The Valþjófsstaður door (c. 1200)
and the high seat used by Frederik VIII in 1907
The sinuous forms of snakes and dragons wind throughout the art and literature of Viking-Age Scandinavia. In Norse myth, our whole world, Miðgarðr, lies encircled in the coils of an enormous sea serpent, whose jaws are clamped down on its own tail. According to Snorri Sturluson's Edda, the world serpent's name is Jörmungandr, and is one of the three children of Loki and Angrboða, brother to the goddess Hel, who presides over a share of the dead, and the giant wolf Fenrir, who will swallow Óðinn at Ragnarök. The interlaced shapes of serpents appear on rune stones, wood carvings, jewellery, and everyday objects.
[Óðinn] cast the serpent into the deep sea, where he lies about all the land; and this serpent grew so greatly that he lies in the midst of the ocean encompassing all the land, and bites upon his own tail...
Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning, chapter 34.
Twisting serpents adorn the high seat used by the Danish King Frederik VIII (r. 1906-1912) on his 1907 visit to Þingvellir. It was there that the Althingi – Icelandic parliament – took place from its establishment in around 930 until it was disbanded by royal decree in 1800. The seat's side panels are decorated with interlaced snakes, and its back with four entwined dragons forming a circle. A similar motif appears on the Valþjófsstaður door, which might have served as its inspiration.
The Valþjófsstaður door was carved in western Iceland in around 1200. The lower of its two roundels is carved with a circle of dragons: their grasping claws set in the middle, their four heads biting down on sinuous bodies, and feathered wings open. The scene above depicts the medieval legend of the lion knight, in which a knight on horseback saves a lion from a similar dragon. The legend is known in medieval Icelandic and Danish tradition and recently served as inspiration for the naming of entities in the space.
Did you know that Old Norse-Icelandic word dreki (Eng. dragon, serpent) was used to describe warships of chieftains and kings? These large longships were decorated with dragon-heads on their prows. Dragon head ships are depicted in Frølich’s frieze presenting the Danish conquest of England by Cnut the Great.