The Snake That Eats the World
Updated: Jul 1
The cosmos is destroying itself, one brutal day at a time.
According to Norse mythology, a great reptile encircles the whole of the cosmos: Jormungandr, the world-serpent.
The creature is the hideous spawn of Loki, the eternal trickster, and a giantess. His great fangs hold his tail within his mouth, and he squeezes the sphere of the world tight within his grip.
Per legend, the thunder god Thor encountered Loki twice in the ancient past. Both times, Thor managed to lift the beast partially from the watery abyss it dwelt within; but failed at the last moment to pry it free. It is no easy task to tear the world free from a serpent's grasp. Yet the same legends tell us that Thor has not given up. The god of Thunder will challenge Jormungandr one final time. He will succeed at the cost of his life, and the battle will be the great climax of time.
Welcome to life.
One of the many reasons this story is so resonant is that it reflects reality. Our lives are full of serpents. The myth taps into our foreboding regarding that thing which lurks in the grass, that thing which can strike out and threaten even our existence. Jormungundr incarnates our sense of the unseen danger.
The Norse were incredibly wise in that they understood the weight of mortality. A key note in their mythology was that Ragnarok was inevitable; and the gods knew it. No matter how heroic, how valiant, and how mighty they were, a fixed end awaited the Norse pantheon.
Notice, though, the structure of the myth.
The story doesn't end with Thor bumbling into this serpent and being swallowed whole. It doesn't even end with a single climatic battle. Instead, Thor collides with Jormungandr three separate times. Twice, he comes close to mastering the creature. Finally, he does slay it--but not without being mortally wounded. He kills Jormungandr, tearing the beast to shreds, and then collapses dead.
This is the human story as much as it is a Norse myth. The serpents of life are everywhere. No matter where we turn, a powerful challenge awaits. Discrimination, violence, and hatred prove that the world is broken. We must strive against it every day, fighting for the sacred and our fellow humans, against a foe which it may seem we cannot possibly defeat: The cosmos.
In fairness, not all days showcase this. Many of us are lying in bed this very moment, smartphone in hand, not sparing a thought for the cosmic Jormungandr. And that's okay. Not every moment needs to be an existential struggle. Yet total dismissal of the crises that lie beyond our doors not only places us at risk, it robs us of one of life's great joys: Embracing the challenge to better the world we live in.
Good stories remind us of this challenge and inspire our hunger for it. Here lies the dawn of the hero. The hero is that individual who realizes that injustice and cosmic imbalance exists and seeks to right. In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, this happens when Harry learns of the existence of Voldemort. In reality, it happens when we discover a systematized breakdown in the ethical treatment of others.
Yet neither Jormungandr, nor Voldemort, nor any incarnation of evil is easily displaced. To protect the world from them, a struggle must be endured. Jormungandr cannot be defeated at work, in school, or in relationships without struggle. Truly striving to do well at work is a struggle. Truly attempting to learn in school is a struggle. Truly listening to one's romantic partner in is a struggle.
All of this is to say that Jormungandr functions as an embodiment of chaos in the world. Now, not all chaos is sufficient to end the world, but it often feels that way. There is no denying that at times the smallest irritant can be enough to drive us nearly to panic. Hence, when we face the big obstacles, they can seem like great and mighty serpents indeed, veritable dragons.
What, then, is the snake that eats the world? One view, the one advanced by modern terror-management theorists, is that these dragons are mythic representations of death. What Thor's final battle with death symbolizes, then, is the human struggle to find a meaning that makes sense of our cosmic struggle. Of critical importance is the fact that Jormungandr can be slain: There is a certain kind of life, the myth suggests, which reveals a meaning that illuminates why we suffer.
Fascinatingly, when Thor defeats Jormungandr, he too collapses dead. This might seem to suggest failure on Thor's part, but I'm not so sure. Taken from a different point of view, the mutual resolution of both Thor and the world's serpent's life suggests a sort of true conclusion to the problem. Yet what exactly lies beyond this conclusion (if anything) is still murky.
The Norse, it appears, never quite managed to discover how the obstacles of life might be overcome and even transcended. Those developments, it appears, came later. It would take a deeper development of the hero myth to cross this barrier. The hero needed to be able to venture down into death and then emerge reborn, having crushed the serpent. Resolution needed to be transformed into resurrection.
Be sure to check out next week's article on the development of this next stage in the hero myth.