A Vision of the World Serpent (Revisited)

Dreams matter, so I investigated one of mine

Norns, 1832. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Note: I originally posted “A Vision of the World Serpent” to Medium on April 2, 2020. It was a personal piece for me and one I’ve continued to think about in the years since. This version is annotated via footnotes expanding some of the lines of thought. There are also more links and illustrations.

Have you ever had a dream so powerful that you woke up feeling like it would be life-changing if you could just decipher it? The Internet has no shortage of websites claiming to provide the meanings of dreams, but the results are often so baffling as to be ridiculous. Thus, when I had a vivid dream recently, rather than take someone else’s interpretation on authority, I decided to tease out what it suggested to me based on my own interests. Sometimes the hard way is the most rewarding way.

The dream:

“A white snake bites into the palm of my hand and burrows up through the inside of my forearm, coiling and tightening around the bone. When its head has almost reached my elbow, it begins to force its way out. I’m terrified, but I realize that once the head breaks out through the skin, it will be over. This is followed by the realization that the snake is Jörmungandr the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent of Norse mythology and its tail is rooted in Yggdrasil, the World Tree. It is now part of me. Odin has granted me its power, his power, and the power of the World Tree. I wake up thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism from The Twilight of the Idols: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Jörmungandr 1. Illustration by author.

The dream explicitly identifies the serpent as Jörmungandr. According to the Prose Edda (Younger Edda) attributed to lawspeaker Snorri Sturluson, the Midgard Serpent is one of three offspring born of the crafty god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. Odin cast it into the ocean, where it surrounded the world and bit its own tail. When Ragnarök comes, it will side with Hel and the wolf Fenrir¹ against the gods. It will rise from the ocean, thereby causing floods, and it will spew poison that fouls nature. In battle, Thor will kill it but not before it delivers enough poison to make him just another casualty of the doom of the gods.²

Carl Jung symbolically associates serpents with marking off sacred or taboo areas. That was something I had forgotten until I revisited Dreams (1974), a collection of Jung’s work translated by R.F.C. Hull. Something I hadn’t forgotten was the incredible extent to which cultural content, even content of which we may not be fully conscious, seeps into our dreams via the subconscious (or unconscious), so it stands to reason that even the bits I had forgotten may have seeped into my dream. In any case, the holy aspect of the serpent isn’t only apparent from its mythological origin but also from its color. White, as discussed by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick (1851), another book I love, is the color of both the sacred and the terrifying.³

Yggdrasil is the ash tree at the center of the cosmos. The Poetic Edda (Elder Edda), a collection of anonymous poems in Old Norse, says Yggdrasil is the finest of all trees. Rising from Hell to the heavens, it spans the Nine Worlds. The Norns (Fates) meet under its boughs to establish laws, allot life to humankind, and assign destinies. According to the Prose Edda, it was the first tree and it is where the gods hold council. But it’s a troubled tree, gnawed from underneath by the serpent Nidhogg, chewed from above by a hart, and rotting in its side. At Ragnarök it will tremble and go up in flames.⁴

Jörmungandr 2. Illustration by author.

My dream roots Jörmungandr in Yggdrasil and asserts that Odin has granted their power. This is a curious development since Odin may not dispose of every cosmic power as he sees fit. He isn’t an omnipotent monotheistic god, so he’s subject to deeper powers.⁵ Nevertheless, dreams follow their own logic and mine has bound Jörmungandr, Yggdrasil and Odin into one powerhead, a trinity of sorts. It’s a totalizing and unifying vision extending to all of space and time and, because the World Serpent is an example of the ouroboros, beyond mere time to cyclical time and eternity.

Norse mythology may not identify Odin and Yggdrasil, but it does establish a close connection between them. In “Odin’s Rune-Song,” the Poetic Edda tells of how Odin hung on a tree for nine nights as a sacrifice to himself and thereby acquired the knowledge of the runes. There are various ways of etymologically parsing the word “Yggdrasil.” The glossary to Benjamin Thorpe and I.A. Blackwell’s translations of the Eddas suggests its roots mean “bearing Odin.” This indicates Yggdrasil is the tree in the story of Odin’s sacrifice.⁶

This connection is deepened in composer Richard Wagner’s reworking of the myths for his music drama tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. Part four, Götterdämmerung, begins with the Norns recounting a visit by Wotan (Odin) to the tree, a visit that explains the sickness in its side. Margaret Armour’s translation of the libretto describes the scene as follows in Siegfried & the Twilight of the Gods (1911):

“From the world-ash-tree
Wotan broke a holy bough;
From the bough he cut
And shaped the shaft of a spear.
As time rolled on the wood
Wasted and died of the wound;
Sere, leafless and barren,
Wan withered the tree;”

Wagner isn’t a reliable source for faithfully reconstructing the beliefs of the Norsemen, but he is a relevant source for me, the dreamer, because I have long been an admirer of his musical works.⁷

Another likely source of inspiration for my dream is heavy metal music. Many of the bands I enjoy take inspiration from Norse mythology. Some is bombastic Viking metal like Manowar’s Gods of War (2007), which tells the tale of Odin’s gallows, while some is more thoughtful, like the progressive black metal of Enslaved. The latter’s classic Frost (1994) even has a track devoted to Yggdrasil. Just last year, I wrote about Fólkvangr’s album Hel’s Demise and the Norse afterlife. Thus, all of this has been very much on my mind, sinking in and, so it would seem, returning to the surface.

What does all this mean? The dream is kind enough to provide an answer in the realization that once the serpent burrowing through my body breaks through the skin, the horror will be over and I will be stronger. The pain and disgust is an ordeal, like those that heroes undertake to acquire gifts from the gods, or like a rite of passage such as we all experience as we mature. The dream says it will all be over soon and you will be the better for having endured it, so do not fear.

My waking thought — as unbidden as the dream itself — doubles down on this meaning in raising Nietzsche’s aphorism from The Twilight of the Idols (1889): “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” This is typical of Nietzsche in its suggestion that one must undergo the fearful rather than turn away from it in order to become a higher individual or, in Jungian terms, a more integrated personality. In Nietzsche’s masterwork Thus Spake Zarathustra (1822–1835), the symbol that appears in relation to fear is the eagle because it represents courage as a response to fear:

“Cold souls, mules, the blind and the drunken, I do not call stout-hearted. He hath heart who knoweth fear, but VANQUISHETH it; who seeth the abyss, but with PRIDE.

He who seeth the abyss, but with eagle’s eyes, — he who with eagle’s talons GRASPETH the abyss: he hath courage.”⁸

The serpent in Thus Spake Zarathustra represents wisdom, but my dream serpent is not without an association to Nietzsche’s work via the concept of eternal return. Eternal return, the idea that everything that happens will happen again and again, on repeat for eternity, is represented in Norse mythology by Jörmungandr biting its own tail. Whether everything actually does repeat didn’t matter to Nietzsche so much as that we believe it does.⁹ If I believe I’m destined to live this moment over and over, it may spur me to make the most of it, such as by facing challenges with courage.¹⁰

Courage will be necessary as life gets apocalyptic. My experience has been that hard times are the norm, and the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has only made matters worse. Like many people, I’m afraid for myself and others and I feel powerless in the face of threats and changes that are proving to be biblical. Biblical? This is Ragnarök hardcore, and it seems plain to me that my mind compensated for the increased stress by reaching inside to recalibrate and thereby strengthen my mental armor.¹¹

Jörmungandr 3. Illustration by author.

Psychoanalysts would say there’s more to my dream, a vastness of latent content that, if explored, would lay bare the deepest, most hidden workings of my psyche, but I’ve always felt a little conscious brainwork can go a long way in dream interpretation. Playing out the associations apparent from my own preoccupations at least results in something comprehensible and meaningful to me, a boon that I can take with me when confronting life’s challenges.

Footnotes:

[1] The old mythologies persist in modern culture. I recently found some Petit Blocks with mythological themes, and there was Fenrir. My son put them together during summer vacation:

[2] Inspired by my dream, I’ve since purchased a couple pieces of men’s jewelry representing its key symbols. One is a white leather bracelet. The leather forms a snakeskin pattern and the metal clasp is a serpent. When I bought it online, the clasp looked like a single-headed serpent, perfect for Jörmungandr, but it turned out to be double-headed. Perhaps the other one is Nidhogg, which gnaws at Yggdrasil’s roots.

[3] Melville donates an entire chapter to the subject: “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Ishmael remarks, “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” before spending pages on holy and horrifying associations, from the names of vestments for clergymen (like the alb) to fierce natural phenomena like the White Squall. Then there’s a lot of fauna, from the albatross to white bears, tigers, chargers and elephants. In a later time, were he steeped in pop culture, Melville might have mentioned Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings or the White Nun of American Horror Story.

Moby Dick, 1892. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[4] The second piece of jewelry I’ve purchased is a necklace. Someday, I hope to carve my own Thor’s hammer pendant, but in the meantime, I decided to purchase one. When my purchase got canceled by the seller, I found something more consonant with my dream: a pendant depicting Yggdrasil.

I think of Yggdrasil as the earth and the pendant as a representation of my connection to it. By extension, Yggdrasil is also nature as what you study in Earth Science and nature on the large scale of the universe, even multiverse. It is world and substance, the ground that generates us, the matrix within which we lead our lives, and the ash to which we return. We are one with it and never parted. This is mystical, but I don’t see it as supernatural. There is stuff and we are part of it.

The two primary symbols of my dream — the tree and serpent — are totalizing in space. Jörmungandr circles the world laterally and Yggdrasil spans it vertically, in addition to holding all the Nine Worlds in its arms. These symbols also encompass the world in time. Yggdrasil is a generative source, a representation of creation, while Jörmungandr’s associations are with destruction and the end of the world. My dream is a statement of everything and my place in it.

[5] In some ways, the Vikings thought of their gods as magnified human beings, and of human beings as diminished gods. The gods had many human frailties and walked amongst humankind, none more than Odin, who is also known as the Wanderer. This is a common characteristic of ancient and pagan religions and one that increasingly appeals to me for the emphasis on the closeness, perhaps oneness, of the finite and infinite, mortal and immortal, a relationship I can’t help but feel is lost with the rise of monotheism, despite Christianity’s focus on Jesus, God in human flesh, walking among us and learning firsthand of our suffering.

[6] Norse symbolism and Christian iconography mix in the album cover art for the EP Takitum Tootem! by sinister one-man black metal band The Ruins of Beverast. It shows a man with a wolf’s head crucified and encoiled by a large serpent. Is this a representation of the new religion supplanting the old or the old coming back?

[7] As far as I know, Wagner’s tretralogy ignores the World Serpent, although I can’t be certain without a complete reread of the librettos. In any case, Wagner’s account of the Twilight of the Gods vastly differs from Norse myth. Instead of Jörmungandr, Fenrir, Hel and others rising to defeat the gods and wreak havoc through the worlds, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde rides her steed Grane into the flames of her fallen beloved Siegfried’s funeral pyre. The flames then reach to Heaven and set alight Valhalla, bringing an end to the gods’ designs and clearing the way for humankind to do its best or worse.

“Bayreuther Bühnenbilder. Der Ring der Nibelungen. Götterdämmerung, III. Aufzug Schlussbild” by Max Brückner, 1894. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[8] Whenever I think along these lines, I can’t help but recall the definitely non-metal song “Out Is Through” by Alanis Morrisette: “The only way out is through / The only way we’ll feel better.” This is common enough wisdom, but wisdom easier known than practiced.

[9] According to William Kaufmann in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950). This is also treated movingly in Irvin D. Yalom’s novel When Nietzsche Wept (1992), which imagines physician, pioneering psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud mentor Josef Breuer meeting Nietzsche.

Josef Breuer, 1877. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[10] Nietzsche in The Gay Science (1882), as translated by Walter Kaufmann: “If this thought gained power over you it would, as you are now, transform and perhaps crush you; the question in all and everything: ‘do you want this again and again, times without number?’ would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions.”

And because music is crucial for understanding anything, this from Beyond Good and Evil: “He […] who wants to have it again as it was and is to all eternity, insatiably calling out da capo not only to himself but to the whole piece and play.”

[11] After first posting this dream, coronavirus got a lot worse. The worst seemed to be in the fall of 2020, when CNN was reporting over 4,000 deaths every day in the U.S. As I write this, the disease has gone nowhere and too many people persist in pretending like it simply isn’t and never was a thing, but there have been encouraging developments. The dominant variants appear to be weaker and medical treatments have improved. Life goes on, but to what extent are we any wiser?

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J.P. Williams

J.P. Williams

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas.