Jormungandr: Get to Know the Midgard Serpent

Jormungandr, also known as the Midgard Serpent, might be the most terrifying monster from Norse mythology. What makes Thor’s nemesis so menacing?

May 15, 2024By Jessica Suess, MPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/Archaeology

jormungandr midgard serpent


Norse mythology is full of incredible creatures, but perhaps the most threatening is Jormungandr. Also known as the Midgard Serpent, he is a giant serpent that lives in the waters surrounding Midgard. He is so big that he can encircle the entire world and hold his own tail in his mouth.


A child of Loki, the Norse gods considered Jormungandr a threat. He is portrayed as the great nemesis of Thor and is destined to play an important role in the destruction of the Norse cosmos at Ragnarök. But how did this snake become the monstrous Midgard Serpent and what role does he play in Norse mythology and Viking beliefs?


Who Is Jormungandr?

children loki jormungandr
Niflheim, illustration by Brock, 1930, in Annie Keary and Liza Keary, The Heroes of Asgard: Tales from Scandinavian Mythology, p. 19, Source: My Norse Digital Image Repository


Jormungandr is one of the children of the trickster giant Loki with the giantess Angrboda. Her name means “bringer of sorrows” and she lives in the Ironwood, a dense forest at the edge of Jotunheim, the realm of the giants. There she is said to mate with many giants and produce many offspring, all wolves, who are destined to splatter the world with blood.


With Loki, Angrboda had three children, the great wolf Fenrir, the serpent Jormungandr, and the giantess Hel. According to chapter 24 of the Gylfaginnig, when the gods heard that the offspring of such a monstrous union were being nourished in Jotunheim, Odin ordered them brought to Asgard. He knew from a prophecy that these children would bring great misfortune to them all.

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After evaluating them, Odin decided to place each somewhere in the world where they could do the least harm. Fenrir was an enormous wolf that could not be tamed but was proud and enjoyed showing off his strength. The gods tricked him into donning a set of enchanted chains, suggesting that he would break them easily. Instead, he was imprisoned alone on a deserted island.


The giantess Hel was hideous to behold because she was half black and half white, which is interpreted as meaning that she is half living and half dead. Odin sent her to rule over the underworld of Helheim, one of the places where Viking souls go after death. While she may rule there, she is also banished to the land of the dead.


yggdrasil magnusson print
Yggdrasil, by Finnur Magnusson, 1859, in M. Mallet and Percy Bishop, Northern Antiquities, frontispiece, Source: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection


Odin tossed Jormungandr, while still a small serpent, into the waters surrounding Midgard, the world of men. It is unclear whether he realized the consequences of his actions. In this great body of water, Jormungandr grew to such an enormous size that he could encircle the entire world and hold his own tail in his mouth. The serpent’s mouth is full of razor-sharp teeth and is big enough to swallow a giant whole.


Because of his enormous size, Jormungandr became an inseparable part of the ecosystem. This is revealed in the story of Thor visiting the home of Utgard-Loki in Jotunheim. There, the immensely strong god of thunder is tricked into trying to pick up what looks like a normal cat. To his surprise, he can only lift one of its paws a few inches off the ground.


The giant Utgard-Loki later reveals to Thor that this was an illusion and that the cat was actually Jormungandr. Even the small amount that he was able to lift the serpent caused major disruption in the natural world.


The name “Jormungandr” combines two old Norse words, “jormun,” which refers to something enormous or supernaturally powerful, and “gandr” which refers to elongated items, again usually with a supernatural connection.


The name is often interpreted as meaning “giant serpent”, but it could also be “giant river”, since Jormungandr lives in the waterways, “giant stick”, relating the serpent to Yggdrasil, the world tree, or “giant binding”, as he binds the world. This ambiguous naming may be deliberate.


Thor Catches Jormungandr

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Thor’s Fishing Trip, illustration in SAM 66, 79v, by Jakob Sigurðsson, 1765-1766, Source: Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik, Iceland


Chronologically in Norse mythology, Jormungandr next appears as a major player in the story of Thor’s fishing trip. Thor went to the home of the giant Hymir to borrow a cauldron big enough to brew mead for all the gods. While there, Hymir invited Thor to eat with him. But he was shocked when the god, who was known for his enormous appetite, devoured two entire oxen in a single sitting.


Unwilling to kill more of his animals to feed the god, Hymir informed Thor that they would have to fish for the next day’s meal. The thoughtless god killed the rest of Hymir’s oxen to use their heads as bait, much to the giant’s distress.


The two rowed out to sea and caught many excellent fish and even two whales with the oxen-head bait. But Thor was unsatisfied, demanding that Hymir continue to row further out, where they would find bigger fish.


Eventually, Thor caught something so enormous on his line that it almost destabilized the boat. Hymir was very concerned about what this could be. He knew that they were far enough out to encounter the Midgard Serpent, and that this was the only being in the water that could challenge Thor’s strength. Hymir warned the god, but he refused to listen.


Eventually, Thor pulled Jormungandr up and its head broke the water. It started spitting venom, and Thor began to hit the serpent in the head with his fists. Hymir was so terrified by this spectacle that he cut Thor’s fishing line, letting the serpent sink back into the depths of the water.


This story is seen as a precursor to Ragnarök. It shows that Thor has no fear of fate, and no concern for the consequences of his actions.


Jormungandr at Ragnarök

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Ragnarok, color lithograph on paper, by Louis Moe, 1898, in Albred Jacobsens’ Danmarks Historie i Billeder VII. Ragnarök, Source: GetArchive


Ragnarök is a prophecy about the death of the gods and the end of the world told to Odin by a Volva seeress. According to the prophecy, the world will end when a series of earthquakes and other catastrophes shake the world. This will allow Loki and Fenrir, who have both been imprisoned by the gods at this point, to break free of their chains and lead an offensive against Asgard.


Ragnarök will also be preceded by three endless winters in Midgard. The cold will make Jormungandr uncomfortable in his waters and he will finally emerge onto the land. There he will join the giant assault. He will spew huge amounts of toxic venom into the air, poisoning the world.


Thor is destined to hunt down and fight Jormungandr. He will kill the serpent with his mighty hammer Mjolnir. But Jormungandr will spew so much venom onto Thor that he will take only nine paces before dropping dead himself.


Meanwhile, Jormungandr’s brother Fenrir will kill Odin, before himself being killed by Odin’s son Vidarr. Loki and the Aesir god Heimdall will also fight to their mutual destruction.


The toxic atmosphere caused by Jormungandr will contribute to the overall destruction of existence. The world will sink back into the waters of chaos from which it emerged.


Jormungandr in Norse Art

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Altuna Runestone from Uppland, Sweden, c. 11th century, Source: Fjardhundraland


While Jormungandr is important in the overall ark of Norse mythology, he isn’t mentioned often in the surviving Norse myths. However, the serpent is a popular motif in Norse art.


The story of Thor’s fishing trip appears on at least three surviving runestones. This reinforces the idea that this story is not just an anecdotal account of the god’s adventures. It must have a deeper meaning around testing fate and the arrival of Ragnarök.


The Altuna Runestone from Uppland in Sweden was probably erected in the 11th century and appears to show the moment when Thor has Jormungandr on his fishing line and is beating him.


Similar images appear on one of the Andre image stones from Gotland in Sweden, which dates to the 8th or 9th century. It appears again on the Hordum stone from northern Denmark, and on the 9th-century Gosforth Stone from England.


serpent carvings church riksantikvaren
Animals depicted on the Urnes Stave Church, Norway, c. 11th century, Source: Riksantikvaren


Serpents are also a consistent theme in Viking designs and decorations. While these cannot be specifically identified as Jormungandr, as the most famous Norse serpent, they are likely to reference him.


On the other hand, there are other serpents in Norse mythology. Nighogg lives among the roots of Yggdrasil and gnaws on the tree. While he is often described as a dragon, Vikings did not distinguish between serpents and dragons.


According to one description of Helheim, which is probably based on later Christian ideas, there is a special place called Nastrond for the wickedest dead. Nidhogg and other serpents feed on these wretched souls.


jormungandr serpent
Miðgarðsormr, illustration from manuscript Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum (AM 738 4to), Reykjavik, p. 42r, Source: My Norse Digital Image Depository


When Loki is finally imprisoned for his crimes, the gods also place a venomous snake over his body to painfully drip toxic venom onto his skin. In many examples of Viking art, snakes are used in a stylistic way to create patterns. Their long bodies curl around themselves and create elaborate patterns. Wolves are often depicted in the same way, with their bodies elongated in unbelievable ways. These could be references to Jormungandr and Fenrir.


Serpents were also often depicted entangled around four-legged animals. On the 10th-century runestone of Harald Bluetooth from Jelling in Denmark, a lion is entangled by a snake. A similar scene can be seen at the 11th-century Urnes Stage church in Norway. This repeating motif suggests that snakes in general, and Jormungandr in particular, carried specific connotations in the Viking world, though they are hard to interpret today.

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By Jessica SuessMPhil Ancient History, BA Hons History/ArchaeologyJessica holds a BA Hons in History and Archaeology from the University of Queensland and an MPhil in Ancient History from the University of Oxford where she researched the worship of the Roman emperors. She worked for Oxford University Museums for 10 years before relocating to Brazil. She is mad about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the history of esoteric religions, and folk magic and gets excited about the latest archaeological finds.