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Jormungander, the Midgard Serpent

Spawned by Loki, god of evil, its coils stretched across the earth as far as the eye could see, and its hideous dragon's head and limitless neck towered over the land and mountains like a scaly ebony pillar surmounted by the visage of death itself. Little wonder, then, that when this frightful apparition was brought before the Aesir, Odin the All-Wise cast it far out into the deepest ocean, where its thrashing bulk was soon enveloped by the turbulence of the waves.

Yet although it had disappeared from sight, Jormungander did not vanish from existence. On the contrary. Deep within its watery domain, far beyond the realms of gods and men, it grew even larger until eventually its mighty coils encircled the globe, its jaws grasping its tail like a colossal ouroboros. Here it was destined to remain until Ragnarok, the Day of the Last Battle. Only then would Jormungander be freed, and on that day it would confront the mightiest of the Aesir-Thor, god of thunder.

Long before this cataclysmic encounter, however, these two formidable combatants were destined to cross paths on two separate occasions. The first meeting took place during the visit by Thor to Utgardhaloki, the king of the giants who were long-standing enemies of the Aesir. Seeing an opportunity to belittle the mighty Thor, Utgardhaloki challenged him to a trio of physical trials. These feats were, in fact, impossible for anyone to accomplish-god or giant-but the king was skilled in the magic and art of illusion and had cloaked their true nature, making them appear commonplace in order to deceive his visitor. One of the trials seemed particularly demeaning. Mocking Thor's renowned strength, Utgardhaloki expressed doubt that the god could even pick up his pet cat. Greatly angered, Thor grasped the animal on both sides and, retaining the spitting ball of fury in a firm grip of his powerful hands, attempted to lift it off the ground; but the cat did not move. Heave and haul as he might, Thor could not raise the animal as much as an inch into the air. Utgardhaloki laughed loudly at this incongruous sight, enraging Thor and spurring him on to make one last attempt. With every sinew taut and every muscle straining with the exertion, Thor pulled at the king's unyielding pet until his fingers felt as if they were about to snap, but he succeeded in lifting only one of its paws a fraction off the floor.

Thor was equally embarrassed by the other tests. Famed for his great drinking prowess, he failed in three drafts to quaff a horn of mead that Utgardhaloki's subjects reputedly emptied in two or less. And offering the ultimate indignity, he was brought to his knees in a wrestling match with the king's childhood nurse, a feeble old woman.

Ashamed and humiliated, Thor left the kingdom of Utgardhaloki the following morning and was escorted far beyond its borders by the king himself. Only then, with his land safely distant from any anger that Thor might seek to vent upon it, did Utgardhaloki confess the truth concerning the trials with which he had taunted the god.

The horn had been connected to the oceans, and although, therefore, Thor could never have succeeded in entirely quaffing its contents, his measure of achievement had been so profound that he had created the world's first ebb tide. As for the "feeble old nurse," she was none other than Old Age, and no one, however strong, can ever conquer her.

Most astonishing of all, however, was the strength Thor had demonstrated with Utgardhaloki's cat, for this was not a cat at all. Its feline form was just an illusion, deftly woven by the king to conceal the true identity of an entirely different creature-the serpent that encircled the world, Jormungander. When Thor had succeeded in lifting one of the cat's "paws" off the ground, he had actually lifted the head and tail of the great Midgard Serpent, a feat so astounding that Utgardhaloki had scarcely been able to hid his horror with his false laughter.

Learning how he had been tricked, Thor would certainly have slain the giant king with his magical hammer, Miolnir, but as soon as he had spoken his final words, Utgardhaloki vanished: his presence accompanying Thor's departure had itself been only and illusion.

Many years later, Thor and another giant, Hymir, grandfather of Tyr, god of war, were fishing on the ocean in Hymir's boat, and Thor was using an entire ox head as bait. Suddenly, something immensely powerful seized the head and began hauling it down through the waves, with the hook firmly embedded in its jaw. Thor was well aware that there was only one creature able to exert such force-the Midgard Serpent.

Remembering how this monster had made him appear weak and foolish at the court of Utgardhaloki, he relished the opportunity to haul the serpent dragon out of the ocean and hurl it on the shore. Pulling upon the line with every atom of his strength, Thor battled with the giant creature for what seemed like an age to the petrified Hymir, but eventually Jormungander tired, and Thor seemed set to achieve his long-standing ambition.

The creature's immense, repulsive head rose up through the water and Thor whirled his hammer Miolnir to strike the fatal blow; but at that moment, Hymir's nerve snapped. The sight of the dreadful visage so close to his own face was too much for him, and without hesitation he cut Thor's line. Instantly, the Midgard Serpent sank down through the waves, while Thor could only rage impotently at having been thwarted again.

Countless ages passed in the realm of mortals, but to the Aesir it seemed only the blink of an eye since the world had begun when Ragnarok arrived. This was the long-awaited Day of the Last Battle, with god against giant deity against demon, man against monster, and Thor, god of thunder, against Jormungander.

The ocean writhed as the colossal dragon uncoiled itself to come ashore to do battle with the only being capable of offering it a worthy challenge. Thor was waiting, and their final combat began; the earth shook with the violence of the dragon's unceasing assault upon his adversary, and the heavens were set alight as Thor hurled scorching thunderbolts and bright javelins of lightning at his deadly foe.

With a final war cry, Thor raised Miolnir high above his head, whirling it round and round until the skies wheeled in a giddy vortex-then he plunged it down upon the bony head of the dragon with a crashing blow that echoed right around the world. Fatally wounded, the Midgard Serpent emitted an earsplitting blast of rage and pain before sinking lifeless to the ground.

Thor had conquered the most terrible enemy ever to challenge the Aesir, but so, too, had Jormungander conquered the mightiest of their number. For only moments after laying the serpent dragon, Thor fell dead alongside it, asphyxiated by the fetid could of venom exhaled with the great beast's final breath. For two enemies so evenly matched, the outcome seemed as fitting as it was inevitable.