Thor vs. the Midgard Serpent

Kevin Shau
Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent (1790) by Henry Fuseli

Demonstrating feats of strength was considered particularly important for the Norse gods. Thor, god of thunder and strength, encounters a giant king named Útgarða-Loki[1] (Loki of the Outyards) who has him perform various feats of strength. With each challenge, Thor is pushed to his limits. Though he prides himself on being able to drink vast quantities of mead, Thor is unable to finish all that was in the drinking horn. He is also unable to beat an old woman in a wrestling match. These are the first and third challenges the giant king has Thor attempt. The second challenge involves Thor lifting a cat. Thor tries as hard as he could to lift the animal but is only able to lift a single paw off the ground. The giant king reveals to an angry Thor that all is not what it seems. The level of liquid in the drinking horn never decreased because it was linked to the ocean. The old woman is the personification of old age itself (something no one can ever defeat, not even a god). The cat, it is revealed, is actually Jörmungandr (the Midgard Serpent). Thor was unable to lift more than a paw because this massive serpent is large enough to circle the entire world.[2] This brief episode reveals quite a bit about the Norse gods. The most relevant for this article is Thor’s encounter with the Midgard Serpent. Thor and Jörmungandr would encounter each other several more times and represent a distinctive pair of rivals (culture and nature, order and chaos).

Jörmungandr was not always the large serpent living in the vast ocean. This ouroboros[3] is one of Loki’s children. Loki is a trickster deity, archetypically speaking. When Jörmungandr first appears, it is not nearly the formidable serpent large enough to circle Midgard (Earth, the dwelling place of human according to Norse beliefs). Starting off rather small, Jörmungandr begins growing as soon as it first appears. “The first of Loki’s children was tied to a pine tree and was now longer than the pine tree it was tied to…Thor said “careful. It can spit burning black venom. It spat poison at me, but it missed. That’s why we tied its head to the tree like that. “It is a child,” said Odin. “It is still growing. We will send it where it can harm nobody.” Odin took the serpent to the shore of the sea that lied beyond all lands, the sea that circles Midgard, and there on the shore he freed Jörmungandr, and watched it slither and slip beneath the waves and swim away in loops and curls.”[4]

Depiction of Thor fishing for Jörmungandr (Icelandic, 18th century)

Thor decided to go looking for Jörmungandr on one occasion. He brings with him the giant Hymir who rows the boat out into the ocean. The head of Hymir’s best ox is used for bait to lure Jörmungandr. This encounter is recorded in a poem called Hymiskviða.

“To the hook fastened the head of the ox

the Serpent’s slayer and savior-of-men:

gaped on the angle the all-engirding

mighty monster, the Mithgarth-Worm.

Doughtily drew undaunted Thor

on board the boat the baneful worm;

his hammer hit the high hair-fell

of greedy Garm’s grisly brother.

Then screeched all scars and screamed all friends,

then shook and shivered the shaggy hills.

In the sea then sank that serpent again.

Downhearted was Hymir as homeward they rowed;

nor at the oar would aught he speak,

when back the twain brought the boat to shore.”[5]

As Thor engages Jörmungandr, the giant Hymir becomes so frightened of the monster that he cut the line hooked to the ox head. Thor is unable to finish off Jörmungandr, who escapes back into the depths of the ocean.

Thor’s Fight with the Giants (1872) by Mårten Eskil Winge
Children of Loki (1920)

Thor and Jörmungandr meet for their final fateful battle during the Norse equivalent of the apocalypse: Ragnarök. This is the ultimate clash between the forces of order and chaos: gods and their nemeses. The coming of Ragnarök is signaled by natural disasters and the gods prepare to go into battle. Thor stands before Jörmungandr, ready to slay him. This fate of the gods is recorded in a poem called Völuspá[6] (in the Poetic Edda).

“Brothers will battle to bloody end,

and sisters’ sons their sib betray;

woe’s in the world, much wantonness;

[axe-age, sword-age — sundered are shields –

wind-age, wolf-age, ere the world crumbles;]

will the spear of no man spare the other.”[7]

Ragnarök appears in this first poem in the Poetic Edda, presumably because the Völuspá covers a great deal of information regarding the Norse gods. This poem does not include much detail on the battle between Thor and Jörmungandr aside from the outcome.

“Comes then Mjolnir’s[8] mighty wielder;

gapes the grisly earth-girdling Serpent

when strides froth Thor to stay the Worm.

Mighty mauls Mithgarth’s warder –

shall all wights in the world wander from home –

back falls nine steps Fjorgyn’s[9] offspring –

nor fears for his fame — from the frightful worm.

Thor is able to slay Jörmungandr but the battle kills them both. That venom which missed the younger Thor when he first encountered Jörmungandr does not miss him this time. The dying serpent fatally wounds Thor. Thor is only able to take nine steps after slaying Jörmungandr before succumbing to the venom.

Ouroboros from a 1625 alchemical text (De Lapide Philosophico)

Jörmungandr is an example of an ouroboros, a creature which appears across cultures and times. In the west, the ouroboros has been associated with alchemy since at least late antiquity. Specifically, the ouroboros is associated with mercury. In alchemy, sulfur and mercury (sun and moon) were among the most important substances in the quest to turn base metals into gold.

Carl Jung explored this association from a psychological approach in the twentieth century. “When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver (mercury), but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter. The dragon is probably the oldest pictorial symbol in alchemy of which we have documentary evidence. It appears as the Ouroboros the tail-eater, in the Codex Marcianus, which dates from the tenth or eleventh century, together with the legend ‘the One, the All’. Time and again the alchemists reiterate that the opus proceeds from the one and leads back to the one, that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail. For this reason the opus was often called circulare (circular) or else rota (the wheel). Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again in the lapis. He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into the four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the classical brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught — a symbol uniting all the opposites.”[10]

from Carl Jung’s Red Book (Liber Novus)

The ouroboros plays an important role in the most famous work of Carl Jung’s student Erich Neumann. In The Origins and History of Consciousness, Neumann delineates the development of human consciousness with the ouroboros being a vital primordial image. “The structural elements of the collective unconscious are named by Jung “archetypes” or “primordial images.” they are pictorial forms of the instincts, for the unconscious reveals itself to the conscious mind in images which, as in dreams and fantasies, initiate the process of conscious reaction and assimilation.”[11] The ouroboros is the symbol Neumann analyzes in the first section of his magnum opus. Building on the work of his teacher Jung, Neumann notes the circular shape of the ‘self-begetting ouroboros.’ The circle is here associated with both the womb and the parents. “The uroboros appears as the round “container,” i.e. the maternal womb, but also as the union of masculine and feminine opposites, the World Parents joined in perpetual cohabitation.”[12] Those influenced by Jung, from Erich Neumann to Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia have sought to understand civilization and mythologies from the interplay of masculine and feminine, culture and nature. Jörmungandr symbolizes nature. Thor symbolizes culture, the personification of Norse strength and child of Earth and the wisdom god (Odin, symbolizes the wise king). Nature is symbolically feminine. Neumann notes that the first phase of man’s ego consciousness is under the dominance of the uroboros.[13] In his delineation of emerging human consciousness, Neumann emphasizes the important of detachment and encounter with opposites. This is essential for the development of the autonomous individual. Being born to Odin and Fjorgyn, Thor is the offspring of culture and nature. His battles with Jörmungandr are part of his development. Neumann notes “detachment from the uroboros means being born and descending into the lower world of reality, full of dangers and discomforts.”[14] Great hero stories of various cultures have the protagonist descend into the world of mortals (think Hercules for the Greeks or Emperor Jimmu for the Japanese).

“The All is One”, image from a work by Cleopatra the Alchemist (Greek Egyptian, lived in c.3rd century)

Culture is order and nature is chaos. By battling Jörmungandr, Thor aims to extend the domain of order further by making sense of the chaos that is Jörmungandr. In demonstrating his skills, Thor becomes a pillar of order and someone to admire — an archetypical hero. Indeed, the word ‘demonstrate’ comes from de-monstrate, taking the monster apart in order to make something new out of it. Fear of snakes is hardwired into the human psyche for evolutionary reasons. Dragons contain elements of creatures that our prehistoric ancestors had to avoid if they wanted to live. Snakes, lions, and birds of prey all have characteristics that come together to form images of dragons and other monsters. The person who is able to go into the chaos and create order from it (standing up to those things which frighten and threaten) gives the person social capital as a strong, independent, reliable, and admirable person. Such people become the subject of myths. In oral societies, the superfluous details are removed. Numerous such admiral individuals are held up as paragons of moral virtue. That which be abstracted from the multitude of the most virtuous people is deified. Thor is the personification of the Norse warrior ethos — potential and reality. The particular admirable traits of numerous celebrated members of society is abstracted into ideas of the divine.

[1] Referred to as such to distinguish him from the trickster god Loki.

[2] Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda.

[3] Serpent eating its own tail

[4] Gaiman, Neil. (2017). Norse Mythology. p.79–80.

[5] Hollander, Lee (translator). The Poetic Edda. p.87.

[6] Prophesy of the (female) shaman.

[7] Hollander, Lee (translator). The Poetic Edda. p.9.

[8] Thor’s hammer

[9] Thor’s mother (‘Earth’)

[10] Jung, Carl. Psychology and Alchemy. Part 3, Ch. 3.1.

[11] Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Introduction.

[12] Ibid., A: The Creation Myth, Part I: The Uroboros. p.12.

[13] Ibid., p.14.

[14] Ibid., Part II: The Great Mother. p.39.

Kevin Shau

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