Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Serpent and the Hammer

For a god to be humiliated by a lesser being was burden that weighed heavily upon the shoulders of Thor, Son of Odin and thunder god. Stung by his trials in the Giant Kingdom (for this story, please click here), he could scarcely look the other gods in the eye. So to lands afar the Thunderer cast his fearsome eye, in search of trials anew, and a chance to prove himself mightiest of the Aesir once and for all...

Thor and Hymir at the World Ocean
Image taken from the SÁM 66 manuscript
Not long did the Son of Odin delay in Asgard's golden fields. So swift was the Thunderer's leave, neither chariot nor retinue nor friend followed in the god's footsteps this time. Far and wide Thor travelled, descending through the Nine Worlds to the realm of Midgard, the earthly abode of men. His eyes roved hither and thither, but one thing alone caught his eye. There was, far below on the shores of the World Ocean, a giant tending his nets by the water's edge. Intrigued by the seemingly peaceable giant, the Son of Odin sought him out. Adopting the guise of a young man, Thor soared down to the Earth, making his approach. As his feet touched the sand, he bade greetings to the stranger. The giant jovially returned his warm words, introducing himself as Hymir. God and giant, Aesir and Jötunn, soon became something of friends, boy though the Thunder god was to Hymir's eyes. As night fell, the two dined merrily together, though Hymir was most shocked by the appetite of his 'youthful guest'. Voracious in his appetite, Thor had devoured two whole oxen, so great was the god's hunger. Startled, but impressed, Hymir reasoned that he would now have to venture out to hunt the next day. Dawn arose over Midgard, and over a fateful day. Thor arose quickly, asking Hymir if he might accompany him on the ocean today. Hymir, seeing the small stature of his guest, mournfully declared that the seas would be no place for a boy, "and thou wilt freeze, if I stay so long and so far out as I am wont". The Thunderer suppressed a powerful surge of anger at this insult, but, wary of revealing his true identity, maintained his calm demeanour. Replying that perhaps it would not be him to ask to row back first, the god asked what bait he might use. The giant, impressed by his guest's bravery, told him he may use any bait he wished. Turning to Hymir's vast herd of oxen, the Thunderer slew the mightiest of them, the bull Himinbrjotr. Cutting off the vast head, Thor took his bait, as the giant prepared his boat for the high seas.

Pushing out into the calm surf, Hymir began to row out into the great blue yonder. For a long while god and giant rode the waves in search of the fruits of the ocean, and very soon the shores of Midgard fell below the horizon behind. Expecting to see the young man shivering in the cold, Hymir was most surprised when he looked up to find his guest completely at ease, even perhaps a little bored, by the course of things. Casting his powerful nets overboard, Hymir readied himself. Not long had passed, when a sudden judder shook the small craft. Smirking broadly, the giant hauled two great whales from the depths, mightier a catch by far than any of made by men. Convinced that no other could surpass he, he who had spent many ages of the Nine Worlds aside the endless seas, Hymir eagerly bade Thor on. Taking up the oars, the Thunderer rowed hard, taking the small boat further and further from the shore.

Seeing the calmness of the surface turn to choppy waves in the distance, Hymir suddenly realised how far they had come. Turning to his guest, he warned that the open ocean was becoming dangerous. Had he but known that the Thunder god himself was with him, he would have known that the threat of violent storms was, for once, absent. But what the giant truly feared, and the Jötunn were not a race known for feeling emotion, were the horrors which lurked in the deeper places of the oceans. There were things more terrible than storms in the depths of the World Ocean, ancient terrors spoken of in the stories of the Old World, and one above all others, whose name Norse children feared to speak (about whom you can read here). But the lord of Thunder was unrelenting, replying that he desired to row much further yet. As the two drifted onward to the distant horizon, Hymir grew desperately afraid. Steeling himself, he chanced a glance over the side, and saw only the unyielding, inky blackness of the deep. Suddenly he became aware of how horribly small their boat was, and how incomprehensibly vast the ocean. A vulnerability and humility before the awesome scale of nature such as never he had felt before swept over the giant, and he felt his mouth grow dry.

After what seemed an age, when land was as a distant memory, or in another life, Thor stopped rowing. Seizing the bull's head, the Son of Odin hurled it overboard, keeping a firm grip upon the robust line he had tied to it. Giant and god waited. The calm breeze and the gentle lapping of the waves against the boat was, for what seemed forever, all that punctuated the otherwise deathly silence. Hymir's heart pounded in his ears. Soon, the giant noticed something odd. There were no fish around them anymore. All the sea birds had long fled. All around the boat, the choppy waves had fallen to serene peace. Never before had such tranquillity heralded such terror. Just then, it all happened so quickly that the giant could do nothing but look on. Suddenly, the line was wrenched from below with savage violence, as the World Ocean around them erupted into the fury of rapids. The line was yanked with such force that the Thunder god himself felt one of his feet smash through the wood below as he tried to brace, and his powerful fists slammed painfully upon the gunwales. Any other being, man, giant or god, would certainly have perished there and then, but not for nothing was Thor renowned across the Nine Worlds, and history, for his unrivalled strength and steadfast resolve. He had only a split second. With a roar that shook the cosmos to its very core, the Son of Odin heaved with all the might his divine sinews could muster. The surface of the World Ocean exploded in rage, as towering waves surged forth in all directions, as the very water was rent asunder. Hymir's cheeks turned pale at the monstrous sight now before him, as his greatest nightmare, and that of all who venture out onto the oceans, manifested before his eyes. The World Serpent, Jörmungandr himself, so vast that his body encircled the whole Earth and still able to take his own tail in his mouth, now fixed them with the glare which betrayed pure malice. It is said that none who had seen it would ever call anything else fearful again. The foul brood of Angrboða writhed against the line caught in its towering teeth, invisible to its gargantuan eyes. Venom so potent that neither mortal nor god was safe spat from Jörmungandr's cavernous mouth, as the ocean hissed wherever the droplets fell. Just then, the World Serpent lowered its evil crest, intent on dragging giant, god and boat to the very root of the ocean before devouring them. His disguise cast aside at last, Thor took up his mighty hammer Mjöllnir, drawing back for a blow that would change the course of everything:

Thor smites Jörmungandr
Painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli

" The venomous serpent, swiftly up

   to the boat did Thor, the bold one, pull;

  With his hammer, the loathly hill of the hair

  Of the brother of Fenrir, he smote from 
  above... "


Mjöllnir slammed into Jörmungandr's crown with irresistible force, as the World Serpent jerked, stunned. The hammer had conquered many fell creatures, but only a few moments now, and the Serpent would recover. Thor looked on triumphant, ready to reel in a catch beyond the wildest dreams of any being that could draw breath. But then, Hymir, his jealous, proud giant heart waxing strong at last, seeing the true nature of his companion, determined to deny him this great glory. Diving forward, the Jötunn, with one desperate swing, severed the line with his knife. Bellowing with rage, Thor hurled Mjöllnir at Jörmungandr, but too late! The instant his bonds were shattered, the World Serpent plunged to the black depths, and the hammer struck nothing but wave. His pride great, and his wound of suffering the greatest missed opportunity of his life raging in him, Thor turned and smashed his fist into Hymir's ear. Howling with laughter, pain and then fear, the giant was sent hurtling into the wine dark sea, down into the deep lair of the World Serpent.

As he soared back to Asgard, Thor cursed loudly. Never before had the Son of Odin known so great an anguish as he knew now. He had been robbed of glory by a giant once again. But, as the god rose higher into the skies, he did not see the far greater worry. For now he had made a personal enemy of the most terrible force in the cosmos, an enemy who was even now stirring at the root of the World Ocean, whose fury burned so terrible that the sea around him boiled. It is written that at Ragnarök, the end of the world, the two will face each other for the last time...

United Kingdom

The Prose Edda:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A collection of stories of the Norse gods and beings)

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A collection of the poems telling the stories of Norse Mythology)

United States

The Prose Edda:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A collection of stories of the Norse gods and beings)

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A collecrtion of the poems telling the stories of Norse Mythology)


  1. Another very entertaining and excellent read! Thanks again James, I am looking forward to more tales of Norse Mythology.

    1. Thanks Marco! It is marvellous to hear you are still entertained! Rest assured, more Norse lore is on the horizon!