Category: Norse Gods (Page 1 of 4)

Sagas of the Veluwe: Thor’s Skyfall Translated

Introduction by Arthur Koopmans

In an old Dutch tome of local folklore and sagas of the Low Countries, I have found a detailed version of the story of Thor’s battle with the Midgard Serpent. What can this Dutch saga tell us about the events of Ragnarök? I have provided here my own translation of the saga in English, so that non-Dutch speakers can also enjoy this wonderful story.

The following saga from the Veluwe region of the Netherlands might justifiably be called a myth instead of a saga, for it tells us an epic tale about the thunder god Thor, and his struggles with a giant serpent. In this saga, the god we know best as Thor is called by his old Saxon name Thunar, as this would have been his name in the eastern parts of the Netherlands in a time long past.

This “saga” is not only very entertaining, but also very valuable for those who study Norse myth, for it provides us with an alternate account of Ragnarök, the “Doom of the Gods”, focused on the battle between Thunar and the serpent.

Many of the details which we find in the Icelandic version of the Ragnarök myth are also found in this saga. Here too, the serpent has poisonous breath, to which Thor succumbs, leading to his death. Here too, the sky is on fire, and the earth sinks into the sea at the world’s end. And here too, Ragnarök is not the final end of the world, but rather the end of an era.

Is this saga then the Scandinavian myth transposed on local Dutch geography? Maybe not, because the saga provides interesting details that are not mentioned in the Ragnarök myth. The saga also tells us how Thor crashed to earth with the snake and his hammer after their fight, leaving behind two holes in the ground, which only later became lakes.

A terrible winter king reigned for a long time, after the giants had made their pact with the serpent, and more details are told about the flood that washed over the land. Many more interesting details are mentioned in the story, which is told anew here below.

I have also provided notes with additional background information, on the bottom of the page.


The Origins of the Uddelermeer and the Bleeke Meer

Thor / Donar by Gustaaf Perné
“Thunar” by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné, detail, 1911, ink on paper

It was the time when giants stormed heaven and a giant snake lived in the Uunilo[2].

The rough giants, vassals of the mighty Winter Giant, started the fight with the Gods of Summer. From the sand of the wolfskamer[2.1], they built up the Wolfsbergen[2.2]; but Thunar[3], the great Thunder God, could still restrain them.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

Already, some autumn mists waved over the woods, like grizzled banners of the approaching Winter Army, and large cloud wolves[3.1] struggled with the Sun God.

Fiercely, the Thunderer growled in his red beard, so that the giants, for a while, gave way in fear. The herons and the swallows, terrified and frightened by the commencing battle fled southwards on quick wing beats.

The Winter Giants withdrew into the forest, and there, they called for the help of the great monster snake, who with her lethal breath discoloured and withered the leafs of the trees, and where she had crawled, poisonous mushrooms sprang up. In that forest of hellish red and yellow colours, the giants made a pact with the snake. The trees were so moved by this terrible pact, that they let fall many leafs.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

The next day, the snake coiled itself upward around the highest oak tree, with the view to spit her venom towards heaven, and the giants hurled handsfull of hail.

From all sides, Thunar now drew together his great and monstrous clouds to bar the entrance. From over the endless fields of clouds he came riding himself, in his fiercely rolling chariot, drawn by two black goats.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

Like a red banner, his beard flapped in the wind, and the goats shot sparks out of the pavement with their hoofs.

The entire sky was on fire, and the blows of the hammer rumbled, making the earth shake.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

There, the snake lifted her mighty head up through the clouds, with jaws wide open, and she blew her stinking breath in the blue dome of heaven, which suddenly turned black. Then, Thunar lifted his never missing thunder hammer, and struck it, with bolts of lightning, down upon the gaping snake head with such a force that both the giant monster, crushed,  and the hammer, sunk down seven miles deep into the shaking earth.

Creaking, the high oak tree collapsed into the depths.

The scorching lightning fire made a foul stench rise up from the searing venom. In foul brown clouds it rose up around the golden head of the Thunder God.

He staggered in his chariot, and dizzied and intoxicated, he tumbled backwards out of his carriage.

With a terrible blow, he crashed out of heaven into the earth, close to the place where he had crushed the serpent.

It was as if heaven was ripped apart, and the earth was torn apart.

His empty chariot, behind the runaway goats without a driver, eventually crashed down upon the Donderberg[3.2].

Then it became silent and the earth sunk into the sea.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

Far over the field of the welling waves the night fell, and sky high the waves roared with their frothy heads.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

There the cloud covers tore apart at the bilges. The sea god[3.3] blew on his blaring horn, and he came riding over the wide waters in his great dark ship. He took the dead Thunar with him. Now the fleet of icebergs of the white winter giants of the north came floating in, and it made the god’s ship flee.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

Many sad times past, in which the terrible winter giant[3.4] reigned supreme.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

After the earth had become dry again, two lakes remained, as deep as the world, and the one was called the Uttiloch, and the other the Godenmeer or Witte Meer, and the place where the goats fell is called Dieren[3.5].

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

It is likely that the Thunder God was worshipped at the Godenmeer, and when Thunar’s hammer, which had risen out of the depths by itself, was found at the other lake, the people founded there a place of sacred offerings, and burned there the woodpiles of the dead.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

The forest rose again around both lakes, and it grew so fast, that it soon threatened to grow over the Uttiloch, where the monster still lay buried, and threatening to erase all traces of its existence. The plants twined over the water, and the roots grew into the weeds.

But one day – people lived by the shrunken puddle for a long time already – the entire hell and underworld came into resistance against this. A hellish flame sprang up from the whirlpool, and all the fire devils wriggled upward.

Cheering, they chased through the forest, they burned the peat and the entire great forest[2].

The blazing flames licked high across the sky, and out of the smoking fumes, the spirit of the giant snake coiled upwards, and it fled away with the speed of an arrow.

The great and proud forest was destroyed and became a wild and barren plain, wherein both lakes still lie.

Three Clovers Ornament by Gustaaf Perne

Afterwards, when the people had become Christians, and the old gods were driven away, it was told until the day of today, that a Golden Calf had sunk into the Bleeke Meer; but that was only a manner of speaking, because it was a heathen god who sunk into that lake.[6]

Thor's Hammer Mjollnir by Gustaaf Perne

Notes

Gustaaf van de Wall Perné

2. 

Uunnilo – Uunni-forest, is the name of the wood, which in former times stood on the vast heathlands wherein lie the Uddelermeer and Bleeke Meer – was destroyed in 1222 by fire.

3.

Thunar – the name of the old Saxon thunder god is used here deliberately, as it was used in the east of our country more widely – still clearly heard in Tinaarlo, i.e. Thunar’s Forest, The hammer sign in the final part on page 25 is the symbol of the Thunder God. The name of the hammer “Mjöllnir” is written above it in old Germanic runes.

Such hammer signs were worn in the old Germanic times as a talisman, on a cord, around the neck.

For a long time it was custom to attach this sign to a stable or a house. People believed in this as a means of protection against lightning. After the introduction of Christianity, it was slowly replaced by the cross.

Our letter T (the first letter of Thunar) comes from the hammer sign, as it is found in the runic writing.

The runes were signs for writing, invented by Wodan. Run = secret.

The Germanic runic alphabet that is used here contains 24 letter signs. The smaller alphabet of 16 letters was only used in the North. The runes come from the 4th and 5th century and were still used in Gottland up into the 16th century.

6.

According to another saga, that perhaps emerged through time out of the first, there must have stood, many centuries ago, at the place where the lake is located, a large and strong castle, in which lived a very rich man, who was so mean and malicious, that he looked like the devil himself. One night, during a terrible thunderstorm, the giants took away the ground beneath the castle, so that the entire stronghold, with its evil inhabitant and all of its treasures, sunk away into immeasurable depths.

Oftentimes, people attempted to fish for the treasures; but the only thing that has ever been retrieved, is the iron fire plate of the hearth; and according to yet another saga, there lie deep beneath the Bleeke Meer, the sunken treasures of the earlier Frisian kings. The history writers make mention of a stronghold or a summer palace of the Frisian kings, built in 323 by king Ruchold at the Godenmeer or Witte meer, on the Veluwe.

(I was assured by one of the residents that golden jewels have been fished up here, that there were many terpen (“mounds”) around the Bleeke Meer with countless urns, and that heavy oaks are unearthed to this day.)

Yet another saga of the Bleeke Meer mentions that a Christian preacher threw a golden statue of the Thunder God in the lake.

Whichever way it may be, everything points to a very ancient origin for this saga.

Cross - Veluwsche Sagen by Gustaaf Perné

Arthur Koopmans

2.1 

Wolfskamer – The word “wolf” in wolfskamer could point at the presence of wolves, but it could also mean maelstrom or vortex. Local names suggest that the wolfskamer was located near present-day Huizen, near the shore of the former Zuiderzee. The latter part, “kamer”, can be translated literally as “chamber”. In former times, it referred specifically to the storage chamber in a castle. This chamber was often places outside of the castle, which living quarters attached to it. It is unknown to which castle the wolfskamer belonged, if it ever did. The name wolfskamer fell in disuse around 1900.

Source: De Wolfskamer

2.2

Wolfsbergen – There are multiple places in the Netherlands with the name “Wolfsberg” (“Wolf Hill”)

3.1 

Cloud wolves – The Dutch words wolk (“cloud”) and wolf (also Dutch for wolf) are quite similar. The word wolf is ultimately from the reconstructed PIE *wlkos, while Dutch wolk is can be traced back to Proto-Germanic *wulkô.

3.2

Donderberg – Hills with the name Donderberg (“Thunder Hill”) are said to have been devoted to the god Donar (Thor), or in this case, Thunar.

Source: Donderberg (Maasniel)

3.3 

The sea god – presumably Aegir.

3.4 

Winter giant – In Norse myth, the frost giant Ymir ruled for a long time, until Odin and his two brothers slew him, and created the world out of his body, and the sky from his skull.

3.5 

Dieren – In Dieren, there is a place called Geitenberg (“Goat’s Hill”).

Cross - Veluwsche Sagen by Gustaaf Perné

Featured Image: “Thor and the Midgard Serpent” by Emil Doepler (1905) –Source. Photo background by Agnes Monkelbaan – Source


Veluwsche Sagen

Bundle 1 (contains Thor’s saga on page 21)

Bundle 2

Blog Posts

The Dutch Saga of Thor’s Skyfall


The Dutch Saga of Thor’s Skyfall

There is a lake in the Netherlands that has a very interesting story attached to it. This story may even shed new light on what we know about Norse mythology. It’s about how Thor fell out of the sky after a battle with a giant snake, and then crashed down to earth.

The lake lies in the central part of the Netherlands near the city of Apeldoorn. It’s name is Uddelermeer, but in the Early Middle Ages it was called Uttiloch. According to the website Pagan Places, it is a sacred lake that was created after Thunar (the old Saxon name for Thor) battled with a serpent.

The local folklore tells us that Thor’s hammer and the serpent fell down to earth and then created the lake. Thor himself came crashing down somewhere nearby, creating a second lake called the Bleeke Meer.

This piece of local mythology thus suggests that both Thor and his hammer, and the snake seem to be associated with falling meteorites. The link between Thor and meteorites has been made before (also on this blog), but there was still a lack of concrete evidence to connect the thunder god and these heavenly stones. 

Mjollnir, Thor's hammer pendant from Skane, a meteorite?
Thor’s hammer was originally not a hammer, but a whetstone or grindstone, possibly meteoric in origin (source)

In Scandinavian folklore, meteorite stones were associated with pieces of Thor’s hammer. Benjamin Thorpe, in Northern Mythology, notes that the Swedes believed that meteorites were hurled by Thor, because only he was strong enough to lift them. Both traditions were recorded at a relatively recent date however, no earlier than the year 1851.

The local Dutch saga does add further weight to the idea that Thor’s thunder weapon Mjöllnir was actually of meteoritic origin in the Norse myths, by saying that its crash left a hole in the earth. More than that, Thor himself and the snake can be linked to the same phenomenon. The snake as a symbol for falling meteorites and comets is not a new one either, as it can be found in Clube and Napier’s book the Cosmic Serpent for example.

Thor / Donar by Gustaaf Perné
“Thunar” by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné, detail, 1911, ink on paper (source)

The Saga Continues

The image of Thor, hammer, and snake falling from the sky is a striking one. Could there be more details to this story? Are there more variations of this tale? Let’s investigate this story further.

A local Dutch website provides a more detailed version of this story. According to this version of the saga, Thunar fought a giant snake and hit it on its head – the blow making him lose his hammer. Both snake and hammer crashed down to earth, the hammer penetrating seven miles deep into the earth.

The poisonous breath of the serpent made Thunar fall out of his chariot. He landed close to the snake, creating a second hole in the ground. It gets more interesting. Following this great celestial battle, a terrible winter giant ruled the earth for a long time.

After the long winter, two lakes remained. The lake where the hammer and the snake crashed was called Uttiloch (Uddelermeer), and the lake where Thunar fell was called the Godenmeer (God’s lake), Witte Meer or Bleeke Meer (White Lake).

Winter on the Veluwe
A terrible winter king ruled after Thunar’s clash with the snake. Photo by Henk Monster (source)

When we read this saga closely, we can see that the impacts did not cause the two lakes to form directly. The lakes are what was left of the impact craters, with Thor’s hammer penetrating seven miles deep.

In the previous blog post, we have seen how the stony giant Hrungnir owned a cauldron that was a mile wide. The number seven for Thor’s hammer may have been chosen for symbolic reasons, but the saga suggests that the crater must have been a large one.

The mention of a terrible winter king fits very well with what we know of the effects of cosmic impacts. Periods of heavy cosmic bombardment were often followed by long periods of extreme cold. The dust emitted by comets and the dust clouds generated by an impact event can block the light of the sun, causing a cometary or meteoritic winter.

What does science have to say about these two lakes? Is there evidence of an ancient impact on the heathlands of the Veluwe, or does science provide a different explanation?

The Bleeke Meer, where Thor crashed
The Bleeke Meer, where Thor crashed down according to the saga. Source: Pagan Places

Ruins of the Last Ice Age

A Dutch geology website provides a scientific explanation for how the Uddelermeer was formed. The lake is described as one of the largest pingo ruins of the Netherlands. This lake is also special because for the scientists, it provides an uninterrupted geological archive from the Last Ice Age up to the present.

A pingo is a hill made purely out of ice, that typically forms under very cold conditions, when the ground is in a permanently frozen state, also known as permafrost. A pingo can form when groundwater is pushed up into the permafrost layer under pressure, along a crack in the ground.

When the groundwater penetrates the permafrost, it freezes there, creating an ice lens. This growing ice lens slowly pushes up the soil on top of it, creating a hill. This hill of ice, covered with soil, keeps growing as long as groundwater keeps feeding it from below. 

When it grows big enough, the soil can’t cover the entire ice lens anymore, and the hill bursts open. The ice mass is now exposed to direct sunlight, causing it to melt. As the ice core melts and the soil collapses around the hill, a crater is left in its place. What remains looks much like the crater of a volcano.

Even when the ice hill does not collapse immediately, it will eventually melt and create a crater with a rim of earth around it. The melting ice often leaves behind a lake in the central crater. As the earth wall slowly erodes, all that’s left is the lake.

The Uddelermeer is extraordinarily deep for a pingo ruin, with a depth of 17 meters . It must once have been of great size, covered by a very thick ice lens. It’s unusual size can be explained by the presence of clay from the Salian Ice Age.

This clay formed a barrier which prevented groundwater from seeping away. The pingo then formed during the later Weichselian glaciation at the end of the Last Ice Age.

A pingo is an ice hill that forms in the permafrost
Freezing groundwater keeps feeding the pingo ice hill until the topsoil bursts open (source)

The Snake that Froze the World

During the ice age, the Netherlands was home to a cold tundra environment. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the Dutch pingo ruins were formed around 12,000 to 11,000 years ago. In other words, they were formed within the period of the Younger Dryas

This gives us another dimension to the story. Just when the earth was waking up out of the Last Ice Age, something happened which caused a sudden and dramatic return to freezing conditions around 12,800 years ago. For another thousand years, large parts of the Northern Hemisphere of the planet became locked in ice. 

What caused this climatic downturn is still heavily debated, but evidence is more and more in favor of an extraterrestrial impact. Large fragments of a disintegrating comet likely impacted the Northern Hemisphere, with the ice sheet of North America being the epicentre of the bombardment.

Other elements such as volcanism and massive floods were likely triggered by the impacts, but not the primary cause for the downturn in global climate.

The Dutch saga tells us that after the crash of Thor, his hammer, and the snake, an ice giant ruled for an extended period of time. In Norse mythology, the world is created out of the dead body of the ice giant Ymir, after the long reign of him and his giant kin. This primordial giant can be traced back to ancient Proto-Indo-European mythology.

Global temperatures during the Younger Dryas
Evolution of temperature in the Post-Glacial period according to Greenland ice cores. Source: Platt et al.

An Iranian cognate of Ymir can be found in the mythology of the Avesta, the sacred book of the zoroastrian faith. The story of Yima has some striking parallels with the events told in the Dutch saga. Yima was instructed by the god Ahura Mazda to build an underground shelter for a select group of survivors, because a terrible winter was coming.

Then, the evil spirit Angra Mainyu fell down out of the sky like a mighty serpent at noon, plunging the world into darkness, turning day into night. Winter now reigned for most of the year. Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods, suggests that the rule of Yima in his underground vara may be an ancient memory of the Younger Dryas, when fragments of the Taurid meteor stream collided with the earth.

Ancient Memories

Could the saga about Thor and the snake contain the remnant of a memory of the end of the Last Ice Age, when winter ruled for a thousand years? Or do the events in the saga refer to a more recent cold period? The dendrochronological (tree ring) record shows that there were several periods since the ice age in which global temperatures plummeted for an extended period of time.

The Dark Ages was the most recent cold period, but severe as it was, it was not nearly as catastrophic as the Younger Dryas. Also, myths about a hero battling a mighty serpent go back to a time thousands of years before the Dark Ages. These myths go back to a time when the ancestors of the germanic peoples still roamed the Eurasian steppes, before the start of the Bronze Age.

Star myth researcher David Mathisen suggests that mythical rulers like Ymir go back to the zodiacal Age of Gemini, which he thinks might be linked to a mythical “Golden Age”. This is the epoch when the sun rose in the constellation of the Twins at the spring equinox. The name Ymir is also derived from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European name Yemo, which can be translated as the “Twin”.

Ymir the frost giant
The world was created out of the body of the ice giant Ymir according to the Norse myths (source)

Fire and Ice

The Younger Dryas was a period of cosmic bombardment, but according to Dutch geologists, the pingo was created not by impacts, but by a slow build-up of ice in the permafrost. It is only natural that in a period as cold as the Younger Dryas, pingos would form across the frozen tundra.

If the two lakes indeed started out as ice hills, then they would have formed during or sometime after the period of heaviest bombardment. In the Netherlands too, we can still find traces of this great clash between fire and ice. Not too far from the two lakes, geologists have found evidence of the so-called “black mat layer”. 

This layer of black soil has been found across four different continents, and dates to the Younger Dryas Boundary. In this layer, impact proxies such as nano-diamonds have been found. These microscopic minerals suggest a cosmic origin for the global conflagrations that caused this black layer to form.

The Usselo horizon black mat layer of the Younger Dryas
The Usselo horizon. Dutch geologists attribute the black mat layer simply to climate change. Impact scientists found evidence for a cosmic impact as the cause of this abrupt climate change.  Source: The Cosmic Tusk.

While the science gives a slightly different origin story for the two lakes, it is not necessarily in conflict with the events in the saga. As we have seen, science itself points to a time period of global catastrophe. The saga seems to describe real events, symbolized by a battle between gods and giants.

It is not unlikely however, that these cosmic battles were attached to the Uddelermeer and Bleeke Meer at a later time, to provide an explanation for their origins. Coincidentally, both the saga (in its earliest form) and the two lakes may have originated around the same time, but maybe not in the same place. 

If the saga did originate elsewhere and was added later, then we would expect to find other locations in the Germanic world that have a similar origin story. If you happen to know a similar local saga, by all means, let me know.

Thor and the Midgard Serpent by Emil Doepler
“Thor and the Midgard Serpent” by Emil Doepler (1905) – Source. The events in the Dutch saga mirror those in the Icelandic Edda, but provide additional details.

The saga: a Sequel to Ragnarök?

It’s evident that this story is more than just a local saga. The story shows clear parallels with what we know of Norse mythology from the Eddas of Iceland. The battle between Thor and the mighty serpent Jormungand  is also told in the Völuspá, which relates the events of Ragnarök.

After some searching on the internet, I found the original saga in all its detail. An illustration of the saga from 1911 by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné (see the image above) accompanied a document which described the history of the Uddelermeer. 

Searching for the name of the artist quickly revealed the old book Veluwsche Sagen that he himself has written, bound and illustrated. Part one and two of the book can be found here and here (the saga can be found in part one, page 21).

Veluwsche Sagen by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné (1911).
“Veluwsche Sagen” by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné (1911).

The original saga provides a lot more detail to this story than has so far been covered. It provides us with a unique version of the Ragnarök myth, and gives an alternate account of what happened afterwards. As in the Norse version, Thor succumbs to the poisonous fumes of the serpent. He falls out of his chariot driven by two black goats, and crashes into the earth.

The saga speaks of a pact between the serpent and the ice giants, and how the whole sky was in flames when they clashed with Thor. It seemed as if the whole world was ripped apart. As Thor fell, his empty chariot continued its way across the sky, eventually crashing at the Donderberg (“Thunder Mountain” or “Thor’s Mountain”).

As in the Ragnarök myth, the earth sank into the sea. The god of the sea came sailing over the waves in a great dark ship, fishing the dead Thor out of the waters. Then the icebergs came floating in over the water, and the rule of the winter giants started. 

After a long time, the waters receded and the two lakes remained. So according to the saga, the lakes were not formed immediately, but only after a giant flood had filled the two craters. A giant flood is also described in the Yima myth, mentioned earlier: “Every single drop of rain became as big as a bowl and the water stood the height of a man over the whole of this earth.”

The Deluge by J.M.W. Turner
The Deluge by J.M.W. Turner (source). After Thor fell dead, the waves washed over the land.

The end of a heathen god

The saga from the book provides more interesting details that are of great interest to scholars and enthusiasts of Norse mythology. I am planning to provide an English translation of this saga in the near future, so that more people can enjoy and study this story.

One question that remains a bit puzzling is this: if this saga speaks of truly ancient events, then why was Thor worshipped in later times if he died that long ago? And if Thor had died, then who brings us the lightning?

Was his death a more recent addition to the story? Was this story perhaps influenced by later encounters with fragments from a comet, at a time when Thunar was waning in power? Or was Thor’s death not so permanent? 

The saga ends on this note:

Afterwards, when the people had become Christians, and the old gods were driven away, it was told until the day of today, that a Golden Calf had sunk into the Bleeke Meer; but that was only a manner of speaking, because it was a heathen god who sunk into that lake.

Veluwsche Sagen by G.F.W. Perné (translation by Arthur Koopmans)

Thor's fall in Uddelermeer
A map showing the location of the Dutch saga, with the places where Thor, his hammer, and the serpent fell.



Veluwsche Sagen

Bundle 1 (contains Thor’s saga on page 21)

Bundle 2

Pagan Places

Uddelermeer

Bleeke Meer

Places in the Netherlands

Thor’s Fishing Trip: a Meteorite Impact?

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.

Aegir the Brewer, from Liebig Meat Productions trading cards (1934) – source

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.

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie. Oil on canvas, Albert Bierstadt (1866) – source. The high mountains of the Rockies come close to what the mountainous home of the giants would look like.

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.”[1]

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. 

Thor dragging in the Midgard Serpent from the deep – source

The Old Earth was Shaken

Jackson Crawford, in his 2015 translation of the Poetic Edda, translates what happened next:

The monster howled,

Volcanoes erupted,

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.
(Bellows)
The icebergs resounded, 
the caverns howled, 
the old earthshrank together:
at length the fish back into ocean sank.
(Thorpe)
Moaned the wild monster,
the rocks all rumbled,
the ancient earth shrank into itself.
Then sank the serpent down in the deep.
(Bray)

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.

Thor and Hymir go fishing for the Midgard Serpent. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 – source

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?

Thor’s ox head on a fishing rope imagined as a meteor with a fiery debris trail. Ox head (source), meteor (source). Illustration by Arthur Koopmans.

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.

Monsters howled and “volcanoes erupted” says Crawford’s translation, as Jormungand sank back into the sea. Painting by Mezey Lajos (c. 1860) – source

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.

Left: Thor Obtains Bait from an Ox by W.J. Weigand (1871) – Right: Thor and Hymir fishing for the serpent by Jenny Nystrom (1893) – source

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.

Close-up of the the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. Photo by Kees Scherer (2018) – source

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.


Notes

[1] 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 

Myth Science: Thor’s Fishing Trip

Clube and Napier

The Cosmic Serpent (1982)

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan

Comet (1985)

David Mathisen

Starmythworld.com

Star Myths of the World Vol.4: Norse Mythology

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