Dragons In Norse Mythology
Credit: Annie Roi

Dragons in Norse mythology: A guide to Nordic dragons

The presence of dragons in Norse mythology has shaped a lot of how we view these magical creatures today. Countless dragons were depicted in Viking tales and Scandinavian folklore over the years, and some even helped to inspire some of the most popular works of fiction of all time.

So, did Vikings believe in dragons, and were Nordic dragons something the average Viking feared when planning for an adventure or journey? It’s difficult to say for sure.

Norse mythology dragons are powerful, magical creatures, seen to embody the concepts of chaos and destruction. As a result, many Vikings decorated their longships, shields, and other accessories with images of dragons to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies.

Here’s everything you need to know about the history of Nordic dragons.

Why are Vikings associated with dragons?

There are a number of reasons why historians, academics, and experts often associate Vikings with dragons. The presence of countless dragons in Norse mythology has inspired countless tales and popular media depictions over the years. However, one of the most common reasons archeologists and scientists connect Vikings with dragons, is because of the carvings found from the Viking era.

Archeological discoveries of dragons on ships, staffs, and other decorated accessories from the Viking age demonstrate a clear connection between the Vikings and this ancient, magical creature. While Vikings might not have believed dragons were a current threat to their communities, they did embrace the symbolism of the dragon, and the lessons taught by common myths and legends.

For Vikings, dragons were a badge of honor in some regards. Viking vessels belonging to the highest-ranking Jarls in a Viking community were often distinguished with the use of a dragon’s head carving on the prow. This image would announce the arrival of a tribe to a distant shore, and warn viewers of their destructive, and violent intentions.

Some experts believe Vikings even removed the dragon’s head from their ships during times when they planned to travel peacefully to other regions, as a way of putting others at ease. What’s more, some customs dictated the dragon head be removed when Vikings were returning home from a voyage, so as not to disturb or anger any spiritual entities at home.

Dragons In Norse Mythology

Dragons in Norse mythology: The tales of Nordic Dragons

Perhaps the biggest link between Dragons and Vikings comes from a selection of tales from Norse mythology. Stories of dragons appear in various legends, chronicles, sagas, and skaldic poems from throughout the Middle Ages in both Denmark, and Iceland. One of the oldest and well-known poems written in Old Norse, Völuspá, includes a tale of a dragon.

Often, the presence of dragons in Norse mythology was used to teach a valuable lesson. For instance, the dragon “Fafnir” slain by Sigurd was introduced in a story about the power of greed. In this tale, a wealthy dwarf king named Heidmar had three sons with the power of shapeshifting. The Norse god Loki killed one son, Otr, when he was disguised as an otter, to take his pelt.

To compensate Heidmar for his loss, Loki gave him a treasure stolen from a dwarf named Andvari. One of the items given was a gold ring, cursed to bring its owner death and misery. Heidmar became obsessed with the ring, and tried to keep it from his sons, but they had also heard the call of the magic, and eventually Fafnir murdered his father to take the treasure, before transforming himself into a dragon to protect the trinket.

Fafnir was eventually murdered by his brother Regin’s stepson, who he ordered to kill the dragon and steal its treasure. However, Regin’s stepson was also ensnared by the ring, and ended up killing his stepfather, allowing the curse to continue.

Some people believe this story was actually a source of inspiration for the “Lord of the Rings” books written by J.R.R. Tolkein, as there’s certainly some overlap there.

Dragon names in Norse Mythology

Fafnir is perhaps the most famous dragon name in Norse mythology, but it’s far from the only example. There are many other stories which have been passed down through Scandinavian generations, telling tales of dragons. Some well-known creatures include Níðhǫggr or Nidhogg.

Known as the “malice striker” by the Vikings, Nidhogg was said to be the dragon living beneath the base of the Norse tree of life, Yggdrasil. Closely associated with the dead, Nidhogg was said to feast on villainous people like murderers and adulterers. The Vikings also believed Nidhogg brought balance to the universe, as the opposite to the life and joy represented by the tree of life.

Another well-known dragon name in Norse mythology is Jǫrmungandr. Also known as the Dragon of Ragnarök or the “Great Beast”, Jǫrmungandr is said to be one of the sons of the giantess Angrbroda and Loki. This humungous serpent was prophesized to kill Thor during Ragnarök.

Jǫrmungandr was said to have grown to epic proportions, becoming so incredibly long that he would encircle the ear (Midgard) and bring the apocalypse. Notably, Vikings Nordic dragons were often depicted as long, serpent-like creatures, rather than fire-breathing four-legged monsters.

Ultimately, the story of Jǫrmungandr ends with his demise at the hands of Thor and his legendary hammer. However, both Odin and Thor were also said to perish at the battle of Ragnarök.

What is a Viking dragon called?

Vikings referred to dragons in general as “Dreki”, an Old Norse term commonly used for sea monsters, sea serpents, and dragons. The name is similar to “Drake” in Old English, which eventually inspired the term we use for dragons today.

Notably, the term “Dreki” was also commonly used to refer to certain types of ships, such as skeids and busse boats. This was in reference to the dragon heads usually carved onto the front of the Viking boats. Certain famous ships with dragon embellishments also earned their own names.

For instance, a legendary ship called the “Ormen Lange” was said to have been built in the year 999, by King Olaf Tryggvason. Apparently, Olaf was inspired to build one of the longest ships in Viking history in the shape of a dragon with a huge serpent-like body.  

Dragons In Norse Mythology

Did Vikings believe in dragons?

There’s no evidence to suggest Vikings actively feared dragons or believed they were going to be attacked by one during a hunt. However, Vikings seemed to believe dragons existed on some realm, according to the stories taken from Old Norse myths and legends.

Vikings believed dragons were symbols of chaos, destruction, and death. However, they weren’t considered to be inherently evil. Rather, dragons were a symbol of balance. Vikings often believed for there to be creation and incredible sources of life in the world, there must also be destruction and death. In Viking culture, people commonly saw the universe as a cycle of birth and destruction.

Dragons were one half of the equation Vikings saw as making up the universe as we know it. For an insight into how Nordic dragons were perceived by Vikings, it’s worth looking at the story of Ragnarök. This apocalyptic tale tells the story of a battle so huge some of the most powerful gods in existence (Thor and Odin) were killed in the fight.

However, while Ragnarök led to significant loss and death, it also prompted the beginning of a new cycle of creation, where life could begin to grow anew.

For the Vikings, dragons were an important symbol, they were used to strike fear into the hearts of enemies, and announce the intentions of tribes arriving on new shores. However, dragons were also used in jewelry, paintings, and accessories, as symbols of strength and balance.

Vikings and dragons: The close connection

Dragons in Norse mythology have had a huge impact on our perception of these mythological creatures in the modern world. They may have been the source material for one of the world’s biggest fantasy novels of all time, The Lord of the Rings, and they have certainly inspired a number of creative artists over the decades.

In Norse mythology, dragons were a fantastic storytelling device, capable of highlighting important lessons to learn about greed and the cycle of life. These creatures were also meaningful symbols to the people in Viking communities.

Though dragons were often depicted as terrifying creatures, they were also considered to be phenomenally powerful, and an excellent insight into the balance of the universe.

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