Serpents and dragons are a particular feature of northern European mythology that deserve some investigation in this blog.
The ancients viewed ‘serpents’ and ‘worms’ as a whole class of creatures – not just a ‘species’ as we in modern times would conceive it, but a morphological and philosophical grouping which included many types and forms. From earthworms, to snakes, to maggots and aquatic fly larvae, to eels and millipedes – ‘worms’, ‘wyrms’, or ‘serpents’ all occupied the same functional class. In a wider sense it could as a category include all stinging and venomous creatures such as scorpions and spiders.
The idea that disease was caused by ‘worms’ was a prevalent feature of ancient and medieval medicine: From the fungal infection known as ‘ringworm’ to the idea that worms in the teeth caused toothache, all of these were common themes in ancient Atlantic medical beliefs. During the 17th and 18th centuries, for instance, the attack of Gout in the foot was attributed in the Scottish Hebrides to a worm called ‘Fillan’, no doubt on account of the worm-like congested blood and lymphatic vessels that surround the afflicted joint of the big toe… The idea of putrefaction was an important aspect of this idea: the empirical observation that rotting meat appears to generate maggots and worms, and that disease such as infection and cancer seems to be a form of bodily putrefaction are strongly related. The painful aspects of disease were seen as poisons, and ‘worms’ or ‘serpents’ were a key natural class which were known to deliver such venoms to the human body.
Worms burrowed and intruded through the soil forming tunnels, and performed the same function in rotting flesh. Another empirical observation about serpentine, wriggling creatures was that they also ‘appeared’ in stagnant water (the larvae of mosquitoes and aquatic insects) and colonised the smelly putrefying mud-flats of estuaries and on the banks of rivers. They also appear in the bodily waste of humans and animals. Snakes seemed to prefer to rest in holes in the ground, and to rely on the heat of the sun to animate their bodies. Fertile soil was always rich in earthworms… For this reason ‘worms’ or ‘serpents’ became associated with the classical ‘element’ of ‘Earth’ and the regenerative powers of putrefaction. ‘Worms’ such as caterpillars and larvae also expressed the apparently magical and mysterious power of metamorphosis, a connection also prefigured by the ‘rebirth’ of snakes who shed their skins.
There are a number of significant ‘dragons’ or ‘serpents’ who appear in the ‘Edda’ literature of the medieval Scandinavian world… The first is Níðhöggr (‘Malice-striker’) who curls around one of the roots of Yggdrasil at the well of Hvergelmir (‘bubbling/boiling pool’) and who represents the force of putrefaction at the roots of the world-tree. Hvergelmir is described as the well which receives the ‘dew’ which falls from Yggdrasil, otherwise from the sprouting antlers of the stag who grazes the topmost branches of the tree at Valhalla. Snorri’s Gylfaginning (prose Edda) says this of the roots of Yggdrasil:
‘…the third reaches down to Niflheim, and under this root is the well Hvergelmir; but Nídhöggr gnaws at this root from below…’
‘In Hvergelmir there are so many serpents with Nídhöggr that no tongue can count them…’
This is attested in the poetic Edda (Grimnirsmal) which comments upon the ravages suffered by the Yggdrasil:
‘…The ash Yggdrasil endures hardship, more than men know. A stag bites from above and its sides rot; From below Nídhöggr gnaws…’
There is a clear relationship between the earthly/watery putrefaction and serpents here in the Edda mythology. What is more, this explicitly nourishes the great world-tree. Hvergelmir is also described as the source of all the great rivers of the world (poetic Edda), so is therefore akin to the ancient concept of Okeanos – the world-river that is the destination of all streams. This means that the great serpent Jörmungandr – the ‘Midgard Serpent’ who encircles the watery extents of the world of men, biting on his tail, is cognate with Níðhöggr who coiled around the roots of the world-tree. Jörmungandr (who happens to be one of Loki’s monstrous offspring) is encountered by Thor on his fishing trip with Hymir at the furthest extent of the ocean, and plays an important role in the mysterious apocalypse of the gods – Ragnarok. The description of Yggdrasil in the Eddas is a static construct-image ‘outside of time’, whereas the narrative tales of Thor and the gods and Ragnarok occupy a ‘temporal’ sequence. This is why Jörmungandr and Níðhöggr can be the same: they represent the primal regenerative chaos that is greater than the power of fate and the gods.
The other important ‘serpent’ of Norse mythology is the dragon in the famous story of Sigurd. Dragons are closely and curiously related to the dwarves: The Icelandic/Norse ‘Poetic Edda’ account of the creation of the world given in the Völuspá describes the race of subterranean dwarves (dvergr) being created after the gods and before the humans. Snorri in his ‘Prose Edda’ account of Norse mythology, called Gylfaginning, says that the dwarves were formed from the body of the primal giant Ymir (also probably the same being as Hymir and Gymir) and occupied his flesh as if maggots:
‘Next the gods took their places on their thrones. They issued their judgements and remembered where the dwarves had come to life in the soil under the earth, like maggots in flesh.They were maggots at that time, but by a decision of the gods they acquired human understanding and assumed the likeness of men, living in the earth and the rocks…’
This association between dwarves and maggots/worms/wyrms/serpents becomes an explicit feature of the tale of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer and his serpentine adversary, Fafnir, who was described as both a dwarf and a dragon in the various sources of the Sigurd legends found in ancient Norse literature, particularly the Völsungasaga of the Icelandic manuscripts of the 13thC, and also the Sigrdrífumál and Fáfnismál of the Poetic Edda.
In the Völsungasaga, Fáfnir is a dwarf whose consuming thirsty greed transforms him into a dragon. He is the model Tolkein used for his famous depiction of Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’, and therefore the archetype of all dragons in the modern western mind. The connection between primordial creatures and greed seems to be based upon the observation that young animals (and humans) seek nothing but to feed and thrive from it – the ancient Norse word for giant, Thurs, is the same as the word ‘Thirst’! In the Saga of the Volsungs, Sigurd is sent to recover the gold of Fáfnir, by Fáfnir’s brother – the dwarf/dvergr Regin. The story revolves around the gold given to the dwarfs by Odinn and Loki in reparation for their slaying of their brother Ótr (‘Otter’) a dwarf who assumed the form of this fish-greedy serpentine water creature. This gold is cursed and causes the corruption and death of all who own it. In the case of Fafnir, he becomes a dragon and is slain by Sigurd, egged on by Regin. Sigurd then kills Regin and carries off the wealth on a horse given him by Odin. The story then takes a turn when he meets his ‘otherworld image’ – the warrior woman Brynhild, otherwise his personal Valykr! He lies with her in a mystical union and thereafter meets his death by murder, the result of his wife’s jealousy.
Similarities between Volsungsaga and the ‘Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mac Cumhaill’:
In the tale, after Sigurd kills the dragon and is cooking its heart for his mentor Regin, he gains magical knowledge after licking his thumb when testing the meat and suddenly understands the language of birds. In a very similar passage in the Irish Fenian tale Macgnímartha Finn (MS Laud 610 folio 118Rb-121Va), Fionn is sojourning with his dwarfish druid mentor Finneccas who has him catch and cook the Salmon of Wisdom who has fed from the hazlenuts falling into an otherworld pool. Fionn burns his finger while testing the salmon and puts it in his mouth, also learning wisdom from the otherworld. The blood of the dragon – like the juices from Fionn’s salmon – is therefore a direct link to the otherworld and its knowledge: The salmon was revered as magical as it migrates Okeanos and returns to the river of its birth, just as the dragon originates (with all serpents and rivers in the Edda cosmology) ultimately in the mysterious well of Hvergelmir… The dragon represents the burden of great power and wealth – the exploding energy of youth which propels us to death. Like Sigurd’s Brynhilda in the Volsungsaga, Fionn is also faced with a challenging and militant otherworld female, this time a fairy woman who lives in Cruachan Bri Eile. Unfortunately for us, the Laud MS tale is incomplete, but other aspects of the Sigurd myth (also told in the medieval German lay Niebelungenlied) can be found in more medieval Irish stories…