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.
It seems strange, if you look at Irish or Welsh mythology, that there doesn’t seem to be any thunder-god like Thor. However, among the Celtic peoples of continental Europe, we find the god Taranis, whose name means “thunder” and who sometimes wields a thunderbolt.1
Thorgerd Holgabrudr and her sister Irpa were Norwegian goddesses. Some of the sagas relate tales of her rich temples and statues. Her followers gave her rich gifts, and expected her to intercede on their behalf. Her most influential follower was Haakon Sigurdsson, who was essentially the ruler of Norway in the last part of the 9th century.
These three gods have a lot in common: they’re all brawny types whose worshippers were mainly working people, farmers, labourers, miners and even slaves. But what intrigued me about them was that their followers all wore their symbol – the hammer or club each god wielded.
Eagles and thunder-gods often appear together, but in Greek myth the eagle was Zeus’ accomplice as well as his emblem. It stole the beautiful youth Ganymede from his fields and carried him to Olympos to be Zeus’ cupbearer. (Ganymede is also in the heavens, as the constellation Aquarius.)
The eagle also carried out Zeus’ punishment of Prometheus, who stole fire to give to the humans. Zeus had him chained to a cliff face, and the eagle came every day and tore out his liver. Hercules rescued Prometheus as part of his 11th Labour and killed the eagle. Zeus then put it in the sky to reward its faithful service.
The Eagle features among the Hercules family of constellations, by the way, which include large asterisms like Ophiuchus the Snake-Handler as well as tiny ones like Ara, the Altar.
The Norse sun-goddess is not alone in her splendour – among her neighbours are the Finnish and Baltic sun-goddesses, Beiwe and Saule. Last week I wrote a post comparing Sol with two major Indo-European sun-gods, Helios of the Greeks and Surya of the Indians, but this time I want to see how much the three goddesses have in common.
Comparing her to other sun-goddesses brings out more feminine aspects of her character; for example, spinning was the ultimate in women’s work, so it’s no surprise that the sun-goddesses have to spin their sunbeams. Their daughters, the sun-maidens, do not escape without their share of the work. And all three are nurturing figures, who provide food for animals and people.