published on 08 May 2013
Thor (meaning thunder) was one of the most important gods in Scandinavian mythology and the eldest son of Odin and Frigg (sometimes spelt Frigga). Some accounts say that Thor’s mother was the Earth. As a child he was so disobedient and unpredictable that his mother could not raise him, and she gave him to the god Hlora and his wife Vingnir to be raised by them. Despite this radical decision it appears that Thor did not quite learn his lesson, since his anger management difficulties persisted even when he reached maturity. When he was angry, sparks came off his red hair and beard, and he generated so much body heat that he was not allowed to use the Bifröst Bridge, which connected Asgard (the home of the gods) with Midgard (the home of the first humans).
Thor's first wife was the giantess Iarnsaxa, who bore two sons, Magni and Modi. His second wife, Sif, gave the god two daughters, Lorride and Thrud. The god Loki once stole Sif's long golden hair and Thor almost strangled him, so Loki had no choice but to return the tresses to Sif.
Thor’s appetite and thirst were proverbial. We are told that one day he ate an ox, eight salmon, two oxen, and three cups of mead during a single meal. When he took part in a drinking contest, he drank from a horn whose tip was connected to the sea, perceptibly lowering the level of the ocean. His chariot was drawn by two giant goats: Tanngrisnr and Tanngniostr. These powerful animals had a very convenient magical property: They could be killed and eaten at any time, and as long as their bones were undamaged and returned into their skins, they would regenerate overnight and the following day would be alive, just like new. Other versions say that the goats were restored to life after performing a ritual with Thor's powerful hammer over the bones and skin. Thor could then decide whether to have another feast or carry on travelling. It seems that Thor could enjoy as many goat-based meals as he wanted to, as long he did not chew the bones. Even the giants were impressed by his capacity for eating and drinking. Thor's appetite was in line with his great vitality and physical strength.
Destroyer and Protector
Thor's speciality was slaying giants, and he had three treasures in order to perform this activity: a belt, a hammer, and an iron glove. Megingiord was the name of the magic belt that doubled Thor’s strength. The famous magic hammer, named Miolnir, was so hot that Thor had to wear a special glove - the third treasure, called Iarn-Greiper - in order to handle it. Miolnir returned to Thor’s hand when thrown, when hurled it was a thunderbolt, and when struck against a rock it produced lightning. A giant named Thrym once had the bad idea of stealing Miolnir from Thor. The thief said he would only return the hammer to its rightful owner if he were given Freya (the goddess of beauty and love) as a wife. Freya refused to cooperate, so Thor, dressed in Freya’s bridal clothes, presented himself to Thrym during a wedding ceremony. As soon as Thrym produced Miolnir, Thor siezed it and killed Thrym and every single giant present. We can also find episodes of transvestism in other warrior figures, like the Greek Hercules at Omphale’s court or Achilles on Skyros. Miolnir is etymologically cognate with Welsh meltt and Russian mólnija “lightning” (also related to Russian mólot, “hammer”).
While Loki and Odin would use cunning deception to achieve their goals and defeat their enemies, Thor relied on methods a lot more direct and simple: He would normally shatter their skulls using his powerful hammer. The reputation of his volatile nature was to such a degree that we are told that an enthusiastic Icelandic woman assured a Christian missionary that Thor had even delivered a challenge to Christ to meet him in single combat.
There were also other less destructive aspects of Thor. As a thunder god he was sometimes associated with the fertility of the earth. As the lightning strikes, rain falls, revitalizing the vegetation. Adam of Bremen wrote:
They say he [Thor] rules the air which controls the thunder and the lightning, the winds and the showers, the fair weather and the fruits of the earth...
He was also regarded as a guide for those travelling over the sea because of his power over storms and wind.
Thor’s Fishing Trip
This is one of the most popular stories concerning Thor. One day the god visited the giant Hymir and they both went on a fishing trip. Thor took Hymir’s biggest ox and cut off his head to be used as bait. Thor then rowed a long time and got into waters so deep that when at last he threw the ox head into the sea, Jörmungandr, a serpent so large that it encircled the entire earth, took the bait. Thor hauled the monster up out of the sea, and they stared at each other. Hymir panicked and cut the line and the serpent finally sank back into the sea.
The many poems that relate to this event are not consistent about how this encounter ended. One account in particular says that Thor does not slay the serpent until the great final battle, the Ragnarök, the end of the world also known in the Nordic tradition as the Twilight of the Gods. In this final battle, Thor kills Jörmungandr, but Thor also dies, drowned in the flood of venom that poured from the serpent’s jaws.
This conflict between Thor and Jörmungandr is similar to the conflict between the god Indra and Vritra in the Indian Vedic mythology. It is interesting to note that Indra also had a connection with the thunderbolt:
I have slain Vritra, O ye hast’ning Maruts;
I have grown mighty through my own great vigour;
I am the hurler of the bolt of Thunder
For man flow freely now the gleaming waters.
(Mackenzie, Donald, Indian Myth.,54)
There is also some resemblance between Thor and the Greek Hercules, especially when we look at their affinity for monster-slaying.
Influence of Thor
Odin, Thor, and Frey (sometimes spelled Freyr) were a triad who received human sacrifices in pagan Sweden, at Uppsala. This practice (roughly matching the Esus-Lugus, Taranis, and Teutates triad, receiving human victims in the Celtic tradition) was in place up until the time of Christianization. As late as the 11th century CE, Thor was still worshipped by the Vikings of Dublin. In an Irish poem of the same period, we find a Christian saint demanding of the King of Dublin that he should take ‘the golden castle from the hands of the Black Devil’. Some scholars believe this is a reference to a black image of Thor in the Viking stronghold in Dublin.
Probably the two main indications of Thor’s widespread influence on Scandinavian culture are the large number of children in Scandinavia who were named after the god and still are to this day, and the many places called after him. In Dublin the Irish referred to the Viking settlers as ‘people of Thor’.
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