It is my personal belief that the old Norse religion was a conglomeration of a number of faiths and cultures which could stand alone independently from the main pantheon. The most obvious of these sub-faiths is the Vanir cult, with the tales of battles between the gods mirroring a clash of two similar tribes on Earth. The Vanir gods cover all aspects of life from fertility and weather to wisdom and magic so there is no necessity to invoke other deities.
Thor’s is a less obvious independent cult, Snorri calls him ‘Othinn’s son’ and to most people he is inextricably entangled in the Othinic pantheon. However historical evidence of the beliefs of his followers and indications of friction between Thor and Othinn do suggest a fierce independence of his cult. This would partly account for the view of Thor being a dimwit and Othinn being a treacherous demon which probably originated in pagan times, aided by the fact that farmers were more likely to follow Thor and the nobility to follow Othinn.
If Thor is given his full potential he has a huge area of influence, weather, crop fertility, consecration, protection, justice, traveling, law, battle. It is therefore no surprise that he was compared to Jove and he can easily take on the role of supreme deity. The Norsemen who worshipped him saw him as the ideal ally in a hostile world.
THE CHARACTER OF THE GOD
The most obvious attribute of Thor is his warrior aspect and the image of Thor happily smiting his way through the giants is familiar from many of the myths. However Thor’s warrior role is purely a protective one, unlike Othinn he does not call his followers to the battlefield for death or glory. Thor was the protective patron of the peaceful community, farmers and artisans, who worked every daylight hour to feed their families and looked to others to keep their lives secure.
Thor’s protective role is two fold, on a larger scale he defends Earth from her enemies, hostile forces that threaten the very existence of life on the planet. Our ancestors brought these forces to life in the tales of giants and terrible monsters, the terrors of cold, drought, earthquakes and volcanoes. With today’s scientific knowledge, Thor’s battles are set on a larger stage in a universe of infinite size, his foes both physical and intangible, mundane and spiritual.
The dark age symbol of Thor’s triumph over the elements was his victory over the Earth Serpent, recorded in many poems and on many memorial stones surviving from the heathen period. The serpent myth appears to have been the most popular of all the mythological stories and in the heathen period the tale ended with Thor beheading the serpent with his hammer.
His protective power is also symbolised in the hammer sign, though this should be seen as a tool of the god’s strength rather than it’s source. For our ancestors lightning was the ultimate symbol of magical power, the most effective weapon for Thor to use in his defense of Earth, and despite the rivalry of the major gods of the Norse pantheon, Thor appears to have held a monopoly over heavenly fire. Even today lightning still awes and terrifies and remains an effective illustration of the god’s might..
On a smaller scale Thor protects the individual household, the structural pillars are carved with his image, the roof can be planted with houseleek (possibly known to the Anglo- Saxons as Thunorwort). Thor blesses the feast cup and the memorial stone, the marriage and the business transaction. He wards the community against the destructive forces of fire, hostile powers and lawlessness.
THOR AS GOD OF JUSTICE
For the Icelanders Thor was the patron of law and the Allthing opened on a Thursday in his honor. Most oath rings would have been dedicated to him and the oath formula invoked him under the title ‘almighty god’. In the myths Thor comes across as a passionate defender of oaths, an honest god who can be trusted.
Ironically he employs tricksters, both Loki and Thialfi (who tricks the giant Hrungnir into standing on his shield). Thor upholds the stability of the community and has to been seen to be obeying codes of conduct. However he certainly seems to appreciate the effectiveness of deception, and Thor, with his power and morals, and Loki, the shameless master of wit make an unstoppable team.
In the story of Queen Eagle Beak (Egil and Asmunds Saga (1)) Thor is invoked as a god of justice and deliberatly sets a chain of genicide in motion, for which he himself is not directly responsible. Again there is a clear division between trustworthy Thor setting an example for his followers, and the devious acts a god has to proform to get the old job done.
THOR AS GOD OF WISDOM
Thor’s intelligence was played down in the later myths and stories where he becomes a comic character. But for his worshippers Thor’s wisdom was very real. They are a number of stories that show that Thor has alternative solutions to problems other than ‘whacking’ things. In the Lay of Alvis Thor challenges his daughter’s suitor to a contest of riddles. In King Gautrek’s Saga (1) Thor challenges Othinn and his favorite Starkard through heated debate. While in Egil & Asmund’s Saga (1) Thor deals with eighteen quarreling sisters by encouraging their violent jealousy by a well planned scheme.
Many poets seem to have been dedicated to Thor and more copies of the fishing story have survived than any other myth. No poet, a learned pillar of a society based on oral tradition, would honor a simpleton. Thor is also associated with runes and was called upon for all manner of consecration. Thor has other magical abilities, he resurrects his goats, he shapeshifts in appearance and size (Lay of Hymir), and raises storms by merely blowing in his beard. The bearded eagle heads on several hammer amulets suggest a bird form of the thundergod similar to Freyja’s falcon form, again showing considerable magical knowledge. Thor represents the ideal nobleman who protects his lands and the interests of his people, with all the strength and wisdom such responsibility requires.
THOR AS GOD OF FERTILITY
As a sky god Thor cannot escape a fertility role. The sheet lightning of the summer storm was believed to ripen the crops and the importance of lightning and fertility is now recognised by modern science. The hammer laid on the bride’s lap (Lay of Thrym) suggests a fertility ritual and the hammer may be a phallic symbol illustrating the interaction between the sky and Earth.
In Egil and Asmunds Saga (1) Thor is presented as the ultimate sexual attraction as Eagle Beaks sisters murder one another in helpless jealousy over Thor’s affections. While in King Gautreks Saga (1) Thor anticipates copulation with an elven princess he has ‘rescued’ from the giant Starkard, only to discover that she was in love with the giant and Thor is spurned. This story seems to be a comedy based on a long-standing tradition of stories where Thor’s female followers achieve their number one desire, which would explain Thor’s confidence and consequent humiliation in this myth.
However all polytheist faiths require goddesses and the cult of Thor is no exception. It is unfortunate that his wife Sif has such a minor role in the mythology. The supposed implication that she was a fertility goddess in the tale of the cutting of Sif’s hair carries little weight according to Simek (2). Sif is a disappointing character in this myth, coming across as a helpless female compared to the forceful characters of Frigg and Freyja.
The only other major goddess connected solely with Thor is his mother Jorth. There is no evidence that Jorth was worshipped in North Scandinavia but again and again in skaldic poetry Thor is titled Jorth’s son. Jorth’s name means ‘Earth’, a very apt name for a goddess connected to a sky god. I like to compare Jorth to the early goddesses worshipped in the Middle East. These goddesses date back to a period when the male part in reproduction was unknown and the goddess represented all life force. This goddess often had a son who also her lover. I like to think that Thor and Jorth could be a survival of these primeval religions.
Suitable as Jorth is, in practice Thor’s followers tended to latch on to the other more dominant goddesses of the Norse pantheon. Frigg was probably often invoked by housewives in Thorist households and the two complement one another very well indeed. Freyja also had close links with the cult of Thor because one of Thor’s titles in the Edda is ‘Friend of Freyja’ a relationship not explained in the myths. Both Frigg and Freyja have close links with the earth so they fit the gap in Thor’s cult very neatly.
I personally disregard the Scandinavian beliefs at this point as I acknowledge Jorth as the principal fertility goddess, and also as Thor’s mother and consort. I see Jorth as the embodiment of the planets life force, and I use the swastika as her symbol representing the turning earth, and the balance of elements that Thor strives to maintain. I see Sif and the Finnish goddess Rauni as aspects of the same mother goddess.
Thor is a very straightforward god, which is no bad thing when you look at Christianity and wonder how many of them understand what they believe in. Busy people need a simple faith and Thor is the patron of farmers and artisans. He is also a very elemental god, as god of the sky he embodies air water and fire, the perfect compliment to an earth goddess.
Traditionally there are two methods of invoking Thor, on a personal level or as part of a group. The first approach can be much more dramatic, and the sagas record Thor’s devotees tramping up mountains to call on him. Presumably they felt closer to the sky god on an exposed peak. This kind of thing is all very well but not practical for communal ceremonies, and very dependent on clement weather. Such one to one encounters are for personal requests and bargaining.
Choose a spot where you can feel the in interaction of the Earth and the sky, a hilltop or an isolated tree. An offering is made for the gods assistance, in the Dark Ages this was generally an animal sacrifice, but in our gentler age a special poem composed for the god, a cup of beer, a piece of silver or a promise is of future payment would be more appropriate, and all very traditional. Any request to Thor should be made as a trade between equals, this god is a friend to his worshippers. For individual worship give a gift of fire to the thunderer each Thursday and write a short poem in his honour. A small outdoor bonfire works best and try to learn to light it with a firesteel and flint. Otherwise light candles on an indoor shrine. By doing this you will become more familiar with Thor and such deliberate regular observance may no longer be necessary to maintain your friendship with him.
Communal ceremonies should be straightforward with a minimum of mumbo- gumbo. There is a passion in anglican heathenism for mimicking the hour long Christian services resulting in swathes of typed shpeel which really isn’t necessary and hammers more nails into the coffin of oral tradition, so keep it simple. Our ancestors didn’t have religious ceremonies as we envisage them today, they partied hard and enjoyed themselves honoring their gods at the same time. The following is my suggestion for an authentic and practical Thorist ceremony.
The host welcomes his guests and calls on the gods to attend. This invocation will varying depending on the time of year. Thor and the fertility goddesses are very closely connected to the seasons so they should be plenty of scope for ideas. If you want a bit of ceremony carry a flame around the gathering to invoke Thor’s protection or light candles placed around the edges of the room. A horn of mead is dedicated to Thor and the goddesses and passed around the company. Everyone present drinks from the horn. The last portion is set aside as an offering. If you are not in danger of upsetting neighbours, use drums to mimic the sound of thunder when invoking Thor, especially if asking for rain.
The meal is then brought to the table and the feast is dedicated to the gods, again a portion should be set aside. The myths give plenty of ideas for foods connected to Thor so try and include some, goat meat, goat cheese or milk, herrings and oats, rowan berries. During the meal personal toasts can be made to other deities. Fill the evening with suitable songs, music and storytelling, encourage the guests to compose short poems which they can recite after the meal.
This essay is based some of my previous articles which cover this subject in more detail, most of them are available from the Thorshof website
THOR AND THE GODDESSES (THUNDER 2)
FRIGG AND THOR
THOR AND FATE IN GAUTREKS SAGA (THUNDER 1)
THOR AND THE SERPENT
Queen Eagle Beak (unpublished – Folkvang Horg)
(1) Seven Viking Romances, Trans by Hermann Palsson & Paul Edwards, Penguin Classics. 1985
(2) R. Simek. Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D S Brewer.1993.
This article was first published in Idunna (US) autumn 1997