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.