Hammer in hand and lightning at his whim, Thor is classically associated with bombastic Scandinavian sagas, Asgard, Valhalla and the Vikings. His heavenly home has icy views of the fjords, his father is Odin and these days he looks like Chris Hemsworth. But whatever the popular impression of this all-powerful god, his historical representation is complex, mysterious, and sometimes controversial.
Name of thunder
Etymologically, scholars see Thor as a development of thunraz, an early Proto-Germanic word for ‘thunder’, and it’s in these shadowy ages that the deity’s popularity spread. It’s thought that worship of Thor, or approximations of him, were borne by tribes and cultures moving across Europe during the Migration Period—a turbulent time of changing power and mass movement between 100AD and 500AD that precipitated the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The Romans, of course, had their own deity of the elements (Jupiter), as did the Greeks (Zeus) and the Vedic Hindu (Indra) amongst many more. But however derivative some aspects of his character may have been, Thor—right from his first appearance in the archaeological record—had his own distinct charisma. Not least because, compared to the more classical gods, he was heathen, worshipped by nebulous groups of people outside of the prevailing faiths and polytheistic beliefs of the age.
We know that he turned up in England, likely brought by Germanic settlers after the 5th century. “Thunor or Thonar was imported by the the Angles and the Saxons,” says Dr Carolyne Larrington, Professor of Medieval European Literature at Oxford University’s St John’s College and author of The Norse Myths: A Guide to their Gods and Heroes.“We don’t know how they worshipped him exactly, but his name turns up in the names of places in south-east England.”
It was in Scandinavia though, probably towards the end of the 8th century, that worship of Thor really hit its stride—a time that coincided with the rise of the Vikings. Amongst various deities, he became something of a superhero—but it’s hard to say when the god we know as Thor took his first hammer blow in the public consciousness. Not an awful lot was written down, and the culture of writing in Scandinavia didn’t flourish until the arrival of Christianity. Other sources have, however, revealed tantalising glimpses of the thunder god.
“We’ve got a carved image of him from Gotland from the 8th century,” says Larrington. “It’s obviously not labelled ‘Thor’, but it’s a picture illustrating him going fishing for the ‘world serpent’, so we know from a story that survives [the Húsdrápa] that it must depict him.”
A very practical cult
Why the Scandinavians found him such a compelling deity—worshipped more than Odin, even—was down to his perceived influence over several important aspects of their day-to-day culture. “He was important in the Viking age because he was the god of weather, and of sailing, and of farmers,” says Larrington. “Particularly for the Norwegians and the Icelanders, which is where, from place-name evidence, his cult seems to have been strongest.”
We don’t have much of an idea of exactly what shape the worship of Thor took, what we do have a resplendent mythology around the deity, his personality, and his effects. Most of these are contained in the 13th century saga Poetic Edda—a kind of compendium of verbal and written Norse mythologies of the previous centuries—and the unrelated but similarly venerable Prose Edda, the latter of which was likely compiled by scholar Snorri Sturlson.
In the former Thor is depicted as a member of the Æsir deities, the son of Odin, and husband of the golden-haired goddess Sif. His home was the fields of Þrúðvangr, from where he defended the gods’ realm of Asgard. Almost always depicted as a strong, battle-loving man with red hair and a beard, the stories chronicle Thor’s often heroic and occasionally comedic escapades—sometimes in the company of the mischievous god Loki—and provide a rich record of his mythological context.
“Of all the Norse gods he seems to be the one who is most interested in humans,” says Larrington. “He has a couple of human servants, and he is often referred to as the ‘protector of mankind’—this has to do with his qualities as a giant killer. He patrols the lands to the east of Asgard, making sure they don’t invade either the divine world—or the human world.”
Thor was prophesized to die whilst fighting the ‘world serpent’ Jörmungandr, a huge monster that encircled the earth and bit into its own tail. The legend, recounted in the Prose Edda, said that when the serpent released its grip, the gods’ realm would be besieged by a cataclysm called Ragnarok. In the stories, Thor slaid the monster, but succumbed to its venom moments later.
Though details beyond Thor’s recorded exploits are few, the god seems to have been held with an esteem above all deities by Scandinavians who followed him – to a deeper degree than might be accorded a figure usually depicted as little more than a divine battering ram. All of which means we may be missing something.
“Lots of Scandinavians incorporated his name into their name—things like Thorbjörn, or Thordis, or Thorbecke—so he was obviously more important on a quite personal level than some of the stories might have you believe,” says Carolyne Larrington. “The myths that survive either make him look a bit stupid, or a kind of macho, violent embodiment of masculinity whose only function was killing giants. But it’s clear, from this evidence around the names, that people had a more personal association with him than that.”
One special hammer
One thing that is consistent from the very first rendering is Thor’s weapon of choice, which has been referenced in everything from Viking amulets to Led Zeppelin songs: Mjöllnir, the original ‘hammer of the gods.’
As described in the Prose Edda, Mjöllnir was forged by dwarves in the caves of Svartalfheim. The hammer was iron with an accidentally short shaft – caused when the mischievous god Loki, whilst disguised as a winged insect, stung the eye of the dwarf making it, intentionally causing the mistake to win a wager. The resulting hammer was still a fine weapon, and Loki presented it to Thor as a backhanded gift to assist in his defence of Asgard.
The hammer’s powers were manifold: according to the sagas it could slay giants, bless farmland, perform marriages and raise the dead. When flung, it was said to return to Thor’s hand like a boomerang.
So colossal was the power of Mjöllnir, to mortals thunder was said to be the concussive blows of the hammer striking enemies up in the heavens. The Old Norse word mjollnir could have actually meant ‘lightning’, though from what source the word came remains obscure: its echo can be heard in the Russian terms for the phenomena molnija and Old Slavic mlunuji, suggesting a common pre-Germanic source.
The hammer also seems to have been a conduit for his worship—the other practicalities of which we know little about.
Pendants worn by Vikings are thought to have been a blessing in battle, and possibly a subtle act of heathen defiance against the rapidly-spreading Christianity and its similarly trinkety crucifixes. “We’ve got a 10th century mould from Denmark which allowed the craftsman to use one end of it to cast Thor’s hammers, and the other to cast crucifixes,” says Larrington, adding: “Quite versatile. He was clearly someone who knew his clientele.”
She notes that from Icelandic evidence, when Christian missionaries attempted to convert the Scandinavians away from their gods, “it was always Thor versus Christ, never Odin versus Christ, or Frejya versus Christ. Thor was the one who had to be overcome by the superior virtues of Jesus.”
Thor’s profile enjoyed something of a resurgence in the late 1700s and 1800s, when epic poems in German and Scandinavian languages, as well as opulent art, depicted key scenes from the god’s mythology.
“Thor came back again in the 19th century into the nationalist discourse, when the poems and the myths about him were being re-edited as people rediscovered them,” says Carolyne Larrington. He was re-styled as “the protector of humans against enemy forces, and it was very easy to make Thor into the protector of Denmark, or the protector of the Germans, against whoever your current political enemies were.”
Other than the hammer, another symbol that has become more dubiously associated with Thor is the swastika. Long before its appropriation by the Nazis this symbol represented good luck, or strength, and was used widely by Indo-European cultures since well before the time of Christ. It was also inscribed by American aviator Charles Lindbergh on the nose cone of the Spirit of St Louis for luck on his historic crossing of the Atlantic in 1927.
The swastika’s explicit association with Thor is likely a 19th century embellishment; A famous painting depicts the symbol on his magical belt. The depiction gains uncomfortable resonance given the swastika's modern infamy—particularly as it and other related symbols from Germanic mythology, such as Odin’s Valknot triangle symbol and the infamous SS ‘rune,’ have since been appropriated by alt-right and white supremacist groups as ideological or hate symbols.
In some instances the characters themselves and their ephemera have been used as figureheads for ‘white power’ and propaganda, perhaps to force an association with mysticism—“to make a connection between the mythological past and the Nazi present,” says Larrington.
Thor’s trajectory took a sharp kink in 1962 when artists Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber, under the direction of Atlas (later Marvel) comics’ Stan Lee, reinvented Thor as a superhero, making his debut in the August edition of Journey into Mystery. He became a founding member of the comics’ superhero supergroup the Avengers a year later – and since 2011 has featured in ten movies as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Other than the Marvel stuff, he’s either the super-violent guy or slightly dim god,” says Carolyne Larrington, whose upcoming book, entitled Norse Myths that Shape the Way We Think, features a chapter on Thor. “Marvel kind of popularised him again, and have made him into someone who kind of belongs in this dysfunctional family, is grappling with his identity and trying to figure out how to grow into [someone who] is responsible and sensible … I think he’s very relatable.”
She adds: “That storyline, which draws quite a lot on the myths, does give us the sense of him being quite human, even though he has divine superpowers. It's really interesting to think about the relationship of this well-meaning, very strong, very powerful and quite thoughtful young man through the kind of political and fatal forces swirling around him.”
Hero for a day
Aside from its tenacious mythology and recruitment in popular culture, Thor’s name also lives on in a rare metal (thorium), a rodent (Scutisorex thori, or Thor’s hero shrew) at least two English villages (Thursley in Surrey and Thundersley, Essex) a cold war-era missile that formed the basis of the nuclear deterrent (the PGM-17 Thor) and many modern Scandinavian given names.
But perhaps the most pervasive day-to-day presence of Thor in our modern life is quite literally that. When the Romans named the days of the week, they associated celestial bodies with them—with the most etymologically recognisable today being Saturn (Saturday), the moon (Monday) and the sun (Sunday.) Thursday’s association was with the planet Jupiter, and was given the Latin name Iovis.
The giant planet also lent its name to the Roman god of the sky and of thunder. Unsurprising given the deities’ brawny shared attributes, following the fall of the Roman Empire the Germanic cultures that adopted their calendar slid their own thunder god, Thor, into Jupiter’s place. Thus, ‘Thor’s Day.’
This story was adapted from the National Geographic U.K. website.