Dragonslayers feature in modern books, films and video-games struggling against a vast array of monsters which epitomise chaos. They often win the love interest of high-value female characters having saved them from being devoured or gain treasures or enlightenment. While reading legends and myths about enormous dragons and giant serpents being slain by heroes, and this article, be mindful that YOU are the hero and the monsters are works of YOUR ego.
Carl Gustav Jung's search for self
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology and crafted groundbreaking theories on the mechanics of the human mind, most famously the concept of an unconscious mind of a dual nature, the Personal Unconscious and the Collective Unconscious. Interacting with these, the Ego/Persona is what we "think" we are, the Anima and the Animus are our underlying polar-sexual opposites and the Shadow is the collective of our primal animal drives. Hidden somewhere deep within is a long lost semi-mythical island known as 'self' - the pre-Ego you that was born into this world.
In contrast to the Personal Unconscious, which refers to life experiences and gained wisdom secular to ones self, the Collective Unconscious is fused together with environmental factors that affect everyone in the world. Jung's work also suggested the events and characters in world myths are archetypes which rise from our shared Collective Unconscious and his research in this field answered many problems not only in psychiatry, but in the sciences of anthropology, literature, archeology, philosophy and theological studies in the early 20th century.
The focus of this article is a common mythological archetype told in ancient times about Queen Cassiopeia invoking the wrath of Poseidon by boasting that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids (female sea nymphs) and he assigned the sea monster Cetus to attack Æthiopia. An oracle advised Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus and to sacrifice their daughter and Andromeda was chained to a rock for the beast to devour, but the hero Perseus saved her by either driving his sword into the beasts back or by using the serpentine Medusa's head to turn it into to stone, depending on the reading.
The Cetus is commonly depicted as fishlike, a serpentine creature with a long muzzle and sometimes with long ears, horns and legs instead of flippers. In Ancient Greek, the word kētos was Latinised as cetus (pl. cetea) and denotes a large fish, a whale, a shark, or a sea monster and the term cetacean (for whale) originates from this word, as does the name of the constellation Cetus.
A version of the great sea beast appeared in the Bible in Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translation), as ‘dag gadol' (דג גדול) 'great fish in the belly of which Jonah was trapped for three days and three nights, so the ‘Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’. Folklorist Theo Brown drew comparisons between Johna’s three-day confinement inside a whale and the Orcadian adventure of Assipattle who defeated a giant sea-creature called the Stoor Worm. He also noted similarities between this tale and Herakle's rescue of Hesione - concluding that tales of this genre were ‘confined to countries beginning to move away from primitive beliefs and possibly evolved out of the suppression of human sacrifices to divinity’.
World Serpent Archetype
In Orkney's Assipattle myth the World Serpent was described as biting its own tail, a mythological dynamic acknowledged by almost every ancient myth system - collectively known as ouroboros. Indigenous people of South America held that that waters at the edge of the world-disc were encircled by a snake, often an anaconda, biting its own tail.
According to the medieval Yoga-kundalini Upanishad ouroboros symbolism was used in the east to describe Kundalini energy flows ‘like a snake, coiled round upon herself she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep as the base of the body' (1.82).
This ancient mythological symbol first originated in ancient Egyptian iconography where the ouroboros motif was found in the Book of the Netherworld, an ancient Egyptian funerary text discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun which was created in the 14th century BCE. Describing the union of the gods Ra’s and Osiris in the underworld, an illustration from this text depicts two serpents holding their tails in their mouths, coiled around the head, neck, and feet of an enormous god - the unified Ra-Osiris - the beginning and the end of time and a motif for the cyclical nature of the year.
The ouroboros migrated from Egypt into Greek magical systems drawing from the early alchemical text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra (Greek: Η χρυσοποιία της Κλεοπάτρας) dating to third century Alexandria which encloses the words hén tó pãn (Greek: ἕν τό πᾶν), "one is the all”. In Gnosticism, a serpent biting its tail symbolised ‘eternity and the soul of the world’ and the Gnostic Pistis Sophia (c. 400 AD) describes the ouroboros as a ‘twelve-part dragon’ surrounding the world with his tail in his mouth.
The Chrysopoeia ouroboros of ‘Cleopatra the Alchemist’ is one of the oldest images linking the ouroboros with the legendary opus of the alchemists, the philosopher's stone, which interpreted the ouroboros’ black and white halves as being representative of the Gnostic concept of a ‘duality of existence’ and can be regarded as the western equivalent of the Taoist Yin and Yang symbol. In medieval alchemy, hermeticism and in renaissance magic the ouroboros came to represent ‘introspection’ and the ‘infinite creative and destructive cycles of nature’ - life and death. The physician and alchemist, Sir Thomas Browne, saw it as a symbol of the ‘eternal unity of all things’ and the ‘cycles of birth and death’ from which the alchemist sought release. In his A Letter to a Friend, a medical treatise full of case-histories and witty musing on the human condition, he wrote of the ouroboros:
[…] that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, […]
Carl Jung wrote of the ouroboros as an archetype and ‘the basic mandala of alchemy’ and defined the relationship of the ouroboros to alchemy:
The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.
The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This 'feed-back' process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which [...] unquestionably stems from man's unconscious.
The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann said of the ouroboros 'it was a representation of the pre-ego dawn state depicting the undifferentiated infancy experience of both mankind and the individual child'. Now that we have gained a sufficient understanding of the underlying meaning of the World Serpent in myths, lets now look closer at Norse representations of the ouroboros which appear central in the Assipattle myth of Orcadian folklore.
The Midgar Serpent
Norse mythology features the ouroboros motif in several ways in different accounts, for example, in the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok told in Ragnarssona þáttr, the Geatish king Herraud gives a gift of a small lindworm to his daughter Þóra Town-Hart. The serpent grows and encircled the ‘girl's bower’ and bit itself in the tail before being slain by Ragnar Lodbrok who then marries Þóra. Ragnar later has a son with another woman named Kráka and this son is born with the image of a white snake encircling the iris of one eye, biting itself in the tail, and the son was named Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye
The Norse representation of the ouroboros in the Assipattle myth is Jörmungandr (Old Norse: huge monster) also known as the Midgard Serpent or World Serpent - the middle child of the god of mischief - Loki. Jörmungandr's arch-enemy was the thunder-god Thor and according to the Prose Edda, Odin took Jörmungandr the serpent and tossed it into the great ocean that encircles Midgard (the earth) and it grasped its own tail. When the beast releases its tail, Ragnarök - the end of the world, will begin.
In the Assipattle myth Jörmungandr is presented as an enormous serpent-like creature called the ‘Mester Stoor Worm’ a name derived from the Old Norse word Storðar-gandr, an Orkney variant of the Norse world serpent, the Midgard Serpent. Mester, meaning master, describes this particular portrayal of the creature (ouroboros ) as the ‘largest and most evil of world Serpents’. Believed to have been created by powerful, evil, malevolent spirits, the Stoor Worm had a ferocious appetite and its toxic breath was capable of ‘contaminating plants and destroying animals and humans’. With a single whip of its massive forked tongue it demolished ships, castles and houses, which it also used to drag entire hill sides and cities into the sea.
According to folklorist Jennifer Westwood, the Orkney Stoor Worm's head was ‘like a great mountain’ and Traill Dennison's long text tells us its eyes ‘glowed and flamed like a ward fire’ - and some accounts stated that it had only one eye. Other accounts claim it was so big it ‘wrapped around the world’ and every time it moved tsunamis and earthquakes destroyed land. Dennison also reported the serpent's length was ‘beyond telling’ and it reached ‘thousands and thousands of miles’ in the sea and referred to it as ‘the worst of the nine fearful curses’ that plagued mankind. Whenever the Stoor Worm yawned, which indicated it was hungry, ‘every living thing was sucked into its gaping mouth’ and when its head lay near to a kingdom it was expected that the local people had to to satisfy its terrible hunger with a weekly supply of fresh maidens. And this is exactly the tale told in the north of Scotland in the story of the hero Assipattle slaying the Stoor Worm.
In comparative mythology a common template is that of a lone-hero leaving the safety of their ‘ordinary’ world and embarking on a dangerous adventure. After a decisive crisis the hero wins a victory and return home changed, transformed or enlightened. In 1949, scholar Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he outlined 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey and half-a-century later Christopher Vogler condensed those stages into 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood ‘how every story ever’ should be written. Joseph Campbell described the basic mythological narrative pattern of the hero's journey as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
We will now examine the myth of Assipattle and the Stoor Worm, which begins ‘a long time ago’ at a small farm called Leegarth in Orkney - a peaceful ordinary place - the perfect setting for the first steps in the Jungian archetype - the 'monomyth' - the 'hero’s journey'.
The hero Assipattle and the Stoor Worm
This folktale was preserved by 19th-century antiquarian Walter Traill Dennison, and retold by Orcadian folklorist, Ernest Marwick, in a 20th-century version that integrates Dennison's texts with tidbits from other oral storytellers.
Assipattle was the seventh and youngest son of a Goodman (male head of a household). His family were hard working common people and lived on their father's farm in a 'valley under the hillsides of Leegarth'. Apart from being the youngest son he was different in many ways and rather than working he spent most of the time being 'slothful' and playing in the fire with burned peats and ashes whence he got his name ‘Assipattle’ meaning ‘fire raker’(Tom Muir 2017). Often neglected and usually dressed in the tattered hand-me down clothes from his brothers Assipattle was a marvellous story teller and featured himself as the central figure in his wild and adventurous stories, in which he dreamt of undertaking the hero’s journey.
Assipattle's loneliness increased when his sister left home to serve as a maid for Princess Gem-de-lovely, the only daughter of the king, and his sole heir. The Stoor Worm had dominated Assipattle’s homelands for sometime ravaging villages and farms and one afternoon the Stoor Worm yawned, indicating it was hungry. The villagers called for the advice of a sorcerer from the mountains, who explained that the Stoor Worm was ‘old and experienced’ and having eaten all over the world it had developed a sweet tooth which might only be satisfied with the offering of 7 maidens, every Saturday before sunrise, which should assure the Stoor Worm would leave their kingdom alone.
One Saturday morning Assipattle and his father were in a nearby field spectating as the 7 weekly maidens were devoured and his father was suddenly struck by a dilemma in realising that very soon all the local maidens would be eaten, meaning nobody would be left to marry his 7 sons. Concerned with the imminent destruction of their family line a fire was lit in Assipattle’s heart and he became convinced that he would become a brave dragon slayer and fight and kill the Stoor Worm. His father, dismayed, told Assipattle that there was more chance of him making ‘spoons with the hands of the moon’ than such a confrontation even happening.
Fear of genealogical armageddon soon spread and the villagers recalled the spaeman who offered them a final option - to feed the Stoor Worm the tastiest treat in the kingdom, the beautiful princess, which would satisfy the worm and drive it away once and for all. The townsfolk loved their princess and were outraged at this idea but the king himself declared that ‘having descended from Odin himself’ the Princess must be truly noble and die for her people.
During the period of grace before the Princess Gem-de-lovely had to be sacrificed, messengers were despatched to every corner of the realm offering marriage to the princess, the kingdom and the king’s sacred magical sword - Sikkersnapper - that he had ‘inherited from Odin’, to whomever could kill the worm. A messenger arrives at Leegarth, conveys the news to the family and Assipattle declares he will fight the beast, drawing mocking responses from his father and brothers.
The number of candidate heroes who came forward to face the worm varies in the telling, in multiple of 6 from 12 to 36, but they all failed to conceive how to confront the monster, leaving only the king himself to fight the worm for his daughters life. One night Assipattle was keeping the fire alive with dampened peats when an idea formulated in his mind. He picked a single glowing peat and put it in a metal pot. He then stole his father's horse, Teetong, reputed as being the 'speediest horse in the kingdom', to attend the spectacle and raced to the harbour arriving just as the sun began to rise. He hijacked the kings ship and sailed into dark seas to fight the beast. As he approached the slumbering monster he could see its head as ‘big as a mountain with eyes like dark round lochs’.
As the first rays of the sun rays hit the Stoor Worms eyes, it gave the first of 7 great yawns which sucked much of the ocean into its mouth. As the sun began to rise, being a Saturday, the creature yawned a second time in anticipation of the 7 maidens and Assipattle was sucked into the creatures mouth - just like Johna into the whale in the Biblical account of the hero’s journey.
Descending down the beasts cavernous throat he endured many miles of dark tunnels and shadowy landscapes until he eventually reached the belly of the beast ‘which glowed with a dull green phosphorescence’. Assipattle explored the many miles of the Stoor Worms body and eventually found his target - the beasts liver. Assipattle had started many fires with fish-liver oil and with this knowledge he placed his glowing peat into the creatures liver then blew on it until he caused a flame to begin smouldering, and he quickly ran back to his ship.
At this time on shore, the king was in a dire mood. Not only was he facing both his daughters and his own death but upon arriving at the harbour he discovered his boat had been stolen and swallowed by the worm. Then, everything changed. The king and his people noticed something they had never witnessed before, a plume of smoke piping from the worm’s mouth and nostrils. Eventually, the worm puked out the ocean and a tsunami threw Assipattle into the crowd that had gathered on the beach.
The Stoor Worm had been defeated and as it slowly died it filled the entire sky with smoke and the islanders, believing that the world is about to end, clambered up a hillside to watch the final death throes of the creature at a safe distance from the tidal waves and earthquakes.Shooting its tongue into the sky it grabbed the moon but itswet forks ‘slipped on the horn of the moon’ and when it crashed back to earth it caused a a great hole which ‘cut of the Danes from Norway and Sweden' - the Baltic Sea. The forks of the tongue can still be seen in the geography of the peninsula. When the worm landed in the sea it did three pre-death flips, each time knocking teeth out. The first teeth formed Orkney, the second Shetland and the third set formed the Faroe Islands. Finally, the Stoor Worm curled up into a tight coil and died, but we can still see its body today as Iceland, and its steaming lava flows and volcanoes are the liver of the beast which still burns to this day.
The princess has been saved and the king gave Assipattle his magic sword before the hero and the princess rode back to the palace on Teetgong. Assipattle's sister ran out of the palace to greet them and whispered that the 'queen and the sorcerer' were having an affair but had already left. Assipattle chased after the pair on Teetgong and eventually killed the wise man with Sickersnapper and the queen was incarcerated in the castle tower for the rest of her life. The king allowed Assipattle to have the kingdom and marry the princess. The festivities lasted for nine weeks and the couple lived happily ever after. The tale finishes with the sentence: 'And, if not dead, they are yet alive.'
Jungitypes' in the Assipattle Myth
According to folklore researcher Jacqueline Simpson the story of Assipattle and the Stoor Worm is classified as a 'dragon-slayer tale' and folklorist E. S. Hartland stated it was 'a purely Norse tale' demonstrating the triumph of bravery over adversity. Assipattle is the male counterpart of the Cinderella (Cinder-girl) stories, but is older and may be indicative of eras when inheritance was via daughters as opposed to sons.
According to Jungian psychologists, archetypal patterns in myths, albeit they are expressed through the voyages and tribulations overcome by mythical characters, are encoded systems and methods within the human brain. This section presents a summarised re-reading of the Assipattle myth with the key stages in the hero's journey archetype written in italics to aid your reading and this graphic serves as a guide to Campbell's psychological 'hero's journey' model.
Assipattle’s journey began in an Ordinary World with a Call to Adventure which came when the Stoor Worm made its first yawn, indicating is hunger. The Supernatural Aid archetype was covered when the king twice consulted the wiseman - the speaman - and Assipattle Crossed The First Threshold when he was sucked into the beasts mouth. His journey through the shadowy landscapes and tunnels of the beasts inners to finally arrive at the belly of the beast, where the waters ran dry, represented the 5th of Joseph Campbell's 17 stages of the hero's journey - The Belly of the Whale, or in this case the Stoor Worm. At this seminal stage in the journey the hero has fully 'separated his known world from self' and is now ready for a personal metamorphosis to occur.
The Road of Trials where the hero attempts to do something and fails, generally twice and succeeding on the third try, is seen when Assipattle applied his knowledge of fire by blowing repeatedly on his glowing peat in the liver of the beast. The Magic Flight/Road back archetype was accounted for when Assipattle was puked out of the beast back to his kingdom, and the final Freedom to Live step in the hero's journey is departed at the end of the story when Assipattle marries the princess, becomes king and wields Odin’s magic sword - living firmly in the present, relieved of the 'anxieties' caused by living consciously in the past or future.
What does all this mean in the real world? How does the hero archetype relate to YOUR psychology?
Slaying, by definition, is putting to death in a deliberate, violent, even wanton manner, and it has a more heroic connotation than killing or murdering. Thus, it is accurate to say that this Assipattle myth and the many other dragon slayers referred to within this piece of writing are all telling the same underlying story - conquest and mastery of ones own Ego, which Jung described as the Persona, the outward public facing you, not your real 'self'.
'Ego' means 'I' and the ego-image is the 'I'-image, how you 'imagine' yourself to be. Many psychologists would agree that 'every' neurosis is an anxiety neurosis and 'the Ego', said Freud, 'is the actual seat of anxiety' which 'reacts anxiously and then repressively to what it regards as threatening or dangerous'. Jung said of Freud's observation 'our anxious ego neurotically defends itself against the unconscious mind.
Jung also said 'the psyche consists essentially of images' and declared that it 'does not matter very much what the image is' - but its underlying concept — for example, writing about the concept of the 'monster' Jung said 'it matters little if the mythological hero conquers now a dragon, now a fish or some other monster' and that, topographically, the unconscious is 'something below your feet, and YOU are St. George standing upon the dragon.' (1988 1: 155).
America has Captain Ahab spearing the great fish, England has St. George lancing the dragon and Orkney has Assipattle burning the Norse World Serpent. Essentially the dragons, whales, serpents and worms represent 'evil' and 'darkness' which grip the material world and hence the Ego's of the hero and those who surround him. Only after selfless acts of bravery and understanding ones own darkness, can new spiritual light be discovered, and true personal transformation occur.
In ancient mythology the liver was thought of as the source of spirit or life, hence Assipattle's assault on the Stoor Worm's liver. Mythologists such as Joseph Campbell have argued that dragonslayer myths can be seen as a psychological metaphors for people transcending their humanity and re-associating themselves with the powers of nature, which are powers of our life, and from which our minds remove us. Therefore, psychologically, the dragon is one's own binding of oneself to one's own ego.
But on another, less personal level, myths and folklore also hold the vestiges of ancient astronomy and geography and Jungian psychology offers etiological explanations for these elements pointing to the importance of the annual cycle of the sun, moon and seasons - nature’s cycles of death and rebirth. For example, Orcadian folklorist Marwick recorded that in Shetland there was a long-standing belief that 'away, far out to sea, near the edge of the world, lived a monstrous sea-serpent that took about six hours to draw in his breath, and six hours to let it out', which Marwick speculated was probably an explanation for the cycle of the tides. This is further evidenced when we consider the numbers of potential hero’s that failed to face the beast were in groups of 6 and 12 again reflecting the ebs and flows of the tides.
The Assipattle myth is a multilayered reminder that you are not what you think you are, but you are, what you think.
Adams, M.V. (2004) The Fantasy Principle: Psychoanalysis of the Imagination, Hove and New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Bateson, G. (1987) Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, Northvale, NJ, and London: Jason Aronson.
Campbell, J. (1968) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hillman, J. (1977) An Inquiry into Image, Spring: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought, pp. 62-88.
Hillman, J. (2004) Archetypal Psychology, Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman, vol. 1, Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.
Jung, C.G. Except as below, all references are to the Collected Works (CW) by volume, page number, and paragraph.
Traill Dennison, Walter (1891), Orkney Folklore, Sea Myths, The Scottish Antiquary, or, Northern Notes and Queries, Edinburgh University Press.
Williams, D. (1996) Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature, Montreal and Kingston, London, and Buffalo: McGill-Queen's Press.
ASHLEY COWIE is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker exploring ancient cultures and kingdoms, science and psychology. Investigating myths, folklore and legends. Examining artefacts, symbols and architecture, Discovering and presenting unique stories from the people's history.
A TWIST IN TIME. Surviving in wild and unpredictable outdoor environments ancient people developed advanced rope-making procedures and an increasing awareness of measure, geometry, space, mass, weight, leverage, angle, ratio and proportion. With this knowledge, rope-masters conceptualised, designed and built vast stone super-structures and monuments and A Twist in Time explains how they did it using ropes, posts and smart thinking.
Journeying beyond the immense stones which pepper our ancient landscapes, the underlying designs and measurements of the lost rope-masters are examined - finally answering how these enigmatic structures were planned and built. Challenging perceptions of the Stone Age, after reading this book you might be inclined to agree that prehistoric people had a one night stand with stone and a long and happy marriage with rope, and that the term Stone Age should be overthrown and renamed the Rope Age.
CATCH UP ON EPISODES