Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part XIX: Norwegian Dragons

Nidhogg in the roots of Yggdrasil drawn by Ruth Tay

In my last post in this series I started discussing the history of dragons.  You will remember the brief discussion of Apep, Tiamat, and Kur.  You will remember that Mesopotamian dragons, by and large, represented the natural, dangerous, and chaotic forces of the world.  They were not exactly evil in the modern sense, but in the sense that they embodied all that was dangerous to the order that human society had created.  In this they also often represented origins or beginnings, and were in some way connected to the primordial chaos that predated the world.  In Norse mythology dragons similarly represent great forces of evil, but they represent forces of ending, as opposed to forces of beginning.

There are three dragons primarily represented in Norse mythology, Nidhogg (or Nidhoggr), Jormungand (or Jormungandr), and Fafnir.  Of these dragons, only Fafnir does not have any clear connection to Ragnarok (for those who don’t know Ragnarok is the final battle/end of time/beginning of the new world that defines much of Norse mythology).  Fafnir is also the only significant dragon in Norse Mythology who is not actually a dragon, but more on that later.  Both Nidhogg and Jormungand are closely connected to the Ragnarok, and thus with the Norse ‘end of time’.  Both are shown to be evil or dangerous in some form, and both present a distinct danger to man, the gods, or both.

Nidhogg flying of Niflheim drawn by vendetta535

Nidhogg, according to the Voluspa, is a dragon that lives under the roots of Yggdrasil (the world tree that connects the nine worlds of Norse mythology) and eats the corpses of the dead.  The roots of Yggdrasil lie in Niflheim, the world of the dead, and so Nidhogg is sometimes thought of as connected to death, and has commonly been presented in modern fiction as a servant of Hel (the goddess of the underworld).  Throughout Norse mythology Nidhogg spends his time variously glutting himself on the corpses of the dead from Hvergelmir (the spring from which all the rivers of the world flow), gnawing on the roots of Yggdrasil, and trading taunts and insults with the eagle that lives in the uppermost branches of Yggdrasil by means of a giant squirrel.  While a generally dark figure, Nidhogg remains relatively harmless (or at least stationary) until Ragnarok begins, at which point he will burst forth from beneath Yggdrasil bearing all the corpses of the dead upon his wings, and bring them to join the final battle.  Nidhogg is also one of the only beings that will survive Ragnarok, perhaps to be a central force of evil in the new world that follows.

The dragon Jormungand drawn by Trishkell

Jormungand is similarly connected to Ragnarok.  The son of the god Loki and a giantess, Jormungand was cast by Odin into the ocean that surrounds Midgard (Earth), where he grew large enough to completely encircle the world and grasp his own tail in his mouth.  While Jormungand is not specifically depicted as evil in the mythology, he is depicted as an enemy of the gods, a force of great power, and the slayer of Thor (though he will also die in the process).  It was believed that if Jormungand ever released his tail, then it would herald the beginning of Ragnarok, and it was in this final battle that Jormungand would slay his ancient enemy, Thor (the two encounter one another in several myths).  While he is not evil perse, the fact that Jormungand is cast as the enemy of the gods (of Thor, the hero of mankind, in particular), and his connection with the beginning of Ragnarok lend a decidedly wicked taint to the dragon.

It is from these two primary dragons that the connection between the draconic and endings can be made in Norse mythology.  However, ending does not have an entirely evil tone, though Ragnarok is certainly a somber and bloody story.  There is also a hint that something else will arise after the last battle of the gods, that while the gods in all their glory must pass away, something else comes next, and so in this Norse dragons also can be seen to take on an aspect of new beginnings, and of change.

And Sigurd faces off against Fafnir.

The last primary dragon, Fafnir, is not connected to Ragnarok, and is wholly evil.  According to the Volsunga Saga Fafnir begins his life as a dwarf, the son of the dwarven king who is strong of arm and fearless of heart.  Fafnir is the guardian of his father’s treasury, but through various and sundry events becomes cursed by Loki, kills his father, and steals the treasure to hoard for himself (both Smaug and Golem in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings appear to be inspired by Fafnir).  Fafnir then slowly transforms into a dragon the better to guard his stolen wealth.  Eventually Fafnir’s brother, Regin, convinces the hero Sigurd to slay the dragon and avenge his father.  In the end Sigurd kills Fafnir, and then discovers that Regin planned to murder him for the treasure, and kills Regin as well.  At the end Sigurd remains as the victor, hero, and sole benefactor of both the treasure and many magical powers gained from cannibalizing Fafnir’s corpse.  While Nidhogg and Jormungand seem to represent endings and change, Fafnir obviously represents greed, and the many evils that follow in its wake.

Though other dragons appear in Norse mythology none are as common, important, or as well described as these three.  It is clear that dragons are not viewed positively by the culture, but they do take on a very different tone than in Mesopotamian culture.  While dragons represent chaos, destruction, nature, and primordial chaos to the earliest cultures, to the Norse they represent either a force of change (not chaotic, but of ending and new beginnings), or an outgrowth of the wickedness common to men’s hearts.