Vermin Gone Bad in Medieval Scandinavian, Persian, and Irish Traditions

Joseph Falaky Nagy, Harvard University
Abstract: The tales in medieval Scandinavian literature centered on the legendary entrepreneur Ragnarr loðbrók, his wives, and his sons famously feature several serpentine motifs. The narrative construct of a family literally and metaphorically bound together by dragon-like creatures under the control of a daughter, wife, or mother is also to be found in Iranian and Irish storytelling tradition. The parallels point to a genetic mythological relationship among these (in other respects) disparate stories, whose deep-seated affinity cannot be explained on the basis of intercultural borrowing.


The cycle of stories about Ragnarr loðbrók and his sons is one of the most celebrated and written-about narratives in medieval Scandinavian tradition. Told in multiform versions in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes), the Icelandic Ragnars saga loðbrókar, a þáttr about Ragnarr’s sons, and a Faroese ballad, Ragnars kvæði, [1] this narrative complex employs many of the elements that call for analysis in terms of mythology: a serpent equipped with a story of how he came to be a monster; a strong-willed woman who determines the destinies of the man who marries her and his sons, the latter including characters whose distinctive physical features signify unusual powers; the conquest of territories and the founding of royal dynasties; and memorable heroic as well as ignominious deaths.
In an article published in 1941, the American scholar of traditional narrative Alexander Krappe noted the appearance of a distinctive story pattern in this Ragnarr material, as well as in an episode from the medieval Persian compendium of myth and legend, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) attributed to Ferdowsi, and also in a bizarre back-story tucked away in an Early Modern Irish prose text featuring heroes from the so-called Fenian cycle, Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne), or TDG, as we shall refer to it henceforth. Krappe observed that all three sources, as well as various other Old- and New-World traditional narratives cited in his article, feature a worm or small serpent that, nurtured by a female (usually), grows to monstrous size and becomes a ravenous dragonlike creature, so threatening as virtually to invite a hero to come and slay it. Krappe’s thesis is that the story originated in the Middle East and migrated to Scandinavia, carried by a well-traveled Viking, and thence to Ireland, via the substantial Scandinavian presence on the island in the late first and early second millennium CE (Krappe 1941).
In what follows, I will expand on Krappe’s foray among the Persian, Scandinavian, and Irish texts to show that there are possibly even more important parallels and connections to be found among the stories than what Krappe outlined. [2] While the links in the chain of transmission he proposed are credible, the multiformity of the shared story-elements we will be examining from three very different (sets of) sources suggests that these elements underwent parallel processes of adaptation in these different narrative traditions over an extended period of time. I would argue that in the three instances to be discussed, and no doubt in other instances that deserve discussion in the future, this widely disseminated story pattern centered on a worm or serpent (or even a maggot) that “goes bad” under female auspices is in fact part of a more extensive pattern—inherited, I suspect, from the Indo-European heritage of myth, the mother-lode from which all three traditions in question, scholarship has repeatedly shown, derived much of their story-lore.
In addition to a worm, each of our tales features the following elements or motifs that together constitute a narrative pattern deeply embedded in the tale’s structure:
  • The woman who protects the worm and indulges its increasingly noisome habits is a powerful figure with control over more than just the destiny of the worm. In fact, she is the controlling force of the story itself. Scholars of medieval Scandinavian literature have detected this motif and followed its ramifications in the Ragnarr material, [3] particularly in regard to the character of Kráka/Áslaug/Randalín, but we shall see that this story-device is equally noticeable in our comparanda from beyond Scandinavia.
  • The magnification of the worm’s impact, helpful or harmful, is inextricably bound up with the relationship between a parent and a child. Moreover, the consequences of what the worm does, or what is done to it, redound throughout the life of the main human figure in the story (whether “hero” or “villain”) and even extend into the next generation. Here again, there has been scholarly appreciation of the importance of intergenerational (dis)continuity in the Ragnarr cycle, especially in light of the dynastic and genealogical origin legends it accommodates, but the motif is to be found in the Irish and Persian narrative material as well.
  • The worm and sometimes the characters who become involved with it play “hide and seek” in the course of the story, concealing and yet also revealing themselves in pivotal situations. The intentional or unintentional act of perceiving what or who is hidden can upset the distribution of power between the seer and the seen.
  • The character who benefits from the results of the worm’s “going bad”, sometimes the hero who has to slay the monster-worm in order to achieve his goal, exhibits an entrepreneurial, mercantile, or even devious side to his narrative persona, which runs counter to a martial-heroic ethos.
The following are sketches of the salient details of the three narratives. I will begin with the Irish, not because it deserves primacy of place in this investigation but because it is where this Celticist first encountered the story pattern we are attempting to elucidate.

The Irish tradition

The late medieval author of TDG, our main literary source for a tale that lived on into Irish and Scottish oral tradition of recent times, could not resist the temptation to repeatedly sidetrack his reader/listener with stories that delve into the past of his characters and expand upon the background of the main tale that TDG tells. Preserved in a manuscript written in 1651, the earliest surviving version of this text lacks a conclusion, but the authorial interest in back-stories, which almost pushes the text into the category of frame tale, is amply on display. [4] The core narrative of TDG centers on Diarmaid ua Duibhne, the “star” of the aging hero Fionn mac Cumhaill’s war-band, and what happens to him after he is honor bound by Fionn’s young bride, the headstrong Gráinne (daughter of Cormac, the high-king of Ireland), to elope with her. [5]
The particular narrative excursion in which we find our serpentine pattern is actually a prequel to a prequel. It is a strange account that to my knowledge is told nowhere else in extant Irish literature. The story unfolds as follows:
Fionn, humiliated by Gráinne’s having left him on their wedding night to run away with the most valuable member of his team, furiously pursues the couple, sometimes sending forth others to conduct the vengeful pursuit on his behalf. Among these is a pair of brothers, seeking not only to make peace with Fionn, whom their father had helped to slay, but also to join Fionn’s band of heroes, the fian. Fionn imposes upon them as the condition for their acceptance into the band that they fetch either Diarmaid’s head or a handful of berries from a magical rowan tree guarded by a one-eyed giant. The brothers encounter Diarmaid and declare their intent. He explains to the rookie warriors that they are between a rock and a hard place. Not only would it be impossible for such newcomers to the heroic arena to overcome him, but they would also be incapable of overcoming the giant guarding the tree. Diarmaid, in addition to telling the brothers the story of why the rowan tree has a monstrous guardian, also points out to his would-be opponents that this is not the first time Fionn has deviously drawn those whom he perceives to be his enemies into what most likely will turn out to be a suicide mission. Diarmaid recounts a comparable situation from the past, back when he was still a trusted member of Fionn’s retinue.
A warrior named Conán, the son of the Liath Luachra, yet another mortal enemy of Fionn’s deceased father, comes to Fionn seeking reconciliation. The price dictated, in this case, is for Conán to bring Fionn a head of the multi-headed, overgrown “worm” (the word used is cnuimh, a variant of the more common cruimh) which used to dwell in the head of Cian, son of Oilill Ólum and his wife Sadhbh. (This Oilill, or Ailill, is said in earlier texts to have been a king of the province of Munster, but in TDG he is not specifically so described.)
Diarmaid, at this point in his narration, inserts the story explaining how Cian came to have a worm in his head—quoting verbatim, he claims, from the account that Oisín, the son of Fionn, gave to Conán at the time.
Approaching a branch full of sloes, the pregnant Sadhbh, Oilill’s wife, riding with her husband in his chariot, is overwhelmed by a craving for the berries. Wishing to satisfy her, Oilill shakes the branch, and she thus obtains her fill of the fruit. Later, when their child is born (named Cian), a protuberance is found on his forehead that grows as he matures. Embarrassed by his deformity, the mature Cian swaddles his head so that the bump will be less noticeable. When he is in need of barbering, Cian slays anyone who, undoing the wrapping, shaves him and/or cuts his hair—in order to keep the unseemly growth on his head a secret.
Like King Midas’s donkey ears, [6] Cian’s deformity and the contents of his bump do not remain hidden forever. Once, when seeking to pay back Sgáthán, a member of Fionn’s band of heroes for an insulting lack of hospitality shown to Cian’s servant (who has maliciously misrepresented what Sgáthán did and said), Cian invites himself to Sgáthán’s home for a shave and a haircut. Not intimidated by the murderous intent of his guest, who is well known for slaying his barbers, Sgáthán not only removes the covering from Cian’s head but, insouciantly expressing his curiosity about what lies therein, slashes the now-exposed swelling with his knife. Out jumps a large worm, leaping onto and winding itself tightly around the top of Cian’s spear nearby. Reluctant simply to let Sgáthán kill the beast (as Oilill, his father, advises), Cian asks his mother what should be done, since, as he states, the worm (like Cian himself) came from her womb (presumably, as a result of her having eaten the berries). Sadhbh confirms Cian’s suspicion that the worm may have an intimate connection with the lifespan of its uterine mate, so that to kill it, she says, may be to harm Cian as well. Hence, the family decides to keep the worm in a box, feeding it to keep it (and by extension Cian) alive.
The worm in time grows too big for the box, and so a house is built for it. It grows a hundred voracious heads, each big enough to swallow an armed man whole. Hearing of this marvel, Cian’s foster brother, the son of the king who raised Cian, [7] comes for a visit, seeking to view the monster. As he does so, the worm takes note (or takes offense?), [8] lunges, and savagely tears off one of the foster brother’s legs. Consequently, all the women and lesser members of the household, who presumably had been tending to the creature, flee in panic from the worm’s house. This turning-point incident makes it clear to everyone that the creature engendered by Sadhbh’s craving has become an unmanageable monster. The insult and injury done to Cian’s royal kinsman prove too much even for Cian’s mother, who now agrees with her husband and son that the worm must be killed. But how? Turning to a deceitful though sometimes unsuccessful ploy practiced in Celtic (and Norse) storytelling tradition against enemies too fearsome to be confronted directly, [9] Cian’s people set the house of the worm on fire, hoping to burn the monster to death. Defeating their expectations with a leap even more spectacular than that with which he erupted out of Cian’s head, the worm escapes from the flames and lands far away near a cave in which it subsequently lurks—a lair that even the monster-slaying Fionn and his men are loath to approach, for fear of the hard-to-kill worm.
Oisín’s story (as relayed by Diarmaid) does not dissuade the courageous Conán from accepting Fionn’s challenge to confront the worm. He in fact succeeds in killing it (as Diarmaid narrates, picking up where Oisín’s narrative leaves off), although the feat is accomplished with Diarmaid’s special spear, loaned by its owner to Conán. [10] Unfortunately, returning to Fionn with one of the heads of the monster as a trophy of his triumph, the worm-slayer and his plea for reconciliation are still rejected by the stubborn Fionn, who demands even more compensation. This tense moment is interrupted by the approach of a deer, which Fionn and Conán set out to pursue. (Oisín prevents the rest of the fían from joining them.) After they return, with Conán carrying the spoils of their successful hunt, Fionn “níor iarr Fionn éraic ar bith ar Conán ó sin a leith […] Ni fheadamar féin in dá aimhdheóin ro bhean Conán síth d’Fhionn an lá sin” (TDG I p. 64) (did not ask for any other compensation from that afterwards […] We do not know whether it was [against Fionn’s will] that Conán gained peace from Fionn that day (TDG I p. 65)). [11]
Whether Diarmaid, having told this story, would have been able to dissuade the brothers from pursuing their quest with the exemplum of Conán (perhaps not the best case to cite, since it ends in success for that seeker), we will never know for certain. His lover Gráinne, overhearing the conversation between Diarmaid and the young seekers, inquires about the rowan tree from which they are supposed to obtain fruit. Once she hears the story Diarmaid retells about the tree and its guardian (information the brothers, and the audience of TDG, already have), Gráinne, announcing her pregnancy in the story for the first time, insists that she must have some of the berries too—a craving that her man must satisfy, just as Oilill satisfied Sadhbh’s craving. Hence, the alternative mission assigned to the brothers, to fetch the fruit of the special rowan tree, has become Diarmaid’s task, and those who came seeking to fight with Diarmaid can now rely upon him to do the heavy lifting. After he slays the tree-guardian, there are plenty of berries for everyone. Diarmaid instructs the brothers, now his veritable protégés, to return to Fionn with the fruit and with the false story that they themselves slew the giant. Diarmaid and Gráinne, meanwhile, take shelter in the top of the tree, where the berries are sweetest. Fionn, upon receiving the berries from the brothers, detects the scent of Diarmaid on the fruit and deduces who actually performed the valiant feat. He sets out for the rowan tree himself, bringing the story closer to the climactic encounter between the betrayed husband and his wife’s reluctant lover hiding in the tree.

The Persian tradition

The following is a summary of Ferdowsi’s account of the Irish invertebrate’s less nasty but equally troublesome distant cousin (Shahnameh pp. 544–53). [12] We recall that, according to Krappe, the Shahnameh (older than the other texts we are considering) presents us with what may be the most direct surviving descendant of the prototype of the worm story he hypothesizes to have taken shape in the Middle East.
The daughter of an insignificant poor man named Haftvād (Having Seven Sons) finds a worm in an apple she had started to eat at the beginning of the task of spinning her daily portion of cotton. Cinderella-like in relation to her father, who presumably is interested only in his sons after whom he is named, the girl invokes the worm as her good-luck charm to help her to be as industrious and productive as possible. The worm fulfills her wish, and, keeping the creature in her spindle-case and feeding it daily with pieces of the apple, the (unnamed) girl becomes the source of great wealth for her father and brothers. With the riches he wins through his daughter’s industry (which in turn is predicated on the worm), Haftvād hires soldiers and has an impregnable fortress built for himself, his family, and the vermian “pet” on a mountaintop. His growing worm-based power starts to threaten even the monarch of the land where Haftvād dwells, the Persian king Ardeshir. In his home on high, Haftvād leaves the task of caring for the worm to his daughter, who found it in the first place, as well as to the other females in the household, while the increasingly omnivorous worm grows to be as big as an elephant.
Ardeshir, thwarted in his military attempts to suppress Haftvād’s insurgency, turns to deceit, knowing that eliminating the worm is the only way he can keep his throne. Stooping to the degradation of disguising himself and some trusted companions as merchants, the king gains entrance into the worm-fort and asks to see the wondrous creature that he has heard resides there. Allowed into the worm’s presence, and slyly plying the guards with a surfeit of wine, Ardeshir and company are free to kill the worm by “feeding” it molten metal. With Haftvād’s good-luck charm eliminated, Ardeshir returns to being the unchallenged sovereign of his realm.

The Old Norse tradition

In linking together the stories we are considering in this essay, Krappe, who added Cian’s internalized worm to the narrative mix, was following the findings of an earlier comparative folklorist, Felix Liebrecht, who had noticed the parallel between the Persian nouveau riche despot’s luck-bringing kerm “worm” featured in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and the serpent(s) slain by the young Ragnarr (Liebrecht 1862). It is to his story that we now turn, relying on Ragnars saga loðbrókar.
Ragnarr, the son of the king of Denmark, wins a wife and a fortune in gold after slaying a snake grown monstrously large under the care of Þóra, the daughter of a wealthy man. The latter had given the girl a serpent (lyng-ormr “heather-snake”, ormr being cognate with Irish cnuimh/cruimh, Persian kerm, and English worm) as a token of his paternal affection. (The creature is still small and very pretty.) Þóra, in her own dwelling built specially for her by her father, places the creature on top of some gold in a box. The pile of precious metal subsequently increases in mystical sympathy with the pampered snake, which gradually outgrows the box and even the girl’s private quarters, encircling it and becoming an unfriendly, ravenous nuisance.
The father offers the double reward of his daughter and the gold to anyone who can kill the monster. As in the Persian and Irish analogs, cleverness and concealment are required in the encounter with this wormlike serpent-turned-beast, nestled around the girl’s bower. Applying a combination of pitch and sand to his pants and cape, Ragnarr invents a way to make his clothes resistant to the flood of venomous blood that erupts after he kills the snake. He also thereby wins the nickname loðbrók “Shaggy Pants”.
Many years after his youthful triumph, and long after the death of Þóra, the slaying of whose out-of-control pet launched his heroic career, other deadly serpents, both metaphorical and literal, slither into the last chapters of Ragnarr’s life. He decides to invade England in order to win fame as impressive and lasting as that of his sons, who are noted for their raiding far and wide. Against the advice of his second wife Randalín (earlier known, we shall see, as Áslaug/Kráka), Ragnarr orders the building of two titanic merchant ships (kneirr) [13] in which to convey his invading force, instead of relying upon more conventional (and smaller) battle-ready craft. Seemingly, Ragnarr’s plan is to hide his intentions, and his men, by approaching the island on what he refers to poetically as his “snakes of the sea” (Ragnars saga p. 236). [14] The ships, however, are wrecked on the English coastline, and the invasion proves a failure. The captured Ragnarr is thrown by the king of England into a snake-pit, where he dies from poisonous bites after his captors remove the magical talisman-shirt given to him by his wife, Randalín, who had made it out of (her own?) hair.
As the arc of Ragnarr’s career unfolds, climaxing grimly in the snake-pit, the shadow of the monster-worm falls upon the next wave of family members to rise in prominence in the saga—in particular upon the character whom some consider the main protagonist of the story, namely, the woman who succeeds Þóra at Ragnarr’s side. In what cannot be considered a coincidence, this, his second wife, is the daughter of the celebrated dragon-slayer Sigurðr, a girl who, hidden in a harp specially built by her foster-father to hide her and her family’s treasure, is rescued from danger by the foster-father, only to fall incognita into the hands of a churlish couple. After murdering her foster-father, this ugly pair finds the treasure and the girl in the harp. The wife, Gríma, names the child Kráka (Crow) after her own mother, shaves the girl’s head and smears it with tar, and makes her wear a hood (making her even more crowlike), so as to sustain the fiction that she is their daughter. [15] Despite this anti-beauty treatment and the cruel exploitation the Cinderella-like orphan experiences at the hands of her pseudo-parents, her radiant beauty persists and cannot remain hidden. When some of the men on a Viking expedition led by Ragnarr (who by now has succeeded his father on the Danish throne) are sent ashore to cook for the crew, they encounter an unhooded, dazzling Kráka in her foster home, after she has washed herself and her hair (which has grown back) in anticipation of meeting the visitors from the ship. They ask her to prepare the dough for them to bake, [16] but they do a terrible job of baking and cooking, on account of being so distracted by the most beautiful girl they have ever seen. The widowed Ragnarr, intrigued by his men’s report about Kráka, flirtatiously invites her to visit him at his ship, but with various riddling conditions attached, including that she is only to come if she can be neither naked nor clothed. The clever and willing girl’s solution is to come in a fish-net, with her golden hair let down so as to cover her body. [17] The spectacular sight has the desired effect, and Ragnarr takes her back to his Danish home.
On their wedding night, Ragnarr ignores the girl’s intuition that intercourse, as appropriate as it might be under the circumstances, would have bad results, and so she conceives and gives birth to a child, Ívarr, who is nicknamed beinlauss (boneless), missing (the use of his) legs, like a serpent. [18] Later on in their life together, when Ragnarr is about to take another wife, thinking that Kráka is merely a person of lowly origins, the latter reveals that she is the daughter of Sigurðr and Brynhild, and that her real name, given to her by her parents, is Áslaug. She proves her pedigree, and deters Ragnarr from remarrying, by giving birth to a boy (Sigurðr) who has the image of a serpent in his eye. Even when she herself becomes a mother, however, Áslaug seems more devoted to Ragnarr’s sons by Þóra than to her own. When two of Þóra’s sons are slain by the Swedes, it is Áslaug who incites her own sons to avenge the deaths of their half-brothers, and she assumes the Valkyrie nature of her mother by taking part in the revenge expedition herself, even changing her name (to Randalín) to mark the transformation.
After the death of Ragnarr, his sons plan to attack England and slay the English king in retaliation—except for Ívarr, who holds back and does not participate in his brothers’ expedition, which ends in defeat. As was the case with his father when, faced with the lyngormr Ragnarr had devised a “shaggy” means of insulating himself from poison and when, planning to invade England, he built his oversized “serpent” ships, Ívarr diverges from the more predictable, confrontational path of behavior and resorts to a more subtle form of attack. This carries its own risks, as we saw when Ragnarr’s deceptive vessels went awry. But, entering into seemingly friendly negotiations with King Ella of England, not only does Ívarr succeed in tricking the English king out of a good deal of land, but he craftily lures away enough of Ella’s men so that the other sons of Ragnarr, back for a revenge-match, can now have their fill of bloody retribution.
Ívarr’s devious strategy for defeating Ella, we should note, is not a necessity dictated by his being beinlauss. In an earlier episode, when the sons of Ragnarr take their revenge on the Swedes in the wake of the death of Þóra’s sons, it is Ívarr, hoisted on high by his men, who leads the Danes into battle, shooting arrows at the bellowing cow that was the Swedish super-weapon, and finally ordering his own body to be used as a projectile to kill it. Ívarr, the saga tells us, is as light as a child when thrown, but weighs murderously heavy upon the cow when he falls. [19] This remarkably passive-aggressive behavior on the battlefield aligns with the equally effective fighting style of (H)ubba, another son of Ragnarr (though not mentioned in Ragnars saga), who, according to a twelfth-century English source, could destroy an army simply by being lifted up by his men and looking balefully at the enemy force (Rowe 2012: 92; Thomson 1977: 41–42). [20]

A comparison of “Worms”

By now, the reader has perhaps had the opportunity to see the workings of the four narrative elements outlined at the beginning of our traversal of these three stories. The following chart sets out what we have so far:
Controlling Female Generational (Dis)continuity Serpentine Hide-and-Seek Entrepreneurial/Devious Protagonist
TDG: Sadhbh (Cian’s mother) protects the newly emerged worm Cian’s relationship with his protective mother, and his parents’ ambivalence about the worm “sibling” Cian hides his bump; The monster-worm hides in a cave Conán strikes a shady deal with Fionn, and with Diarmaid for the spear
Shahnameh: Haftvād’s daughter nurtures the worm Haftvād is named after his sons; his daughter loyally creates wealth for her father The worm is hidden in an apple, in a spindle-case, and finally in an inaccessible fortress Ardeshir gains access to the monster-worm by disguising himself as a merchant
Ragnars saga: Þóra nurtures the snake; Randalín nurtures snake-like sons Ragnarr competes with his overachieving sons; Randalín helps to avenge the deaths of Ragnarr’s sons At first the snake lives in a box; as a child, Randalín, the mother-to-be of snakelike heroes, is hidden in a harp and later is forced to disguise herself Ragnarr launches a secret attack (unsuccessfully) against the English in his snakelike ships; in revenge, his son Ívarr tricks and outmaneuvers the English king
A few additional observations and clarifications are still in order. In the TDG episode, Sadhbh is the controlling female figure, who nurtures the worm both inside her own womb and beyond it in the wider world. Her motherliness and concern for her children—even to the extent that, in one case, she favors a beloved foster child over her own children—are noted elsewhere in the medieval Irish literary tradition. [21] Even though her primary concern is the impact anything harmful done to the worm would have on her “real” son, Sadhbh in the TDG episode stands out for the way she treats the other (nonhuman) creature to issue forth from her body with such fastidious care.
The tale of Cian and his worm begins with Sadhbh’s craving for sloes, which leads to a peculiar situation in which Cian parodies the process of gestation by carrying and giving birth to a worm from his head. The worm, like its story (as told by Diarmaid as previously told in his presence by Oisín), is doubly framed: no wonder, then, that there are thematic links between the framed tale and the master framing narrative as it is picked up after the killing of the worm. In the now of the main tale it is Gráinne who, we learn for the first time, is pregnant and, suffering from pica, starts to yearn for berries. On the other “side” of the framed tale, both of the stories framing it present a problem that resonates with the issues of relation and responsibility haunting the parents in the frame tale, Oilill and Sadhbh, as well as Cian—a quandary that also comes to the fore in the latter’s obligation to his foster relative who is injured by Cian’s verminal “twin”. That is, both Conán, in the story Diarmaid tells, and the young men to whom he tells the story seek an answer to the difficult question, “To what extent are children’s lives determined by the deeds of their parents?” The answers might share ground with the solution sought by the characters in the Cian story, struggling with the problem of a paradoxical “nonrelative relative”, the worm that grows dangerously out of control.
The “hide and seek” motif runs through the Cian episode from beginning to end. First concealed among the sloes, then in Sadhbh’s womb, and finally in Cian’s head, the worm makes no move on its own to reveal itself. When released by Sgáthán with a slash of his knife, the creature, instead of escaping, pathetically clings to Cian’s spear—more conspicuous than ever, but also insisting on his symbiotic connection with his “host”. Arguably, when he attacks Cian’s kinsman, the worm does so because he is being looked at, an act that the creature, like many animals in the real world, considers an act of provocation. Even in its spectacular leap out of the burning house, the creature, having been left with no choice but to abandon the home where it had been appreciated and protected, seeks not to show itself or to confront anyone, but only to find shelter in a cave, in an area that the worm (or his reputation) makes sure is never visited, even by Fionn and his brave company. There is little sense of Conán’s being locked in fierce combat with the worm, or of its savagely defending its lair. From what the text tells (or doesn’t tell) us, the feat consists merely of Conán spotting the worm, his shooting Diarmaid’s infallible spear into the cave, and the weapon fatally finding its target. [22]
The “entrepreneurial” motif is less developed in the Cian story TDG tells than in the other stories we are considering. True, Sgáthán brings about an end to the vicious cycle Cian has brought upon those unfortunate enough to be his barbers, and Conán, thanks to Diarmaid, goes about slaying the monster in a fool-proof manner. More relevant in this regard are Cian’s so easily taking offense at the (false) report of Sgáthán’s having withheld hospitality from Cian’s servant, and the murderous jealousy Cian feels toward Sgáthán and the supposed recipient (Fionn) of the hospitality withheld from Cian’s representative. There is no indication in the story as told in TDG that the presence of the worm brings any good fortune or wealth to Cian and his family. At best, keeping the worm alive keeps Cian alive as well, although the text does not tell us whatever finally happened to Cian—did he die simultaneously with the worm or not? Still, Cian’s small-mindedness, his insecurity and fear of others, point to an avaricious personality of a kind we can see most clearly in the figure of Haftvād in the Shahnameh episode.
Just as Haftvād, who with the wealth his daughter and the worm supply can buy himself a mighty army and kingdom, presents the most explicit example of the antiheroic entrepreneur in our ensemble of stories, so his (unnamed) daughter showcases how intimate the relationship can be between woman and worm. No less shy than Cian’s creature, the girl’s wiggly good-luck charm commutes from apple (in which she found it, and from which she derives its food, initially) to spindle-case, and finally to a hidden fortress high in the mountains. Whatever benefit she derives from her relationship with the worm seems to be little more than the satisfaction of having contributed spectacularly to the family’s welfare. Moreover, the girl fades away from the story in proportion to the growth of what was once a rather cute pet. The relative insignificance of her character and of her role in the family’s decision-making brings out by contrast the strong bond between father and sons. The former is actually named after his male offspring (“Seven Sons”), who form the core of the “corporation” Haftvād builds with his wealth. With the fall of the father, his sons disappear as well.
His ultimate failure notwithstanding, the poor man turned tyrannical magnate—as insatiable as the worm that brought him his luck becomes (but that could so easily be fooled into consuming molten metal)—does leave his mark on the hero who defeats him and deprives him of his source of wealth and power. For the only way the king Ardeshir can protect his throne, and the only way he can gain access to the secreted worm and thereby aright his own increasingly dire situation, is by assuming the guise of a merchant. Ragnarr transports his army to England in merchant vessels, and his son Ívarr bargains with Ella and the English nobles he wins over to his side like a canny trader, but it is in the Shahnameh that the “entrepreneurial” and out-of-character element manifests itself in the actions of an individual most clearly. A king in a strictly hierarchical society such as that of medieval Persia should not be lowering himself to the level to which the desperate Ardeshir sinks—but this is what dealing with the overgrown worm and the social disruption it occasions entails.
The story of Ragnarr presents us with a remarkable fungibility among the four motifs I have adumbrated in our three narratives. Lines of descent hold firm in the story as told in the saga, and there is both intra- and inter-generational continuity, extending as far as the seemingly indomitable trémaðr “tree-man” (see note 17 above). This continuity is made possible, however, by the repeated demonstrations of the alarming ease with which serpent-slayers in the world the story conjures can pass on serpentine traits to their descendants, serpent-like humans can be heroes, and women can both raise serpents and give birth to heroes.
The central players in this fluid world of possibilities all initially play hide and seek, from the orphan in the harp, to the girl deprived of her beauty and rendered a “Kráka”, the snake in the box, the overdressed hero seeking to protect himself from snake poison, and the no-longer-concealed, distractingly beautiful girl, who later is both covered and revealed by her abundant hair. All this hiding-and-revealing bespeaks a fluidity of identity, a characteristic most flamboyantly exemplified by the name-changing figure of Kráka/Áslaug/Randalín. Perhaps it is why the saga leaves out any reference to her death, leaving us with the impression that she lives as long as or even outlives her sons. In this respect, as in many others, she stands in stark contrast to Ragnarr, whose death comes well before the end of the text, once his attempt to compete with a new generation in adventure and deeds of conquest ends in failure. As soon as the hero is deprived of the “shaggy” hair-shirt given him by Randalín, an item of clothing that both harks back to his loðbrók days and serves as a reminder of what he has gained by taking her as his wife, Ragnarr is exposed to the attacks of a new generation of serpents in a pit from which he cannot escape. It is undoubtedly a venerable heroic circumstance in which to find oneself, reminiscent of King Gunnar’s fate in Völsunga saga (ch. 37), but this “downward” and “backward” nightmare of immobilization and vulnerability, where serpents are poisonous nemeses, is the opposite of the shifting, flexible, and “upward” future Ragnars saga envisions, in which serpent-sons (and their mother) will prevail.

Works cited

Primary sources

Acallam na Senórach
Acallamh na Senórach. Ed. Whitley Stokes. Irische Texte 4/1. Leipzig: 1900.
Cath Maige Mucrama
Cath Maige Mucrama/The Battle of Mag Mucrama. Ed and transl. Máirín O Daly. Irish Texts Society, 50. Dublin: 1975. Pp. 38–63.
Gesta Danorum
Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes: Books 1–9. Ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson and transl. Peter Fisher. Cambridge: 1996.
Ragnars kvæði
“Ragnars kvæði.” In vol. 1 of Føroya kvaeᵭi, corpus carminum Faeroensium a Sv. Grundtvig et J. Bloch comparatum. Ed. N. Djurhuus and C. Matras. Copenhagen: 1951–1963. Pp. 215–43.
Ragnars saga loðbrókar ok sona hans
Ragnars saga loðbrókar ok sona hans. In vol. 1 of Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda. Ed. Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson. Reykjavík: 1943. Pp. 219–85.
The Saga of the Volsungs, The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, together with The Lay of Kraka. Transl. Margaret Schlauch. New York: 1930.
Scéla Moshaulum
“Scéla Moshaulum.” In Cath Maige Mucrama/The Battle of Mag Mucrama. Ed and transl. Máirín O Daly. Irish Texts Society, 50. Dublin: 1975. Pp. 74–87.
Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. Shahnameh. The Persian Book of Kings. Transl. Dick Davis. New York: 2006.
Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (TDG) I
Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne/The Pursuit of DiarmaId and Gráinne. Ed. and transl. Nessa Ní Shéaghdha. Irish Texts Society, 48. Dublin: 1967.
Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (TDG) II
Toruigheacht Dhiarmuda agus Ghrainne, or, The Pursuit after Diarmuid O’Duibhne, and Grainne. Ed. and transl. Standish Hayes O’Grady. Transactions of the Ossianic Society, 3. Dublin: 1857.
Völsunga saga
Völsunga saga. In vol. 1 of Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda. Ed. Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson. Reykjavík: 1943. Pp. 3–91.
Translation see Ragnars saga loðbrókar
Þáttr af Ragnars sonum
Þáttr af Ragnars sonum. In vol. 1 of Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda. Ed. Guðni Jónsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson. Reykjavík: 1943. Pp. 151–63.

Secondary Sources

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Breatnach, Caoimhín. 2012. “The Transmission and Text of Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne: A Re-Appraisal.” In The Gaelic Finn Tradition. Ed. Sheila Arbuthnot and Geraldine Parsons. Dublin. Pp. 139–50.
Ermacora, Davide, Roberto Labanti and Andrea Marcon. 2016. “Towards a Critical Anthology of Pre-Modern Bosom Serpent Folklore.” Folklore 127: 286–304.
Eson, Lawrence. 2014. “Riddling and Wooing in the Medieval Irish Text Tochmarc Ailbe.” Études Celtiques 40: 101–14.
Krappe, Alexander H. 1941. “Sur un episode de la Saga de Ragnar Lodbrók.” Acta Scandinavica Philologica 15: 326–38.
Larrington, Carolyne. 2011. “Þóra and Áslaug in Ragnars saga loðbrókar: Women, Dragons and Destiny.” In Making History: Essays on the Fornaldarsögur. Ed. Martin Arnold and Alison Finlay. London. Pp. 53–68.
———. 2012. “Völsunga saga, Ragnars saga and Romance in Old Norse: Revisiting Relationships.” In The Legendary Sagas: Origins and Development. Ed. Annette Lassen, Agneta Ney, and Ármann Jakobsson. Reykjavík. Pp. 251–70.
Liebrecht, Felix. 1862. “Die Ragnar Lodbroksage in Persien.” Orient und Occident 1: 561–67.
Márkus-Takeshita, Kinga. 2001. “From Iranian Myth to Folk Narrative: The Legend of the Dragon-Slayer and the Spinning Maiden in the Persian Book of the Kings.” Asian Folklore Studies 60: 203–14.
McTurk, Rory. 1991. Studies in Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar and its Major Scandinavian Analogues. Medium Aevum Monographs, New Series, 15. Oxford.
———. 2007. “Male or Female Initiation? The Strange Case of Ragnars saga.” In Reflections on Old Norse Myths. Ed. Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen. Turnhout. Pp. 53–73.
Mitchell, Stephen A. 1991. Heroic Sagas and Ballads. Ithaca, NY.
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———. 2015. “The ‘Conquerer Worm’ in Irish and Persian Literature.” In Erin and Iran. Ed. Houchang Chehabi and Grace Neville. Boston/Washington, D.C. Pp. 3–13.
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[ back ] 1. McTurk 1991: 53–61 and especially Rowe 2012 provide inventories of the sources for surviving texts about and references to Ragnarr and his family, including historical figures of the ninth century who perhaps loom in the background of this story cycle, and to whom the traditional or “mythological” features of this cycle became attached.
[ back ] 2. See also Nagy 2015. Important data and observations concerning “bosom serpents,” narrative kindred of the anguine creatures examined here, are now to be found in Ermacora, Labanti, and Marcon 2016.
[ back ] 3. E.g., McTurk 2007 and Larrington 2011.
[ back ] 4. The edition/translation relied upon here is TDG I, with occasional reference to TDG II, a different edition. On the textual history of TDG, see Breatnach 2012.
[ back ] 5. For a discussion of the text and an account of the long-lived tradition about this particular love-triangle, see Ó Cathasaigh 2014. Lawrence Eson contextualizes another strand of the medieval Fionn cycle, wherein he leaves behind the unhappy union with Gráinne and engages in a much more successful relationship with Gráinne’s sister, Ailb(h)e (Eson 2014).
[ back ] 6. The tale type represented by the Midas legend (ATU 782) is mentioned by Krappe as one of the likely sources for elements of the story of the furtive Cian (1941: 329). Máirtín Ó Briain presents the instances of and variations on “Midas and the Donkey’s Ears” in Irish tradition, medieval and modern (Ó Briain 1985).
[ back ] 7. In TDG II it is Cian’s royal foster father himself who comes for a visit, wishing to see the beast, and is attacked (p. 130).
[ back ] 8. The looking definitely goes both ways: “Mar táinic don bhaile do chuaidh d’fhéachain na cnuimhe ós a cionn, 7 mar do airigh an chnumh é tuc sidhe neimhneach neamh-eglach fair” (And when he [that is, the foster brother] went to see the worm from above, and when the worm noticed him it gave a deadly fearless swoop on him (TDG I pp. 62–64)).
[ back ] 9. For comparable instances, see “The Iron House, the Men in Bags, and the Severed Head,” in Sims-Williams 2011: 262–86 (esp. pp. 262–77).
[ back ] 10. No other weapon could have slain the monster, Diarmaid proudly claims (TDG II p. 133).
[ back ] 11. In an older Fenian text, the early-thirteenth-century Acallam na Senórach (Dialogue of the Ancients), we learn, according to a worm-less account of the story of Conán’s acceptance into Fionn’s band, that Conán ambushed Fionn when he was alone, and forced him to accept an offer to make peace—the only time, we are told, that Fionn was ever coerced into coming to terms with an enemy (Acallam na Senórach pp. 101–2). On this account, see Nagy 2014.
[ back ] 12. Alireza Shahbazi examines the legendary figure of Haftvād (Shahbazi 2002), while Kinga Márkus-Takeshita offers a folkloristic analysis of the story, paying special attention to the figure of the supernaturally-aided spinner, comparable to the heroine of the folktale type “Rapunzel” (ATU 310) (Márkus-Takeshita 2001). [ back ] My heartfelt thanks go to Dr. Elizabeth Thornton, my colleague in the GE 30 “Neverending Stories” UCLA cluster course, for having introduced me to the stories of Haftvād and Zahhak in her lectures to the class on Persian mythology.
[ back ] 13. “Ok þat skildu menn, at þat váru knerrir tveir svá miklir, at engir höfðu slíkir verit gervir á Norðrlöndum” (Ragnars saga ch. 15) (Men saw that these were so great that their like had never been made in the Northlands (Ragnars saga p. 235)).
[ back ] 14. “Mars sviðr ófni” (Ragnars saga ch.15).
[ back ] 15. The imposter-mother’s comment to her skeptical husband, suggesting that a girl so beautiful could have been her daughter—”Má vera, at menn trúi því, at ek hafa mjök væn verit, þá er ek var ung” (Ragnars saga ch. 1) (It may be that people would believe that I was much fairer when I was young)—not only humanizes Gríma (as pointed out in Mitchell 1991: 109) but also resonates with the “intergenerational (dis)continuity” motif, which, as mentioned above, underlies all three of the stories in consideration here.
[ back ] 16. Does the association of Kráka with dough foreshadow her giving birth to a boneless son? It also echoes a key episode in the Völsunga saga, with which Ragnars saga is closely associated in both its transmission history and narrative content, where Kráka/Áslaug’s uncle Sinfjötli is put to the test by his uncle/father (Kráka/Áslaug’s grandfather) Sigmundr. Having been given dough to knead that, unbeknownst to the young man, hides a poisonous snake, the nearly oblivious Sinfjötli blends the latter into the former, without any ill effect, and thus wins acceptance from Sigmundr (Völsunga saga ch. 7).
[ back ] 17. The fashion statement is remotely akin to that made by the huge talking trémaðr “tree-man”, found in latter days, according to the final chapter of the saga—a monument erected by the sons of Loðbrókr (or Loðbróka), and (given that it can speak) the last surviving member of this band of heroes. The “man” describes himself as covered in moss and yet naked: “Ok mosa vaxinn […] hlýr hvárki mér / hold né klæði” (Ragnars saga ch. 20) (I am covered in moss […] neither flesh nor clothes cover me). It is also relevant in this connection that McTurk’s controversial interpretation, according to which Ragnarr’s epithet was originally the name of a goddess, would render it “woman with luxuriant hair” or “grass-clad woman” (McTurk 2007: 58–59). There is more on the symbolism of Kráka/Áslaug’s hair in the saga in Larrington 2012 (see esp. 262n49).
[ back ] 18. Also, Ívarr, as we shall see, is gifted with cunning reminiscent of the worldly intelligence biblically attributed to snakes (Matt. 10: 16).
[ back ] 19. “Ok er hún kemr at þeim, biðr hann kasta sér at henni, ok verðr þeim hann svá léttr sem þeir kasti barni litlu, því at þeir váru eigi allnær kúnni, þá er þeir köstuðu honum. Ok þá kom hann á hrygg kúnni Síbilju, ok varð hann þá svá þungr sem bjarg eitt felli á hana, ok hvert bein brotnar í henni, ok fær hún af því bana” (Ragnars saga ch. 12) (and when she charged towards them, he ordered that he be cast at her, and he became as light as a little child when they threw him, because they weren’t very close to the cow. But when he landed on Síbilja the cow he became as heavy as a boulder, and every bone in her body broke, and from that she got her death).
[ back ] 20. Compare the “moral victory” won by Ragnarr’s son, the defiant Eirekr, against his Swedish captors. Refusing their offer of the king’s daughter in marriage, he instead requests and receives his choice of the means of his death: climbing up onto the Swedes’ spears, which have been fixed in the ground, and impaling himself upon them (Ragnars saga ch. 10).
[ back ] 21. Cath Maige Mucrama p. 60; Scéla Moshaulum p. 82. In these episodes from two different texts (both earlier than TDG), Sadhbh warns her foster son Lughaidh Mac Con about approaching his foster-father, her husband Oilill, who has a poisonous tooth and no love for Lughaidh. When they greet each other, Oilill bites Lughaidh on the cheek, which subsequently melts—a sign of his impending doom. Here, Oilill behaves as viciously as the monster-worm that lashes out at Cian’s foster brother or father. In the Acallam, Sadhbh is said to have died of grief over the death of Lughaidh (p. 33).
[ back ] 22. Did worm-kind have the last laugh on Conán, as it did on Ragnarr? In the Acallam we learn that Conán ended up living apart from the fian in a dwelling concealed by the surrounding high land (compare the secluded mountain fortress Haftvād builds for his worm), and that he died not in combat (as a member of Fionn’s fian should), but in bed, destroyed by a poisonous worm (cruimh neime) that somehow found its way into his head (pp. 100–102; see Nagy 2014).