Despite its menacing appearance and malevolent nature, Nidhogg also plays a significant role in the cosmology and symbolism of Norse mythology.
A fantastic, fabled beast
Norse mythology is full of fantastic and fabled beasts, including giants, giant squids, and even a world-encompassing giant snake. Yet one of the most fearsome surely is the mythical dragon, Nidhogg.
Its long and coiled appearance, coupled with dark scales and its mammoth size, was said to strike fear into any who see it, be they the Norse gods or we mere mortals.
This giant dragon – sometimes confusingly also referred to as a serpent – was said to reside at the Niflheim, one of the nine universes in Norse cosmology according to the Prose Edda, a compilation of Norse myths and sagas.
Though the Prose Edda was compiled in the 13th century CE by Icelandic author and politician Snorri Sturluson, it drew on the much earlier Norse myths, legends, and stories from as far back as the beginnings of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE to 500 CE).
The Prose Edda describes how the roots of an immense sacred tree, Yggdrasil (the literal and metaphorical center of Norse mythology), stretched all the way into the realm of Niflheim.
Niddhogg – whose name in Old Norse was something akin to the modern English term “villain” - lived up to its name and would chew, gnaw, and gash at the roots of this life-giving tree, causing it severe decay and damage.
Another slippery symbol of evil
For many people of the Christian persuasion, a snake has traditionally been seen as a symbol of evil thanks in part to the creation story of Adam and Eve.
Given that Christian missionaries had been arriving on Nordic shores, since the 6th century CE, could this have influenced elements of Norse mythology?
There is a wealth of literature and research on the syncretism, often before the 11th century CE, between Christianity and what has been called the Old Norse religion (a strand of Germanic paganism).
The great dragon Nidhogg could be an example of this. It is sometimes described as a great and evil serpent, a larger version of the one that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Paradise.
Furthermore, the association with a life-giving tree is another striking similarity between Nidhogg and its counterpart in the Bible.
Nidhogg is a constant reminder of destruction in Norse mythology. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Aside from its evil roots (pun intended), Nidhogg was also a constant reminder of the death, destruction, and decay in Norse mythology.
Its constant gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil was a reminder of the often-chaotic nature of the Norse world, full of death and destruction – especially on the battlefield.
It was also said to feast on the bodies of the dead who had been, in some way, dishonored. Perhaps they had been mutilated after death, or their families had not buried them with adequate respect or burial rites.
Nidhogg's constant snacking on the dishonored dead would only add to their eternal suffering and was a reminder to respect the last wishes of a deceased friend or family member.
Ragnarök and the end of times
One of the most well-known, studied, and discussed elements of Norse mythology is the cataclysmic events of Ragnarök, involving the apocalyptic burning and submersion of the world and its eventual renewal.
Nidhogg was said to play a crucial part in these ends of times. It would begin the whole chain of events leading to the end of Norse cosmology by eventually chewing right through the roots of Yggdrasil.
The great and scared tree would collapse, sparking the end times and a new cycle of cataclysmic creation.
Nidhogg was also said to have a constant battle with an unnamed eagle perched on high in Yggdrasil. The eagle was said to be a representation of the forces of order and protection, the exact opposite of Nidhogg.
Their eternal battle – neither being able to defeat the other – would eventually come to a bloody and climatic end during Ragnarök. This seemingly eternal conflict shows the tension between the forces of chaos, evil, and destruction and those of order and protection.
The mythical creature Nidhogg helps add color to the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, sagas, and legends that have inspired people the world over for more than a millennium.
This malign dragon/serpent is one of the more memorable evil creatures ripped from the sagas and plays an important symbolic role as a reminder of death, decay, and worldly destruction.
For how the latest maritime research has helped solve the mystery of a Norse mythological sea creature, visit the ABC News website here.
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