Thor: working-class hero
by Phil Hine
This essay is an account of my magical exploration of the Norse deity Thor, as a result of a prolonged retirement which began as an exercise in Ego-Magic within the group I was involved with at the time. Participants discussed their perceptions of each other and themselves, and then the group chose a deity for each individual to work with, and I was assigned Thor. Initially, I was somewhat dismayed by this choice, as I had formed an opinion of Thor as little more than a Nordic lager-lout. To my own surprise, through research and magical exploration, I have found a much more complex and interesting figure than I had first imagined Thor to be.
It was Sor. A-K.47 of the I.O.T. who first described Thor to me as a "Working-Class Hero" - which I have subsequently found to be a very appropriate term. In the myths as presented by Snorri, Thor is the champion of the Aesir and defender of Asgard. Thor appears as a massive, red-bearded figure, armed with hammer, his iron gloves and his girdle of strength. Thor is outspoken, indomitable, filled with vigour and gusto, placing his reliance on his strong right arm and simple weapons. He impresses even the giants with his capacity for eating and drinking, (i.e.: Hall of Thrym, giant Hymir & the hall of Utgard-Loki.)
Thor's progress is marked by the continual overcoming of adversaries and obstacles, and there is some evidence to suggest that he was in continual conflict with giants and trolls. Without recourse to the deviousness of Loki or Odin, he simply shattered the skulls of his foes by hurling his hammer at them. The shattering of rocks and stones is a frequent theme in legends of Thor.
Thor's cult was not that of the aristocracy, and a taunt made against him in one of the Edda poems is that while Odin received Kings, Thor got the Thralls. But his power extended far - he was supreme god not only over the stormy sky, but also over the life of the community in all its aspects. He maintained the order of the Universe, defending Midgrard and Asgard against the chaotic giants and giantesses, dwelling in Jotunheim, in the east. His weapon was the hammer, Mjollnir, with which he held the forces of the giants in check. As sky god, he granted favourable winds and weather. He battled the monsters that threatened the security of men, and kept the goddesses of plenty safe so that they could grant their benefits to mankind. It should be noted that Thor's wife, Sif, is undoubtedly a fertility goddess - her golden hair representative of ripe corn, reinforcing Thor's own role as an agent of fertility. In fact, Thor could be said to embody the classical IAO formula insofar as he was considered a god of fertility, destruction, and resurrection.
Order out of Chaos
The relationship between order and stability, as represented by Thor, and the chaotic forces represented by the giants and giantesses, is not so clear-cut as dualists might initially think. Whilst Thor battles many giants, he also has a number of giantess mistresses, and it should not be forgotten that his belt of strength and his iron gloves were a gift from the giantess Grid.
Thor lived in Thrudheim (the world of might) or Thrudvangar (Fields of Might), where his house, Bilskirnir was as splendid as Vallhöl. Every day, Thor waded rivers to sit in judgement beneath the world tree, Yggdrasill.
Thor's adversaries tend to be the frost-giants and giantesses. At times he is lured into their realms unarmed, but he mostly deliberately seeks them and kills them without too much difficulty. His most terrible enemy is the Midgard Serpent. H.R. Ellis Davidson, in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe notes that the conquest of a World-Monster by a Sky-God is a recognised pattern in world mythologies. In the most common form of this tale, the Serpent Jormungand survives its encounter with Thor, although in an earlier version of the myth, Thor strikes off the head of the serpent. It is possible here, as in many other accounts of Norse myth, that dualistic concepts of good and evil, encroaching into Norse belief from Christianity, demanded that the symbol of ultimate evil should survive until the Ragnarok.
Thor and the Giants
Giants and giantesses were Thor's enemies. Hrungnir and Geirrod were particularly vehement. His battle with Hrungnir, as described by Thjodolf of Hvin, ended with one half of the giant's whetstone lodged in Thor's skull, until a woman loosened it with a magic song. According to Snorri, the witch Groa, forgot her charms, and so the stone remained in Thor's skull.
Snorri tells us that the Aesir proclaimed that the Hammer, Mjollnir, was the greatest treasure that they possessed, since it enabled them to hold Asgard secure against the giants. A hammer was used in weddings to hallow the bride. It is also known that hammer was used to hallow the newly-born child, and also at funerals - at Balder's death, Mjollnir was used to hallow the funeral ship before this was set alight. When Thor feasted upon his goats, he made the sign of the hammer over the skin and bones in order to restore them to life. Thus the sign of the hammer was both a protection and blessing, and the verb vigja (to hallow, consecrate) is often used in descriptions of Mjollnir.
The hammer also represented the thunderbolt. Amongst the early Germanic peoples, the god Donar (Thor's predeccesor) was armed with a club and battled against mighty monsters. The hammer was also a throwing weapon, and Mjollnir had the power to always return to it's owners' hand. Snorri & Saxo both tell us that Mjollnir was short in the handle & it is likely that it had a ring through the handle, in the manner of the hammer thrown at the Highland games. A hammer with a loop fitted through the handle is shown on a Swedish rune-stone from Stenqvista, where it was used as a sign of Thor's protection over a grave. Thor was generally remembered as the protector and hallower of the dead. The god's protection is invoked by the picture of a hammer on headstones, whilst others placed miniature hammers of silver or other metals in graves.
An object similar to a hammer or double-axe is depicted among the magical symbols on the drums of Lappish shamans. The drums themselves were also struck with an implement which resembled a hammer. So there is possibly a link here to the metal hammers that were said to be used in Thor's temples to imitate the noise of thunder. The name of the Lappish thunder-god was Horagalles. Sometimes on the drums, a male figure with a hammer-like object in either hand is shown. It seems likely that the Swastika or fire-wheel was linked to Thor.
The Anglo-Saxons worshipped the thunder-god under the name of Thunor. Both the hammer-sign & swastika are found on funerary memorials in Sweden and Norway. The swastika is also found on weapons and sword scabbards.
It would appear, then, that the power of Thor, symbolised by the Hammer, covered birth, death, marriage, burial, weapons and feasting, travel, land-taking and the making of oaths between men. Mjollnir was not only representative of the destructive power of storms, but also a protection against evil and violence. Men relied upon it to give security and uphold the rule of law. Thor can be regarded as a warrior in the defensive sense, rather than an aggressor who deliberately went 'looking for trouble.'
The worship of Thor
The figure of the god with his hammer is said to have stood in many temples at the close of the heathen period. Sacrifices of meat and bread are said to have been made to him in his temples in Norway, and his worshippers would look for guidance from Thor when the time came to make some difficult decision.
Snorri tells how, when the gods were in distress, they called out the name of Thor and he would come to their aid at once, even though he might be far away. Runemasters of the 10th Century inscribed Thor's name on stone, asking his protection, and Icelandic poets of the end of the pagan period composed poems of praise. Unlike the Skaldic & Eddaic poetry, the god is addressed in the second person, praised for his victories over giants and giantesses:
- You smashed the limbs of Leiku,
- You bashed Thrivaldi
- You knocked down Starkad
- You trod Gjalp dead under foot
- from Vetrlidi Summarlidason, murdered by Christian Missionaries in AD999.
- Your Hammer rang on Keila's skull,
- you crushed the body of Kjallandi,
- you had killed Lut and Leidi
- you made blood flow from Buseyra
- you finished Hengjankapta
- Hyrrokin died before that
- earlier the dusky Svivor
- was robbed of her life.
- from Thorbjorn Disarskald
The predominance of the worship of Thor among the settlers of Iceland can be discerned in both names of settlers and place-names. Veneration of Thor seems to have increased in various parts of Scandinavia as the encroachments of Christianity grew apace. In the same way that the gods relied upon Thor to save Asgard from the giants, so Thor was deemed the most fitted to defend heathendom against the aggression of Christianity.
The mother of Thor is said to be the Earth herself, and Thor is described in Skaldic verse as the 'son of earth'. There is a strong link between Thor and the fertility of the earth, on which lightning strikes and the rain falls, causing increase There is some evidence that the first Icelandic settlers hallowed the land they took for themselves in the name of the god before building upon it or sowing their crops.
Thor was also regarded as a sure guide for those who travelled over the sea, due to his power over storms and wind. He was the god to invoked for journeying. He could call down storms against his adversaries - according to Njals Saga, Thor stirred up the storms which shattered the ship of the Christian Missionary Thangbrand. Thor is also said to have stranded a whale upon the shores of vineland in response to the prayers of Thorhall, one of the explorers.
Davidson suggests that Thor's red beard denotes lightning - presaged by the red sky which foretells a storm.
There is also a link between Thor and oak-groves. The Oak pillar was sacred to Thor - representative of pillar which formed support of the hall or temple, and also the 'lucky' tree on whose well-being the luck of the house depended. It is possible that pillars, hallowed by the name of Thor would protect the dwelling they supported from the storm's anger. Also, like sacred trees in the forest, they marked the holy place where the worshipper might approach the thunder-god and learn his will.
Also there is evidence of the existence of the "Ring of Thor" which was made of gold or silver and upon which oaths were sworn, and was kept in temples where Thor was worshipped. Descriptions indicate that it was an arm-ring. In the Eyrbyggja Saga, Snorri the priest is said to have worn it on his arm, where it protected him from the blow of a sword. In this saga, the ring is stated to weigh 20 ounces. The formula of the oath mentions Freyr and Njord and the 'Almighty God' (usually assumed to be Thor).
The myth of the duel between Thor and Hrungnir ends with small piece of whetstone embedded in the god's head. This may be linked to Lapp practice of driving an iron or steel nail into the head of an image of the Thunder God, in order to use it as a source of fire.... The whetstone of the giant, encountering the iron hammer of the god, could be equivalent to kindling of fire with flint and steel. Thor's temple is also associated with fire in the Kjalnesinga Saga, in that altar said to be be made of iron on top - the place for the fire, which was never allowed to go out. Link to Thor's power over lightning - the fire from heaven.
Similarities between Thor and other Deities
Thor may also have been equated with the Roman Hercules. There is also the suggestion that Thor was compared to Jupiter - both deities had Thursday sacred to them. Saxo alludes to Jupiter's Hammers. However, many scholars, including Dumézil and Grimm, have indicated the similarities between Thor and Indra. Like Thor, Indra is a warrior-god, slaying many demons; his weapon, the vajra, is interpreted as the lightning or thunderbolt. The vajra was fashioned by Tvastr, a craftsman who made treasures for the gods. Like Thor, Indra is bold and brave, and has a tremendous appetite. In one myth, Indra turns into a woman, as Thor did in order to recover his hammer. These striking similarities, and others, have contributed to the argument that both deities spring from a common Indo-European heritage.
Magical Work with Thor
The first point which I wish to stress at this juncture is that I believe that Invocation-to-possession is inappropriate to Thor. My reasoning is that this type of operation, from the Norse point of view, would be an act of Seidr, and thus not appropriate to the worship of Thor. Thor, as has been indicated, was very much a god of the common people, whereas Seidr appears to have been the domain of wandering shamans or sorcerers.
Edred Thorrson's "Hammer Rite" (see The Well of Wyrd) is a very appropriate way of calling upon the power of Thor. What I have been doing , almost on a daily basis, is 'placing' Mjollnir upon my breast and invoking various qualities which seem appropriate to Thor, including resolution, protection, resistance (to external agencies & diversions), steadiness of Will, clear-thinking, and relaxed awareness. Mjollnir represents the direction of the Will - it being loosed upon a target, and returning to a state of equilibrium. Thor is by no means an intellectual, but in magical terms, this means that, free of doubt or internal dialogue, he acts as he sees fit. While he may, at times, be fooled by illusion and cunning, his responses are genuine.
Following traditional forms of worship of Thor, incorporating the sign or gesture of the hammer, thus 'hallowing' where appropriate in one's everyday life, seems also to be appropriate.
As noted above, Thor is a god of the common people, and of everyday order. By the same token, the magical acts I associate with him are of a similar nature. Thor can be called (secretly or openly) to hallow all rites of exchange and passage - births, deaths, marriages, contracts and bondings. Appeal to Thor may be appropriate also when settling in a new home, travelling (especially sea-travel), or fishing.
Behaviour in a manner that is likely to please or win the approval of the god is always a key part of any long-term invocation. Thor is direct, straight-forwards, and goes directly to the "point" of any issues (in the north of England, he would be considered 'blunt' - a virtue in many northern climes). It is clear from the sagas that Thor likes his meat and ale - possibly reflecting a Nordic cultural more that it was complimentary to a host to eat and drink with gusto. Refusal of hospitality extended may have been as much an offence as the reluctance to extend hospitality. Awareness of the complex shades of hospitality and how to act therefore, seems to me to be part and parcel of behaviour likely to please the god.