The above image depicts the battle between Thor and Jörmungand at Ragnarõk as seen on the cover of issue #1 of the comic book Ragnarök written and illustrated by Walter Simonson with colors by Laura Martin, published in 2014. It’ll be released in hardcover in November. Buy it. Thor and several of the bad guys survive Ragnarõk. It’s awesome.
I’ve previously posted images of Jörmungand the Midgard Serpent four times, but most of those were in the days when I was focusing just on sharing cool Thor-related imagery. Let’s start off year two of this blog diving in depth to learn more about this most dangerous of beasts.
Jörmungand (YOUR-mun-gand) is also known as the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent, and is named as such because he lays submerged in the vast ocean that surrounds Midgard, the realm of humanity in the pre-Christian Germanic cosmology. But it is not just a beast powerful enough to survive the unfathomable depths of the ocean – it is so long that it fully encircles Midgard, so that it is able to bite its own tail.
And Jörmungand, the most fearsome beast known to gods or men, is fated to face Thor at Ragnarõk in the final battle between the gods and their enemies. Thor is able to defeat the beast, but he too is felled by a blast of its poisonous venom.
But there’s more to the World Serpent than just that final battle with Thor.According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Jörmungand is one of three children of Loki and the giantess Angrboða; the other two are the mighty wolf Fenris, fated to kill Odin, and Hel, the ruler of the dead. The story is told in Gylfaginning (Gilchrist tr. 1916):
[W]hen the gods perceived by prophecy that from this kindred great misfortune should befall them; and since it seemed to all that there was great prospect of ill–(first from the mother’s blood, and yet worse from the father’s)-then Allfather sent gods thither to take the children and bring them to him. When they came to him, straightway he cast the serpent into the deep sea, where he lies about all the land; and this serpent grew so greatly that he lies in the midst of the ocean encompassing all the land, and bites upon his own tail.
From this passage we can easily deduce that the Midgard Serpent is the Germanic representation of the Ouroboros, the Greek term for the symbol of the snake or serpent or dragon biting its own tail. This symbol is known across many cultures, including Greece, Egypt, and India, among others, and is generally taken to refer to the eternal renewal existence, a theme we’ve spotted elsewhere in the mythology and religion of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. Thus we can immediately recognize that Jörmungand’s presence in a key role at Ragnarõk is no accident: when its thrashes in its battle against Thor force floodwaters onto the land, the World Serpent is fulfilling part of its role in the ongoing cycle of creation and destruction inherent to all life as we know it.
But it’s also worth noting Jörmungand’s location in the cosmology of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, or, rather, its geography. As Jörmungand rests in the great ocean surrounding the disk of Midgard (at least for our purposes understood to be a flat surface in a disk shape on top of a thick crust), it becomes the border between the safe space of Midgard, where humans and order reside, and the unknown, chaotic areas of Jotunheim, or Muspellheim, or Niffelheim, where giants and dwarves dwell.
This distinction between innangard and utangard was a fundamental part of the Germanic worldview and helped these peoples to order their lives in a variety of ways. Here the myth of Jörmungand is helping define the limit between safe and unsafe by pointing out that the sea becomes dangerous too far from the land, and monsters dwell in those unknown lands – best to leave such things to Thor.
Just such an inference of the role of Jörmungand in the worldview of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples can be made from one of the more famous stories of its interactions with Thor. Thor goes fishing with a giant named Hymir and, despite the warnings of Hymir, keeps rowing further and further out to sea. Thor baits his hook with the head of an ox and, as he intended, snags the largest catch possible: the Midgard Serpent. Before the fated foes can engage in battle right there in his fishing boat, though, Hymir cuts the line; as Jörmungand sinks into the sea, Thor throws Mjolnir after the beast but seems not to have struck a killing blow. Hymir’s boat is nearly destroyed from the ordeal, and he is very unhappy. The moral, perhaps, could be that if you go seeking trouble too far out to sea, you will find it. We might also take an ethnoastronomical approach and attribute this to an explanation for a particularly potent meteor shower, though, so take this view with a grain of salt, as always.
But let us not forget the ending battle. Ragnarõk, the twilight of the gods, is prophesied long before it actually occurs, so the gods have much time to contemplate things to come, and how to avoid them. Odin spends much of his existence wandering the nine realms, trying to find something, anything to forestall or prevent their destiny from coming to pass. But all too well, they knew that just as they could take action to shape destiny, so too are some things inevitable.
And such is the case with the battle between Thor and the Midgard Serpent. After the first prophecies of Ragnarõk come to pass, Thor could easily flee the field of battle, leaving the Serpent to another warrior such as Tyr or his sons Magni and Modi. But the most dangerous enemy must meet its match in the most able protector, and Thor took Mjölnir to Jörmungand despite the prophecy; if he hadn’t, the battle would have gone differently, and the cycle of rebirth might have turned out with destruction and chaos ruling instead of life and order.
Therefore Thor, thunder, lightning, and storm, clashes with the deep, dark, mystery of the sea, and neither truly wins. Both fall. Odin falls to Fenris and his son Vidar avenges him. Loki leads a ship of the dead against his former comrades. Yggdrasil quakes and the mighty fire giant Surt bathes the cosmos in flame.
The snake bites its tail. A few gods survive, and two humans are tasked with repopulating the Earth. Life – and fate – moves on, just as every year the spring heralds new life.
Jörmungand, whether in its famous battle with Thor in Hymir’s fishing boat, or when battling Thor at Ragnarõk, is perhaps the most famous enemy of the gods, depending on where you place Loki on the friend-enemy continuum. But Jörmungand is perhaps best understood as a key component of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples’ understanding of the border between order and chaos and how that line feeds into keeping the cycle of life healthy. For as Thor went willingly to meet his destiny, so must we all accept what we cannot change as we fight without fear for what we can change.