Thor | Norse Mythology


In Norse Mythology, Thor is known as the God of Thunder. He was highly praised by seafaring peoples as thunderstorm and weather god and was in further function within the peasant Germanic society a fertility deity. In the mythological Edda writings he had the task of the protector of Midgard, the world of the people, from the ice giants from Jötunheim.

Etymology of Thor

The name of Thor is closely related to that of other Indo-European deities similar in function. Jupiter for the Romans, Zeus for the Greeeks, the Celtic Taranis used as a weapon the stone thunderbolt, which was thrown from the sky to the earth by the lightning beam.

In Hindu Mythology the battle that Indra waged is atmospherically represented by lightning and thunder. The term sky goes back to an Indo-European word root meaning "stone" or "anvil".

From the common Germanic *Þunraz it is said (analogous to Zeus) that its thunder resembles the driving of a chariot over a vault (ags. Þunorrād "thunder ride").

Lightning and thunder herald the approach of Thor in Norse mythology. Thus, the Germanic name of the god, homonymous with that of the natural phenomenon, goes back appellatively to a word root representing a sonic sound, as used specifically in words for thunder and donner word-similar; ig. *(s)ten.

For this as explanatory comparison lat. tonare "to thunder", an. Þónarr "to thunder," ai. tanyu "thundering," ags. Þunian, also "thundering." In the case of Old Norse Þórr, on the other hand, only the name of God applies, the appellative meaning thunder is usually omitted except for its occurrence in regional dialects (Norway), where tór again corresponds to the meaning thunder. Striking is the two-syllable form of the name in the continental Germanic area, whereas in the Nordic form the name is only one-syllable.

The weekday Thursday (English Thursday, Danish/Swedish torsdag) is named after Donar or Thor. The day was already in the antiquity the Gods Zeus and/or. Jupiter (Latin dies Iovis, from it also French jeudi, Romanian joi, Spanish jueves, Italian giovedì) and with the adoption of the originally Babylonian/Egyptian 7-day week by the Teutons the Latin term was copied.

Origin and Indo-European parallels

With the Indo-Germanic language peoples and beyond them the sky god has lightning and thunder in his power. Donar/Thor (female form Tyra) originated presumably by splitting off respectively separation of the function as a controller of the natural phenomena lightning and thunder from this sky god.

Henrich Beck does not regard a splitting off from this sky deity as necessarily given. From the only indirectly revealed Indo-Germanic original religion the deity developed in its conception under regional, cultural-religious variations among the Germanic peoples.

According to the theory of Georges Dumézil, the three main gods each have a function among the Indo-Germanic peoples, the thundering sky god holding the first position. Among the Germanic peoples, the figure of the thunderer has separated from that of the sky god, so that he fills the second function of "strength."

Dumezil's "three-function theory" has found supporters in research, since the second edition of his "Old Germanic History of Religion" (1956/57) especially by Jan de Vries or by Ake V. Ström's treatise in "Germanic Religion" (1975), but also critics and skeptics.

Helmut Birkhan speaks of a partial "faith", since critics rightly point to some considerable unexplained, respectively not fitting into Dumezil's theoretical system, actual facts, especially also in the comparative juxtaposition of the Germanic and Celtic cultures.

The idea of a hammer-wielding, chariot-driving weather/thunder god is an ancient image of God; the Hittite Tarḫunna is described identically as a chariot-driving deity attributed with a hammer or a club.

If Thor's chariot is drawn by goats, Tarhunna's are bulls, and the Vedic Indra's are reddish or dun horses. The latter's weapon, a throwing club, was also made by a lower being. This club, like Mjölnir, Thor's hammer made by the dwarf Sindri, returns to the god's hand after being thrown.

In numerous Scandinavian petroglyphs and images in stone tombs, male figures are found raising a hammer or rather axes (double axes) or hatchets,[29][30] often in a phallic pose (e.g. tomb of Kivik), which is why they are interpreted as divine beings.

Concerning the "hammer-wielding" figures of the petroglyphs, partly depicted as goats, Franz Rolf Schröder points to the depiction in Norse mythology and the described close relationship of Thor to his attributive, chariot-pulling goats.

In the Indo-European comparison it is to be noted that the Thor/Donar related thunder deities vary between axe, hammer and club. An amulet with the representation of the Thor's hammer in the North Germanic area or the Donar's club in the South Germanic area was considered a fertility symbol in late pagan times, especially for women (excavation finds in Haithabu) and appears as such only at this late time.

Another commonality with other Indo-European myths is the dragon or snake fight, which the thunder god fights. In Thor it is the confrontation with the Midgard serpent, in the Greeks Apollo fights with Python and Heracles with Hydra, in Hittite mythology Tarhunna with the serpent Illuyanka, in Iranian mythology Fereydūn and Azhi Dahaka as well as Rostam with a dragon, and in Indian mythology it is the fight of the god Indra with the Vritra dragon. The former is praised in the Rigveden with ever new hymns.

The singing of the dragon fighter and monster conqueror in myth is evident in all the cultures mentioned; they are cult symbolic battles that became the formative religious type.

Another mythical analogy between Thor and Indra is found in the Hrungnirmythos. Thor's fight with the giant, who has a three-pronged heart of stone, is similar to Indra's fight against the three-headed monster Trisiras.

There are also striking parallels between Thor's dialogues with Odin in the Hárbarðslióð and those of Indra with Varuna in the Rigveden. According to Georges Dumézil, these dialogues do not represent an aggressive conflict of the different cults, but an ancient form of dialogue based on the different natures of the gods within their structural functional domains.

Thor shares most anthropomorphic traits with Indra in terms of how they wear their hair and beard. Indra is portrayed in the Rigveden as having blond hair and a blond beard, Thor is called the "red beard" (Þrymskviða, Song of Thrym),and also in terms of nature both are considered to be friendly to humans.

Also the connection to the oak as an attribute is partly interpreted as a parallel to other Indo-European gods. The tree cult in its various forms is often connected with fertility rites.

In the mythical Eddic songs Hárbarðslióð and Vóluspa, Thor's mother is called Fjörgyn, the wife of Fjorgynn (Fjörgnjar burr).

Fjorgyn(n) occurs rarely in Old Norse sources, but corresponds phonetically to Lithuanian *Pērkons and Latvian *Perkuns. In Lithuanian and Latvian this is the thunderstorm god, who is also cultically associated with the oak.

Early Roman Imperial Period

From the prehistoric period in northern Germany and Jutland have survived the anthropomorphic, so-called stake idols, which can not be identified with a specific deity later transmitted by name.

This changes through the contact of the Germanic tribes with the Roman Empire. Tacitus describes in chapter 9 of his work Germania, an overview of the religion of the Germanic peoples, at least the religious conditions, which were known to the Romans from the Rhine location of Germania inferior. He names the main Germanic gods in Roman interpretation.

Donar can be derived from the naming of Hercules, although the Germanic name can only be verified by runic inscriptions from the time of the migration of peoples (Nordendorfer Runenfibel) and other later sources place Donar to Jupiter.

To this basically not unproblematic derivation Hercules = Donar Karl Helm ("Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte") among others has taken a stand. In the end, Tacitus' report is, in contrast to the Germanic excursus written 150 years earlier in Caesar's De bello Gallico, according to which the Germanic people would only worship natural forces like sun, moon and fire, the first concrete serious attempt of an account of the Germanic culture and religion, that however with all pros and cons and always under consideration of the special Roman perspective.

Tacitus drew parallels to the figure of Hercules for the comparative Roman observer presumably on the basis that he recognized the same traits in Thor.

As the embodiment of power, Hercules and Thor also resemble each other in their attributes, those of the hammer and the club, and analogously likewise in both drinking and eating, which in the case of Thor has been handed down from later Norse sources.

Moreover, Tacitus describes that the Germanic tribes honored Hercules by singing the "Barditus", and this especially before a battle. In Attic primitive times, the Athenians were advised by the Delphic oracle to sing the Paian (Παιάν) as a mythical invocation of victory.

'The singing of the Paian goes back to the myth of Apollo and his victorious battle with Python. Dieter Timpe considers it neither productive nor obvious by the compositional position of this Hercules mention in ch. 3 to see a compelling theological-systematic connection to the mention of Hercules in ch. 9.

According to Tacitus, animal sacrifices were offered to Hercules/Donar. Tacitus leaves open in which religious-cultic contexts this happens, and he generalizes the sacrificial acts to the effect that they serve to make the deity merciful.

Of such sanctuaries or sacred groves dedicated to a "male" deity, only the Cheruscan Hercules/Donar cult site is documented in writing for this period, in addition to the tribal sanctuary of the Semnones, also mentioned by Tacitus (Germania ch. 39).

Günter Behm-Blancke evaluates in the summary of the sources from the early Roman imperial period that in such sanctuaries, thus also referring to the Hercules/Donar grove, images of the gods (idols) and altars were erected, sacrificial acts were performed and they served besides as storage place for holy objects and war booty as well as as meeting place (Thing).

For the Gothic peoples no direct proof of a thunderstorm god is possible due to the generally bad source situation for the Roman imperial time and the following migration period. Only some reports of ancient chroniclers and historians allow connections to religiously motivated behavior.

For example, Titus Livius reports a battle in 179 B.C. between the Bastarnians and Thracians over a mountain occupied by the latter. The attacking Bastarnians were chased away by a sudden thunderstorm and, according to Livius, stated that the gods had caused their flight.

Ammianus Marcellinus reports that at the battle of Adrianople in 378, the Goths were also scattered by a thunderstorm. Whether a religious fear of a particular deity or merely a superstitious fear of this natural phenomenon proves an actual reference to a deity of the affected Goths cannot be determined - quite apart from the problem of the credibility of such reports.

Thor in early and late medieval tradition

The idea of Donar/Thor is, due to a very long tradition, a relatively uniform mythical and religious subject among the Germanic peoples. Nevertheless, there were definitely developments and changes, especially in the Roman imperial period and in the epoch of the migration of peoples up to the Viking period in Scandinavia.

In the religious systems of the West and North Germanic peoples there were changes in the ranking of the worshipped male high gods. According to an assumption of parts of the research, the cult around Wodan/Odin, moving from south to north, displaced the old sky god Tyr, to whom also Thor is subordinated at least in the Skaldic poetry, and finally took the highest position.

Helmut Birkhan pointed out in connection with the Germanic weekday naming that just from the equation Jovis/Jupiter = Donar and its antiquity it can be deduced that Donar probably held a priority position in the continental area of Germania.

A special circumstance is according to the sources the discussion about the function or characteristic of the consecration activity, which is assigned respectively denied to Donar/Thor, and whether this function was continuance since earliest time.

With the early and intensive Christianization of the continental Germanic tribes and peoples a destruction of writings and a loss of orally handed down knowledge and traditions of non-Christian content go along.

Deeper statements about the "Germanic paganism" so titled by the Christians, especially about Donar/Thor as a primary figure and about the cult and rite concerning him on the part of the Dedicants, the Germanic worshippers, cannot be made because of the mainly clerically influenced sources of the early Middle Ages.

For the mainly northwest-Nordic-Scandinavian written sources (Edda, Saga, Skaldik) from Iceland and Norway also the problem of Christianization in the tradition applies, which lay filtergleich between unbroken religiosity of the "pagan time" and a faithful representation of religious practice in cult and rite.

The transcripts can be assigned for the period from the 10th to the 13th century, and the material tradition goes back only partially secured to the time before the Christianization. This had a direct influence on the myths, which were first transmitted orally and later codified in manuscript in the genres of the Eddic writings and the saga literatures.

Today's knowledge of Thor is largely taken from this body of writing, but has not remained untouched by Christian influences and is therefore written from a Christian perspective by Christian personnel.

In the skaldic poetics, respectively in a small part of the preserved text corpus (Þórsþula), whose earliest records are chronologically still in the pagan context, Thor has a special significance.

There is no other deity for whom so many kenningar were written and especially adjective heiti were invented. They are of special importance in the typologization of Thor, since they represent a link between the predominantly pagan ideas and those of the high medieval Christian-influenced poetics and prose.

The frequently cited motif of Thor's fight with the Midgard serpent and the giants (Geirröðr myth) in skaldic and Eddic poetry is striking, and its religious and especially mythical significance is highlighted above ("Origin and Indo-European Parallels").

In principle, the expressive value of myth must be considered separately from the demonstrable expressive value of religious cult, especially in the case of written source evidence.

Therefore, in addition to the written sources of different types and times, the archaeological report, the evaluation and the interpretation of finds, respectively, have an important value.

Runic inscriptions and iconographies on goods and objects of different kinds and materials can complement the written sources from prose and mythology concerning Donar/Thor, but also question them or leave them unanswered.

Important contributions have been made by place name research over the entire Germanic language area, since it suggests - with reservations and caution - former cult sites that were dedicated to Donar/Thor. Such places are found especially in Denmark, England, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Thor's Myth

The old-Nordic literature draws a clear picture of Thor in the so-called "Thorsmythen". The individual motive layers were partly literary overformed and show Thor consequently in the partly wavering poems of the song Edda even as a joke figure. In the summary Thor is portrayed and described as follows:

Thor is the supreme and most feared of the gods after Odin. He is the son of Odin and Jörd (the earth), his wife is the beautiful golden-haired Sif, with whom he has a daughter, Thrud (strength). With the Joten maiden Jarnsaxa, a giantess of such beauty that Thor, though a sworn enemy of the Jotunn (giants), sleeps with her, he has two sons, Magni and Modi.

His favorite son is Magni, who is most like him in courage and strength among all. Thor's kingdom is called Thrudvangr, and the palace in it, Bilskirnir, is the largest ever built in Asgard, with 540 halls.

Dreadfully Thor drives along on his chariot, rolling, thundering, above the clouds, pulled by the goats; but he is even more terrible when he straps on his power belt Megingiarder, which gives him double strength, and when he grasps the hammer Mjölnir with his iron gloves and steps crushing among his and the gods' enemies. Outstanding here is his feud with the giants.

Once Thrym steals the sleeping Thor his hammer. When Thor wakes up, he falls into helpless rage, seeing himself deprived of his most important weapon. Loki, equipped with Freya's feathers, flies through the area, spies Thor's hammer in Jötunheim and confronts Thrym.

Thrym wants to return the hammer only under the condition that he gets the goddess Freya as his wife. Freya, however, gets into a great rage when Loki tells her this. Heimdall then proposes to disguise Thor, adorn him as a bride and present him to Thrym as Freya.

Thor is concerned that he will be laughed at, but Loki says that soon the Thursen will rule Asgard if he does not get his hammer back.

Both travel to Thrym disguised as bride and maid. Thor is noticed by the thunder that accompanies his journey, his piercing gaze when Thrym wants to give him the bridal kiss, and his incredible gluttony at the bridal feast, but Loki always knows how to calm Thrym down.

To complete the festivities, the giant prince has Thor's hammer Mjölnir placed in the lap of his bride, whereupon the thunder god grabs his hammer and slays all the giants present, including Thrym.

An often quoted and commented passage describes the feeding of the goats Tanngnjostr and Tanngrisnir pulling Thor's chariot and their revival.

Subsequently, Thor, now with accompanying group, arrives at the castle of King Utgartloki (Outer World Loki Lord of Demons), who challenges him by deliberately humiliating or questioning his divine power and forces.

Thor receives three tasks from the king. First the king asks Thor, what he is able to accomplish, whereupon Thor answers that he understands it like nobody else to empty the drinking horn. But Thor fails. Even after three attempts he does not succeed in emptying the horn. But it comes still worse.

Utgartloki challenges Thor to prove his godly power by openly doubting that power. The opponent is an adversary. The old woman Elli stands up for the wrestling match, and the god tries to make her waver with all his strength, but is not able to do it.

Now his opponent tries her strength, and soon Thor has to go down beaten. The third task is to lift a cat; the god also fails.

Ashamed and humiliated, they move on; no sooner have they left the castle than the king tells them that everything has happened because of a spell.

Utgardloki explains that the drinking horn from which Thor drank was connected to the sea, so he could not drink it. However, his sip was so strong that the tide came out of it. The old woman was the age itself, which nobody could defeat.

And the cat, in turn, was the enchanted Midgard serpent that spans the entire world. He had done supernatural things in the individual situations. Thor, furious at being so deceived, reaches for his hammer, and at that moment they all find themselves on a vast plain.

In order to wipe out this gash, Thor, accompanied by the giant Hymir, sets out for the Midgard Serpent Jormungandr in the sea. They go so far out that the giant becomes fearful. Thor equips the hook of a fishing line with an ox head as bait.

The snake bites, feels its injury and strikes so hard that Thor, holding the line in his hands, strikes the railing of the boat and his god strength increases to such an extent that his legs pierce the hull of the boat and he stands on the bottom of the sea, where he continues to resist the pull of the snake.

Thor pulls the snake up into the air and looks at it with glowing eyes. It tries to spray him with its venom. Thor seizes his hammer to slay the serpent, but Hymir, shaken with fear, cuts the cord.

The god, enraged, plunges the giant head first into the sea so that its legs stretch upward. Then Thor wades back to dry land. In a different version, both reach land after Thor has slapped Hymir in the face.

In Ragnarok, Thor, like most other Aesir, meets his end, significantly by the Midgard Serpent. The serpent attacks Thor and contaminates the sea and the air with his venom. Thor slays it with his hammer, but staggers back nine steps and then drowns in the streams of poison that the beast spews.