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 again.'

In this poem the outcome is fairly ambiguous but no 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 dignity.

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 temporary embarrassment.

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 (Thor's hammer).'

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 its mark?

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 a weapon.

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 divine power.

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 Snorri...

'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 Ragnarok.

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 alike.

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) 1980.
Scandinavian Mythology, Ellis Davidson, Newnes Books, 1982.
Myth & Religion of the North, EOG Turville-Petre, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1964.
Dictionary of Northern Mythology, R. Simek, D. S. Brewer 1993.
Lost Gods of England, Brian Branston, Thames & Hudson 1974.


Related Resource:

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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