What is Jormungandr?
Jormungandr (vast serpent) or Miðgarðsormr (world serpent) is a giant snake in Norse mythology that coils around the Earth (Midgard) and holds it in place, protecting the world of men from the sea and all the chaos that lay beyond it.
For the Norse, the sea had many symbolic meanings, but it was commonly an element of destruction. During Ragnarok, the sea was prophesied to rise and flood the earth, devouring the homes of men and gods alike, while the sky would be set on fire by the giant Surtr.
Jormungandr thus silently dwelt at the bottom of the ocean, protecting mankind from chaos and anarchy, including the Norse gods who banished him into the depths.
However, during the commotion of Ragnarock, Jormungandr will rise from the depths of the ocean to take vengeance upon Thor, the world-serpent’s sworn enemy.
How was Jormungandr born?
The trickster god Loki secretly married in Jotunheim, the land of giants, the witch-giantess Angrboda (anguish boding), and with her he produced three monstrous children—the wolf Fenrir, Hel, the many colored goddess of death, and Jormungandr, a terrible serpent.
Why Jormungandr was banished to the depths of the ocean
Loki managed to conceal the existence of his three children for a time, but they grew so quickly and so large that they could no longer be kept hidden in a cave and thus emerged into the light.
Odin, sitting on his all-seeing throne, Hlidskjalf, noticed the existence of Loki’s children and was disturbed by the speed with which they grew and the size they could take.
Afraid that the monsters would grow strong enough to invade Asgard and even slay the gods themselves, Odin decided to get rid of them and marched off to Jotunheim.
From there, Odin threw Hel into the abyss of Niflheim, ordering her to rule over the nine desolate worlds of the dead.
Next, Odin flung Jormungandr into the ocean. As soon as the snake touched the bottom of the sea, he began to quickly grow. The serpent’s size became so great that it completely wrapped around Midgard from one end to another.
Having no more room to grow and nowhere to place his tail, the serpent had to swallow his own tail, which continued to grow down its throat.
From that time onward, the serpent was called Jormungandr, and legend says that his writhing and coiling would cause great sea storms and tempests.
As for the giant wolf Fenrir, the gods initially tried to tame the young wolf in Asgard. Despite their kind efforts to befriend the wolf, Fenrir kept growing more vicious and savage, as well as in size.
Fearing they could not contain the wolf any longer, the Gods chained Fenrir using a magical rope called Gleipnir, and silenced his screeching howls by driving a sword through its mouth and pinning it to the ground.
Why do Jormungandr and Thor hate each other?
Thor’s rivalry with Jormungandr begins, as many things do in Norse mythology, as a result of Loki’s trickery.
During one of Thor’s travels, Loki used his magic to transform the gigantic Jormungandr into an ordinary looking gray cat.
Loki then disguised himself as a king and tricked Thor into participating in a trial of strength, challenging the god of thunder to lift up the gray cat.
Thor used all of his divine might but was only capable of lifting just one of the cat’s paws.
When Loki revealed his trickery, Thor felt deeply enraged, both at Loki for tricking his intelligence but also at Jormungandr, since the World Serpent had proved Thor was not as mighty as he thought.
Wanting to clear his shame, Thor decided to go fishing for the giant Jormungandr and slay the beast.
Thor tricked a giant named Hymir into taking the thunder god on a lake where Jormungandr’s head was said to be deep beneath.
Thor then tied a giant ox head to a fishing line and threw it into the lake, hoping the serpent would take the bait. Sure enough, the serpent did so.
Using all his divine might, Thor pulled up the world-serpent’s head until it was out of the lake and within his hands.
The two stared fiercely at each other, and Thor raised his hammer to strike the killing blow, but Hymir cut the fishing line and released the snake’s head back into the ocean depths before Thor could land his finishing strike.
Out of anger, Thor struck the giant overboard and waddled back onto the shore.
This was the first time Thor and Jormungandr fought, but it isn’t clear who won.
What is clear, however, is that Thor did not get his revenge on Jormungandr, but also that the Midgard-serpent was enraged at Thor’s attack.
However, both Thor and Jormungandr would duel each other one final time at Ragnarock, the Norse end of the world.
Thor and Jormungandr kill each other during Ragnarock
During Ragnarock, the wolf Fenrir attacks, his giant jaws covering the gap between earth and sky, while Jormungandr comes out of the sea in a rage, blowing out poison. As the Jormungandr rises, the sea breaks out and floods the land of men.
On that flood, the ship Naglfar sails, a vessel made from the nails of dead men. It carries a crew of giants, with Loki as their captain and leader.
From the fiery realm of Muspell, the fire giant Surt and his army ride out.
Heimdall is the first to see this impending doom of the gods and sounds the alarm with his great horn.
Odin then rides to the spring beneath the World Tree, and asks Mimir’s head for counsel.
Then, with his chosen Valhalla champions, he goes out onto the plain to finally confront his ancient foe, the wolf Fenrir.
Thor confronts the World Serpent, and Freyr duels against Surt; Tyr must encounter the hound Garm, broken free from the underworld, while Heimdall does battle with Loki.
It is fated that all the gods perish, and that all the monsters perish with them.
Thor kills Jormungandr with one mighty blow of his hammer, but dies suffocated by the serpent’s venom after walking only nine steps.
Fenrir eats Odin alive, but as retaliation, his young son Vidar kills the wolf by placing one foot on its jaw and tearing it apart.
Tyr and Heimdall both defeat their opponents, the wolf Garm and Loki, respectively, but neither survives the fight.
Only Surt defeats Freyr and survives to fling fire over the whole world, “so that the race of men perishes with the gods, and all are finally engulfed in the overwhelming sea.”
Is Jormungandr a god?
Jormungandr, the Midgard serpent, certainly has divine powers, but its nature is closer to that of a divine being than that of a god.
This is because his mother, Angrboda, is a giantess, and even Loki, the serpent’s father, has unclear parentage and may be more of a giant than a god himself.
However, in Norse mythology, giants (jottuns), elves (alfar), and the Aesir and Vanir were all supernatural beings with their own divine powers and responsibilities.
Generally speaking, the Aesir and Vanir (such as Njord, Thor, Frey, or Odin) were worshipped as gods because their powers brought stability and prosperity to mankind.
Thus, Thor brought rain and water. Njord bestowed riches, commerce, and wealth. Frey was the god of peace, harvests, and farm animals. Odin was the supreme god of war, bringing not only victory but also wisdom.
On the other hand, giants were thought to be personifications of the destructive forces of nature. The lightning that caused forest fires was thought to be the work of fire giants (and not Thor), while avalanches were the doing of ice giants, etc.
Another important aspect is that both Thor and Jormungandr kill each other during Ragnarock, which leads to the conclusion that the two were equal to each other, even if Thor was worshipped as a god while Jormungandr wasn’t.
What is the role of Jormungandr in Norse mythology?
The Norse themselves revered Jormungandr because the serpent held the world in place and acted as a wall between Midgard and the chaos that lay outside of it.
This is why Hymir cut the fishing line that freed Jormungandr, because he feared that if Thor had killed the world serpent, the world of mankind would have lost its protection against the destructive ocean and chaos.
At the same time, Jormungandr is responsible for the flood that destroys Midgard during Ragnarock.
Until then, however, Jormungandr brings stability to Midgard and makes life possible. Thus, Jormungandr was seen as one of the most powerful personifications of Nature, because he was both giver and taker of life.
Is Jormungandr evil or good?
Jormungandr, Hel, Loki, Fenrir, and Angrboda weren’t truly evil. Their conflict lay with the Aesir and Vanir gods that oppressed them, not with mankind.
If one perceives the order created by the Vanir and Aesir gods to be “good,” then yes, Jormungandr is evil.
However, even after Ragnarock, a new world will emerge, one that is eternal and magnificent for all mankind.
Thus, it is safer to say that Jormungandr, Hel, Loki, Fenrir, and Angrboda were mostly indifferent to mankind and its definitions of good and evil.
Instead, mankind was caught in the middle between the coming great war among the Norse giants.
However, after Ragnarock comes rebirth, and a newly cleansed earth and heaven emerge from the sea and the flames.
The remaining gods and the survivors of mankind would again populate earth and heaven, new dwellings would arise in Asgard, and green fields would once more yield their harvest in middle earth.
Thus, Jormungandr can be interpreted either as the cold, indifferent Nature that does not care about mankind or as a necessary evil on the road to renewal.
What does Jormungandr represent and symbolize?
The symbolic importance and meaning of Jormungandr is defined by three primary features:
- He is a snake that swallows its own tail.
- He holds the world of mankind in place and makes life possible.
- He destroys the earth at the end of times.
Because of these traits, Jormungandr symbolically fulfills the role of an ouroboros snake, a mythical creature that represents the passage of time, continuity of life, renewal, and rebirth.
The ouroboros symbol enshrines ideas of motion, continuity, self-fertilization, and, consequently, of the eternal cycle of creation and destruction.
The image’s circular shape gives rise to another explanation: the marriage of the earthly world, represented by the serpent, and the celestial world, represented by the circle.
The ouroboros biting its own tail is symbolic of self-fertilization, or the primitive idea of a self-sufficient Nature that continually returns, within a cyclic pattern, to its own beginning.
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