The role of serpents and dragons in Norse mythology

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…’

and

‘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 VölsungasagaFáfnir 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…

 

 

 

 

 

Norse Sea-Giants in more detail…

Giants and monsters have a special connection to the sea in Norse mythology – just like the Titans in ancient Greek mythology. They represent the unconquerable and titanic forces of nature. As characters in stories, their great size can be considered an expression of the large shadows cast by distant things with the low sun behind them – as happens as it passes into the ocean on the western horizon of the Atlantic. The main characters in these tales of oceanic titans are Thor, Loki and Aegir:

Thor wrestling the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

Thor with Hymir wrestling Loki’s son – the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

The 13thC CE, Icelandic christian scholar Snorri Sturluson wrote a mythological ‘theogonic’ dialogue on poetry called Skáldskaparmál (“language of poetry”) in which the primal sea-giant Ægir, also known as Gymir (a version of ‘Hymir’) or Hlér, discusses kennings and mythology with the Æsir god, Bragi, after the style of the poetic Edda composition Alvissmal. That Snorri chose these two as characters in the dialogue is interesting, moreso because of they seem to represent the two ‘Platonic’ aspects of what to the ancients was knowable – the first: nature and the elements (Ægir), understandable through sense, and the second: the gods and spiritual things – knowable through the mind, and therefore the province of poetry and philosophy (Bragi). In Alvissmal, it is a wise earth deity – a dwarf/dvergar called Alviss (‘All-Wise’) who instructs Thor on poetic kennings. In Skáldskaparmál, however, it is the ‘sea’ (Aegir) talking…

Aegir is also the host of the feast at the centre of the important poetic Edda story Lokasenna (Codex Regius): This is the tale of a feast of the gods and elves, hosted by Aegir, whose hospitality (and his ale and mead) is considered sacrosanct to the gods, who become angry when troublesome giant/god Loki starts drunkenly abusing the guests. This episode assures Loki’s imprisonment and Promethean-Orphic torture by the gods (he must endure the poison dripping from the fangs of a serpent ) until the showdown of Ragnarok. Aegir’s legendary cauldron or brewing pan seems to provide a link between the elements and the mind, and Lokasenna (the ultimate drunken social meltdown) provides an amusing view of how leisure and strife were never far away from each other in the Viking world. The poetic Edda version from the Codex Regius says Aegir was also called Gymir, and ‘Hymir’ is the giant with mighty caudron/brewing-pan who is Thor’s host and companion when he goes fishing for the giant Midgard Serpent in the poetic Edda tale of Hymiskviða (Codex Regius). Hymir, Gymir and Aegir are probably the same mythological sea-giant.

Aegir was said to be one of three sons of the giant-ancestor Fornjótr (described as an ancient king of the magical north),the other two being Logi (fire) and Kári (wind).  Fornjótr might in literally mean ‘First Giant’. The compounding of his watery son’s name with ‘-gir’ is redolent of the word ‘Gyr’ (eg – Gygr) and theirefore of the Greek words Gigantes and Gygas, representing the larger than life ancestral deities of ancient Greek myth. Ægir might even be a Norse version of and the sea-giant Geryon, who had three bodies. This association with the elements (water in Aegir’s case) comes from the Skáldskaparmál kennings of the primal elemental forces:

“…How should the wind be periphrased? Thus: call it son of Fornjót, Brother of the Sea and of Fire, Scathe or Ruin or Hound or Wolf of the Wood or of the Sail or of the Rigging…”

The only classical element missing from the ÆgirKáriLogi triad is earth (jörð), usually represented in Norse myth and kennings as the eponymous giantess Jörð – ‘wife of Odin’. The Earth is feminine – like in the Greek Gaia/Ge. It is obvious from both ancient Greek and Norse mythology that the ‘giants’ bear names with suffixes which connect them intimately with ‘mother earth’: Gigantes (‘Born of Gaia/Ge’) and Jötnar (‘Born of Jörð’).

Aegir’s other name or kenning is given as Hlér, which seems incredibly close to the Irish/Welsh/Manx name for the sea: Lir/Ller/Lear of whom the legendary Sea God Manannán/Manawydan was the son. In the most important 14thC Icelandic manuscript collection, Flateyjarbók, the following is said of Aegir/Hlér and his family:

“…There was a man called Fornjót. He had three sons; one was Hlér, another Logi, the third Kári; he ruled over winds, but Logi over fire, Hlér over the seas…”

The connection between Logi and the Norse ‘god’ figure Loki is uncertain. The names certainly seem similar, and Loki is definitely one of the Jötnar, being portrayed in the Edda myths as something of an uncontrollable ambiguous shape-shifter as well as a father (or even a mother) of monsters and magical horses. One might even compare him to the role of the Gorgons in Greek myth – a frightful challenge to be overcome by initiates into the mysteries of life, death and the otherworld. Logi represents fire – perhaps one of the most untameable and dangerous, yet useful ‘elements’ – and Loki represents a similar aspect of chaos in his oppositional and inductive roles in the Eddas. He, in fact, comes across as a character the Christian (and Muslim) narrative would assign to their ‘evil god’ – Satan – otherwise known as God’s right-hand man in the Hebrew Book of Job.

Another ‘giant’ of note in Norse myth who is tied closely to Aegir and Loki in surviving narratives is the god Þórr (Thor), whose name seems to be cognate with the word Thurs (þurs) which is another Germanic word for a giant/titan. In the Icelandic mythologies recorded in the Christian era from orally-transmitted traditional pagan poetic and story traditions, Thor is associated with great strength and battles with giants and monsters using his great hammer Mjölnir which represents both a weapon and a tool. His traditional role in Germanic societies is as a protector and battler with the elements akin to the Greek Herakles (a fact not lost on the 1stC CE Roman author and historian Tacitus), and he seems to have an agricultural/fertility aspect on account of this. This connects him to the folk-legends of similarly enthusiastic (but not too bright) ‘helpful fairies’ – Brownies, Glaistigean, Phynnodderee, the hammer-wielding Leprechauns and the ‘Hobthrust‘ of northern England…

The poetic Edda composition called Hymiskviða is a tale of Thor being sent by Aegir to fetch a giant brewing-pan or cauldron from Hymir – the giant who lives ‘at the edge of Heaven’. Hymir is said to be Aegir’s father, and Aegir also goes by the name Gymir, of which ‘Hymir’ is an aspirated pronunciation. Thor ends up going on a perilous fishing expedition with Hymir, during which Odin’s son manages to land the Midgard Serpent, Loki’s son Jörmungandr who encircles the Earth biting his tailHymir considers it very bad news when Thor bashes the serpent over the head before letting it slide (presumably lifeless) back under the waves… It can be seen here that the same consistent association occurs between oceanic Titans and sea monsters in medieval pagan Norse myths.  The outcome of the story is that Thor obtains the brewing pan that will make the ‘poisonous’ ale or mead that spurs Loki to sow discord among the gods in Lokasenna. The killing of Jörmungandr and the breakdown of order with Loki and the giants/monsters presages the Ragnarok… This imagery appears upon a number of incised stones of the Viking era (including Cumbria and the Isle of Man, as well as in Scandinavia), providing corroborative evidence of its importance in Scandinavian-influenced Atlantic mythology.

There is much to be identified between the Norse myths and the Irish and Welsh. For instance, the theme of sea-giants and a ‘fatal feast’ featuring a caudron that determines the world’s outcome is seen in the Welsh Mabinogion tales, and the Irish tales ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ (Fled Bricrenn) and ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ (Togail Bruidne Derga) among others. They appear to be different figurative ‘branches’ of the same ancient tree whose roots are nourished by ‘world-river’,

 

Ancestor beliefs and the ‘time before memory’

I have made much of the importance of ancestor beliefs in my posts, and how these relate to a belief in ‘fairies’ and ‘spirits’, and I’d like to examine this a little bit more…

Before the introduction of literary culture to Atlantic Europe by the Greeks and Romans, the transmission of memories, information and knowledge was by oral transmission. This involved the development of a number of ‘tricks’ of formalisation – ‘aides-memoires’ if you will- in order to assist with memorisation, and from this grew the bardic culture: a field of expertise for coding large amounts of complex knowledge into verse and forms which allowed memorisation, as well as providing a shared mnemonic culture and good entertainment.

Statue of Iron Age 'bard' clutching a Celtic lyre, or 'Crwth'. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Statue of Iron Age ‘bard’ (Brittany) clutching a Celtic lyre, or ‘Crwth’. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Bardism survived the Christian period into the late medieval period when they were largely only formally employed as reciters of pedigrees to Gaelic chieftains, but died out with the dissipation of the clan system – the last vestige of Iron Age culture save for those particular story traditions and beliefs which we all know and love, and which I seem to spend a lot of time writing about. Pedigrees offered clans a link with the heroic (i.e. – ‘purer’ and less controversial) past. As such, they were open to a great deal of interpretation and revision in order to satisfy the political needs and claims of contemporary bardic patrons.

Due to the limitations of memory, the usefulness of information, there is usually a cutoff point or ‘event horizon’ in oral history which represents a ‘time before memory’, and oral/bardic culture had to deal with this in a formalised way. In the context of informal folktales collected from post-literate societies (even if the reciter is illiterate), vague timescales creep into narratives: For example, Irish tales of the Cailleach Bheara collected and stored at the DeLargy Centre at University College Dublin’s folklore survey archive might refer to ‘a long time ago’ or even ‘a hundred years ago or more’ to establish a setting which involves timescales of great supposed antiquity. The opening credits to the Star Wars films open with the same legendary theme before scrolling away to a point of infinity on the screen. In a way it is a method for framing a story in a distant place where anything might be possible, or at least be more difficult to contest!

The start of all good stories...

The start of all good stories…

This ‘time before memory’ is an important place where a storyteller can establish modern ‘facts’ with abstract and alliterative origins. The freedom of the story takes the gravity of established fact and reality from the shoulders of the characters, allowing them freedom to fly in unimaginable ways and perform acts of magic. Time, physics, even conventional morality do not apply, except where it suits the storyteller to remind their audience of them.

Understanding how to address the principle of ‘time before memory’ was undoubtedly a technical discipline to a bardic/oral culture. Beyond the ‘event horizon’ it wouldn’t have been a case of ‘anything goes’, but there were instead degrees of difference depending on just how far back the tale was taking the reader. A good example of this are the written works of the traditional (orally transmitted) lyric poets of ancient Greece, most notably Homer and Hesiod (6thC BCE or earlier), both of whom deal with these shady kingdoms of the legendary past in a formalised and structured pattern. From the foundless chaos of the initial creation to the time of the Golden Age and the subsequent ‘Ages of Men’, through to the matings of gods with men and finally the Trojan War and its aftermath these narratives take the listener (or later the reader) through the various degrees of comprehensibility which end largely in a recognisable world of humans following the sack of Troy. Subsequent ‘histories’ from this part of the ancient world would use the events at the end of the Illiad to start their accounts of history ‘within memory’…

To add another dimension to bardic culture, it often relied upon former bards ‘from beyond the event horizon‘ to give authority or veracity to their accounts, as if these people were astronauts reporting back from the unknown. Thus we have Celtic story figures such as ‘Oisin’, ‘Taliesin’ and ‘Merlin’ (even the egotistical, pompous and bumbling Senchán Torpéist) who occur in stories in such a fashion. Who knows – perhaps Homer and Hesiod themselves were of the same kind?

The real Homer?

The real Homer?

The further back into the unknown and deep ancestral time a narrative tale goes, it is generally fair to say that the more fantastical it becomes. The number of human-like characters dwindles in order to suggest the origins within a single family unit – mother, father and child. Even then, they may take on characteristics which make distinguishing them from the landscape and animals of the land increasingly difficult. They grow to huge stature, as if to explain their likeness to the stars, oceans and mountains which informed the landscape of the listener.