Norse mythology is the folklore of the Northern Germanic peoples, or Northmen, coming largely from ancient and early medieval Scandinavia and enduring into the modern age in the form of popular films and comic books.
Passed down orally, a major source of Norse mythology is the set of medieval Icelandic books known as the Eddas.
The entire Norse universe was divided up into nine worlds. These included Asgard, the home of the family of gods ruled by Odin, and Midgard, the world of men.
Across the nine worlds were supernatural beings, such as the squirrel Ratatoskr, who climbs up and down the cosmic tree, Yggdrasil, and Odin’s ravens Hugin and Munin.
There were also many supernatural creatures who were not particularly friendly. In fact, they were the dread of the world of Norse mythology. These included huge sea serpents, venom-spraying dragons, sky-scraping wolves, and clay-giants.
Here we look at seven of the most savage monsters from Norse mythology.
Fafnir was a son of the magician Hreidmar. It was Hreidmar who stole the cursed treasure of the dwarf Andvari. The young Fafnir found himself bewitched by his dad’s stolen loot, desiring it more than anything. Overcome with envy brought on by the curse, Fafnir killed his father for the treasure and transformed into a dragon to guard it.
Fafnir took off with the treasure and made a new home in a place called the Glittering Heath. Those that dared approach the dragon’s lair with the idea of pinching his treasure died from the beast’s fire and venom.
He was so big that the ground shook as he moved around. He sprayed venom in all directions and his huge body left a slime-filled trench as he crawled. The hero, Sigurd, made himself a hole in this trench in which he could hide and wait for the monster. When Fafnir passed over him Sigurd thrust his sword up into his belly and killed him.
Fafnir’s brothers were called Regin and Otter, and it was Regin who egged on Sigurd to go slay the fearsome dragon.
One of the most ferocious and powerful monsters of North mythology was Fenrir, the terrible wolf.
Fenrir was a son of Loki and the frost giantess Angrboda. Even the gods feared Fenrir, who was so big that when he stretched open his mouth with his bottom jaw to the ground, the top part of his mouth touched the sky.
The gods, to keep Fenrir under control, tricked him into having specially-made fetters put around his neck. This magic chain was made by dwarves at Odin’s request. It appeared to be as thin and delicate as a silk thread, but Fenrir, who had broken previous iron chains like they were nothing, could not sever this cord. This powerful binding, called Gleipnir, was made from some bizarre ingredients, including the sound of cats walking, fish breath, roots of stones, women’s beards, and more.
Only the god of war, Tyr, dared to get near Fenrir to feed him, although Tyr lost his hand to the wolf’s savage jaws when tricking him into Gleipnir.
Fenrir eventually devoured Odin at Ragnarök, and Fenrir himself was then slain by Odin’s son, Vidar.
Greek mythology had Cerberus, the dreadful multi-headed dog, as its guardian of Hades, and English folklore has its numerous hellish ‘black dogs’, the petrifying pooches of churchyards and lonely roads. Norse mythology had its own cruel canine, a vicious beast named Garm.
Garm was the guard dog of Hel, the Norse land of the dead. Garm’s lair was called the Gnipa cave. Garm is described in one account as ‘the largest and best among dogs’ in the Norse mythic realms.
According to Norse myth, at Ragnarök (the final battle where the gods meet their doom), Garm produces terrible howls and barks to herald the event and breaks his chain, ready to do battle.
During his final fight, Garm pounced on Tyr and tore at his throat, killing him. However, Tyr managed to fatally wound the merciless mutt at the same time.
In the realm of Norse mythology lurked a man-eating amphibious monster. This creature was called Grendel, notorious as the nemesis of the hero Beowulf.
In the dim past of Denmark, in the 6th century, lived King Hrothgar, a figure modern scholars describe as ‘semi-legendary’. King Hrothgar had a problem – Grendel. Massive and invulnerable to weaponry, the monster was plaguing Hrothgar’s kingdom. Night after night, Grendel, sometimes depicted as a snarling bigfoot and other times as more like an ogre, would attack Hrothgar’s hall and carry men off into the night and to their deaths.
The warrior Beowulf journeyed from his home in Geatland (modern-day southern Sweden) to come to the aid of Hrothgar.
One day, all the king’s men were asleep in the great hall. Grendel snuck in and attacked a warrior, biting into the man’s body, drinking his blood, and devouring the soldier. Beowulf seized the opportunity to down the savage beast. He tussled with Grendel and ended up ripping off one of the creature’s big arms. Grendel slinked off to his swamp and bled to death.
After Grendel died it took four strong men to carry his head back to King Hrothgar as a trophy.
Jormungand, the Midgard serpent, was such a terrible monster that it threatened the whole Norse world. It represented darkness and destruction, death and the end times.
Loki, the mischievous fire god, had three children with the frost giantess Angrboda. These awful offspring were Fenrir, Hel, and Jormungand.
Odin, the chief of the gods, was fearful of Loki’s cunning kids, so he had them taken to Asgard (the stronghold of the gods). Here, the gods had Fenrir chained up, Hel was thrown down into the underworld, and Jormungand was cast into the sea. It was in the sea that Jormungand transformed into the Midgard serpent, growing so big that he encircled the whole world.
Jormungand is often depicted as lying in the ocean and forming a circle around the edge of the world, biting his own tail.
Jormungand was known as a menace to sailors. Thor went fishing for him once, baiting him with an ox’s head. The beast was nearly Thor’s dinner, but his fearful companion in the boat cut the line, and the sea serpent got away.
Jormungand was destined to destroy the world at Ragnarök. At Ragnarök, Thor smashed and killed Jormungand with his hammer, but not before the creature sprayed its venom everywhere, killing Thor.
6. Mist Calf
One of the most fearsome-sounding, but ultimately useless, monsters of Norse mythology, was the colossal giant Mokkuralfi, or Mist Calf.
According to the myths, one day the thunder god, Thor, had an epic duel with the mightiest of the frost giants, Hrungnir. The frost giants were obviously anxious to defend their great champion against the hammer-wielding god, so they dredged a riverbed for large quantities of clay. From this clay they built a giant, which they called Mist Calf. They used a dead mare’s heart to animate the giant, who was so tall its head scraped the clouds. To begin with, it looked like a smart move on the part of the frost giants, as the story says that on seeing Mist Calf, Thor literally wet himself.
Mist Calf was enormous and powerful, but also slow and dim-witted. Thor’s manservant, Thialfi, took an axe and swiped at the giant’s legs, felling him.
Nidhogg was a gigantic, grotesque terrible dragon, a fire-breathing fiend that lived in Niflheim, the land of mist and darkness, the lowest of the nine worlds.
Whenever Nidhogg got tired of feasting on corpses in Niflheim, he would gnaw away at one of the three roots of the great cosmic tree, Yggdrasil. This cosmic tree held up the whole Norse universe, so the implication was that any dead people passing on to Niflheim were distracting Nidhogg from trying to bring down the world.
This demon of the underworld represents destruction and an ever-present threat to life and was destined to survive the apocalyptic Ragnarök.