After the Bronze Age: Snakes by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 153-155.

Throughout the heathen period serpents remain powerful symbols in Scandinavian art. In Roman times the serpent crowned with horns, a Bronze Age symbol, is still found associated with the war-god in Celtic art (Ross, p. 153). It is also shown, as on the Gundestrup bowl from the Roman period in Denmark, in association with the horned god, Cernunnos, the deity of virility and fecundity, while on the same bowl a serpent is shown leading a line of soldiers on foot and on horseback.

Gundestrup Cauldron, Plate E

The importance of the serpent as the protector of warriors, the guardian of treasure and the companion of gods and heroes has survived, as Anne Ross has shown, in early Irish literature, although these traditions were suppressed in Christian times: ‘St. Patrick’, she says, ‘may have struck a more subtle and fundamental blow at paganism than is generally realized when he banished the serpents from Ireland’ (p. 154).

In the Migration period many figures of snakes are seen on the Gallehus horns from Denmark; these are interspersed with the ball-players and acrobats on one horn (Fig. 73), while on the other a mother serpent is seen with her young. Here once more the significance of the serpent would seem to be that of fertility and healing, and there is probably a connection with the cthonic powers and the dead in the earth. A figure holding a serpent in either hand, ancient symbol of the Mediterranean world linked with the Earth goddess, appears occasionally, as on a stone from Roman Gaul (Ross, p. 345), on bracteates of the Migration period and on a seventh-century stone from Smiss in Gotland. The link with the war-god, however, as in Celtic iconography, also survives, for a serpent is seen confronting the figure of Odin with his ravens on a plate from a Vendel helmet of the sixth century (Davidson, 1965a, p. 24).


Serpent Worship on Stave Church portal, Hylestad Norway c. 1175Later the serpent forms the basis of the elaborate interlaced ornament of the Viking Age, appearing in wood-carving, metalwork and stone formalized into endless twisting patterns, and serpent heads are depicted on memorials to the dead (Fig. 70). Panels of carving surviving from stave churches of medieval Norway suggest that such symbolism may have formed an important part of the decoration of heathen temples in the last phase of the pre-Christian period. On stones of the tenth century from Scandinavia and the British Isles the motif of a man surrounded by snakes appears, and he may also be seen on the wagon from the rich ship-burial at Osberg of the close of the ninth century. Sometimes the man among the snakes is playing a harp with his feet, and he is then identified with the hero Gunnar in the literary sources, the brother-in-law of Sigurd the Volsung, who was said in the Edda poems to have been put to death by King Atli in a snake-pit, but to have kept the poisonous snakes at bay for a while by his skill in harping, even though his hands were bound. In a number of cases, however, no harp is shown, and it seems possible that the scene may bear some pre-Christian significance connected with death by sacrifice (Davidson, 1967, p. 128), although Nordland claims that it is based on Christian traditions of the serpent representing the grave. Certainly in a land where snakes are seldom seen, the Scandinavians appear to have been excessively serpent-conscious.

Two main images in pagan mythology may account for the predominance of the serpent in the Viking Age, those of the dragon and the World Serpent. The Anglo-Saxons were familiar with the idea of the fire-drake, the dragon which flew through the air and spat out fire, for this is elaborately developed in the heroic poem Beowulf, while a dragon with wings, claws and teeth is set on the great ceremonial shield from the Sutton Hoo ship-grave. The Scandinavian dragon, however, is usually represented in serpent form, and this is also true of dragons like Fafnir in the literature, which appear as crawling serpents rather than as flying terrors of the sky. Both the flying dragon of Beowulf, however, and crawling serpents of the Fafnir type are associated with burial mounds and are said to mount guard over treasure in the earth. This association, as Anne Ross (p. 152) has shown, is also found in Celtic memories of the serpent.

midgard-serpent Jörmungandr

The concept dominating later literature in Scandinavia is that of the World Serpent, Miðgarðsormr, which lies curled round the inhabited world under the encircling sea, and whose emergence from the depths must mean the end of gods and men. He is the special opponent of Thor, and stories of the god’s encounter with him, particularly on the famous fishing expedition, are told in a number of early poems and depicted on stones of the tenth century. The hammer of Thor is associated with serpents, both in its amulet form and on memorial stones (Fig. 70). The World Serpent is a symbol of the powers threatening the world of the gods, and doomed ultimately to destroy the inhabited earth, and is seen also as the destruction threatening every man, associated with the grave. Thus the healing power coming from the dead in the earth in early heathen times is gradually transformed into a symbol of disintegration and linked with the merciless tomb, possibly under the influence of Christian symbolism. The devouring monster in the background, apparently unknown or at least unrepresented in the Bronze Age, may, however, be seen on some of the Gotland stones of the Migration period, while the fiery dragon of tradition may owe something to the conception of the devouring flames of the pyre at a time when cremation on a grand scale was still a familiar practice.

Thor_and_Hymir fishing for Jörmungandr

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