The gods of Asgard all have their own enemy to face in the final battle against chaos. Thor’s ultimate nemesis in the myths is the giant World-Encircling serpent Jormungand. Before Thor, champion of the gods and protector of humans meets his doom, he has several encounters with this poisonous serpent.
When Thor fights giant monsters, this usually results in thunder and lightning, and a battle of the elements. Could the ancient Norse, or their ancestors, have witnessed real events that may have inspired Thor’s thunderous battles with giant monsters?
In the poem Hymiskvitha (“The Fetching of the Cauldron”), Thor decides to go on a fishing trip together with the giant Hymir to catch the ultimate prize: the Midgard Serpent. The two go far out towards the edge of the known waters, where the serpent lurks. Thor uses the head of the giant’s best ox as bait. This attracts the serpent, making it rise from the deep.
What follows is a swift encounter between Thor and the beast. The giant Hymir, becoming nervous, cuts the fishing line in one version of the story. Thor manages to give the beast a good whack on the head before it descends into the deep. The violent throes of the monster cause volcanoes to erupt, the earth to shake, and the waves to stir.
What is described here in the allegory of a fishing trip might be a mythical description of a meteorite impact, possibly an impact into the sea. Before we can examine the connections between the myth and real-world catastrophe, let’s first look at this comical story of Thor, the giant, and the snake.
A Cauldron for the Sea Giant
The story of Thor’s fishing trip is found in both the Poetic Edda and in Snorri’s Prose Edda. It begins with a great feast in the hall of Aegir and Ran, two giants who dwell deep below the sea. Thor, who is not too fond of giants, quickly gets into an argument with the sea giant Aegir. In revenge, Aegir challenges Thor to fetch him a cauldron that is large enough to hold all the beer that is to be brewn for the feast.
The god Týr confides to Thor that he knows of a cauldron that is large enough to do the job. His giant father Hymir the wise owns a cauldron that is a mile deep. It is “the biggest cauldron of them all”.
What cauldron could be a mile deep? Are we talking here about a purely fictional object, a large crater or caldera, or some kind of cosmic cauldron? David Mathisen, in his book on Norse Star Myths, has provided a celestial explanation for the curious events in this myth, which we will examine at a future date.
Ancient peoples would have recognized all sorts of symbols in the constellations that were a part of their everyday world. A cauldron could have been one of these symbols from the every-day world of the Norse that was attached to a certain constellation.
In this part of the investigation, we’ll explore this myth on a layer of meaning that is placed somewhere in between the stars and the depths of the sea, at the border between heaven and earth.
At the Giant’s Home
After a day-long journey from Asgard, Thor and Týr arrive in the land of the giants. Glaciers are shaking as the giant Hymir comes home from the icy heights. Hymir was not happy at seeing Thor, the slayer of giants coming forward out of hiding. But as a good host should, he ordered three oxen to be killed to serve his guests a good meal. Thor ate two whole oxen, to the giant’s dismay.
Here in the poem is where a lot of bull symbolism is first mentioned, the significance of which we will examine later. Seeing Thor’s unsettling appetite, the giant exclaims: “If all three of us want to eat tomorrow, then we’d better go fishing.”
The Fishing Trip
So it was decided that Thor and the giant would go fishing together. Hymir would row the boat, and Thor would prepare for the trip by going to forest to fetch some bait from the giant’s herd of oxen. Thor followed the giant’s advice and chose the best ox out of Hymir’s herd, took the beast by its horns, and ripped off its head.
Again, the giant was filled with horror and dismay by Thor’s brutality, and worse, the jovial manner in which he did so. With the bait in hand, Thor asked the giant to row out far into the sea. The giant was reluctant to do so, but he did as he was asked. At the edge of the encircling sea, he managed to catch two big whales.
Thor meanwhile, was baiting his own hook with the giant ox-head. The blood of the ox attracted the Midgard Serpent. The giant worm rose out of the water with gaping jaws. Thor took his chance and struck the poisonous beast with his hammer.
The Old Earth was Shaken
Jackson Crawford, in his 2015 translation of the Poetic Edda, translates what happened next:
The monster howled,
And the old earth
Trembled all over,
But that sea monster
Sank back into the waves.Hymiskviða 24
Volcanoes, earthquakes, and probably monstrous waves beating against the shore as the monster sank back into the depths – it’s all in there. What we have here it seems, is a mythical account of some kind of catastrophe. Natural disaster made into art, a work of poetry. What do other translations of this poem say about this event?
|The monsters roared, |
and the rocks resounded,
And all the earth so old was shaken;
Then sank the fish in the sea forthwith.
|The icebergs resounded, |
the caverns howled,
the old earthshrank together:
at length the fish back into ocean sank.
|Moaned the wild monster,|
the rocks all rumbled,
the ancient earth shrank into itself.
Then sank the serpent down in the deep.
The above fragments are all written in a more archaic English – making it more difficult to follow the story for the modern reader. Compared with these older translations, Jackson Crawford’s modern translation is refreshing in its clarity of words. But what’s also noticeable, is how the details in these four translations differ.
Where Crawford translates “volcanoes”, Thorpe says “howling caverns”, and Bellows and Bray simply mention “rumbling rocks”. Confronted with such different interpretations of the Old Norse text, it’s hard to get specific details of the event. It’s clear though that the monster’s retreat makes the earth tremble amid a lot of roaring noise – something catastrophic is being described here.
Even when we take a look at the original Old Norse text, we see slight variations in spelling.
The Olive Bray translation has the word Hreingölkn, whereas the Bellows translation gives Hraungalkn. Hreinn could be translated as “bright”, while “hraun” is an Icelandic word for lava.
I’m not trained in Old Icelandic myself, but even those who master the language come to quite different interpretations of the original text. Where most translations give the word “monster” or “wild monster”, Thorpe gives “icebergs”. The serpent is also called físk (“fish”) in two of the translations. Serpents in skaldic poetry are often symbolically described as fish.
Myths are notorious for their use of puns, and one word can often be translated in more than one way. Such is the nature of poetry and of language itself. Still, the general picture of catastrophe is clear.
Fishing with Meteorites
I’m not the first person to notice the possible links between Thor’s Fishing Trip and a meteorite impact – possibly an impact into the sea or ocean. Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried on his The Norse Mythology Blog sees in this story a poetic metaphor for the perturbation of natural phenomena by larger-than-life forces, personified in the battle between the thunder god Thor and the monstrous Midgard Serpent.
To be more specific, he thinks that the story might even refer to two meteors falling from the sky. The remote location of the fishing trip far out into the sea could be explained because of the perceived remoteness of the meteor strike, Seigfried explains. Midgard, the world of humans, is encircled after all by the outer ocean that separates it from Jotunheim, the “Home of the Giants”.
When the Midgard Serpent takes the bait, Thor’s legs break through the bottom of the fishing boat, as described in Snorri’s Prose Edda. Since Thor is able to touch the ocean floor with his feet, Seigfried reasons, he must have grown to enormous size himself. When he throws his hammer towards the serpent’s head, he does this from a great height.
The name of the ox is a strong clue in itself. Himinhrjód (“heaven-destroyer”) or Himinbrjoter (“sky-cleaver”), is an apt name for a large meteorite. The fishing line according to Karl can be seen as a symbol for the meteor’s bright trail, with the rocky core as the ox’s head attached to the line. In the striking of Thor’s hammer, he sees a possible second meteorite.
And what about the oxen that are killed and eaten by Thor from the giant’s herd, before they go on a fishing trip? Are these a meteoric precursor for the larger objects that were to follow?
While there are some intriguing connections between Thor’s hammer and meteorite stones, it’s also quite possible that the meteorite entering the atmosphere goes paired with a lightning discharge. The possibility of two large meteorites could be explained by a meteor shower, or a meteor that has fragmented into more than one piece.
Volcanoes erupting, rocks rumbling, and the earth shaking could all be explained as the secondary effects of a cosmic impact. Crawford’s mention of volcanoes and even lava giants also makes one wonder about the volcanic element in all this.
Volcanoes and Cauldrons
After the serpent has broken free – or after being cut free by Hymir – Thor sees his greatest foe sink back beneath the waves. It’s time to head back home. The giant Hymir rows back in a gloomy mood, and what follows is a duel in which Thor is challenged to break Hymir’s wine cup.
Breaking the cup he does, by throwing it against Hymir’s rock-solid skull. The shattering of the cup could itself be a reference to a cosmic event of some kind.
Thor and Týr, having earned Hymir’s cauldron after winning the duel, head back towards the sea-feast, but they are being chased by the obligatory army of giants. Thor throws his hammer Mjollnir at them, killing what Jackson Crawford translates as “lava giants”.
The mile-wide cauldron that Hymir possesses might be poetic imagery for the caldera of a volcano, a connection which Dr. Seigfried among others has also made. With Crawford’s mention of erupting volcanoes and lava giants, this is a serious possibility. The very word caldera is Spanish for “cauldron”.
Another challenge in deciphering poetic imagery for catastrophic events is that some of these events can have overlapping symbolism. A “cauldron” could just as easily refer to a meteor crater. An image like a “fiery sword that splits the sky in two” (found in the Ragnarök myth) could refer to both the trail of a comet or meteor, or to the fiery column of an erupting volcano.
Whether the fire comes from above or below, the same symbols may have been applied in myth to both cosmic impacts and volcanism. But science also shows us that impacts and volcanism can go hand in hand, as a large enough impact could trigger volcanic events of several kinds.
The intricacies of impact and volcano symbolism is another subject that we will look at in more detail. There are some more clues hidden in this myth however, that do seem to point at the possibility of a cosmic impact.
The Cosmic Bull and the Cosmic Serpent
Quite possibly, this myth may even contain clues that tell about where these impacts came from, and possibly even a broad time-frame in which this impact may have occurred. One major clue lies in the symbols of the two great beasts that are mentioned in this poem: the bull and the serpent.
In myths from all over the world, both the bull and the serpent are connected to godhood, and also to cosmic destruction. Thor slaying Hymir’s “sky-cleaving bull” reminds of the Tauroctony, the “slaying of the bull” of the Roman Mithraic cult. The (poisonous) World Serpent, encircling both heaven and earth, is encountered in other mythical traditions as well.
And more than once, we find both the bull and the serpent together in the same myth, in different traditions across the world. Marduk, the “Calf of the Sun” fighting the watery monster Tiamat in Babylonian myth is one example of this. Are the bull and the snake universal symbols of divine entities who have shook the world to its bones?
Victor Clube and Bill Napier, two of the world’s leading astro-phycisists, argue in their book The Cosmic Serpent that a hero’s mythical fight with a snake is poetic imagery for episodes of cosmic bombardment. In Chapter 8 we find the following quote:
“The earliest recorded myths are those of combat, between a god or hero and a dragon. The dragon was a familiar figure in Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, India, China, North America and elsewhere. Usually, he has the form of a winged serpent. He is a gigantic monster; he spouts fire and smoke; bellows and hisses; he throws rocks, and is the creator of terrible destruction; and his home is in the sky. ”clube and napier, “the cosmic serpent”
While the Midgard Serpent is described as a sea monster of the deep, there is more than one myth in which a serpent of the depths once had its home in the sky, before it was cast out of heaven.
There’s another detail in this story that resonates with observations of cosmic impacts and the harm that they can do. During the fishing trip, the giant Hymir catches two whales, while Thor is aiming for the World Serpent. Sagan and Druyan in their book Comet mention the Chinese saying: ‘When comets appear, whales die’.
It must be said though, that this detail can also be a reference to a specific celestial detail that we become aware of when we look at this myth from a Star Myth perspective. We’ll look at some examples from David Mathisen’s analysis as well in our investigation.
The Myths in the Stars
It is heavenwards that we shall look for more clues that will help us awaken the memories of ancient monsters that lurk between the lines of this old Icelandic poem. In only a few generations, memories of a cosmic disaster may have been largely forgotten, remembered in stories that are increasingly harder to believe with the passing of time.
It’s because they are woven into the greatest poetry, that these memories have survived. Their riddling language continues to fascinate and inspire us. Star Myth researcher David Mathisen makes the case that these myths are linked to the undying stars – another path to eternity.
What we have here perhaps, is a memory of cosmic events passed down in the form of a myth that is written in the language of the stars and constellations – a myth about the eternal struggle between the champion of the gods and the great beasts of heaven.
 The Poetic Edda, Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes by Jackson Crawford (2015).
The Norse Mythology Blog by Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried’s
Clube and Napier
Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan