JORMUNGANDR (Midgard Serpent)

Monday, October 6, 2014


The name of the Midgaard Serpent in Norse myth and a metaphor for geologic violence particularly associated with the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Jormungandr dwelt under the sea. Whenever he tightened his coils about the world, earthquakes and tempests lashed out. In the Twilight of the Gods (Goetterdaemmerung or Ragnarok), the monster's death agonies caused a worldwide flood, part of the universal destruction that ended a former age of greatness.

Germanic myth evinces a real fear of this no-man's-land outside the settlement, and the idea of the frontier is there all the time, with the gods serving to ward off dangers from the wild. The islanders and the people along the shore believed that a universal ocean surrounds the earth, with an unfathomable abyss at the horizon and a huge snake curling at the edge to hold the world together. The serpent is called the Midgardr serpent or Jörmungandr; according to Snorri, this monstrous ophidian bit its tail-a concept that does not occur in the Eddic poems but that is quite common in Eastern religions and that was introduced in Scandinavia by medieval Christian scholarship. The symbol (similar to the ouroboros in Jungian psychology) may be borrowed, but the concept is old, as the name Jörmungandr shows. Connected with jörmungrund (meaning "earth" in st. 20 of the Lay of Grimnir), jörmun- (also a name of Odinn) is an adjective meaning "great, powerful, lofty," and gandr means "magic wand." The compound eormengrund also appears in Beowulf (line 859).

Thor and the World Serpent
Although the Norse Thor may be most closely associated with giant-killing, in Germanic myth the greatest archetypal example of the sky-god with thunder-weapon battling demonic power is manifested in Thor's struggle with Jormungandr, the world serpent, a struggle which does not reach its climax until the final cataclysm at Ragnarok. In this conflict Thor manifests the Indo-European patriarchal sky-god who battles evil incarnate in an attempt to protect humankind; we well might say that in this archetypal opposition Thor represents life and light, while Jormungandr represents death and darkness. Myths concerning such polarized battles between the forces of life and those of death are particularly well suited to mid-winter, when rituals related to them also may take place. This association may be especially true in the far north, where darkness and cold always threaten the delicate balance of subsistence; it is Thor, in the Germanic pantheon, who stands between his followers and the frigid abyss. The thunderer's battle with the world serpent, then, carries mythic overtones regarding ancient and widespread concerns about agricultural fertility. Two familiar comic Norse myths provide the context for this particular manifestation of that struggle, which turns starkly serious at the time of the apocalyptic battle between the gods and their foes. Our first glimpse of Thor's conflict with the great serpent comes from the saga of Utgard-Loki told by Snorri; we pick up the tale shortly after Thor has taken Thialfi and Roskva into his service as recompense for the lameness of his goat.

In this myth Thor has his revenge upon Jormungandr for Utgard-Loki's trick, and in taking this vengeance Thor reasserts those qualities of literal mindedness, wrath, and straightforward power with which audiences were most familiar. It is probably in part for these reasons that this was and remains one of the most popular and enduring myths of Thor. It is also, in this version by Snorri, a finely told and funny story. There are three other versions of this myth known to exist, and this myth was most certainly known in England during the Viking period: the Gosforth Slab shows Thor fishing with an ox head, while the Gosforth Cross contains an illustration of Thor fighting Jormungandr; both are from Gosforth churchyard in Cumbria, and both are from ca. 900 ce. In comparative terms, Thor's bait-the ox head-recalls Feridun's Gurz, and this association may suggest the early and archetypal origin of this late Norse version of an Indo-European myth; further, the ox's name ("Skybellower") might indicate a faint cultural recollection of Thor's archetypal identity as protector sky-god. Finally, this myth has been persuasively associated with the medieval tradition of Christ catching Leviathan on a hook. Laughter aside, however, Jormungandr proves to be-quite literally-Thor's nemesis, and with this foreknowledge the comedy of this myth has a ring of pathos. Thor's last battle with the monster and their mutual destruction un derscore the final failing of the old gods of the North; when Thor falls, the forces of order have lost their greatest part: 

Thor and Jormungandr at Ragnarok
On the dawn of the day of the final struggle, when Heimdalr has sounded his horn and thus announced the approach of Ragnarok, Thor will strap on his girdle of strength, put on his iron gloves, take up Mjollnir, and mount his chariot. Thor will ride into battle at the hand of his father, who will be the first to engage the enemy in the form of the great wolf Fenris. Before Thor can turn to Odin's aid, however, he will be attacked by Jormungandr, and their struggle will be mighty and fearsome to behold. Thor's power will prove the greater at the last, but in its death throes the great worm will spew forth rivers of venom so potent that even the thunderer's vigor will be overcome. Thor will stumble back nine paces and fall, stricken by the serpent's poison. The battle will rage on without him, but the hopes of the gods die with Thor.