|Hymir, Thor & the Serpent (circa 1893)|
|Serpent & bait (17th century, Iceland)|
The name of the ox is Himinhrjód (“heaven-destroyer”) or Himinbrjoter (“sky-cleaver”). This seems like a very grandiose and threatening name for a member of the domesticated herd on Hymir’s lands. The name makes more sense if we see the ox-head as a poetic image for a meteoroid, a boulder from space that cuts a fiery path through the night sky as it burns through the atmosphere. Reading metaphorically, the fishing line that trails behind the head is the tail of the meteor – the line of burning gases and particles that draws a glowing streak across the heavens.
This interpretation also explains why Thor rows so far out to sea. When was the last time you had a meteor land in your back yard? “Falling stars” almost always appear to fall a great distance away. For the inhabitants of Iceland (the original writers and readers of the Eddas), “far away” meant out over the vast waters surrounding their island nation. Jörmungand’s real role in the tale is simply to provide narrative impetus; he gives a reason for Thor to row out to sea and serves as the catalyst for all of the cosmic events that follow.
|Thor's foot (11th century, Sweden)|
|Kerið volcanic crater in Iceland|
One translation of the Eddic passage where Hymir cuts the line reads:
The rock-monsters groaned, the stone-fields thundered,
the ancient earth all moved together;
then there sank back that fish into the sea.
It seems that the threat to “rock-monsters” (giants) and “stone-fields” (the abode of giants) is what motivates Hymir to action. He is protecting the abode of his people, the giants that live in places inhospitable to humanity. This is one of the cases in Norse mythology where a giant is not necessarily an enemy to humans. Hymir is actually protecting the natural world from the unbridled wrath of Thor, who is so possessed by rage and hatred for Jörmungand that he is completely heedless of the effect his actions are having on his surroundings. As with the stone hammer, this hearkens to an older conception of Thor as a terrifying sky-god, rather than his later incarnation as the protector of the common man.
Like much of his etymology, Jacob Grimm’s dissection of the name “Hymir” is a bit suspect. However, it does provide an alternative Ent-omology (“study of giants” – not a real word). He links the name to Old Norse and Old High German words for “twilight” and “sleep.” The god Týr says that Hymir “the very wise” lives “at the end of heaven,” and Grimm points out that the giant is referred to as “the old.” This all suggests that Hymir is an ancient sky-god of some sort, in direct conflict with the god of thunder. From this perspective, Hymir represents the night sky; when he cuts the fishing line, we see the end of meteor’s tail trailing behind it.
Some myths can be interpreted as explanations of religious ritual, and some provide mythic context for the mores and morality of their parent society. The story of Thor’s fishing trip fits best into a third, cosmological category. It explains the phenomenon of the meteor shower in a way that ties it together with multiple elements of the Norse mythological conception (gods, giants, monsters). A fine example of a Norse “Just So Story,” it provides an explanation for a celestial event that is internally consistent with the logic of Norse cosmology and demonstrates how “myth science” helped pre-modern cultures to understand the natural world.