Thor the Thunderer

In contrast to the subtle and mysterious All-father, Thor was a simple-hearted and single-minded warrior whose lusty appetites could be understood and appreciated by the rank and file. Thursday bears his name; the Anglo-Saxons worshipped him as Thunor.

Thor is the acme of virility, with his luxuriant red beard, flowing hair, and hearty enjoyment of food and drink. In addition to his primary role as patron of warriors, Thor, like Freyr, was called upon as a fertility god. The 11th century Christian missionary Adam of Bremen, on noting the great temple of the gods in Uppsala, Sweden, wrote, “Thor, they say, presides over the air, he governs the thunder and lightening, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops…If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor.”

Thor’s equipage was endowed with extraordinary magic: He owned a belt which when strapped on, doubled his strength. He had huge gloves with which he could lift and crush boulders. He travelled through the skies in a cart pulled by two goats – themselves acknowledged symbols of animal vitality. Most powerful and fabled of his tools was Mjöllnir, his war hammer.

Like all of the finest possessions of the Gods, Mjöllnir was forged by dwarfs, supernatural beings who dwelt in the depths and were thus imbued with the direct energies of iron, gold, silver, and gem stones. Mjöllnir would hit any target at which it was aimed, and unfailingly return to Thor’s mighty hand. This hammer, a prototype of the Viking throwing weapon skeggox, was adept not only at offence but defence. Hammer shaped amulets were worn for protection, and placed around a bride’s neck on her bridal day. As it was Thor who battled the World Serpent, often these amulets bear a serpent or dragon-like decoration commemorating this contest.

Another example of Mjöllnir’s sacred powers is shown in the resurrection of Thor’s goats. These goats not only transported the god, but provided dinner: One night Thor stopped at a farmhouse and killed and roasted his goats for his own and his human hosts’ supper. Disobeying the god’s orders, the farmer’s son broke one of the goat’s leg bones to reach the succulent marrow within. When the meal was over, Thor collected all the bones, lay them upon the goatskins, and raised his hammer Mjöllnir over them. At once the goats re-formed, and stood live before the astonished humans. Alas, one goat was lame as a result of the broken marrow-bone, but Thor stayed his anger and as recompense took son and daughter away with him.

Thor fought many celebrated battles, especially against the god’s greatest foes, the giants, but he is most remembered for his struggle with the World Serpent. Standing rune- and picture stones from all over Scandinavia, but particularly Sweden and Gotland, depict the hammer-wielder in a deadly put seemingly unresolved embrace with the sinuous monster. Possibly this conflict was not meant to be resolved, as the World Serpent performed a vital service in encircling the entire Earth and by biting its own tail to hold it together. In the words of scholar Gro Steinsland, …

“This myth demonstrates that people in the Viking Age realised the limitations of brute force; at the same time it cunningly expresses the perception that the forces of chaos are indispensable elements in the greater cosmos.”(Exhibition catalogue From Viking to Crusader: the Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, Nordic Council of Ministers 1992)

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