This week we will continue honoring the Mighty Beasts from the Eddas and Sagas. If you didn’t read the first part of the post, you can find it here.
Dragons and Serpents
The Vikings had lots of stories of dragons and giant serpents and left many depictions of these creatures in their art. The longship – the heart and soul of the Viking – were even called "dragon ships" for their sleek design and carved dragon-headed prows.
These heads sometimes would be removed to announce the Vikings came in peace (as not to frighten the spirits of the land, the Icelandic law codes say). The common images of dragons we have from fantasy movies, with thick bodies and heavy legs come more from medieval heraldry inspired by Celtic legends. The earliest Norse dragons were more serpentine, with long coiling bodies. They only sometimes had wings, and only some breathed fire.
Dragons are as rich in symbolism as they were said to be rich in treasure. As the true, apex predator, dragons represent both great strength and great danger. With their association with hordes of gold or as the captors of beautiful women, dragons can represent opportunity through risk.
Jörmungandr, also called The Midgard Serpent is so immeasurable that it wraps itself around the entire world, holding in the oceans. Jörmungandr is the arch-enemy of the God of Thunder Thor, and they are fated to kill each other at Ragnarok.
Some Norse dragons were not just giant monsters - they were cosmic forces unto themselves. Níðhöggr is such a creature. Níðhöggr means "Curse Striker." He coils around the roots of Yggdrasil, gnawing at them and dreaming of Ragnarok.
One of the most interesting dragons was Fáfnir. Fáfnir was originally a dwarf, but through his greed and treachery, he was turned into a fearsome, almost-indestructible monster who slept on a horde of gold (read more here). Fáfnir (as well as Níðhöggr) exhibit one of the most frightening characteristics of dragons: intelligence.
Heroes like Beowulf met their greatest test against dragons. Even Ragnar Lothbrok won his name, his favorite wife (Thora), and accelerated his destiny by slaying a giant, venomous serpent (we will find more about Ragnar in a future post).
Thor’s Goats: Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr
Thor has two goats that pull his chariot, Tanngrisnir, or "teeth-barer, snarler” and Tanngnjóstr, the "teeth grinder” in old Norse. Always faithful and always willing to take Thor on his journeys, the goats’ flesh can also provide Thor with sustenance should he need it for, as long as their bones remain unbroken, Thor is able to resurrect them in their full strength on the next day.
In Scandinavian folklore, witches who magically replenish food sometimes appear in tales, the food usually being herring. However, in fear that one would waste away for eating the same morsel again and again, folk tales describe the breaking of the herring bones when eating as a form of precaution (read more about Thor’s goats here).
The Boars Hildisvini and Gullinborsti
There are numerous other animal motifs in Norse art and culture. Many of these are the fylgja (familiars or attendant spirits) of different Gods. Thor had his goats, and Heimdall had his rams. Freyja had a ferocious boar to accompany her in war, named Hildisvini ("Battle Swine").
Her brother, Freyr (or Frey) - the God of sex, male fertility, bounty, wealth, and peace (who, along with Freya, aptly lends his name to Friday) - had a boar named Gullinborsti ("Golden-Bristled") as his fylgia. Seeing Gullinborsti's symbol or other boar motifs would make a Viking think of peace, happiness, and plenty.
When not riding Hildisvini into the thick of battle or using her fabulous falcon-feather cloak to shape shift into a lightning-fast bird of prey, Freyja traveled in a chariot drawn by big grey cats.
Some folklorists see the image of the Goddess getting cats to work together and go in the same direction as a metaphor for the power of feminine influence – a reoccurring theme in the Viking sagas. The cat probably reminded Vikings of Freyja because of the common personality traits: cats are independent but affectionate when they want to be; fierce fighters and lethal hunters but lovers of leisure, luxury, and treasures. This association between the Goddess of magic and her cats may be why cats became associated with witches during the later Middle Ages and through our own time.
In Norse art or jewelry, the symbol or motif of the cat is meant to denote the blessings of Freyja, with all her contradictions and strength: love and desire, abundance and beauty, valor and the afterlife, music and poetry, magic and wisdom.
The bear was one of the most powerful and ferocious animals the Vikings knew. The very sight of a bear in the wild would make the bravest of men back away slowly. They are massive, fast, and deadly, and their hide and fur resist most weapons. It is easy to see why the Vikings would be fascinated by them and would want to emulate them.
Viking kings loved to own bears as pets. Saxo Grammaticus tells us that the great shield maiden, Lagertha, had a pet bear that she turned loose on Ragnar Lothbrok when he first came to court her. Understandably, this incident got brought up again in their later divorce.
The Bear is sacred to Odin, and this association inspired the most legendary class of all Vikings: the berserkers. Berserkers were Viking heroes who would fight in a state of ecstatic frenzy. The word berserker comes from two old Norse words that mean "bear shirt" or "bear skin." It is also where we get the phrase,"to go berserk".
The berserker took on the essence and spirit of the great bears of the Scandinavian wilderness. He became the bear in battle, with all the creature’s ferocity, bravery, strength, and indestructibility. Thus, he put on the bear’s skin – which he may have also done literally, using bear hide for armor. Or, he wore no armor of any kind and had bare skin (the play on words is the same in English and Old Norse). In either case, the berserker is a warrior who enters battle inspired with Odin’s lethal fury.
Auðumbla the Cow and some honorable mentions
The very first being into existence is said to be a cow, Auðumbla, who licked away the salty rime rocks and revealed into existence Búri, grandfather of the Allfather Odin himself. Little else is said about Auðumbla, other than her milk fed the first Jotunn Ymir.
There are several other important animals in the Norse Mythology, but the information about them is sparse. We know for example that the God Heimdal has a golden-maned horse Gulltoppr and that he is associated somehow with rams, but the details are lost to history. We know about the eagle who sits in the boughs of Yggdrasil and the squirrel that scurries along the trunk of the world tree, but if they had any special significance, we no longer know.
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Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. ISSN 0284-1347
Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. ISBN13: 9781781395172
Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes. ISBN-13 9780859915021
Grimm, Jacob. 1882. Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. (Google books)