I have a sense many would agree that calling Jörmungandr a sea monster does him a disservice. He is The Midgard Serpent, The World Serpent, and one of the great contributors to Ragnarök, the end of life as it was. Like many characters in Norse mythology, he is both hero and villain, both the betrayed and the betrayer. His dark past forges a darker future and makes him one of most compelling characters in the pantheon.
Jörmungandr is the middle child of Loki (blood brother of Odin, The Allfather) and his wife Angrboða, a jötunn (contrasting beings to the gods, generally considered to be giants). He is considered to have taken the form of a large snake at birth. His brother, Fenrir, is a gigantic wolf. His sister, Hel, takes human form though she is described as being half blue and half flesh-coloured, with many depictions showing her to be burned on one side. Because of her children’s frightful appearances, Angrboða is often referred to as the Mother of Monsters.
Odin makes no secret of the fact that he is fearful of Loki and Angrboða’s brood. All he can see is their potential for destruction if left to their own devices, he cannot not see any opportunity for good. So he chains Fenrir, banishes Hel to the Underworld, and tosses Jörmungandr into the ocean. In the murky depths, Jörmungandr’s heart grows cold towards the gods. He feels abandoned by Odin, stripped of his family, that he and his siblings have been treated unjustly. However, physically, he thrives.
In no time at all, Jörmungandr grows to such a length that he can wrap himself around the world, grasping at his own tail. Tales are told of his domination of the sea and the Norns predict that if he is to let go of his grip, Ragnarök – a great battle, a swathe of natural disasters and the submersion of everything under water – will begin. But for a while, Jörmungandr keeps to himself, only emerging when coaxed or tricked by one of the gods.
Most frequently, he is disturbed by Thor. At their first meeting, Jörmungandr is used as a prop by the giant king and magician, Útgarða-Loki, to test Thor’s strength. Útgarða-Loki disguises Jörmungandr as a humungous cat and challenges Thor to lift him. Of course, Thor is unable to, because by this time Jörmungandr has become part of the fabric of the world and in lifting him, Thor will alter the boundaries of the universe.
Their second encounter is during a fishing trip, when Thor is, typically, hunting for the biggest fish he can find, using an ox head as bait. He catches two gigantic whales before Jörmungandr is enticed. The serpent breaches the waves, angrily spitting poison when he realises that the ox’s head is attached to a line, and that the line is Thor’s. From that moment, they become sworn enemies.
Their final encounter is at Ragnarök, the “Twilight of the Gods”. The gods that Jörmungandr has grown to hate. The first sign, as foretold, is the unrest of the ocean as Jörmungandr releases his tail from his mouth. He then thrashes himself upon the land and rises up alongside his brother, the mighty Fenrir, who breathes fire from his nose. The brothers fight alongside the sons of Muspell, fire giants, and together kill a number of the greatest figures in Norse mythology, including Odin and Thor. However, this is not before Jörmungandr takes a mortal blow from Mjölnir, Thor’s trusty hammer.
Jörmungandr is a fascinating character because, alongside his siblings, he embodies a crucial moment for Odin and in the lives of the gods. There is an inevitability to Ragnarök that is apparent throughout Norse mythology. Odin knows that the world must be made anew without him, he knows that his days are numbered. Through fear, he still chooses cruelty towards the children of Loki, someone he professes to love. Choices like this make Odin more human. Jörmungandr’s resultant descent into hatred makes him relatable. Much more than the sea monster who surrounded the world, he is a lost child, a frustrated adult, an agent for change.