Celebrity feuds are the meat and drink of modern gossip columns. But what do you do when it’s two gods duking it out? The Greeks had plenty of god feuds, as you might expect, including Poseidon vs. Zeus, and Hera vs. Hercules. And the Norse had a god feud of their own, involving their two most important gods: Odin and Thor.
It’s not surprising that there was friction between the two. Thor was the god of the common man, popular with smallholders and artisans. Odin was the aristocrat’s god, as well as patron of poets, magicians and berserkers. Both were warrior-gods, but while Thor used his hammer and his super-strength, Odin used strategy, cunning and magic to win.
Both could legitimately claim to be top god: Odin claimed to be the All-father, and certainly was ruler of the pantheon in Snorri and Saxo’s tellings. However, Thor was the more popular deity, as I showed in my post on the thunder-god, with many more people naming themselves after him, for example.
They run very close for place-names: Stephan Brink, in his study of places named for the Norse gods, found 90 possibles for Odin, and 83 for Thor (he doesn’t count Iceland, which would probably give Thor the edge).
While for the most part they collaborate, with Odin trying to raise an army for Ragnarök while Thor keeps the giants at bay, there were clearly tensions…
Who’s the Daddy?
Even Odin’s claim to be Thor’s father is contested. In the Prologue to the Prose Edda, Snorri writes:
The name of one king there was Munon or Mennon. He was married to the daughter of the high king Priam; she was called Troan. They had a son, called Tror; we call him Thor… [he meets Sif, his wife, and]… Their son was Loridi, who took after his father… [for 16 more generations, until] … He had a son whose name was Woden, it is him that we call Odin.
But in the main text Snorri gives the more common origin for Thor:
His [Odin’s] wife was Frigg Fiorgvin’s daughter, and from them is descended the family line that we call the Aesir race, who have resided in Old Asgard and the realms that belong to it, and the whole line is of divine origin. And that is why he can be called All-father, that he is father of all the gods and of men and of everything that has been brought into being by him and his power. The earth was his daughter and his wife. Out of her he begot the first of his sons, that is Asa-Thor.
The second one is the better-known, and Snorri keeps to it for the rest of the Prose Edda, but it’s interesting that there was another tradition out there.
Just as a side note, the Christian writers Saxo Grammaticus and Aelfric objected to Thor being Odin’s son because if the Christian authorities were correct, Jupiter, who was equivalent to Thor, was the father of Mercury, or Odin.
Aelfric seems to think that “Mars” was Jupiter’s son, and the heathens made offerings to him before a battle. Tyr, perhaps, or Saxnot? He also states that “Venus” was Jupiter’s daughter, and both her father and brother had her, an echo of Lokasenna. It’s hard to know if this is part of some alternate tradition, given that Aelfric was a Christian missionary, but it’s possible.
Harbardsljod: Thor and Odin Square Off
The rivalry between the two cults was well-known enough for someone to compose an Eddic poem about it. (Actually, its variable style suggests that many people contributed to it before it was finally written down, perhaps adding an insult or two as they went.)
Like many Eddic poems, it’s in the form of a dialogue, between Thor and a disguised Odin. Many of the poems featuring Odin are wisdom contests, or occasions for him to show his occult knowledge. This one is a flyting, or insult contest, like Lokasenna, but with Odin doing most of the insulting.
The title, Harbard’s Song, hints that Odin wins, and we would expect the god of poets and verbal cleverness to come out on top. Nowhere in the poem are we told that Harbard is Odin, but the name “Grey Beard” sounds Odinic, and in Grimnismal he says that it is a name he uses. (He also appears as Harbard in Vikings.)
In the poem Thor comes to sound, and sees a ferryman, Harbard, on the other side. He calls to him to ferry him across, but Harbard insults him, mocking him for wearing coarse clothes and suggesting that he’s a suspicious character. He demands to know the name of his potential fare:
9. ‘I’d tell you my name, even if I were an outlaw,
And all of my lineage: I’m Odin’s son,
Meili’s brother, Magni’s father,
the gods’ great champion; you’re talking to Thor.
Now I want to know what it is that you’re called.’
The ferryman said:
10.’I’m called Grey-Beard: I don’t often hide my name.’
(Which is pretty funny if you know anything about Odin.) The two then begin comparing their great deeds, which underlines their differences:
19. ‘I slew Thjazi, the great-hearted giant,
and cast up the eyes of Allvaldi’s son
into the shining sky;
those are the greatest marks of my deeds,
that all men can afterwards see.
What, Harbarth, didst thou the while?”
20. ‘Great love-spells I used against witch-hags,
those that I tricked from their men;
I thought that Hlébard was a harsh giant,
but he gave me a wand of power;
then I tricked him out of his wits.’
21.’With a wicked heart you repaid good gifts.’
22. ‘One oak-tree thrives, when another’s cut back:
in such matters it’s each for himself.
What did you do meantime, Thor?’
They go on like this for a while, until finally Thor demands passage, and Harbard tells him he’ll have to walk. Thor threatens him with a beating once more, and the poem ends. (While it’s not surprising that the god of poets wins, you could read verse 21 as emphasizing Thor’s trustworthiness against Odin’s slippery nature.)
Aristocrats vs. Commoners
The most famous lines of Harbardsljod emphasize the difference in Thor and Odin’s followers:
24. ‘…Odin gets the noblemen, who fall in the fight,
but Thor gets the race of slaves.’
25. ‘A bad share would you bring to the Æsir host
if you had as much might as you wish.’
It’s significant that Thor-worship was strongest in Iceland, with no king, and western Norway, where the king’s rule was not popular.
While there was some rise in Odin worship in the years before Christianization, most of the aristocracy converted first, so that the standoffs between Christians and heathens feature Thor-worshippers. (Arnold: 20-1)
The Blessing and Cursing of Starkad
If Odin seemed to get an easy win in Harbardsljod, Thor gets his revenge in the story of Starkad.
Starkad was one of the legendary warriors of Norse myth, and one of the oddest. He was descended from giants, and in some versions of his story he has six arms. His family history might explain why Thor took a dislike to him, but an incident with his father cemented it.
In Hervarar saga Starkad Ala-Warrior lived in Norway, and had eight arms. He fought a battle with a giant who kidnapped his fiancée, and won by using four swords. His would-be bride, however, killed herself and he carried off a king’s daughter to make up for the loss. The king asked Thor for his aid, and Thor killed Starkad Ala-Warrior.
It’s not surprising, then, that Thor viewed the son, Starkad, with ill-favour. In Gautreks saga Odin takes a personal interest, however, disguising himself as Starkad’s foster-father and later revealing himself to him:
Then just about midnight, Grani Horse-hair woke up his foster-son Starkad and asked him to come along with him. They got a small boat and rowed over to another island. They walked through a wood until they came to a clearing where a large number of people were attending a meeting. There were eleven men sitting on chairs but a twelfth chair was empty. Starkad and his foster-father joined the assembly, and Grani Horse-hair seated himself on the twelfth chair. Everyone present greeted him by the name Odin, and he said that the judges would now have to decide on Starkad’s fate.
Then Thor spoke up and said: ‘Starkad’s mother, Alfhild, preferred a brainy giant to Thor himself as the father of her son. So I ordain that Starkad himself shall have neither a son nor a daughter, and his family will end with him.’
Odin: ‘I ordain that he shall live for three life spans.’
Thor: ‘He shall commit a most foul deed in every one of them.’
Odin: ‘I ordain that he shall have the best in weapons and clothing.’
Thor: ‘I ordain that he shall have neither land nor estates.’
Odin: ‘I give him this, that he shall vast sums of money.’
Thor: ‘I lay this curse on him, that he shall never be satisfied with what he has.’
Odin: ‘I give him victory and fame in every battle.’
Thor: ‘I lay this curse on him, that in every battle he shall be sorely wounded.’
Odin: ‘I give him the art of poetry, so that he shall compose verses as fast as he can speak.’
Thor: ‘He shall never remember afterwards what he composes.’
Odin: ‘I ordain that he shall be most highly thought of by all the noblest people and the best.’
Thor: ‘The common people shall hate him every one.’
Then the judges decreed that all that had been said should happen to Starkad. The assembly broke up, and Grani Horse-hair and Starkad went back to their boat.
Another tradition has it that Thor did once do him a favour, by ripping off his four extra arms. (Saxo Grammaticus)
And in the comics…
I can’t leave this without mentioning the modern Thor, of Marvel comics. His father, Odin, banished him to Earth to learn humility, stripping him of his powers and making him a lame doctor who serves others. After some time has passed, the doctor learns that his cane is superpowered, but his memories of his time as Thor only come back slowly. Even after he realizes who he is, he continues to help humans, because, well, he’s Thor.
While Thor is a powerful hero, whose hammer can only be wielded by those it deems worthy, Odin is by far more powerful, thanks to a special force called the Odinforce, which Thor will inherit along with the throne of Asgard. But for now, Odin can beat Thor.
In the comics and in the movies, conflict between Odin and Thor often drives the plot. These conflicts are often about family or Thor’s eventual role as ruler of Asgard, and Loki is often behind it all. So it’s a bit different from the Norse myths, where the menace tends to come from the outside. (Except when it’s Loki.)
References and Links:
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987. (pdf here)
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes Books I – IX, Saxo Grammaticus/Peter Fisher, translation, Hilda Ellis Davidson, commentary, Brewer, 1999. (reprint) (Google Books)
Ælfric, 1968: Homilies of Ælfric: A supplementary collection, being twenty- one full homilies of his middle and later career for the most part previously unedited with some shorter pieces mainly passages added to the second and third series 260. 2 vols. ed. John C. Pope, Early English Text Society, Oxford University Press.
Arnold, Martin 2014: “HÁRBARÐSLJÓÐ: Parody, Pragmatics and the Socio-Mythic Controversy,” Saga-Book of the Viking Society, 5-26. (pdf here)
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)
Clover, Carol J. 1979: “Hárbarðsljóð as generic farce.” Scandinavian Studies (Apr 1): 124-145. (JSTOR: paywall)
Gunnell, Terry 2015: “Pantheon? What Pantheon? Concepts of a Family of Gods in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions,” Scripta Islandica 66: 55-76. (academica.edu)
Schjødt, J.P. 2012: Óðinn, Þórr, and Freyr: Functions and Relations. News from Other Worlds: Studies in Nordic Folklore, Mythology and Culture in Honor of John F. Lindow: 61-91. (Google Books)
Aelfric’s sermon on False Gods
Hervarar saga (pdf here: the story’s on p. 67)
Gesta Danorum, by Saxo Grammaticus (the stuff about Odin and Thor is in Book 6, Starkad is in Book 7)
How Powerful is Marvel’s Thor compared to Odin? (reddit)
If you like the image at the top, click here.