All fishermen have a favorite tale they tell about a huge creature they one day hauled up from the depths, or the even more monstrous beasts that were able to escape from their lines. Try as these fishermen storytellers might to exaggerate and embellish their sailor yarns, their nautical fishing deeds will never measure up to the epic haul that the famous Norse god, Thor, was said to have pulled up from the ocean. One particular fishing trip where Thor reportedly fished alongside a giant became a popular myth among followers of the Norse religion, and the Vikings brought that story with them on their voyages. As such, picture stones depicting the tale in question can be found in places such as Scandinavia and the British Isles. The Gosforth Fishing Stone in Cumbria, England, dated to the 10th or 11th century, is one example. Thor’s epic fishing trip was also included in Hymir’s Poem (or Hymiskvida), preserved in the 13th-century Poetic Edda, and Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) also wrote down another version of the myth in his Prose Edda.
Details of Thor’s fishing trip vary slightly between the accounts presented by stone, poetry and prose. They all agree, however, that Thor and a giant (named Hymir by the written sources) fished together, and during that time Thor used a peculiar type of bait for his line. In Hymir’s Poem, Thor arrived in the domain of the giant while on a quest to find a huge cauldron for an upcoming feast of the gods. In Snorri’s Prose Edda, the god and Hymir made their fateful encounter at a time when Thor was aimlessly wandering in the guise of a small boy. During Thor’s stay in Hymir’s domain, he and the giant decided to go out fishing together. The hammer-wielding god either led the way in suggesting the trip, or he followed the giant’s lead. Whatever the case, before heading to the ship, Thor made a visit to the giant’s pastures to gather bait. There, among the livestock, he found his unfortunate fish food—an ox. Using his super strength, Thor ripped off the head of the choicest beast and brought the fresh ox head with him to where Hymir’s ship was waiting.
Killing the giant’s prized animal was a bad start to the relationship between Thor and Hymir, but tensions would only continue to rise as the fishing trip progressed. Both fishermen were extremely competitive, each wanting to haul up a bigger prize than their rival. In addition, Thor was rudely dismissive of Hymir’s favorite fishing spots, and kept insisting that they should row farther out into deeper water. Thor’s persistence won out, and Hymir unhappily allowed himself to be brought out to where the water’s depth was greatest. As they rowed out over the watery void, the giant warned Thor that they had entered a section of the ocean where the mighty Midgard Serpent was known to travel.
Now that Thor was pleased with their fishing location, the pair began casting their lines. Hymir, an experienced fisherman, struck first by making an incredible catch before Thor could even prepare his bait. Hymir’s Poem described the scene:
“The brave and famous Hymir alone caught
two whales at once on his hook,
and back in the stern Odin’s kinsman,
Thor, cunningly laid out his line.”
(Poetic Edda, Hymir’s Poem, stanza 21)
Although the giant, Hymir, had hauled up two whales with little difficulty or effort, Thor had a much bigger prize in mind. Securing the freshly detached ox head to his line, the god made his cast and sent the hook and bait sinking down into the depths. Thor’s timing could not have been more perfect. As the ox head sank toward the seabed, it happened to fall in front of the face of the Midgard Serpent. The behemoth of a snake took the bait and eagerly chomped on the ox head, initiating a battle of strength between the Norse pantheon’s greatest warrior versus a serpent so huge that it wrapped around the world. Snorri Sturluson skillfully narrated the scene:
“The Midgard Serpent opened its mouth and swallowed the ox head. The hook dug into the gums of its mouth, and when the serpent felt this, he snapped back so hard that both of Thor’s fists slammed against the gunwale. Thor now became angry and, taking on his divine strength, he strained so hard that both his feet pushed through the bottom of the boat. Using the sea floor to brace himself, he began pulling the serpent up on board” (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 48).
The showdown between Thor and the serpent was truly epic, with huge rogue waves rolling this way and that way because of the writhing of the beast under the water. Thor, in a trance of determination, kept reeling the Midgard Serpent’s head closer and closer to the surface, eventually causing the monster’s mountainous face to emerge from the water. While Hymir was paralyzed by shock and fear, Thor eagerly grabbed his mighty hammer, Mjölnir, and began bashing the great snake over the head. In Hymir’s Poem, the Midgard Serpent survived the blows and was able to finally break free from the line and return to the safety of the ocean. Yet, in Snorri Sturluson’s account, Hymir recovered from his shock and cut Thor’s fishing line to put an end to the apocalyptic battle—in the prose version, this caused Thor to throw Hymir overboard in anger. Hymir’s Poem, however, claimed that the giant and the god simply rowed home, both of them angry at the other. As for Thor and the Midgard Serpent, they would meet again at Ragnarok, where they would bring about mutual destruction.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (left: Midgard Serpent found in the 17th-century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to. Right: Scene of Thor, Hymir and the Midgard Serpent found in the 18th-century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
- Hymir’s Poem, an old poem which was preserved in the 13th-century Poetic Edda which was produced anonymously in Iceland. Translation by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford University Press, 2014).