Norse Dragons: Worms of the North

We are all familiar with dragons, those Western symbols of power, wealth, and greed. It should come as no surprise that people in the Viking world had stories of dragons. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien derived the inspiration for his creature, Smaug, from one of the Norse world’s most well-known stories, the Saga of the Volsungs.  

Dragons in Norse mythology are referred to as “ormr” which is the same as the English word “worm”. Their dragons were typically more like giant serpents than what we think of as dragons, with only one of them sporting wings, Nidhogg, who also had feathers. Most of them slithered more like giant snakes rather than flying through the air like our modern dragons. However, their size and ferocity should be very familiar! 

There are three main dragons in Norse myths: Fafnir, Nidhogg (Nith-hog), and Jormungandr (Your-mun-gahn-der).

Fafnir

Fafnir has the most remarkable story of the three, because he was not born a dragon–he turned into one. Born the dwarf son of a magician, Fafnir became so consumed by greed that he transformed into a dragon so he could guard his hoard. 

We learn about the story of Fafnir in the Saga of the Volsungs, and it includes the Norse hero, Sigurd.

Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer

Like many heroes, Sigurd’s father was killed when Sigurd was a child, and he lived with a step-father. But Sigurd never forgot his lineage as someone who came from a great line of noble men. The blacksmith in Sigurd’s stepfather’s household was a dwarf named Regin, who told Sigurd that he needed to make a name for himself by doing a great deed…like slaying a dragon.

Sigurd testing his new sword, Garm, reforged by the dwarf smith Regin. By Johannes Gehrts, 1901

Regin told Sigurd about Fafnir the dragon who guarded a large hoard of treasure that Sigurd could claim after he killed the serpent. Sigurd, rightfully, asked Regin how he was the brother of a dragon. Regin tells the tale of how that happened.

Regin’s Tale

Odin and Loki were traveling when they came across an otter eating a fish. Being hungry, Loki killed the otter for their meal. Later they came to a house and asked the owner, Hreidmar, if they could stay the night. They showed him the otter as an offering for dinner. Hreidmar, horrified, told them that the otter was his son Otr! He demanded compensation for his son’s killing. In Norse culture, since there were no courts or prisons, people could appeal for monetary compensation for the killing of livestock, and even family members. It was called wergild. The higher the status of the person killed, the more the compensation. Hreidmar demanded that the gods fill the skin with gold and then cover it with more gold so that no bit of the skin showed. That’s a lot of gold. 

The gods agreed. 

Loki, of course, knew where to find the gold. He borrowed a net from the sea goddess Ran, and then he and Odin traveled to a pool of water. Loki knew the dwarf Andvari liked to swim there in the form of a pike fish. Apparently the dwarves in Norse mythology liked to transform into water creatures! Loki caught Andvari in Ran’s net.

Andvari possessed a treasure trove, so Loki demanded the gold in exchange for Andvari’s life. With much grumbling, Andvari handed over his treasure. But, unbeknownst to the two gods, Andvari placed a curse on the ring that it would destroy anyone who possessed it. Loki and Odin filled and covered the otter skin with the gold and unknowingly passed the cursed ring on to Hreidmar.

Some of the gold they used to cover the bag was red-gold, which was rare and highly valuable. Hreidmar, although bereft at his son’s death, loved his new hoard. 

So did his son.  

Fafnir desired the gold so much that he killed his father for it. He then turned into a dragon and, like any good legendary dragon, sat on his treasure to guard it. 

Back to Sigurd and Regin…

After hearing this story, Sigurd decided, naturally, to kill Fafnir and take his treasure. 

Regin confided in Sigurd how to kill the dragon. Sigurd was to dig a trench and then lie in wait for the dragon to pass by on his way to get water. When Sigurd was at work digging the pit from which to ambush Fafnir, Odin appeared to him as an old man and informed him to dig more trenches for the blood to flow, so it would not touch Sigurd. 

If Odin appears to you, you listen. 

After digging the trenches, Sigurd waited for the dragon. On cue, Fafnir slithered toward the watering hole. When he passed over the waiting Sigurd, he plunged his sword into the dragon’s underside. 

Fafnir died. 

Regin, who had run off when Fafnir drew near, returned and told Sigurd to prepare the dragon’s heart to eat. What Sigurd didn’t know at the time was that Regin planned to betray and kill him, and then take the treasure for himself. 

While cooking the heart to eat, Sigurd tasted some of the dragon’s blood. This allowed him to understand the birds that perched nearby.

The birds were Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn. They spoke to one another of Regin’s plan to betray and kill Sigurd. Learning of Regin’s treachery, Sigurd cut off his head with the sword that Regin, himself, had reforged. 

Odin with Huginn and Muninn from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript

Treacherous friend dead, Sigurd collected the cursed treasure for himself and rode off to do more heroic deeds, like save a beautiful woman from an enchanted castle. Of course, much more happened to Sigurd before Andvari’s curse caught up to him, but those are stories for another time.    

Jormungandr

Jormungandr is the serpent that encircles Midgard, the world of humans. He lives in the ocean that surrounds our world, his body wrapping around it, and he holds it by biting his own tail. The word Jormungandr means “giant monster.” The Norse, if nothing else, had very literal names for things!

The god Thor had three encounters with the Midgard serpent.

Thor and the Giant Hymir

In the story of Thor and the giant Hymir, Thor and Hymir went fishing together. During this fishing trip, Thor baited his hook with the head of an ox! Little did Hymir know, but Thor wanted to catch the world serpent Jormungandr. He was successful. With the giant world serpent on the hook, Thor had to use all his strength to bring it in, the whole time Jormungandr thrashing and spitting. Thor had to brace himself so firmly, his feet went right through the bottom of the boat. But then, Hymir, frightened of what would happen if Thor actually landed the great beast, cut the line. Jormungandr slipped back into the deep. 

Jormungandr taking the bait. 17th-century Icelandic manuscript.

If you want to read the whole story of Thor and Hymir, I have a post about it HERE.

Thor and Utgarda-Loki

Another story involves Thor, Loki, and two servant children who all ended up in the hall of the giant Utgarda-Loki. Once inside, the master of the hall teased Thor, Loki and the others for their tiny size. Not ones to take kindly to insults, the party challenged the giants. 

Loki challenged them to an eating contest. Unfortunately, his opponent not only ate faster than Loki, he also ate all the meat, the bones, and the trencher! 

The servant boy, Thjalfi challenged the giants to a running contest, since he believed himself fast, only to have his opponent get so far ahead that he was able to double back and pass Thjalfi again. 

Finally, Thor stepped up. His first challenge was to drink from a drinking horn. Utgarda-Loki told Thor that all of the giants could drain the contents in one drink, two was acceptable, but that any more than that was shameful. Thor gave it a mighty try but he was barely able to lower the contents. He tried again with a little better showing, and then a third time in which he drained much more, but still not nearly enough. He gave up. 

The second challenge for Thor was to simply pick up Utgarda-Loki’s cat. Thor grabbed it around the middle and tugged, but he only got the cat to almost lift his paws off the floor.

Now angry, Thor wanted to fight one of the giants. Utgarda-Loki laughed at him and said that he was no match for any of the giants, not even the young ones. Then, he brought out an old female giant who he said had been his nurse. Much to Thor’s shame, the old woman bested the god. 

Upset and humiliated, the crew gave up. They spent the night with the giants and left the following day. As they were leaving, Utgarda-Loki confided in Thor that he had not been entirely truthful and confessed what the contests had actually entailed. 

  • Loki had competed against Fire, which consumes all. 
  • Thjalfi ran against Thought and nothing travels faster than a thought. 
  • Thor’s drinking horn was connected to the sea, and they were actually a little afraid that Thor would drain it. 
  • The cat was none other than Jormungandr, the Midgard serpent, and Thor had alarmingly nearly lifted it. 
  • The old woman was Old Age and nothing can defeat that.

Thor was angry with Utgarda-Loki but also knew when he’d been beaten. He left and never went back.    

Thor, Jormungandr, and Ragnarok

The final encounter between Thor and Jormungandr will be at Ragnarok, the end of the world. Thor was Jormungandr’s most bitter enemy among the gods because of their previous two encounters. So when things are set in motion for Ragnarok, Jormungandr will rise up from the deep and release his tail, which will cause terrible waves. His breath will poison the sky. He and Thor will meet and battle. Thor will kill Jormungandr but will be himself fatally wounded by Jormungandr’s poison. Thor will take nine steps before dying. His son, Magni will pick up his hammer and be one of the few to survive and begin a new world. 

Nidhogg

The Nidhogg (Malice Striker) is the dragon/serpent that gnaws at the base of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. This is the World Tree from which all of the worlds of gods, men, dwarfs, and elves are sustained. He trades insults with an eagle that lives in the world above. A squirrel delivers those insults back and forth by running up and down the trunk of Yggdrasil. During the end of the world battle, Nidhogg will rise up from the earth bringing the corpses of the dead with him. He survives and lives on in the next world.  

Nidhogg from a 17th century Icelandic manuscript

Ragnar Lodbrok Kills a Dragon

There are other accounts of dragons in the stories and sagas, including the tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, who was recently made famous in the TV series Vikings. In the old story, Ragnar heard tale of an earl who had given his daughter, Thora, a serpent he’d found while out hunting. The earl told her to feed it, which she did, and it grew to enormous size, and soon laid waste to the countryside with its poisonous breath. The earl offered Thora in marriage to any man who would rid him of the dragon.

Enter Ragnar. 

At this time he was not called Ragnar Lodbrok. Lodbrok actually means “shaggy pants” and is a nickname derived from this fight with the dragon. Before meeting the beast, Ragnar boiled his pants in pitch, which somehow made them look shaggy (I don’t know how that works!). It protected him from the dragon’s breath and/or blood (depending on the story), and Ragnar stabbed the creature, killing it.  

From that time on, Ragnar was known as Ragnar “shaggy pants” or “shaggy breeches.” He got the girl and married Thora.

Ragnar “Shaggy Pants” killing a dragon
From one of the Torslunda Plates

There are other stories in the sagas about men and heroes who had dragon slaying in their pasts. Apparently, in the Norse world, if you want to impress a girl, her father, or the people of a village, you made sure to tell them you’re a dragon-slayer! 

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