In Germanic mythology, there is a hammer-wielding god synonymous known as Thor, with thunder, lightning, floods, oak trees, power, mankind’s safety and holiness and fertility. Thor is a frequently listed god throughout the recorded history of the Germanic peoples, from the Roman conquest of German regions to the tribal expansion of the Migration Period, to his high popularity during the Viking Age when, faced with the cycle of Scandinavia’s Christianization, his hammer’s emblems, Mjollnir, were worn and Norse’s pagan personal names included the Scandinavian name. In fact, most of Thor’s tales place him in confrontation with a giant or his nemesis, the Midgard Serpent, a gigantic serpent that coils and twists around the earth. Like almost all the Norse gods, Thor is doomed to die at Ragnarök, the end of the world and the twilight of the gods, but only after his powerful hammer Mjollnir killed the great serpent, dying to his poison; his sons Magni and Modi survived Ragnarök along with a small number of other gods and inherited his hammer which they used to restore order.
Thor primarily functioned as a protector-god, though myths about him often explained natural phenomena, linking him to the etiological form of myth – one that explains how some aspect of life came to be. He was said to burst out in his chariot from his great hall, drawn by two male goats- who could be killed and eaten by the lord and brought back to life the next day as long as their bones remained unbroken. The thunder roar was the rumble of the wheels of Thor’s chariot across the vault of the heavens and is credited with creating waves in another myth. In all these legends, Thor’s features were his previously mentioned three magical objects– the hammer Mjollnir, the belt Megingjörð and his iron gloves, the most distinctive of which is Mjollnir– as well as this goat-drawn gloves. These things embellish the great strength of Thor, which is his main characteristic, and Thor also has a strong temper and is quick to follow the rules of others. He is never presented as a clever or cautious god and chooses direct action in solving any problem over dialogue or preparation. Thor is utterly without guile or the ability to deceive and therefore can not understand such attributes in others; as a result, supernatural spells or shape-shifting beings frequently trick him into making things look different than they are.
Nevertheless, Thor was not only the Viking warrior’s favorite deity, as his power and direct response to any particular problem were equally appealing across the spectrum of social classes in the Viking Age. A housewife could call on Thor to help with domestic challenges just as they would be helped by a farmer, a weaver, or a brewer with their own difficulties. Thor thus became the everyman’s Norse god; the common-sense, no-nonsense deity to which anyone could relate and on which everyone could rely on. This kind of reassurance Thor gave rise to his popular cult. Very little is known about the origins of Thor’s worship due to the nature of Norse religion that had no written literature or formal liturgy but, as noted, his importance is shown by the number of amulets, engravings and other allusions to him. Comments Sørensen on the cult of Thor, and religious practices of Norse in general, writing.
Amulets representing Thor’s hammer wrestled with those of Christian crosses as the Norse religion tried to defend itself against the intrusion of the new faith which seemed to be antithetical to any embodied Thor quality. The very characteristics that made Thor such a popular god were denigrated by the new religion that, at least in theory, promoted peaceful conflict resolution and pre-action deliberation. Although Christian kings like Olaf Tryggvason converted more people with burning coals and steel than theological arguments, Christian ideals offered no room for a god like Thor and his worshippers either died in resistance to Christian conversion or accepted the new faith and forgot about him. By the 12th century CE, Thor’s cult was a memory and churches stood where his temples had been.
In modern times, Thor continues to be referred to in art and fiction. Starting with F. J. Klopstock’s 1776 ode to Thor, Wir und Sie, Thor has been the subject of poems in several languages, including Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger’s 1807 epic poem Thors reise til Jotunheim and, by the same author, three more poems – Hammeren hentes, Thors fiskeri, and Thor besøger Hymir, collected in his 1819 Nordens Guder; Thors Trunk (1859) by Wilhelm Hertz; the 1820 satirical poem Mythologierne eller Gudatvisten by J. M. Stiernstolpe; Nordens Mythologie eller Sinnbilled-Sprog (1832) by N. F. S. Grundtvig; the poem Harmen by Thor Thorild; Der Mythus von Thor (1836) by Ludwig Uhland; Der Hammer Thors (1915) by W. Schulte v. Brühl; Hans Friedrich Blunck’s Herr Dunnar und die Bauern – published in Märchen und Sagen, 1937 and Die Heimholung des Hammers (1977) by H. C. Artmann. In English he features for example in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘The Challenge of Thor’ (1863) and in two works by Rudyard Kipling: Letters of Travel: 1892–1913 and ‘Cold Iron’ in Rewards and Fairies. L. Sprague de Camp’s Harold Shea met with Thor, as with other Norse gods, in the very first of Shea’s many fantasy adventures.
In 1962, American comic book writer Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, together with Jack Kirby, created the Marvel Comics superhero Thor Odinson, which they based on the god of the same name. This version of Thor is portrayed as a long-haired blonde, instead of red-haired. In 2014, Marvel Comics character Jane Foster was made the new Thor, a title in the industry; both characters have been portrayed in Marvel Studios films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth and American-Israeli actress Natalie Portman respectively, beginning with Thor in 2011. The character also appeared in two sequel films, Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as a founding member of the Avengers in all four Avengers movies. In the Savage Dragon comics, Thor is portrayed as a villain.
We can see Viking values in Thor’s personality. Thor had great strength, both of body and of character. Strength was essential to the Vikings. Thor was undeniably an alpha male, but he was also a team player – another indispensable quality for Vikings whose success or failure relied on their ability to work together on the ship and in the shield wall. He had a strong sense of community with his fellow gods. He had a violent temper, and most of his stories end up with him cracking the skull of the giant who galled him, but he was usually cheerful and could be forgiving. While Thor’s children out of wedlock were further testament to his hot-blooded, virile nature, he was fundamentally a ‘family man’ and was fiercely protective of his wife. Thor was the god the other gods often turned to and counted on, and this was how any good Viking would want to be thought of by his peers.Every Norse man and woman would probably know all the stories of Thor by heart and would see in these stories what they should be. This exaltation of taking action, of going beyond boundaries, and of finding glory in battle were contributing factors to both the proliferation and the success of the Vikings. Of course, models are just models, and there were undoubtedly plenty of Vikings who were the antithesis of Thor. But in the stories of their most-beloved god, we can see how the Vikings saw themselves and what they wanted to be.
Most of these characteristics are still valued today, and Thor’s archetype is still visible in the action heroes of our books and movies. What is completely missing in Thor is the self-doubt or any of the “reluctant hero” aspects that are so popular in our culture. Thor’s ethics of whom he killed and why are also those of a Viking god, and not something most modern people would be comfortable with in their heroes.
- Davidson, H. R. Ellis. 2006. Gods And Myths Of The Viking Age. New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing. Dougherty, Martin J. n.d. Vikings.
- Mark, Joshua, and Joshua Mark. 2019. ‘Thor’. Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/Thor/.
- Sawyer, P. H. 2016. Kings And Vikings. Routledge.
- ‘Thor, God Of Thunder | History / Origin / Facts | Norse Mythology’. 2019. Sons Of Vikings. https://sonsofvikings.com/blogs/history/thor-and-the-viking-temperament.