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Squid vs. Thor: Teuthid Imagery in Norse Mythology

By Adam Eli Clem, 2003

By Adam Eli Clem, 2003

In "The Prose Edda" of Snori Sturlason, a compendium of Norse pagan myths written in 1220 A.D., Thor, the Norse god of thunder, twice encounters a creature known as Jormungander, the "World Serpent," also known as the Midgard Serpent. Jormungander was said to be one of three offspring of the trickster-god Loki and the giantess Angrboda, and so prodigious was the size of their monstrous, aquatic child that it coiled about the entirety of the world.

Thor first encounters Jormungander in the company of the giant Hymir, whom Thor press-gangs into service as a rower in an attempt to capture Jormungander. Taking the severed head of Hymir's favorite ox Himinbrjotr, "Sky Bellower," as bait for the serpent, Thor and the giant row out into the sea. Thor ties a long line to a hook he has fashioned, impales the ox-head with it and lowers the bait to the bottom of the sea.

The narrative continues, per Sturlason:

"The Midgard Serpent snapped at the ox-head, and the hook caught in its jaw; but when the Serpent was aware of this, it dashed away so fiercely that both Thor's fists crashed against the gunwale. Then Thor was angered, and took upon him his divine strength, braced his feet so strongly that he plunged through the ship with both feet, and dashed his feet against the bottom; then he drew the Serpent up to the gunwale. And it may be said that no one has seen very fearful sights who might not see that: how Thor flashed fiery glances at the Serpent, and the Serpent in turn stared up toward him from below and blew venom." (Sturlason, The Prose Edda, Brodeur translation)

Then, just as Thor is about to dispatch the beast with his hammer, Hymir, scared out of his wits (and probably more than a little resentful about the loss of his ox) severs the line, whereupon the serpent disappears below the waves. Thor's second, final encounter with Jormungander comes at the time of Ragnarok, the incineration of the world that prefigures the rebirth of man; Thor and Jormungander fight to the death, Jormungander by hammer-blow and Thor by the venomous secretions of the serpent.


Visual representations of the Midgard serpent typically present a long, sinuous creature that coils upon itself, sometimes as a hooped serpent with it's tail in it's mouth, and at others as a kind of living Mobius strip. One of the more famous images appears on a carved granite obelisk in Altuna, Sweden. Colored with iron oxide-pigment, the Runic carving depicts Thor hauling a writhing Jormungander to the surface (Fig.1). Within a nest of heads on slender necks, the beast grasps the tethered head of Sky-Bellower. An isolation of the Jormungander element (Fig. 2) gives us an idea of the thing's general planform.

Large teuthids like Architeuthis dux are no strangers to the cold waters of Scandinavia, and the Altuna image suggests that they were not unknown to the artisans who carved the stone. It is not difficult to see in the Altuna figure the outlines of the manus, feeding tentacle and arm corona of a squid. The individual heads with which Jormungander grasps the head of Sky-Bellower might derive from the appearance of the suckers on the tentacular club of Architeuthis. Arrayed on short stalks, these suckers could easily have been mistaken for small, mobile mouths, ringed with chitinous teeth.

Figure 5 appears in an illuminated Medieval Icelandic manuscript, and closely follows the formal composition of the Altuna stone, complete with dangling ox-head, but the artist has dispensed with the nest of biting heads, choosing instead to give the serpent a leering, satanic face topped by small horns. There remains a vestige of the earlier configuration, a single slender arm with which the serpent clasps his own looping tail. The switch from stone to paper has given the artist a ground suitable for subtle coloration, depicting Jormungander as a carmine-red creature with an underlying layer of yellow.

Apart from the spurious "face" (complete with devilish goatee), the Icelandic Jormungander conforms to big teuthid anatomy, an impression deepened by the artist's choice of coloration. The chromatophores of Architeuthis are red to maroon across that animal's dorsal and lateral surfaces, while the ventral surfaces have been described as being rather more yellow. Unlike the Altuna image, there is no suggestion of a squid's arm-corona at the serpent's other end, but the striations running up and down the animal's flanks resemble the interlacing ridges of tissue that separate the suckers on Architeuthis' "palm." (If a squid was the model, eliminating the arms might have been an attempt to further remove Jormungander into the imaginary realm; alternately, the artist might simply have appreciated a cleaner composition which properly focused the viewer's attention on the serpent's "face" and the dangling ox-head.)

Figure 6 is a small bronze relief of Jormungander with what appears to be Thor's hook in it's mouth; there is a second, fainter groove cutting beneath the hook and running paralell to the jaw, but this could the result of a flawed mold. The large eye has been modeled completely, with pupil and iris, set within a head separated from the body by a series of joints or folds which encircle the cylindrical body. It is, in some respects, the most squid-like of the surveyed images, albeit one exaggerated in the other direction: rather than a grotesquely distorted manus, we see a radically stretched mantle.

There are, of course, other possible models for ill-mannered aquatic serpent-gods of hideous aspect. The hagfish, for one, not least because it is capable of literally tying itself into a knot, a posture it adopts when the hagfish, having secreted a viscous slime-sheath as a predator deterrent, uses it's own length to strip the ooze from its skin. Oarfish should also be considered, for their large size and eel-like plan; like the hagfish, it is an animal that the contemporary Norse fisherman might well have come into unhappy contact with.

Neither of those animals is nearly as threatening looking as a very large teuthid, however. Mythical beasts serve at least two distinct functions, inspring awe and dread in the audience and providing a suitably formidable antagonist in heroic sagas. Expansive characters like Thor, Herakles and Ireland's Cuchullain demand that outsized monsters be arrayed against them. Architeuthis (for one) need not be exaggerated in size to produce a monster of god-like proportions.

A squid's native ability to present radically different profiles, in life and through post-mortem manipulation, results in an animal that is not only well-suited to its environment but eminently suitable as a template for human imagination. (Not to mention exaggeration by uncareful scientific measurement, as in the distorted impression of Architeuthis' overall length resulting from stretching of the tentacles.) If the images surveyed here were indeed patterned after squid anatomy, and if giant squid gave rise to the idea of Jormungander itself, then the imaginative task of Snori Sturlason and his graphic interpreters would not have been too onerous. Jormungander would have illustrated itself.

Adam Eli Clem
2003
Published:
Dec 29, 2013
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5,165

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