|Hercules by Jan van Nost (early 18C)|
Thor was seen as a force for good, a fighter for Order and Trust. On the mystic, metaphorical level, he fights giants, trolls, and monsters as he protects humanity from otherworldly forces that are beyond their comprehension. These monsters are actually more super-worldly than other-worldly. Giants are always paired with large-scale natural phenomena like impassable mountains, huge boulders, or winter's frost. Thor's archenemy, the World Serpent, is a great undersea creature that hides beneath the surface of the vast, terrifying, and unknowable oceans. Taken together, Thor's adversaries represent the terrifying natural forces that humanity faced in those long-ago times. Thor is a bulwark against these forces of Chaos, and he is posited as the protector of not just the gods, but of humanity, as well.
In one of Thor's Eddic adventures, he struggles to cross a river than threatens to engulf him and Loki (or, in some versions, Thor's human companion Thjalfi), who hangs on to Thor's belt. He declares, "Rise not thou now, Vimur [the river], since I desire to wade thee into the giants' courts. Know thou that if thou risest then will rise the As-strength [god-strength] in me up as high as heaven." Snorri continues, "Then Thor saw up in a certain cleft that Geirrod's daughter Gialp [a giantess] was standing astride the river and she was causing it to rise. Then Thor took up out of the river a great stone and threw it at her and said: 'At its outlet must a river be stemmed.'" Note the remnant of Germanic tradition: Thor throws a stone, in the manner of Donar, rather than his Nordic hammer.
Hilda Ellis Davidson interprets the scene as the giantess "standing astride the river and urinating into it," a powerful enough image, and argues that it emphasizes the link between the giant women and the natural world. Thórsdrápa ("Thor's Hymn"), Snorri's source, calls the river "the water of the women of the giant" - further evidence that the giants (male and female) personify the dangerous forces of nature. Thor's initial bragging challenge is to the river itself, which (naturally) gives no reply. It is only when the river is given a corporeal form that the god is able to act, defending himself and his companion (who may represent the ordinary people under Thor's protection) against a monstrous creature that gives coherent form to inherently incomprehensible natural forces.
|Thor and the Serpent by H.L.M. (1901)|
|Serpent & Thor at Ragnarök by Emil Doepler (1900)|