The Self-Sabotage of Harboring Evil

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
August 23, 2020 Updated: August 24, 2020

I often ask myself, “What does it mean to be a sincere, good, and patient person?” Despite the fact that I haven’t found an absolute answer to this question, asking it has revealed a lot about myself that I otherwise would not know. Asking this question initiated my journey into the truths of my own soul.

Keeping this in mind, I recently was reading through Norse mythology and came across a story about the conflict between Thor and the Midgard Serpent. 

Thor and the Fishing Trip

In Norse mythology, Thor and the Midgard Serpent (also known as Jormungand) are age-old enemies. Once, Thor almost defeats Jormungand but is interrupted in the process. The story goes as follows: 

Two giants, Aegir and Ran, offered to host a feast arranged by the gods if the gods provided a cauldron big enough to serve everyone at the feast. Hymir was the only giant who was known to possess a cauldron that large. The god Thor volunteered to meet with Hymir and request his cauldron. 

After Thor arrived at Hymir’s home, Hymir slaughtered three bulls to eat. Thor, however, having a notorious appetite, ate two bulls in one sitting. These bulls were supposed to last Thor’s whole stay! This irritated Hymir because now they had to go to sea to fish for more food. Thor, annoying Hymir further, slaughtered another bull as bait for the fishing trip.

Thor and Hymir journeyed out to sea to get more food. It wasn’t long before Hymir caught two whales to eat. Thor, however, kept rowing out to sea. Hymir, frightened, asked Thor to go no farther since Jormungand, the evil Midgard Serpent, swam in these waters.

Thor was undeterred and cast his line into the sea. It wasn’t long before he felt something pull at the line. He began to reel in his line and found that he had caught Jormungand. Thor wasted no time and reached for his hammer to destroy the evil serpent, but Hymir, in his fear, cut Thor’s line and released Jormungand back into the water. 

Thor became upset and threw Hymir overboard in anger. Then Thor took the two whales, went back to Hymir’s home to get the cauldron, and returned to the gods.   

“Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent,” 1790, by Henry Fuseli. Oil on canvas, 52 inches by 37.2 inches. Royal Academy of Arts Collections, London. (Public Domain)

Battering the Midgard Serpent

Henry Fuseli, a Romantic painter of the 18th and early 19th centuries, presented his interpretation of Thor’s battle with Jormungand. He was greatly influenced by the musculature of Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings and tried to incorporate this style into his own work.

Fuseli created a dark composition that serves to have the brightness of Thor stand out in the upper center of the painting. The darkness and the lack of information in the painting’s background may suggest just how far Thor has rowed out to sea to find Jormungand. 

Behind Thor, cowering in the boat, is Hymir. Hymir watches in fear as the event unfolds. Thor, having caught Jormungand, reaches to unsheath his hammer to finally destroy his old foe. In the top left-hand corner is a bust of Thor’s father and the greatest of Norse gods, Odin, who watches the scene.

The Courage to Journey Within

For me, Fuseli’s painting represents a journey that many of us may have the opportunity to make, a journey into the inner recesses of our own souls. It takes courage to make this journey, but with it we may bring our fears of what we will find.

I think there’s a part of us that is always looking to overcome the deep, dark, evil things that may exist in us. This is the part of us that is like Thor: This part is unafraid and treats abolishing personal evil like a meaningful mission that must be upheld.

Then, there’s another part of us that is afraid of what we may find when we make the journey deep into ourselves. This part of us is like Hymir: Afraid of confronting the evil that lurks beneath our surface, this part finds ways to sabotage our efforts to overcome our own shortcomings.

We may find that deep within us, we embody, hide, and shelter selfishness and evil. We may find that we, not something outside of ourselves, are our own worst enemies. And right when we go to destroy that evil aspect of ourselves, our fear, often by way of denial or rationalization, prevents us from following through. 

At first, in our denial, we may find ourselves comforted by the thought that we don’t harbor such evil in our own waters. But it’s not long before said evil surfaces again, and we, during a trip in which we are supposed to be considering how to provide for others, are left disturbed and interfered with by our own selfishness.

Who has the courage to make the journey in consideration of others? Who has the courage to keep rowing forward? Who has the courage to throw his or her fears overboard and destroy the age-old enemy that is selfishness?  

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist.