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  • Daniel Kephart

The Snake That Eats the World

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

You're destroying yourself, friend, one brutal day at a time.

According to Norse mythology, the entirety of the cosmos is encircled by one mighty snake: Jormungandr, the world-serpent.

The creature, a hideous spawn of the union between Loki and a giantess, holds his tail within his mouth. Twice, the mighty god of thunder, Thor, encountered Jormungandr. Both times, he managed to lift the beast partially from the watery abyss it dwelt within; but failed at the last moment to pry it free. When he encounters it a third time, the legend says, the two beings will destroy each other and the world will end.

Welcome to life.

Sickeningly, the world is full of serpents and, in fact, is under the mastery of a serpent. A psychoanalytic approach to the myth of Jormungandr notes this. From a literary perspective, what is a serpent? It is that thing which lurks in the grass, that thing which can strike out and threaten even our existence. Frequently, it seems, serpents function as a symbol of fear. Hence, they have some connections with anxiety, depression, and existential dread.

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, they could not escape the darker side of fate.

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 places us all at risk.

In this space, when realization that cosmic threats exist occurs, a craving is generated. This is, in some sense, the dawn of the hero myth. An awareness arises within our psyches that an inexcusable justice does exist, and that it must be battled. 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.

When we wake up in the morning, we have to choose to see what good we can do at our jobs, rather than simply watching the clock waiting for Jormungandr to arrive.

In our classes, we'll have to strive to learn and impress rather than staring at our exam grades waiting for Jormungandr to arrive.

Talking to our significant other, you'll have to try to listen rather than making snide comments and waiting for Jormungandr to appear.

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. 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.

Next week, we'll be sharing more on this theme of cosmic struggle, with an eye towards the next development in the story: The Archetype of Resurrection. Till then, pass this article along on Facebook.

The serpents are always nearer than we think...But so is the hero.