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(Also Jormundgand, Jormungandr, Midgardsorm)

"The Midgard Serpent"
"The World Serpent"

Jormungand was a monster in Norse Mythology. The middle-child of Loki and the giantess Angraboda (his siblings were Fenrir and Surt or Hel), he took the form of a giant serpent. The gods were frightened that Jormungand (who was growing in power) would cause strife among men and the deities, so Odin sent a group of gods to kidnap the serpent. Once they captured him, Odin threw him into the sea which surrounded the entire world, and there the snake grew and grew until he surrounded the entire world and could bite his own tail. The unending nature of Jormungand presumably represented eternity, as well as the fact that the serpent had the entire world in its coils.

At Ragnarok, the serpent will escape from the sea to dry land, and will spew poisonous venom all over the earth and sky. After assisting his brothers in the attempted destruction of the entire world, Jormungand will fight Thor. Thor will kill the serpent, but only after he has been poisoned by venom. He will take only nine steps after killing the snake before he dies.

The fight between the Midgard Serpent and Thor during Ragnarok is prefaced by the two mythical figures meeting three times. At their first meeting, Thor, Loki and two human servants traveled to Jötunheim and the hall of Utgard. At the hall, the giant Utgard tested the travelers’ strengths. In one of these tests, the giant asked Thor to pick up his cat, but the god was only able to lift the cat’s foot off of the ground before conceding defeat. It was later revealed that the cat was actually Jormungand, and the test was only a trick.

At their second meeting, Tyr and Thor traveled to the giant Hymir’s hall. They were there to pick up a large cauldron with which to brew ale for the other gods. During the visit, Hymir and Thor went fishing, and Thor killed the giant’s prize bull to use the head as bait. Under the sea, the Midgard Serpent took the bait and the god dragged the snake up out of the water, where he towered over the boat. Thor grabbed his hammer Mjollnir and threw it at Jormungand’s head, but Hymir cut the line (he was afraid) allowing the serpent to sink back into the water before the hammer hit.

Their last meeting occurs at Ragnarok, where Jormungand has joined with Loki, Fenrir, Hel and an army of the dead. It is at the third meeting that Thor and the serpent kill each other.

Sources:
http://webhome.idirect.com/~donlong/monsters/Html/Midgarse.htm
http://www.pantheon.org/articles/j/jormungand.html

Jormungand literally means »large staff« in Old Norse; compare Gandalf, a name which comes from the reckoning of the dwarfs in Völuspá and means »staff-elf«; that is, an elf that does magic. (This is incidentally one of several indications that an »elf«, in Norse myth, means neither more nor less than a dwarf; Snorre Sturlasson's division of the elves into ljósalfar and dókkalfar is much younger in origin, in no wise attested in Viking-age sources and almost certainly a pollution from the myths of the Irish, who had a significant effect on the culture of Iceland.)

In the present context a »staff« is a circumlocution for a snake; it is not, however — and I want to stress this — a kenning, which denotes a poetic metaphor, not just any Old Norse verbal imagery whatever. The point being, »Jormungand« means »Large Snake«. As has been previously remarked, Viking nomenclature was pretty direct for the most part.

Although the Midgård Serpent bites its tail, it is unlikely that it is meant to symbolize eternity in the way of an ouroboros; rather, the orbit of the serpent is meant to delineate the limits of the Earth, and for this it must encircle the whole disc of the world. The world must end somewhere; the image of the encircling serpent shows this place. It is needful therefore that it should connect to itself; for there are no gaps in the utter limit of Earth.

Jormungand's ongoing battle with Thor is an instance of the probably best-attested, most clearly proven motif that is Proto-Indo-European in origin, The Thunder God Fights The Dragon. This is a pattern of literally the highest antiquity known anywhere, to anyone; it predates by at least two thousand years the first we hear of Ptah, of Amun, of Sobek and Ra. It is barely more than a glyph, a gesture, a single character; but it is drawn in bedrock. Much speculation has been spilled, and many have spoken much nonsense, on the topic of PIE myth and religion, with »reconstructions« so tenuous as to be sheer fantasy; in cases like this I find it best to maintain the most acute skepticism about any claim; but the case of the thunder god and the dragon, much like the motif of The World, Carved From A Man Named Twin, meets even these stringent standards. Both of these we see in places as far afield from one another as Norway and India; both have a hard nucleus from which various tales have clearly been built up, rather than one version being »a good story« imported complete by strange and circuitous ways into the other, far-off land.

No, it is old; it is old beyond the reckoning of man. When you look at the Midgård Serpent, you do gaze upon the far and very limits of that world in which we live.

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