You know sometimes your week feels like a color, “it’s been a blue week,” some might say, or this week has felt all red for others, but for me the week has not been red or blue or green even, instead the week has been Icelandic and if I had to pick a color I would have to go with white. Norse mythology has always fascinated me, in part because of some strange fascination (bordering on obsession) I have with the sound icelandic language, even more bizarrely, as I was hiking in the snow-covered mountains of New Hampshire this week, I had this strange compulsion to speak in my own invented version of Icelandic. Naturally, I don’t know Icelandic at all but somehow my vocal chords have a familiarity with the sounds and the rhythms of the language–maybe years of listening to Björk and Sigur Rós and other Icelandic bands has had an effect on my unconscious. Upon my return, I happened to catch a radio show called Song of the Vikings, which was all about the legacy of the Icelandic sagas in the modern world. To round out this Icelandic themed week, today, paging through The Book of Imaginary Beings by Borges I stumbled on a passage all about Ouroboros, or the snake that devours itself, which has always fascinated me and evidently holds an important place in Norse mythology. At any rate, I leave you with the passage while I sit here wondering what next week’s theme might be–Russian feels like a strong candidate:
Today the ocean is a sea or system of seas; for the Greeks, Oceanus was a circular river that girdled the earth. All waters flowed from it, and it had neither outlet nor source. It was also a god or a Titan, perhaps the oldest of all, for Sleep, in Book XIV of The Iliad, calls Oceanus he “from whom all gods arose.” In Heisod’s Theogony, Oceanus is the father of “the swirling rivers,” which number three thousand, and foremost of which are neilos (the Nile) and Alpheios. Oceanus was customarily portrayed as an old man with a full, flowing bear; after many centuries humanity discovered a better symbol.
Heraclitus had said that in the circle, the beginning and end are a single point. A third-century Greek amulet, to be found today in the British Museum, gives us an image that can better illustrate that infinitude: the serpent that bites its own tail or, as a Spanish poet put it, “that begins at the tip of its tail.” Ouroboros (“he who devours his tail”) is this monster’s technical name, later employed in myriad texts by the alchemists.
This creature’s most famous appearance is in Norse cosmogony. In the Younger, or Prose, Edda, Loki is said to have engendered a Wolf and a Serpent. An oracle warned the gods that these creatures would be the earth’s doom. The Wolf, Fenrir, was bound by a “fetter called Gleipnir, made from six things: the noise a cat makes when it moves, the beard of woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” The Serpent, Jormungandr, the “Mithgarth-Serpent,” “was flung into the deep sea which surrounds the whole world, and it grew so large that it now lies in the middle of the ocean round the earth, biting its own tail.”
In Jotunheim, or “Giant-Land,” Utgarda-Loki once challenged the god Thor to lift a cat; Thor, using all his strength, could barely lift one of the cat’s paws off the ground; this cat was Jormungandr, and Thor was tricked by magic.
When the Twilight of the Gods shall come, the serpent shall devour the earth and the wolf shall devour the sun.