On a human, ceremonial level, Thor was invoked to keep sacred and legal order. Men of the North blessed with the sign of the hammer before they were taught to do so with that of the cross. Small human representations of his hammer were used for many rites of blessing, including infant name-giving ceremonies and to consecrate the thresholds of new houses. A hammer was thrown to ratify the acquisition of property, and it was used to drive in boundary stakes that marked the edges of land ownership; the removal of these hammer-driven stakes was considered sacrilegious. Thor was the spiritual patron of the Althing, the ancient general assembly of the North, and the use of the judge's gavel to formalize a legal ruling can be traced back to this remote period.
|Thor in (shredded) bridal gown by Willy Pogany (1920)|
The story can also be seen as evidence that Thor, despite his fierceness, had strong fertility-god aspects. We have already seen that his thunder brings rain to the fields of the farmer, but here the hammer can be seen as a symbol of love and fertility. It may have also functioned as a primitive phallic symbol. The design of English pendants designed to represent the hammer of Thunor (the Anglo-Saxon version of the god) seem to lean toward this interpretation. The metaphorical image of lightning as the sky god thrusting his hammer into the fertile earth is fairly obvious. It also shows that the Eddic linkage of Odin and Jörd giving birth to Thor must be a later version of the relationship, as the pairing of Thor (sky) and Jörd (earth) actually makes more sense in the science of religion. In this context, the tale of Thor's stolen hammer has an undertone of lost or threatened manhood, as well.
|Sif by Thormod Kidde (1963)|
The etymology of the goddess's name brings out a more complex character. Sif can be traced back to the Old High German Sibba, which appears in modern German as Sippe ("family" or "kin," as in the English "sibling"). In light of this, and in connection with the harvest myth just discussed, it is clear that she was originally a more all-encompassing Female Spirit that presided over both agricultural and human fertility.
Thor gives way to Odin as chief god in societies that are based on a relationship of lord and warrior. Odin is the great general and leader, and he is therefore more attractive to these courtly groups. This role for the Allfather is itself a sort of diminution; the god once conceived of as rage and passion personified devolves into the patron of military leaders engaged in merely human struggles. Over changes in time and place, Thor shed his associations with fertility and came to be thought of more and more as a war god, diverging and merging aspects with Odin as time went on.