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In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology.  Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists.  Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim.  However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants.  The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir.  He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).

Frost Giant (from "Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology" by Mary Foster)

Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated.  many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.

Loki

The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous.  Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead.  Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength.  Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.

Odin and Gunnlöd

The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead.  The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together.  Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry.  The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth.  All poetry we have is sour and ersatz.  Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…

Giantess Gunnlöð, daughter of Suttung (Anders Zorn, oil on canvas)

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.

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