immensity of the animal while gandr means monster. By combining these two words, we get a huge watch, which is a pretty good description of this animal. In Snorri’s Edda, it is named Miðgarðsormr. Again in Old Icelandic, this means world-serpent or Midgard-serpent. The suffix “ormr” means snake, another name for the monster. It is also called Naðr because it is related to a dragon.
As the guardian of Midgard, he ultimately eliminates anyone who is not invited. This is why Jormungand is seen as a symbol of protection for men. The Viking world is therefore protected by this gigantic sea creature. The sea raids conducted by the Vikings throughout Europe were characterized by quite violent phenomena, storms and tidal waves. For men, it is the symbol of the ocean, both vast and mysterious, and of its dangers.
The scaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa names it by the kennings, metaphors of the Scandinavian language, endiseiðrallralanda, which means border-fish of all lands. The other scaldic poem Húsdrápa uses the kenningsmen storðar, for worldly necklace, and stirðþinullstorðar, for rigid worldly cord. The scalde Eysteinn Valdason refers to Jörmungand as kenningseiðrjarðar, which translates as fish of the earth. Other metaphors of this type exist, which proves the importance of the snake for the Vikings.
The characteristics of Jormungandr
Jormungandr is a gigantic snake living in the Midgard Sea. Being described as a monster, it was apparently not very pleasant to look at. The serpent was also compared to a dragon. Its size is such that it can be said that this animal is the largest beast in Norse mythology. It is not for nothing that he was raised during his first months in Jotunheim, the kingdom of the giants.
In addition to its size surrounding the world, Jormungandr is capable of spitting deadly venom. It is the large teeth within its mouth that allow it to distill its poison. Its mouth is so large that the serpent can swallow any god or giant whole.
One can think that the large size of the snake gives it a strong personality. But there is little historical evidence of Jormungandr’s character. We will explain later that he met Thor several times and that it did not go well. This monster spends much of his time in the depths of the sea, lurking in the dark and alone. When it comes to the surface, it can finally be said to express the anger of its loneliness. It is for this reason that the snake has a particularly violent and aggressive attitude when it comes to the surface.
This behavior will be visible in the relationship he has with the god of thunder Thor.
The confrontations with Thor
Between the sea serpent and the god invoking lightning, we can even say that the two hated each other. But for what reason?
Jormungandr and Thor met three times. Chapter 46 of the Gylfaginning in Snorri’s Edda tells of a visit that Thor and other divine companions made to Útgarða-Loki, the giant and master of Utgard castle in the world of Jotunheim. In order to humiliate the gods, the king offers them several seemingly easy challenges. Thor has to lift a cat, but he can’t do it. Despite his efforts, he only managed to get one of the cat’s paws off the ground. Other challenges included drinking a horn and defeating an old nursemaid.
The next day, the giant reveals to them that the tests were rigged by virtual illusions: the cat was Jormungandr, the drinking horn was connected to the ocean and the old nurse was old age itself. But instead of humiliating Thor, chapter 47 of the same poetic tale tells us that it was a demonstration for all the giants:
“The fact that you lifted the cat seemed to me no less remarkable. To tell you the truth, all those who saw that you managed to lift one of its legs from the ground were afraid, because this cat was not what it seemed to you: it was the Midgard snake, which is found all around the land and whose size is barely big enough for its tail and its head to touch the ground. But you lifted it up so much that you were only a short distance from the sky.”
From this moment, Thor decided to defeat Jormungandr, which is the origin of the hatred between the two.
The serpent of Midgard and the god of thunder will meet a second time. Several historical poems indicate that one day, Thor took the appearance of a young man in order to carry out a fishing party in Midgard, with the giant Hymir. Sailing a little, the god uses an ox head as bait. He wants to go to the open sea but the giant refuses for fear of the snake. Thor goes anyway and it is Jormungandr himself who bites the line. The force developed by the animal is so strong that Thor almost falls into the ocean. But the god manages to pull him up to hit him with his hammer Mjollnir. Unfortunately the giant, by fear, cuts the line, releasing the snake. Furious, Thor makes the giant go overboard.
This legend will push the hatred between the two to be even stronger. Not having been far from taking a blow from the famous hammer, the snake now also feels hatred towards Thor.
The end of the world according to the Nordic mythology will arrive during the battle of Ragnarok. It is during this battle that Loki, the father of the 3 creatures, will lead the giants against the gods. The wolf of Fenrir will succeed in freeing himself from his chains in order to participate in the battle. Hel will not participate but will send an army of dead, which will be commanded by his father. Jormungrandr will cause a tidal wave on the land, because he is seized by the fury of the giants. His arrival is described in chapter 51 of Gylfaginning :
«Then the ocean will break over the land, because the Midgard Serpent, seized by its “giant fury”, will reach the shore. […] The Midgard Serpent will blow so much venom that it will spray the whole air and the sea with it. It will be absolutely frightening and it will advance at the side of the wolf.».
The text explains that Odin will fight Fenrir, who will kill him because Thor cannot help him. He will fight Jormungandr :
« At his side will ride Thor, but he will not be able to help him, because he will have much to do when he fights the Midgard Serpent. […] Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent and will take nine more steps before he falls to the ground dead, because of the venom that the serpent will spit on him. »
The myth of Thor’s fishing described above has been depicted on several stones that date back to the Viking Age. This shows how popular the story is.
The best preserved trace is the Altuna rune stone in Sweden. Dating from 1050, it represents Thor holding his hammer in one hand and a fishing line in the other. At the end of it is the sea serpent. We also see the feet of the god crossing the boat, which really echoes what the legend describes.
The cross of Gosforth in England dates from the 10th century. It also shows a man holding a hammer. But what is striking in this representation is that an ox head is present at the end of the line.
The Ardre VIII stone was found on Gotland, the largest island in Sweden. Of the 8 stones that have been found, 7 have runic inscriptions. The Hoerdum stone dates from the 8th to the 11th century. This time, it comes from Denmark.
These last three archaeological traces represent two people fishing an animal. If this one is not identified, we can easily suspect that it is the myth of Thor’s fishing that is at stake.
Jormungandr and his confrontation with the god are so important that they have been described in Marvel comics: a first time in June-July 1978, and another in June 1987. Many video game creatures are also inspired by the Midgard serpent.