MJOLNIR, THE HAMMER OF THOR
By Thorskegga Thorn
In the Norse pantheon Thor is a warrior god who defends the world from natural and spiritual disaster, represented in the myths by armies of giants, trolls and monsters. His only weapon is a hammer or axe that is seen on earth as lightning. Thor is often said to be a bit on the thick side, by writers and heathens who do not appreciate the complexity of his character. Thor’s cult is steeped in magic and much of this lore is best shown through the hammer symbol.
The name Mjolnir has been given various interpretations by scholars, it is similar to the Russian ‘molnija’ (lightning), and to the Icelandic ‘mjalli’ (‘white colour’ again suggesting lightning (10)). The hammer was a major religious symbol for the Norse peoples and was used as a pagan equivalent to the Christian cross during the conversion. It is therefore not surprising that the origin of the hammer is recorded in the Norse myths. This is a summary of the story given in the thirteenth century Icelandic book ‘Edda’ (1).
Thor’s wife Sif had the most wonderful golden hair. The trickster god Loki cut it all off for a joke. When Thor discovered Loki’s crime he threatened to kill him, and only relented when Loki promised to fetch replacement hair from the dwarves. Loki commissioned the hair from the sons of Ivaldi and the obliging dwarves also made a magic ship and a magic spear as gifts for the gods. Loki was convinced that no one could match their workmanship and he challenged a dwarf named Eitri to make finer treasures. Eitri made a gold ring, a golden boar and a hammer. Loki turned into fly and bit Eitri’s assistant as he was working, to spoil the dwarves’ work. The assistant was distracted and left the bellows, as a result the hammer was shorter in the handle than Eitri intended.
All six treasures were brought before the gods and they declared the hammer to be the best of all the treasures, as it would enable them to defeat the giants. When Brokk presented the hammer to Thor he listed its powers. It would never break, it would never be lost because it would return to Thor’s hand after being thrown and it could be made smaller so Thor could keep it in his shirt.
To claim that the hammer is the greatest of treasures is a considerable compliment and one that probably shows the bias of the storyteller. The other treasures in this myth include the Vanic boar and Odin’s spear, both important symbols of victory in battle. The myth also belittles Frey’s role as a fighter of giants which is mentioned several times in the myths. I would conclude from this that the myth originates from the cult of Thor, which was powerful in Iceland where the myth was recorded.
Ellis Davidson (4) suggests that this myth is relatively recent and the oldest elements in the story are the attributes of the various treasures. The element of scandal and comedy comes across more strongly than the basic beliefs behind the tale. Of great interest is the total lack of any reference to the hammer being a thunderbolt which is noticeably absent from the list of the hammer’s qualities.
There is however no doubt of Thor’s use of thunder against his enemies. The Giant Hrungnir hears thunder and sees lightning as Thor attacks him in a duel (1). Thor’s state is described as a ‘divine rage’ and the skies are said to be burning as he drove his chariot to the fight. Although the hammer itself is not clearly connected to thunder in this myth Thor does use it as a thrown missile. He also hurls it into the sea after the World Serpent (1,2), clearly confident that the hammer will return to his hand. Thunderstorms are far less common in colder climates and the conception of Thor changed as the Germanic peoples took their faith further and further north. In Iceland thunderstorms are unusual and as a result Thor became more of a superhuman warrior than a thundergod. His role as a god of fertility would also be diminished as lightning and crop fertility were originally believed to be cause and effect. After all, if several years passed with no thunderstorms and the crops still ripened the connection would no longer be made. Under the circumstances it is remarkable that Thor still managed to dominate the pagan gods in North Scandinavia and Iceland.
Therefore let us move away from the Icelandic sources and see what evidence we have for the original thunder god cult. In literary terms we have very little. In the charming tales from the south of England Thor appears to be unarmed and uses a rock to hurl at the teasing Christian Devil (6). A brief mention is made of Thor in Saxo’s History of the Danes (3). He describes a battle between the mortal hero Hoderus and the gods. Hoderus fights Thor who is armed with a club, which Hoderus succeeds in breaking. This is often quoted as an alternative reason for the hammer’s short handle (the first being Loki’s intervention in its forging). I am unconvinced. Firstly this story refers to a club not a hammer, and secondly a mortal could hardly break the giant proof/dragon proof hammer, however heroic. Thor and his hammer are mentioned in the Norwegian folktale ‘The Urdebo Rockfall’ (8) but here the hammer comes across as a treasured but straightforward blunt weapon. Thor is portrayed as a muddle-headed troll. He mislays his hammer in a pile of rocks and has to go frantically digging for it.
Let us leave this pitiful collection and see what archaeology can contribute. As stated above, the hammer was used as a talisman by the late pagans and therefore hammer symbols are common finds in Scandinavia. Most of these are amulets made to be worn around the neck, which must explain Brokk’s boast that his hammer could shrink in size and be concealed in Thor’s shirt. Regrettably the myths never mention this aspect of the hammer being put to use, but it does explain how Thor can travel incognito with his hammer, as he does in the Lay of Hymir (2). Hammers are also found on runestones where they were used to hallow memorial inscriptions. An early tapestry from Skog church in Sweden shows Thor holding his hammer while a unique statuette of Thor from Iceland clearly shows the god with his hammer tangled in his beard. Taken together these finds all show a short handled, heavy hammer, often with a ring and cord, reinforcing the belief that the hammer was a thrown missile.
The hammer is depicted in one of three ways (fig 1). Firstly as a copy of an ordinary heavy domestic hammer, with a rectangular head often with the end of the handle protruding through it to form a short knob. This pattern was stylised to produce a three-pointed hammerhead with equal sized knobs at the sides and base. This second style is most familiar from the Icelandic Thor figure (fig 2) and resembles an inverted crucifix (indeed one amulet from Iceland looks exactly like an inverted cross and the merging of the two symbols was probably deliberate). The third pattern has a rectangular head that forms a triangular point along its bottom edge. This version was often further stylised with a sharply tapering triangular handle.
Some of these hammer amulets were lavishly decorated and the ornament can give important clues concerning the beliefs of Thor’s devotees. A common motif on the hammers is an eagle’s head that forms the pommel through which the ring or hanging cord passes. No less than four examples of these eagles survive. The Norse myths give no clue of any connection between Thor and the eagle but this was clearly a sacred animal for his worshippers. There is a similarity between Thor’s missile and an eagle swooping on its prey. The bird may depict the power of the god’s anger when it is directed against mankind’s enemies.
The Romans also understood the connection between thunder and eagles as this bird was held sacred to Jove and is often depicted at his side. The role of the eagle in this case was to collect thrown thunderbolts and return them to his master. A similar belief could easily have been held in Scandinavia, even if the eagle only represents the hammer’s ability to return.
The eagle may also represent a shamanic side to Thor mirroring the falcon incarnation of the goddesses Freyja and Frigg. This theory is given weight by the human characteristics of the eagles depicted on hammers, particularly the blazing eyes, which are associated in the myths with Thor. One pendant found in Skane, Sweden, even shows a stylised beard curling down the hammer’s handle. This merging of images suggests far more than a portrayal of the weapon. The Skane hammer represents the god himself, the deified fury of the summer storm and a valuable ally on the road through life. This combined image of the god and the hammer is also seen on the Icelandic god figure as the god’s beard and the hammer are one and the same.
This idea may also be shown on a set of Norse pendants discovered on Hiddensee (although the design is so stylised it is not certain that they are hammers). The top of each pendant shows an eagle in a very similar style to the Skane hammer while the ‘hammer’ itself is formed by two lines protruding from the eagle’s chin (a beard perhaps?) which outline a complex three pointed hammer shaped by interweaving.
These amulets show a different scenario to the Icelandic myths. The god is shown as the source of the power that is symbolised by the hammer and the eagle. After all, Thor’s name means ‘thunder’. He doesn’t need any magical accessories to control the elements, he can do it himself. Thus the sagas tell of Thor simply blowing in his beard to bring up a storm. Even for the Norsemen the hammer may have been a metaphor for the power of Thor and its image a focus for all the god’s qualities. This would explain the use of the hammer on runestones that do not invoke the hammer itself but the god who carries it. References in the myths to Thor using the hammer for hallowing (his resurrection of the goats and his blessing of Balder’s pyre) are ironically copied from human ritual. It is Thor who has the ability to consecrate.
Many references to Thor in Swedish and Norwegian folklore (10) give Thor alternative weapons, generally spears, wedges and balls made of stone. This shows even more strongly that Thor can control the elements without the assistance of magical accessories. This belief also parallels the English tradition where Thor gathers stones from the hilltops for his missiles. Caution must be observed due to the lack of information about the ancient English tradition, but there are no hammer symbols or references surviving from Anglo-Saxon England. Is it possible that the single thunderbolt weapon is an invention of late Norse mythology?
Belief in thunder gods dates back to at least the Neolithic period, so the earliest thunder weapons would have been stone. As technology advanced the god’s arsenal became more varied: from the unworked stone to the hafted flint axe, to weapons of gold and bronze, and finally to the Icelandic state-of-the-art iron hammer. I dread to think what the modern equivalent would be. Earlier beliefs clearly died hard, and the conception of the thunderer’s weapon would have varied from one settlement to another.
References in Norse literature also give clues to Thor’s control over fire and lightning. Thor’s battle with Hrungnir tells how Thor was injured when a shard of the giant’s whetstone became stuck in his skull. This story parallels the practise of hammering nails into idols of Thor and striking ritual fire from them. Thus the god and not his hammer is the source of fire and lightning. Thor’s red hair also implies fire. Late medieval illustrations of Thor show him with a halo of fire and stars which again underlines the idea that Thor embodies thunder.
Thor also appears to be associated with iron firesteels which have been found in Anglo-Saxon cremation urns, one of which has been discovered in context with other symbols of the thunderer, so even the everyday act of firemaking could have been sacred to the god.
The large suspension rings on the hammer amulets may represent the oath rings used for swearing legal oaths in Scandinavia. This further aspect of the symbolism, coupled with the use of the eagle motif, point to a no-nonsense-Thor-as-dominant-male-deity cult. In modern heathenism the hammer is used as a blanket symbol for all aspects of Norse/Anglo-Saxon polytheism but in my opinion this is not historically correct. I would be very surprised if an Odinist would have carved hammers on his rune stones or a Freyist would have worn the symbol of a rival god. Religious symbols like the hammer seem to have flourished late and as a reaction to Christianity. The fact that the furthest pagans from Rome, in Norway and Iceland, were dominated by the cult of Thor must be taken into account. This must also be the reason that it was Thor who represented the pagans’ champion against the new faith.
In Njals Saga Thor’s hammer is employed to smash the ship of the Christian missionary Thangbrand. This story is based in Iceland and was obviously written there, it fits into the pattern of the more mundane weapon of the thunder god. There is no clear reference to the hammer being used as a thunderbolt (which would be appropriate for destroying a ship!) but merely as a blunt weapon.
There is a theory that Thor’s hammer is a fertility symbol based on the account in the Lay of Thrym that the hammer is laid on the bride’s lap at a wedding ceremony. Again this can be seen as a copy of a ceremony, in this case the hammer represents the ritual contact between the bride and a very male fertility god. The thunderbolt does have phallic connections and this particular application suggests them most strongly among the Norse myths. It is also interesting that the Lay of Thrym speaks of the hammer being hidden deep underground. This may reflects the folk belief that thunderstones bury themselves deep underground and them slowly return to the surface. (As ‘thunderstones’ are fossils or Stone Age axe heads this connection is hardly surprising.) In Sweden sheet lightning was believed to ripen corn. English folklore also links thunder to fertility but only if it is heard on a Thursday (9).
There is a further depiction of Thor’s hammer, which deserves mention, the swastika. Swastikas appear frequently on Dark Age artefacts across Europe and are often found on Anglo-Saxon cremation urns. It has been suggested that the swastika was used as a symbol of Thunor, the Anglo-Saxon thunder god. There is an Icelandic reference to a swastika being called a Thor’s hammer (7). A swastika represents a revolving disc, not obviously compatible with Thor’s hammer, which with its shortened handle would presumably fly straight. The swastika therefore appears to be an alternative explanation of lightning, a spinning ball of fire (more akin to the magical weapon in the Krull movie!). It may also symbolise the whirling of a fire drill. The hammer and the swastika seem to have been interchangeable signs for Thor.
One further point that must be made is the Dark Age pagan’s conception of thunderstorms. Today thunder is recognised as a world-wide, frequent and continuous occurrence. While you are reading this article there are dozens of lightning bolts striking the ground, somewhere on the planet. Therefore few modern heathens would consider Thor personally responsible for every single thunderbolt. However for the Anglo-Saxons and Norse folk lightning was unusual and thus would show the god’s actual presence. This results in a serious problem when the supposedly benign thunder god damages his worshippers’ property. This interesting irony is dealt with in a Scandinavian folktale from Sweden (5):
There was a man called Jonte who could see more than most people. One day he was out haymaking when a storm brewed up and all the farmhands rushed into a cottage to take shelter. Lightning hit the chimney and blew a hole above the stove. Out of this hole rolled a big black shape that trundled out of the door and down towards the lake. Another thunderbolt struck it and the black shape disappeared. Jonte explained to the others that they had seen a troll that had lost a leg to thunder in the chimney and it’s life down by the lake.
A similar story explains that thunder is the weapon of God against Satan’s followers. But the connection between Jonte’s story and Thor’s role as a killer of trolls cannot be denied. The story clearly explains why houses suffer damage from gods, pagan or Christian, because of the multitude of hidden folk once believed to hide in every Scandinavian farmstead. The property might be damaged in the short term, but trolls and vengeful elves could destroy crops and cattle and drive the farmer to poverty, and thus the thunderer’s act was justified.
There are also some lightning protection charms which may be linked to the cult of Thor or similar religions. In England the houseleek was grown on cottage roofs to protect the household from lightning fire and pestilence. The houseleek is not a native plant and the tradition would have been borrowed from Classical practice, and indeed the plant retains its pagan Latin name Jovisbarda (Jupiters Beard) and in some areas of England it was known as ‘Thorsbeard’. Another plant used to protect from lightning was the thorn tree, which was effective only if harvested on Holy Thursday. Although this tradition has strong Christian connotations thorn is also the name of the rune most associated with Thor. Furthermore lightning is viewed in England as a herald of misfortune unless it is heard on a Thursday in which case it encourages fertility among sheep and corn (9).
In Scotland a charm was recorded which employed a bull roarer to ward off lightning, which seems to echo the tradition of Thor’s hammer as a thrown missile. Even more interesting is a lightning charm, which involved spinning a stone-age axe head on a rope and hurling it at the threshold door (4). There is certainly a link between the whirling motion and lightning, which partly explains the use of the swastika as a symbol of Thor’s hammer. These traditions show a belief in a more random phenomena which can be held off with magic. This is clearly a separate tradition to the idea that each struck chimney is full of invisible trolls.
The main importance of the hammer seems to have been in ceremony and ritual to show the presence of the god in a symbolic fashion. Hammers may have been manufactured for this purpose or simply drawn in the air like the Christian cross, there are several saga references to the Christian act been mistaken for a pagan reverence. The hammer was also used in artwork, especially on runestones as a hallowing sign, and of course worn as a pendant to invoke the god’s protection. One can also assume that the hammer sign was carved on buildings to hallow holy areas and protect from lightning, but any such examples have long since vanished. In Norway the practice of carving protective symbols, particularly crosses over doorways, was widespread. One unlikely domestic example that does survive is a loom weight from Greenland engraved with the sign of a Thor’s hammer
It is my opinion, that except for jewellery where practicality takes over, that the hammer of Thor was envisaged with the head uppermost for magical purposes. After all if a hammer is wielded for defence, or raised in an act of hallowing, it is held this way up.
1. Edda, Snorri Sturluson, Everyman, 1987.
2. The Poetic Edda, Trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford Univ. Press,1996
3. History of the Danes, Saxo Grammaticus
4. Thor’s Hammer, H R Ellis Davidson, Folklore 76, 1965
5. Scandinavian Folktales, Jacqueline Simpson, Penguin, 1988.
6. The Folklore of Sussex, Jacqueline Simpson, Batsford, 1973.
7. The Galdrabok (An Icelandic Grimoire), Stephen Flowers, Samuel Weiser Inc. 1989.
8. Folktales of Norway, Reidar Christiansen, Univ of Chicago Press, 1964. 9.
A Dictionary of Superstitions, Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, Oxford Univ. Press 1992.
10. The Germanic Thunderweapon, Lotte Motz, Viking Society Saga Book Vol XXIV part 5 1997.
11.Scandinavian Mythology, H R Ellis Davidson, Newnes Books, 1982.