In Norse folklore the universe was envisioned as Yggdrasil an immense tree with roots and branches winding through many different worlds and realms.  An immense serpent, Níðhöggr, forever gnawed at the roots of the tree thus threatening to bring the entire universe down– however Níðhöggr was not the only gigantic serpent in the Norse pantheon.

The Midgard Serpent

Between the chthonic roots of the tree and its lofty branches (at ground level, as it were) lay the world of humankind, called Midgard.   Midgard was protected by the gods and, to a lesser extent, by humankind, from the ice giants who were always attacking and from Loki, the strange trickster god, who was forever plotting. Loki knew the ice giantess, Angrboða, and together the pair had three children.  One was Hel, who went down to icy Niflheim to rule over the damned and lost (our word “Hell” comes from her name and her realm).  Another was Fenris Wolf, the all-devouring giant wolf who was chained by magic fetters to an immense stone thrust deep into the roots of Yggrasil. The last of the three children of Loki and Angrboða was Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent also known as the Midgard Serpent.  When Odin perceived how quickly the serpent was growing, he cast it into ocean which the Norse believed ringed the whole world.  There the serpent grew to colossal size, eventually surrounding the entire world and swallowing its tail.  In some ways the monster became synonymous with the world-girding ocean.

Jörmungandr is ever opposed by the god Thor. Twice the two met in the Norse mythical canon. The first time, Thor was fooled into thinking the world-sized ocean monster was a large indolent housecat (it should be noted that Thor was not only drinking heavily but also being magically fooled by a trickster king of the Jötnar).  Despite using all his divine strength, Thor was unable to lift the cat off the floor and only managed to heft one paw up for a moment.  The seemingly trivial feat of strength was revealed as more impressive when the nature true of the cat was manifested (the entire story is a very amusing one). Thor again encountered the serpent when he was fishing for monsters with the giant Hymir.  Thor had struck the head off the great ox belonging to the giant in order to catch two whales.  Against Hymir’s protests, the two proceeded farther out to sea, towards the edge of the world.  Thor hooked the Midgard serpent and dragged the creature’s head to the surface.  The monster’s fanged mouth was dripping with poison and blood and it was moving towards the boat to finish the two off. Before Thor could lift his hammer to kill the serpent (or the serpent could devour the two fishermen), Hymir cut the line and the creature escaped.

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent (Henry Fuseli, 1790, oil on canvas)

Thor is slated to encounter the monster one last time at Ragnarök.  When the last battle comes, the serpent will swim towards land poisoning everything it touches and causing huge tidal waves.  This will be the signal for Naglfar to sail, bringing the hordes of walking dead back to the world of the living.  Thor will finally fight the serpent and, after a great battle, the thunder god will triumphantly kill the mighty creature. Thor will then walk nine steps before dying from his poisoned wounds as the mortally wounded Fenris Wolf swallows the sun and the world comes to an end.