In the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, one figure looms large: Jörmungandr, the awe-inspiring World Serpent. This colossal sea monster is a force to be reckoned with, his massive body winding around the entirety of the world and his own tail locked firmly in his jaws. It is said that when this serpent thrashes in anger, the earthquakes and mighty tsunamis are unleashed upon the world. But beyond his fearsome reputation lies a complex and intriguing creature, shrouded in enigmatic wisdom and the necessity of balance. But who is Jörmungandr, and why is he so important in Norse mythology? Let’s take a closer look at this legendary sea monster at the bottom of the ocean!
Who Is Jörmungandr?
Jörmungandr is one of the oldest beings in Norse mythology, found in stories as old as the ninth century C.E. He is an enormous sea snake, so large that he can wrap his entire body completely around Midgard (Earth). This is why he is also called the “Midgard Serpent” or “World Serpent”. He keeps his body in place by biting down on his own tail, forming an ouroboros — an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail.
Jörmungandr’s name has multiple meanings in Old Norse. “Jörmun” represents something immense, beyond human capabilities or understanding. “Grandr” can mean many different things, but often refers to things that are large, long, and/or supernatural.
Jörmungandr’s name can mean “enormous serpent”, highlighting his massive size. It can also mean “the vast river” symbolizing the deep sea where Jörmungandr lives. Another interpretation of his name is “immense staff or stick”, which connects him to the world tree, Yggdrasil. In addition, his name can mean “the great bind”, referring to how Jörmungandr coils his long body around the world and bites his own tail in a symbol of the infinite and continuous cycle of life.
What Does Jörmungandr Look Like?
Old Norse stories and myths were passed down through oral tradition. They were spoken from person to person rather than being written down in a concrete way. It was only when Christianity began to take hold in Scandinavia and Iceland that literate monks started documenting these tales in writing. Because of this, Jörmungandr’s appearance can vary to some degree.
Jörmungandr is typically described as a serpent or oversized worm of some sort. He has a massive serpentine body that can encircle all of Midgard (Earth). In some tellings, he has dragon-like scales and even fins, as he lives in the greatest depths of the ocean. Jörmungandr sometimes has a dragon-like head, sharp fangs, and large horns, or a snake-like head with a forked tongue and slit pupils. Other times Jörmungandr may even have a beard or mane of seaweed and aquatic plants, reflecting his home beneath the ocean. In all depictions, however, Jörmungandr is always a powerful and fearsome monster who is strong enough to even take on the Norse gods.
Where Did Jörmungandr Originate?
The great serpent Jörmungandr was born from the union of Loki, the mischievous trickster god, and Angrboða, a powerful giantess. Jörmungandr also had two remarkable siblings who were just as unusual and extraordinary as he was. His sister Hel ruled over the realm of the dead. His brother Fenrir was a fearsome wolf with immense strength.
Loki and Angrboða’s extraordinary children lived with their mother in Jötunheimr, each with their own unique powers and incredible destinies. Unfortunately, this caused a great deal of concern among the gods of Asgard — especially when they received a particularly disturbing prophecy about the three children.
According to this fearsome prophecy, the three children would wreak havoc upon the world during Ragnarök. Fenrir would break free of his chains and go on a terrorizing rampage. Hel would gather an army of the dead to fight alongside her brother. Jörmungandr would unleash chaos upon the gods and their heroes — killing Thor, the god of thunder.
As you can imagine, Odin, the ruler of the Gods of Asgard, wanted to prevent these things from happening. So, he kidnapped the three children, sending them far away from their mother and from each other. Hel was banished to the icy realm of Niflheim. Fenrir was bound tightly to a rock on a desolate island. Jörmungandr was flung into the vast depths of the sea. It was Odin’s hope that the young serpent child would drown — however, Jörmungandr survived. In fact, he continued to grow and grow until he was so enormous that he could encircle the entire world with his massive body.
What Happened to Jörmungandr?
Odin’s attempts to thwart Ragnarök were all in vain. Loki’s three monstrous children still escaped and wreaked havoc upon the world as the prophecy had foretold. Jörmungandr released his tail and slithered out from the depths of the ocean. He triggered severe storms and colossal tidal waves with his body and poisoned the air and water with his venomous breath. Upon seeing this, Thor rode in on his chariot and attacked the giant serpent with his legendary hammer, Mjölnir, engaging Jörmungandr in the battle of the ages.
Unfortunately — just as the prophecy had foretold — the epic showdown led to the death of Odin’s son. Though he fought valiantly, Jörmungandr’s venomous strikes poisoned the mighty thunder god, and he died from his wounds. In some versions of this myth, Jörmungandr manages to survive the fierce battle with Thor, albeit weakened and injured as he is reborn into the new world. However, in other renditions, the serpent was destroyed, vanquished by the god of thunder.
Why Were Jörmungandr and Thor Enemies?
The epic clash between Thor and Jörmungandr is a well-known and legendary rivalry in Norse mythology. It represents a timeless struggle between forces of good and evil, order and chaos, and even life and death itself. But why were Thor and Jörmungandr enemies in the first place?
Jörmungandr was the offspring of Loki, the god of mischief, and Angrboða, a powerful giantess. In contrast, Thor is born to Odin, the Allfather and wise ruler of the gods, and Frigg, the goddess who governed love and family. Tensions between the realms of gods and giants ran high, so it was only natural for their children to become bitter enemies.
In addition, the opposing natures of these two powerful beings clashed right from the start. Jörmungandr — with his twisted and serpentine form — symbolizes the chaotic forces of the universe. Thor — born from the ruling gods Odin and Frigg — symbolizes the natural order and need for justice.
Jörmungandr was particularly hated by the god Thor, and there are numerous tales of altercations between the two. It initially began when Thor and a company of other gods visited the land of the Giants, where they came across a huge castle. In order to gain access and hospitality, the gods had to pass a series of tests, one of which was to lift the king’s pet cat. Unfortunately, even with his immense strength, Thor failed each and every task set before him.
Eventually, the king revealed that he had tricked Thor with magic and powerful enchantments. This made the tasks impossible – in fact, the “pet cat” was actually Jörmungandr in disguise! Unable to take the blow to his pride, Thor swore a vow of vengeance upon the serpent. He even attempted to catch and kill him later on.
Meaning and Significance of Jörmungandr in Old Norse Mythology
Jörmungandr is a captivating paradox, representing both destruction and chaos as well as wisdom and balance. He has the inherent power to destroy, but he also serves as a metaphor for the delicate balance required in order to maintain life. The giant serpent reveals the dual nature of our world — the potential for both destruction as well as creation. Jörmungandr helps to both destroy the old world and usher in a new one.
In addition, Jörmungandr is inherently connected to the cycles of life and death. His serpentine form serves as a reminder of the constant ebb and flow of existence, as he continually bites his tail to form an ouroboros or infinite loop. This powerful symbol suggests that life is a constant circle, where beginnings and endings merge seamlessly into one another, creating a never-ending chain of events. He further illustrates that transformation and destruction are natural parts of these cycles.
Jörmungandr also connects to the essence of the natural world, embodying its immense power and mysterious allure. He carries the danger and uncertainty of the natural world, particularly the hidden perils that lie in the shadows and beneath that we can see. During his epic battle with Thor during Ragnarök, Jörmungandr proves to be a formidable opponent, and in a surprising turn of events, the massive serpent defeats the god of thunder. This intense clash highlights the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the elemental forces and emphasizes the importance of courage and resilience when facing challenges.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com
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