Tag Archives: Edda

The Nature of Níðhöggr

The Nature of Níðhöggr

Serpents are everywhere in Norse mythology. Jörmungandr, Fafnir, and the myriad of snakes at the base of Yggdrasil to name a few. Níðhöggr is one of the most intriguing serpents, as his symbolic presence can be interpreted in very flexible ways. The potential for outside influence (particularly Christianity) in the interpretation of its story is large, but the figure of the malevolent death wyrm has a widespread appeal in global mythology, and some natural cross-over is possible. The vicious and destructive nature of Níðhöggr is the only thing we are certain about.

Níðhöggr, whose name variably translates as “Malice Striker” or “Curse Striker”, lives entwined in the roots of Yggdrasil. It spends its days chewing on the roots, causing the tree great suffering and agony. Are the roots of Yggdrasil Níðhöggr’s prison and it is trying to chew its way out? Is it deliberately trying to torment the World Tree? Its intentions are clearly malicious, as its name states its foul nature. The fact that once it is free of the roots of Yggdrasil it will fly to the aid of the giant armies during Ragnarök proves that this thing is a rancorous honey badger of doom. According to Snorri’s Edda (Gylfaginning), Níðhöggr trades insults and spreads discord with the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil via the squirrel Ratatöskr. It is clearly not a benevolent creature, as its daily “to do” list is filled with “make the world a more miserable place”.

Níðhöggr is also represented as almost being an “Eater of the Sinful Dead”. Its chthonic origins and propensity to gnaw or chew on the very roots of the tree that gives the universe life invokes the image of a dark and cruel creature with vile motives. In the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, it is described:

A hall I saw, far from the sun,
On Náströnd it stands, and the doors face north,
Venom drops through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls do serpents wind.

I saw there wading through rivers wild
Treacherous men and murderers too,
And workers of ill with the wives of men;
There Níðhöggr sucked the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?

Náströnd is the “Shore of Corpses” where oathbreakers and murders go after they die. The implication is that part of Níðhöggr’s role is to torment the “sinful” dead, but it is possible this is a reinterpretation of the myth through a Christianized filter. The role of the snake or serpent of Genesis in Christian mythology is to sit in a tree in Eden and sow discontent and sorrow for the world. This serpent is associated with Satan. Satan is also the considered to be the ruler of Hell, where Christian sinners are tormented eternally. However, contrary to popular belief, this is a contemporary literary view, not a biblical one, and it was probably not particularly popular during the time the Eddas were being written down. This does lead one to wonder if the influence went the other direction, with the Norse mythology flavoring the Christian viewpoint through oral tradition.

That Níðhöggr is a dragon raises questions about the physical origins of the myth. It has long been theorized that tales of dragons had their origins in the discovery of dinosaur fossils in ancient times. There are many modern dig sites in Northern Europe to attest to an abundance of fossils to choose from as a possible proto-Níðhöggr (including the charmingly named Grendelius, an ichthyosaur found in Great Britain). The discovery of a large, toothy, lethal looking skull that resembles no other known living creature buried deep in the ground is bound to start people talking.

Ultimately, many of the creatures that call Yggdrasil home have meaning that is lost to us in the modern age. They no longer represent to us what they represented to our ancestors, the stories behind their births are shrouded in time. They have become the victims of conflation, confusion, revision, and filtration, and Níðhöggr is no exception. Instead, the best we can offer is an attempt to understand the world of the ancient Norse and try to project the implications of a figure like Níðhöggr for a man or woman living in that age.

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

I have read The Poetic Edda several times, and each time I find something new that I didn’t see before. Usually, I enjoy reading it, but this version is proving to be a bit taxing. I have the Bellows version, which is nice because he breaks down which parts come from the Codex Regius and which come from the Hauksbok. He also explains the kennings and other references that we might not understand clearly in the modern world. It’s not 100% chocked full of awesome, but it is very helpful when trying to wade through some extremely dense and obscure reading. To be completely honest, the Larrington version, although probably more accurate, reads like an Ikea manual. I can appreciate the need for accuracy, that is crucial in understanding the myths, but I really wish there had been some effort put forth into preserving the loveliness of the language and cleverness of word play.

For example, the first verse of the Larrington translation is:

Attention I ask from all sacred people,

greater and lesser, the offspring of Heimdall

Father of the Slain, you wished that I should declare

the ancient histories of men and gods, those which I

remember from the first

That’s nice… for an overhead announcement at an airport. I half expected the next verse to be about how there is no parking in the white zone (Bifrost is for loading and unloading only…)

The same verse from Bellows:

Hearing I ask from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, that well I relate
Old tales I remember of men long ago.

Now we’re cooking with Nordic gas! This version has spirit and passion. I understand not only the intent of the text more clearly, but I am already engaged (you had me at “Heimdall”). I find it hard to believe that the only way Larrington could give us a more accurate text was to strip it of any actual poetry. After researching the translator (because I do that), I was even further baffled to find that one of her areas of study is medieval emotion. When verses like:

In their dwellings at peace they played at tables,
Of gold no lack did the gods then know,–
Till thither came up giant-maids three,
Huge of might, out of Jotunheim.


They played chequers in the meadow, they were merry,

They did not lack for gold at all,

until three giant girls came,

mighty and powerful, out of Giantland.

Chequers? Chequers?? Did she really just tell me that the gods played checkers on the lawn like a bunch of bored retirees? Even if they were playing checkers, at least flower that language up a bit. That isn’t epic poetry, that sounds like a sunny afternoon at a nursing home. I do understand why this text was chosen for our class, it is the current accepted translation, but I do wish that the current accepted translation was more artfully done. Why did she replace words like “jötnar“? Jötunheimr sounds like a place where giants live, Giantland sounds like a theme park.

I suppose my point is this; The Poetic Edda is extremely important as an historical document. It is crucial we get the facts as straight as possible if we are to understand the subject matter. However, just as important to the document is the art of the words. There are layers of meaning that are lost if we strip soul from the piece. While it is entirely possible this “soul” is something that we ourselves have invested in the work after the fact, I honestly don’t feel that this in and of itself invalidates the importance of the end result. Authenticity is important, but the imagery and what the work symbolizes are important as well.



I am realizing these journal entries are going to be difficult to keep on topic, since I have already read a lot of the material, and my ideas are sort of interwoven with things we have not and may not cover in class. Please bear with me, and I apologize in advance.

The concept of Yggdrasill as axis mundi (and similarly Irminsul in Continental Europe) is complex and not easily explained. While the symbolic world tree is a near-global theme, Yggdrasil adds an absurd menagerie and has entire words hanging on it like Christmas ornaments. The translation of the name seems to be “Odin’s Horse”, which in turn is a sort of kenning for “Odin’s Gallows” (as a rider on a horse, so is the hanged man on the gallows). This points to Yggdrasil being the tree that Odin hung from when he sacrificed himself to discover the gift of the runes (Havamal). I have always wondered if this meant he discovered writing or the means of divination. I personally, have always thought that this shamanic experience implied that the revelation of the runes was much more than just the acquisition of an alphabet. The fact that this occurs on the World Tree, the center of the universe is important. Odin says he sacrificed himself to himself, but in doing so he also sacrifices himself to the cosmos. By stripping away the ego and surrendering to the universe, he is able to come back with sacred knowledge.

The reference to the tree as a gallows also gives it an element of death. It is frequently described as being a creature in a perpetual state of decay, on the brink of dying and of having to be sustained by the mud formed by the waters of Fate by the Norns. It is in constant agony, tormented by the myriad of lifeforms that call it home. It is life, and life is suffering. It is death, but it can not die, fate keeps it going. The tendency of Norse myth to incorporate bodily fluids, filth, mud, dirt, and decay into how things are formed makes Yggdrasil a potentially nasty place, yet these are the very building blocks of life in general.

The denizens of Yggdrasil are also of interest to me. Mimir’s well (and by extension, his head), the Norns, the various wells, lakes, and seas are all here, as well as many animals. Ratatosk (or Ratatoskr) is interesting, as he delivers verbal “hate mail” between Nidhogg the serpent that gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil and the unnamed eagle at the top. I get confused with the stag that chews the leaves of the tree (part of the great agony of Yggdrasil according to Odin in the Grimnismal) and the 4 harts. I have read things that indicate that they might be one and the same, others that say they are different. If they are different, what purpose do the 4 harts serve? Similarly, are Nidhogg, the Midgard Serpent, and the various other snakes related? The significance of the serpents is curious as well, since I wasn’t aware that snakes were a big part or the environment in Northern Europe.

One of my favorite parts of the Yggdrasil myth is the (possibly post-conversion) story of the last 2 humans to survive Ragnarok. They survive by hiding in the world tree, which is a really cool full-circle for the origins of humanity (Askr and Embla pulled from trees by Odin, Vili, and Ve). From where we began, we will begin again. Even if this is a Christian alteration to the story, it is an great addition in my opinion.

On a somewhat personal note, part of my fascination with the idea of Yggdrasil is not only how widespread the World Tree mytheme is, but that it works on so many levels. The World Tree, the Tree of Knowledge, the tree-like shapes of neurons in the human brain, Odin hangs from the tree to gain knowledge: it’s all so very elegant in its synchronicity. Part of my main focus in studying the Norse myths has been analyzing the structures and elements of the Yggdrasil mythos. How does this way of seeing the universe affect the way a person actually experiences the universe? What is the significance of figures like the squirrel, the eagle, and the serpents? Is the tree meant to represent a “macrocosm within a microcosm” universe? My questions are endless, and there is so much more to learn on the subject.