“The rowan is the salvation of Thor”, was a Icelandic proverb, and we have to wonder how this small tree could save a mighty god.
Thor, Saved from Drowning
The explanation forms a very small part of the myth of how Thor killed the giant Geirrodr. When the giants saw him coming, Geirrod’s daughter Gjalp tried to drown him by straddling the stream he was crossing and either urinating or menstruating into it. The torrent nearly swept him away, until he grabbed hold of a rowan branch and pulled himself out. (He dealt with Gjalp by throwing a rock at her genitals, commenting that “a river must be dammed at the source”.)
As Snorri Sturluson put it in the Prose Edda:
‘Just then as he was swept towards the shore, where he was able to grab hold of some rowan branches, and so was able to climb up from the river. This event is the origin of the expression that rowan trees are Thor’s salvation.’ (Byock’s trans.)
In his notes Byock adds that “The rowan tree, thought to be holy, was associated with Thor.”
The rowan has a long history as a holy tree, which is never struck by lightning, so it makes sense that it would appear in a myth about Thor.
The Thunder-God’s wife
The primary source for the myth of Thor vs. Geirrodr, the ninth-century poem Thorsdrapa (pdf), doesn’t mention the tree, but Snorri’s versions tend to fill in the details that the poems leave out. While Norse myth doesn’t have any other mentions of the god and the tree, the neighbouring Sami (Lapps) and Finns have a thunder-god whose wife’s name means “rowan”: Raudna or Rauni.
As Gabriel Turville-Petre says:
While Snorri and the Norse poets gave Thor a wife, Sif, the Lapps gave Hora galles a wife, Ravdna. This, it seems, is no other than the Norwegian raun, Swedish rõnn and Icelandic reynir, ‘rowan, mountain ash’. It was said that the red berries of this tree were sacred to Ravdna.
In the myth of Thor and the giant Geirrod, as it was told by Snorri, and perhaps also in the obscure lines of Þorsdrapa, Thor saved himself from the torrent by clinging to a rowan, and this arose the proverb, “The rowan is the salvation of Thor” (reynir er bjorg Thors). Probably the wife of Thor was once conceived in the form of a rowan, to which the god clung. The rowan was a holy tree in many lands, but nowhere more than in Iceland, where it has been revered from the settlement to this day.
(Turville-Petre, Myth and Religon of the North: 98)
If the name of the rowan, and indeed the goddess, was a borrowing from the Norse, so was Thor, or at least his name:
the tree name figures as Thor’s wife in the borrowed Lappish Ravdna (consort of Hora Galles <*Thunra-karlaz, “Thor fellow”) and in the Finnish Rauni, wife of Ukko, the ‘Old Man’ thunder-god (cf. Nowegian raun, Swedish rönn, but in Norse tradition proper Thor’s wife was Sif).
(Puhvel, Comparative Mythology: 204)
Hora Galles, also written as Thora Galles, clearly derives from Thor, with the “Galles” from karl, meaning either “fellow, guy” or else “old man”. Another god, Tiermes or Aijeke, is known as “grandfather”, and like Horagalles, rules the sky, thunder and lightning, and the rainbow. Both destroy trolls and evil spirits, either with lightning or their hammer. On Sami drums Hora Galles holds two hammers, one to send lightning and one to withdraw it.
Ukko, a Finnish god whose name means “Old Man”, is another god of thunder, weather and the harvest, although his name seems to be his own and not a loan. (Although some connect it to the Baltic thunder-god Perkunas.) He too carries a hammer which produced thunder and lightning, and little pendants in the shape of a hammer have been found in Finnish lands, like the ones found in Norse territories.
Both Ukko’s and Hora Galles’s wives had their own cults, and the Sami sacrificed to Raudna:
Agricola mentions also the wife of the Thunder god, Rauni, whose name occurs in a song as Rõõnikkä, and was also known to the Finnish Lapps as Ravdna. In the same manner as to the Thunder god himself, the Lapps sacrificed reindeer to Ravdna, most often in grottoes in the mountains consecrated to her. Just as, among many peoples, the oak was the favourite tree of the Thunder god, the rowan was Ravdna’s favourite, growing in her grottoes. In Finnish folk-poetry also the rowan and its berries are described as being “holy”. The name of the Thunder goddess seems to have originally been applied to the three, being, as such, a loan-word, from the Scandinavian (Icelandic reynir, Swedish rõnn).
(Holmberg, Finno-Ugric Mythology: 230)
Did Thor’s Wife Save Him?
Which is where we hit a snag; Thor is married, but to a goddess named Sif. Her name means “affinity”, or kinship by marriage (as opposed to family), which seems appropriate for a wifely goddess. Unfortunately, we know very little about Sif, and none of it involves rowan trees.
She is the mother of Ullr, the winter-god, although Thor is said to be his step-father. (The father’s name is not recorded.) The only myth concerning her tells how Loki cut off her long golden hair, and had to bargain with the dwarves for new, really golden hair for the goddess to avert Thor’s wrath.
This has been seen as 1) a metaphor for the harvest, or 2) a punishment for infidelity, as both Loki and Harbard (Odin, disguised) imply in other myths that Sif has been unfaithful to Thor, and we know from Tacitus (Germania 19) that the Germans punished unfaithful women this way. It seems rather unfair to Sif to give much credence to two gods who were clearly trying to get a rise out of Thor by impugning his wife.
So it’s hard to know if Sif had some connection to the rowan, or if the Lapps and Finns did a little constructive mythologizing on their own, perhaps theorizing (like Margaret Clunies-Ross) that Thor’s salvation against a giantess might come in the form of his wife.
Folklore about rowans (and lightning)
Rowans were often planted near houses, since lightning never struck them, and they kept away witches. The thunder-god would hardly strike at his own salvation. As for the rowan’s power against evil spirits and witches, it would seem that like Thor it was on the side of humans, against all the powers that would work against their welfare.
In Scotland the rowan was an important tree, especially in the north where larger trees might struggle. There are places named for it, and two clans have it as their badge. It was taboo to cut it, except in special, ritual conditions, although you could use the berries. (Rowan-berry jelly is good, if very tart.)
In both Scotland and England people carried twigs as a charm, usually sewn or woven into a cross with red thread. These were often combined with chants, like:
Rowan tree and red thread,
Will make the witches tyne their speed
(From the Trees for Life site)
Even a simple loop of rowan twig could serve for protection.
The rowan was also one of the trees associated with St. Brigit, and its wood was used for spindles and spinning-wheels in Scotland and Ireland. It was also hung over barns and farm animals might be driven through hoops of its branches for protection.
It would seem that the rowan, as well as feeding people and animals (the bark was used for fodder in Scandinavia, according to Clunies-Ross) was the ultimate in protection against all evil and those beings that would harm humans.
This was what the rowan-goddess shared with the thunder-god, whose hammer and thunder also kept giants and other harmful beings in check. She was powerful enough to save her husband when he was in danger of being defeated by those very forces, so it’s no wonder that people put such faith in rowan.
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Jesse Byock, Penguin Classics, 2005.
Clunies Ross, Margaret 1981: “An Interpretation of the Myth of Thorr’s Encounter with Geirrođr and his Daughters”, in Speculum Norroenum: Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel Turville-Petre, ed. Ursula Dronke, Guđrun Helgadóttir, Gerd Wolfgang Weber, and Hans-Bekker Nielsen: 379-91.
Holmberg, Uno 1964: Finno-Ugric, Siberian Mythology, Mythology of All Races vo. 4. (reprint)
Puhvel, Jaan 1987: Comparative Mythology, The John Hopkins University Press.
Turville-Petre, Gabriel 1964: Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Waggoner, Ben 2011: “The Rowan in Icelandic Folklore”, Idunna (Autumn 2011) 89: 16-9.