Dragons in Norse Mythology

Norse mythology has several references to dragons (Old Norse: dreki). [1]

The word dreki is a loanword from the Greek and Latin form of dragon and is used in Old Norse in different ways: It is a heiti (synonym) for the great earthbound serpent-monster appearing in Germanic tradition as ormr or linnormr (lindworm). But it also refers to a more recent romanesque winged dragon, that often breathes fire and has four legs. The term dreki was also applied to the great Viking longships, where the prow, when carved in the likeness of a dragon, was meant to protect and impart ferocity upon the sailors. [1]

  • Níðhöggr is identified as a dragon in the Völuspá. It is the only winged dragon in the Poetic Edda, and in Paul Acker’s view “is likely a late, perhaps even Christian, addition to the otherwise pagan cosmology” of the poem.
  • Jörmungandr, also known as the Midgard Serpent, is described as a giant, venomous beast.
  • Fáfnir, a slithering ormr in the Poetic Edda, is turned into a limbed dragon as part of the Völsung Cycle.
  • The Gesta Danorum contains a description of a dragon killed by Frotho I. [1]

There are nine great lindworms in Norse mythology: Jörmungandr, Níðhöggr, Grábakr, Grafvölluðr, Ofnir, Svafnir, Grafvitni and his sons Góinn and Móinn. [2]

Also known as a “snake” (ormr) or “dragon” (dreki), lindworms were popular motifs on runestones in 11th-century Sweden. This runestone is identified as U 871 at Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm, Sweden. (From Wikimedia Commons)


Jörmungandr (the Midgard Serpent) gets fished by an ox head from the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to [3]

In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr (Old Norse: Jǫrmungandr, pronounced [ˈjɔ̃rmoŋˌɡɑndr], meaning “huge monster” or “great beast”), also known as the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent, is a sea serpent (or snake or dragon) and the middle child of Loki and the giantess Angrboða. According to the Prose Edda, Odin took Loki’s three children by Angrboða—the wolf Fenrir, Hel, and Jörmungandr—and tossed Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircles Midgard (the visible world). The serpent grew so large that it was able to surround the Earth and grasp its own tail. It is an example of an ouroboros. As a result of it surrounding the Earth, it received the name of World Serpent. When it releases its tail, Ragnarök will begin. Jörmungandr’s arch-enemy is the thunder-god, Thor. [3][4]

The major sources for myths about Jörmungandr are the Prose Edda, the skaldic poem Húsdrápa, and the Eddic poems Hymiskviða and Völuspá. Other sources include the early skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa and kennings in other skaldic poems; for example, in Þórsdrápa, faðir lögseims, “father of the sea-thread”, is used as a kenning for Loki. There are also several image stones depicting the story of Thor fishing for Jörmungandr. [3]

Jörmungandr likely already featured in the religion of the original Germanic tribes, as evidenced by his existence in the later pre-Christian religions of different branches of the Germanic peoples. For example, continental Germans attributed earthquakes to his movements well into the Middle Ages. [4]

There are three preserved myths detailing Thor’s encounters with Jörmungandr:

Lifting the cat

In one story, Thor encounters the giant king Útgarða-Loki and has to perform deeds for him, one of which is a challenge of Thor’s strength. Útgarða-Loki goads Thor into attempting to lift the World Serpent, disguised by magic as a huge cat. Thor grabs the cat around its midsection but manages to raise the cat only high enough for one of its paws to leave the floor. Útgarða-Loki later explains his deception and that Thor’s lifting the cat was an impressive deed, as he stretched the serpent so that it almost reached the sky. Many watching became fearful when they saw one paw lift off the ground. If Thor had managed to lift the cat completely from the ground, he would have altered the boundaries of the universe. [3]

Thor’s fishing trip

Jörmungandr and Thor meet again when Thor goes fishing with the giant Hymir. When Hymir refuses to provide Thor with bait, Thor strikes the head off Hymir’s largest ox to use it. They row to a point where Hymir often sat and caught flatfish and where he drew up two whales. Thor demands to go further out to sea and does so despite Hymir’s protest. Thor then prepares a strong line and a large hook and baits it with the ox head, which Jörmungandr bites. Thor pulls the serpent from the water, and the two face one another, Jörmungandr blowing poison. Hymir goes pale with fear. As Thor grabs his hammer to kill the serpent, the giant cuts the line, leaving the serpent to sink beneath the waves and return to its original position encircling the earth. The Eddic poem Hymiskviða has a similar ending to the story, but in earlier Scandinavian versions of the myth in skaldic poetry, Thor successfully captures and kills the serpent by striking it on the head. [3]

Thor’s fishing for Jörmungandr was one of the most popular motifs in Norse art. Four picture stones that are believed to depict the myth are the Altuna Runestone and the Ardre VIII image stone in Sweden, the Hørdum stone in Denmark, and a stone slab at Gosforth, Cumbria by the same sculptor as the Gosforth Cross. Many of these depictions show the giant cutting the fishing line; on the Altuna stone, Thor is alone, implying he successfully killed the serpent. The Ardre VIII stone may depict more than one stage in the events: a man entering a house where an ox is standing, two men leaving, one with something on his shoulder, and two men using a spear to fish. The image on this stone has been dated to the 8th to 10th century. If the stone is correctly interpreted as a depiction of this myth, it would indicate that the story was preserved essentially unchanged for several centuries prior to the recording of the version in the Prose Edda around the year 1220. [3]


As recounted in Snorri’s Gylfaginning based on the Eddic poem Völuspá, one sign of the coming of Ragnarök is the violent unrest of the sea as Jörmungandr releases its tail from its mouth. The sea will flood and the serpent will thrash onto the land. It will advance, spraying poison to fill the air and water, beside Fenrir, whose eyes and nostrils blaze with fire and whose gape touches the earth and the sky. They will join the sons of Muspell to confront the gods on the plain of Vigrid. Here is where the last meeting between the serpent and Thor is predicted to occur. He will eventually kill Jörmungandr but will fall dead after walking nine paces, having been poisoned by the serpent’s deadly venom. Thor’s final battle with Jörmungandr has been identified, with other scenes of Ragnarök, on the Gosforth Cross.


Níðhǫggr gnaws the roots of Yggdrasill in this illustration from a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript. [6]

Nidhogg (Old Norse Níðhöggr, literally “Curse-striker”, “Malice Striker” or “He Who Strikes with Malice”) is the foremost of several serpents or dragons who dwell beneath the world-tree Yggdrasil and eat its roots. [5] The name Níðhöggr can be represented in English texts with i for í; th, d or (rarely) dh for ð; o for ǫ and optionally without r as in Modern Scandinavian reflexes. The Modern Icelandic form Níðhöggur is also sometimes seen, with special characters or similarly anglicized. The Danish forms Nidhug and Nidhøg can also be encountered; or Norwegian Nidhogg and Swedish Nidhögg. [6]

Nidhogg is a tremendous dragon. His body is covered in bright scales, and horns erupt from his head. A pair of forelegs, complete with massive claws, help him to rip at the roots of Yggdrasil, but he has no back legs, only a serpentine tail. Beneath his bat-like wings, he carries the corpses of criminals. [7]

His mammoth body can be found twisting through the roots of Yggdrasil, especially around Niflheimr, the cold world from which all the rivers of Midgard spring. Occasionally, he might slither into Hel to visit the dark goddess who some people consider his master. [7]

Eating the roots is highly injurious to the tree, which holds the Nine Worlds of the cosmos. Nidhogg’s actions have the intention of pulling the cosmos back to chaos, and he, along with his reptilian cohort, can therefore surely be classified among the giants (or, as they were called in pre-Christian times, “devourers”). [5][6]

From this it would make sense for Nidhogg to have a prominent role in Ragnarok, the downfall of the cosmos. This does indeed seem to be the case. In one especially important Old Norse poem (the Völuspá or “Insight of the Seeress”), Nidhogg is described as flying out from beneath Yggdrasil during Ragnarok, presumably to aid the giants’ cause. [5]

Ragnarok, the day when the giants will attack the gods and destroy most of their world, will begin when the dragon finally manages to chew through the roots of Yggdrasil, causing the tree to yellow and the worlds it supports to plunge into a three-year winter. At the end of this frigid and chaotic period, he will fly up from the underworld, carrying dead criminals and leading the giants on an attack against the gods. Ultimately, he will survive this battle and become the force of evil which balances good in the post-Ragnarok world. [7]

Nidhogg is also said to preside over a part of the underworld called Náströnd (“The Shore of Corpses”) where perjurers, murderers, and adulterers are punished. However, this conception of the afterlife as marked by moral retribution is totally foreign to the indigenous worldview of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, and must be an instance (one of many) of Christian influence upon the poem. [5]

Although Nidhogg is featured in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, which are pillars of our modern knowledge of Norse mythology, he is not mentioned elsewhere in any other ancient texts. [7]

Yggdrasil – the World Tree

Yggdrasill – from thenorsegods.com/yggdrasil/ [9]

In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil (“The Terrible One’s Horse”), also called the World Tree, is the giant ash tree that links and shelters all the worlds. Beneath the three roots the realms of Asgard, Jotunheim, and Niflheim are located. Three wells lie at its base: the Well of Wisdom (Mímisbrunnr), guarded by Mimir; the Well of Fate (Urdarbrunnr), guarded by the Norns; and the Hvergelmir (Roaring Kettle), the source of many rivers. Four deer run across the branches of the tree and eat the buds; they represent the four winds. There are other inhabitants of the tree, such as the squirrel Ratatosk (“swift teeth”), a notorious gossip, and Vidofnir (“tree snake”), the golden cock that perches on the topmost bough. The roots are gnawed upon by Nidhogg and other serpents. On the day of Ragnarok, the fire giant Surt will set the tree on fire. [9]

More lindworms under the tree…

The serpents under Yggdrasil are the Nordic echo of an Indo-European , mythical world model, according to which a serpent lives at the foot of the tree of life and an eagle in the branches. Since not much more than the mere name has been passed on about these northern serpents, nothing more can be said about them than what results from the interpretation of their names. [10]


“Greyback.” One of the serpents that slither at the foot of the world-tree Yggdrasil, according to the eddic poems Grímnismál and Gunnars slagr:

Now is Grábak lulled,
and Grafvitnir,
Góin and Móin,
and Grafvöllud,
Ofnir and Svafnir,
with venom glistening,
Nad and Nidhögg,
and the serpents all,
Hring, Höggvard,
by the harp’s sound.

Grabak, Old Norse Grábakr , is the “gray back”. The name can also be found in a skald poem of the 11th century as a synonym for the ship Ormr inn langi , from which the serpents have another reference to water. [10]


Grafwitnir, Old Norse Grafvitnir , the father of Goinn and Moinn: his name is almost impossible to understand. It is interpreted as “wolf dwelling in a pit”, “pit wolf”, “gnawing wolf” or “grave creature”. [10]


Goinn, Old Norse Góinn ( [goːinː] , with a long o and a long n ), perhaps means “land animal”. [10]


Moinn, old Norse Móinn ( [moːinː] ), probably means “bog animal”. The name of the Danish island of Møn could be related to the name Móinsheimar ” Home of Móinn”. [10]


Grafwöllud, Old Norse Grafvölluðr , is difficult to translate. Perhaps the name means “field rodent”, “field grave” or “the one who digs underground”. Perhaps one should also read the name Grafvöluðr as “the ruler in the pit”. [10]


Ofnir, Old Norse Ófnir , means “the twisting one ” or “the confused” and is also one of Odin’s nicknames. [10]


Swafnir, old Norse Sváfnir , is the “sleeper” or “who puts you to sleep (ie death?)”. This name is also one of Odin’s surnames. [10]

Fáfnir ~ from Dwarf to Dragon

In the Icelandic Volsunga Saga (late 13th century), Fáfnir is a dwarf with a powerful arm and fearless soul. He guards his father’s house of glittering gold and flashing gems. He is the strongest and most aggressive of the three brothers. [11]

Regin recounts to Sigurd how Odin, Loki, and Hœnir were traveling when they came across Ótr, who had the likeness of an otter during the day. Loki killed the otter with a stone and the three Æsir skinned their catch. The gods came to Hreidmar’s dwelling that evening and were pleased to show off the otter’s skin. Hreidmar and his remaining two sons then seized the gods and held them captive while Loki was made to gather the ransom, which was to stuff the otter’s skin with gold and cover its outside with red gold. Loki fulfilled the task by gathering the cursed gold of Andvari as well as the ring, Andvaranaut, both of which were told to Loki as items that would bring about the death of whoever possessed them. Fáfnir then killed Hreidmar to get all the gold for himself. He became ill-natured and greedy and ventured into the wilderness to keep his fortune. He turned into a serpent or dragon in order to guard his treasure. Fáfnir breathed poison into the land around him so no one would go near him and his treasure, wreaking terror in the hearts of the people. [11]

A depiction of Sigurd slaying Fafnir on the right portal plank from Hylestad Stave Church, the so-called “Hylestad I”, from the second half of the 12th century. (From Wikipedia)

Regin plotted revenge so that he could get the treasure and sent his foster-son Sigurd to kill the dragon. Regin instructed Sigurd to dig a pit in which he could lie in wait under the trail Fáfnir used to get to a stream and there plunge his sword, Gram, into Fáfnir’s heart as he crawls over the pit to the water. Regin then ran away in fear, leaving Sigurd to the task. As Sigurd dug, Odin appeared in the form of an old man with a long beard, advising the warrior to dig more trenches for the blood of Fáfnir to run into, presumably so that Sigurd does not drown in the blood. The earth quaked and the ground nearby shook as Fáfnir appeared, blowing poison into his path as he made his way to the stream. Sigurd, undaunted, stabbed Fafnir in the left shoulder as he crawled over the ditch he was lying in and succeeded in mortally wounding the dragon. As the creature lay there dying, he spoke to Sigurd and asked for his name, his parentage and who sent him on such a dangerous mission. Fáfnir figured out that his own brother, Regin, plotted this, and predicted that Regin would also cause Sigurd’s death. Sigurd told Fafnir that he would go back to the dragon’s lair and take all his treasure. Fáfnir warned Sigurd that all who possessed the gold would be fated to die, but Sigurd replied that all men must one day die anyway, and it is the dream of many men to be wealthy until that dying day, so he would take the gold without fear. [11]

Regin then returned to Sigurd after Fáfnir was slain. Corrupted by greed, Regin planned to kill Sigurd after Sigurd cooked Fáfnir’s heart for him to eat and take all the treasure for himself. However, Sigurd, having tasted Fáfnir’s blood while cooking the heart, gained knowledge of the speech of birds and learned of Regin’s impending attack from the Oðinnic (of Odin) birds’ discussion and killed Regin by cutting off his head with Gram. Sigurd then ate some of Fáfnir’s heart and kept the remainder, which would later be given to Gudrun after their marriage. [11]

Some versions are more specific about Fáfnir’s treasure hoard, mentioning the swords Ridill and Hrotti, the helm of terror and a golden coat of chainmail. [11]


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norse_dragon
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_in_Norse_mythology
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jörmungandr
[4] https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/giants/jormungand/
[5] https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/giants/nidhogg/
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Níðhöggr
[7] https://mythology.net/norse/norse-creatures/nidhogg/
[8] https://pantheon.org/articles/g/grabakr.html
[9] https://thenorsegods.com/yggdrasil/
[10] https://second.wiki/wiki/goin_und_moin
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fafnir

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