"Writing a book is the art of listening to oneself."-Brad Cameron

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dragons in Norse Mythology

Recently, I spoke at the Rad/Con Science Fiction Fair in Pasco, Washington.  I felt honored to be part of not one but four panels that discuss everything from the business of Indie publishing to the advent of magic in medieval and renaissance fiction. However, the one that I was most excited about was the panel titled “Dragons and their Evolution”.  My emphasis, of course, was dragons in Norse mythology. So, as a dedication to the very fine, though quite unusual people that inhabit the Con circuit, I would like to rehash some of the finer points that I made during my speech.

I have mentioned before - in earlier blog entries - the makeup of the Norse universe with its nine worlds and the great ash tree, Yggdrasil, which binds them all together. However, it may be interesting to note that, apart from the many residents that make up the nine worlds, there are also several creatures that inhabit the limbs and branches of the tree. These beasts take their toll on the tree (which is constantly under repair by the Norns - another topic for blog discussion), as a result, the tree is constantly in danger. Its roots are rotting.

At the bottom, near Niflheim, sits Nidhogg, a serpent, or, perhaps more appropriately stated, a dragon. Nidhogg has scales, wings, and bristles that spike over its spine. Nidhogg is a being that gnaws one of the three roots of Yggdrasil. It is believed that the roots are trapping the beast from the world (Midgard). This root is placed over Niflheim and Nidhogg gnaws it from beneath. However, other than the creature’s conversations with the giant squirrel that scurries up and down the tree, passing insults from the dragon to the great eagle that sits atop Yggdrasil; little else is said, other than the fact that eventually the dragon will gnaw its way through the roots. The first sighting of the dragon will signify the beginning of Ragnarok.

The first indication of a fire-breathing dragon appears in the Old English retelling of “Beowulf”, an epic Norse poem that describes a hero’s eventual confrontation with Bane, a nocturnal, treasure hoarding, fire-breathing creature that brings about the death of Beowulf. The Beowulf dragon is the earliest example in literature of the typical European dragon and first incidence of a fire-breathing dragon. However, because a Christian Monk probably wrote the poem with Northman ties, the symbols have most likely become tainted. For instance, the fire is likely symbolic of the hell-fire of the Devil, reminiscent of a monster described in the Old Testament. The Pagan would not have known any such place. Nevertheless, the author appears to be trying hard to appeal to his audience.

 In the story, Beowulf eventually returns to his home and becomes king of the Geats. After ruling for fifty years, a servant awakens and angers the dragon, stealing a jeweled cup from its lair. When the dragon mercilessly burns the Geats' homes and lands, Beowulf decides to kill the monster. He and his men climb to the dragon's lair where, seeing the beast, the men run away leaving only Wiglaf to battle at Beowulf's side. When the dragon wounds Beowulf fatally, Wiglaf slays it.

Contemporary stories and films have taken the dragon myth to a completely new level. It is important, however, to keep in mind that its beginnings were nominal. The stories existed, but they were symbolic at best. The message I believe the Norse would want us to take from their myths is that nothing is forever. Their gods were not immortal, powerful, yes, but not immune to death. Dragons represent powers that can inflict our day-to-day struggles. They gnaw away at our roots. Nevertheless, we need to be aware of their existence and fight each day to shore up our own selves.
References: Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1980. Print


  1. I like this perspective to Dragon mythology...definitely not something I would have ever thought of but nonetheless, it is a great symbolic view of a Dragon. I think that from now on, envisioning a dragon everyday, gnawing at my roots and making it a foe to defeat, might lighten up the mental strain one can feel from the "day-to-day" tasks we deal with. Thanks for the new perspective!

  2. It sounds like you had such a memorable experience on the panels at Rad/Con. I would have loved to have been there to learn more about dragons; what an exciting topic! I liked that in this post you made sure to go back to the true roots of dragons even though you discuss a more common, contemporary view. Looking forward to reading more!