The Midgard Serpent (detail)


Iormungand, the Midgard Serpent, was one of three children fathered on the giantess Angroba by Loki, the Norse god of mischief and trickery. The others were Fenris the wolf and Hel, which means Death. When the gods learned of these offspring they remembered certain prophecies of the doom they would bring. So Odin the Allfather ordered they be brought to him to decide their fate. Hel was given charge of the Underworld, Niflhein, to which go all those who suffer the humiliation of dying of old age or sickness, instead of falling nobly in battle.. Fenris the wolf was fostered by the gods who tried to tame his savage nature. The Midgard Serpent was cast by Odin into the ocean where she grew so huge that with her tail in her mouth she soon encompassed the whole world, and the churnings of her coils raise the tsunami and tempests that drown sailors.

The thunder-god Thor had a particular hatred of the Midgard Serpent, and it began in this way. On one occasion Thor and a company of other gods went adventuring into the land of the giants. They came to a vast castle whose gate even Thor could not open. Luckily it was so large they could squeeze in through the bars. The king of the castle, Utgarda, seemed unimpressed when he learned who his visitors were. He said he had expected the famous gods of Asgard to be somewhat more than midgets, and that if they wanted his hospitality they would first have to perform some feat to impress him. The king then challenged them to a series of seemingly minor tasks at which they all failed.

One task set Thor was to lift up the king's grey cat, something which even the children of the castle could supposedly do. Despite his mightiest efforts he only succeeded in raising one of the cat's paws a little off the floor. A famous drinker, Thor was then challenged to drain Utgarda's drinking horn, but despite his mightiest efforts the level barely fell below the rim. After which Thor became so furious with shame he wanted a fight. But the king said that because he had performed so miserably before, the only contestant he could offer was his old nurse Elli. Thor, the champion of Asgard, was forced to accept this humiliation and began to wrestle with the old crone, but even at this he failed.

However, as it was late the giant king said they could stay the night despite having failed to prove their worth. The next morning they were given breakfast hospitably enough and shown on their way. And when they were some distance from the castle, Utgarda confessed the truth to them: which was that the tasks had been more than they seemed, for he was a great enchanter. For example, the grey cat had in reality been the Midgard Serpent, whom Thor had nearly succeeded in wrenching from the ocean bed. The drinking horn had been connected to the ocean and Thor had noticeably drained the sea and created tides for the first time. And the old crone was in fact old age, which no-one can conquer. When he heard all this, Thor was furious and turned to smash the giant king with his hammer, but Utgarda had magically disappeared. Then he turned to attack the castle but it too had vanished. Then Thor swore revenge, not least on the Midgard Serpent because he at least knew where it could be found.

Soon afterwards, travelling in the guise of a youth, Thor stayed the night with a giant called Hymir who lived by the sea. In the morning when Hymir was preparing to go fishing, Thor asked if he could go too. The giant agreed, but reluctantly as he said could see little advantage in having such a stripling in his boat. And when Thor asked what sort of bait he should bring, Hymir replied offhandedly that he should go and find his own bait. So Thor went over to the largest of the giant's bulls nearby, wrenched off its head and tossed it casually into the bottom of the boat. Then he took the oars and started rowing vigorously out to sea. Despite himself, Hymir was impressed, and somewhat afraid. When they reached the spot where he usually fished, Hymir told Thor to stop rowing. But Thor ignored him and carried on out towards the edge of the world. Then Hymir pleaded with him to stop because if they went much further they might meet the Midgard Serpent. Ignoring him again, Thor rowed on till he felt sure that they would find the serpent. Then he fixed the bull's head to a great hook on a strong line and dropped it over the side.

By chance the Midgard Serpent happened to be passing and took the dainty morsel into its mouth. But when it felt the hook it jerked so hard that Thor was dragged to the gunwale. Summoning all his strength, he pulled back with such might that his feet burst through the bottom of the boat. Then followed a furious battle as slowly Thor hauled up the serpent till they were eye to glaring eye with each other, and it seemed as if a thunderstorm was raging between them.

The giant was terrified by both the serpent and the water rushing into the boat, and as Thor raised his hammer to end the struggle, Hymir quickly reached across and cut the line. The serpent slithered gratefully back into the deep water. Thor desperately threw his hammer after it but was too late to prevent its escape. In fury Thor turned and dealt such a blow to Hymir that the giant fell overboard and was drowned.

Thereafter the Midgard Serpent, terrified by her close shave, took care to hide in the depths where Thor might not find her and is now only rarely seen by humans. However, this fate was kinder than that of her brother Fenris the wolf and their father Loki. When the gods realized Fenris was getting out of their control, they tricked him into allowing himself to be bound by a magic cord forged by mountain dwarves, and tied him to a boulder deep in the earth. They finally lost patience with the mischievous Loki when he engineered the death of Baldur the Glorious, Odin's favourite son. As punishment they chained Loki also deep within the earth where a serpent forever drips venomous acid onto his face. His faithful and long-suffering wife, Sygin, carefully catches this lethal brew in an enchanted cup, but when she has to go away and empty it Loki writhes in agony and the earth shakes.

Although Thor swore to complete his revenge on the Midgard Serpent, he is not destined to do so until Ragnarok, the end of the world, when heaven, earth and the underworld will be destroyed. Then the world will tremble and the oceans leave their beds. The heavens will be torn apart and eagles will feed upon humans still writhing in their death throes. The wolf Fenris will finally break free and run ravening through the world, and the Midgard Serpent will rise from the seabed to cause havoc and destruction. Loki too will break free and lead all his children and followers to Vigrid for the final, great battle with the gods. Loki and all his horde will die, and many of the gods with them. Thor will crush the skull of his old enemy, the Midgard Serpent, but will himself be slain by her dying struggles. Creation and Time itself will be shattered in the last battle, but afterwards a new heaven and earth will rise out of the sea, in which humans and gods will live in perfect harmony and ease forever.