We’re always taught that Odin was head of the Norse gods, and father of most of them. But when the Christians in Scandinavia began to press the pagans to give up their religion, the sign of resistance was Thor’s hammer, not Odin’s spear or valknut.
This may come as a surprise to us, who mostly think of Thor as big and strong and a bit dim, out of his depth when it comes to anything more complicated than smashing giants. But Thor was a very popular deity in the Viking Age, as place-names and personal names show, perhaps because of his closeness to the humans he defended.
God of Thunder?
Thunder and lightning weren’t really an important part of Thor’s cult. Although they were signs of his presence, he wasn’t just a thunder-god, any more than Zeus (who also wielded a mean thunderbolt) was.
His main role in the mythology is defending Asgard and Midgard. Thunder and lightning were signs that he was doing his job. The skaldic poem Haustlong describes Thor riding across the sky to face Hrungnir:
The son of Iord drove to the game of iron [battle] and the moon’s way [sky] thundered beneath him. Wrath swelled in Meili’s brother [Thor].
All the hawk’s sanctuaries [skies] found themselves burning because of Ull’s stepfather, and the ground all low was battered with hail, when the goats drew the temple-power [Thor] of the easy-chariot forward to the encounter with Hrungnir. Sviolnir’s widow [Iord, earth] practically split apart.
Haustlong was written to describe the scenes depicted on a shield. The image of Thor charging across the fiery heavens in his chariot was probably as iconic in its day as an image of Superman flying above Metropolis would be now.
As champion of the gods, Thor’s strength is his most important quality. It’s the first thing Snorri Sturluson mentioned when he described Thor, saying that Thor is the most outstanding and that he is the “strongest of all the gods and men”. (Faulkes: 47)
This is known as ásmegin, divine strength, which he can summon up at will. He uses it when he fishes up the Midgard Serpent (see below) and against the giant Skrymir, two of his most powerful advesaries. In the skaldic poem Thorsdrapa he calls on it when a river threatens to drown him; he says he will grow up to heaven if necessary.
His weapon is his hammer, Mjollnir, which was a gift from the dwarves. He also has a belt that doubles his strength when he puts it on, and iron gloves that he has to wear when he holds Mjollnir. (Because it’s so powerful? Because the handle is so short? Snorri doesn’t say.)
Just as Hercules rid the Greek countryside of monsters, Thor keeps Midgard free of giants. This was the space that the Aesir carved out for humans, so naturally they feel a responsibility. Thor justifies this in the poem Harbardsljod:
32. I was in the East and I defended the river
when Svarang’s sons attacked me;
they pelted me with stones, yet they didn’t get much advantage,
before me they had to sue for peace.
What were you doing meanwhile, Harbard?
(Interestingly, Loki says much the same in another poem, Thrymskvida, except he says the giants will take over Asgard, ramping up the threat.)
Many of the Thor myths involve a battle between him and various giants: Hymir, Gerriod, Hrungnir, Thrym and the giant who built Asgard’s walls. Two skaldic poems honouring Thor are lists of other giants he’s killed. (Lindow: 290, Faulkes 99) The only giant who gets the better of him is Utgard-loki, who uses magic and trickery to defeat Thor and his companions.
The two poetic lists of giants include a fair few feminine names, and we know that Thor will kill giantesses as readily as giants. To be fair, they try their best to kill him, too.
In the story of his battle with Geirrod, two giantesses try to crush him by getting under his chair and pushing it into the roof. (This has always struck me as Thor’s James Bond moment, although he follows it up by killing rather than seducing them.) Another, earlier, attempt by a giantess to drown him also failed.
However, another giantess, Gríðr, helped him to defeat Geirrod and his daughters. She warned him of what lay ahead, and gave him his iron gloves and a magical staff, Gríðarvölr, to help him. Thor accepted her help, and she went on to have the god Vidarr for Odin. (The relations between the gods and giants often resembled an ongoing family feud, with occasional breaks in hostilities.)
The Midgard Serpent
Thor’s most famous enemy was one of the biggest giants around: the World Serpent. This was one of Loki’s three children with the giantess Angrboda, the other two being the Fenris Wolf and Hel, ruler of the dead. The gods threw it into the ocean that surrounded Midgard, only for Thor to haul it up on a fishing trip.
This seems to have been one of the most popular stories about Thor. The Eddic poem Hymiskvida describes it, as well as Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrapa and Ulfr Uggason’s Husdrapa. Snorri Sturluson gives a detailed version in prose in Gylfaginning.
Four picture-stones have pictures of it; the Gosforth Slab (not from the cross) on the left shows Thor and the giant Hrym in their boat, the Altuna stone on the right shows how Thor pulled so hard on the line his foot went through the hull.
The poem describes how Thor and another god, Tyr, go to visit the giant Hyrmir with a view to getting his cauldron. While they were there, Thor and Hymir go out fishing, and the giant pulls up two whales. Thor takes a turn, and soon has something on the line, but when he pulls it up, it’s the World Serpent.
There may be some text missing here, but it seems that Thor smites it on the head and then it returns to the sea. The next verse implies that Hymir was frightened, and Snorri picks up on this, saying he cut the line from fear.
While the picture-stones focus on how Thor hooked the Serpent, both skaldic poems describe the moment when the god and monster are face to face:
But the sharp-looking stiff earth-rope [Midgard serpent] stares over the gunwale at country-bone [rock] -folk’s [giants] tester/rowan [Thor] and blew poison. (Uggason/Faulkes: 141)
And the ugly ring [serpent] of the side-oared ship’s road [sea] stared up spitefully at Hrungnir’s skull-splitter. (Boddason/Faulkes: 73)
In Snorri’s telling Thor throws his hammer after the Serpent, and he says that some claim that Thor struck its head off. Snorri disagrees, however, and later in his book he describes how the two meet again at Ragnarok. (They also meet in the story of Utgard-loki: Thor tries to lift what looks like a cat, but can’t. Later he learns it was really the Serpent.)
Then, after the giants come to Asgard and the Fenris Wolf kills Odin, Thor and the Serpent face off again. Thor kills it with a blow from his hammer, but only staggers nine paces before dying himself. (Snorri says it’s the poison the Sepent spits at Thor that kills him, and the skaldic poems also mention its venomous nature.) The detail about the poison suggests that they were face to face a second time, rounding off the story.
Son of Earth
Thor’s parents were the giantess Jord and the god Odin1, which is a bit ironic considering his role as giant-smasher. However, a lot of the Aesir gods have giant blood in them, and Thor wasn’t always hostile to giantesses.
His wife is Sif, whose name means something like kinship or affinity, echoing women’s role in holding the family together. They have a daughter Thrud. He also has two sons, Modi and Magni, with the giantess Jarsaxa, who will survive Ragnarok. All three have names whose meanings relate to strength. In keeping with the theme, his home was at Thrudvangr, Power-Field.
The Eddic poem Alvissmal (All-wise’s Sayings) shows Thor quizzing a dwarf who wants to marry his daughter Thrud. This poem shows Thor being crafty, because he really wants to keep Alviss talking until the sun comes up and turns him to stone. Thor cleverly keeps the focus on Alviss’ knowledge; if the poem were about Odin, there would be a wisdom contest, but Thor fixes it so all he has to do is ask the questions. Alviss has to supply the knowledge.
Sif also has a child of her own, the winter god Ull, so one kenning for Thor was Ull’s stepfather. She and Thor also have two foster-children, Vingnir and Hlora. (These two are mentioned in Skaldskaparmal, but nowhere else.) Thor also takes a farmer’s two children as his servants, Thialfi and Roskva.
These two were part of the rather involved story of his visit to Utgard-loki. On the way, he stopped at a farmer’s house for the night. Knowing that there was no way they would have enough food for his enormous appetite, he unhitched his two goats from his wagon and had the farmer kill and cook them. He warned them not to crack the bones, and to keep them wi†h the hides.
The boy Thialfi, however, broke open a leg bone and sucked the marrow out before laying it on the pile. When Thor revived his goats the next morning by blessing them with his hammer, one was lame, and he could guess why. Even in this bucolic setting, his wrath was impressive:
…everyone can imagine how terrified the peasant must have been when he saw Thor making his brows sink down over his eyes; as for what could be seen of the eyes themselves, he thought he would collapse at just the very sight. Thor clenched his hand on the shaft of the hammer so that the knuckles went white…
He calmed himself when he saw the family’s terror, and, for compensation, accepted the two children as his servants. Thjalfi fights a sort of clay golem in the story of Hrungnir, but Roskva does not appear in any other myths.
Friend to Humans
The title of this section comes from Hymiskvdia, where Thor once again encounters a friendly and helpful female figure, who introduces him:
With him he has Hroth’s foeman
man’s well-wisher2, who is Véur hight.
Thor’s help, according to the missionary Adam of Bremen, came in this form:
Thor, they say presides over the air which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops… Thor, with his sceptre, apparently resembles Jove.
This sounds pretty like pretty basic stuff for a god, especially one associated with thunder. But Thor also had a sacral function: his hammer blessed things, from fields before planting to marriages (as in the Eddic poem Thrymskvida), and rune-stones. Several runestones in Norway and Sweden were inscribed: “May Thor hallow these runes/this monument”.
In Snorri’s other book, Heimskringla, he treats the gods as historical figures, and he makes Thor and the other main gods priests:
[Odin] appropriated to himself the whole of that district, and called it Sigtun. To the temple
priests he gave also domains. Njord dwelt in Noatun, Frey in Upsal, Heimdal in the Himinbergs, Thor in Thrudvang, Balder in Breidablik; to all of them he gave good estates. (ch. 5)
From Odin’s name came the name Audun, which people gave to his sons; and from Thor’s name comes Thore, also Thorarinn; and also it is sometimes compounded with other names, as Steenthor, or Havthor, or even altered in other ways. (ch. 7)
(Ynglinga saga, trans. Samuel Laing)
Snorri was right about that: a survey of Icelandic names from this period shows that names derived from Thor’s were very popular:, a quarter of the 4000 people named in the Landnamabok have Thor-names. Gotland in Sweden was another Thor stronghold. (Andern) Place-name evidence shows that Thor had worshippers all across Scandinavia. (Brink)
Perhaps his popularity sprang from his own resemblance to a the smallholders who made up Scandinavian society. While Odin was the god of aristocrats, poets and magicians, Thor was the god of warriors and farmers, an overlapping group since there was no army. Thor, trudging across Bifrost or driving in his rattling wagon, trying to manage his extended family and dependants, not clever but dependable in a tight corner, was a god most people could identify with.
1. But not always – in the Prologue to the Prose Edda, he’s Odin’s father, although the main text calls him Odin’s son throughout. There seems to have been some rivalry between the cults of Odin and Thor, which I will be looking at in another post.↩
References and Links
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.), Oxford UP, 1996
The Poetic Edda, 1962/1990: Hollander, Lee M. (trans.), Uinversity of Texas, Austin. (2nd edition, revised)
The Elder Edda: a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, London, 2011.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, Adam of Bremen /Francis J. Tshcan, Columbia University Press, 2002. (Questia)
Andrén, Anders 2012: “Servants of Thor? The Gotlanders and their Gods,” in News from Other Worlds, eds. M Kaplan and TR Tangherlini, Lulu.com: 92-101. (Google Books)
Brink, Stefan 2007: “How Uniform was the Old Norse Religion?” in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World, eds. J. Quinn, K. Heslop, T. Wills, Brepols: 105-36. (Brepols; paywall)
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Sørensen, Preben M, Williams, Kirsten (trans.): 2002: “Þorr’s Fishing Expedition (Hymiskviða)”, in The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology, eds. Acker, Paul and Carolyne Larrington, Routledge: 123. (Google Books)
Taggart, Declan 2017: How Thor Lost His Thunder: the Changing Faces of an Old Norse God, Routledge. (Google Books)
Scandinavian runestones, with pictures
Norse Mythology for Smart People (discusses blessing with hammer)
Thor lore, including a few more recent stories
I couldn’t resist this one: a heathen claims Jesus was too afraid to fight Thor
If you like the image at the top, click here.