published on 28 May 2014
Thor was one of the most important and famous gods in Norse mythology. He was the son of Odin and Fyorgyn, the earth goddess. Thor was considered the storm-weather god of sky and thunder and also a fertility god. His wife was Sif, a goddess also linked to fertility. He had a red beard and eyes, he was huge in size, he had an insatiable appetite and not much wit. Thor was the strongest of all gods and men according to The Prose Edda.
Thor was very talented at slaying giants; many of his stories revolve around violent episodes between him and his enemies. In order to perform his duties, Thor had a hammer, Mjollnir, a deadly weapon also associated with lightning and thunder, which was built by the dwarves. He also had iron gloves and a belt named Megingjard that doubled Thor’s strength once buckled on. There were also some other less destructive aspects of Thor. As a weather god he was associated with the fertility 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 had a chariot to travel across the sky, which was drawn by two giant goats: Tanngniost and Tanngrisnir. 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.
One of the most famous stories involving Thor is included in Hymir’s Poem: the gods organized a feast and the giant Ægir is requested to prepare it. Ægir agrees, but requests an enormous cauldron, which can only be obtained from the giant Hymir. Thor accepts the task of getting the cauldron and sets off on his adventure. In the middle of his mission, Thor and Hymir get involved in a fishing expedition. This is when Thor almost catches the World Serpent (Jormungand):
The brave and famous Hymir caught
two whales on his hook at once,
and back in the stern the kinsman of Odin,
Thor, cunningly laid out his line.
The protector of humans, the slayer of the serpent,
baited his hook with the ox’s head.
He whom the gods hate, the Circumscriber
beneath all lands, gaped at the bait.
Then very bravely Thor, the courageous one,
pulled the gleaming serpent up on board.
With his hammer he struck the head
violently, form above, of the wolf’s hideous brother.
The sea-wolf shrieked and the underwater rocks re-echoed,
all the ancient earth was collapsing
then that fish sank into the sea.
(The Poetic Edda. Hymir’s Poem (Hymiskvida), 21-24)
There is a story where Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods, is damaged during a war between the gods. One of the giants offers to help rebuild the walls of Asgard and commits to do it in a very short period of time. The gods accept the offer, thinking it would be impossible to carry out the task on time, and in return the giant is promised the sun, the moon, and even the goddess Freyia. The giant almost succeeds in delivering the results on time, so Thor decides to break the promise and kills the giant.
Thor alone struck a blow there, swollen with rage,
he seldom sits still when he hears such things said;
the oaths broke apart, the words and the promises,
all the solemn pledges which had passed between them.
(The Poetic Edda. Seeress’s Prophecy (Voluspa), 26)
Norse mythology claims that Thor, along with most of the gods, will eventually die during a final disaster. It is said that during the end of the world (known as Ragnarok in Norse mythology), Thor will fight against the World Serpent:
Then the glorious son of Earth,
Odin’s son, advances to fight against the serpent,
in his wrath the defender of earth strikes,
all men must leave their homesteads;
nine steps Fiorgyn’s child takes,
with difficulty, from the serpent of whom scorn is never spoken.
(The Poetic Edda. Seeress’s Prophecy (Voluspa), 56)
The god slays the serpent, but he will then die as well, drowned in the beast’s poison.
Similarities Between Thor & Other Deities
The conflict between Thor and the World Serpent is similar to the conflict between the Vedic god Indra and the demon-serpent Vritra, which is described in the Vedas. Moreover, Indra is also a sky god, and his weapon is the thunderbolt. The Teutonic god Donar and the Anglo-Saxon Thunor are also storm gods who share many similarities with Thor. The Baltic thunder god Perkunas was also associated with fertility and was normally depicted holding one of his many weapons, including a hammer.
- The Vedas - Ancient History Encyclopedia definition
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- Sturluson, S. The Prose Edda. Penguin Classics, 2006.