Whenever there is a conversation about imaginary creatures, between all your Nessies, Chupacabras, and Yeties, there is always a creature that humans found the most interesting across time. That is, of course, a dragon.
Whenever we speak about Norse mythology and Norse myth, we talk about different sorts of creatures. We speak about Gods, we speak about heroes, we even speak about creatures that inhabit Norse mythology, but, this time, we are going to set our course in the direction of one elusive creature of Norse mythology (and the whole Norse myth, really), the dragon.
There are plenty of sources in Norse mythology about dragons. Still, probably the most famous ones are Voluspa, the first poem of our, already well-known, Poetic Edda, the Volsung cycle (a series of stories about Norse mythology which were written in Iceland and preserved all over Scandinavia) and Gesta Danorum (Saxo Grammaticus' chronicle about Danes).
Some cultures, as ancient Chinese, for example, regard dragons as benevolent protectors. Norse myth about dragons isn't like that. Dragons are usually represented as enemies of the heroes and part of the wrong side of Ragnarok. That being said, they are creatures of incredible strength, which are virtually indestructible, and Viking that would be able to kill such a mighty creature would become a legend at that very moment.
Norse mythology by itself has separate names for every dragon inhabiting its world, but if we talk about dragons in general, Vikings used the word dreki. Also, there are different sources that indicate the word ormr is also being used to represent dragons.
The creatures which were also a part of Norse mythology, Lindwyrms (creatures similar to wyverns, a lesser form of dragons), came from the old Norse word Linnormr which is translated as 'ensnaring snake'.
When we search through all Viking myths and put them together, we can gather three dragons that are recognizable by name. The name of the first dragon is Nidhogg, the dragon who gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree, the second Jormungandr, a giant snake which surrounds the Midgard and is hence usually called the Midgard serpent and third Fafnir, who was not born as a dragon but was turned into it.
There is also a mention in Gesta Danorum about a dragon that was killed by a hero Sigurd, but no name is mentioned for that dragon.
There may be many more, but none are mentioned by name.
Nidhogg (modern anglicized spelling), or Níðhöggr, is, as we said, a dragon which gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil. In the Norse culture, the word Nid represented the loss of status in society and was reserved for social outcasts. That is why we can connect Nidhogg with the lowest part of society. According to Norse myth envisioned in Poetic Edda, and its part Voluspa, the gnawing which was done by Nidhogg, was eating of souls who ended up in Nastrond, the part of Hel which had in it the souls of the worst humans in the Viking world, murderers, adulterers, and, very important part for the Viking tradition, oathbreakers. Nidhogg is also mentioned at the end of Voluspa, where we have a description of Ragnarok and Nidhogg as one of the harbingers of it where he comes with his wings spread and dead people on them.
According to the part Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, there are many creatures that live on Yggdrasil. Aside from Nidhogg, who is mentioned as a serpent in this context, there is also Ratatoskr, a squirrel that sends envious messages between Nidhogg at the bottom of the tree and a huge eagle (whose name is not mentioned here). In the other part, Skaldskaparmal, Nidhogg is mentioned as one of the dragons that inhabit the world.
The role of Nidhogg is not quite clear as he may be used as a bearer of news that the world is about to end, but his final act could also mean that he has achieved redemption. Of course, as a dragon who ate the souls of wrongdoers at the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil, he was also a pretty powerful cautionary tale. I really don't know who wouldn't be scared by the words 'giant serpent which lives at the roots of Yggdrasil is going to eat you unless you change your behavior'.
Jormungandr, also known as the Midgard serpent, is the creature that encircles Midgard, biting its tail at the world's end. Its father is trickster God Loki, and its mother is giantess Angrbroda. Jormungandr was tossed in the Midgard's great sea by the God Odin, where it grew so much that it could encircle the Earth.
Even though the story of Jormungandr begins with Odin, the God who has the most connections with Jormungandr throughout the Norse myth is Odin's son, the thunder-god, Thor. Norse mythology mentions three occasions where these two met.
The first occasion was when Odin was doing some errands for giant king Utgarda-Loki. There, as a show of strength, the king asked that Thor lifts a colossal cat, which was actually Jormungandr in disguise. Of course, Thor couldn't do it, but, to everyone's surprise, he managed to lift one of its paws of the ground, which was considered an impressive feat.
The second time they met was when Thor went fishing with the giant Hymir. On that trip, Hymir didn't want to provide Thor with the bait for fishing, so he took the head of the largest Hymir's ox. While they were fishing, Thor was dissatisfied with his catch, so he persuaded Hymir that they go more and more into the sea when at one point, Thor pulled out Jormungandr from the water. Just as he was about to kill it, Hymir cut the line and released the dragon back into the sea.
The third and last encounter between Thor and Jormungandr is supposed to be at Ragnarok, which is said to begin when Jormungandr releases its tail and comes to land from the sea. At this point, thunder-god will kill the serpent Jormungandr but will die after nine steps because he will be poisoned by the dragon. That would also signify the end of Ragnarok.
The story about Fafnir begins with Loki, Odin, and Hoenir, who, on their travels, killed an otter which turned out to be a dwarf Otr, son of the king of the dwarves Hreidmar. When Hreidmar heard that they killed his son, he, along with his two sons, Fafnir and Regis, captured the three gods, refusing to release them until they pay a ransom in gold. Knowing this, Loki agreed but gave them Andvari gold, which was said to be cursed, and the ring Andvaranaut, which was said to bring death to anyone who wears it. Jealous of all that gold, Fafnir killed his father, the king, and took all the gold treasure for himself. After some time, he turned into a creature that was said to be something like a dragon, which breathed fire and spread poison across the land. He did everything in his power to hoard all that wealth.
Long after that, Regis, the brother of Fafnir, wanted the gold treasure for himself. Since he was unable to kill his brother, he sent his stepson Sigurd to search for and kill Fafnir. After a long and ferocious battle, the young warrior managed to kill Fafnir. While he was dying, Fafnir wanted to know who was the powerful warrior who managed to kill him. When he heard that his own brother Regis sent him, he foretold that Regis will kill Sigurd as well. After Sigurd killed Fafnir, he decided to get the treasure for himself. Regis obviously could not bear something like that to happen, so he decided to kill Sigurd and hoard the treasure himself. What he didn't know was that while he was cooking the heart of the dragon, he tasted some. From that moment on, he could understand the language of animals, so he heard from two birds that his father wants to kill him. Of course, that didn't happen, and Sigurd killed his father with the same sword he used to kill the dragon and took the treasure. He said that he wasn't afraid to get the deadly curse since all men die.
At last, we came to an end of our search for knowledge about Viking and their dragons. Are they good or evil? Well, almost like everything in Norse mythology, probably a little bit of both. Even when we look from a modern perspective, is anyone truly good or truly evil? We feel that the best thing is that you are free to make your own conclusion. Our opinion is that it doesn't hold much importance, and though it's good to be good, most of us are like dragons, somewhere in the middle.
Until our next meeting with Vikings, stay safe in these troubling times. Skal!
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