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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
February 2014


Jörmungand


Fafnir  sketch by John Chalfant

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"Nidhögg Escapes Niflheim To Exact His Revenge" sketch by Duane Hosein

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Photos courtesy Douglas Rossman

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           Human  cultures the world over have long been fascinated by dragons (or giant serpents) to judge by the frequency with which these creatures appear in myths and folk art . . . and nowhere in northern Europe is this more true than in Scandinavia. First seen on early Gotland, Sweden, picture stones between 400-600 A. D., dragon images were especially prominent during the Viking Age (ca. 800-1100 A. D.) when  they were the principal mythical animal icons portrayed in art and architecture.

            But what—you may ask—were these dragons like in size and appearance? There is no easy answer to this question, even if we strictly confine ourselves to Scandinavian dragons. To judge from archaeology and the early literary descriptions, some kinds were essentially like monstrous snakes, while others had legs, wings, and external ears. Small wonder  that a dragon might be referred to in Old Norse as being either an orm ("snake") or a dreki ("dragon").

            Despite our perception of dragons being fire-breathers, the only Scandinavian dragon to be explicitly described as doing so was Beowulf's unnamed nemesis. On the other hand, both Jörmungand,  the Midgard Serpent (Thor's mortal enemy), and Fafnir (the hero Sigurd's foe) have been described as spewing forth a deadly venom—which   might be expected to burn  like fire when coming in contact with bare flesh!

            What could have inspired our ancestors to envision such creatures? Travelers' tales from Africa might well have brought word to the North of the existence of great pythons and crocodiles, the stark reality of which would not have needed even so much as a doubling in size to reach draconic proportions, and the common viper of northern Europe would have already acquainted Scandinavians with the painful and potentially fatal effect of reptile venom.

            As for the wings of flying dragons, well, some mythico-biological innovations will simply have to be credited to the human imagination. Appeals to the retention of ancestral memories of pterodactyls just won't fly. . .those remarkable reptiles were extinct long before earliest proto-human ancestors appeared on the scene, and the first pterodactyl fossils weren't discovered until long after the Viking Age had passed into history.

            Only four great Scandinavian dragons inhabited the literature of the Viking Age and the Eddas, but they still capture the imaginations of storytellers to this day. The winged fire-breather that terrorized the realm in southern Sweden ruled over by Beowulf in his later years was the first dragon to be mentioned in English literature (ca. 1000 A. D.)— upon which  he exerted an influence for another millennium. He clearly served as a prototype for Smaug in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, with Bilbo Baggins filling the role of the slave in Beowulf who stole a single precious object from the dragon's golden hoard and triggered that great beast's deadly retaliation against all the human inhabitants in the neighborhood. Eventually Beowulf sought out the dragon in its lair— and neither party survived the encounter.

            There was no banter exchanged between hero and dragon in Beowulf such as that which transpired between Bilbo Baggins and Smaug.  No, that scene was more reminiscent of the question-and-answer session between the famous dragon-slayer Sigurd and Fafnir, the dying dragon. Surprisingly, Fafnir—who had been a wicked, kin-slaying man before he transformed into a venomous, serpent-like dragon---did not seem to harbor any animosity toward his young nemesis.  Instead, Fafnir was more concerned with determining Sigurd’s ancestry in order to see if his slayer had been worthy to perform the deed!  Once that point was settled to his satisfaction, Fafnir even went so far as to warn Sigurd against claiming the dragon’s cursed treasure.  That warning went unheeded, of course, lest Sigurd appear unheroic.  And, in the light of the ethic of his time, Sigurd’s choice was probably the right one for him … although he had a short life and came to a violent end, his fame has survived even to this day in the Northern lands.  A recent retelling of Sigurd and Fafnir’s tale appears in “The Ring of Doom,”  Part Three of my book The Northern Path: Norse Myths and Legends Retold … and What They Reveal (Seven Paws Press, 2005).

           The dragon that played a part in more of the surviving myths than any other was Jörmungand, the serpentine son of the trickster Loki and his troll-mistress, Angrboda.  Cast out of Asgard by Odin because of a prophecy, Jörmungand landed – unharmed – in the great ocean surrounding Midgard.  There he continued to grow until he eventually encircled the whole world, where he met and bit down on his own tail – thus earning his nicknames, the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent.  Three stories tell of the great serpent’s antagonistic encounters with Thor, the first two being stand-offs and the third resulting in their mutual destruction at Ragnarök.

            Finally, in Niflheim there lives the dragon that may be the eldest of them all Nidhögg, who dwells in Hvergelmir, the great Spring of Creation, which he shares with a number of “serpents” (seven are named: Grafvitnir, Goin , Moin, Grabak, Grafvöllud, Ofnir and Svafnir).  Nidhögg  is said to gnaw on the root of Yggdrasil that extends down into Hvergelmir (the others may  as well—it  simply isn't stated in the surviving literature), and he also feeds on the corpses of human evildoers condemned to wade the venomous stream emerging from the Hall of Serpents in Hel's Nastrand. Apparently Nidhögg is fated to survive Ragnarök, for we are told in the final verse of "Voluspa" (Poetic Edda) that he will fly up over the Dark Fjells bearing human corpses in his talons (the only allusion to him having wings!).

            Dragon figures appear on many surviving artifacts from the Viking Age and the period shortly thereafter, most prominently—though not exclusively—on many runestones,  the prows of Viking ships, and the gables of a number of stave churches. When the runestone dragon encircles a stylized World Tree (see illustration), it seems likely that it was intended to be a representation of Jörmungand, but the fifteen-foot-long portrayal of Sigurd slaying Fafnir on a rock face near Ramsund, Sweden, is a different matter. Both of these dragons have runic inscriptions along the length of their bodies, which may simply have been an artistic convention . . . or in light of Sigurd being able to understand the language of birds (of "Nature"?) after tasting Fafnir's blood, there may have been a Scandinavian tradition that dragon's blood actually contained the essence of the runes—those magical symbols that made up the Viking-Age alphabet (see the discussion of runes and their meanings in The Northern Path, pp. 215-218, 222-226)..  

          The dragon's heads on Viking ships apparently were intended to frighten one's foes, and were deemed so effective that the heads were removed when approaching one's own lands to avoid upsetting the friendly earth-spirits dwelling there. In the case of the dragon's heads adorning some stave-church gables, presumably they served primarily as "scaretrolls" to deter those much-feared beings from entering the Christian churches.

            Finally, to bring all of this lore home to Valdres, the Losna family—from whom many Valders families are descended—had a coat-of-arms with a crest that featured two dragons (one blue, one silver) with their necks entwined.  I suspect that this crest may have inspired the current Valdres logo. Does anyone know for certain? And what about the meaning of the "double-dragon" crest? If you know the answer to either of these questions, I would love to hear from you at:  rossmado@luther.edu

 *     *    *

   This article brings to a close my Voices of the Viking Age column.  I hope it has helped to whet your appetite to explore the worlds of Norse mythology   for yourself. Obviously the stories—and   the attitudes expressed by our ancestors—give us a lot to think about. Mange takk for letting me share your reading space.

 

    
© 2014  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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