Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Midgard Serpent

Jormungandr by BoSt


 The Origin of the Midgard Serpent


The Midgard Serpent by vyrilien-d491d85
In the Norse and Teutonic legends, as recounted in the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson, the most powerful and feared Dragon-like creature was the Midgard Serpent, known as Jörmungandr. Jörmungandr was so huge he was able to circle the entire Earth (or Midgard as it was called by the Vikings) and put its own tail into its mouth. The Midgard Serpent’s sworn enemy was the Thunder God Thor, one of the few Gods of Asgard who possessed the strength to stand up to the beast. The relationship between the Thunder God and the Serpent started when the Gods were young and ended in Ragnarok; the Twilight of the Gods.
The Midgard Serpent is the middle son of Loki, a jötunn (nature spirits with superhuman strength) himself the son of Laufey (an embodiment of vegetation) and Fárbauti (the spirit of lightning) whose mingling bequeathed Loki the spirit and unpredictability of wildfire. Loki’s mother was the giantess Angrboða, “the one who bring grief”, and his siblings were the Dire Wolf Fenrir and Hel, the Goddess of the Dead whose realm was the mist world of Niflheim. Niflheim was one of the two primordial realms along with Muspelheim where the Fire jötunn dwelt. All three of Loki’s children along with the jötunn of Muspelheim play a pivotal role in bringing about Ragnarok.

Odin, father of the Thunder God Thor’s and leader of the Æsir, saw the danger in Jörmungandr when it would not stop growing after its birth. He threw the serpent into the sea of Midgard, where it continued to grow until it surrounded the whole world. The seas of earth became the realm of the Midgard Serpent.

 

Thor Lifts a Cat

The first encounter Thor had with the Midgard Serpent was in the Castle of Útgarda-Loki during a ritual test of strength. Útgarda-Loki had challenged Thor to drink from a horn whose end was dipped in the sea. Thor failed to drain it, but drank so much it created the tides. Thor then had to wrestle an old crone, a servant of Útgarda-Loki, but was overcome with weakness after being unable to so much as move her. The crone was old age, who neither man nor God could overcome. The third test that Útgarda-Loki posed was to lift a grey cat up off of the floor. Thor tried with all his strength, but was only able to get the cat to lift one paw off of the ground. The cat was actually the Midgard Serpent, whose size was so great that even lifting a small part off of the sea bed was enough to cause earthquakes and tidal waves. Thor left the Castle with Útgarda-Loki’s promise that Thor would never be allowed back in.




Thor Goes Fishing

The next time Thor and Jörmungandr encountered the other Thor, disguised as a young boy, visited Midgard with the God Tyr and stayed with the giant Hymir while Tyr visited his mother and grandmother in the land of the Ice Giants. Hymir was renowned for his fishing skill, and regularly returned with huge fish, even whales, but Hymir looked at the young Thor and doubted if he would be any use rowing his boat. “You are so small, if I take you out for as long and as far as I am wont to go you would undoubtedly freeze.”
This enraged Thor but he held his temper and did not strike the giant. “I will row as far and as fast as you need me to. Nor am I certain which of us would give up and want to return first. Now, where is the bait?”

“If you want to fish with me get your own bait.”

Johann Heinrich Füssli: Thor vs. the Midgard Serpent

Once more Thor’s temper flared, and he strode up the hill to where Hymir kept his herd of prize cattle. Picking the largest ox, named Himinbrjotr, or Sky-Cleaver, and struck off his head with one blow. When he returned Hymir had already launched the boat and had taken up rowing position in the bow. Thor tossed the Ox-head into the vessel and climbed in to man the stern set of oars. Hymir, facing forward, was surprised how fast the boat moved; at first not knowing Thor was powering it from behind. When Hymir reached the fishing grounds where he usually caught flat fish he shipped the oars and called for a stop. Thor refused, wanting to keep going further into the ocean and rowed them out to the spot Hymir caught whales. When the giant wanted to stop and catch whales, Thor again refused, “We must go further out.”
Wissler 1900

“If we do not stop here, we will be in the realm of the Midgard Serpent, who circles the world at its edge.” Hymir remonstrated with Thor two more times but Thor continued to row. Then Thor finally stopped the boat and they both started fishing. Hymir baited his own hook twice, threw it out, and each time he pulled in a huge whale. “I challenge you to do as well as this, stripling.”
Thor then took a strong line and hook and fastened the Ox head onto it. He then let it out farther and farther until it rested on the bottom of the sea where it dragged along behind the boat. The Midgard Serpent was intrigued by the bait and snapped at it, burying the hook into its jaw. Thrashing with pain, Jörmungandr thrashed and swam away so rapidly that it pulled Thor’s knuckles into the gunwale. Angered now, Thor pulled with all his strength just as Jörmungandr pulled in the other direction with such force that Thor’s feet broke through the deck to catch on the hull of the ship. Calling on all his force, Thor reeled in the line hand-over-hand, twisting the free end around the oar-pins as he brought it up, finally working the mighty serpent all the way up to the surface. When the Midgard Serpent’s monstrous head came into view, dripping with blood and venom, Hymir grew yellow of face, and feared for his life. Great waves washed over the gunwale, threatening to swamp the vessel and drown them both but Thor held on to the line with one mighty hand and with the other reached to his belt for his hammer.

From shoulder height Thor struck the Serpent with the hammer Mjöllnir. The mountains shook and the ocean trembled but Jörmungandr was only wounded. As Thor raised Mjöllnir above his head to deliver a killing blow strong enough to split a mountain, Hymir grabbed his knife and cut the line. Jörmungandr quickly slipped back into the depths of the sea to hide as far away from Thor as he could get. Once more enraged by Hymir, Thor did not hold back and brought Mjöllnir down upon the giant’s head, knocking him over the side and down to the bottom of the sea. Filled with a great fear the giant managed to climb back into the boat and huddle in the stern while Thor rowed to land. The God may not have been able to kill the Midgard Serpent and end its threat to Asgard, but he had landed a wounding blow and avenged the trick the beast had played upon him in the Hall of Útgarda-Loki.

Ragnarok: The End of the World

Peter Nicolai Arbo: Aasgaardreien
The prophecy of Raganrok speaks of the doom that befalls Heaven, Earth and Hell because of Thor’s failure to kill the Jörmungandr when he had the chance. When Loki is freed from his chains, the Midgard Serpent rises from the depths to poison the sky of Midgard. Naglefar, the Ship of Death, made in Hel’s realm from the fingernails of the dead, carries Fenrir, Hel, her dragon Nidhogg, swallower of souls, and the demon hoards of Muspelheim under the command of Surtur the Fire Demon to join with the Serpent, Loki and the Ice Giants of Jotunheim in the attack on Asgard. In the final battle of Ragnarok on the fields of Vigrid all Creation is undone and Time itself is shattered.
The battle between Thor and Jörmungandr lasts long and the outcome is uncertain. Thor strikes with Mjöllnir but the Serpent writhes away from the blows, spewing venom over the Thunder God. Thor grows angrier and finally is able to land the deathblow on the Midgard Serpent, stretching him out over the Plain of Vigrid, unmoving. Yet, even in its death throes the Serpent manages to spray its deadly venomous vapor into Thor’s face, who breathes it in and manages to walk but nine paces away before dying on the battlefield beside his mortal foe.

Ragnarok_by_HarryBuddhaPalm
Thor would not be the only Æsir to die at Ragnarok. Even though Loki is killed by Heimdal, Keeper of Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, Heimdal is gored by Loki’s horns and succumbs. Tyr is slain by the wolf-dog Garm and Surtur dispatches Frey with his flaming sword. Fenrir attacks and slays Odin the All-Father and is speared in turn by Odin’s son Vidar, who manages to survive the battle. Nidhogg, Hel’s Black Dragon, soars over the plain swallowing the souls of the dead. The Dire Wolf Skoll swallows the sun and the stars blink out of the sky. Surtur the Fire Demon moves through the worlds burning everything with his sword. Midgard is covered in volcanic flame and its sky filled with poisonous smoke, Asgard is scorched and even Nidhogg succumbs to the inferno. Fire curls around the burning trunk of Ygdrasil, the World Tree. Smoldering and blackened, the Earth sinks beneath the sea. What follows is nothing but deep blackness and silence unbroken.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article with a tremendous amount of effort put in.

    Just one note to point out: "Loki’s mother was the giantess Angrboða," should actually read "Jörmungandr's mother was ..."

    ReplyDelete