Monday, March 14, 2011

CHAMPION OF THOR, Part Two

The way in which Frothi’s death is described also hints at a disparaging view of Odin. After reaching adulthood, Haldan and his brother attack their uncle’s palace and set it on fire. Frothi meets a demeaning demise while fleeing the flames; he is “forced to crawl into a narrow grotto, which had been hewn out in the past, and up its dark warren of tunnels.” Trapped in this narrow crawlspace, his death is brought about by smoke and heat. As related in the Icelandic Eddas, Odin drills a hole in a mountain wall with an auger and transforms himself into a snake so that he can crawl through the tiny tunnel and steal the Mead of Poetry. The manner in which Frothi crawls on his stomach through the narrow space, fleeing from his nephews in a cowardly manner rather than bravely facing them in battle, reads like a parody of Odinic magic, which is again associated with unmanly behavior.

This contrast between the followers of Thor (rough, ready, dependable) and those of Odin (sneaky, tricky, untrustworthy) is obliquely reflected in Hárbarðsljóð (“The Song of Harbard”). This Eddic poem portrays a flyting between Thor and a disguised Odin, who stands across an inlet from the thunder god in the guise of a ferryman; a flyting is a ritualized verbal contest between two opponents in which each tries to out-insult the other. Throughout the poem, Thor is portrayed as having clear physical superiority; he describes how he has repeatedly saved humanity from the threatening giants. Odin, however, gets the better of him through clever verbal trickery and innuendo, enumerating his many acts of magic and seduction. In the end, Thor can only gnash his teeth in frustration while Odin mercilessly ridicules him. Oxford’s Carolyne Larrington has suggested that the poem establishes differences between the cults of Thor and Odin. As in the tale of Haldan, a clear contrast is drawn between a warrior’s bravery and a sorcerer’s trickery.

After the death of his uncle, Haldan becomes king and pursues the life of a Viking. He quickly comes into conflict with the champion of Frothi’s son Erik, a man named Hakon who has “the knack of blunting swords by witchcraft.” This is another power associated with Odin, who says in Hávamál that, through magic, “the edges of my foes I can blunt.” Again, Haldan turns to the oak tree of Thor for help.
He therefore fitted iron studs to a gigantic club and made it into a battering instrument, as though its wooden strength would prevail against the power of sorcery. Then, overtopping the rest in the striking quality of his courage, he veiled his head with his helmet and, right in the midst of the enemy’s fiercest onrush, without any screen for himself, poised and then swung his oak cudgel with both hands against the opposing rampart of shields. However robust the object, it was smashed to smithereens at the impact of his massive bludgeon.
Hakon is completely demolished by the wooden weapon. Although Thor’s mystic hammer is described in Icelandic sources as a dwarf-forged hammer of metal, Saxo describes it in Book III as a club. This agrees with the assertion by the Roman Tacitus in his Germania (98 CE) that the ancient Germans worshiped Hercules – a statement that is usually taken to refer to a veneration of Thor. Tacitus associates the German and Greek characters, it is assumed, because of the wooden club that both use as a weapon. Haldan’s use of an oaken club may be a remnant, therefore, of a more ancient conception of Thor.

After Haldan recovers from the battle, he summons “a champion of remarkable talents” named Thori. This is, of course, the thunder god portrayed as a powerful human hero by Saxo. As Haldan called upon Thor’s help as a child (in the incident with the hollow oak), he now calls upon the thunder god’s help as an adult warrior. Here, as in other parts of his History, Saxo downplays the mystic nature of the gods while reporting their worship. Writing in a Christian era, Saxo patriotically records the past glories of his native Denmark, but is clearly uncomfortable depicting living pagan gods. He usually paints them, instead, as larger-than-life human characters.

During the ensuing battle with Erik and his forces, Haldan and Thori climb up a cliff and throw boulders down to crush their enemies. After emerging victorious, Haldan is given the name Biargramm (“rock-strong”). In myths that apparently reflect older strains of belief, Thor uses rocks as weapons, rather than a hammer or club. In Thor’s Eddic confrontation with Gjálp, for example, he vanquishes the giantess by throwing a “great stone” at her. Jacob Grimm chronicles German legends of “thunder-stones” – flinty wedges thrown down from the heavens by the thunder god. Thor/Thori shows this battle-technique to Haldan, sharing with him not only his godly means of attack, but imparting him with divine strength that enables him to “prise up these boulders.” Thor, in effect, makes Haldan “rock-strong.”

This boulder-throwing feat was clearly impressive to Haldan’s contemporaries. In addition to being given the Biargramm epithet, Saxo reports that Haldan “began to be held in such great esteem by the Swedes that he was believed to be the son of Great Thor, accorded divine honors by the people and judged worthy of public libations.” This underscores the association that Tacitus made between Thor and Hercules. In this instance, it is Haldan who is closer to the Greek hero; as Hercules was held to be a semi-divine son of Zeus, Haldan is seen as the demigod son of Thor.

To an audience intimately acquainted with Norse mythology, even the smallest details of Haldan’s story would have awakened associations with Thor. After the vanquished Erik attacks Haldan’s home of Denmark and kills the hero’s brother, Haldan must leave Sweden and journey westward to free his people and avenge his brother’s death. Likewise, legends of Thor often tell of him returning home to defend the gods in Asgard after smiting giants “in the east.” Does myth reflect historical conflict between tribes, or is the reportage of historical conflict colored by myth?

2 comments:

Diana said...

"Does myth reflect historical conflict between tribes, or is the reportage of historical conflict colored by myth?"

Actually, I think both statements are true.

Good post - but all your posts are good!

Anonymous said...

"Although Thor’s mystic hammer is described in Icelandic sources as a dwarf-forged hammer of metal, Saxo describes it in Book III as a club. This agrees with the assertion by the Roman Tacitus in his Germania (98 CE) that the ancient Germans worshiped Hercules – a statement that is usually taken to refer to a veneration of Thor. Tacitus associates the German and Greek characters, it is assumed, because of the wooden club that both use as a weapon. Haldan’s use of an oaken club may be a remnant, therefore, of a more ancient conception of Thor."

Noet also that the Dagda, who is perhaps the closest Irish analogue to Thor, wields a club (the lorg anfaidh, "club/mace/staff of wrath/storm").

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