On Níðhöggr

A while back I was asked to share my understanding of Níðhöggr by a fellow Heathen. Vikings of Bjornstad lists the meaning for Níðhöggr’s name as ‘Malice Striker’. The first section of the compound name, níð, is related to malice, insult, and strife. The second is related to beheading, striking, blows, or chops. Not much survives on this dragon/serpent survives from the lore. Among the places to look for Níðhöggr are in the Prose Edda, both in Gylfaginning and Skaldskarpamal, and in the Poetic Edda Grimnismal and the Voluspa. While the lore refers to Níðhöggr as male, my interactions with Níðhöggr have leant me to understanding the dragon as female.

I relate to Her as a God of Rot and Death, and a God of the Gravemound as well, especially seeing interlinks between the rotting of death and the eating of poison. My family’s compost heap is dedicated to Hela and to Níðhöggr, as we see Níðhögg as eating the poison of Yggdrasil and the making of it into the healthy new earth that is renewed. The gravemound takes in the Dead and the new growth results within it, holding the power of the sacred items deposited within it and the new growth above.

Most of my understanding and beliefs regarding Níðhöggr is from direct experience of seeing Her and interacting with Her. When I was saw Her, She was chewing the corpses of the Dead, taking the poison of Their lives, Their misdeeds. She does the same with the root of Yggdrasil She chews on, not to damage it, but to prevent poison that is collected in Helheim and the Nastrond from killing It.

A powerful insight of dragon symbolism, at least in terms of how I see it in Norse/Germanic/Scandinavian culture/myth is that part of their destructive nature is what they sit on. In Fafnir’s case it is his bed of gold and the greed associated with it. In Níðhöggr’s case She is lying in the midst of traitors, oathbreakers, and is sitting with the rot and poison of Yggdrasil’s root. She chews on the traitors, oathbreakers, and outlaws, as well as the root of Yggdrasil. One of the passages in the Voluspa says She sucks the blood of the slain. I see Her doing similar, chewing and sucking on the poison in the root of Yggdrasil, removing the rot so it stays healthy. It also explains why Her/His hall is the Hall of Serpents dripping poison because that is Níðhöggr’s environment. My fellow Heathen likened it to a poison dart frog, and I think that’s a fair reading of Her too.

It is telling that the only time She emerges in myth is during Ragnarok and She isn’t destroyed, but takes up roost again beneath the ground. I find Her very purifying, as She has been in the midst of all that rot, poison, and uncleanliness, and yet, She has not lost Herself to it. She engages with this Work before and after Ragnarok. She is rejuvenating and dangerous, the Chewer of Corpses and Warder against Poison. As outlaws and traitors were among the worst one could be, and both were put into the utgard of society, I see Her as a boundary-keeper since She gives these dangerous and vile Dead a place to go to be contained, chewed, composted so they do not harm the community or rest of Yggrasil. She is the God that chews the rot beneath the Tree, rejuvenating both the root and the soil in which Yggdrasil’s root rest; necessary and holy.

  1. November 19, 2018 at 10:29 am

    Ah, snakes, dragons, and their colleagues…always an interesting topic! 😉

    I wonder if she has a position somewhat like the Shesha-Naag in Hindu myth, in that Shesha will be all that is left after the dance of destruction that Shiva does, and when the new Vishnu brings forth the new Brahman to create the world, the new Brahman will do so out of the body of Shesha…which is also interesting because there is a close relationship between Hanuman and Lakshman (brother of Ram), and the Hanuman of one cosmos will be reincarnated as Brahman in the next one, and Lakshman is an avatar of Shesha!

    Also, I wonder if there is a relationship between the serpent that Skadhi brought (wasn’t it?) to drip poison over Loki and Nidhogg? If you have any insights on that, I’d be intrigued to know them!

  2. November 20, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    Not quite in the same vein as Shesha-Naag, since Níðhöggr lives through Ragnarök, does not reincarnate, and essentially takes up the same cosmological role as She did pre-Ragnarök. I liken Her more to one of the mainstays of the ordered cosmos. For Death to work well it needs to have decay because there’s not anything like ‘waste’ in the cosmos as we relate to throwing things in the garbage. Everything decays whatever the timeline it is for it to break down. Through that breaking down there is rejuvenation. The cycles continues on pre and post-Ragnarök, so that the Dead and especially those She chews on in the Náströnd are broken down and the poison kept from destroying the World Tree.

    • November 21, 2018 at 2:10 am

      Not the same by any means or measure…and yet, intriguingly comparable in that both are trans-cosmic serpents who live past their respective culture’s eschatological events, at least in some form.

  3. November 21, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    Absolutely. I think it is also telling that Níðhöggr goes back to doing what She was doing, pointing to Ragnarök and creation/destruction being cyclical rather than linear. The Gods don’t all disappear, and if Baldr comes out of Helheim after His death then, speculatively, we may see that the next iteration of the cycle brings the Gods who die in the Ragnarök accounted in the lore may come back in a cycle of Their own. We can also look at it through the lens of mythic time as Odin always killing Ymir and creating the Worlds He and His Brothers did in/on Yggdrasil and yet also always being eaten by Fenrir. Likewise, there is a moment in time where Níðhöggr is in the Hall of Serpents chewing traitors, outlaws, and so on, and a time where She is flying free of corpses, and another where She settles down into a body-free Hall once more.

  4. November 23, 2018 at 8:25 am

    Fascinating post. It’s not often I connect with the Norse tradition but we ended up working with runes at my journey circle and I got Hagalaz and its icy nature led me to Niflheim and Hvergelmir where serpents started coiling round my limbs hungry for my organs yet I sensed something was wrong. They were sick and poisoned. There was too much poison in the tree/world for them to consume and I received the warning the World Tree might not last until Ragnarok. Is the element of Níðhöggr consuming poison written anywhere in the lore is that coming through purely as UPG? I guess it would make sense if the world is being poisoned more and more.

    • November 23, 2018 at 12:22 pm

      So far as I know there is nothing in the lore itself that talks about Her or Her serpents eating poison. Yet, that is what She is eating in my view, since the oathbreakers and outlaws Níðhöggr sucks the blood from are the most poisonous people the community could excise from their ranks. The lore does say that several creatures do damage to Yggdrasil and She chews on Yggdrasil’s root in Grimnismal 35. Depending on the translation She rends, bites, or gnaws the root. The line directly above it mentions the trunk is rotting.

      Henry Addam Bellow’s 1936 translation is:

      35. Yggdrasil’s ash | great evil suffers,
      Far more than men do know;
      The hart bites its top, | its trunk is rotting,
      And Nithhogg gnaws beneath.

      Andy Orchard’s 2011 translation is:

      35. ‘The ash of Yggdrasil suffers grief,
      more than men can know;
      a hart bites from above; on each side it rots,
      Spite-striker gnaws it below.

      So far as I have seen from the passages I mention here and above, my understanding of Her sucking poison from the root of Yggdrasil and the corpses of outcast/outlaw/traitorous Dead is gnosis.

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