Archive for December, 2012

One more ouroboros, and then I’ll be taking a holiday break.

Jormungandr is a dragon of Norse legend, sometimes known as the World Serpent or Midgard Serpent. Like Hydra, who I covered during the fall, Jormungandr is part of a larger monstrous family. His siblings are Fenrir, the giant wolf, and the death goddess, Hel. All three are offspring of the frost giantess Angrboda and the wicked god Loki.

Because they were so horrific, the children were seized by Odin, king of the gods, to be neutralized in some way. Hel and Fenrir have their own legends; Jormungandr was thrown into the sea. He continued to grow until he was so large that his tail stretched all the way around the earth. Norse lore held that storms at sea happened because Jormungandr had bitten his own tail and was writhing in pain. This might sound bad, but the stories also said if he ever let go of his tail, the world would end.

Jormungandr had a special enmity with Thor, son of Odin. Here is a story from Norse mythology.

Thor planned a fishing trip along with a giant named Hymir. Hymir said he didn’t have any bait, so Thor cut off the head of Hymir’s ox and they used that. Hymir (who didn’t seem to mind having his ox killed) took Thor out to his favorite fishing spot.

Hymir caught two whales and was ready to head back, but Thor hadn’t caught anything yet. Ignoring Hymir’s warnings, he rowed the boat farther out to sea. Using the ox head as bait, he cast his line. Guess who bit the hook? Yep, Jormungandr! After a terrific struggle, Thor pulled the serpent up, while Hymir cowered in the bottom of the boat. Jormungander spat poison and blood, but Thor was fearless. He raised his hammer to strike!

Maybe Hymir had been paying attention when the skalds said Jormungander’s death meant the end of the world. At the last second, he ran out and cut the line. The sea dragon fled back into the depths, but he hated Thor ever afterward.

Thanks for following my blog through 2012. I’ll see you in 2013!


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Images of ouroboros dragons persisted into the Middle Ages, particularly in religious and occult thought. As I previously mentioned, ouroboros embodied the duality of creation and destruction. Because nothing in nature is ever wasted, they became by extension symbols of eternity.

To alchemists in Medieval and Renaissance times, ouroboros also stood for the will of the alchemist, focused on his goal. Contrary to our modern belief that alchemists only wanted the material gain of turning things into gold, in many ways alchemy was a spiritual practice. The intent was to understand nature and one’s place in it, to bring into being the divine within oneself. Thus the alchemist himself was the ultimate test subject, and the ouroboros showed that everything he needed was already present within him.

As time went by, however, depictions shifted from showing the ouroboros as a snake or dragon to the “sideways eight” we all known as an infinity sign.

By the 18th Century, Tarot was developing as a form of entertainment and divination. Ouroboros appeared in several early decks. Some were as frames around figures in the trump cards. Others were parts of the picture. For instance, the Magician shows a man with an infinity sign above his head, and on the Two of Pentacles, a man balances objects within the loops of an infinity sign.

In this way, I suppose you could say the ouroboros lives up to its name: it is eternal.

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Though they cannot fly or breathe fire, Ouroboros are a dragon breed of great antiquity. These beasts are usually depicted as gigantic snakes, sometimes with two legs or with wings, that circle around to eat their own tails. Egyptian, Greek, Japanese, Norse, Aztec and Indian mythology all include ouroboros. Various cultures call them Lindworms, Rainbow Serpents, and Hoop Snakes.

Ouroboros are found all over the world, especially in creation myths. It is thought that they symbolize the duality of creation and destruction in nature. That beginning and ending are combined in the same place. Yet they often have a protective function, as well. What is inside the snake’s circle is safe from the chaos outside — at least, for a time.

Here is a legend from the Fon people of West Africa.

Long ago, the one god, Nana-Buluku, created the world. Nana-Buluku (who had no gender) created for himself a companion, the rainbow serpent Aido-Hwedo. The droppings of Aido-Hwedo became mountains, and the soil that nourished life on the new Earth. As the dragon wriggled along, the movement of his body carved out rivers and canyons.

The Earth burgeoned, first with plants and then animals and birds that fed on the plants. The world became so full that Nana-Buluku feared it would collapse from all the weight. Aido-Hwedo wanted to help. He turned himself in a circle around the whole world, and took his tail into his mouth. With such a strong dragon on the outside, the world steadied into the shape we all know.

Nana-Buluku knew that Aido-Hwedo couldn’t bear the heat of the sun, so he created a great ocean where the rainbow serpent could seek refuge. That is where Aido-Hwedo lives now. He eats iron bars brought to him by red monkeys who can swim in the deep sea. If the monkeys ever run out of iron, Aido-Hwedo may become so hungry that he starts to eat his own tail. This would hurt, and his lashings in pain would cause the world to turn sideways and fall into the sea. That would be the end of everything.

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Q: How does a dragon like his meat cooked?

A: Seared!

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We’ve been following the deeds of the mighty wizard Merlyn, as intertwined with the fates of the Red Dragon and the great hero, King Arthur. Merlyn had helped King Uther win his wife, Queen Igraine, and unite Britain with Cornwall. Igraine was expecting their first child. Well, it turned out Merlyn hadn’t helped Uther just for nothing. His price: turn the baby over to him.

Merlyn’s reasoning was that Britain was still very turbulent, with Saxons invading and many small kingdoms quarreling among themselves. If Uther died with his heir so young, the realm would be thrown into chaos and someone, sometime, would do away with the child. Uther stood by his word, and Merlyn took the baby Arthur from his parents when he was three days old.

Legends vary, but most agree that Merlyn first took the tiny heir to the magical isle of Avalon. When he was old enough, the wizard then asked a good knight, Sir Ector, to raise the boy to adulthood.  Still concerned for Arthur’s safety, Merlyn did not reveal his true identity. Sir Ector brought up the future king as a modest and humble squire.

While all this was happening, Merlyn’s prediction came true. Uther died, and the realm fell apart as factions fought for control. To prevent complete anarchy, Merlyn placed a sword in a stone with the prophecy that whoever drew it out would be Britain’s destined king. Many knights and would-be rulers tried to draw the sword, but none could.

Until, almost by accident, Arthur did take the sword from the stone and claim his heritage. He went on to a storied career of driving out Saxon invaders and establishing a reign of peace and justice in Britain. His symbol? That very same red dragon whose battle with the white dragon had started Merlyn’s career so long ago.

I had hoped to finish this thread with a story where Arthur himself battles a dragon. I can’t find a one! If any of you know of such a tale, I’d love for you to send me a link or even tell the tale yourself in a comment.

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