Jörmungandr – Birth Story, Family, Meaning, Symbols & Powers

Known as the World Serpent or the Great Serpent, Jörmungandr is the enormous monster child of the trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboða in Norse mythology. Known for his ability to wrap the world round in his giant coil, there is hardly any monster in the Norse world that can compare to this gargantuan serpent.

Meaning

In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr is a monster of tremendous proportions. It’s often said that hardly is there any monster in Norse mythology that can rival him, in terms of strength and sheer size.

Jörmungandr’s name in Old Norse is said to translate to “Great Beast” or “Great Serpent”. He gets this epithet due his epic size, which allows him to encircle the entire of Midgard (i.e. Earth).

Depictions

Jörmungandr, like many other creatures and figures in Norse mythology, has varied depictions. However, the two commonest depictions see him either appear as a mighty serpent-like dragon or a colossal snake. The venom in his mouth is believed to be absolutely lethal. And his fangs could crush the heaviest of armors, making him a very formidable foe.

Family and siblings

Loki's children

Jörmungandr’s siblings – Fenrir (the giant Wolf); Hel (the ruler of underworld/dead); Sleipnir (the eight-legged horse). | Image: The children of Loki (1920) by Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany

Jörmungandr is believed to be one of the three main children of the trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboða. His two other great siblings are Hel and Fenrir.

According to the myths, the fates of all three children of Loki – i.e. Jörmungandr, Hel and Fenrir – were decided at the time of their births. In the Prose Edda, a 13th century compilation of Norse myths and stories, Odin, chief of the gods, took the three children from Loki and Angrboða. Odin then proceeded to make Loki’s daughter Hel the queen of a region known as Helheim, also known as the underworld. Fenrir, the mighty wolf, was raised by the Aesir gods in Asgard.

As for Jörmungandr, Odin and his Aesir gods threw him into the ocean that surrounds Midgard (i.e. Earth). Extremely fearful of the might and power Jörmungandr possessed, the gods hoped that the waves and storms out in the ocean would kill the creature.

To the utter shock of Odin and his fellow gods, Jörmungandr used the ocean’s content to grow even bigger. The beast grew so enormous that his body reached a span that allowed him to encircle Midgard once.

Read More: 10 Major Myths about Odin, the Allfather God in Norse Mythology

Jörmungandr and Thor

Jörmungandr and the Norse god of thunder Thor simply never saw eye to eye in Norse mythology. This is evident in the number times that those two strong characters fought against each other.

In one of the story, Thor and his fellow Aesir gods take a trip to the land of the Jötnar (i.e. the giants). The gods came across a huge castle with gates so mighty that the combined force of the gods could not force the gates opened.

Unable to open the gates of the castle, the gods decided to squeeze through the bars of the gates. Once in the castle, Útgarða-Loki, the king of the castle, demanded that Thor and his entourage carry out a number of tests in order to receive the giants’ hospitality and respect.

The King’s first task for Thor was to lift the king’s pet cat from the ground. Upon hearing the king’s demands, Thor chuckled as he believed that a simple house cat was no match for his enormous strength. To the surprise of his companion gods, the hammer-wielding Norse god failed to complete the task. He could only lift up just one of the cat’s paws.

For his second task, Thor was challenged by the king to drain the mighty drinking horn of the giants. For someone who was known for his prowess when it came to handling his drinks, the Aesir gods was stunned when Thor once again failed to complete this task.

Feeling embarrassed by his failures, Thor became enraged and demanded combat with the king’s strongest warrior. In what appeared to be like a mischievous laughter, the king ordered his elderly nurse to face Thor in a single combat. In spite of Thor’s hard-fought efforts he just simply could not take down the old woman. And once again the mighty Thor, “the Defender of Asgard”, fell flat on his face.

The following day, just as Thor and his companions were about to take their leave of the land of giants, the King confessed to Thor about the mischief he had played on the god the previous night.

[The] Giant Útgarða-Loki, also known as Skrymir, put the Norse god Thor through a series of very difficult tasks. Image by Louis Huard (c. 1891)

First of all, the pet cat that Thor had been asked to lift of the ground was the Great Serpent Jörmungandr. The King had cast a magical spell to disguise the serpent as a house cat.

Second, the contents of the great drinking horn that Thor had drunk from was in fact connected to the vast ocean, thereby making it impossible for anyone to completely drain the drinking horn of its content.

And finally, the old nurse of the king was actually old age. And since no one ever defeats old age, Thor certainly could not defeat the old nurse.

Following those revelations, a completely livid Thor tried to deliver a heavy strike at the king, who disappeared just in time to avoid being crushed by Thor.

For Jörmungandr’s participation in the King’s trickery, Thor vowed to find and destroy the Great Serpent as well as the mischievous king. Although not stated in the myth, it is quite obvious that the trickster god Loki is the only character in Norse mythology capable of pulling off such a sophisticated and intricate trick as the above. The King’s name Útgarða-Loki translates to “Loki of the Outyards” or “Loki of the Outlands”.

Thor’s fishing for Jörmungandr

Jörmungandr

Thor blew his top after the giant Hymir cut off the fishing line that held Jörmungandr. The Norse god of thunder and lightning then struck the Hymir with such a ferocious blow that it knocked the giant overboard. The giant Hymir ultimately drowned in the sea. Image: Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent (1790) by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli

While fishing with the giant Hymir, Thor used his great hook and strong fishing line to try and capture the Great Serpent. His bait worked, and soon, the Great Serpent came swimming straight for the bait. Once hook had caught Jörmungandr, Thor quickly brought the giant serpent up to the boat. Thor and Jörmungandr then sparred off while a petrified Hymir looked on. Sensing that the fight between Thor and Jörmungandr would cause the boat to sink, Hymir took a bold decision to cut the line, allowing Jörmungandr to swim back into the ocean. The myth goes on to say that Thor, out of anger for the action Hymir took, struck Hymir so hard that it took the giant overboard. Hymir is believed to have the drowned at sea.

After such a close encounter with the mighty Thor, Jörmungandr thought it best that he laid low for some time. It’s believed that he swam to the deepest parts of the ocean, bidding his time for when he would rise again to do battle with Thor during Ragnarok.

Jörmungandr and Thor during Ragnarök

Jörmungandr

The book Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda describes the events that foreshadow Ragnarok. Some of those events include the death of the Norse god Baldur, flooding of the sea, and the Great Serpent (i.e. Jörmungandr) thrashing onto the land.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarök refers to the end of a cycle, or the demise of the old gods. Partly triggered by the death of the Norse god of light Baldr, Ragnarök is fated to pit the Aesir gods against the Jötunns, who will be supported by malicious creatures from the Underworld (Hel). Thus Loki will join his children – Jörmungandr, Fenrir, and Hel – and wage war against the Aesir gods and the Valkyries.

Jörmungandr, who is one of the few individuals prophesied to bring about Ragnarok, will emerge from the depths of the sea and thrash the land with such intensity tremors will be felt around the world. The Great Serpent will then spew out copious amount of poison into the air and water. Then, Jörmungandr, along with his brother the great wolf Fenrir, will join the sons of Muspell (i.e. realm of fire) to face the gods at the plain of Vigrid.

Come Ragnarök, the mighty Thor, son of Odin, will face off against Jörmungandr, the Great Serpent. Thor is fated to kill Jörmungandr; however, Thor dies shortly after from the numerous poisonous bites inflicted on him by Jörmungandr.

Regarding the fate of Jörmungandr’s siblings; it’s been stated in the myths that Odin will be swallowed by Fenrir, who in turn will be killed by Odin’s son Víðarr. The myth is not clear as to what happens to Jörmungandr’s other sibling Hel.

Read More: Top 10 Norse Gods and Goddesses

More on Jörmungandr

Jörmungandr

Jörmungandr

A great deal of what we know about Jörmungandr comes from the Prose Edda, an Old Norse textbook written by 13th-century Icelandic poet and statesman Snorri Sturluson.

During Ragnarok, Thor is fated to die at the hands of Jörmungandr, the sea serpent. Thor first kills Jörmungandr; however, after taking just nine steps, the hammer-wielding god of thunder succumbs to the poisonous bites inflicted on him by the monstrous serpent.

Sleipnir, most known for being Odin’s powerful eight-legged stallion, is the offspring of the Norse trickster god Loki. That will mean that Jörmungandr and Sleipnir are siblings. The eight-legged horse, who is one of Odin’s most trusted companions, rides with Odin on so many adventures. Sleipnir symbolizes not just loyalty, but also represents strength, royalty, speed, and exploration.

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