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The Hammer of Thor
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Author: Dr. Beowulf
Posted: December 24th. 2006
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“Heathenry” is commonly used as the most inclusive “umbrella term” to include Asatru, Odinism, Theodish Belief, Irminenschaft, Forn Sed, and many other versions and sects of reconstructionist Germanic pre-Christian religion. There's no single, universal symbol of Heathenry, in the sense that the pentacle is very nearly the universal symbol for Wicca. Rather, different gods and goddesses have their own symbols. Sometimes, but not always, these are depictions of objects that the god or goddess is said to use; in other cases, the association is less explicit.
For example, a person given to Odin would probably wear a valknot, three interlaced triangles—sometimes known (and not really jokingly) as the “insert spear here” mark. Although no known myth associates the valknot with Odin, the valknot appears on several Viking-era runestones and picture-stones from Sweden that are associated with scenes of death in battle and human sacrifice—thus today's Heathens link the valknot with Odin. Spears are also symbols of Odin, as he is said to wield the spear Gungnir (“shaker”).
The god Tyr and the values of steadfastness, honor, and right that he upholds often are symbolized today by an Irminsul (a stylized tree design). Freyr and Freyja often are associated with the sunwheel (a circle with an equal-armed cross inside) and with boars, which both deities are said to ride. We know from both literary references and archaeological artifacts that figures of boars were worn on helmets in the Iron Age and later periods in northern Europe; it is at least plausible that these figures were connected with Freyr and Freyja.
Other deities have their own symbols that have come into common use: the spindle for Frigg, the apple for Idunna, the bow for Ullr and Skadi, and so on. The rune-letters, of course, have their own set of complex symbolic and magical meanings. Heathens also may use general protective signs such as the Aegishjalmur or “Helm of Awe” and replicas of pre-Christian designs and artworks. And Heathen kindreds, tribes, and larger organizations, such as the Troth, have insignias of their own, ranging from simple signs to intricate devices.
All that being said, the closest thing to a universal Heathen holy symbol is the Hammer of Thor. Even those Heathens who are not specifically given to Thor usually wear a Thor's Hammer as a sign of their trust in the Heathen Gods and Goddesses.
Although the details of European prehistory are not always clear and are sometimes controversial, it's fairly widely accepted that people with a distinctive culture, speaking languages close to the common ancestry of the Indo-European language group, began around 3200 B.C. to disperse westwards and eastwards from the steppes of present-day Ukraine.
By comparative study of Indo-European religions, we can be fairly sure that the Indo-Europeans worshipped a storm-god who wielded a stone axe and/or a hammer; his name has been reconstructed as something like Perkwons, and he would be ancestral, in a sense, to the Vedic god Indra, the Slavic god Perun, the Baltic god Perkunas, the Gaulish god Taranis, and the Germanic god known variously as Thunar, Donar, or Thor.
In fact, finely sculpted axe-heads are typical finds in probable Indo-European burials, and these axe-heads might have had something to do with the thunder-god. Some carved stone slabs from the Kurgan culture of what is now Ukraine depict male figures with axes, hammers, or clubs; all of these may well have represented the storm-god.
Bronze Age rock art from Scandinavia depicts male figures wielding hammers or axes; again, some of these may have represented the thunder-god or perhaps his priests or worshippers. Some Viking-era runestones depict the Hammer, as do some pieces of Viking-era artwork, notably the little statue of Thor found at Akureyri, Iceland.
The Saga of Olaf Haraldson (ch. 133), in the collection of sagas known as the Heimskringla, describes a great statue of Thor holding his Hammer, which stood on a high platform and was adorned with gold and silver. The medieval author Adam of Bremen described a similar statue of Thor that was armed with a “scepter” that was probably his Hammer that stood in the great temple in Uppsala, Sweden.
Miniature Hammers were worn as pendants by Norse folk in the later part of the Viking Age; some examples also have been found in England. We know that Heathens invoked Thor's aid against missionaries (see, for instance, the war of words between the missionary Thangbrand and the poetess Steingerd in Njal's Saga), and thus it's thought that wearing the Hammer became “fashionable” at this time as a reaction to Christians wearing their crosses.
The Hammer amulets surviving into the archaeological record are almost all metal—silver, bronze, or iron—although a few amber and carnelian Hammers are known. The simplest are cut out of sheet metal, with the top of the handle folded over to create a loop for hanging. More complex hammers were cast in metal and decorated by punches, while the finest hammers of all bear intricate filigree designs.
Today's Heathens may wear Hammers of metal, amber, stone, wood, bone, or tooth—and I've known at least one Heathen who sometimes wears a Hammer made of glow-in-the-dark Sculpey clay (although not necessarily on formal occasions) and another who's been known to make his own out of “Shrinky-Dink” plastic. Some Heathens wear museum-quality replicas of ancient Hammers; others prefer modern designs.
In Norse sources, Thor's Hammer is called Mj and ouml;lnir—a named that probably derives from an Indo-European root for “lightning” (related to Russian “molnja” and Welsh “mellten”; both meaning “lightning”). In a myth recorded by the Icelandic medieval author Snorri Sturluson, the dwarves Brokkr and Sindri forge the Hammer for Thor as part of a contest to see who can forge the greatest treasure. During the forging, a biting fly (suspected to be Loki in disguise) bites Brokkr on the eyelid and very nearly ruins the Hammer; as it is, the handle turns out a trifle short. As Snorri writes in the “Skaldskaparmal” section of his Prose Edda:
‘Then he [Brokkr] gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark [tunic], it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short.’
On the one hand, the Hammer is indeed a weapon—the lightning that Thor hurls. With his Hammer he is said to have killed many Jotnar (giants), and many tales are told of his victorious battles. Snorri Sturluson tells of “the hammer Mj and ouml;llnir, which the Rime-Giants and the Hill-Giants know, when it is raised on high; and that is no wonder, it has bruised many a skull among their fathers or their kinsmen.”
Snorri also quotes a fragment of a prayer to Thor, which reads, “You smashed the limbs of Leikn, you bashed Thrivaldi; you knocked down Starkadhr; you trod Gjalp dead under foot.”
In one myth, recorded in the poem “Hymiskvidha,” Thor fishes up the colossal Midgard Serpent that encircles the world and hurls his Hammer at it (although he evidently doesn't kill it, since it is foretold that Thor and the Serpent shall slay each other at the world's end).
The fact that the Hammer is a weapon used for killing contributes to the notion that Heathens are obsessed with power and violence. A fairly common stereotype of Heathenry, in the broader Neo-Pagan world and outside it, is that Heathenry attracts wannabe Viking thugs—one “expert” who really should have known better was quoted recently in the media as saying that Heathenry has “a theology that celebrates raw physical power and domination.” The truth is that—with the exception of a very few nutcases, who are widely shunned—Asatruar and other Heathens are not especially violent people, are not out to get anyone else, and don't approve of anti-social behavior.
Our moots and gatherings are almost always completely free of people whacking each other. (Our e-mail lists are not always so peaceful—we do love to argue sometimes—but at least no one actually gets physically injured on those.) Yet in contrast to some (not all!) Neo-Pagans who seem to be pursuing harmony and peace so much that they shun any sign of disagreement, Heathens recognize that there is a spiritual dimension to conflict and that “balance” is not a static state, but a dynamic one, which must be maintained by effort and sometimes defended against those that would destroy it.
The Heathen social ideal, “frith,” is sometimes translated as “peace,” but this translation isn't accurate—“frith” is not the absence of conflict, but a state in which conflict can be channeled into ways that ultimately strengthen the community. In frith, sometimes one has to fight to protect what one holds dearest.
This concept is reflected in the myths surrounding Thor and his Hammer. Thor doesn't bash giants to exterminate them, but rather to defend the worlds of Gods and humans from the giants encroaching. As he says in the Old Norse poem “Harbardzljodh”: “much might had the etins if all did live; little might had men then in Midgardhr's round.”
Indeed, Thor is the son of the giantess Jordh (Earth); far from being an advocate of genocide, he has the giantess Jarnsaxa (Iron-Knife) as his concubine, and he is said to be on friendly terms with several other Jotnar.
But there's another side to the Hammer. Norse poetry sometimes calls Thor “Vingethorr,” “Consecration-Thor,” and several runestones include the words “Thorr vigja”—“Thor, hallow!”
In the story of Balder's death and funeral, Thor takes up his Hammer and consecrates the funeral pyre. Thor also is said to be able to eat the goats drawing his chariot, then raise the Hammer over their hides and bones and bring them to life again.
In the story of the loss of Thor's Hammer, told in the poem “Thrymskvidha,” the giant Thrym refuses to return the Hammer unless he gets the goddess Freyja for his bride. Since Freyja angrily refuses to be married off to a giant, Thor has to dress up as Thrym's bride and travel to Jotunheim (giant-world) to get his Hammer back—which he does when Thrym calls for the Hammer to be brought out and laid in the “bride's” lap—“brudhi at vigja”—“to hallow the bride.” Thor grasps his Hammer once again, and mayhem ensues. Despite the comedy of the plot, this description is one of the most detailed of a Norse wedding in the literature—and it shows that the Hammer was used to hallow weddings.
There is also a mention of the Hammer being traced over a drinking horn to hallow the drink therein in the Saga of Hakon the Good in Heimskringla. (Technically, King Hakon makes the sign of the cross over the horn, but Earl Sigurd is able to avoid the outrage of the still-Heathen audience by explaining that the King has traced the Hammer of Thor, “doing what all of you do, who trust to your power and strength.”
In today's Heathenry, we continue to mark something as holy by tracing a Hammer over it, or by swinging an actual hammer or a Hammer-token over it.
Yet another side to Thor and his Hammer appears on more careful study. Thor often is thought of rather simplistically as a god of fighting, but there is far more to him than that—one of his gifts is that of fertility of the fields.
As Adam of Bremen wrote, Thor presides over “thunder and lightning, winds and rains, fair weather and crops.” One Bronze Age petroglyph from Denmark shows a male figure with a hammer that is driving a plough pulled by a pair of oxen; the plough has cut two furrows and is starting a third.
This figure is probably Thor, an identity which seems to be confirmed by an old saying from Denmark that “[t]hree furrows in Thor give a green spring.” And there are Scandinavian folk-beliefs that the crops won't grow without summer lightning. (Lightning strikes put atmospheric nitrogen into the soil in a form that plants can use. Hmmm.) Here we see yet another layer of meaning in the Hammer.
This is what makes Thor's Hammer such a holy symbol for Heathens. Thor's lightning is a defensive weapon and a sign of Thor's protection over us. At the same time, the Hammer is a sacred instrument of hallowing—and brings fertile fields and abundant crops. This is, perhaps, not as esoteric or “deep” a meaning as some would attribute to the pentagram or to other symbols seen in contemporary Neo-Paganism—but beautifully expresses much of the Heathen worldview.
Hail, Mjolnir's Wielder! Hail, mankind's friend!
Stormlord, our staunch defender!
Bringer of blessings, brave and holy,
Giver of good harvests,
Hail we the Hammer-God!
Gl and oslash;b, P. V., tr. Joan Bulman. The Mound People: Danish Bronze-Age Man Preserved (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974) .
Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Our Troth. Volume 1: History and Lore. 2nd edition (Charleston: Booksurge, 2006) .
Hollander, Lee (transl.) Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964) . Also available at http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/ (Samuel Laing, transl.)
Hollander, Lee (transl.) The Poetic Edda. 2nd ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986) . Also available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/index.htm (Henry Adams Bellows, transl.)
Roesdahl, Else and David M. Wilson. From Viking to Crusader (New York: Rizzoli, 1992) .
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