THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY?
(THOR AND THE MIDGARD SERPENT)
By Thorskegga Thorn
The battle between a monster and a hero is a common theme throughout the
world's mythology. We have Saint George and the Dragon, Indra and the
Vritra, Apollo and the Python, Jehovah and the Leviathan and in all these
basic myths good pulverises evil. There is one exception, Thor's conflict
against the World Serpent ends in a draw, or does it?
According to Norse tradition the World Serpent (Jormungandr) was one of
three monstrous children of Loki (the trickster god) and the giantess
Angrboda. The serpent grew at an alarming rate and the gods threw him into
the sea. In the depths of the ocean the serpent continued to grow until he
encircled the earth and lay with his tail in his mouth. Up to now Snorri
Stulusson's rendition of the Norse serpent myth has been taken as genuine
pagan belief. The gist can be summarised as follows...
Thor disguises himself as a young boy and pays a visit to the Giant Hymir.
During Thor's stay Hymir decides to go on a fishing trip. Thor wants to go
with him and Hymir reluctantly agrees providing that his guest finds his own
bait. Thor finds Hymir's biggest ox and pulls its head off.
They both set out to sea in Hymir's fishing boat. Thor rows out too far and
Hymir begins to panic in case the Midgard Serpent attacks them. Thor gets
out the ox's head, fastens it to a sturdy hook and hurls it over the side.
The serpent takes the bait straight away and pulls back in fury as the hook
bites into its mouth. Thor exerts his divine strength, his feet reaching to
the bottom of the sea and draws the writhing serpent up to the boat. Fearing
for his life Hymir cuts the line allowing the serpent to escape. Thor throws
his hammer at the retreating serpents head but misses, furious he knocks
Hymir into the sea.
The prophecy of Ragnarok tells that Thor's failure to kill the serpent bodes
disaster. The serpent will be Thor's death and bereft of their defender the
other gods will fall victim to an army of giants and monsters.
It is vital to remember that Snorri was a Christian historian writing in
1220 AD, over two hundred years after the conversion. His book the 'Edda'
was written to preserve the dying art of Viking poetry. To do this he was
forced to quote a huge amount of mythological material. He was treading a
very fine line and I believe that he deliberately tampered with some of the
myths to make them more acceptable to a Christian audience.
So what does he actually write on Thor's failure?
'...the serpent sank into the sea. But Thor threw his hammer after it, and
they say that he struck off its head by the sea-bed. But I think in fact the
contrary is correct to report to you that the Midgard Serpent lives still
and lies in the encircling sea.'
Snorri implies that this is his own interpretation of the tale and everyone
else holds Thor to be victorious. The other major version of this myth from
the 'Poetic Edda' describes the scene thus...
'Doughtily drew - undaunted Thor On board the boat - the baneful worm; His
hammer hit - the high hair fell (head) Of greedy Garm's - grisly brother
(the serpent). Then screeched all scars - and screamed all fiends, Then
shook and shivered - the shaggy hills, In the sea then sank - that serpent
In this poem the outcome is fairly ambiguous but no mention.is made of Hymir
cutting the line and Thor does manage to land his hammer on the serpents
head. From this I would read that he is successful. The two versions of the
serpent myth are given completely different contexts.
Snorri links his to the tale of Thor's humiliation at the court of the giant
king Utgardaloki. Thor is asked if he can lift the king's cat to prove his
strength, the cat being the Midgard Serpent disguised by magic. Thor is
unable to lift more than one of the cats paws from the ground and sets out
immediately on his expedition to kill the Midgard Serpent to recover his
This is a very derogatory picture of Thor showing him to be rash and rather
unintelligent. The three impossible tasks Thor is given at the giant's court
display Thor's powers to the full and terrify the giants. It is very typical
of Snorri to attempt to link these two separate tales with Thor's somewhat
In the Poetic Edda Thor and Tyr are sent to Hymir's hall to fetch a cauldron
for brewing ale for the gods. The lay is very fragmented and seems to
combine many different myths. The fishing episode occurs in the middle of
the cauldron myth and has little connection to the main story other than
Hymir's involvement. The lay's lack of continuity is highlighted by the
temporary disappearance of Tyr for the duration of the sea voyage.
Snorri manages to contradict himself further when he lists kennings for Thor
and provides fragments of far older poems describing the same scene. The
first is attributed to a poet called Gamli...
'While Bilskirnir's lord (Thor) who never nursed treachery in his heart, did
quickly destroy the sea-bed-fish (serpent) with gorge-whale's (giant's) bane
This fragment could refer to either the fishing story or to Ragnarok but the
second quotation taken from the work of Ulf leaves no doubt...
'Vidgymnir of Vimur's ford (Thor) struck the ear-bed (head) from the shining
snake by the waves.'
Ulf's poem survives in fragments elsewhere and can be dated to 983, making
it the oldest surviving Norse lay. The poem gives a description of a wood
carved mural from the hall of Olafr Pa showing deeds of gods and heroes. In
both these extracts Thor is clearly triumphant.
Another kenning for Thor is 'Sole Slayer of the Serpent'. Any account of
this conflict given in the past tense should refer to the fishing story
while any account given in the future tense is from the prophecy of
Ragnarok. Hence the very early quotation from Gamli above must refer to Thor
fishing for the serpent.
It should be noted that Thor shows no fear of the serpent whatsoever and he
is completely confident of his ability to deal with the situation. After
all, why shouldn't he be when armed with his magical hammer which is capable
of carving valleys out of mountains at a single blow and which never misses
The fishing myth is frequently compared to the battle between Indra and
Vritra of Hindu tradition and the two myths may have a common Indo-european
origin. Vritra is a great serpent which lies at the source of major rivers
and prevents them from flowing to the land of men. The land becomes dry and
infertile and the followers of Indra pray to their god to intercede with the
serpent. Indra gathers his strength and attacks the serpent wielding his
thunderbolt. The serpents belly is slit open and the waters are released,
replenishing the land. This battle between the forces of nature takes place
every year. Although the fishing myth is certainly not an annual event there
are many similarities between these two stories. Both gods are associated
with weather and battle, both fight a serpent and both use a thunderbolt as
The basic 'dragon' myth records a sky god defeating an Earth-threatening
monster and making the world a safer place for mankind. This underlying
concept is actually evident from the poetic kennings employed in the Poetic
Edda. The serpent is called 'su er goth fia' 'the one who the gods hate'
while Thor is titled 'vinr verlitna' 'friend of the race of men' suggesting
a conflict between good and evil.
This would tie in with the connection between Thor and St Michael the slayer
of the Apocalypse dragon during the conversion of Scandinavia. The name of
the Midgard Serpent 'Jormungandr' was used in place of the Biblical name
Leviathan in the medieval period, while in Surrey a folktale survives
describing a battle between Thor and Satan.
It is possible that the appearance of the Midgard Serpent at Ragnarok was
inspired by accounts of St Michael's fight against the dragon. The two
predictions have much in common but where the Christian saint can walk away
triumphant the pagan god can conveniently be disposed of.
It is clear from the number of surviving sources that this myth was
immensely popular in the Dark age period. This is also reflected in the
survival of three monuments depicting Thor fishing for the Midgard Serpent.
The finest of these is in Gosforth church, Cumbria and may have been a
section of a grave stone.
It clearly shows Thor with the ox head and the giant Hymir. The scene is
frozen just before the serpent takes the bait and Hymir is shown brandishing
his bait knife ready to cut the line.
Another stone from Hordum Ty, Denmark illustrates the same scenario. The
stone is badly damaged and only a hint of the serpents coils survive below
the boat. Thor's feet are shown protruding through the bottom of the boat
confirming Snorri's account. Again Hymir is poised with his knife ready to
cut the line.
A third stone from Altuna, Sweden shows a very different interpretation of
the story. This time Thor is shown alone in the boat with no giant to
interfere in his plans. He holds the fishing line towing the ox head and the
enraged serpent and in his other hand he brandishes his hammer.
Before attempting to strike at the serpent Thor has to haul on the rope with
both hands to draw in the serpent to the surface, he can only reach for his
hammer once the serpent is secured against the boat. Thus we are shown Thor
in the very act of giving the death blow. As in the Danish stone, Thor's
foot protrudes from the bottom of the boat, witness to his exertion of
In connection with Ulf's description of a wooden carving of the fishing
scene, these depictions appear to invoke Thor's role as protector of mankind
and therefore protector of the dead. In this context they must all represent
Thor's unquestioned victory over the serpent.
It is obvious from this amount of evidence that in all versions of the
original myth Thor succeeds in killing the serpent and returns in triumph to
Asgard. But what about Ragnarok when the presence of the Midgard Serpent is
vital to remove Thor from the battlefield? The following account is given by
'Odin will make for Fenris Wolf, and Thor will advance at his side and be
unable to aid him because he will have his hands full fighting the Midgard
Serpent... Thor will be victorious over the Midgard Serpent and will step
away from it nine paces. Then he will fall to the ground dead from the
poison which the serpent will spit at him. The wolf will swallow Odin.'
Therefore if the serpent is already slain Thor would be free to kill Fenris
and the whole concept of the 'doom of the gods' collapses. The prophecy of
Ragnarok is a fairly obvious attempt by a Christian poet to give the pagan
gods a glorious and honourable death. The lives of gods and monsters are
swapped in a most unrealistic way.
Turville-Petre suggests that the fishing myth was changed when Scandinavia
was influenced by Christian ideas of good and evil. As a symbol of evil the
serpent had to survive to the end of the world. He also agrees with the
connection between the Christian dragon myth and Jormungandr's appearance at
Many other researchers have glossed over the Ragnarok myths, attributing
them to the gloom and hardship of dark age life. It's time these myths were
seriously re-evaluated and given proper consideration by pagan and historian
Several interpretations have been attributed to the serpent myth. Robert
Gleninning gives a wonderfully detailed interpretation of the myth but his
blow by blow attempt to explain the symbolism of each tiny element of the
story leaves me far from convinced. He basically sees it as a nature myth
with sexual overtones.
I personally feel that the simplest explanations are the best. Jormungandr
represents an ancient evil force which threatened mankind and Thor kindly
disposed of. The myth puts across Thor's strength and protective role in a
very powerful way. There may also be a connection between Hymir's terror of
the open sea and the Norsemen's reliance on sea travel after the supposed
'death' of the serpent.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson, Trans. Anthony Faulkes, Everyman 1987.
The Poetic Edda, Trans. Lee M. Hollander, Univ of Texas Press 1962.
The Encircled Serpent, M. Oldfield Howey, Rider & Co c1900.
The Archetypal Structure of Hymisqvitha, R Glendinning, Folklore Vol 91 (i)
Scandinavian Mythology, Ellis Davidson, Newnes Books, 1982.
Myth & Religion of the North, EOG Turville-Petre, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Dictionary of Northern Mythology, R. Simek, D. S. Brewer 1993.
Lost Gods of England, Brian Branston, Thames & Hudson 1974.
THE BRITISH EDDA
By L.A. Waddell
Shows the inter-relationships of the many mythological, legendary and heroic figures which from the beginning of time were recorded by the Aryan people in their epic sagas.
Long forgotten and suppressed, the British Edda is back. Originally published 1929.
Archive date: 07-30-01
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